In a Vox piece called “White Riot,” Zack Beauchamp recently laid out his case that the rise of Trump and the European far right is rooted in longstanding racist and xenophobic tendencies in the electorate. This orientation was activated by a sense of lost power and prestige in an era of mass immigration and a generally cosmopolitan and pluralist elite.
Beauchamp’s argument is interesting, and in several instances he brings forward useful evidence about the causes of far-right para-politics and political violence. But it is also historically naïve.
The equivalent case was made, famously, by center-right historians about the rise of fascism in the first instance, for which they blamed the long durée of German anti-Semitism and anti-modernism. That argument has been correctly interpreted since then as a bid to relieve the right wing of the political establishment from blame for welcoming nihilistic elements into formal politics and ultimately ushering them to the apex of power as a cynical means of serving its own interests.
The key task before us is not to explain why far-right elements exist. They have always existed. They take different forms in different countries — in the United States, far-right politics has always meant anti-black racism and the insistence on white supremacy. In Europe, far-right politics has always drawn stark boundaries around the national ethnos and excluded immigrants and even those long-intermarried from the neighboring village as not members of the right tribe.
Rather, the point is to explain why those elements are now gaining a hearing and support in the arena of formal politics, to a far greater extent than they have since the 1930s. And the correct explanation for that is, in some sense, in front of our noses: they were welcomed into it, by the right establishment who saw that tactic as necessary to preserve itself in an uncertain political climate.
The parallel to the historiography of German fascism is instructive. Marxist historians, including but not exclusively those operating in East Germany, treated Nazism as the inevitable end result of the failure of capitalism in the Great Depression and in the bourgeois politics of Weimar. Those historians were, in many cases, happy to paint the eventual Nazi electorate as disaffected would-be Social Democrats whose grievances weren’t addressed by the respectability politics that characterized the SPD’s interwar strategy.
The Social Democrats had, after all, tried to prove their suitability for power to the capitalist elite by facing down the workers’ collectives that formed in the Great War’s immediate aftermath, and later knuckled under the demands of the victorious Allies in molding the German economy to their interest by harvesting the reparations owed under the Versailles Treaty.
That, in any event, was the portrait of antifascist historians painted in broad brushstrokes by the right-wing faction in the so-called “Historikerstreit,” or quarrel among historians, that burst into public in the West Germany of the mid-to-late 1980s.
Right-wing historians, on the other hand, looked to the longstanding precedents for anti-Semitism stretching back to the Wilhelmine era and before. And the vein of German anti-Semitism was indeed rich. Its expositors were able to build a detailed parallel history of German fascism that explained all but one thing: why, between 1928 and 1933, did the Nazi party move from the fringes to the center and then the top of the German political system?
The answer is that as a result of the political chaos the Weimar right could not otherwise master, it decided to bring them in. After all, they shared a similar electorate — an aggrieved petit bourgeoisie —and a similar set of beliefs about what had gone wrong during and after World War I: a quasi-foreign element had seized control at the expense of the German people and sold off the country to foreign powers.
That bitterness was born of the establishment right’s own past defeat. Forced to withdraw from politics by the disaster of the war it had masterminded in a bid to retain power, it had to yield to the Social Democratic Party it had fought bitterly and without scruples since the 1870s. The ancien regime came roaring back in the last phase of Weimar, but without the crucial element of mass political mobilization embodied in the far right, it could not succeed in seizing total control. The compromise with the Nazis was supposed to be the final step. So, in January 1933, right-wing elites convinced President Hindenburg to offer Hitler the chancellorship and, a few months later, used their parties’ votes to pass the law granting him absolute power through the Reichstag.
So what does that mean for us now and for Beauchamp’s theory of Trump and Brexit?
The key is to look to the behavior of right-wing elites on both sides of the Atlantic, and not just in their self-serving ex-post embrace of Trump and Brexit. The Brexit referendum was, of course, the ploy of a Conservative government trying to stave off the threat posed by its right-wing challenger UKIP. And the tactics of the GOP in delegitimizing standard politics by conjuring up claims about Barack Obama’s unfitness for the office he was elected to twice are well-known. The Tea Party phenomenon — half the grassroots protest of aggrieved white people, half something conceived, funded, and exalted by right-wing billionaires — is the clearest example of the use of mass mobilization to undermine politics as usual.
But even before that, the Republican Party’s post-9/11 ideology has been that the American left and the Democratic Party are unfit and unable to govern and protect the nation from external threats. In addition to the constitutional hardball of the congressional Republican Party, one need only review the endless stream of content from publications like the National Review through the Bush and Obama years to see an ideology that turned to blaming elements of the electorate as a means of mobilizing its own support and preventing the opposition from doing harm to its agenda.
Well before Trump, with issues like gun rights and the convenient hysteria surrounding the threat the Left posed to gun owners, as well as the backlash that greets public protests against excessive policing of black communities, the rhetoric veered close to legitimizing violence against elements of the domestic electorate to keep the social hierarchy in place. The event that titles this piece was an episode in the Florida recount after the 2000 election, after all, when a group of well-dressed GOP operatives mobbed canvassers in Miami-Dade County while they recounted the votes, menacing the officials and demanding they stop doing their jobs.
If the crucial element in explaining the far right’s move into the mainstream is its tacit enabling by the preexisting conservative elite, what explains why that elite would change its strategy now? The modern conservative movement, after all, is best understood as a counterrevolution to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and Nixon was famously the master of political divide-and-conquer.
I would be the first to admit not to have a definitive interpretation of this shift in the behavior of the traditional right-wing elite. But my tentative thesis is that it is explained by the failure of what had been the Right’s ideology before: the ideology of capitalism. That ideology holds that the free market functions best when left to itself, and arising as it does in the market, incumbent wealth and power ought not to be challenged in the political realm.
This ideology was phenomenally successful in the nineteenth century, uniting the ancien regime with the new bourgeoisie in a political alliance to defend their mutual interests from the threat they believed was posed by mass enfranchisement, and in the second half of the twentieth century, it was again successful at resurrecting the fortunes of the transatlantic right in the era of Reagan and Thatcher.
But the expositors of that ideology in elite positions in formal politics fear that its success is short-lived, as they greet disaffection among the broad electorate with globalization and European integration that has not paid off as they promised. The political solution to that challenge to their power and prestige is to shift their claims to the exclusionary politics of the far right and of Trump as a means of shoring up their support. And we should not let them wash their hands of that stain by blaming xenophobia that long preexisted their sellout of pluralist democracy.
Neither the far- nor near-right will uphold democracy, individual rights, or the taboo on violence in politics if it comes down to the question of trading off those things against preserving property and the established social hierarchy. The ideology of capitalism has historically been continuous with the ideology of exclusion and xenophobia — when one fails in a crisis, the other will come in just fine.