Right-wing populists need a new strategy
Behaving grotesquely isn't enough
There was a time when the Left was about causing outrage, not getting outraged. Counter-cultural activists and artists were boldly transgressive, deliberately defying bourgeois sensibilities — as opposed to dictating what can and can’t be said in polite society.
However, as the Left has become increasingly institutionalised, others have discovered the power of transgression, and many of the most disruptive politicians of our time are now found on the Right. In place of the respectability that one might expect conservatives to cultivate and appeal to, the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have made it their thing to flout convention. Uncontrolled in speech and indisciplined in office, they’ve hijacked movements that once championed personal responsibility.
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More recently, there has been a bevy of Right-wing candidates in the midterm elections who revel in ‘owning the libs’ and, for lack of a better word, trolling. But this points to a tension. Most Right-wing populists are not true revolutionaries. Though they’ve done a lot to disrupt the status quo (as with Brexit), they still have conservatively-minded voters to satisfy. They need to project conservatism, but in an unruly form. Perhaps a better word than ‘transgressive’ is ‘grotesque’.
Literally meaning ‘of the cave’, it is thought that the Italian grottesca originally referred to the artworks found in Roman ruins. Over time this evolved into the pejorative sense of ‘grotesque’ — i.e. “distorted and unnatural… abnormal and hideous”.
So what possible purpose could the grotesque serve in contemporary conservative politics? The most obvious example is the ‘dead cat strategy’ in political communications — that is, saying or doing something outrageous to divert the media’s attention away from a more damaging story.
Alternatively, the aim may be to focus our attention. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Johnson and Dominic Cummings engineered a series of confrontations designed to prove that they really were serious about getting Brexit done, such as the removal of the whip from 20 Conservative MPs and the attempt to prorogue Parliament. Though these battles may have looked like setbacks in the short-term, the real objective (mobilising the Leave vote) was successful.
Outraging elite opinion obviously signals opposition to the establishment. The odiousness of a protest politician can also serve, and advertise, an instrumental purpose, providing a means by which outsiders can inflict discomfort on the presumed insiders. This certainly worked for Donald Trump in 2016, when angry voters sent him to the White House.
But the trouble with the grotesque is that it has a short shelf-life — especially in government. Cultivating chaos stops working when your first duty is to maintain order. On a political level, the outrageous mode of conservatism has only one way of responding to its own failures, and that is to ramp up the grotesquerie. This is how Trumpism ended up at the stolen election narrative, not to mention the disgraceful scenes of the Capitol invasion. It is also how British Conservatives managed to follow the bacchanalian disorder of the Johnson years with the spectacular implosion of Liz Truss’s 45 days.
On both sides of the Atlantic, conservatives have had a painful lesson in the limitations of the grotesque. From the midterm election results in the US to the collapse of Tory poll ratings in the UK, it’s clear that the public have had enough. Indeed, it’s becoming intolerable even in small amounts.
Of course, ours is a culture that celebrates the maverick and the mischief-maker — and there’s no doubt that conservative populists have had fun playing the rebel. Now, though, playtime is over.
The word ‘populist’ is demeaning. It tends to suggest something which is unreal or inferior or not serious. The implication is that if you are not a boring, predictable, grey politician, belonging to a mainstream party, you must be a ‘populist’ and not for real.
We need more populists to bring forth new ideas. Farage is a populist. He is ridiculed, considered to be unimportant, portrayed as a clown, etc. But he has ideas which are different from the mainstream.
Today, our politicians in the UK and those in America offer no hope. We are involved in summits to restrict energy usage, thereby making ourselves poorer. Maybe we need a lot more populists.
That’s an interesting comment. I agree we seem to be stuck in a nihilistic loop where all most politicians have to offer is austerity of one form or another. As you say, we desperately need new ideas and sometimes the mavericks and oddballs are the people to provide those ideas.
We do, however, also need politicians of substance; people who know how to work the political system. Sadly, Trump lacked many of those skills and was thwarted by “the blob” at every turn. Boris Johnson is a clever man but it turned out he was little more than a showman when in power.
I don’t know the answer, but we need the mavericks to propose new ideas, and we need the pragmatists to implement those ideas. DeSantis is the closest I’ve seen to a fusion of those personality types in modern US politics.
A populist is a politician who appeals to the populous but not the right thinking elite. So offering free money to maintain people in idleness was popular but not populist because the right thinking elite approved it.
Yes energy is the core of civilisation. We need energy to make windmills, solar arrays, nuclear power stations, electric cars etc to ‘save the planet’ as well as all the things that we have depended on for the last hundreds of years. An attack on energy is an attack on civilisation. If we need populists to save us, bring them on.
Stephen Jay Gould, who was a talented and very liberal evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, famously wrote about the triangular shaped architectural elements seen in classic church buildings that used columns to support the vaulted ceilings. These spandrels were carefully decorated, often with the stations of the cross or other Biblical scenes. To the untrained eye, it could be concluded that the spandrels were made to house those paintings, but the architect knows that the spandrels were there because of the underlying columns, and the painter came later just to fill in the white space. This analogy is important in evolutionary biology, because Gould’s colleagues would often reverse cause and effect, to disastrous results. (As an aside, we recently saw another of these, when AOC confused the increase in subway police being stationed near the trains due to rising assaults or worse on the train platforms as the cause not the effect of independently rising crime–effectively confusing firemen with arsonists.)
I bring this up, because the author here seems to be doing the same thing. He is looking at symptoms and effects and confusing them with underlying causes that he either doesn’t fully understand or wishes to ignore.
Trump didn’t call the traditional establishment media “fake news” for effect. He said it for the same reason that Noam Chomsky did. Because the Overton Window is a real thing, as is manufacturing consent.
Perhaps more importantly, the fact that the establishment distorts and hides the reason for Trump’s use of this pejorative moniker, and thus this author would say its shelf life has expired, does not suggest that it is wrong to continue calling the fake news fake. Rather, one needs to continue to chip away at this problem every single day, and pursue new avenues to punish a news media responsible for great crimes they’ve caused in their willful failure to cover important stories (e.g., vax doesn’t stop spread and causes more harm than the virus, so we shouldn’t have vax mandates).
To follow the framing of the lefty establishment (which isn’t actually lefty, but fascist, thus demonstrating even I frequently fall into this trap!), is to fail to tell the full truth.
Look for the underlying causes, and address those. One man’s theatrical effect is another’s earth shattering revolutionary breakthrough.
The Cubists were called grotesque before they were called geniuses. And the reason is because they were not merely trying to titilate or shock. They were showing us where art needed to go after the advent of photography, and so modern art fully took off.
The populists are not seeking to act like radio shock jocks–who, by the way, in some cases like Howard Stern, have shown very, very long shelf lives–but rather to continue to highlight the massive disconnects between the noble lies of official narratives and the underlying reality of a suffering populace. That it is so shocking is not because of the style of presentation used by the populists, but because of the immense gap between the official line and reality, which only massive institutional power and inhumane neglect of the welfare of the broad citizenry could sustain.
That Trump calls the fake news fake isn’t for effect. He is saying it for the same reason that Noam Chomsky did. This author would have you believe that if Trump started playing nice with the media, then they would cease to run propagandist interference on him. But that is obviously false.
Let’s be clear about “fake news.” Trump did not invent the idea (although he coined the expression). It would probably shock everyone, including Trump, to learn that the notion of “fake news” had already become respectable, even fashionable, in elite academic circles at least half a century before 2016. At the core of postmodernism was, and is, rejecting even the search for objective truth and replacing it, for ideological and political purposes, with the cultivation of subjective truth–that is, “our truth” or “my truth” versus “their truth” or “your truth.” The whole point of mainstream journalism today–woke journalism–is not to report the news accurately or even to analyze it rationally, because both objectivity and reason are allegedly racist and sexist devices that lead to what Marx called “false consciousness.” Rather, the point is to bring about the revolution by “deconstructing” society.
Fifty years (and more) ago what was “deconstructed” was language and the assumptions that the uses of language lead to. Particularlly the impossibility of really knowing the “truth”
For instance; Were the Crusades “successful”? Are whales “smarter” than apes?.Could the Viet Kong actually “defeat” the US?
Your’s is a modern partisan definition of “fake” news.
How you are able to conflate Boris with Truss I do not know … Boris is of the ‘left’ with economic policies to match … Truss clearly is of the ‘right’ and with economic policies to match.
Now we hav the left again in Sunak / Hunt and on Nov 17 we will learn how much they intend to ride on the backs of working people as they stagnate the economy with high taxes & austerity
Because behaving with civility has done so much for right-wingers over the past fifty years…
This is a poor article. For one, Franklin reduces populism into a set of behavioural characteristics, worthy of his scorn because it’s not respectable. My first instinct is to say ‘stuff respectability, we’re about victory now.’ Yet I’m not sure Franklin’s characterisation of populists as rowdy or ‘grotesque’ is even true.
There are many populist politicans who are not like Trump. Consider Alternative for Deutschland, Brothers of Italy or National Front. Whilst there are some humorous characters, overwhelmingly, these parties are pretty average in their communications. Also, much of the frustration with the Tories comes from populists who feel betrayed. This is so obvious. What is populist about the current state of Tories? Johnson said something colourful? Franklin never explains this, nor his condescending tidbit about ‘personal responsibility.’
Unherd, your standards are slipping. I do not mind a variety of views but this is a lazy article. Please challenge your established journalists a bit more on their core arguments and evidence.
The last article of his I read wasn’t much good either. I won’t renew my sub if Unherd goes the way of the Speccie. I have got plenty of books I need to catch up on rather than wasting my time on bite size articles (on which subject perhaps they could bullet point their pieces at the top of the piece, it would save even more time).
tuff respectability, we’re about victory now
Victory to do what? What did Trump do with his victory?
Did he balance the budget? NO!
Did he balance the trade? NO!
Did he deliver better healthcare? NO!
Even the judges were the product of the long term work of mainstream conservatives organizations and donors.
He bucked a trend.
He just lost (2018 midterms) and 2020.
It is called competence at managing the affairs of the state. It is not hard to understand.
Put aside Trump’s degeneracy (intellectual and moral) I don’t know anyone (anecdotal of course) who was against his policies in relation to China, economy, budget, public spending. (Border Wall is a controversial story but let’s ignore it. The public will never agree on every issue.)
Trump – and this is the most important point – was/is incompetent at running the affairs of the state. And was this incompetence that made it easy for him to make promises that he could never deliver (from balancing the budget to better/cheaper healthcare).
And the same thing applies to Brexit. No Leaver that comments here can look at Leavers in positions of power and claim that they are anything but incompetent.
Feel free (as people here always do) to blame the Remainers, Guardian, Islington crowd (and me!) but the fact is that Leavers are incompetent.
What’s the point of competence if it’s being used to enforce unpopular laws and make life more expensive for everyone else?
Competence gets you to “get your stuff done” and win another election.
Competence gets you NOT to inflict £7.5b in annual costs to British exporting SMEs (thanks to the “oven ready Brexit” deal that BoJo the other incompetent signed).
At some point one has to govern competently, and that’s much more complicated than simple slogans full of ‘my-side’ bias. The eventual collusion with reality is disorientating for those drunk on right or left wing populism. You can tell that from so many of the comments Unherd articles recently, that have unsurprisingly picked up much the same theme, have prompted.
The tactic then is to blame some fictious ‘blob’ or hidden elite nonsense. Straight out the 4 Pillars of Zion baloney playbook. A pandemic of poppycock as heard someone say.
Theories need evidence. Some in the article link actually have evidence and been well known for many years. Some remain speculative. The key is not that having theories that help us further understand the world is innately wrong, it is the failure to then move to actually providing some proper evidence whilst promulgating the theory as a truth. Inquisitiveness and questioning is crucial. Unthinking conclusions because it tallies with a ‘my-side’ bias is not. At its best it’s just sloppy and lazy. Next it’s often an attempt to make money out of notoriety. At its worst it’s Kim Jong Un stuff.
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