The Danger of Right-Wing Populism

Shamus Cooke

A strange trend is appearing in the political realm of the Left. Self-proclaimed political conservatives — many current or former members of the Republican Party — are being given considerable room in Left publications, for example in Counterpunch and BuzzFlash. At first it seemed accidental, with only sporadic occurrences. Now these “renegade” right-wingers enjoy ample room in spaces formally reserved for “lefties only.”

How is this to be explained?

If you ask a self-proclaimed progressive why he or she admires a particular conservative pundit, you’ll most likely receive a list of “progressive” positions:

  • Against the Iraq War
  • Against free-trade (especially NAFTA)
  • Against Globalization
  • Against the bank bailouts
  • Against the Federal Reserve
  • Against restrictions on civil liberties

At first glance, then, members of the Left feel obliged to open their arms to these strange bedfellows, who feel more like first cousins than traditional enemies. If, however, one looks under their gleaming progressive garments, an unreformed wolf emerges.

Who are the wolves in question? 

A short list may include: Ron Paul, Craig Paul Roberts, and Pat Buchanan.

A quick biography of each person is necessary to put their politics in the correct context, especially since none of the three have renounced their political past.

Ron Paul is a long time Republican congressmen in the House of Representatives, while at the same time being a self-professed Libertarian — the party in which he ran for president in 1988. Paul is extremely religious, strongly anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and incredibly anti-immigration (he regularly refers to immigrant workers as “the illegals”). Paul once famously stated “that 95 percent of the black males in Washington, DC are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” In ’92, Paul was an advisor for Pat Buchanan’s Republican Presidential campaign and more recently ran for the Republican nomination in 2008. Paul became a true name brand when, in 2003, he voted against the Iraq War Resolution.

Craig Paul Roberts is primarily an economist, and in that capacity was chosen to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan. While in this position, he played a critical role in implementing the 1981 Tax Act, which was the first of two tax cuts — under Reagan — for the super rich to the tune of a 42% reduction, while overall taxes for the lowest tax bracket were raised 1%. Roberts has only fond memories of the Reagan administration. Roberts too has Libertarian leanings and has served as a “Distinguished Fellow” for the Cato institute, a right-wing think-tank. He has been a severe critic of President Bush, which gives him credentials with liberals. His syndicated column circulates widely over the internet.

Pat Buchanan is an old school Republican having gained notoriety for being a close advisor and speechwriter for Nixon. During the Reagan years he served as the White House Communications Director, where his principal task was to garner support for the US-backed military intervention in Nicaragua. Buchanan is a proud co-founder of the infamous “culture war” rhetoric of the right-wing, which primarily pits white US Christians against anyone else, especially immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, and “Zionists.” For this, Buchanan has earned the praise and influenced the ideas not only of Christian fundamentalists, but white nationalist groups (Nazis), who regularly post links to him — as well as to Ron Paul — on their websites. Like Paul, Buchanan has solid links to the ultra-right, theocratic Constitution Party. Buchanan, like the above two, has earned praise from liberals for being against the Iraq war, while being staunchly anti-“neoconservative” — all three refer to themselves as “real” Conservatives.

The right-wing populist formula is a simple one, and the above three — and to a lesser degree CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs and billionaire Ross Perot — have mastered it.

As Wikipedia states: “The strategy of right-wing populism relies on a combination of ethno-nationalism with anti-elitist (populist) rhetoric and a radical critique of existing political institutions.

The question remains: how does the strategy of right-wing populism interconnect with the above list of “progressive” political positions?

The most crucial link between the two is the concept of nationalism. Nationalism applied to economics has serious implications. In practice, economic nationalism equals protectionism: placing taxes on goods entering the US or subsidizing US corporations for better market performance. If one is against globalization and free-trade, while staying within a capitalistic framework, protectionism (nationalism) becomes the only real alternative.

But protectionism comes with a price. Not only the inevitably higher prices of inflation, but subservience to corporations within the US national borders. If a large US corporation is a poor competitor on the global market, its owners quickly become rabid advocates of protectionism. Likewise, if a worker advocates protectionism, whether consciously or not (such as some argue in favor of the idea of “fair trade””), they are essentially aligning themselves with the fate of “their” native corporations versus “foreign” ones. The worker is thus left without an independent political perspective, and is apt to view foreign workers as opponents, the same as US corporations view their foreign competitors.

Nothing pleases the billionaire shareholder more than hearing that union officials are working together with management towards better “market competitiveness.” This strategy of owner/worker cooperation has been proven decidedly bankrupt for workers, who are blamed for the uncompetitiveness of “their” corporation, and thus punished with wage and benefit cuts, as is happening currently with GM workers, as well as with many others.

It must also be emphasized that, under capitalism, putting up trade barriers is a serious international matter. The countries whose goods are being excluded likewise put up trade barriers in retaliation, and goods and raw materials that were once freely traded (relatively) on the world market must be attained through other means. This complete breakdown in international relations, itself beginning with the breakdown of the world economy, logically leads in the direction of war. The right-wing populist clearly understands this, but is driven to economic protectionism not by choice but by the corporate interests that he ultimately represents.

Why does right-wing populism emerge at all?

In normal times, when capitalism is functioning without crisis, there is little room for the far right. When capitalism does enter crisis, the political parties subservient to corporate interests evolve accordingly. This is why both the Democrats and Republicans have been veering to the right for decades; it represents the deterioration of American capitalism’s global position, which is related to the inability of US corporations to maintain their past rates of profit. When an economic crisis intensifies, as it is now, not only does the ruling class require a new political path, but a new vehicle too.

In the 1980’s, when Japanese and European corporations successfully “caught up” with many US companies, Pat Buchanan prophetically remarked that “there was a political vacuum to the right of Reagan.”

Buchanan and the other right-wing populists strove to fill that gap. Foreseeing that the so-called neo-conservative movement in the Republican Party was headed for utter failure (because of losing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), the right-wing populists began a campaign of radical rhetoric, denouncing everything within the existing two-party system. They are not against wars in general — since they happily supported the war in Afghanistan — but against, as Obama put it, “dumb wars.” As the economic crisis deepens, the rhetoric of the ultra-right will continue to radicalize likewise.

This anti-government speechifying can resonate in the ears of many workers, since they have a valid deep-seated suspicion of the two-party system, not to mention the many other institutions the rich use to rule over the
majority — the Federal Reserve, CIA, electoral college, the judicial system, the police, etc.

And while the far right says they are against most government institutions, they are primarily against business regulation, public education, the social safety net, and against whatever else that reduces the profits of the corporations they serve. And this is where the different groups of the far right — Libertarians, Constitution Party, “real” conservatives, etc. — sing a hymn together in perfect harmony.

They loudly condemn government to the masses, while quietly idealizing both the market economy and “private property” to their corporate backers. Private property is, to them, not the home you live in, but the giant corporation owned by an individual or small group. In their idealized society, there would be no limit to the mega-employers greed for profits: no minimum wage, no social security, no workers’ protection, no social safety net, etc. The majority of people would naturally rebel against this, requiring the “free-market” idolaters to quickly reestablish all the old, “repressive” institutions.

Since the right-wing has ultimately the interests of the rich in mind, they must resort to radical rhetoric to secure a mass base, while distracting their followers away from the source of their seething anger – capitalism. This is the same reason that they pander not only to religion, but also to ignorant racists by focusing on immigration, condemning both homosexuality and Islam, while ranting against “multiculturalism.”

Unfortunately, the radical rhetoric has fooled a great many workers into supporting the cause of the right-wing populist. This rhetoric, combined with the poor education many schools and unions provide — since the union bureaucrat benefits from the status quo — not to mention the limited perspective of most progressive organizations, makes large sections of the working class especially vulnerable to these radical appearing ideas.

The need, therefore, to be able to distinguish between the political essence of Left versus Right is fast becoming critical. As the recession deepens, the far Right will use their rhetoric and large donors to gather strength. Unmasking their “progressive” positions for what they are is paramount if their true role in support of their capitalist masters is to be exposed. No alliances can be made with this dangerous group.

Below the progressive phrases of the ultra right lie class interests, and explaining the fundamentally opposed relationship between worker and owner is crucial if we are to prevent their ideas from developing a mass base capable of being transformed into fascist reaction.

Workers should not adopt the ideology of their employers. We need one that is radically different in essence, not only in appearance. Luckily, such a perspective already exists, and is ultimately the only path that strikes at the root of capitalism — socialism. Workers do not need owners, managers, or bureaucrats; we are capable of running society ourselves.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action. He can be reached at portland@workerscompass.org