The ‘Culture War’ Continues to Radicalise on Both Sides of the Atlantic
Sam Bright and Sian Norris track the evolution of pro-Trump, pro-Brexit ideologies in the UK and US
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The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas last week offered a bingo card of the issues currently engaging and enraging the right.
Far from focusing on the pressing issues of our time – the cost of living crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the climate catastrophe – talk centred on transgender people, educational indoctrination, and how – as Nigel Farage termed it – “madrasas of Marxism” are supposedly teaching white children to hate their race.
When the big global crises were mentioned, it was with airy dismissal. Farage told his audience that far more dangerous than Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Europe was the “fifth columns” in our own English-speaking countries infecting children with the virus of ‘wokeness’.
The conference’s line-up confirmed that conservatives are now ideological rather than pragmatic – waging ‘revolution’ against imagined enemies, rather than concerning themselves with issues of the economy and national security. And CPAC is the forum for the ‘culture war’ – not least when it comes to pushing a hard-right, pro-Trump agenda.
Take the representatives in attendance from the Heritage Foundation, for instance – the radical-right think tank built on grants from the Scaife and Koch families, among others, which has poured its energy and resources into investigating flimsy allegations of ‘voter fraud – what Jane Mayer has termed the “big money behind the big lie”.
Then there were speakers from Moms for America – a group that has been instrumental in attacking school boards in the name of liberty and freedom. It campaigns against critical race theory – the idea that racism is socially constructed and embedded in public institutions – and offers advice on how to pull children out of school (home-schooling is increasingly popular among white Christian nationalists).
Similarly, Concerned Women for America was on the bill; as were a raft of other anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ organisations and individuals.
Then there was Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, addressing the crowd despite his recent contempt of court conviction. Bannon has been instrumental in fuelling the culture war that defined Trump’s presidency and has since morphed the Republicans from a right-wing party into a reactionary, conspiracist campaign group.
Back in 2019, it was reported that Farage had discussed fronting a far-right group set up by Bannon – and it is arguably Farage who has done the most in building a transatlantic bridge between the US and UK culture wars.
Over the past decade, where Farage has gone, the Conservative Party has followed.
Brexit was, in many ways, an attempt to neutralise the electoral threat of an insurgent UKIP – with populist centre-right parties absorbing the far-right and moving in an increasingly radical direction to appease its new supporters.
The results can be seen in the current Conservative Party leadership contest, in which both contenders have engaged in the culture war Farage and his US peers continue to wage.
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The Church of Brexit
In last night’s Conservative leadership hustings event, hosted by Talk TV – a right-wing broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch – frontrunner Liz Truss demonised journalists, suggesting they were to blame for the ousting of Boris Johnson. She even claimed that the host, Tom Newton Dunn, was parroting left-wing talking points when he asked Truss why she was ruling out extra Government help for people during the cost of living crisis. “I believe in Britain, unlike some of the media who choose to talk our country down,” she said.
This directly echoes Farage’s CPAC speech – during which he shouted at the assembled journalists: “You’re fake news! Fake news!” This anti-media rhetoric has, of course, also been a common feature of Trump’s political rallies, with journalists regularly been attacked at Trump events.
However, as Newton Dunn pointed out to Truss, the majority of the UK’s right-wing press has backed her to become Conservative Leader and Prime Minister, while amplifying the party’s culture war grievances.
Today’s Times, for example, laments the supposed mass censorship of classical texts by universities – claiming that lecturers fear that these books may offend students. This story is given front-page coverage by the Murdoch-owned publication, despite it finding only two examples of books having been removed from university courses across the UK.
But universities are portrayed as the vanguards of left-wing, liberal thought on both sides of the Atlantic – breeding grounds for “woke nonsense”, in the words of Rishi Sunak, which is allegedly a mortal threat to traditional cultural norms and freedom of speech.
In the UK, as in the US, these ideological preconceptions stretch back years.
In 2020, Truss delivered a speech in which she claimed that, during her education at a comprehensive school in Leeds in the 1980s, while “we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write”.
She has faced criticism over her depictions of her old school, with several of its former pupils pointing out that it was far better administered under Labour than under the Conservatives. “We were not ‘taught about racism and sexism’ to the exclusion of the basics,” said one of Truss’ former peers. “We were taught the national curriculum.”
And then, in the years-long history of the culture war, there is Brexit.
Farage’s CPAC speech spoke to what Brexit has become. No longer simply a vote on EU membership, it now appears to be a fully-formed ideology. To be ‘Brexit’ is to be anti-woke; anti-metropolitan; anti-expert and academia; suspicious of LGBTIQ, women and black people’s rights. It’s to be overly concerned with statues; while defending a white-centric vision of British history. It also means being constantly under attack – the plucky outsider fighting for democracy and common sense against a corrupt establishment.
It is for this reason that Liz Truss, who voted Remain, can project herself as an authentic Brexiter in the Conservative leadership contest; while Sunak – who voted Leave – is viewed with suspicion.
This is also the Trumpian mindset – the binding mentality of the transatlantic culture war. Despite being a billionaire property mogul, born into wealth, Trump has become the bastion of the ‘silent majority’ and the supposed scourge of the ‘deep state’.
Yet, as the architects of Brexit and the 2019 Conservative victory have observed, this ideology has diverged from ordinary people’s concerns. While Vote Leave and Trump once campaigned on public services – ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ – weaving hardline social conservatism with economic populism, both are now more concerned with fighting culture wars that occupy the distant margins of public concern.
Will they both now feel the electoral consequences?