It is always a little difficult, after a massacre, to return to discussing the mundane. Talking about the banal so soon after something wrenching seems somewhat brusque. Hence the need, perhaps, to discuss the global far-right in emotive, epochal, outsized terms after the mass shooting in Christchurch. It is a way to keep the emotional intensity high – a bid to retain hot-blooded feeling, and an attempt to avoid an insensitive and premature return to reality.
But, though movements are dominated and galvanised by events which unfold in moments, moments such as these are not everything. How these movements use their months ought to occupy as much attention. And in those months, rather than the days where murderous self-proclaimed fascism appears to be dominant, it and its less overt ideological counterparts spend their time pleading weakness.
This claimed weakness is not inherent in their movements, of course. To hear members of the new right, the radical right, tell it, they do harbour power. It’s the power of silent millions, if their rhetoric is to be believed. But the silent remain so – again, in this version – in part due to pressure from above. Oppression is an essential rhetorical tool of the radical right – coming from officialdom always, often directed against a vague conception of the people, but frequently personified by treatment handed down to the social media personalities who give the movement a face and a focus.
In America, things are generally bigger, and claims of victimhood are correspondingly juiced-up. When Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and bona fide extremist who has in recent years established an odd toe-hold in more conventional conservatism, had his accounts shuttered on several social media platforms, it was considered an example of an apparent campaign to ‘silence’ the right-leaning. The stigma of counting a crackpot among one’s number appears to matter less and less when persecution can be alleged.
That persecution also extends to media more generally, and examples of its apparent maleficence. In America, people with nightly TV programmes are oppressed if others disapprove of their tone or the substance of their words. In Britain, the same oppression is claimed, but often in tandem with earthier hints of corruption. The case of Tommy Robinson – not a fascist, of course, but a man well beyond the constraints of the political mainstream – illustrates that rather nicely.
Robinson has had a chequered time of things. From leader of the English Defence League to ex-leader claiming to have seen the light, Robinson is now a social media personality with a growing line in rabble-rousing. Part of his schtick is a sense of personal victimhood, something he claims he suffers because he wishes to protect the British people – and which could befall anyone who attempts to follow in his ideological wake.
Years ago, when Robinson wrote a book, Enemy of the State, about his apparent mistreatment, which in his words included special and unfair attention from parts of the bureaucracy unconnected with his advocacy, a number larger than his current fanbase were sympathetic.
His recent – if brief – stint in jail on the charge of breaking reporting restrictions on a series of rape trials attracted calculated sympathy from right wing radicals the world over, and set the stage for some truly demagogic rhetoric about Britain being dead in all but name and Robinson a representative of the country’s lingering soul. Robinson was released not long after the campaign began, with the court of appeals criticising the way he had been rushed through a lower court. Now he addresses large crowds, assisted by a sophisticated media operation of his own, and forms the centrepiece of a careful propaganda effort.
But the charge of unfair imprisonment isn’t all Robinson holds against the establishment. He is, he says, not misunderstood or maligned, but the victim of an entrapment in the making. To that end, Robinson constructed a long ‘documentary’ about a single interview he was expected to conduct with the BBC television programme Panorama.
In it, Robinson has an ally wear a wire to a meeting in a pub with the journalist John Sweeney, and catches Sweeney making humorous reference to how much he has drunk in the course of the evening, and Sweeney’s attempts to find out what the woman he mistakenly thought could be a source had to say about Robinson.
The interview itself approaches, and Robinson overturns the table, and subjects Sweeney to a Powerpoint presentation of his apparently damning findings. Robinson accuses Sweeney, who is following standard practice in charming and cultivating sources (albeit in a more avuncular way than some), of manipulation and deceit. He makes much of a few impolitic remarks Sweeney made over drinks. And he produces a fraudulent text – one Robinson produced on camera and had his ally, the woman Sweeney attempted to turn into a source, dangle before the journalist – as proof of Sweeney’s capacity for dishonesty.
It’s all clever propaganda on Robinson’s part, and his fans clearly enjoyed it and found it validating. But the whole thing is an exercise in paranoia – real or contrived. Although Sweeney’s professionalism may be reasonably challenged based on some of the clips produced, his fundamental honesty cannot. And the fact that Sweeney sought information about Robinson, a controversial figure – even while working in tandem with groups, like Hope not Hate, which monitor the far-right – is effectively the definition of his job.
Robinson’s stunt no more demonstrates persecution than Jones’ banning, or social media criticism – no matter how histrionic – of right-wing media personalities. But the fact that these myths are perpetuated – and how successfully – is significant. It demonstrates the extent to which the far-right has been able to give new focus to their theories of elite repression and indigenous replacement by foreigners, aided by Western governments.
As reality re-emerges after an act of evil, so must it intrude on self-created claims of persecution. The far-right is not as powerful as some of its motivated, declared enemies say, nor as persecuted as its advocates claim. In between lies a reasonable reckoning of its strength, and – at least possibly – a way forward in allaying its excesses.
This piece was originally published at European Eye on Radicalization.