So will the crisis end in the disgrace and delegitimization of the new radical right politics? Not necessarily. Such a prediction may underestimate the mercurial creativity that has made contemporary right-wing politics so successful. We are already seeing, even now at the start of the crisis, the first signs of how the wider political project could be rescued from the jaws of defeat.
Here I sketch out five emerging strategies. None of them is ‘enough’ on its own to save a particular right-wing government. Taken together though, they offer a substantial armoury of defences. Those of us who want to defeat the radical right have to spot these and others as they emerge and confront them now, before it is too late.
1. The cordon sanitaire strategy.
While the response to this one crisis may need to be expert-led, government-driven, globally coordinated and for the benefit of all, it might be possible to draw a line around it so as not to ‘infect’ the rest of the project. While Boris Johnson’s sober press conferences flanked by scientists and medical experts might seem to represent a prime minister newly converted to the cause of expert-led government, the fact that he is not the star of the show will help to distance himself from expertise in future. Should the UK response be successful he won’t be too closely associated with the measures taken. Should the response be a disaster (as some have warned), Johnson will be able to portray this as a cautionary tale of the dangers of relying on the ‘the wrong experts’. By bringing the scientists to the fore for now, they can be marginalised once the crisis ends and the destructive elements can take the lead again as they drive towards a catastrophic Brexit.
A variant of this strategy might be called the ‘Rudi Giuliani strategy’. On 9/11, Giuliani was an exemplary leader – calm, serious and effective. In recent years he has repented of this ‘sin’ by becoming an enthusiastic defender of Donald Trump as his personal lawyer. In this way, those right-wing populists who are actually capable of responsible government will temporarily accept the yoke of this responsibility before swiftly pivoting once the crisis has passed.
2. The Y2K bug strategy
The successful effort to prevent a disabling computer bug in 2000 has, in the end, proved a disaster for those who seek to draw attention to risk. Because the alarms were heeded and disruption was prevented, those who are ignorant of the seriousness of the risk can ridicule the effort that was made. In the same way, if the coronavirus threat is contained to even a modest degree, it will be possible to denigrate the anxiety. That will ensure that those experts who fought the crisis are marginalised once again. It will also ensure that the climate crisis is treated as ‘another coronavirus’ – a problem yes, but an overblown one.
3. The ‘darkest hour’ strategy
After the crisis, it will be possible to claim that we ‘beat it’ through determination, resilience and grit, rather than through expertise and big government. Boris Johnson is likely to draw on this strategy, channelling Churchill and using terms like ‘vim’. In this way, coronavirus will be a demonstration not of global interdependence and the need for coordinated action, but of the transcendent power of the national ‘character.’ In the UK this will assist in moving on towards a Brexit that will spark a further crisis – this time a crisis to be met without expert-led government.
4. The racist strategy
Attributing coronavirus to foreigners, immigrants and miscellaneous racial others is an obvious strategy to follow in order to deflect blame for the crisis. Donald Trump is clearly using this strategy by calling the virus a ‘foreign virus’, treating it as a vindication of building ‘the wall’ and stopping flights from despised countries only. In the UK, the recent budget actually increased NHS charges for migrants. In many ways racism and xenophobia is a much smarter strategy than the previous three as it shifts responsibility for the crisis to hated others. If the racist strategy takes hold, it makes no difference if the government response is effective or not as the government and the nation is simply the hapless victim of the misdeeds of others.