The populist right regrets its encouragement to Covid plotters | Paulo Gerbaudo
At the 1992 Republican American Convention, Paleoconservative Pandit and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan introduces the world to the idea that politics had become a “culture war” between progressives and conservatives. Campaigns for environmentalism, abortion and LGBT rights were not just about politics, he said, but were in fact aimed at destroying American traditions and identity at large. “This war is for the soul of America,” Buchanan said, and called on his fellow citizens to “take back our culture and take back our country”.
In the decades that followed, the right narrowly adopted the strategy proposed by Buchanan. He claimed that by controlling the media and academia, anti-patriotic and elitist progressives were forcing sweeping changes – such as opening up to immigration and demolishing the traditional family – against the will of the majority. The plan worked: crop war tactics allowed the right to win support from disgruntled workers increasingly suspicious of a center-left that had little to offer in terms of socio-economic policies.
Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the pandemic has become a new stage in the culture war. But it is perhaps the one that the right will end up regretting. The emergency sparked a flood of disparate conspiracy theories about the virus and vaccines that quickly spread across social media, while “anti-mask” and “anti-containment” protests called the measures prevention of the contagion of “health dictatorship”.
Populist right-wing leaders were quick to take advantage of this, seeing Covid skepticism as yet another opportunity to show the gap between the priorities of progressives and ordinary people. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro called the Covid a “little flu”, and continues to say that he has not been vaccinated to this day, although no one knows for sure. In the United States, Donald Trump has gone into total conspiracy mode, suggesting that bleach could be a cure for Covid. In the UK, Johnson has taken a more pragmatic dominant position after briefly promoting collective immunity. But to his right, Nigel Farage and some Tory MPs continued to hang out with Covid skepticism.
Yet in many countries the populist right now finds itself at odds with a movement that it has nurtured, but can no longer control. In August, Donald Trump was booed by supporters at a rally in Alabama, after recommending they receive the jab. In Italy, the League party’s Matteo Salvini has come under heavy criticism from Covid skeptics for supporting a government that enforces vaccination passports – a program called Green Pass. Meanwhile, his most far-right competitor, Giorgia Meloni of the Post-Fascist Brothers of Italy, managed to gain anti-vaccine support by oppose the Green Pass and defend “freedom of choice”.
In France, Marine Le Pen also risks being overwhelmed on her right by populist candidates who have taken more radical positions in the culture war. These include the star of the anti-immigration talk show Eric Zemmour, which is skyrocketing in the polls, as well as Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of the nationalist party Debout la France, and Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s ex-ally, who both espoused Covid conspiracy theories.
In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland has stormy relations with the skeptical Covid movement Querdenker (literally “lateral thinkers”). Querdenker activists were embroiled in internal party feuds and then launched a new party called Die Basis (La Base) contributing to the AfD’s disappointing performance in the last elections.
Amid the growing polarization of the Culture War, right-wing parties that have adopted a populist strategy are struggling to maintain their fragile electoral coalition. One in which true believers who embrace conspiracy theories sit alongside more moderate center-right voters with little patience for popular superstitions.
Although anti-vaccines are very loud, they actually make up a relatively small proportion of the population. In the United States, according to a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, only 20% of American citizens say they are not likely to get vaccinated. In the UK, adult vaccination rates are around 80%, while in France and Italy 75% of people received at least one dose. To be fully identified with this relatively small fraction of public opinion is electorally dangerous.
Moreover, the Manichean framework of a quasi-religious battle between good and evil that characterizes the approach to the culture wars means that any act of moderation or compromise on the part of existing populists – or just an opportunistic populist – leaders can be easily presented as a betrayal, opening up space for challengers holier than you, dividing the vote.
Embracing the Culture War was aimed at dividing society along the cultural divide between progressives and conservatives, rather than the economic divide between the haves and have-nots. that the left has traditionally preferred, giving the right a strategic advantage. However, the animosity of the crop war now appears to be playing out in some sort of civil war within the right wing’s own ranks, and can cause serious hardship for Salvini, Le Pen, Trump and Farage.
In the months and years to come, the approach of the crop war will lead nowhere. In fact, it can become even more intense and vicious, as the climate crisis and green transition policies impose major changes in people’s daily lives. Right-wing populists once thought they were in control, but riding the tiger of conspiracy theories may turn out to be more costly than they anticipated