Discover more from New Means
We Need a Real Answer to Right-Wing Populism
Oliver Anthony, Conspiracy Theorists, and Fascist Deception
Today’s post was just going to be a massive thank you. A thank you for passing 10,000 subscribers and excitement about this being piece 50 here at New Means. But then Anthony Oliver, the red bearded industry plant conservative folk singer, popped up, and I started getting even more bothered by all the weird Twitter accounts that say some version of “return to tradition” or posting old buildings and asking “why don’t we build like this any more?” Then, in the wake of the devastating Maui fire, I was blown away once again by the sheer number of outrageous and obviously untrue conspiracy theories that got massive amounts of traction.
On the one hand, seeing all of this made me doubly glad that there are many of us trying to do the work of learning together, reading, organizing in our neighborhoods and at our jobs, and generally trying to build the left. The importance of critical thinking, analyzing systems, and ongoing radical education that gets down to the root of things could not be more important right now. Community education and teaching and learning together is vital to combating conspiracy and fascism. And make no mistake, the job of most of these online conspiracy theorists is to slowly and steadily usher people towards the right. By causing people to have less clarity about the nature of current events these bad actors weaken peoples’ tether to reality. Millions of people then become more malleable, and instead of rightly tracing their problems to capitalism they are easier prey for those who want us to scapegoat the oppressed for the problems of the world. The job of people like Oliver Anthony, and the various talking heads and online personas that rile up the righteous anger in this country, then intentionally misdirect it, is similar: usher people towards the right through manipulation and half-truths.
What’s difficult to miss, for just about everyone, is that the world is messed up. We see massive fires, floods, food prices, the cost of housing. And then people turn to sources that offer explanations, often comfortable explanations. For some that means looking to figureheads that scapegoat and play to their bigotry. For others it means conspiracy theories that might strike some of us as odd, but are in fact easier and more comfortable than thinking about how the world is powered by massive systems that are hard to topple and make us feel small. If it’s just a few rich guys in a room running things, and not a set of rules and motives that are woven through governments and institutions and businesses maybe it wouldn’t be that hard to change things and make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, capitalism is a system, as many of us know, and it has crept into all areas of our lives over centuries. It’s not thrilling to describe, it’s not exactly exciting to realize that in many ways we live in a web constructed out of limitless profit motive, but starting from this foundation of reality will get us a whole lot further than conspiracy and scapegoating. But more importantly—for the sake of this piece—we have to get people there. Those of us on the left have to seize this moment where people are tired off seeing food prices soaring at the grocery store, rent going up, and wages by and large failing to keep up with our expenses. We have to jump into the fray in a way that will radicalize and organize and educate our neighbors, and strangers on social media. Because if we’re not doing the radicalizing, you should know damn well that the right will be. You should know that they are, right now. This red headed country singer and a whole bunch of social media accounts and talking heads are all engaged in the task of ushering disgruntled people to the right. In ways big and small people who are pissed off about life being too expensive and our government ignoring them are being prodded down the conservative-fascist pipeline.
If my writing has been helpful to you, please consider becoming a paid subscriber!
In some ways it’s easy to make fun of Oliver Anthony’s song. When he gets around to blaming mothers on welfare its easy to dismiss his Reaganite talking point, and see that the song is trying to misdirect our legitimate anger. And a lot of people have been making fun of the song, and its singer, but as Hamilton Nolan so perfectly stated our job isn’t just to make fun of this song and people who seem to love it, “The job is to say: Oliver, my red-haired brother, I know your rage and I have felt it and while you’re getting mad about how much tax comes out of your check, have you ever thought about how much your boss takes out of your check?”
Often the response to this sort of request to help people develop class consciousness is something along the lines of “but they’re bigots,” and in many cases there’s plenty of truth to that. But as leftists I think its pretty vital that we believe in people’s capacity to change. I think often about the experience of a friend who has organized unions in Pennsylvania for more than a dozen years. She saw people with considerable prejudices learn through the process of fighting the bosses together to trust and respect their coworkers of other races and genders and identities. And, when they saw just how much bosses and corporations disrespected them and fought them tooth and nail instead of paying a living wage or recognizing the union, a lot of these people realized who the enemy was. They stated to fight the boss taking advantage of their labor, not a person from some oppressed group who the boss wanted to scapegoat.
I know it doesn’t always work out like this, and I’m sure that even in these cases a lot of folks with bigoted beliefs don’t become leftists. But I firmly believe that we can’t let the right-wing radicalization pipeline be the only route for people to take when they start getting pissed off about the status quo and the economy and our political system. We have to present an alternative. Appalachian lefty John Russell recently did a video with More Perfect Union where he went to a Trump rally and found that a bunch of people there think billionaires have too much money, that hedge funds have too much money, and that we should bring those numbers down. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some of these peoples’ beliefs are rooted in antisemitism, or Illuminati conspiracies, or other ideas I really, really don’t like and ultimately want to defeat. But a large portion of that is because they’ve been aggressively lied to by the people in their media spheres and haven’t seen alternatives. We can recognize that there’s deep seated bigotry, from generations of white supremacist conditioning and ideology, and still work to change that.
My ask, to all who are able and willing, isn’t that we simply overlook various forms of bigotry, it’s that we get in this class war and this fight against fascism to win it. I know that not all of us will engage in this way, I know it’s harder for some than it is for others, and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to engage with people who might have bigoted beliefs, not at all. But I do think dismissing their concerns and leaving them without real left-leaning avenues through which to channel their anger is a grave mistake. I think as many of us as possible have to leap at the possible intervention points that can slowly help us pry people away from hatred and racism and towards the left. It doesn’t mean giving up the fight over issues like protecting trans folks and demolishing white supremacy, but it does mean seeing that if we take the opportunity to convincingly tell people that the left has actual answers to their economic woes, we might open the door to bringing them fully over to our side. People are not static. In fact most people beliefs are constantly shifting and changing, in ways that are both fast and slow. If we slam the door shut in someone’s face we might be keeping them boxed in with the people intent on lying to them and using their trials and tribulations to recruit them into fascism.
There are people who won’t move. I’m not particularly interested in devoting energy to avowed and organized fascists (other than tp defeat them). But that is in reality a very small number of people. Many, many more people float in a vaguely apolitical position, in a loose network of beliefs that aren’t solidified. And what it comes down to is that the right is actively recruiting a lot of the independent or apolitical masses. The right is lying to all of us, and reaching many people who are pissed off or downtrodden or struggling economically. The Anthony Olivers of the word latch on to a very real problem, and then present a very dishonest solution. When he and others like him tap into peoples’ fears and their struggle with how expensive everything has gotten, and then lead folks to blame other workers who are also struggling it builds a conservative movement that ultimately gives more and more power to big business and just ends up making our problems worse. The left needs to come in and clearly say, we have a real answer. We have unions that can win you higher pay and we have tenants unions that can help bring the cost of rent down. We support policies that will help you actually have enough to get by, and even have a good life if we win this struggle. We won’t just point the finger at moms on welfare and then magically hope that somehow helps you. The left has real answers, and we need to make that clear, not laugh in the face of real difficulties.
Quite a few people wiser than myself have said that the future will be radical, the question is whether it’s radically fascistic and filled with mass death and climate devastation, or whether we can collectively pull humanity back from that brink and towards a future with radical care and sustainability and socialism and more. I know not everyone will happily build the latter with us. I know there will be fighting and struggle against some of the bigots and fascists who prefer the former. But I think every person we peel away from their side, even if they don’t fully make it to our camp, is a win. Every person we merely prevent from joined the right-wing forces is a win. And on the biggest scale taking momentum and power from the conspiracy theorists and these right wing populists who present real issues and pair them with fake solutions is a massive part of winning on the left. So let’s fight with clarity about the problems and its capitalist and white supremacist nature, and clarity about the solutions. This is a battle we can, and must, win.
If this piece and my other writing is useful to you, please consider becoming a paid subscription! Thank you - Josh