is not just Donald Trump; nor is it just Trump and Marine Le Pen
(leader of the Front National in France). The specter of right-wing
populism haunts the planet and places us all in a state of perpetual
Right-wing populism is not equivalent to the entirety of the political
Right. It is a specific trend within which one can find movements such
as fascism. It rises in response to progressive social movements and it
specifically seems to emerge in times of economic crisis when the
larger capitalist system has proven dysfunctional. It poses itself as
the defender of the “people” against various elites and “alien” forces,
frequently defining the elites in racial/ethnic/religious terms. While
it may articulate language reminiscent of the political Left, it is
more a caricature or a deception which aims to peel away supporters and
potential supporters of Left and progressive projects.
Right-wing populism is dangerous in its irrationalism. As one can
observe in the Donald Trump campaign, Trump has never been constrained
by facts or the truth. Perhaps the most obvious example has been his
repeated references to alleged cheering by thousands of Arab Americans
(and/or Muslims) on 11 September 2001 at the time of the al-Qaida
terrorist attacks. No documentation has ever been discovered of such
alleged cheering, yet Trump insists upon it and many of his supporters
have either been willing to take a pass on his suggestion or go so far
as to back up his story.
There is a term for seeing things that don’t exist…
irrationalism and revanchism of right-wing populism speaks very much to
the crisis faced by the white population of the U.S. and, indeed, the
crisis facing so-called whites in many parts of the capitalist world.
While right-wing populism is not limited to whites — with a case in
point being the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 —
there is a particularity to right-wing populism in the advanced
capitalist world. It is a combination of the sense that their [white]
old world is disintegrating due to both massive economic changes as
well as demographic changes. In the U.S., such a combination has fueled
movements such as the Tea Party that emerged during the first year of
the Obama administration.
With the rise of the Islamic State group, right-wing populism in
multiple countries has shifted gears with Muslims becoming the target
of choice. In fact, it can be argued that Islamophobia is the most
acceptable form of open racism of the moment. Islam has been branded,
by right-wing populists, not only the religion of terrorists but the
religion of the brown and black barbaric masses that supposedly
threaten Western so-called civilization.
populism cannot be written off as irrelevant lunacy, despite its
irrationalism. It is a powerful social movement that represents danger
to progress wherever it raises its ugly head. For forces on the Left,
the challenge is how to combat this phenomenon? While it will not be
easy, it cannot be collapsed into simply offering an alternative for
the future, though our work must contain that. It should include, but
not limit itself to:
The danger represented by right-wing populism (as well as neoliberal
authoritarianism) necessitates identifying those groups that are the
targets of the Right and see them as potential allies. This broad unity
or common front does not necessitate strategic agreement on
the objectives of a progressive movement, but it does involve
constructing an operational unity that can play itself out in terms of
mass action and oppositional work.
Electoral and legislative action:
In the U.S. (which is the principal focus of this essay) it is
critically important to recognize that the Right generally, and
right-wing populists in particular, seek to seize unobstructed power at
the state and local levels. They have paid attention to electoral races
that have frequently been ignored by left/progressive forces. We should
be keenly aware that elements of the Right have, as their objective,
winning sufficient power at the state level such that they are
positioned to move for a national Constitutional convention. Such a
convention would be a disaster in light of the current situation.
Not everyone will agree on electoral work:
It is important to recognize that many progressive and left activists
are not interested in operating in the electoral realm. Rather than
debate this, those who are interested in conducting electoral work
should create their own space to operationalize this rather than make
that a “bar” or defining point for unity against the Right.
Articulating the alternative:
Earlier comments were not aimed at suggesting that the articulation of
an alternative is of little importance. Rather, it cannot stand alone.
The alternative must be articulated precisely because the status quo
is unacceptable. Yes, the living standards for millions of people are
declining. The question is why this is happening. The Presidential
campaign of Bernie Sanders has been offering part of that progressive
alternative and, as such, is playing an important role. But there is
more to fighting the Right than talking about class inequality. The
movement against the Right must address race, gender and, increasingly, religion.
Which means that we need echo chambers:
The political Right has developed echo chambers that help to blast
their message around the U.S. Progressive and Left forces frequently
rely on individual initiatives that are not linked to echo chambers.
While the political Right makes a point of echoing their own messages —
and making it appear that each articulation is a new revelation —
progressives regularly communicate a message that is not picked up by
allies. Our echo chambers must be part of a process of building an
alternative narrative to that advanced by the political Right
generally, and right-wing populists in particular.
Legal action and self-defense:
It is essential that we recognize that significant segments of the
right-wing populists are armed and, indeed, quite threatening. This
means that one task of those of us standing against the Right is to
offer legal and other forms of support to organizations and individuals
which come under assault. Whether we are talking about terror attacks
on Planned Parenthood centers or armed demonstrations outside Muslim
institutions, the political Right seems to feel invulnerable.
Progressives must make sure that the Right understands that there are
consequences to their implicit and/or explicit acts of terror.
For any of this to come together, there will need to be
organization. Organization might exist on multiple levels and there may
not be only one organization representing the common front. Virtual
networks can begin linking together, including sponsoring interactions.
National and local organizations can create common front efforts that
unite around short-term or long-term projects, e.g., protests;
electoral campaigns; echo chambers; litigation; legislative efforts.
The time has
arrived to step forward and move this question of standing against the
Right. There is no reason to believe that the rise of right-wing
populism is “seasonal” and that we can comfortably anticipate its
disappearance. We should assume that in light of the crises facing
global capitalism, the bases for right-wing populism will increase and
solidify. What we, on the Left side of the aisle, must remember is that
in the context of the crises of global capitalism, the environment and
the legitimacy of the democratic capitalist State, the conditions for
the emergence of a new set of Left and progressive movements will also
increase. Whether we can take advantage of such conditions, however,
depends on the extent to which we are neither complacent nor linear in
our thinking and actions.
This commentary was originaly published by teleSUR English