Liberalism, racism, and reactionaries: An interview with Dr. Aurelien Mondon and Dr. Aaron Winter

A photo of British prime minister Boris Johnson and US president Donald Trump, both of whom have overseen a rise in racism, reactionary politics as well as highlighting the problems inherent in liberalism.

One would have hoped that lessons of the past have been learned and that a return to far-right extremism is impossible. Unfortunately, the last few years have burst that particularly naive bubble. Liberal democracy’s hold over society is more unstable than many would have liked to imagine. 

Viktor Orbán’s rule in Hungary, Brexit, the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency in the US, as well as the increasingly public presence of the far right on streets across Europe has shown as much. Reactionaries are having their day in the sun. Understanding why this has happened is key to combatting the very real threat that faces us. 

Reactionary democracy

One new book hopes to clarify these problems, the threat posed by the far right, as well as the issues inherent in liberalism which have allowed racism to fester. And, perhaps most importantly, the role of the media in “mainstreaming” extremism is tackled.

Written by Dr. Aurelien Mondon and Dr. Aaron Winter, Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream is essential reading for academics, activists, and journalists alike.With the possibility of a Trump victory in November, it’s all the more relevant.

I spoke to Mondon and Winter about their book, liberalism’s history of racism, and, amongst other things, the threat posed by Donald Trump.

What prompted you to write the book in the first place? Was there a particular incident or a general trend in society that provided the impetus?

The book is the outcome of a lot of discussions between us, smaller pieces we have written and a shared concern about the mainstreaming of racism and the far right at the current historical juncture. We are interested in the emboldening of overt and harmful racism and far-right activism, but also the ways in which the far right has been used to distract from systemic racism and injustice within liberal societies, and how liberalism, which we argue allowed for this mainstreaming, has been held up as a bulwark against it. 

It is an attempt to get to the issue of racism underlying liberal and far-right narratives and distractions. We would also add that this is not just in the political and media spheres, but within academic scholarship. 

Aurelien: It is an attempt to challenge misconceptions about the far right, populism and democracy more generally. For example, it is often argued that the rise of the far right is linked to its growing popularity amongst the “left behind”. This is not only a simplistic and inaccurate account of the situation, as much of the support for far-right parties and politics comes from the middle and upper classes, but a dangerous one as it portrays the far right as somehow embodying the will of the people rather than the elite interests it has at heart. At the same time, it erases the diversity that is core to the working class. 

This book was therefore a logical progression of my research to date and interest in mapping the way in which certain terms, concepts and narratives have been used to legitimise and mainstream far-right politics and reaction more generally. What is at stake here is not just the rise of the far right, but the limitation of our democratic horizons to a battle between the far right and the liberal centre, even though the latter has often been on the wrong side of history with regard to progressive politics and shares responsibility in the perpetuation of reactionary politics such as systemic racism.

Aaron: It is an attempt to critically challenge Terrorism and Far Right Studies which amplify the extreme and neglect the mainstream and systemic racism. In fact, they often assist and enable the state in counter-terrorism and securitisation that disproportionately impacts racialised communities that the far right also targets. This, while purporting to address the rise in far-right extremism that they may legitimise through their rhetoric and policies. We see this performative contradiction most recently in the ways that the government and far right share a defence of statues and Britain’s historical racism

In addition to this, it is an attempt by us to challenge both Political Science and Sociological approaches which legitimise white working class “left behind” narratives that the far right employs and the mainstream uses to justify racist policies in the name of democracy and votes. For us, this a key factor in mainstreaming. 

In the introduction you write that the threat of the far right has been “exaggerated”. Has your assessment of that changed since the book has been published?

To be clear, we do believe that the far right is a threat and very serious one indeed. What we mean in the introduction is that the far right, which has come to represent racism in post-war and post-race narratives has been used as a distraction from mainstream and systemic racism. It has allowed the mainstream elite to ignore the role they play in perpetuating racist and unequal practices and systems which they benefit from. 

Instead, attention is drawn to extreme forms of racism which excuse less obviously visible ones. It is for this reason that mainstream opposition to the far right often takes the form of platforming them to “expose” their ideas and adopting more moderate versions of their ideas into policy to fend off any electoral challenge. This manifests in anti-immigration and anti-Muslim policies that harm people. The question is, does the far right, as dangerous as it may be, cause the harm that the hostile environment does? 

If the threat of the far right was not amplified and exaggerated by the media and commentariat, often using problematic public opinion data, would the mainstream parties feel the same need to ramp up the racist rhetoric, implement such policies and cause such damage — often in the name of saving us from the far right? That is not to say they wouldn’t, as Trump has, legitimise the far right and welcome it into the mainstream fold and power. That is also a very dangerous situation.

One of the more interesting distinctions made in the book is between illiberal racism and liberal racism. If I’m understanding it correctly, the former is linked to “‘traditional’ racism” such as the Ku Klux Klan, Islamophobia; generally more blatant racism. The latter is associated with the inherent contradictions of the liberal democratic order such as the fact that it rests on a foundation of inequality along economic, but especially racial and ethnic, lines that goes unnoticed. And it involves the concept of free speech being used as an excuse to platform racists and racist ideas. 

Yes, although to clarify, illiberal racism includes traditional racism and what are seen as remnants of that traditional, now unacceptable, order in a liberal context. These include the far or extreme right, hate crimes, defences of slavery (and monuments to it), and race science. It should also be noted that what we describe as illiberal racism is a liberal construct that serves to represent racism as past, extreme and unacceptable. It is particularly those forms that liberalism claims to have rejected, if not defeated, such as fascism. 

Its function is to distract from or conceal the systemic, structural and institutional racism that remains core to liberal societies. Ironically, this includes systemic inequalities and injustices that are legacies of the traditional racist order, such as institutional racism in policing. The fact that liberals celebrate “post-race” or “colourblindness” merely confirms its function. 

Why is it important to make the distinction given that, as is mentioned in the book, the borders between the two are “fuzzy”?

This is key. We conceive of these concepts as not only functional, but mutually dependant. Illiberal racism is a liberal construct that, by intention or effect, displaces racism onto historical or extreme manifestations as a way of denying racism within liberalism or our structures and institutions. It is central to both defences of liberalism in the post-war period (1960s in the US) and “post-race” and “colourblind” narratives that have dominated since Obama’s election in particular. 

The fuzziness we refer to is where this distinction either collapses or is exposed as false. This can be in the case of Trumpism following the Obama era which not only exposes the fallacy of post-race, but ushers in an era where the far right is emboldened and mainstreamed. 

Another example is where liberal Islamophobia, focusing on free speech, gives way to illiberal state securitisation practices or hate crime, such as that seen following the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Another is when liberals either platform the far right in the name of free speech or, as Hilary Clinton argued in the pages of the Guardian, call for greater immigration controls to fend of the threat from something further right and far worse. 

It’s mentioned that the popularised notion of the public turning to the far right because it has been “left behind” is incorrect and, as such, is used to attribute malice to the public that isn’t deserved. On the other hand, you also wrote that “our governing elite has become increasingly disconnected from the rest of the population, and ever more unrepresentative, allowing so-called populists to claim to be representative of people”. 

But doesn’t this imply that the public has indeed been “left behind”, with the result being an opening for the far right to exploit? And don’t we see an increase in the popularity of the far right as a result, even if it has, as you’ve said, been “exaggerated”?

There is no doubt that large sections have been left behind, and one can only look at the levels of abstention in the last US election or even in the Brexit referendum when 27% of voters decided not to vote in what was touted as the vote of a generation. Clearly, large swathes of the population no longer feel represented or that they have any stakes in electoral battles which are today commonly seen as the only democratic marker. This discontentment is not limited to non-voters, as many voters vote against their will for the least of two evils, think of Emmanuel Macron in France for example. 

In this context of growing inequalities, multiple crises, and with such widespread discontentment and constant coverage of its bread and butter issues, it is in fact telling that the far right does not do better than it does. Trump was elected with 26.7% of the registered vote, and far less if we include all the US citizens who have been pushed out of registers. As we argue, and as others have, it is not so much Trump who won but Clinton who lost. Similar patterns are replicated across many western democracies. 

Yet, instead of looking at the widespread anger, focus is placed on the far right, and often hypes and exaggerate their results, which both legitimises it, but also prevents us from looking at other alternatives. 

It is also important to note that who is “left behind” is not just or mainly white people. In fact, inequality and a lack of political representation disproportionately affects Black and minority ethnic people and immigrants. Those who are on the sharp end of austerity, employment discrimination, institutional racism in the criminal justice system and the far right. Yet, they do not figure in most “left behind” narratives except as scapegoats. 

Here in Ireland we’ve seen a noticeable rise in the popularity and threat of the far right in the last few years. A lot of the talking points are directly imported from the US, such as the use of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Financial and tactical support also appears to be coming from the US. Are similar patterns playing out in the UK and France? And how do you think a Trump victory in November will affect the far right in Europe in general?

We definitely see the spread of conspiracy theories and talking points, as well as protests in their name, internationally. A lot of this may be linked to social media and COVID measures, but also how much coverage the media affords them, whether to mock them and in ways that assume they are representative of a significant demographic. There are a number of media outlets and platforms which have legitimised the “more acceptable” sectors of anti-mask and anti-lockdown activism. Our concern is also the inequality of how heavily Black Lives Matter protests were policed and how cautiously compared to reactionary ones. 

A Trump victory would be very dangerous of course, but it is also important to note that the threat alone has led to a rejection of more radical left-wing alternatives in favour of liberal centrists who many believe can beat Trump. Even though 2016 should act as a cautionary tale, it also means a likely continuation of moderate racist policies and politics, and a further severing of the horizons of politics. 

We need radical alternatives to a politics where the far right are too often presented as the only alternative and liberal centrists are the only bulwark against the rise of fascism. It is on this point that we end the book. It is hard to imagine a change to this, but it is essential to strive for it.  

Reactionary Democracy can be purchased from Verso Books here.

Featured image via Flickr – The White House


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