Isn’t “Right-Wing Populism” Just Fascism?

It’s a bad idea to listen to right-wingers who claim to be on the side of “the people.” Usually it turns out they want to crush the people by force.

Let us ask a question: who are some famous “right-wing populists”? Well, let’s see, historically, Hitler and Mussolini can be categorized as “right-wing populists.” Today, there’s Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, a militaristic, sexist homophobe who said if he saw two men kissing in the street he would beat them. There’s Marine Le Pen in France: (“the progressive Islamisation of our country and the increase in political-religious demands are calling into question the survival of our civilisation.”)  There’s Geert Wilders in the Netherlands: (“Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology, the ideology of a r*tarded culture.”) Plus Viktor Orban in Hungary. And in the United States, there is Donald Trump, whose administration has engaged in ceaseless cruelty toward immigrants and who is currently trying to deploy the military against protesters

All of which is to say: Right-wing populism seems like a terrible ideology that needs to be rejected. I disagree with nearly everything these people believe in. The kind of world they believe in is not one I wish to inhabit. They are in favor of reactionary cultural traditions, militarized borders, bigotry, and rabid nationalism. I am a leftist, meaning that I favor free movement of people and multiculturalism. I am anti-nationalist and anti-militarist. Donald Trump’s ideology seems to me to be monstrous.

I find it peculiar, then, to hear “right populism” and “left populism” discussed as part of the same tendency. Usually when this is done, it is by centrists, who subscribe to the “horseshoe theory” that fascism and socialism have a lot in common. (The idea is that the political spectrum, instead of a line, is horseshoe-shaped, meaning that the ends come together.) This is what led the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute (a “progressive” and “free market” think tank, respectively) to collaborate on a project about combating “authoritarian populism” from both the “right and left.” Their idea is that Donald Trump, Hugo Chavez, Bernie Sanders, Jair Bolsonaro, etc. can all be understood as part of the same tendency, because they all seek to overthrow “elites” and “the establishment” in the name of “the people” and use the power of the state to create justice. 

But this idea is fundamentally wrong, because it fails to acknowledge the massive difference between the Left and the Right, namely that the Right’s brand of populism is a complete and utter swindle that involves scapegoating foreigners for social problems, while left “populism” is generally anti-racist and egalitarian. Right-wing populists do not actually care about “the people”; Trump and Bolsonaro may have pitched themselves as crusaders against “elites,” but neither actually cares about helping anyone but their wealthy cronies. Both want to privatize public assets, which in practice means simply giving away the people’s collective wealth to oligarchs. Both of them have been utterly indifferent to the socially unequal consequences of coronavirus, and both are accelerating their country’s contributions to the climate crisis, which will cause “the people” incredible suffering. Neither has any interest in deepening democracy; their ideal societies are characterized by massive wealth inequality. They are about as “populist” as the Nazis were “socialist,” meaning that it is a convenient label that makes them sound like something they aren’t.

You can see why I would be frustrated, then, by anything coming from the Left that treats “right-wing populism” as something good and legitimate. This is why I am disturbed by The Populists’ Guide To 2020: A New Right and A New Left Are Rising, which seems to embrace exactly the “horseshoe” theory that I see as so wrong and dangerous. The Populists’ Guide to 2020 is co-authored by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, who host the morning show Rising on The Hill. I have been on Rising several times, and I have found it to be a refreshingly original show. It has the look and tone of cable news, but is more substantive, and features guests and stories that are excluded from the mainstream networks. Wonderful leftists that you won’t see anywhere else are invited on Rising. Many of them are friends of mine. I am especially impressed by the talent of Krystal Ball, who has emerged as one of the sharpest and most valuable commentators on the contemporary left. She is smart, stylish, and fearless, and I like the work she does.

But there is something so wrong about the framework that “a new right” and “a new left” should be discussed as part of the same tendency, and I think the only way you can present it this way is if you ignore all of the core features that actually define that “new right.” The Populist’s Guide to 2020 suggests that while Ball and Enjeti have some differences, fundamentally they are on the same page:

We both believe in putting the massive working class at the center of politics and advocate for candidates and policies which we believe will help accomplish that goal. Krystal is a Democrat and Saagar is a Republican, but we are both first and foremost pro-working class.

The framework of being “pro-working class” recurs throughout the book. But while promising to provide an “outline of the new right and new left,” the book actually mostly avoids discussing what the New Right actually stands for. Instead, though Ball and Enjeti each write separate chapters, they mostly stick to what they agree on, emphasizing criticisms of the failings of neoliberal Democrats and free-market Republicans. 

I concur with most of what Ball and Enjeti write, and just as when I watch Rising, I find myself on board with 95 percent of what Ball says and about 80 percent of what Enjeti says. This is because, in the book, Enjeti makes criticisms of Democratic politicians that those of us on the socialist left also share. Enjeti rails against the influence of billionaires in American life, and the outsized power of large corporations. He sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders much of the time. (In fact, for a long time I assumed Enjeti was a leftist, because I had only seen small bits of his work. I was quite taken aback when I went on the show and found him sympathetically agreeing with my economic socialism before suddenly defending some of the worst features of American military policy.) In fact, Enjeti even favorably cites the Current Affairs article “All About Pete,” in an essay entitled “A McKinsey Presidency Would Be A Hellish Future” (the thesis of which I completely agree with). 

And so it’s possible to get through The Populists’ Guide to 2020 and come away quite convinced of the central thesis, namely that the “populist right” and “populist left” have a lot in common and should band together to fight their common enemy, the dastardly Neoliberals. But Enjeti hits some strange and disquieting notes, at one point commenting that “Wall Street, Hollywood, the NBA, and nearly every other part of the commanding heights of American culture has been infested with Chinese cash.” Infested with Chinese cash? And when you watch the show, you’ll start to pick up on other disturbing beliefs. He is in favor of strict immigration controls (“if you want to expand the social safety net, you must inherently reduce the size of the population that that is going to apply to,” which is not true at all). During the current uprising, he has echoed Tom Cotton, even asking “Was it un-American when LBJ used the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions to stop race riots in Detroit?” (To which the answer is, no, it wasn’t un-”American”—it was very American—but since the National Guard in Detroit ended up riddling a four-year-old Black girl with bullets, I would personally not cite the actions of racist mass murderer LBJ as a model to be emulated.) Enjeti also criticized protesters as somehow being in bed with corporations. If you watch and read enough of his work, you finally remember what Enjeti’s politics are: He’s pro-Trump, as evidenced by the fact that he proudly displays a picture of himself with the president on his Twitter profile.

And then we need to ask ourselves once again: What is this “right-wing populism,” exactly, with which we on the Left are supposed to comfortably ally ourselves? And if we get past our common criticisms of the Democratic establishment (which Trump makes too, and which he is often correct about), we remember that right-wing populism is simply the politics of Trump and Bolsonaro. It is racist, sexist, xenophobic. It is a giant fraud—Enjeti speaks of a politics that is “pro-worker” yet “socially conservative” (i.e., economically left but bigoted), but Trumpism isn’t even pro-worker. In practice, this politics leaves governing to the ultra-rich, people like Steven Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos, while gutting workplace safety regulations and trying to destroy workers’ ability to unionize. It is, as we can see from Enjeti and Trump’s approach to the current protests, not on the side of the dispossessed, but actually supports crushing them with the force of the state. It may sound a little socialist at times, but it is not the socialism of Karl Marx, who thought the workers of the world should unite. It is, instead, strictly nationalist. A kind of “national socialism,” if you will.

“Populism” has a somewhat honorable tradition—see Thomas Frank’s new book on the subject—and the U.S. populists have historically championed economic rights in many admirable ways. As this magazine has shown, figures like Huey Long are often treated as villains despite offering an agenda that is in many ways more radically fair than anything offered by the two major political parties today. But populists, including Long, have always had a terrible blind spot when it comes to racial justice, and it is far better to be an outright socialist. Socialists like Martin Luther King and the Black Panther Party have believed in radical economic equality but have also made it clear that specifically racial harms cannot be considered secondary issues. Their approach is “intersectional,” in that it is capable of seeing how there are multiple different vectors of injustice that operate in complex ways, rather than just a simple struggle between “the nation” and “the elites.” (In the right-wing framework, the “elites” often end up being cosmopolitans, immigrants, or Jews.) The intersectional approach is a more thoughtful, useful, and nuanced approach to thinking about social struggle, and is why Fred Hampton is a far better role model today than William Jennings Bryan. 

Let’s be clear about the implications of accepting the theory of politics presented in the Populist’s Guide to 2020. If we assume, as the book says, that the correct alliance is between the “new right” and “new left,” then Bernie Sanders supporters have more in common with Donald Trump than with Joe Biden. In fact, I think one could take away from this book that it would make more sense for the Left to vote for Trump than Biden. But this is madness: Trump represents everything we are trying to destroy. I have written before about the dangers of accepting “nationalism wrapped in socialist rhetoric,” in the context of reviewing Tucker Carlson’s book. Carlson, like Enjeti, rants about billionaire elites, but is also a racist whom the Daily Stormer has called their “greatest ally.” (Carlson blurbed The Populists’ Guide to 2020, alongside leftists like Nina Turner and Kyle Kulinski.) As Carlson’s reaction to these recent protests shows, these people are not our friends. Carlson has tried to terrify people into believing that “gangs of thugs” are coming to destroy their cities: 

We have watched as mobs of violent cretins have burned our cities, defaced our monuments, beaten old women in the street, shot police officers and stolen everything in sight — stealing everything… How many innocent Americans have these people hurt? How many have they murdered? We don’t know that number. But it’s the country itself that so many of us worry about at this point…. Their latest demand is that we eliminate the police entirely. No more law enforcement in this country. That would mean more power for the mob. They could do anything. It would mean never-ending terror for you and for your family. That’s why they want it.

Of course, Carlson has no interest in actually trying to comprehend the arguments being made by police and prison abolitionists, which are about reducing terror—they don’t want a country where people are free to be as violent as they like, they want a country where violence is actually prevented effectively through nonviolent methods rather than just dealt with after the fact through the counterproductive method of caging millions of people. Carlson has long tried to whip up the fears of aggrieved white people—and he makes clear he’s talking to white people, warning of the fact that a country that was “European, Christian, and English-speaking fifty years ago has become a place with no ethnic majority,” and now “your neighbors are different.” (They may be Iraqis, for instance, whom Carlson thinks are “semiliterate primitive monkeys.“) He scares them whatever way they can, from talking points like we don’t know many people protesters have hurt so let’s assume it’s too many to count to phony immigrant crime statistics. This is a politics of fear and bigotry that targets the weak and will never actually redistribute any power. 

The age-old labor question is “Which side are you on?” Carlson, Enjeti, Trump, Bolsonaro: They answer that question emphatically and openly. They are not on our side. They would use the might of the state against us. Right-wing “populism” is simply a lie and nobody who is on the Left should have anything to do with it.

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