Booknotes: Coming in from the margins

The remarkably prolific David Renton has written a clear and stimulating take on the emergence of far-right populism. The New Authoritarians: convergence on the right (Pluto Press, London, 2019, pp 276) is well worth reading.

It explores the political shifts and realignments which have come about, as Renton describes it, from conservatives and mainstream centre-right politicians making ‘alliances with those previously consigned to the margins’.

Three recent key events are given a chapter each: the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom (the adjective is becoming more questionable week by week); Trump’s election as US President later that year; and the French Presidential election of May 2017, in which Le Pen came second.

Renton gives cogent and detailed accounts of dynamics in each country’s politics which led to these moments – but the broad pattern he notes is the same. There is an attempt by people on the far-right to broaden their appeal; their chances of success are increased by the responses from many centre-right politicians; and liberals, social-democrats and left-wingers fail to counter these developments effectively, either because they effectively support the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy which had led to the social degradations, disaffections and divisions on which the far-right feed, or because they do not counter the racism and myths which the far-right promote, or because they are too weak organisationally – or because of all these reasons.

What then happens is either direct co-operation between some ‘mainstream’ politicians and the forces who were previously ‘outliers’, or inept and counter-productive attempts by others in ‘the centre’ to undermine support for ‘extremists’ by affirming the ‘importance’ and ‘validity’ of some of their concerns, whilst advancing a less provocative version of their policies. In both cases, the approach of the mainstream in relation to ‘the extreme right has given the latter an influence out of all proportion to their support’.

Of France, for example, Renton states that ‘the main political parties … played a dual game with the Front National (FN) (now renamed the Rassemblement National), dismissing its leaders as extremists who had to be kept from power while at the same time appealing to Front National voters and promising to introduce FN policies. In government, both Socialists and Republicans insisted that by banning the veil and encouraging the police to harass young Muslims, they would separate FN votes from their party. The result has been a sustained hypocrisy, with the centre simultaneously denouncing the ideas of the margins as offensive and yet promising to implement them’.

Renton is a barrister, and the skills he uses in representing his clients to build up a cumulative powerful argument are impressively displayed in this book. The explanations that he delivers make clear sense in the context of his presentation. And, yet, there is sometimes a sense that his rush to explain has led him not to consider some of the tricky and uncomfortable questions which ‘the populist explosion’ poses.

The phenomenon of large numbers of working-class voters in varied parts of the USA, France, Britain and many other countries being prepared to recurrently vote for parties and figures promoting nativist policies and racist views requires a multi-level and layered explanation. The preconditions for such developments have surely been put in place over a long period of time.

But Renton’s explanation of support for Brexit focusses on developments since Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech. It is essentially that advocates of a simplistic right wing economic agenda – ‘privatisers and flat-taxers’ who wished to ‘abolish the numerous EU Regulations which protected the environment, or which made it more expensive for businesses to employ workers’ – needed to secure wider support. They did this by winning over ‘a particular cohort of Labour voters … a generation who depend on benefits (above all, on pensions) and were enthused by promises to protect welfare by racialising it’.

This rather one-dimensional account doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge that elements of support for Brexit come out of political strands which have been present within working-class and Labour politics for many decades.

Renton’s account of the current state of US politics also suffers from short-term framing: ‘the events that were to lead to the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 began five years earlier with Trump’s decision to court the conspiracy-theory right’.

By contrast, Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep explore deep historical antecedents of ‘Trumpism’ in their contribution to the impressive growing body of literature and analysis being produced in the United States in a quest to understand the roots of current issues.

The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan and the mainstreaming of resentment (Columbia University Press, New York, 2019, pp 310) is a well-crafted consideration of ‘the circumstances that catalyse white nationalism in America and carry it into electoral politics, a pattern that has repeated itself many times in our history’.

McVeigh and Estep trace parallels between today and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s, as well as considering that organisation’s origins after the American Civil War and its role opposing Civil Rights in the 1960s – both periods in which it was more violent than in the 1920s.

In doing this, they avoid the trite formulae of resonances and similarities which characterise some considerations of similarities between today and other times in history. BBC Radio Four’s The Long View, for example, is irritating in its implication that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’: whatever is currently in the news has of course happened before, in fancy dress, in another time and place.

The authors of The Politics of Losing do much better than this, attending to the specifics and contingencies of different moments: ‘by comparing Trump’s rise with that of the Klan we do not mean to equate the two’.

Nevertheless, they see similar recurrent patterns to those which Renton identifies: ‘like the political challenge of the Klan in the 1920s, Trump’s campaign both revealed and disrupted the underlying alliances within political parties … important structural changes were taking place in the United States that cut a path for a white nationalist agenda – an agenda that not only entered our political discourse, but found a warm reception from Americans, most of whom did not think of themselves as political extremists’.

McVeigh and Estep give proper consideration to Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’ in the late 1960s, through which the Republicans connected to Southern white voters with conservative race politics, detaching millions of them from Democratic sympathies. They also highlight the distinctive character of Trump’s approach, in which he both drew on established structures of Republican support, and successfully distinguished himself from the Republican establishment in order to attract ‘fervent support from many white voters across the country who felt ignored by other politicians’.

They weigh the economic changes linked to globalisation which have ‘pulled the rug out from under’ communities which relied on and were defined by ‘traditional’ working class occupations in farming, manufacturing and coal mining. ‘Beginning in the early 1970s, the jobs that required college degrees, often in high technology or the government, exploded … those without the education they needed to prosper in the new economy were put out of work entirely or took work in the growing service sector … with its low wages, fringe benefits, and irregular hours’.

Things then took another turn for the worse: ‘manufacturers could find even cheaper labour overseas, and competition encouraged them to replace human labour with machines. The jobs that required skills and college degrees concentrated in cities … rural towns were suffering, some even dying … in 2015, [West Virginia] became the first state in which fewer than half of the working-age population actually worked’.

Trump’s electoral strategy in this context was to combine commitments to action on such ‘economic grievances with appeals to privileged identities based on race, gender and religion’. If the energy, instability and controversial nature of his period in office stems from the way that he has been the point of convergence between Republicans and the ‘alt-right’, the contextual issues which he has claimed to address will continue to be challenges for his successor – whether that be in 2020 or 2024, or sometime before then.

Even though it reinforces the currently widespread practice of referring to ‘the white working class’ in essentialised terms, The Politics of Losing will remain a useful reference point about those challenges, and the politics of cultural resentment which they can generate.

Booknotes published July 2019