Over the past month, a strange alliance of demonstrators have been seen on the streets. After several thousand people attended a demonstration through Nottingham on 22 August, journalists at the local Nottingham Post tried to explain to readers what the march had been about. They did so by looking at the flags the protesters brought.
Some of them carried military flags (one from the Royal Engineers Corps) or raised veterans’ issues. One spoke of a “war on PTSD”.
Another demonstrator carried a poster embossed with the letter “Q”, emblazoned in fire. This was a reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that the Rothschilds, George Soros and various Hollywood celebrities are stealing the bodies of American children and harvesting them for psychedelic drug called adrenochrome.
Others presumably believed that England herself was under attack: they held flags including the Yorkist White Rose, or an Anglo-Saxon White Dragon flag.
Quite a number seemed to get their nationalism mixed up: carrying flags for Nazi Germany’s SS Werewolf Resistance or the Neo-Nazi band Whitelaw, or a banner reading, “God Bless Donald Trump” (in QAnon fantasy, Trump is always just about to lead a successful popular uprising against the few conspirators who run the world).
Further demonstrations have been held – in Liverpool, and one bringing out ten thousand people in London last Saturday – where protesters were joined by the two stars of this new movement, David Icke and Jeremy Corbyn’s once-Marxist brother Piers.
To grasp where this movement has come from, we need to understand it as the confluence of two kinds of politics: some of purely British origin, and some deriving from events in the United States.
Here, there are any number of people who dislike the lockdown. Some have broadly left-wing reasons for objecting to it: they don’t like the proliferation of new laws, or the requirement to wear a mask in shops. Often, they are relatively young: opinion polling suggested that young men were the most likely to have broken (or to admit to having broken) the lockdown rules.
It seems intuitively true that different solutions should have been employed to fight Coronavirus: vitamins perhaps, or maybe the drug hydroxychloroquine that was touted for a time by Donald Trump (before even he had to admit that it did no good).
As for QAnon – while most socialists reject conspiracy theories, seeing them as myths which take people away from understanding how the system works, it only takes one Prince Andrew for the idea of a cabal of rich paedophiles to suddenly “make sense”.
Others are participating in this new movement for right-wing reasons: like the demonstrators in Nottingham with their neo-Nazi flag, or the elderly supporter of the New British Union of Fascists who left his flag dangling over the balcony at Trafalgar Square (with him we can be clear – his group is no more than a dozen people who like dressing up in the clothes of their interwar fantasy. They, at least, are a joke).
It’s hard not to feel that the major force which produced this new street movement isn’t anything that happened in Britain so much as developments in the United States. August 22nd, for example, the day of the Nottingham march, had already been chosen by QAnon supporters in the US to be a day for hundreds of “Freedom for the Children” protests.
Through spring and summer 2020, the Trump presidency was in crisis. Mainly, this was because of the Coronavirus pandemic, to which his response was singularly inept. Another factor was the rise of Black Lives Matter, a social movement against police killings and against the institutional racism which allows them to happen.
Against both stories, Trump set in train his own right-wing street movements. They would defeat the pandemic by keeping the United States open for business. As rightwing paramilitaries gathered against the lockdown, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.
By and large, that attempt failed – Trump’s voting base is predominantly elderly, and as the virus spread to central and southern US, the idea of keeping the workplaces open pitched Trump and his street movement against his own voting base.
By contrast, Trump has had much more success in eulogising the work of white vigilantes who have protested against BLM marchers, assaulting them, threatening them with guns or, as on more than 30 occasions since May, driving into them with their cars.
When one opponent of the Black Lives protests, Kyle Rittenhouse, was charged with shooting two protesters dead, “Christian” groups raised $250,000 for the young right-winger’s defence, while Trump insisted Rittenhouse was innocent.
We have, as during the 2016 election, a situation where Donald Trump is urgently calling on his furthest-right supporters to back him. As in 2016, that call is heard beyond the US: there are British people among the 3 million facebook users who joined QAnon groups.
The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2016 Trump’s wildest supporters were internet warriors, and intellectual advocates of a European-style fascism which had very shallow roots in the US.
This time around, Trump is able to call on supporters in the Patriot movements, the various gun militia, and the Proud Boys. These are groups with much greater experience of street organising. They have their weapons ready to use in his defence.
The movement in Britain is amorphous; it has its origins here as well as in the US. But as with previous similar instances of anti-political right-wing movements (the EDL, the DFLA); the longer it lasts, the clearer and worse its politics will seem.