It’s been a bad week for far-right conservatism. Donald Trump had to witness Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. Boris Johnson was forced back from the brink of a no-deal Brexit. And Julie Burchill found out you can’t spout anti-Muslim hate on social media wth impunity.
But where is the conservative right headed, globally? Its signature tune for the past four years has been the unthinkability of non-conservative government. The argument that any non-conservative government will be socialist, and will devastate the economy for the sake of an obsession with climate change, has been a powerful mobiliser of elderly racists and affluent voters. It’s what turned out 11 million extra voters for Donald Trump, two million habitual non-voters for Johnson last December and triggered Australian Labor’s election meltdown in May 2019.
But this time it failed. As a result, the implications of Trump’s defeat are resonating across the Anglo-Saxon right. It shows that, despite the backing of powerful media outlets, a strategy of outright disinformation and the abuse of power, neoliberal nationalism can be beaten.
The shock is palpable. The violence perpetrated in Washington, DC by far-right protesters, who last week attacked black bystanders and even black churches on the assumption that they were Biden supporters, is just a foretaste of what’s to come.
The right-wing social media platform Parler, whose membership doubled in the week after Trump’s defeat, is alive with threats of violence against election officials and calls for a second US civil war. Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, has vowed to go on trying to overturn Biden’s victory before inauguration day on 20 January, saying the president “needs heroes to step up and do the right thing” and that there was “more than enough time to right the wrong of this fraudulent election result”. Everything points to violence around the inauguration and beyond.
American conservatism is quite clearly at a crossroads. What started as a libertarian grassroots takeover, through the Tea Party movement and Koch-funded astroturf groups, has become an authoritarian movement toying with themes of violent insurrection.
And though mainstream Republican figures have distanced themselves from Trump’s rhetoric, some 19 state attorney generals and 126 members of the House of Representatives signed the Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the result of the US presidential election. With or without a return to decorum and restraint by elected politicians, there is clearly going to be a four-year racist insurgency against Biden, and that is what will define conservatism here, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, unless a strong liberal counter-argument emerges.
To understand where Anglo-Saxon conservatism goes next, we have to understand the function of conservative parties for capitalism. After 1945, in many liberal democracies, they became the “natural” party of government by creating an electoral alliance between the managerial class, high finance, the middle class and a conservative-minded minority of workers. Their purpose was not to make it impossible for left parties to win elections, but impossible for left governments to enact radical change. Combined with external pressure from financial markets, as with the Labour government in the mid-1970s and French president François Mitterrand in the early 1980s, it was usually enough.
Throughout the whole neoliberal era, the right’s main weapon against social justice has been fiscal austerity. The “budget black hole”, the “magic money tree” and “wasting taxpayers’ money” became part of a lexicon to ensure that, if a Democrat or Labour government indulged in redistribution, fear of state bankruptcy would doom them in the next electoral cycle.
But two factors have undermined the stability of “normal” conservatism. The first is demographic: as political theorist Keir Milburn argues, the generation entering adulthood after the 2008 financial crisis is experientially “left” – both on wealth redistribution and cultural issues. With no access to housing wealth, and little in the way of financial assets, it has no incentive to make the journey one-time rebels such as Julie Burchill made, from Stalinist to Islamophobic bore. As a result, conservatism has been forced to find a bigger constituency among low-skilled and educated workers, and the language it has found to do so is white male victimhood.
The second factor is the instability of capitalism itself. So deep was the crater formed by the impact of the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers that only the state could keep the economy alive. Long before Covid-19 arrived, faced with debts approaching 100 per cent of GDP and large parts of the corporate world dependent on state contracts or regulatory forbearance, there was already severe cognitive dissonance within “free-market conservatism”.
Trump’s coalition – which actually expanded at the 2020 election – was formed around the practical rejection of fiscal responsibility. Trump may have promised to eliminate the federal debt within eight years. But in fact he has increased it by 36 per cent over four years, to £27.4trn.
[See also: Can the right thrive on Parler?]
With the arrival of Covid-19, however, conservative governments discovered the positive advantages of monetary and fiscal largesse. Both Trump and Johnson revelled in their ability to pay people to do nothing. Their Brazilian fanboy, Jair Bolsonaro, has bought popularity in the same way, and with the same fiscal outcome: a dramatic spike in the national debt and the budget deficit.
After more than a decade on the life support of bailouts and money printing, capitalism has discovered it quite likes breathing through the iron lung of the state. Whereas neoliberal globalisation used the state to break down obstacles to market forces, this new, nationalist conservatism uses the state to override market forces, right down to the level of paying businesses to stay closed and workers not to work.
In turn, this new de facto project – a nation-centric, isolationist capitalism reliant on the central bank and asset price inflation – makes a new kind of conservatism logical. Because the central question in all welfare systems is: who has the right to benefit?
With neoliberalism, under Tony Blair and Bill Clinton just as much as David Cameron and George W. Bush, the answer was: the existing population plus anyone who turns up legally at the border and is willing to work. Once the state – which means past, current and future taxpayers – is effectively driving economic growth through creating money and borrowing it, borders become logical.
Both the Leave vote in 2016 and the Johnson landslide of 2019 were won on the same premise: vote for us and we’ll stop inward migration. The problem is, as the months turn into years and falling migration fails to make life better for the low-skilled and educated, you then have to start sorting the existing population according to a hierarchy of entitlement. That is why, both in the UK and the US, conservatism trained its rhetorical sights away from migration and onto blackness, or its proxy “wokeness”, which subtextually means sympathy for black people and intolerance of racism.
In the US there still exist pundits who believe politics will soon return to its school textbook form, similar parties representing overlapping views and alternating in office, leaving the merchants of polarisation out in the cold. But that’s not going to happen.
Here, in this land of perpetual crisis, it also looks unlikely. The palace coup that ousted Dominic Cummings has put three relatively liberal unelected people in place to moderate Johnson’s xenophobia and to discourage his war on the media, judiciary and civil service: his partner Carrie Symonds, No 10 press secretary Allegra Stratton and new chief of staff Dan Rosenfield. The new, “pink stetson” Johnson, we are told, will emerge once the Brexit deal is done as a liberal, moderating force within conservatism.
But I don’t think it’s going to happen. The Conservative base is fired up over exactly the same things that rile their US counterparts. Twenty-eight Tory MPs signed a letter using the anti-Semitic trope “cultural Marxism”; the China Research Group is full of MPs who take their cue from the Sinophobic agenda of right-wing US Senator Tom Cotton; the European Research Group has morphed into a full-blown Trumpist formation. Meanwhile, the first-time Tory MPs from the “Red Wall” know that, given the Covid-19 fiasco, their chances of retaining their seats depend on mobilising their elderly white constituents in a culture war against Black Lives Matter and the left. There are still liberal conservatives, of course, but they have little power in the party and nothing coherent to say.
The point, however, is that the right can be beaten. Racism puts no food on the table; immigration controls do not raise wages; having a Tory MP does not raise house prices in forgotten industrial towns, nor allow young adults there to get a foot on the housing ladder or a stable job. Trump’s defeat showed that the heady mixture of prejudice and public spending only works for so long, and that large numbers of people desire a decent, stable and tolerant society.
The challenge for British liberalism and the left is to find the leadership required and forge the kind of alliance that Biden, for all his manifest failings, managed to achieve. Everything else the left dreams of depends on doing that.