First published 31 August 2020 on Lit
While watching the circus formerly known as the Republican National Convention (RNC), which ended with a ‘Triumph of the Swill’ rally on the White House lawn, one couldn’t help but feel that President Trump was providing a cautionary tale for English conservatism. This bizarre spectacle and its political health is surely the logical conclusion of the “culture war” politics that right-wingers in the UK hope to import.
The premise of conservative culture war is that the real political struggle in society is not, say, the struggle between workers and bosses, but that of people who eat at Pret, read the Guardian, and voted Remain (the “liberal elite”), against those who drink beer, watch telly and voted Leave (“the people”). You’ll see immediately how the categories don’t hold up under the mildest interrogation or reflect any known reality. And that’s the point. The culture war paradigm exists not to illuminate but to distort and to obscure.
Who are the chief distorters? In this country the charge against the “liberal elite” has been led by right-wing newspapers and columnists, including Boris Johnson, who rode the horse of anti-political correctness all the way to Downing Street. But look where that gets you. Matt Gaetz, Republican congressman for Florida, used the RNC platform to warn US voters that the “woketopians” pulling Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s strings will “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 [a Los Angeles crime gang] to live next door”. In a condensed form, and changing the references, this could be an editorial in the Daily Mail.
Charlie Kirk, founder and president of the right-wing Turning Point USA group, made similar noises in his speech. “Trump is the bodyguard of western civilization”, he said, which certainly does make one fear for western civilization, though not in the way Kirk intended. He went on: “Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighbourhoods, schools, churches, and values.” The same notion of a liberal threat to one’s familial security ran through the speeches, including those by the Trump family players, the von Trumps, for whom ‘the hills are alive with the sound of Weimar’.
It’s a sign of how desensitised to right-wing populism we’ve become that even liberal media write-ups failed to call this by its right name: incitement, both against a phantom red terror, and, given the context, against black Americans. If you think, like me, that Joe Biden’s rhetoric about “a battle for the soul of America” and the forces of darkness and light, or the nasty elements within the protest movement, are too much of an echo of their opponents for comfort, consider this: at least the dangers of tyranny and racist violence they are mobilised against are objectively real.
Back in Britain, we find the forces of conservatism, having done such a wonderful job of everything else, are bravely standing up to a trickle of migrants and refugees in dinghies, and declaring a jihad against the BBC over whether the Proms will sing Rule Britannia. Both of these “issues”, incidentally, have been stirred up by that great patriot, Nigel Farage, whose gifts to this country never cease. Before he staged his own comically enthusiastic rendition of the national anthem, Farage spent the summer visiting hotels in search of migrants, (a wheeze taken up by the neo-fascist group Britain First). How lovely to see that some activism at least can influence government policy and get you invited onto television.
But wait! Isn’t there something else the Conservative government should be doing? Apparently not, according to right-wing pundits, who have been staging their own twilight operation against the true enemy of our time — lockdown, masks, and other COVID-related temporary restrictions to protect public health.
Spectator columnist and Boris-fancier Toby Young has made opposing lockdown his summer project, complete with a dating service for “lockdown sceptics”. Further out to sea, Breitbart’s James Delingpole has posted photos of himself valiantly going to the shops without a mask, using the hashtag ‘KeepBritainFree’. And the ex-Marxist “libertarians” of Spiked have refined COVID contrarianism to an art, if that art were a pantomime consisting only of saying “Oh no it isn’t”.
As with the maskless crowds that huddled together on the White House lawn to hear Donald Trump tell them how brilliantly he’s handling the pandemic, this is surely the peak of anti-political correctness: spreading (or contracting) a deadly virus “to own the liberals”. Take that, speech police!
The element of fraudulence in all this is unmistakable. That Steve Bannon, the supposed mastermind of Trump’s bid for the white working class vote, should be arrested on a yacht for allegedly stealing money meant to build Trump’s border wall with Mexico, is the perfect image for this Art of the Grift presidency. So to with the attention-seekers and Fake Views artists on the British right. Do they really believe their schtick about the masks, the migrants, and the Proms? I suspect they’ve probably convinced themselves that they do. They certainly have a financial incentive to express ridiculous opinions, if not to hold them.
Speak of the devil, here’s the Prime Minister, sticking it to the man and defending our sacred Proms: “I just want to say — and they’re trying to restrain me from saying this” he began, without identifying “they”. “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness. I wanted to get that off my chest.” Pow! You tell ’em, Bozza!
The Prime Minister is not known for bouts of self-recrimination. Indeed, he has a marked reticence to take responsibility for anything, leaving the criticism to his abandoned wives and betrayed colleagues and voters. But here’s the crux: are we supposed not to notice that the super-patriots bloviating about Churchill statues and Rule Britannia are the same people who have failed to safeguard public health during this pandemic, and who led the Brexit campaign to remove Britain from the world’s largest trading block and most powerful political union?
Never mind that! Plans are underway for a Fox News equivalent for the UK. Finally, the British public will have an opportunity to hear right-wing opinions. Meanwhile, if you want a glimpse of where this all leads, pull up that video from the White House and watch the “anti-elitist” President — whose kulturkampf has seen a deadly virus take 170,000 souls and who has deployed “elite” soldiers to bloody unarmed protesters—vowing to take on the awesome power of “cultural Marxism” and political correctness. (What the actual victims of racist violence and extremist ideology think of this gruesome spectacle, one can’t really imagine.)
Britain’s conservative culture warriors should take a good look at this and beware of what they seem to want. It’s little wonder they make such a fuss about national anthems, statues and border police. When they’ve finished with the country, it’s about all we’ll have left.