Tag Archives: election

But what if it get worse from here…

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A number of friends have written to me about the piece I put up two days ago on Trump and the difficulty of making radical left-wing politics central to an anti-Trump coalition. They have said to me that the passages in which I seemed to discount any possibility of him contesting the election result were too glib. Rereading the piece, I can see how it came over that way.

I don’t want to make predictions. Part of the story of fascism and of anti-fascism is of people who at one stage in their lives thought they were doing something recognisable (they were an ordinary conservative, a socialist…), but got caught in events beyond their control, found themselves trapped in the logic of their own rhetoric. The next you knew, historic had sent them off in quite another direction. At one stage Mussolini was a socialist; at another point, he was not. At one stage Mosley was the saviour of the Conservatives. And the list goes on Tasca, Silone… You can get moments when it feels like history is just slipping out of everyone’s hands. Then, worst of all, people find themselves comfortable in what they’ve become.

If you want to think through the chance that the worst parts of 2020 are ahead of us, I am willing to acknowledge that risk. Over several years, I have been arguing that we are in a process in which events are renewing and radicalising the right, and that it has not yet exhausted itself.

If history was to somehow “stop” tomorrow, then in terms of how he has governed Trump is not a fascist, he is not even close. (Save for one really *really* important respect, which I’ll go in to) he has governed more like every other Republican administration since 1948 – each one of which faced the accusation from Democrats that it would re-run fascism.

The essential way in which Trump has been unlike fascists is that he has accepted the political limits imposed by the liberal state. When judges have told him to stop; by and large, he has. He cast doubt on the possibility of elections; he accommodated to them in reality. He has not purged the state . On the stump, he promised to jail his opponents; in office, he left them at liberty. The whole theme of my new book on fascism is that it is a specific movement, with a unique trajectory, in that it does reactionary and mass politics in equal measure. Compared to that, Trump has governed like a “reformist” of the right (albeit an aggressive one), and not a “revolutionary” (or, more accurately, a counter-revolutionary).

There is one part of Trump though which is new i.e. the intensity of his relationship with people further to the right. In Britain, every single far-right group has been buoyed by Trump and if it is like that for us, god knows what it must be like for you. When I’ve tried to explain this in recent weeks I’ve often cited the example of James Allsup, a member of Identity Evropa (i.e. a fascist, but of a particular sort) who four years ago had an audience of less than 10 people but by the time YouTube cracked down on his account it had had 70 million views. That is what Trump has done – he has listened to American fascists, he has amplified their talking points and made an audience for them – and that is even before you get into this year and the change that’s taken place in Trump’s support, its paramilitarisation around the lockdown and BLM.

In the old days, Republicans might “dog whistle” (i.e. say things knowing parts of their right-wing base would hear them), but they would also “gate-keep” (i.e. keep these people out of institutional power). Individuals like William Buckley Jr (whatever other harm he did) made it their career to keep some people in the tent and others out – while there is no-one playing that equivalent role today.

Trump does not dog whistle, he shouts out racism through a loudspeaker. Rather than keep out the likes of Laura Loomer, he acts as her number one social media fan.

The US is heading towards an election, which looks like it’s going to be miserable. I’m not worried about what happens if Trump loses by ten percentage points (in those circumstances, he will leave). I’m more than willing to acknowledge the possibility though that the result is a mess.

It’s as clear to me as I’m sure it is to everyone, that the postal votes will take days, maybe weeks, to count.

The way that the electoral college works, by artificially increasing the weight of voters who live in smaller states, means that Trump can win the election even if he loses the popular vote (cf 2016), but there is a certain point beyond which – if he does loses the vote badly enough – he must also lose the election. There’s not exact figure for that, but let’s say it’s 5 percent.

What we do know is that in most opinion polls, Trump is about 7 points behind. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not enough – a lead that small makes a “messy” election result more than likely.

A larger proportion of voters than in any previous election are likely to vote in advance, because of Covid, and because Democrats are urging people to vote postally. And checking postal votes (i.e. Democratic votes) is much slower than checking votes in person. Some states even have laws preventing postal votes from being checked before election day. Oh yes, and postal votes are more likely to be rejected. When a postal vote is checked you have to confirm that the person is on the roll, that the form is signed, and that they’ve actually voted (cf 2000 and the “dimpled chads”). All of these are likely to be disputed.

So, if Biden really wins the popular vote by 7 clear points then, on election night, as the first results come in (i.e. before postal votes are counted), you’d expect Trump to be ahead and the true scale of Biden’s lead to become apparent only long after.

In other words, it’s more likely than not that in early November, Trump will announce that he “has” won the election, and his media (Fox, Breitbart, etc) will follow him in declaring Trump the victor. That’s even – as I keep on saying – if, in reality, Biden is heading for a comfortable win.

So we’re facing a real danger of a situation where the two American don’t even agree that either candidate has won, let alone which one, and where the election result is heading towards the courts to determine (with their inbuilt partisan majority).

You don’t need to see Trump as a fascist – even if he’s just a plain old braggart authoritarian, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which his supporters take to the streets with a view to intimidating judges and Trump starts egging them on.

In Britain, our polling companies debate whether Labour is catching up with the Conservatives. In the US, the psephologists are debating how the scenario of an unclear election result will be resolved, and whether it will be by judges or with guns. To outsiders – this is not a good look.

What I guess we need to balance – which is hard – is the way in which history provides two clear exit points from here:

a) The administration is voted out heavily, and goes, and when in 10 years time American have to explain to everyone else, “We came this close to fascism”, we’ll think you were mad. We’ll say Trump was just a nasty, ordinary, right-wing creep with a big mouth. In government – he was all talk and did nothing.

b) Trump wins the election / loses narrowly enough to drive his supporters wild. And yes, at that point, all bets – however bad are off. Political murders are already taking place in the US at Weimar rates. You have to assume, they’d go up from there. After all, we had the trial run in the spring and summer, with armed supporters of the far right invading state legislatures. At a certain point in the 1920s, the guns of the far right were a mere boast, at another point they were for real. I don’t discount for a second the possibility of Trump being trapped by his ego, the demands of his supporters, his pathological desire to flatter them…

No doubt, friends will tell me there are other routes out. But from here, they seem the main ones.

Nothing in advance of the election determines which 2020 we’ll get. Whether it will be the genuinely revolutionary politics which were once reflected in parts of the US constitution, which was after all one of the most radical systems of government in its day (it’s amazing how any politics, stuck in stone for such a long time, goes stale). Or the reality of colonial oppression, slavery and genocide, which was structured in from the beginning. No-one knows which way history will bend.

The two things we do know are that Trump has a far weaker belief in the idea of democracy than any prominent politician for years.

And that if anti-fascist do take to the streets, they will have to find ways of confronting not merely Trump’s armed supporters, but the politics of the liberal mainstream who will seek to de-escalate the situation by sending in cops to confront the left first.

It follows the the only thing which can counterbalance the risk is when people organise – when they take the streets – and make it impossible for Trump supporters to march (of for the police to disperse them).

If I was in the States I’d be thinking – is there an anti-fascist coalition in my city? What have I done to build it?

And if one doesn’t exist already: well, I talked in my other piece about the sorts of movement that could prevent the right from dominating the streets; anarchists, the DSA… Neither is enough, you’d need to pull in surviving Trotskyist groups where they exist. Maoists, people at the left edge of the Democrats. Greens.

People need to be as principled as the moment will allow, and as broad as they can be – even while knowing that these two instincts aren’t easily held together. You just have to try.

Everyone one is afraid now, and probably everyone is going be angry – the trick is to make your hope and ideas as big as the situation demands.

Because otherwise, no matter how bad 2020 is now, there’s every possibility that we’ll be look back in two months’ time on the autumn and saying, “those were the good times”.

The Convergence Election

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I wanted to put together some thoughts on why the Conservatives did well in last week’s election. Almost everyone I know has focused on why Labour’s vote shrank, but logically that can’t be more than half the answer. There is an old Eric Hobsbawm quip about histories of the left, that they risk telling you only what radicals did, what their thinking was, but they never look at the other side, until what’s left is like watching a footage of a boxing match in which you see but one of the fighters punching into a vacuum. Which might as well be the story of our past week. The left has produced many accounts of why we lost, hardly any of why the other side won.

As of six months ago, the Conservatives had a series of obstacles to face, each of which made it unlikely that they would win a majority. The most important barrier was incumbency – most voting is negative, and the longer they are in power the greater the anger aimed at incumbents. For seventy years of two-party competition, British politics has followed essentially the same pattern. In general, a party is elected with a certain core idea (build council housing, the white heat of technology, monetarism, education education education…). That idea, in combination with the unpopularity of its exhausted opponents, gives the party a majority. Over successive elections, the governing party generally loses its majority until it is time for a new party to govern.

Absent the Brexit referendum and what “should” have happened by now is that Cameron and Osborne, having won elections narrowly in 2010 and 2015 would still be defending the ideas with which they were most closely associated (i.e. austerity) but they would be intellectually exhausted, mired in corruption. Their majority would have narrowed to the point at which they started losing in parliament, the Labour Party should have chosen an anti-austerity candidate and the 2019 election would be the ideal opportunity for austerity to be consigned forever to …. (you get the picture).

Brexit, obviously, changed that. Among all its many effects, perhaps the most important has been to create a void space, so that 2010 didn’t happen, 2015 didn’t happen, 2017 didn’t happen and politics was reset as if to zero – and Johnson could say in seeming good faith, as he did whenever he was questioned on his government’s track record of cuts to school, hospitals and libraries, “I have only been in office for three months”.

In truth, Brexit’s impact was deeper – it was, and remains, among other things an attempt to reascribe the blame for austerity onto foreigners in general and the EU in particular, so that people who are annoyed about the collapsing state of our social infrastructure can blame it on something outside and distant, not the Tories, definitely not Boris Johnson, not even Labour, but someone outside, so that the clock is always being reset, and the conservatives can face the voters with the eternal sunshine of a spotless record. Don’t think for a second that we on the left are incapable of the same wilful innocence – but Johnson is doing it now, and Brexit allows him to get away with it.

There are other reasons why Johnson was able to win. During the election campaign, I had a much beloved friend who responded to every day’s reports of Johnson’s campaigning by posting a single recurring message to the effect that Johnson was a formidable campaigner, a rare politician to whom ordinary people connect and had real charisms. My friends made the point ironically, and repeated it so many times that in the ends the words collapsed apart and became just a raspberry jelly trifle of utter meaninglessness. Unfortunately, the satire was on all of us.

Johnson, it turns out, is a formidable campaigner. He does have real charisma. Our inability to see it was our weakness, not his.

I am interested in why so many friends didn’t “get it”. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that if you think about our notions of leadership, they do unfortunately operate with an exaggerated literality. So that a good left-wing politician is one who comes up with previously unconsidered policy proposals. And persuades his party to adopt them, and his electorate to vote for them.

This isn’t the only kind of political leadership though, on the right or at all. Sometimes, an effective political leader is one who goes into a hostile situation, and focuses simply on neutralising anyone else’s attack points. Actually, Johnson did this. It is why he made the point of being so repeatedly photographed visiting hospitals. Because he grasped that the mere repetitive image of being seen in that location would be a more effective way of presenting Johnson as a “pro-healthcare” politician than any amount of saying “I will not privatise the NHS” (a promise which in any event, could only operate as a hostage to fortune as soon as the inevitable US trade deal is announced). He chose to make his commitments fuzzy and general, and they were effective.

In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the contemporaneity of Johnson’s politics. To explain that, I want you to think what would have happened if Labour had won a week ago. Corbyn would be praised. We would be writing of the way in which he had moved the Overton window, i.e. changed our mutual understanding of what set of politics are acceptable to the majority of voters.

But one reason why Johnson was able to win is that his politics – his hyper-conservatism – was already within the Overton window, so that it seemed natural and normal, even though any number of Conservatives have spent the last six months insisting that it is different, shocking and offends against what mainstream Conservatism was supposed to be about.

Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, there will be different parts of this which mean most to you. They might include: his personal deceit to the point of blatant lying (think of the way he pocketed Joe Pike’s phone), his willingness to dump long-term allies who prop up key tenets of Conservatism (the DUP and the union), the appointment of non-Conservatives to key posts (think of Dominic Cummings and the way in which he has been allowed to run Johnson’s private office as a Continuity Vote Leave private fiefdom), his rejection of the normal ties of loyalty to party leadership and to colleagues which make parties possible as vehicles for the promotion of shared interest, his toleration of Conservative candidates with grim records of racism and anti-semitism,  and the encouragement of a kind of far right entryism within the Conservative party, so that even perpetual weathervane Tommy Robinson has applied formembership.

There is a common pattern here, which his of opening up the Conservative Party to people, to ideas, and to money, from those historically outside the Conservatives and to their right, with a view towards reshaping politics. The left used to warn about neoliberalism, but the politics of our present day is to the right of neoliberalism in its diminished toleration of social democracy or indeed democracy itself.

And while Johnson is willing to make noises to the effect that the NHS will continue, in some form, there will still be schools – the greatest risk to our shared social fabric will come not from anything in the manifesto but from the relationships of clientelism with the socially-untethered rich which will undoubtedly characterise Johnson’s future administration.

One reason why no one in Britain was shocked by this is that it seems in global perspective to be frankly, quite a tepid version of the politics that we have seen already in Egypt, in India, in Eastern Europe, and most recently in Brazil. But all these moves had a history. And in accepting them as normal, in tolerating them silently (if that’s we do), we all collectively lose something.

(If you enjoyed this piece, you might like my book The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, which tries to puit the electoral shocks of 2016-8 in global perspective: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745338156/the-new-authoritarians/)