In Britain, Europe and the US, extremists of the Right and Left use vicious ad hominem attacks to boost their populist appeal
The defining noise of the modern West is a vicious whine. Today’s political winners are not generous in victory. They remain underdogs in their own minds and the minds of tens of millions who follow them: the victims of powerful forces, whose duplicity is beyond measure. In their fight against elites real and imagined, all tactics are justified. They can lie and cheat, engage in the modern equivalent of witch burnings, and mob their targets online. The willingness to descend into verbal violence surely presages actual violence. Indeed, the thuggery is already beginning.
Look everywhere and you see an inquisitorial insistence on the sinfulness of anyone who disagrees with the far Right or Left. Competing interests or philosophies no longer explain a rival view of the world. Dissent is evidence of personal wickedness and corruption. It is the personal element that is the most striking feature of modern conspiratorial politics. The underlying assumption is that an opponent would agree with Brexit or Trump or Jeremy Corbyn if they were honest. Only their sinfulness can explain why they refuse to embrace the true faith; a sinfulness fed by corrupt monetary motives, or an irrational hatred of whites, Muslims or sovereign nation states.
Like secret policemen building a case for a show trial, today’s activists scour social media for anything that may be twisted to use against their enemies. If the evidence isn’t there, they make it up. In my world of the British liberal Left, the invention of smears has become standard practice. Corbyn’s propagandists routinely claim that J.K. Rowling opposes the Labour leadership because she is so consumed by greed that she will do anything to stop a left-wing government raising her taxes. Rowling, in fact, chooses to live in Scotland, which has higher tax rates than England. If greed consumed her, she would have moved to a tax haven years ago or merely shifted across the Tweed.
Meanwhile, the far Left claimed that the TV presenter Rachael Riley’s own tweets show the real reason she exposes left-wing anti-Semitism is not that there is endemic and institutionalised racism in the Labour Party. To entertain that thought marks you a heretic. No, she invents an imaginary racism because she is an Islamophobe, spreading lies about Labour to do down Muslims in general and Palestinians in particular. To reach this conclusion, her enemies counterfeited the evidence “proving” that she was motivated by religious prejudice. The forged tweets were so crude only a cultist could have entertained the thought that they might have been genuine. Needless to add, thousands did.
Rowling and Riley are famous, and I can see the opportunist case for lying about them as their political interventions reach a mass audience. A more telling sign of the totalitarian mentality of the populist Left is its determination to go after obscure figures who could not possibly swing public opinion against their cause. The ex-Labour councillor in the north-east, the Jewish anti-racist campaigner, random members of the public who take on Corbyn with throwaway lines, turn on their phones and find themselves the target of online pile-ons, organised by his media supporters, who are Labour Party apparatchiks in all but name. They can and do summon thousands of yapping dogs to snarl on the Left’s behalf against anyone who threatens them, however weakly.
The screaming accusations of the witchfinder, the insidiousness of the police informant, the duplicity of the forger, the hypocrisy of the propagandist, who prefers useful lies to difficult truths, and the sadism of the stalker who finds an erotic thrill in inflicting suffering on others, these are not accidental features of the populist Left. You cannot explain them away as a sideshow and say they are the regrettable but trivial by-products of the enthusiasm of its supporters. They are the Corbyn Left as surely as they are the Trump Right. Without a coherent policy programme, all it has is its determination to destroy enemies and keep the faithful marching in step by warning them that they will face the same treatment if they shift one centimetre from the party line.
We have not begun to think about what will happen to civil liberties in Britain if such people gain the power to direct the police and intelligence services.
We know, however, what happens when their right-wing counterparts in Hungary and the United States achieve control. Once again, the point worth noting is the personal nature of 21st-century conspiratorial politics. The Nazis and communists had broad conspiracy theories about Jewish and capitalist power. Today the conspiracy is made easier to comprehend by boiling it down to the level of the individual. We have developed the extremist politics of a celebrity culture which finds it easier to be persuaded of the evil in on one person than in broad and nebulous forces.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the global far-Right have elevated George Soros into a figure of supernatural power. Across the world, he is attacked tens of thousands of time a week. A Jew who survived the Holocaust in Hungary is recast as a Nazi. What his enemies call “the Soros
plot” unites anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, while Soros’s funding for dissident movements fighting Soviet communism is turned into a satanic conspiracy. He helped to remove the Iron Curtain so that the West would be open to immigrants, most notably Muslims, who would swamp the white world and abolish Christian culture. So appealing is the lie that Trump, Farage, and every other leader on the populist Right has found it useful to replace Marx’s spectre of communism haunting Europe with the spectre of Soros.
It’s easy to hear echoes of classic fascism in Orban’s denunciations of Soros as a Jewish financier seeking to dilute the racial purity of the Christian West for diabolic reasons. Echoes there certainly are, but it is worth noting the celebrity culture of the fascists’ descendants. The propaganda pouring out of the state-controlled Hungarian media and the websites and troll factories of the global Right is directed against one man rather than Jews in general. So useful has Orban found Soros that he framed the last Hungarian election in July 2017 as a fight between his Fidesz party and the financier, even though Soros was not standing, and had no party representing his views. Cities were plastered with billboards showing Soros’s face and the slogan “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh!” The tactic worked. Despite presiding over a ramshackle state and a corrupt and failing economy, Orban secured victory. “It always helps rally the troops and rally a population, when the enemy has a face,” one of Orban’s tacticians explained.
Donald Trump’s politics are also intensely personal. Like the fat bully in the playground, he delights in finding the derogatory nickname that will incite his gang to turn on his chosen targets, whether Republican or Democrat. His lies are so incessant there is a danger of becoming used to them. Familiarity does not breed contempt but acceptance, and you have to step back, shake yourself, and remember that the President of the United States is a man without moral limits. It is worth noting something else: there is no sign that the Republican base is revolting against him. On the contrary, the more he lies, the more outrageous his smears, the more it believes and supports him.
“Populism” always struck me as a limp way to characterise today’s extremist movements. It captures none of the malevolence or mendacity; none of the threat to basic liberties when politicians say: we won an election, therefore we have the right to pack the judiciary with our supporters or censor the free press or fill the civil service with our placemen and women. To insist on restraints on our power is to challenge democracy itself.
There’s an academic justification for the term, however, that gives it a meaning that goes beyond blandness. On Left and Right, populists say they work for “the people”, who are the sole source of legitimacy, and in whose interest the traditional restraint of laws and rights can be cast aside. Whether “the people” be Trump’s white Americans, Orban’s Hungarians, the 17.4 million Britons who voted for Brexit, the “99 per cent” the modern Left invokes, or the Scots of nationalist propaganda, the people are always pure and good. They would be free to enjoy the fruits of their hard work were they not continually under threat from within and without: from quislings among their own number and foreign enemies. Whether populist movements are left- or right- wing doesn’t matter: the story is always the same.
As the Conservative MP Owen Patterson said of Brexit: “To the horror of the political establishment, the commercial establishment, the media establishment, the people have gone against the will of the establishment.” In other words, all the powerful forces in the country were united against “the people”. As is now commonplace, he was offering a total conspiracy theory. Institutions had merged into a malign monolith dedicated to frustrating the popular will. The solution can only be their destruction at the hands of the last uncontaminated institution left standing — the populist party.
The standard objections to demagogic conspiracism are true but too easy to make. To date, they have not succeeded in shaking the grip populist movements have over large sections of the population.
You can say that invoking “the people”, rather than individuals and groups with competing interests, has been, notoriously, the trick of totalitarian movements since the Jacobins. “Any institution which does not suppose the people’s good, and the magistrate corruptible, is evil,” said Robespierre in 1793, anticipating today’s politics. The objection is true but will not persuade an extremist movement’s followers, who see nothing wrong with having their virtue exalted and every law or institution that stands in their way torn down.
You can add that the notion of “the people” is an absurdity. In the case of Brexit the electorate split 48:52. Donald Trump actually lost the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. Vast numbers have taken to the streets of Budapest to protest against the corruption of the Orban regime and its determination to increase the burdens on Hungarian workers. Meanwhile, the Western Left’s claims to represent “the 99 per cent” are belied by its poll ratings and electoral performance. And so on.
All true, again. But no one engaged in populist politics is remotely perturbed by these objections. “The people” is not a concept that encompasses dissenters, and the politicians who wield it do not want it to. They want, indeed they crave, traitors to denounce and quislings to expose as the behaviour of Orban, Trump and Corbyn reveals. How else to unite their followers behind them, and show that, without their leadership, the people will be lost. They are fighting culture wars, and you can’t have a war without an enemy. To take an example from the Left rather than the Right, here is a speech Jeremy Corbyn delivered to the Fabian Society in 2017. He sounded like a machine-gun spitting bullets as he described the enemy within:
The people who run Britain have been taking our country for a ride. They’ve stitched up our political system to protect the powerful. Right now, they’ve rigged the rules to suit themselves . . . Power, wealth and opportunity lies in the hands of the privileged few, not the many . . . They’ve carried on fixing the system for an elite few at the top. It is not enough to bring back powers from faceless bureaucrats in Brussels when the rules are rigged for a moneyed class, defended to the hilt by Downing Street . . . As well as taking on those who profit from this rigged system we also need to take power away from Downing Street and hand it to every city street, town avenue and country lane across the country.
On and on he went as he hammered home his essential point that the cards were marked and the game was fixed by cheats who live among us. Without them, he would be bereft, and so would be his supporters, who need a clear enemy to hate. In identical language, Nigel Farage declared this year, “The Westminster elite are in the process of betraying the British people over Brexit. All of us who want Britain to be a great country once again accept that we must be prepared to stand up for what we believe in and fight for our independence.” Once again, the people are defined against their enemies, and the favoured mode of operation of the enemies is the conspiracy.
On the Left and Trumpian Right, the conspiracy goes far beyond politics. The economy and by extension the whole of
society is a giant swindle run for the benefit of thieves. The notion of “disaster capitalism” popularised by Naomi Klein in the last decade could not be more explicit. The theory held that individual capitalists did not just profit from natural disasters or conflicts by moving in to provide the services, armaments or relief but provoked disaster so they could conspire to rig the system before the shell-shocked people realised what was being done to them.
To say an economy is rigged is not the same as saying that Amazon and Facebook have monopoly power and should be broken up, or that the tax system treats the wealthy too leniently, or that the City has allowed London to become a vast laundromat for dirty money. These are specific vices with specific solutions. Nor is it an analysis of a real class system that concludes with the recommendation that more wealth needs to transferred from the top to the bottom, or that the lower middle class needs more help, or that we are providing too many benefits to pensioners and not enough to parents and the young. In the place of the mess of everyday life and the confusion of interests is a total explanation of the world that subsumes the real economy and abolishes class and every other interest.
Left-wing populism strips society down until just two groups remain standing: the one per cent and the rest — the 99 per cent who are tricked and oppressed by a handful of rich people. The Right uses the same argument but with different language. It has “the elite” on one side and “the people” on the other. The effect is the same and so is the absurdity. To posit a split between nearly everyone and a cabal is ludicrous even as sloganising. But at the individual level, notice how reassuring it is. The public-school communist working for Corbyn or the retired university lecturer on a gold-plated pension trying to deselect a Labour MP can cast themselves as members of the 99 per cent. Despite all their privileges, they can pose as victims of oppression because are not members of the super-rich. Likewise, the Old Etonian can think himself at one with the masses as he rails against the pro-European conspiracy.
We live in a world where everyone condemns the elite, but no one admits to belonging to it; where everyone plays the underdog, especially when they’ve won. Both major parties in Britain support Brexit. Trump is the US President, and for the first two years of his administration his Republicans controlled Congress. Corbyn dominates Labour and no one can stop his supporters turning it from a social democratic party to a post-communist one. Winners keep winning by behaving like losers and extending their conspiracy theories to cover every aspect of society.
In the first academic study of Corbynism — Corbynism: A Critical Approach (Emerald Pubishing, 2018) — Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts make the essential point that, however unconsciously, the unthinking faction in the modern Left has inherited Karl Marx’s theory that the work which goes into a commodity determines its value. The workers, however, do not receive the profits of their labour as the owner pays them a wage and then takes the rest. As an economic explanation, the Labour theory of value falls because it fails to take notice of how fashions, shifting demands and competition from more efficient rivals with better products determine value. The desolation felt by many left behind by modern Western societies is explained by the fact that redundant industrial workers cannot blame wicked employers for a global shift in manufacturing eastward. Their employers did not close their companies because of greed. In their own way, they were equally trapped by the global economy and would have kept their firms in business if they could have done. Capitalism is a tragedy not a melodrama.
But as a conspiratorial explanation, the labour theory of value is hard to beat. Capitalists steal the labour of others. They are personally sinful and the populist Left must intervene to stop them sinning and to punish their wickedness.Just as Trump sees trade as a zero-sum game and wants mercantilist protectionism, so left-wing protectionists believe they can put the economy behind walls and stop the theft from the workers: a belief, which, incidentally, explains Corbyn’s opposition to the EU.
The battle against populism necessarily involves fighting it on its own ground. In unlucky Britain, which has to contend simultaneously with the Brexit Right and Corbyn Left, opponents of fanaticism have become almost populist figures in themselves. Anna Soubry, Jess Phillips, Chuka Umunna and David Lammy have used social media to create mass followings as effectively as their opponents once did. They have ignored the prim refrain that you cannot beat populists by using populist methods. They have accepted that we are in the middle of a communications revolution and anyone who does not understand it will be left behind.
A true fightback will be under way when the personal politics of conspiracists is challenged. For people who personalise every political dispute, they are remarkably reluctant to accept personal responsibility: a cowardly retreat their underdog poses are designed to hide. In Brexit Britain, Trump’s America and eastern Europe there needs to be a relentless focus on the effects of populism on “the people”: on not just the economic suffering it brings, important though that is, but on the psychological costs of allowing cynics and fanatics to create countries so divided they feel they are on the edge of civil war. The answer to the conspiracy theories of populism lies in improving the lives of real people.