It crystallized for me the other day when I was listening to a radio interview with Glenn Beck. With complete disgust and surprising nuance, Beck attacked Donald Trump and, in so doing, demonstrated the very real differences that exist within the right, differences that many of us on the left all but ignore. Beck called Trump a fake conservative; instead, he insisted, the Republican nominee is a populist, a socialist, and a nationalist. The “socialist” charge was surprising, but the others were predictable. What I found most intriguing, however, was Beck’s critique of Trump as a man who allegedly doesn’t believe in adhering to the Constitution.
Too many of us on the left treat the right as a monolith. We spend little time trying to distinguish various right-wing currents, let alone disentangling the differences between neoliberalism and right-wing populism. And our failure to do so is hampering our efforts to fight back.
Over the last half-century there has been a demonstrable shift to the right among the political establishments of the global Northern capitalist states. With the global restructuring of capitalism, beginning in the late 1960s, and the rise of what has come to be known as neoliberal globalization, there came an assault on progressive movements and their gains over the preceding decades. Privatization, casualization, tax cuts for the rich, anti-worker offensives, and an increasing restriction on democratic liberties have added up to a slow-moving strategic defeat for the global Northern working class. The blunting of social movements, including but not limited to the women’s movement and the black freedom movement, has gone hand in hand with an increase in a polarization of wealth not only between the global North and the global South, but also within each.
To defeat the working classes of the global North, there had to be a combination of active repression and active disorganization. The active disorganization involved the promotion and toleration of various right-wing social movements that aggressively revolted against the gains of their progressive counterparts. The active repression included military and paramilitary-style repression of the left (varying from country to country), the militarization of law enforcement, and the rise of various forms of preventive detention and extra-constitutional imprisonment, along with mounting, if subtle, restrictions on the parameters for “acceptable” discourse under democratic capitalism (for example, in mainstream television debate). As a result, what was considered “left” kept moving rightward. That conservatives can get away with describing former President Bill Clinton as a leftist shows just how far we’ve come.
This has led us to accept as normal a regime that the Greek-French Marxist Nicos Poulantzas called “authoritarian statism,” and that I would call “neoliberal authoritarianism,” exemplified in the United States by the George W. Bush administration. More than just a neoconservative foreign policy, this regime is marked by efforts at the level of transnational elites to repress dissent in the global North as the contradictions of capitalism become increasingly apparent, wreaking havoc in the economy and the environment. It is further linked to a legitimacy crisis of the democratic capitalist state as that state appears to be less and less able to deliver on its promises to the public.
In recent years, the failings of neoliberal authoritarianism have provoked challenges from both left and right, including a new wave of right-wing populism. While neoliberal authoritarianism and right-wing populism coincide, they should not be confused. Right-wing populism is a mass movement that is revolting against the advances and victories of the progressive social movements. It is a longstanding, recurring feature of the U.S. political tradition, going back at least to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. It is irrationalist in its orientation and highly racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. I like to describe it as a “revolt against the future.” Right-wing populism is based in populations that fear—deeply fear—the future for a host of reasons, not the least being changing demographics.
The irrationalism I mentioned needs to be understood as an ideological construct. This construct includes climate change denial, as well as a broader rejection of science; an attempt to reverse U.S. demographic changes in order to protect the supposed “white republic”; and a refusal to accept the United States’ decline as global hegemon. To put it another way, right-wing populism, whether in the United States or elsewhere, grounds itself in myths—particularly origin myths—rather than in reality in its attempt to excite the fears of its target population. On the one hand, this irrationalism blinds significant sections of the white population to the actual manner in which capitalism operates against their interests; on the other, such an ideology would not succeed were it not for the actual racial privileges generally imposed on whites.
Though right-wing populism is not a phenomenon restricted to the global North—witness the triumph of current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-fundamentalist acolytes—it has taken on new momentum in the United States and Europe with the success of the Brexit campaign and the rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign represents a central trait of right-wing populism: revanchism, or the politics of revenge by social sectors that believe that they have been robbed. After the First World War, for instance, revanchism arose in Germany in response to the perceived one-sidedness of the Versailles Treaty and the demands that it put on Germany. This revanchism formed a key part of the Nazis’ appeal.
In the contemporary United States, revanchism is rooted among precarious sectors of the white population who believe that their lives are collapsing and that the so-called American Dream has failed them. They correctly recognize that capitalism is changing, and failing them, yet attribute their growing insecurity to various scapegoats—immigrants of color, blacks, Jews, LGBT people, “Feminazis”—rather than to the nature of capitalism itself. In the absence of progressive alternatives and organizations, such as labor unions, these sectors of the population become highly susceptible to the irrationalism of right-wing populism, in part because right-wing populism infuses its appeal to a lily-white American Dream with some of the vocabulary (and organizing tactics) of the political left.
Where neoliberal authoritarians might try to present their objectives in legalistic, “color-blind” terms, right-wing populists are more blunt. And not just in their language: they are more radical in their analysis, too, with neo-confederates like David Duke being among the most radical. As we have witnessed in the 2016 presidential campaign, and as Glenn Beck pointed out, right-wing populists feel less constrained by legality and the U.S. Constitution than more establishment forces. They are prepared to do whatever it takes to tip the economic scales back toward what they would identify as the legitimate—that is, white—population and away from the immigrants, people of color, and LGBT people who they allege are illegitimately siphoning off the benefits that American society is supposed to confer.
Both neoliberal authoritarianism and right-wing populism offer significant challenges to the progressive movement and the left specifically. As the Trump campaign demonstrates, right-wing populism in the United States projects a white nationalist vision for the future of the country. Openly neo-confederate and proto-fascist groups see the campaign as a happy recruiting ground for their work. Though many, if not most, of these groups embrace the economic policies of neoliberalism, they tend to part ways on certain critical issues such as immigration and trade policies.
Rejecting the free-market consensus on trade, though, hardly makes right-wing populism a movement for the working class. Rather than justice, it advances order; rather than democracy, it advances the authoritarian leader who is not constrained by the law. One can say without hyperbole that right-wing populism also dangles the threat of civil war into each and every political dispute. This latter point cannot be overstated. Contemporary U.S. right-wing populism has an armed wing, and as several recent standoffs with the federal government have made clear, it is not afraid to show its face.
The implications for the left are profound. Right-wing populism offers an interpretation of the collapse of the lives of white Americans that is as compelling as it is irrational. Its answers are simple and satisfying. It does not always need to be overtly racist because it can wrap its racism in economic and social terms: there are populations that simply cannot be absorbed, right-wing populists argue, populations that are historically at odds with the American Dream.
The left, then, has both a defensive and offensive set of tasks. On the defensive side, it must be at the forefront of building a broad front to defeat the political right in all of its manifestations. This especially means recognizing the centrality of rebuilding a labor movement that embraces all segments of the working class and becomes an arena within which we can win white workers away from racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Such a task is, of course, formidable. For one, it involves altering the scope and objectives of trade unions, as well as building new working-class organizations (including but not limited to worker centers). But it also means building a broad electoral front capable of challenging both the neoliberals within the Democratic Party and the various stripes of the political right at the ballot box. This is a fight for political office at every level of government, and it must be based on a platform of progressive structural reforms: single payer healthcare; a just transition away from fossil fuels; reparations for African Americans, Native Americans, and others whose land and labor power were stolen; an unimpeded right of workers to join or organize labor unions and engage in collective activity; and other policies that challenge the logic of capitalism, even if they fall short of overturning it. These are what the Marxist philosopher André Gorz termed “non-reformist reforms.”
It is in fighting for such radical reforms that we begin to turn toward our offensive task: laying the groundwork for socialism. The environmental crisis, like few others before it, demonstrates on a daily basis that capitalism has no democratic and sustainable answers to the threat of total civilizational collapse. While we certainly need to fight for structural reforms within democratic capitalism, and specifically fight for consistent democracy, from the ballot box to the workplace to the abortion clinic, we must also continue to galvanize the millions of people who have indicated in poll after poll over the last eight years that they seek a society that transcends capitalism.
This is not a utopian task. It is a matter of constructing an alternative to capitalism that is democratic and green, and there is no shortage of practical proposals for how to go about it. It can only be achieved, however, if we work to build socialist organizations that move beyond propagandist sects and groupings of fond comrades to shape a progressive, majoritarian coalition capable of winning power. Real social transformation is hard work. But now more than ever, it must be done.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, and activist. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.billfletcherjr.com.