IHRC held an author evening on 18 January 2021 with Aaron Winter and Aurelien Mondon, with Nargess Moballeghi chairing, to discuss their book Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream.
Nargess first asked how the book came about. Mondon explanined that the book has been a few years in the making from 2015. While discussing the mainstreaming of the far-right, Mondon and Winter were bothered by not only rise of far-right politics, but also how the way they were being taken up by politicians in centre-right and centre-left and how ideas move from extreme to mainstream. The project initially started about islamophobia, looking at illiberal and liberal islamophobia and how they are two sides of the same coin. With Trump winning the US elections and Brexit in 2016, the authors wanted to explore what was behind these narratives and victories and this led to the book.
Winter discussed the way racism travels, the way in which it is often denied and displaced onto other things. He explained, where the idea of Illiberal/liberal racism/islamophobia comes in is an attempt to get away with racist speech, racist scapegoating through a displacement onto something which is considered worse, older or real. Part of that process is identifying older forms of racism that have become unacceptable over time. The way in which racist speech or racialisation can take place in ways that say ‘this is different, no longer the old terrible forms of racism, this is about free speech, this is about liberal values, about debating ideas.’ On the one hand we see that is the cornerstone of legitimisation of mainstreaming of islamophobia. Also, the way in which far right ideas get platformed through liberal tropes or excuses.
Nargess asked about traditional racism and illerabl racism and how they fit to understand where we are at today.
Mondon described illiberal racism as the kind of obvious racism that everyone will denounce, including the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. He elaborates, it is the neo-Nazis, neo-fascists that cannot be denied or hidden. All of this acts to conceal liberal forms of racism where liberal racism is compared to a form that is unacceptable. So, there is a form of liberal racism that is denounced but it is just as racist in many ways except it is done under the veneer of progressive language, culture as opposed to biological race, religion as opposed to biological race. But it is racism just as much as the liberal but justified on the basis that it is against liberal racism.
For the US context, Nargess enquired about the BLM movement and the Democrats/Biden taking on slogans of BLM movement; she asked, is that progress or is that another sinister strategy?
Winter said the idea that an American president discuses systemic racism and acknowledges a more radical anti-racism movement that is highlighting not only particular examples of racism, but systemic and state racism is really important. We have to understand the campaign and Biden’s position himself as a centrist-liberal against a far-right administration, him signposting and signalling his anti-racist positing and not just pointing to Trump’s more extreme illiberal racism was progress from an establishment politician. But there are several contradictions in that he is also talking about healing the sides of the nation. That makes you wonder whether he thinks the sides are merely Republicans vs Democrats, or he is acknowledging that it may also be racists and those on the sharp end of racism. That version of healing is highly problematic if you’re also acknowledging systemic racism and the experience of people with racism.
Recent events at the Capitol make this more problematic – the example of far-right violence and anti-democratic storming of the Capitol – that slows for a liberal to then further exceptionalise racism and reactionary politics as a small fringe, what he called a small group of extremists. As much as he may want to exceptionalise and displace that group in order to possibly allow for this healing, you also have this situation with police’s different responses of BLM and those storming the Capitol because that’s an indicator of not only of institutional racism in the state and police specifically, but also a much more entrenched support for racism in society and its structures.
Mondon shared his thoughts on the Capitol riot, saying what happened can be defined in a number of ways and can be defined as fascism. The problem of Capitol is that Trump has been called a fascist, we exceptionalise him, make him evil; he will soon be out of the White House and hopefully it will be a smooth transition and we should celebrate that. The move from Trump to Biden will have positive consequences. However, there is a danger in seeing him as an exceptional figure and this as such an exceptional moment inasmuch it is justifying that we are back to normal, and normal is “good and okay”, except it is not. It wasn’t good and okay under Obama and it is unlikely to be okay and good under Biden administration as well. They’ve been part of an establishment for a long time that hasn’t been doing well on issues of tackling systemic racism. There is a risk in the narrative of Trump’s defeat, feeling that we have defeated reaction, defeated evil and now it is okay. But all of these systemic forms of systemic oppression are very much present in the US.
Furthermore, despite 4 years of Trump being incredibly reactionary in his politics, openly, it is very well documented such as his approach to COVID crisis which was much worse because of his actions. Various things have happened which should have sunk him in the polls, but he ended up getting more votes in 2020 than in 2016. This question of healing and reconciliation is dangerous, because then you legitimise his ideas further by saying that actually the people that supported him are legitimate by voting for him. You could argue that those that voted for him in 2016 were conned, they didn’t know what they were voting for, they didn’t think trump could win. Those that voted in 2020, it is harder to find excuses.
Nargess also asked about Brexit. How do we see reactionary democracy in the British context?
Mondon said, the process of mainstreaming and borders are very fuzzy. UKIP are much more clever than BNP; they were not good at hiding that they were from old school racism and that they had neofascists in their ranks. Whereas Nigel Farage focused on culture, not race and said he is not against immigrants, rather he is against too many immigrants and he is for communities. That is where you see the fuzzy borders; the BNP is used as the extreme that we need to move on from, whereas UKIP portrays itself as not being as bad as BNP, therefore not they are not extreme right. But of course, once the BNP is gone and its members are absorbed into UKIP very quickly, UKIP becomes the extreme right. They may be under the veneer of liberal jargon, but at the end of the day, they are really the same.
This is not limited to the UK, but the idea that the far-right has become the self-appointed representative of white working-class communities, which plays massively in the favour of UKIP when Farage starts to claim that he is representative of the working class. There is a quote from Farage in the Telegraph that was put in the Reactionary Democracy book, where soon after Brexit and just before the election in 2016, he says that Trump is very much like UKIP and the people Trump’s administration talks about are like the people in the valleys of South Wales, working class people who have been mistreated by the elite and so on. It is mind-blowing; Nigel Farage is a former stockbroker and Trump is hardly working class – two people who have no connection to the working class and yet they become self-appointed representatives of the white working class. The media laps it up, academics lap it up and other politicians lap it up too. What we argue in the book is that whether it is in the US, the UK or France, a lot of these ideas that the working class are turned to the far-right is spurious and it is spurious in a number of different ways.
First, in terms of actual data of working class turning to the far-right, there are working class communities that turn to the far-right but that’s nothing new which can be stretched back to the 1930s with the rise of fascism. But there has always been a small minority that tends to the far-right which has been massively exaggerated. It tends to impact on our understanding of the working class when we associate it with the far right because it racializes it. The working class that turns to the far-right is one that is white, but the working class is diverse, and we forget when we talk about the white working class which often becomes just the working class in the media. We totally forget the working class is much more diverse than most other classes and therefore much less likely to support the far-right.
Other topics discussed during the author evening and the Q&A:
Left-wing media such as the Guardian, how and why racism sells in the media, how social media influence far-right ideals, racism in India and threats to democracy in the aftermath of the 2020 elections.