When Will We Stop Normalizing Far-Right Politics?
by Lucy Kelly
Evelyn Hockstein 2021 / Washington Post
Pictured: Pro-Trump protestors storming the Captiol building on the 6th of January 2021.
Following the storming of capitol hill, when the world watched as far right groups infiltrated the head of the US government, Trump made an ominous declaration that he would “be back in some form”. The rise of the far-right across America and the western world predates Trump, but they were certainly emboldened by his presidency. “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” These words spoken by Donald Trump on the 15th of August 2017 following the murder of Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi. On 29th September 2020, Trump told the neo-Nazi group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” These examples show a failure to condemn white supremacy and the far-right; this truly highlights the normalisation of far-right ideologies in current politics and society. How likely is this normalisation to persevere despite Trump's removal from office?
Academic Kevin Passmore defines fascism as a “movement of the radical right”, fascists are “pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism”. Defining characteristics of the far-right include white supremacy, xenophobia, ultranationalism, homophobia, and transphobia. The ideologies of groups within the far-right are often associated with the fascism described by Passmore, Nazism and Nativist ideas (protecting the interests of the ‘native’ people of a nation over immigrants). When in political power the policies of far-right parties lead to the oppression of minorities and eventually genocide, as demonstrated in Nazi Germany.
Bettmann 1939 / Getty Images Plus
Pictured: Swastika banners hailed by German American Bund members as they are paraded at a rally in Madison Square Garden, 1939.
The actual term ‘far-right’ was coined in France following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and was used as a way to describe those who were in staunch opposition of the Bolsheviks. Whilst the term originated in the twentieth century, the ideology first began to rise in prominence in the latter half of the nineteenth century following the end of the United States Civil War in 1965 with the founding of the KKK in the same year. The organisation aimed to overthrow the Republican governments imposed on the former Confederate states and to suppress the votes of the newly freed African Americans. During the 1930s, the fascist group Silver Legion of America became increasingly influential gaining 15,000 members by 1934.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the UK, the far-right movement came as a result of the Italian fascist movement with the formation of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. While their historical timelines may not seem to correspond, there are striking similarities between both the UK and US far-right movements.
During the century and a half following the end of the US Civil War, the far-right remained prominent in the US, with the KKK making multiple comebacks at different points during the early twentieth centuries. However, It was the Presidency of Donald Trump that began to normalise the far-right in power following the beliefs fall from the mainstream in the 1960s with the peak of the US Civil Rights Movement. Far-right beliefs were thus normalized and entrenched into society through law.
In Britain, the BNP began to increase votes in elections, culminating in 2 BNP MEPs being elected to the European parliament in 2009. It was this election in the UK, where the far-right were legitimised to a greater extent (potentially inspiring the current Tory government to move further politically right). In the defence of Yorkshire and Humber, where BNP MEP Andrew Brons was elected, they elected Magid Magid—a Somali refugee and the former Green Party Lord Mayor of Sheffield—in the same seat a decade later. While this is only a small step it helps in providing a small speck of hope at a time where the far-right is increasingly being embodied by our politicians in power.
The most obvious far-right racist immigration policy of the Trump administration is the attempts to create a border wall along the US-Mexico border. Executive Order 13767 stated that Trump would veto any spending bill that did not give $5 billion for his border wall. Congress refused, which led to a government shutdown between December 22, 2018, and January 25, 2019. In a January 8 2019 speech, in the middle of the shutdown, he said that 90% of the heroin in the US “floods across our Southern border”. While this is both factually untrue and characterises the racism in the White House, it helped to bring far-right ideologies to the orefront of party politics and into the interest of the American public.
However, it isn’t just Trump who helps to gain the support from white supremacists. Steve Bannon—former White House Chief Strategist and former executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News—was arrested in August 2020 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in relation to the We Build the Wall fundraising campaign. The money raised by a public GoFundMe to fund the border wall was found to be going towards Bannon and the people who worked on the campaign with him rather than the campaign itself. Bannon’s attempts at fraud begin to highlight how the far-right has managed to infiltrate national politics and manipulate the public’s opinion on immigration.
Jim Lo Scalzo 2021 / Shutterstock
Pictured: Pro-Trump protestors storming the Captiol building on the 6th of January 2021.
The UK’s far-right alliances have shown themselves through immigration policies as well. In 2020, the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel reportedly looked into sending those who tried to seek asylum in the UK to a processing centre on Ascension Island (a small island 4,000 miles away from the UK in the South Atlantic Ocean). This position is similar to Australia’s controversial Christmas Island policy—a detention centre where in 2015 riots broke out following the death of Iranian asylum seeker Fazel Chegeni.
Patel doubled down on this position in August 2020 with a tweet that stated “I know that when the British people say they want to take back control of our borders – this is exactly what they mean”. This tweet came in response to the Home Office requesting help from the Defence Ministry for help prevent refugees crossing the English Channel from France to the UK. Inevitably, the support for this tweet, as well as the 2016 Brexit vote both help to legitimise the views of far-right groups and politicians as these propositions are perceived as rational by some members of the British public rather than cruel and unjust.
In 2020, White House senior advisor Steven Miller—the advisor who helped to shape Trump’s controversial Muslim Ban in 2017—was added to the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s (SPLC) list of political extremists. Miller reportedly is a fan of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson which yet again highlights the similarities between the UK and US governments. Steven Miller’s position in the Trump White House—as well as the alleged relationship between Miller and Boris Johnson—helps to show how members of the far-right being in power has become normalised in today’s society, with little to no questions being asked about his involvement in governmental policy between 2016 and 2020 by either moderate Republicans or the Democratic leadership.
The support of right-wing extremists like Steven Miller help show how the British government is also not innocent in this situation. While Boris Johnson is referring to Muslim women wearing burkas as “letter boxes”, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is speaking at far-right conferences. Both Rees-Mogg and UKIP MEP Gerard Butler have spoken at the annual conference of the far-right Traditional Britain Group (a London based group that aims to give the far-right a more respectable image). Whilst Rees-Mogg later apologised for his appearance following pressure, it does not take away from the fact that he spoke at the same event as American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. As with Trump, Boris Johnson’s seemingly joking racism hides an underlying more sinister far-right presence within the British government.
While both Johnson and Rees-Mogg have been called out for their statements or involvement with far-right organisations, the levels of power they currently hold within government (Johnson has been Prime Minister since 2019 and Rees-Mogg has been the Leader of the Commons since the same year), suggest these have had little to no effect on their success, further legitimising the beliefs of the far-right.
With the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the far-right has become increasingly emboldened and incorporated into mainstream politics and society as well. The move into the mainstream helps to legitimise the beliefs of far-right politicians—including Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel. It is these platforms that help to spread disinformation quickly and to a wide range of people. This was very effective due to the lack of regulation of social media posts, meaning that posts with far-right messages can be circulated quickly and to wide audiences. Fortunately Twitter and other social media have started to actively ban certain politicians from their platforms. However, the damage has already been done - radicalisation of citizens by politicians and far-right groups online has had a direct impact on the lives of sitting politicians both in the UK and the US.
In June 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox was assassinated by Thomas Mair, a member of the far-right who had connections to the American alt-right group National Alliance. Mair had purchased instructions on how to build bombs and a copy of Ich Kämpf (a book given to every member of the Nazi party in 1945). In the US there was an attempt to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, by 14 members of the far-right extremist group Wolverine Watchmen. Both the assassination of Jo Cox and the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer highlight the radicalisation of ordinary citizens by online extremists. Both events were subsequently glorified by far-right media, which further indoctrinated people into the movement by misleading people into thinking that these crimes were the ‘correct’ thing to do.
While Joe Biden might have won the 2020 election, that does not mean that the far-right in America will immediately disappear this January with his new presidency. Arguably, one of things we need as a society to help delegitimize and stop the spread of far-right ideologies is more regulations on social media platforms—attempts to curb the circulation of misinformation and hate speech. This is necessary for the protection of both minority groups and modern democracy (as we have seen throughout the 2020 Presidential election campaign). Web regulations are needed in order to protect the young and vulnerable from being indoctrinated into far-right groups through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Inevitably, with the increased importance of social media in our lives, the far-right will carry on recruiting members—members that support the previous Republican and current Conservative far-right governments - as well as more extremist groups.