After the pandemic: how will the right fight back?

Five ways in which they might rescue the wider political project from the jaws of defeat.

Keith Kahn-Harris
16 March 2020, 6.20pm
Donald J. Trump makes a statement on coronavirus at the White House on Sunday, March 15, 2020.
Chris Kleponis/PA. All rights reserved.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating consequences present an existential challenge to the dominant trends in today’s right-wing politics.

Where right-wing neo-liberalism guts the state, the virus shows how much we need a stable democracy, built on a state bureaucracy that respects expertise. Where the populist right exults in irresponsibility, disconnection and competition, the virus exposes our intimate connections to each other and how care for the weakest is in all our interests.

Where the populist right rejects expertise and competence, the virus shows how much we need expertise and competent government. Where the right increasingly disdains global cooperation and (re)builds national boundaries, the virus mocks the notion that we can ever entirely isolate one human-created geopolitical entity from others.

The coronavirus pandemic therefore requires the kind of action that the most energetic and successful forms of right-wing politics have, in the last years and decades, fought tooth-and-nail against: global action, driven by government, led by experts, carried out for the benefit of all. They have to take that action. Unlike climate change for example, this crisis can’t be delayed and its consequences can’t be restricted only to those who are poor or despised.

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Whereas previous generations of conservative politicians could take this action without contradicting a wider conservative project, the severing of right-wing politics from literal conservatism makes it a much more challenging prospect. Indeed, the biggest threat to the wider project would, in fact, be a successful response from a right-wing government, as it would raise the question: if you can act that way against coronavirus, why can’t you act that way all the time?

A successful response from a right-wing government… would raise the question: if you can act that way against coronavirus, why can’t you act that way all the time?

So will the crisis end in the disgrace and delegitimization of the new radical right politics? Not necessarily. Such a prediction may underestimate the mercurial creativity that has made contemporary right-wing politics so successful. We are already seeing, even now at the start of the crisis, the first signs of how the wider political project could be rescued from the jaws of defeat.

Here I sketch out five emerging strategies. None of them is ‘enough’ on its own to save a particular right-wing government. Taken together though, they offer a substantial armoury of defences. Those of us who want to defeat the radical right have to spot these and others as they emerge and confront them now, before it is too late.

1. The cordon sanitaire strategy.

While the response to this one crisis may need to be expert-led, government-driven, globally coordinated and for the benefit of all, it might be possible to draw a line around it so as not to ‘infect’ the rest of the project. While Boris Johnson’s sober press conferences flanked by scientists and medical experts might seem to represent a prime minister newly converted to the cause of expert-led government, the fact that he is not the star of the show will help to distance himself from expertise in future. Should the UK response be successful he won’t be too closely associated with the measures taken. Should the response be a disaster (as some have warned), Johnson will be able to portray this as a cautionary tale of the dangers of relying on the ‘the wrong experts’. By bringing the scientists to the fore for now, they can be marginalised once the crisis ends and the destructive elements can take the lead again as they drive towards a catastrophic Brexit.

A variant of this strategy might be called the ‘Rudi Giuliani strategy’. On 9/11, Giuliani was an exemplary leader – calm, serious and effective. In recent years he has repented of this ‘sin’ by becoming an enthusiastic defender of Donald Trump as his personal lawyer. In this way, those right-wing populists who are actually capable of responsible government will temporarily accept the yoke of this responsibility before swiftly pivoting once the crisis has passed.

2. The Y2K bug strategy

The successful effort to prevent a disabling computer bug in 2000 has, in the end, proved a disaster for those who seek to draw attention to risk. Because the alarms were heeded and disruption was prevented, those who are ignorant of the seriousness of the risk can ridicule the effort that was made. In the same way, if the coronavirus threat is contained to even a modest degree, it will be possible to denigrate the anxiety. That will ensure that those experts who fought the crisis are marginalised once again. It will also ensure that the climate crisis is treated as ‘another coronavirus’ – a problem yes, but an overblown one.

3. The ‘darkest hour’ strategy

After the crisis, it will be possible to claim that we ‘beat it’ through determination, resilience and grit, rather than through expertise and big government. Boris Johnson is likely to draw on this strategy, channelling Churchill and using terms like ‘vim’. In this way, coronavirus will be a demonstration not of global interdependence and the need for coordinated action, but of the transcendent power of the national ‘character.’ In the UK this will assist in moving on towards a Brexit that will spark a further crisis – this time a crisis to be met without expert-led government.

4. The racist strategy

Attributing coronavirus to foreigners, immigrants and miscellaneous racial others is an obvious strategy to follow in order to deflect blame for the crisis. Donald Trump is clearly using this strategy by calling the virus a ‘foreign virus’, treating it as a vindication of building ‘the wall’ and stopping flights from despised countries only. In the UK, the recent budget actually increased NHS charges for migrants. In many ways racism and xenophobia is a much smarter strategy than the previous three as it shifts responsibility for the crisis to hated others. If the racist strategy takes hold, it makes no difference if the government response is effective or not as the government and the nation is simply the hapless victim of the misdeeds of others.

Racism and xenophobia is a much smarter strategy than the previous three as it shifts responsibility for the crisis to hated others.

5. The post-truth strategy

The populist right have made a concerted attempt to nurture a grassroots following that is sceptical of most truth claims. The groundwork has therefore been laid for leaders such as Trump to be able to act as they please, making whatever claims they please, knowing they can count on support from their followers. Trump and outriders such as Fox News systematically paint any empirical criticism of the US response to coronavirus as a ‘hoax’, as an example of the mendacious Democrats and fake news media playing politics with the lives of Americans in order to damage the president.

This gives Trump the luxury of knowing that any response to coronavirus is as good as any other, because his core support will accept whatever he says about it. As with the previous strategy, this one has a much greater chance of preserving the wider political project as nothing needs to be conceded to the sirens of expertise and competent government. Even in the event that Republicans, horrified by Trump’s incompetence, were to find a way to remove him, he will still be the hero to many of his followers.

When all else fails…

It’s possible that, in some countries at least, none of these strategies will be enough to save the right from having to reluctantly embrace the kind of politics that they have fought against. But when all else fails there are still consoling benefits to the crisis. Aside from the financial rewards for a lucky few who invested in the right pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, and for hedge funds who made a bet on chaos, the crisis may deepen the hatred for others and soften everyone up for the suffering ahead of us from climate change. And for some sections of the right – some Christian evangelists and anarcho-capitalists for example – the prospect of chaos may be a reward in itself.

So while this crisis certainly represents an opportunity to push back against radical right politics that rules through deliberate ignorance and incompetence, it is vital to recognise the formidable defences they have available to them. If we learn how to combat those defences, this could be a transformational moment in building a world in which cascading crises are confronted together, competently, cleverly and compassionately.

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