Boris Johnson has said and done some horrifying things during his political career. He has called Muslim women “letter boxes”, referred to Africa as a country, and suggested that Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain because of his Kenyan heritage.
As a journalist, Johnson was recorded discussing plans to have a reporter beaten up, and blamed Liverpool fans for contributing to the Hillsborough disaster. More recently, he has refused to answer questions about a recorded domestic dispute with his partner, Carrie Symonds.
This list of gaffes looks like a gift to Johnson’s opponents, who cite them to show that he is reckless, racist and unfit to hold the highest office.
Yet is anyone listening? Progressives in the US will be all too familiar with what is happening in the UK. They have spent the past three years expressing their horror at Trump’s scandal-ridden presidency, only to look on in shock as mounting evidence of his sexism, racism and incompetence fails to dent his approval ratings (according to the US pollster Nate Silver, Trump’s approval ratings are about 50 per cent, where they have remained for over a year).
Right-wing populism emerges when the political and economic status quo fails the majority of people. Populist politicians build their base by constructing an in-group – in this case, hardworking, white Britons – and pitching themselves as the champions of this “oppressed” group. They then blame the out-group – Muslims, migrants and scroungers – for the hardships everyone else is suffering.
In doing so, they channel popular anger away from the powerful – the economic and political elites – and towards the powerless. They may claim to be tearing up the status quo, but their fundamental objective is to protect capitalist institutions when they are at their most fragile.
The issue is not simply that these politicians can get away with saying racist and sexist things because their supporters don’t care; saying racist and sexist things is a deliberate strategy to deflect attention away from the sources of our national discontents – fraud, money laundering, tax avoidance, and the passing of fortunes through inheritance (what the French economist Thomas Piketty calls “patrimonial capitalism”) within the wealthiest 1 per cent.
This strategy extends into the realm of policy. Johnson’s electoral agenda – from clamping down on crime to ending freedom of movement within the EU – will polarise politics around an opposition between white, working-class Britons versus migrants, criminals and welfare scroungers. He will declare himself tough on crime and migration, while casting his opponents as out-of-touch elites who don’t understand the concerns of “ordinary people”.
Johnson knows his centre-left opponents will respond to his agenda by arguing that “migrants are net contributors to taxation, prisons don’t reduce crime, and welfare is good for the economy”. But political communications experts such as George Lakoff, Drew Westen, and Anat Shenker-Osorio have shown that such rhetorical comebacks merely echo the populists’ divisive world-view, while appeals to facts and evidence are drowned out by the right’s more emotive storytelling.
Right-wing populism must be seen for what I think it is – a symptom of a crumbling capitalist order that no longer promises a better future for most people.
The only way to beat Johnson is to build a new narrative. From the student protests in 2010, to Extinction Rebellion, we have witnessed collective demands to end social and economic exploitation, and confront climate change. The establishment is unsettled and seemingly without answers. In a classic populist move, the blame for years of political and economic mismanagement is deflected on to the defenceless – workers chewed up and spat out by the permanent revolution of the market, and families who have come to this country seeking a better life for their children.
A new narrative, one that can translate ideas about political economy into uplifting visions of a securer, more equal future, would expose Johnson for what he is: the last hope of a decaying class that has torn society apart. But unless his opponents can unite around this message, he will have the last laugh.
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy