The far-right international
On a hot July day in 2018, as US President Donald Trump visited the UK, MEP Kent Ekeroth, from the far-right Sweden Democrats party, joined protesters on Whitehall in London for the Free Tommy Robinson demonstration. The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was serving time for disrupting the trial of a rape-gang in the course of his provocative ‘reporting’.
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s imprisonment for contempt of court had made him a cause célèbre across the globe. An estimated $2.5 million in donations flowed in from supporters who believed that he was the victim of a politically correct plot to silence his ‘free speech’.
‘The reason why the Tommy case has gotten so much attention,’ Ekeroth said, ‘is because this is a problem that is not isolated to England. It’s a worldwide struggle, it’s a fight between the leftwing liberals and their establishment, who are trying to censor and stop ordinary people from access to information and to the truth.’
It’s likely that Yaxley-Lennon would have fallen into obscurity had it not been for international assistance. After leaving the EDL he attempted to start a UK variation of Pegida, a German far-right movement. It was a failure, and Yaxley-Lennon looked spent. However, in 2017 he reinvented himself as a ‘correspondent’ for Rebel Media, paid over $6,000 a month with assistance from US tech billionaire Robert Shillman.
A galaxy of international far-right stars gave speeches in Whitehall that day, from a stage funded by the Middle East Forum, a wingnut US thinktank. Analysis by The Guardian found that 40 per cent of tweets using the hashtag #freetommy came from the US. Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page has over a million followers from over a dozen countries outside of the UK.
The Bannon connection
The nationalist far-right today is, counter-intuitively, internationalist, according to Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works. He argues that multiple factors are helping to create an international movement.
For starters, you have ‘alienated young men in many societies across the world’. In Europe, they find common cause in a shared belief in existential threats to the ‘European way of life’. That idea finds a sympathetic audience across the Atlantic, where it ‘resonates with the [perceived] threats to whiteness in the United States’.
Next you have numerous ultra-nationalist governments. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, for example. The internet then connects all these disparate threads, which are given a cerebral gloss by ‘weird far-right intellectual figures’, like French journalist Guillaume Faye, author of Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance.
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon stands atop this international network. ‘Tommy Robinson’ has become a lucrative global brand. In 2018 he advertised a Deplorables Tour of Australia – a nod to Hillary Clinton’s unwise barb about bigoted Trump supporters – offering his fans a private dinner for $700. During his time in prison he gained high-profile backing, including from Steve Bannon, the former White House Chief Strategist who is treated as a Trump proxy by the media. He called Yaxley-Lennon ‘the backbone’ of Britain on an LBC radio talk show.
Bannon is a man who understands the way modern politics spreads online, through subcultures that percolate into the mainstream before going global – a dynamic that Tommy Robinson represents. As Bannon told the Telegraph, with an analysis that seems to draw on his experience as an investment banker, ‘Brexit and 2016 [the election of Trump] are inextricably linked. Ideas in the political marketplace travel like ideas in the financial marketplace. If something happens in the City of London, the next day it’s in Wall Street, the next day it’s in Singapore and Tokyo and Hong Kong.’
Bannon has tried to formalize this momentum. When Trump visited the UK, Bannon hosted a slew of far-right leaders (including Ekeroth) in a five-star Mayfair hotel. The event was such a success, Bannon boasted to the Daily Beast, that he was planning to hire staff and set up a viable international organization.
His idea was for a rightwing ‘super-group’ that could gain a third of seats in the European Parliament. ‘Everybody agrees that [the 2019 European elections are] hugely important, that this is the real first continent-wide face-off between populism and the party of Davos,’ he said.
The plan – dubbed the Movement – hit an immediate snag as it emerged that foreign interference would fall foul of electoral law in 9 of the 13 countries he planned to campaign in.
Friends in high places
While Bannon’s brainchild for a Fascist International received some initial support, with Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini reportedly joining the group and Viktor Orbán wishing the project ‘a lot of success’, many parties have preferred to keep their distance. British nationalists UKIP, the Alternative für Deutschland, the Freedom Party of Austria and French Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) leader Marine Le Pen have all poured cold water on it.
The politics of Our People First doesn’t tend to make for great alliances. UKIP, for instance, offered to share its experience with the Movement and help it elect ‘a new army of Eurosceptic MEPs’. But party leader Gerard Batten soon distanced his party, saying: ‘UKIP is a British party that is going to pursue aims for the British people.’
Nevertheless, at the highest levels of politics, controversial friendships are emerging. In July, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was welcomed by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who called him a ‘true friend of Israel’. Netanyahu gave the same label to Salvini, who visited in December. Strange friends indeed when both Orbán and Salvini have been accused of pedlling antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, the billionaire whose liberal philanthropy has seen him become a hated figure on the Right.
Israel’s ethnic chauvinism and Islamophobia have made its ultranationalist government a ‘beacon for Western fascists’, according to Stanley. Its apartheid system is an exemplar of how the far-right would like to treat minorities, given the chance. Salvini has declared that ‘Israel embodies the perfect balance of different realities, while ensuring law and order’, describing it as a ‘role model’ for security and anti-terror policies.
India has blazed a trail here, with Hindu nationalists seeing in Israel a country that shares its enmity with a Muslim population. The relationship between the two countries has flourished under Narendra Modi, whose plans to visit Israel in 2015 saw ‘Internet Hindus’ flood social media with #IndiaWithIsrael.
Despite disagreements over which nationalists come first, the far-right international had more than enough to rally around. Take climate change. The far-right and its backers tend to brand it as a liberal conspiracy. Presiding over 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest is Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. No believer in global warming, he has already merged the environment and agriculture ministries, paving the way for turning the earth’s lungs into a cattle farm.
At the same time, climate chaos and its accompanying catastrophes could create fertile ground for the siege mentality of xenophobia. ‘We know that the far-right plays on three critical issues: security, scarcity and identity,’ says political commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan. ‘Catastrophic climate change will disrupt our political systems, significantly deplete our resources and lead to huge increases in migration. [They] will exploit these seismic changes to their own advantage.’
Parties that already see migration as an existential threat would likely be the last to extend solidarity to climate migrants from the Global South – and pulling up the drawbridge will be a policy option with some appeal. The opportunism and hypocrisy of exploiting a crisis that they claim not to believe in may strike some as the ultimate irony, but this is likely to be lost on current and future supporters.
In 1934, Mussolini tried to create an international institution to represent fascists by holding a conference in Montreux, Switzerland. It failed in this mission amid disagreements, but provided the basis for the co-operation that was put to devastating effect in 1936, as fascist individuals, parties and governments across Europe helped defeat the leftwing republican government in the Spanish Civil War. As a new far-right international develops, broad ideological agreement and ad hoc co-operation could end up being far more important than any formal organization.