Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 19 July 2021

Will the Trump/Johnson base lead to its destruction?


Republican Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul have said they will not get vaccinated. They are the tip of an anti-vax iceberg in the Republican party. Many Republican governors and legislators are repeating far-right messages denying the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines. Seventeen out of the 18 states with the lowest vaccination rates voted for Trump. This is one reason why the Delta variant could have a large impact on some parts of the US. The Republican party has become a kind of Russian roulette cult when it comes to the pandemic.

Needless to say this is a minority movement in the US. Most people say they have or will get vaccinated. So why are some prominent Republican politicians associating themselves with what will become a very unpopular position as Delta variant cases increase? In one sense this is nothing new, as we saw when most Republican politicians refused to disassociate themselves from Trump’s claim that he had won in 2020 and acknowledge Biden as the winner. Republican politicians that stood against Trump’s nonsense claims were condemned by the Republican base, and subsequently by the party.

This example shows how a minority view that is pretty unpopular in the country can gain influence on the right in the US. Most Republican politicians are scared of their base because of primary elections, and so to be elected (or nominated in presidential elections) they have to pander to this minority view. While appealing to the majority may be the ultimate step, they need to appeal to a minority to take the first step, and they hope that appeal is effectively forgotten or ignored when they face the electorate at large. It’s a risky strategy, but they have no choice if they want to succeed.

Of course it shouldn’t be this way. Leaders should try and educate their party that anti-vax is nonsense and (in a pandemic especially) very harmful. I don’t think this is an example of what Timothy Snyder calls sado-populism. Instead it seems to me to be an example of something more organic and bottom-up. In 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. It was at the time that Barry Goldwater became the Republican nominee for president, beating the more moderate Rockefeller, and what he saw as the influence of conspiracy theory and "movements of suspicious discontent" throughout American history. His attempt to portray movements on the left as well as the right in this way has been criticised, but a lot rings true of the parts of the right in the US which has produced both McCarthy and Trump.

The danger is greater if this rule by a minority can elect true believers to positions of power. That is what happened with Trump. An open question is how long those true believers can stay in power, as their beliefs are gradually revealed to the voting public. The question of the moment is whether an ever more extreme right wing minority, once their views are exposed, can ever be re-elected, or whether they will drive their party to ever greater electoral losses. In other words does the extreme right inevitably self-destruct by becoming yet more extreme.

A crucial difference between the UK and US is that the UK does not hold primaries either for MPs or general elections. This greatly reduces the power of the extreme right. However both the national party and members get to influence who gets chosen as an MP. It is possible that party members can be radicalised (by Brexit for example) and select MPs with similar views to them. Most importantly, it is possible that owners and editors of the right wing press can begin to push more extreme right wing ideas that influence MPs and ministers. However will the party leadership, and more particularly the Prime Minister, ever adopt ideas from the right that are both extreme and unpopular among all voters?

Two recent developments shed some light on that question. The first is taking the knee. One MP said they would refuse to watch the England football team play in the recent Euros competition because players took the knee. One prominent minister failed to condemn a minority of fans booing the team while they took the knee. A new television channel designed to appeal to those on the right faced a mass boycott when one presenter took the knee. In the end the channel decided taking the knee was an “unacceptable breach of [their] standards”!

This all reached a critical point after England lost the final to Italy, and three of their black players missed penalties. The racist attacks on social media were horrendous, but they reflected a minority. Throughout the country as a whole the England team, including its black players, is very popular and most supported them taking the knee. As a result, the Prime Minister Johnson changed his previous stance and swung behind the team, condemning those fans who booed taking the knee and pretending he had never said anything different. In this case popularity won out over supporting some of his base.

The second is about removing most restrictions, including wearing a mask, on 19th July. As the number of Delta variant cases, and with a lag hospitalisations and deaths, continue to rise, the policy of abandoning the last checks on spread seems more and more foolish. Experts from around the world have condemned it, and it could produce the ultimate horror - a variant against which vaccines are ineffective.

Johnson and other members of government say ‘if not now, then when?’. The obvious response to this is when everyone, including school children, have been double vaccinated. The government, in response, shows analysis from SAGE that suggests opening up when all adults (not children) have been vaccinated may produce a worse outcome because it will happen before winter. The obvious response to that is why leave children as virus spreaders who have a chance of getting long covid, rather than vaccinating them?

We know the government is wrong on masks because they are now in the position of saying that continuing to wear a mask is the responsible thing to do. They want to rely on individual responsibility rather than ‘government diktat’. If people follow this advice, then by logical deduction the only people who don’t wear masks will be the irresponsible, so ending government compulsion is simply a license for the irresponsible.

As I noted here, most people want restrictions to continue. Those that don’t include a number of journalists who work for the right wing press and many Tory MPs, Both groups go on about ‘freedom’. Here again we have the right pushing an unpopular (and unsafe) policy, but in this case Johnson is siding with the right, either out of inclination or because he will find himself on the wrong side of a majority in his party. In this case Johnson has chosen supporting his base over popularity. How this will influence his popularity we shall see. [1]

The fate of the Republican party in the US will depend on how much voters will ignore the dangerous nonsense that Republican leaders have said and done in the past, and whether there is any chance that they will re-elect a president who helped inspire an attempted insurrection when he lost last time. In either case there is a real chance that the current Republican party will self-destruct. The fate of Johnson’s government may depend on how he chooses between following the views of his base or following the views of most of the country. But either way, with the total support of half the print media and a tame BBC influenced by this press, the chances of this government's self-destruction seem remote.

[1] It may seem ironic that English footballers seem to carry more weight for Johnson than countless COVID experts, but less so once you recognise that celebrity carries much more impact among the voters Johnson is targeting than expertise coming from academics and medics. One of these footballers, Rashford, has forced the government’s hand before.

1 comment:

  1. Can we actually believe they haven't been vaccinated, but encourage others to abstain? What is typical of right wing politicians is the likes of Gummer during the mad cow disease epidemic, giving his daughter a bite of a hamburger on television promoting beef as being safe for consumption at the height of the epidemic.

    Does power and wealth drive right wing people into a death wish mode, or are they just stupid?


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