In this double interview, Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter look at Brexit and Trump as *white* phenomena rather than working class revolts. They argue that the ‘working class’ narrative grew in recent years and it has uncritically suggested that the far right has become predominantly supported by the working class, while this is not the case. The first step in the creation of this narrative has been to ignore the role of abstention in the working class. In turn, the working class has become increasingly represented as the white working class, ignoring its diversity. Therefore, Mondon and Winter claim, those pushing these agendas are not only legitimising racist ideas, but also encouraging classism in an extremely condescending manner. This also obscures that in both cases (Trump’s election and Brexit), the bulk of the reactionary vote comes from the wealthier parts of the population.
POP) The narrative that describes Brexit and Trump as two signals of a working class revolt was very popular in 2016, and remains strong up to now. However, explaining Brexit or Trump as a working-class phenomenon would be rather simplistic. Why would the whole working class follow a discourse about the preservation of white (male) privileges?
The whole working class simply wouldn’t. In fact, it has been incredibly condescending to suggest so (as many colleagues have). You don’t need to be middle class to know that the leaders in both cases are very elitist in their approach and background – remember the picture of Trump and Farage in a golden elevator. Of course, a section of the working class may be tempted to buy into the left-behind argument, or more precisely into a version of race struggle over class struggle, but clearly, most of the working class did not, just as most of them no longer buy into mainstream politics representing them and their interests, and thus turn to abstention. This narrative also ignores the basic reality of what the working class is: very diverse, but also massively disconnected in the era of neoliberal precarious employment. The claim and narrative that it is a (white) working class vote, by intention or effect, also misrepresents white interests (and racism), as class interests expressed by the marginalised or ‘left behind’. This allows the white elite to present a white identity and victimisation claim as if it is a legitimate sociological argument against class inequality, which would not apply to them.
Donald Trump & Nigel Farage (architect of Brexit).
Keeping it real, representing commoners, in a gold-plated, marble-walled elevator. pic.twitter.com/Qn75zM5ZjR
— Prof Dynarski (@dynarski) 13 novembre 2016
POP) You talk in your paper of a ‘post-race’ narrative. Through which logical steps, did whiteness become working class, and finally the people?
The post-race narrative is the construction that racism has been defeated and exists only in the past (e.g. slavery, colonialism, Nazism or Jim Crow laws), except in its most extreme, illiberal far right form, but otherwise liberalism, equality and colourblindness are claimed to have won. In addition to ignoring continuing structural and institutional forms of racism, it creates what Miri Song refers to as a culture of racial equivalence. This allows for claims of loss for white people and reverse racism or even white victimisation. The construction of the working class ‘left behind’ as white can feed and legitimise such claims, particularly when they are placed in competition with immigrants and racialised communities for resources and power.
The transition from the white working class to the people is not though directly linked to the post-race narrative, but it is essential to understand the meaning of the discourse behind the white working class revolt and its ideological underpinnings. We argue that this transition is not value free and in fact not supported by data, or at least only supported by a very biased and skewed selection of data. We argue that a certain narrative grew in recent years which has uncritically suggested that the far right has become predominantly supported by the working class. This has been done at times unconsciously, but also often in a very ideological manner to push and legitimise certain agendas. We argue that the main issue with this first step has been ignore the role of abstention in the working class. Across the west, this category of the population, however it is calculated, tends to abstain far more than others. Once this is taken into account, we see that even if every working class voter who votes voted for the far right, it would remain a small proportion of the whole working class.
For example, if the far right receives 33% of the working class vote, you will commonly see headlines claiming in panic that 1/3 of the working class votes for the far right. By including abstention, which can reach up to two thirds in this particular category, then a more precise headline would be 1/10 working class voters voted for the far right. This highlights that a) for every working class far right voter, there are 9 who are not and b) abstention is what we should be looking at if we are serious about representation and democracy.
In turn, the working class has become increasingly represented as the *white *working class, ignoring its diversity, and the (white) working class, as a construction, has come to replace ‘the people’. This not only legitimises the far right through a constructed link with the people (chipping away at the post-race narrative that places racism in fringe, far right hands only), but delegitimises the people and the working class through its association with the far right (and of course obscures any other demand originating from the working class, including anti-racist ones). Therefore, those pushing these agendas are not only legitimising racist ideas, but also encouraging classism in an extremely condescending manner. This also obscures that in both cases, the bulk of the reactionary vote comes from the wealthier parts of the population.
POP) Gender surely plays a role in ‘seeing through’ two phenomena like Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump. In their ‘left behind’ discourse, let’s call it losers of globalization narrative if you prefer, the post-industrial working class is not only presumed to be white, but also male. What does this tell us?
Gender plays an essential role in the narrative which has led to far right ideas becoming increasingly mainstream. Of course, many tend to think of far right parties and movements as predominantly male and with patriarchal social vision. This is certainly true when we look at the rhetoric, and it has been compounded by the resurgence of masculinist, men’s rights, and often outright misogynist movements and intellectuals. However, it is only part of the story as gender has also been used in a more subtle manner to mainstream far right ideas and racism in particular in the past decade. For example, it has become common for more reconstructed parties like the French Front National (now Rassemblement National), and protest movements such as Pegida and the English Defense League, to pretend to be on the side of women so as to target racialised Muslim communities (what we refer to in our work as ‘Liberal Islamophobia’). This argument has become incredibly powerful as it has allowed the far right to attach itself to seemingly progressive struggles – of course, this narrative falls apart quickly once we look at the record of such parties on wider issues regarding gender, but also their more local practices, and how they quickly revert to type once they reach the mainstream.
POP) In the narratives of Donald Trump and UKIP, often emerges the nostalgic element of a mythological past. An alleged golden age of traditions and identity. What kind of past are they evoking, exactly? Are they similar to each other?
This construction of an idealised or golden past is central to what we call reactionary. It is promising a return to a world that not only never really existed, or not in the way it is constructed, but also to systems which were extremely oppressive to most, including those it is supposed to appeal to. What we see in Britain and America is that this past is one in which the white power and privilege reigned. In the UK, the heyday of empire or the postwar boom may have benefited certain sections of the population, and even parts of the working class, but many communities remained oppressed and progress was often built on the spoils of empire and thus the suffering of the colonised. In the US, Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is widely recognised to be a reference to the pre-civil rights era. Yet, the focus is on affirming and mobilising white identity and racism as opposed to undoing years of neoliberalism, de-industrialisation and ‘welfare reform’. Moreover, Trump’s defense of confederate memorials, which is designed to distract in such a way, clearly points to a racist past where elites benefited from slavery and wider white supremacist laws and institutions and the poor could be thankful they were white.
What made these eras more positive for sections previously worse off was hardly granted willingly by elites like Trump or Farage, but rather fought for by the left, anti-racist and feminist social movements, trade unions etc. In some cases, this has included championing causes and progress that these very elites want to roll back, such as healthcare in the UK and civil and voting rights in the US. Here again, we can see this condescension towards the working class or the people in general, whereby some leader/saviour is to be trusted rather than them trusting their own agency.
POP) You write that the far right, in both the US and the UK, exploited the racialisation of the working class. However, racism seems to remain a taboo word, quite as much as fascism. It would be problematic for this kind of political entrepreneurs to be openly called racists. How did it became so difficult to use the term racism in the public debate?
In some ways this is again linked to the post-race narrative that racism has been defeated. This not only engenders the automatic and ideological denial of racism, but if racism no longer exists and whites are seen to be potential victims now, then the very accusation is the worse offence. Moreover, if whiteness is conflated with working class, then accusations of racism are seen as classist (despite those making such calls being often part of the elite themselves). This is also why we are concerned with the construction of Brexit and Trump as white working class revolts, as it allows the elites, in politics, media and academia, to simultaneously project racism onto the working class and blame those opposing racism for stigmatising their imaginary construction of the white working class.
This is also something that we discuss in our current research as a process of euphemisation, whereby racism, in mainstream discourse in particular, is usually referred to using less damaging, but also less accurate words such as nationalist, nativist or even more inaccurately populist. This is partly due to the fact that it is commonly assume that we live in post-racial societies where racist acts are individualised and marginalised, and more systemic and mainstream forms of racism are obscured to allow for the perpetuation of privilege, oppression and the invisibility of whiteness. In academia, this is particularly clear in political science where the word in almost universally avoided despite incredibly thorough definitions and frameworks available in sociology for example. It is not particularly surprising that political science in general tends to be less diverse but also less engaged in issues of power and hegemony.
POP) It seems counter intuitive that in times of economic depression, immigration is such a salient topic in the public debate. The economic crisis brought to the fore issues such as immigration, Islamophobia and ‘national culture’, rather than jobs and economics. Why in the same period the left was not able to impose its own narrative based on growing inequalities and capitalist failures?
On the contrary, racist othering is a very common strategy historically in times of economic depression as it allows the deflection away from systemic factors core to the crisis towards voiceless scapegoats.
Fascism, which is often seen as the antithesis of liberalism, could in fact be seen, as Ishay Landa demonstrates brilliantly in The apprentice’s sorcerer, as an ‘intimate insider’, ‘an extreme attempt at solving the crisis of liberalism, breaking out of its aporia, and saving the bourgeoisie from itself’.
It is therefore no surprise that in our current context, far right parties across the west remain faithful to capitalism, and that their weak attempts at pushing welfare chauvinism is always at odds with the rest of their programme based on low tax, deregulation etc. For example, one of Marine Le Pen’s 144 promises was to ‘reinforce intergenerational solidarity’ by allowing each parent to give 100.000 Euros tax free to each of their children every five years (instead of 15 currently) and 50.000 to each grandchildren as well. This measure was clearly one that must have resonated in working class families, who are well known in France for sitting on hundreds of thousands of Euros, worrying how they will pass them on to their children while being able to dodge taxes. In the context of Brexit and Trump, we have seen rhetoric about how immigrants abuse and exploit public services and resources at the expense of the deserving ‘native’ populations. Yet, we also see Nigel Farage support the privatisation of the NHS and Donald Trump oppose the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aka ‘Obamacare’, both of which will further degrade the social safety net that the poor and working class in both countries need and depend on. In this climate, the left has failed to propose a convincing and positive alternative. This is partly due to the experience of state communism which remains alive in our national narratives and has prevented us from thinking beyond failed experiments of more just and fair societies.
POP) The media seem to be following (and creating) the narrative of a ‘working-class revolt’, and when criticized for spreading racist content they reply that they are merely responding to what the people want. What is the main effect of a mediatized narrative, where gatekeepers do not protect the public debate, in making racism a self-fulfilling prophecy?
To launch its ‘new populism’ coverage, The Guardian published an article titled ‘Why is populism suddenly all the rage?’, with a sub-headline reading ‘In 1998, about 300 Guardian articles mentioned populism. In 2016, 2,000 did. What happened?’. This is absolutely symptomatic of the current poor practice that we can witness across much of the media landscape with regard to the far right, its rise, hype and mainstreaming. Of course, there were many well researched articles in the project, but these were drowned in sensationalist and simplistic coverage. The worst of it was four articles in one day on Steve Bannon, giving air at a time when his European adventures were stalling and failing, and an interview with Hillary Clinton stating, as if it was not hugely problematic, ‘Europe must curb immigration to stop right-wing populists’.
It’s worth noting as well, that along with Bannon, other far right activists, such as Farage, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), Richard Spencer and figures from Generation Identity, get platforms on and legitimacy from the mainstream media, including the BBC. Returning to The Guardian, it is just one example of course, but a telling one as it is often thought to stand in opposition to the far right. Instead, we argue that it participates in mainstreaming it. To put it simply, did it not cross the mind of Guardian editors that if ‘in 1998, about 300 Guardian articles mentioned populism and, in 2016, 2,000 did’, their action and agency may have played a part?
This lack of self-reflection can also be witnessed in academia where countless articles are published on populism despite their authors never engaging with the concept and its impact. It is not uncommon to find articles with populism in the title, while the concept is hardly discussed or even nowhere to be found in the entire body of the article. This is particularly problematic as more often than not, what people talk about when they use the term populism is racism. Therefore, a process of euphemisation takes place whereby racist ideas are portrayed as merely anti-elitist. This legitimises the far right and its ideas as they escape more damaging categorisation, but it also implies that there is no racism in the elite, which is blatantly untrue, and that any form of far right politics is to be found in ‘the people’. This is why in our work we call for more responsibility and accountability from shapers of public discourse: our knowledge of the world does not take place in a vacuum, through our own individual search and means. It has to be mediated. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it requires mediators to be aware of their power at the very least.
Dr Aurelien Mondon is a Senior Lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on the impact of racism and populism on liberal democracies and the mainstreaming of far right politics through elite discourse. His first book, The Mainstreaming of the Extreme Right in France and Australia: A Populist Hegemony?, was published in 2013 and he recently co-edited After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, racism and free speech. He is currently working on a book project with Aaron Winter titled Reactionary democracy: How racism and the ‘populist’ far right became mainstream, which will be published early 2020.
Dr Aaron Winter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of East London. His research is on the far-right with a focus on racism, terrorism and mainstreaming. He is co-editor of Discourses and Practices of Terrorism: Interrogating Terror, Reflexivity in Criminological Research Experiences with the Powerful and the Powerless and Historical Perspectives on Organised Crime and Terrorism. His most recent article is ‘Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working-class in the United Kingdom and the United States’ in Identities, co-authored with Aurelien Mondon, with whom he is working on the forthcoming book Reactionary democracy: How racism and the ‘populist’ far right became mainstream. He is also on the editorial board of Identities and co-editor of the Manchester University Press series Racism, Resistance and Social Change.