QAnon paranoids, far-right fanatics, and neo-Nazis couldn’t have broken into Congress without some enablers in high places. Capitol police’s capitulation to the protestors — many them off-duty officers and military personnel — clearly demands further investigation. And none of this would have happened without Donald Trump, his media outriders and lawyers egging on conspiracy theorists and falsely presenting far-right groupuscules as the authentic voice of the “white working class.”
But the blame extends much wider on the Right than the outgoing president, or even the likes of Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. For evidence we need only look at the other conservatives who embraced Trump. British prime minister Boris Johnson, who saw the administration as an ally in reaching a post-Brexit trade deal, has long coddled Trump, and even after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests praised him for “making America great again” and doing “fantastic stuff.” Only since Joe Biden’s win has he been forced to abandon such outright sycophancy.
Johnson’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was especially slow to abandon Trump — refusing to comment on Trump’s failure to accept the election result or whether “all votes should be counted.” On Wednesday he appeared unwilling to blame Trump for the scenes at the Capitol. Raab could, however, hardly be suspected of shyness in commenting on elections in the Americas — he has strongly backed Venezuela’s coup leader Juan Guaidó, and condemned Jeremy Corbyn for recognizing Evo Morales’s victory in the 2019 Bolivian election, as he instead echoed baseless “vote fraud” claims.
Given the British government’s dismal response to far-right extremism in America’s North and South, and the enthusiastic support from figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Trump’s downfall might have sparked further embarrassment for Johnson and his ministers.
Yet Britain’s centrist commentators rather saved their blushes. Indeed, even the pundits who most strongly claim to defend “mainstream” democratic politics were keen to insist that the problem we face after the Capitol riot is not just the rising far right, or even right-wing politics at all, but… Jeremy Corbyn and the socialists who led the Labour Party from 2015 to 2019.
Over a year since his election defeat, the Corbynite threat weighs on the memory of many a centrist pundit. Take Dan Hodges, a scribbler for the Mail on Sunday regularly invited on the BBC as an aggrieved former Labour supporter. Many commentators have waved away criticisms of Johnson’s pandemic response by expressing relief that Corbyn is not in charge. Now, they tell us that scenes in Congress show the “populist” danger we avoided.
As news of the fatal clashes was still arriving from DC, Hodges turned the spotlight on Corbyn’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell: “I think there is a direct equivalence — moral and practical — between someone like Trump and someone like McDonnell. And I think acknowledging that honestly is an important part of how we move forward now.” Asked on Twitter if Johnson was not more similar to Trump, he responded with a simple “No.”
In a further article yesterday, he accused McDonnell of hypocrisy for his call to “stand together” against the “proto-fascism” developing in the United States. McDonnell had, after all, praised student activists “kicking the shit” out of the Tory party offices in 2010 — a legacy of strewn paperclips and spilt milk which, Hodges darkly suggested, shows that the danger of Capitol Hill–style “anarchy” lurks in the UK, too.
Dogged Corbyn critic Ian Austin, from 2005 to 2019 a Labour MP, took up a similar argument. Head of “anti-extremism” watchdog Mainstream (and raised to the House of Lords after backing the Tories in the last UK general election), Austin’s response to the Capitol Hill events was also immediately directed against Corbyn, explaining, “I don’t believe the hard left would have accepted an election defeat or even held one they’d lose.”
Readers may recall that the British hard left has quite a long record of “accepting election defeat,” including under Corbyn’s leadership, without forming a militia to storm Parliament. For Austin, who in 2019 hit out at Corbyn for refusing to meet Trump, the Left is nonetheless condemned by its supposed foreign allies — the “totalitarians” whom Corbyn would supposedly have embraced in office.
Such efforts to dissolve anti-fascism into a generic opposition to “extremism” — and ignore all ties between the far- and not-so-far-right — are not a merely British phenomenon. Obama-era US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul attacked the Capitol Hill invasion as less akin to 1776 than to Russia 1917, adding that the rioters do not “deserve” to be credited as right-wing or far-right ideologues, when they are in truth mere “criminals.”
The liberal McFaul is doubtless perfectly sincere in his hatred of Klansmen and of Trump, whom he has describes as the “worst president in US history.” But his comments — rather like Biden ally Jon Cooper’s claim that Russian spooks amid the mob could have bugged Congress — pose a question. Why do liberals have such trouble criticizing far-right politics without saying it’s bad because it is akin to communism?
Part of the answer came in Madeleine Albright’s book Fascism: A Warning. The word “fascism” may sound like an expression of urgency. Yet analogies with foreign “totalitarians” can also be used to tear discussion of far-right extremism out of US historical context. The former secretary of state’s book is rich in denunciation of Russia and Venezuela but bears almost no mention of racism in the United States, except insofar as it was directly Hitler-inspired. Such a struggle to rationalize the US right is shared by many liberals who last year made gestures to BLM protesters’ call for a historical reckoning, but, faced with Trump, can only fall back on hoary old national myths.
A proper account of the still-minoritarian far-right presence in US politics would need to examine the cross-fertilization of US racist violence, colonialism, and a more European history of nationalist revanchism. But while the GOP is not a fascist party, it is absurd to assert a total opposition between the two phenomena, as if “normal” right-wing politics in a country built on slavery and empire were not a breeding ground for fascist groups.
The party’s overwhelmingly wealthy base voted twice for Trump, and security personnel and cops were a prominent force among Wednesday’s rioters. To deny that such forces are, at least, part of the family album of the Right — rather than some extremist element foreign to US politics — simply whitewashes those who enabled Trump, instead creating an absurd both-sidesism aimed against purported extremists on the Left.
In Britain we’ve had years of centrists accusing reformist socialists of being reverse racists, terrorist sympathizers, and Russian agents. If the lesson Biden’s administration takes from Wednesday is the danger of political “radicalism,” we can expect more false analogies between murderous racists and those who fight them.