Right-wing populism: it’s about race and ethnicity, not just class

The racist and xenophobic language used by Donald Trump and his British counterparts supporting Brexit has been well documented for months, but there are still people on the left who claim that the appeal of these politicians comes from latent class anxiety rather than bigotry towards Others. Jill Stein of the US Green Party, for example, has claimed that the Brexit vote was a rejection of austerity and neoliberalism, and was a victory for the working class (She later redacted her remarks, but the original document is still accessible via Internet Archive). Similarly, many believe that Donald Trump’s ascendancy can be put down primarily to working-class anger over the loss of blue-collar jobs and the negotiation of international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

This class-only analysis is a smokescreen for the primary impetus behind Brexit and Trumpism: racial and ethnic nationalism. The gains of right-wing populism are not entirely linked to class. The figureheads of Anglo-American right-wing populism, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, are far from working-class heroes themselves. All of them came from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, and attended expensive private schools. Well-off Republican, Tory and UKIP voters aren’t nearly as affected by foreign trade deals as working-class people would be.

Class-only analyses also erase the experiences of non-white working-class, poor and lower-middle-class voters. Most working-class people of colour are not voting for Trump. They’re voting for Hillary Clinton, who has inherited the diverse Democratic coalition championed by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. They didn’t vote for Brexit either; communities of colour overwhelmingly backed ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum. The average Trump voter is actually comfortably off, too. They’re the American equivalent of the Tory- and UKIP-voting middle-class Little Englanders (think of the Daily Mail-reading Vernon Dursley from Harry Potter), not just angry working-class white men who have lost factory jobs after the rise of outsourcing and globalisation.

This intersectional analysis is borne out by the increased number of hate crimes occurring in the US and the UK after Trump’s victories in the Republican primaries and the ‘Leave’ vote. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other racist groups have been emboldened by right-wing populism. They’ve latched themselves to the Trump movement and the push behind the ‘Leave’ vote in the EU referendum.

We must be careful, however, not to claim that Trump or Brexit-supporting politicians have normalised racism or xenophobia on their own. Instead, these representatives of this resurgent right-wing populism have normalised naked, virulent racism and xenophobia that would have otherwise been hidden by mainstream conservatives using dog-whistle phrases like ‘law and order’, ‘national security’ or ‘sensible immigration policy’. There have always been people who think that Black people are lazy, that Mexicans and Polish people are stealing people’s jobs, and that Middle Eastern immigrants are ISIS or Al-Qaeda agents, but Trump, Farage and other right-wing populists have allowed the open expression of this kind of hatred to become mainstream. Previously, many people harbouring racist views would have kept that bigotry under wraps amongst the general public, only talking about it openly when they knew their opinions would fall on receptive ears. Nowadays, this racism is more likely to be expressed as public harassment or physical violence.

Are there working-class Trump and Brexit supporters who may feel alienated by economic changes? Of course, but that is not the sole, or primary, impetus behind right-wing populism. This flavour of populism is intrinsically racist and xenophobic. It rejects what it sees as ‘political correctness gone mad’, and promises a return to a previous order of things, where native-born white men weren’t threatened by immigrants or those funny brown people.

Trump and his ilk haven’t emerged from nowhere. They follow in the tradition of Enoch Powell, Pat Buchanan and other racist demagogues. If frustration over neoliberal economic policy was the only reason why populism has taken hold, then Bernie Sanders would have been able to capture the votes of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Those voters went to Trump instead. UKIP has been picking up former white, working-class, former Labour voters. It’s not only about class when these people use racist and xenophobic positions to draw in voters. Trump’s economic policies would actually benefit people in his income bracket more than they would the disaffected working-class voters he’s (somewhat erroneously) associated with. The promoters of Brexit weren’t actually able to keep any of the promises made to the immigration-weary segment of the British public. The Remain campaign had warned of the economic consequences of a ‘Leave’ vote, but people were convinced that a vote to exit the European Union would mean kicking out Eastern European immigrants and Black and Brown British citizens.

Pretending that Brexit and Trumpism are entirely about globalisation and trade deals is both reductive and racist. Leftists need to reject this facile interpretation and recognise the impact that race and ethnicity have on American and British lives, and indeed the lives of other people in western countries where right-wing populism is also on the rise.