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Mon 30 November 2020
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Peter Jukes looks at the rise and fall of the dark money and online culture war strategies that put Donald Trump in the White House and pushed Britain out of the EU

Exporting Polarisation 

For most of the last 40 years, British domestic politics has been out of synch with the United States. Though Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher composed a formidable Cold War alliance and promoted the ‘Anglo Saxon’ model of privatisation and deregulation, the reality of every day cultural life around politics in the US was very different from the UK at the time.

I lived in Boston as an exchange student at an American high school in the early 80s and, compared to the Punk-era Britain I had left behind, the political scene was much more consensual and polite. My teachers were a mix of small ‘c’ conservatives and former Vietnam War protestors, but discussions were fluid and, unpredictably, likely to arrive at an agreement. Among the pupils, few would think of not dating someone because of political allegiance. This was echoed in the broader political culture. In Congress at that time, politicians would cross the floor and vote across party lines. There was still a belief in bipartisanship – in contrast to the grim, grey UK I returned to. 

Under the cosh of Thatcherism, nuclear re-armament and radical industrial restructuring, there was no way you could snog someone for long as a British student in the 80s without ending up asking the question: whose side are you on?  The dirty war in Northern Ireland, the miners’ strike, the Conservative Party Brighton bombing, Murdoch’s Wapping dispute, CND women at Greenham Common, City of London’s Big Bang, Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney, Yuppies, Sloane Rangers and the Looney Left – during that decade it was almost impossible to chat with a London cabbie or have a family Sunday lunch without an unpalatable political argument.

Twenty years later, all that had reversed. When I returned to live and work in the United States again in the early noughties, the polarisation of Britain’s Thatcher years seemed to have been exported there.

Issues like gay marriage, abortion, gun control, religion – they were intractable discussions for Americans, which you avoided raising at the diner or a bar, for fear of ostracism and permanent estrangement. American political culture had polarised and cocooned, with Democrats telling me they’d never date a Republican, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, in Britain, under the premierships of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even ‘heir to Blair’ David Cameron, the idea of a culture war over matters of sexual orientation, religious observance, or the role of socialised healthcare and gun control seemed unlikely and vaguely absurd. Even the right-wing tabloid the Sun used a Barack Obama lookalike poster for David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign with the slogan “Yes, we Cam!”

I remember remarking to an American friend around that time that I was glad our Conservative Party wasn’t infected by the atavistic, vote-suppressing extreme politics of the American Conservative right.

How blind I was about what was to happen. 


Citizens United and the UK Dark Money Funnel

The key moment for the unleashing of hard-right US Conservatism into UK politics was the US Supreme Court Ruling: Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission in 2010. 

Citizens United was an activist group chaired by David Bossie, who went on to be Donald Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016 (he’s still working for him now trying to overturn the recent election result). In 2010, Bossie managed to revise a law which prohibited for-profit and not-for-profit corporations from advertising or broadcasting political messages during elections or primaries. The legal judgment was based on the constitutional first amendment right of ‘free speech’ and the Supreme Court effectively ruled that these corporations were ‘people’ and had the same rights to political self-expression as individuals. 

Whatever the metaphysical import of this ruling, the practical effect was to unleash unlimited spending on political campaigns by American corporations and rich individuals in vehicles such as ‘SuperPacs’ – and that wave of money soon hit the UK and jolted British politics to the right. 

The networks to receive this influx of cash were already in place. Sir Anthony Fisher, an Eton-educated businessman, having made his money from US-style intensive chicken farming and the founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London in 1955, set up the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in the US in 1981. Funded by the oil industry giants, big tobacco, and other right-wing not-for-profits like the Koch Brothers Foundation, it acted as a transatlantic umbrella for a range of libertarian and free-market think tanks. 

The Atlas network’s role in pushing for Britain to leave the EU was apparent when leading Brexiter and former MEP Daniel Hannan delivered its ‘Toast to Freedom’ in New York in 2018 and celebrated the factory-farmed ‘broiler chicken’ as a symbol of liberty. The lowering of food hygiene and factory farming standards to US levels has been touted as one of the main benefits of Brexit – at least to those in the food industry. 

But the Citizens United overspill, and its emphasis on ‘free speech’, went much further than these obvious commercial and lobbying networks in the UK, and had a toxic effect on the culture of British politics. 


Beach Head in the Culture Wars

One hidden channel for right-wing US thinking and practice was the Young Britons Foundation (YBF), a self-described ‘Conservative madrasa’ and a UK offshoot of the Young Americas Foundation (YAF), which was funded by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

For 12 years, until it was closed down over allegations of bullying after the suicide of a young Conservative activist in 2015, the YBF hosted some of the key figures who led Britain to Brexit. 

Hannan was the YBF president. Matt Richardson, who went on to be the secretary of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, was the executive director. Matthew Elliot, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance at 55 Tufton Street and destined to become executive director of Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign, hosted talks and panels.

Apart from the potential channels for US dark money, the striking thing is the change of tone ushered into Conservative politics through the Young Britons Foundation. 

A key moment was its 10th anniversary conference at Churchill College, Cambridge in 2013. Steve Bannon, who was then the managing director of the ‘Alt-right’ website Breitbart, was a major presence, discussing the role of online campaigning with the Guido Fawkes political editor Harry Cole, and recruiting their fellow panellist Raheem Kassam to run his London branch. 

Bannon had also just co-founded the notorious digital campaigning company Cambridge Analytica which would target individuals based on their fears and paranoias. Bannon called this combination of news and psychometric targeting his “weapons” which he would use, in the UK too it would seem, to “flood the zone with sh*t”. 

Also billed to appear that weekend was Douglas Murray, associate director the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), to talk about ‘Jihad, Islamism, Israel, the War on Terror and Neo-Conservatism’. The founder of the HJS, Dr Alan Mendoza, was also a regular attendee.

According to a founding director and former associate director of the HJS, it began to become around this time a “far-right, deeply anti-Muslim racist organisation”. As Nafeez Ahmed has reported in Byline Times, the HJS was also a recipient of dark money from key donors in the US who began to back Donald Trump.


Failing the Turing Test

If you’re wondering why British political discourse began to degrade, look no further than the arrival of American right-wing conservatism via both the funding of activists and new media outlets which propagated their message.

It is no accident that the UK’s culture wars were also triggered by a US Supreme Court ruling over free speech. Free speech was the wedge by which formerly marginal expressions of xenophobic nationalism, racism, and Islamophobia could become central in Britain’s public debate. 

It didn’t matter if many of the voices expressing these opinions online were paid for by multiple accounts, boosted by dark digital analytics, or indeed often outright replicants run by troll farms hosted and funded by hostile foreign countries. If the Supreme Court had ruled that corporations were people, why not networks of bots and troll armies? 

And we fell for it. Millions of Brits and Americans read and believed opinions and facts effectively generated by robots. The pioneer of computing, Alan Turing, once suggested that artificial intelligence would arrive when, during a conversation, we failed to spot the difference between a computer and a person. We failed the Turing test, politically, in 2016. 

The media of the 20th Century was once described by the philosopher Noam Chomsky as “manufacturing consent”. By the time of Britain’s EU Referendum and Donald Trump’s election in 2016, with most people receiving their news and opinions through algorithms devised by social media giants like Facebook and YouTube, this was effectively replaced by the “automation of consent”.

Some people seek to minimise this, pointing to the existing racial and economic fissures in British and American society that made them both ripe for populism, particularly after the financial crash of 2008. But just one in 50 of the votes cast in the EU Referendum, or 70,000 votes in the US Rust Belt states in the 2016 Presidential Election, won the twin shock victories either side of the Atlantic. Did the intervention of these dark-money-funded culture war interventions make enough of a difference to tip things over the edge? 

The protagonists certainly thought so. Nigel Farage raised a pint after the EU Referendum victory to thank Bannon and Breitbart – “we couldn’t have done it without you” – while Trump declared: “I’m Mr Brexit plus plus plus.”


The Election of Biden and a ‘No Deal’ Brexit 

The failure of Donald Trump to secure a second term is a severe setback to that transatlantic ‘Alt-right’ alliance of libertarians and neo-nationalists.

The prospect of a US/UK trade deal with Joe Biden as President, though it was never going to be that favourable to Britain, is even more problematic given different priorities in the White House, and Congress’s demonstrable objection to anything that would undermine the internationally-binding Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill, currently being debated in Parliament, threatens to break more international treaties and, if not directly punished, will undermine the prestige and reliability of Britain in any other future negotiations. 

On a personal level, Johnson has many fences to mend with the President-elect, because of his perceived proximity to Bannon and Trump, and his frankly racist remarks about Barack Obama’s attitude about Brexit stemming from his antipathy to Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” ancestry. Biden has called Johnson the “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump. 

More profoundly, the media and lobbying networks around ‘MAGA’ and Brexit are going to have much less influence in Washington, where they matter. Steve Bannon is currently indicted for fraud and, with a Biden nominee leading the Department of Justice, an unredacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference could reveal more transatlantic connections with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Other ongoing FBI investigations into campaign finance and counter-intelligence will expose more about Trump’s various business dealings with hostile foreign powers and those could entrammel some key Brexiters. 

Many on the UK right, and not just Farage and his Brexit Party outriders, were heavily invested in a Trump second term. We could soon discover why. 

But beyond any criminal or intelligence liability, the simultaneous arrival of Biden and Brexit in January next year will make the UK even more irrelevant to the global considerations of a new US Government.

As a result, British think tanks will be of less interest to US for-profit and not-for-profit corporations. With no place at the EU table and with a declining economy, hit by the dual shock of leaving the Single Market and the worst Coronavirus impact of the G7 nations, we’re just not – in crude financial terms – such a key asset. And right-wing British activists will receive fewer remittances of dark money as a result.  


War Without End

The US culture wars were always designed to create ‘wedge issues’ around guns, religion, education, race and class to get working-class Americans, particularly in the South, to vote against their economic interests and for tax cuts for a wealthy elite because, at least, they shared the same nominal values.

This ‘Southern Strategy’ was echoed by Johnson and Dominic Cummings in the 2019 General Election and the apparent collapse of the Labour ‘Red Wall’ in north-eastern constituencies. It led to a stunning tactical victory, but the long-term strategic consequences are still moot. Trump’s Rust Belt defence collapsed after one term. This does not bode well for the Conservative Party’s current rhetoric pitting working-class voters against ‘metropolitan elites’.

When it comes to Britain’s role in American culture wars, as Steve Bannon identified early on, the UK was a bridgehead in the battle for the populist right. With its reputation (at least in the US) for prudence, propriety and stiff upper lip sobriety – as Bannon told his head of research at Cambridge Analytica Chris Wylie in 2014 – Britain is an exemplar. If the UK fell for Bannon’s brand of nationalist populism, the US would be likely to follow and the EU collapse: Brexit would be a lesson to everyone. 

Well, Brexit was a lesson to everyone –  a bad one – don’t, whatever you do, follow. The country’s reputation for transparency and reasonableness is permanently tarnished: both its economy and soft power influence are badly trashed. The disparate nations of the United Kingdom are more in danger of breaking up than they have been for decades and their people are restive, divided and destined to continue the ‘Alt-right’ battles about ‘wokeness’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ long after they have lost any wider resonance.

In that way, the transatlantic alliance of dark money and polarisation is over. We are on our own. Britain served its role as part of a larger offensive but it is now abandoned like a rusting aircraft carrier waiting to be sold for scrap. We may remain as a rump Trumpocracy, and our think tanks will still receive dribbles of cash from the US Conservative right. But we will be increasingly irrelevant and rapidly ignored, and then will finally have to confront our own demons without blaming or relying on monsters from abroad.


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