Far-Right Extremism Is A Disease, And Canada Isn’t Immune
Last weekend a gunman burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue, The Tree of Life, and slaughtered 11 worshippers. In the midst of a shootout with police, the killer — a white male — said, “I just want to kill Jews” because they are “committing genocide to my people.”
Earlier in the same week, Cesar Sayoc was arrested and charged for mailing pipe bombs to an array of Trump critics and Democratic Party politicians. Sayoc’s van was plastered with pro-Trump stickers. His apparent Twitter accounts are filled with memes about George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and all the various conspiracies they are behind.
These are just the most recent in a long string of violent eruptions and terrorist attacks perpetrated by far-right extremists, seemingly detached from reality and steeped in a toxic media stew.
In an essay for The Walrus, Stephen Marche posited a second American Civil War which would feature, among other things, outbreaks of far-right violence. But this strain of extremism is not unique to the United States. It is rather the product of a specific set of social, political, and economic conditions that is common to most capitalist democracies, including Canada. While our southern neighbours may now find themselves at a more advanced stage of the illness, we share the same disease — and in order to fight it, we must first understand its nature.
For most of recent history, people in western economies have felt that their economic prospects would be better in the future. This is no longer the case. Most people’s economic experience is one of diminished — and diminishing further still — economic security.
Wages have been flat for decades, while the cost of basic necessities has grown rapidly. A small number of rich people have accumulated an extraordinary amount of wealth, while most people’s net worth hovers around zero.
All of these trends were heightened by the 2008 Great Recession. The response of liberal and conservative governments alike to this crisis of capitalism was to bail out the rich and impose austerity on everyone else. Predictably, the growth of inequality and insecurity has only accelerated since then.
As people’s personal fortunes have diminished, so has their optimism for their children’s future. An Ekos-Canadian Press poll found only 13 per cent of Canadians felt the next generation would be better off. 56 per cent felt things would be worse.
All of this is occurring in the context of a looming climate catastrophe, which has blanketed us in a low-level but constant anxiety about the future. It’s next to impossible for most of us to grasp the scale of climate change on a global scale, but many rightly look to the eventual meltdown with a sense of dread.
Meanwhile, the response of the ruling class to all of this social and economic dislocation has been, more or less, to continue on with business as usual. Some governments in some countries have tinkered around the edges of the economy: a stimulus package here, a new tax benefit there. But for the most part, the basic capitalist structure that generated the 2008 crash has been left untouched.
It’s important to note that Canada was less battered by the Recession than America and Europe, thought it was still felt. Canadian households now, however, are heavily indebted. One in three Canadians report being unable to pay their monthly bills while still covering debt repayments and say even slight changes in macroeconomic conditions could push them into bankruptcy.
On top of that, we now receive near-daily warnings that we are staring down the barrel of another crisis. What will cause it, and when will it happen? Who knows. What we do know is that the average person has still not recovered from the last one, and is now being told that they are about to get hammered again. And our leaders — the politicians supposedly elected to serve our interests and head off these disasters — are doing what, exactly? Certainly they are not offering any reasonable explanation of how we found ourselves in this mess. Do not look to the halls of power for a critique of the institutions that have crashed the economy again and again, or of the neoliberal agenda that has engineered a recovery most people have not felt in the slightest.
As a consequence of this, trust in so-called elite institutions is at all-time lows. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer report tracks public trust of government, media, business, and NGOs. Both the United States and Canada are now described as “distrusting nations” because of our low levels of aggregate trust in these institutions, though Canadians report somewhat more trust than Americans.
This distrust of media, government, and business are part of a broader issue of credibility for a ruling class that has sold the public a failed policy agenda. The neoliberal consensus of privatized services, lower taxes, and deregulation was supposed to raise everyone’s standard of living. Instead wages stagnated, cost of living spiked, work became more precarious, and the majority of people got left behind while a fantastically wealthy global elite made off like bandits.
Given all this, it is little wonder that people no longer trust elite institutions. Unfortunately, this credibility vacuum has been filled by right-wing media outlets and personalities, most of which lean heavily on conspiracy theories and a manic, paranoid style. To some degree, these outlets are regional: Breitbart and InfoWars in America, The Rebel in Canada, The Daily Mail in the UK, and so on. But in practice the ideas — and delusions — they propagate cross borders through the Internet, and the conspiracies they promote travel far and wide.
Aesthetically, if not always substantively, these outlets are nothing like the traditional media institutions. They have dispensed with any veneer of objectivity. Instead they traffic in unverifiable allegations, conspiracies, and the most inflammatory stories that can be found — many of which contain only bits and pieces of truth.
In the stage of what some have called “late capitalism” we now find ourselves in, this media functions to construct an alternate False Reality in which people alienated from the actual one, which is harsh and unforgiving, can find refuge. The character of these False Realities can vary from place to place based on each region’s peculiar characteristics, but they generally share two features.
The first is a simple explanation of one’s misery through reference to well-worn prejudices and stereotypes. Why are you impoverished? Immigrants and refugees, or sometimes welfare cheats. Why do you have no power? Because “globalists” — code for Jewish people — really control everything. This false reality neatly lines up people’s worst instincts with their material conditions. This is critical because tackling the true sources of immiseration is a much larger and more difficult task than, say, kicking out refugees or shutting down the borders. It demands no deeper analysis or criticism of larger — and more powerful — structures in our society. For those dwelling inside it, the deeply bigoted virtual reality of right wing media is a more hopeful and optimistic setting than the grim truth. It’s their happy place.
The second feature of the False Reality is a consistent demonization of workers, students, and any other vaguely “leftist” groups as agents of chaos in society. The Republican strategy for the 2018 midterm elections has been just this: whip up fear of violent “Antifa” mobs running rampant across the country. Their slogan is “Jobs, Not Mobs” — heavy emphasis on the “mobs”. There may be only a few hundred people in America that actively participate in any sort of “Antifa” actions, but this is not relevant. It is a lie people who have already living in the False Reality are ready to believe.
Of course, all this has nasty consequences for those of us still residing in the real world. The United States provides us with countless examples of this. People like serial pipe bomber Cesar Sayoc are inspired by conspiracy theories circulating in right-wing media outlets. The man who shot up Tree of Life synagogue appeared to be motivated by concerns about “white genocide” — an idea that has been pushed by Faith Goldy on The Rebel. He also frequented Gab, a social network known for hosting racist content. Here the shooter regurgitated a litany of far-right conspiracies and anti-Semitic slurs, complaining that the so-called “migrant caravan” — Fox News’ favourite bogeyman of the moment — was being assisted by Jews.
In 2017, Michael Hari attempted to blow up a Minnesota mosque “in an attempt to scare Muslims into leaving the U.S.” He also believed Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war with a “deep state”. Earlier this year, Matthew Wright blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam with an armoured vehicle, wielding an assault rifle and flash bang grenades. Wright said that he felt “emotional pain and a great deal of passion for our nation” and was attempting to call attention to a secret child sex trafficking ring operated by various liberal figures and Hollywood celebrities, another conspiracy widely-spread through right-wing Internet forums.
Such violence driven by right-wing paranoia has already started to emerge in Canada. Media figures — particularly those associated with The Rebel and the Sun media network — have published numerous conspiracy theories blaming Muslims and refugees for various crimes and killings. In 2017 Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a Quebec City mosque and killed six people. Bissonnette was stewed in a far-right media diet of Breitbart, InfoWars, and personalities like Ben Shapiro. After the Toronto Sun published a column falsely alleging refugees were slaughtering goats in a Toronto hotel bathroom, someone unsuccessfully tried to burn it down.
It’s easy enough to dismiss these terrorists as lunatics, but they no doubt believe they are behaving perfectly rationally. This is because they inhabit a False Reality. If you truly believe that liberal politicians are operating a global child sex trafficking ring, would the rational response not be to do whatever it took to expose that fact? Watch the police interviews of Alexandre Bissonnette. He is convinced that Muslims were out to kill his family, and that he had to intervene to protect them.
These are obviously delusional and deeply dangerous ideas, but they are not random notions, grasped from the ether by people predisposed to breaks with reality. They are propagandistic memes; ideas and tropes repeated ad nauseum by a network of right-wing media. In the False Reality these people inhabit, the idea that Muslims are going to impose Sharia law on your community or that Soros-employed Antifa militants might burn your house down are not the ludicrous delusions of a paranoiac, they are conventional wisdom.
Mainstreaming The Fringe
In the next stage of the illness, traditional conservative politicians — sensing political opportunity — mainstream the ideas of the extremist fringe. These opportunistic vote-seekers may or may not be true inhabitants of the False Reality, but they know a chance to win power when they see it. They begin to reference far-right tropes in public remarks, sometimes explicitly but more often through dog-whistles that can only be heard by the extremists they need to excite.
The Republican Party in the United States used this strategy throughout Barack Obama’s Presidency, and continues to depend on it to this day in lieu of any real popular political program. Early on it was Birtherism (people who questioned whether Obama was actually born in the United States), a conspiracy which Donald Trump used to build an early political base. You might remember some of the other greatest hits: death panels, Vince Foster, vaccines, the migrant caravan, and so on. It’s likely that you haven’t even heard of many of these things, which is because they aren’t for you. They are triggers for a fringe minority that nonetheless make up a significant chunk of the political right.
It makes perfect sense for conservative politicians to integrate these ideas into their rhetoric. Right-wing politics devoid of cultural grievance is not popular. The central planks of the right-wing agenda — tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, and austerity budgets — have been discredited and can no longer win elections. Mitt Romney was likely the last Republican Presidential candidate to make these policies the centrepiece of his campaign — and he got walloped. Now that Republicans have realized that pushing the buttons of fear and cultural resentment work, they are unlikely to look back.
Canada’s Conservatives, seeing the success of their American counterparts, now show signs of embracing this style of politics. At rallies during the last Ontario provincial election, now-Premier Doug Ford indulged chants of “lock her up” — referring to then-Premier Kathleen Wynne, and a throwback to Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton. He has since accused Wynne of a litany of crimes, allegations which as far as anyone can tell are baseless. Now Ford is focusing his energy on stripping alleged ISIS fighters who return to Canada of their driver’s licenses. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has appeared multiple times as a guest on The Rebel, appointed a former director of Rebel Media as his campaign director, and has begun to use anti-immigrant rhetoric — until now something that has not been a feature of Conservative campaigns.
Maxime Bernier, who came a close second to Scheer in the Conservative Party’s last leadership race, has leaned heavily on issues, memes, and triggers that push the buttons of the far-right. He has new formed his own party that seemingly exists mainly to talk about the things that excite that fringe: “radical multiculturalism”, migrants, and free speech on campuses.
All these mainstream conservative politicians are dipping their toes into the water of far-right extremism. This is the same scenario that has played out in democracies around the world — the United States, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy — where far-right politics is gaining strength. There is no reason to think Canada will buck the international trend. The conditions that allowed far-right extremism to flourish in those countries also exist here.
Finding a Cure
This analysis is not meant to signal the impending death of our democracy, or victory of Canada’s far-right forces. Far from it: we now have a roadmap to overcoming this threat.
You’ll notice that each of these developments — people embracing false realities invented by right-wing media, the violence that results from that, and the embrace of this fringe by mainstream conservatives — flows from the first condition: capitalist crisis and economic dislocation. This points the way to overcoming the far-right threat.
We must deal with the basic causes of economic insecurity, and in doing so salt the earth from which these movements grow. In normal circumstances, people who have stable, decent jobs and optimism about the future do not indulge delusional conspiracies and commit acts of terror. Only an economic structure that guarantees broadly-shared prosperity and stability can destroy the roots of far-right extremism.
The precise shape of that structure is contested, but the recent and rapid development of far-right threats to democracy make it clear that status-quo neoliberal capitalism isn’t up to the task.