The nightmare is finally over.
Or is it?
In his inauguration speech Biden reminded us that democracy is fragile.
Consider just some of Biden’s huge remit.
- Firstly, he has to sort out the joint crises of Covid, racial tensions and a trashed domestic economy. Failure to conquer these mountains simultaneously will be swiftly judged by all political sides in the US.
- Secondly, Trump’s continued malign influence has been bolstered by the failure to impeach him. Trumpism isn’t going away.
- Thirdly, nondemocratic countries are still gloating over the bad light cast over US democracy by the Capitol Hill debacle and the impeachment failure.
But where does the UK government stand on this? Biden seems surrounded by hyenas. Is our ‘rump Trumpocracy’ one of them?
The official Tory response to Biden’s win is ‘relief’ and, for some, this seems genuine. Sajid Javid and the former foreign office minister, Sir Alan Duncan, both viewed Trump as an embarrassment to global politics and welcome the constructive relationship promised by Biden’s administration. But what of the “Backtrackers”, those Tory politicians who, being ideologically aligned with Trump, supported him whilst he was in power but hurriedly switched the narrative when they realised he was going to lose?
The relationship between the Backtracker wing of the Tory party and Trump was not so much one of mere diplomatic appeasement of a powerful leader but of outright “sycophancy” (Lisa Nandy) based on ideological communality of purpose. During Trump’s reign Rees-Mogg claimed in The Times that without him “the US would be seeking to frustrate Brexit … The red carpet that is laid out must be spotless and the evidence of our close relationship on clear display”. Similarly, in 2019 Johnson paid tribute to Trump’s work in supporting free market economics and later in a Byline Times article praised Trump for ‘Making America Great Again’.
These politicians are making the right pro-Biden noises now, but with a very different backstory – the official line belies a quiet dismay that their all-powerful Brexit buddy has been deposed. MSN reported in September 2020 that:
So, despite the official line, it becomes difficult to see how the current UK government can wholeheartedly support Biden’s vision.
Let us be free to control You
Being a self-serving weather vane, Backtracker Johnson will court Biden while he must. They will be chummy enough at the G7 summit on climate policy. But Biden is opposed to Brexit and on domestic issues the differences are stark. Contrast his immigration reform bill that provides an 8 year path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people with the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ and strict entry controls for low skilled immigrants. Differences such these as remind us that Johnson is ideologically twinned not with Biden but with Trump. Both are populist leaders who share a mendacious disregard for the truth and willingness to employ illicit tactics such as Cambridge Analytica’s in order to acquire power. They have also both successfully harnessed nationalist, racial and xenophobic anxieties and forged these into isolationist, divisive ideologies, as displayed in their joint enthusiasm for the Brexit project and abusive styles of governance.
This shared ideology is worryingly highlighted by the current political concern over ‘silencing’. According to Hardeep Matharu, there is a clear parallel between the US right-wing complaint that ‘the true conservative American voice is being silenced’ and the UK Tory ‘anti woke crusade’. The left in both countries is portrayed as a censorious, intolerant mob intent on declaring war on free speech. Trump’s MAGA tribe see themselves as fighting to stop the voice of White Christian America from being silenced by alien progressive forces, including immigrants, Muslims, anti-racist protestors, feminists, intellectuals and urban elites. Similarly, the Tory Backtrackers’ anti woke crusade aims to protect the expression of traditional right-wing ideology and values (on free market capitalism, sovereignty, freedom from state control, white racial dominance etc) from suppression by dangerous socialist forces such as BLM and LBGT rights. The Tory aim is to silence the progressive narrative by imposing legal controls that, for example, prevent ‘no platforming’ of speakers at universities.
However, the ‘free speech’ premise is a straw man – research has failed to throw up any significant incidents of ‘no platforming’ in the UK. The worry that speakers are regularly not being allowed to express their views freely is a “pseudo crisis” according to Sam Fowles in Owen Jones’ discussion The Tory War on Free Speech). Similarly, the idea that the US conservative narrative has been silenced is a myth since it is the dominant US media voice.
The ‘free speech’ argument is also inherently self-contradictory since to legally require platforms to publish any content is also to deny our freedom to reject it. Ultimately the government’s proposal here is to expand the power of the state to tell people what they can and can’t say and so to censor speech they deem undesirable and force platforms to publish content which may be offensive (e.g. racist, anti-trans, xenophobic). The intention to suppress the progressive narrative whilst promoting conservative ideology was neatly illustrated by educator, Katherine Birbalsingh, recently on Any Questions where, in defence of the ‘free speech’ crusade, she insisted that the point of education is to teach children “how to think” but not to “inspire revolutionaries, which is happening in our schools far too often”.
Should we worry? Isn’t the free speech debate just a bit of cultural fluff around the edges of central economic policy making? We should be concerned, mainly because the Tory government is now bullet proof with their 80 seat majority and their iron grip on the mainstream media. No-one gets fired for mistakes, any dissent is stamped out, content is controlled and cultural criticism is suppressed. So we now have, for example, the scrapping of unconscious bias training, fines for universities who deny platforms to speakers, and legal permission for speakers who are no platformed to sue. ‘Free speech’ regulation is a new arm of the mainstream media’s propaganda programme introduced to secure the right wing’s continuing leadership. It is an “Absolutist version of a collective narrative that requires unconditional assent” (from Wokelore to Folklore, Byline Times).
Silence and violence
The UK and US anxieties just described are fuelled by a sense of victimhood. If traditional conservative values are being aggressively silenced by the progressive left, then the upholders of these values are under threat of a conspiracy to overthrow them. Thus Tories regard themselves as victims unable to say what they really think – the “war on woke won’t be won until it is no longer toxic to admit you are a conservative” laments Alastair Heath, Telegraph editor. Similarly, white, conservative America describes itself as “muzzled” by political correctness.
But victimhood sets the stage for violence. Trump (or Trumpism) is arguably even more dangerous now he has been deposed. The ‘Big Lie’ in which progressive, woke forces stole his election, together with the unsuccessful impeachment, have massively ramped up grievance amongst his supporters at his ‘outrageous treatment’. 30% of Republican voters and 120 House Republicans expressed support for those who carried out the deadly attack on the US says Heidi Siegmund Cuda.
Right wing groups in the UK and US are colourfully varied but there are parallels between the extremists – between the MAGA louts, white supremacists and militia types and our national front style, union jack tattooed tribes who patrol the streets protecting our Brexit utopia, our sovereignty and our statues from ‘all things foreign’. These tribes are, after all, only doing their party’s bidding where, for example, by protecting statues they are “saving our history from Woke Militants” (Jenrick). The FBI warned that right wing extremism posed a significantly greater terror threat than that associated with violent jihadism (C.J. Werleman). The UK hasn’t seen Capitol Hill style violence. But the difference may be, in part, because the Republican extremists lost their leader, whereas ours have, so far, got what they wanted – their Johnson and their Brexit. Johnson has, of course, condemned the riots but only insofar as it even makes sense to condemn “a kerfuffle” (Boris Johnson).
Mendacity and devotion
Despite the fact that Trumpism is increasingly mobilizing around nationalism, white supremacy, evangelicalism and wild conspiracy theories, 43 Republican senators were not prepared to impeach Trump and this is a powerful statement of intent. The impeachment trial was a potential ‘own goal’ for genuine democracy because it presented an opportunity to finally reject the threats to democratic freedoms associated with Trump’s reign. And with co-operation it could have happened. Yet it didn’t. So powerful is the Trumpian ideology that Republicans were prepared to jeopardise world peace in order to sustain it. (Joaquin Castro, impeachment speech). Inevitably, Johnson and his Backtrackers are attracted by the watertight mendacity of a movement that is so strong it can sidestep potential global harm whilst claiming to speak in the name of democracy.
Conclusion: into the abyss we go?
Democracy as represented by US politics remains fragile because Biden not only has uniquely huge obstacles to surmount but also remains vulnerable from within and without. Trumpism lives on. All of the ‘Big Lies’ – Brexit, rigged elections, cultural theft of free speech – were won by “fuelling people’s darker instincts: xenophobia, racism, scapegoating, loss of white supremacy” (Hardeep Matharu). Despite the Tory Backtrackers’ ‘official line’, they have been emboldened both by their majority and the continuing influence of Trumpism. Their deep alignment with Trump ideology means that they may pay no more than lip service to Biden’s approach and policies. He is more likely become an obstacle to their desire to take control of the cultural narrative and to suppress opposition. The more strident they become in their pursuit of a closed British right wing culture free from dissent, the more potential there is for Biden to be viewed as a hinderance.
Biden’s democratic vision appears to be as antithetical to the backtracker Tories as it is to Trumpism and since these two hyenas share the same end game they may collaborate on Biden’s removal in 2024. To quote C J Werleman in Bylines Times (5 February 2021):
“Trump will remain the party’s king-maker, with the entire right wing media willing to follow [him] and his supporters into … a dystopian hellscape of white supremacy and paranoid conspiracy theory …”
Despite appearances, the US and UK could be jumping into this “hellscape” together, holding hands.
The UK opposition must do all it can during the window of opportunity offered by Biden’s presidency to strengthen Labour’s ties with his administration and work together towards protecting both our democracies against attack from the right.