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7 March 2023

We have lost Russell Brand

This once-sexy communist has become an American culture wars pundit.

By Finn McRedmond

Russell Brand can’t make up his mind. Speaking on the comedian Bill Maher’s talk show last weekend, Brand launched into a tinny rant that encompassed every right-wing signalling trope: the ghoulish mainstream media, the dishonest and untrustworthy pharmaceutical industry, the West’s shameful treatment of Julian Assange and “American hero” Edward Snowden, and the Covid drug Ivermectin. He then pivoted leftwards, and rounded off his angry sermon with an endorsement for, erm, Bernie Sanders.

Until this appearance, Brand had been self-evolving away from the spotlight for a few years. Once, he was just a BBC Newsnight regular, a Hollywood comic actor, the stand-up who endorsed Ed Miliband, and the man who guest-edited an issue of this magazine in 2013. Now, over on his YouTube channel (with 6.2 million subscribers) the comedian preaches – messianically – about the Great Reset, the profiteering military-industrial complex, and all the politicians that are Lying To You.

It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a once-venerated left-wing populist taking things too far. It’s true that he hasn’t ditched his trad-socialist values. His lionisation of Sanders is evidence enough that the old version of Brand – the one who ran rings around Jeremy Paxman in 2013, telling the astonished presenter that a socialist revolution was on the horizon – is still there.

But he has married these long-held beliefs with all the suspicions and anxieties of the new American right: America First, Drain The Swamp, distrust the MSM (mainstream media). Just last week he was pictured grinning with Donald Trump Jr – cutting a rather different figure to the man who used to lead anti-austerity marches in Parliament Square. What happened to the freewheeling entertainer praised by Mark Fisher for espousing a communism that was “cool, sexy and proletarian”? It seems that Russell Brand has been America-brained.

In spite of the transformation, he still drips with charisma. Even when Brand shouts down a camera lens he is a rhythmic performer, where the cadence of slam poetry meets the content of Spiked. And hisYouTube channel is not devoid of self-awareness – Brand jokes that his viewers are “tin foil hat-wearing lunatics”. But he has outgrown the lightly heterodox and idiosyncratic manner that once characterised him. The benign – if abrasive – hippy is long gone. In his place? An American culture warrior with a cockney accent.

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[See also: Russell Brand’s feature on revolution from his 2013 guest-edit of the New Statesman: “We no longer have the luxury of tradition”]

As for any self-styled alternative media guru, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a central theme of inquiry. Brand quotes long passages of text from Substacks about the true intentions of Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton; he suggests it is a proxy war fought with the ultimate ambition of privatising Ukraine. When he shouts about the military-industrial complex intentionally generating a state of perpetual crisis, he means it. Brand is not just paranoid about intervention, he’s actively conspiratorial about it.

The anti-war contingent in Britain traditionally hails from the left, Brand’s former political home. But when Brand warns his listeners about the Western war machine he sounds more like Tucker Carlson – the Fox News right-wing political firebrand – than Jeremy Corbyn. Both of the latter two are dovish on intervention. But where Corbyn’s caution emerges from a long tradition of pacifism and anti-imperialism, Carlson finds his energy elsewhere: the resurgence of America First, a generalised distrust of the so-called establishment beneficiaries of conflict, and a fear of undermining America’s global pre-eminence. “The world needs a strong America,” Brand concluded on Maher, precisely mirroring the anxieties of Carlson, exactly contradicting the disposition of Corbyn.

Of course the anti-war movement in America has not always looked like this. Instead it owes its vitality to Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s return, after decades of neoconservative interventionism, towards isolationism. Part of Trump’s self-styling as an insurgent was his self-appointment as the only anti-war candidate in the game. It sank in. Meanwhile, this just isn’t a facet of the British right. Conservatives in the UK are hawkish.

It’s not hard, then, to see the draw of the American new right for Brand. He is lewd and distrustful, ever the transgressive entertainer. The impoliteness of the movement – the acme of which is Donald Trump’s crassness and, yes, humour – seems to move Brand. What about the hallmarks of the British conservative or the American liberal? The managerial, the staid and proper, the abhorrence of vulgarity? Boris Johnson, we shouldn’t forget, was a highly unusual anomaly in a party more comfortable with Theresa Mays and Jeremy Hunts. Has Hillary Clinton ever told a good joke? Of course there is no home for Brand as either a Tory or a Lib.

Perhaps his few years spent living in LA exposed an ugly underbelly of Hollywood that evolved his distrust of the elite. Maybe it is because Brand spends a lot of time on the Anglophone internet on which American cultural norms are hegemonic. Perhaps he is just a cynical iconoclast.

Whatever it is, Brand has internalised assumptions generated by a brand of heterodox American – Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, Tucker Carlson – while clinging on to a veneer of old-fashioned British socialism. But perhaps that tension is not as awkward as it seems. The soul of Corbynism, for example, is the argument that a cabal of elite capitalists have manipulated the system against the everyman. “They’ve stitched up our political system to protect the powerful,” the former Labour leader said in early 2017, “to line the pockets of their friends.” There are few journalists in the United States who talk about the rigged system more than Carlson; it is exactly the mode of politics Brand trades in too.

Perhaps the two movements are not as uneasy bedfellows as they appear. Brand’s transition towards the conspiratorial right seems perfectly seamless. But one thing is abundantly clear: Brand is fighting the American culture wars from a shed in Oxfordshire. His demand to be taken seriously is a rather weak one.

[See also: How Jordan Peterson became the internet’s village idiot]

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