It 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 anxiety.
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…
The 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.
Right-wing 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:
Broad unity: 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.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.