Last week, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson penned a scathing critique of right-wing populism, comparing its modern-day advocates such as Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump to the likes of fascist dictators Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. With a tendency of coming off as petulant and whiny, Robinson’s valid criticisms are buried beneath the uproar of his more acrimonious comparisons. If for no other reason than the fact that the Hitler analogy is an overused one riddled with hyperbole, while overlooking some noteworthy distinctions.
His underlying critique of right wing populism however, is a valid one. Historically, the “populist right” ideology has been centered around a sense of hyper nationalism, and in turn xenophobia and racism. It is fundamentally at odds with the movement of the populist left.
Robinson’s most incendiary call-out occurs when he takes aim at Saagar Enjeti, a former Daily Caller reporter and current co-host on The Hill’s web show Rising, a news commentary show where Enjeti and his co-host, former MSNBC anchor Krystal Ball, each provide their respective “populist right” and “populist left” perspectives on the news.
Many have noted the peculiar timing of the piece, which came after the pair did a critical segment on Robinson’s critique of former Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s newsletter, in which he asks “Has The American Media Lost its Mind?”. This provides an easy avenue for skeptics to dismiss Robinson’s thesis as the bitter clammorings of a virulent writer, pissed off that his article was criticized on a show on which he’d previously appeared.
For example, his description of their book as “disturbing” is a clear example of Robinson’s personal perversion getting in the way of his argument. It is a little absurd and cowardly to write about being “disturbed” by the thinking of two hosts of a program of which you’ve been a guest and did not seemingly have any concerns with at the time. As expected, the Rising team didn’t roll over silently; Ball quickly clapped back at Robinson on Twitter.
“Hey Nathan! Weird how comfortable you were promoting your book on our show and appearing as a guest multiple times given that you view @esaagar in the same category as Hitler and me apparently as a fascism enabler,” she wrote. It is difficult to dismiss the charges that this article was born out of petty retaliation for the way Rising covered Robinson’s take down of Matt Taibbi. Taibbi also got in on the Twitter beef, chiding Robinson and saying, “Natural reaction to being criticized for a few minutes on Rising: write massive piece decrying “fascism” that puts @esaagar in a montage with Bolsonaro and invokes Hitler and Mussolini in the lede.” In Robinson’s defense, at least nobody got drenched in hot coffee.
Though at times off base, it is important that Robinson’s better points are not lost in the uproar of his more acrimonious comparisons. In the piece he rebukes the neoliberal consensus presented by the supposed ideologically opposed think tanks Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute that right and left wing populists “can all be understood as part of the same tendency, because they all seek to overthrow ‘elites’ and ‘the establishment’ in the name of ‘the people’ and use the power of the state to create justice.” Which as Robinson notes, is patently false. It relies heavily on the debunked, horseshoe theory that has been used historically to categorize the left with totalitarian governments.
Robinson continues to provide quite compelling criticisms regarding the framing of the arguments presented in the pair’s book, A Populist’s Guide to 2020, and on Rising. Saagar’s politics is correctly identified in the piece as an ultra “nationalist socialism,” which was obviously also the monicker of the German Nazi party and the language was obviously used to ruffle feathers. A critical distinction between the politics of today’s New Right and the fascist politics of the 20th century, sans the lawless corralling and mass execution of dissidents, is the stark opposition to big business, which was championed by both Hitler and Mussolini and is rejected by the likes of Enjetti and Carlson.
Far more substantive criticisms can be lobbed at the supposedly populist right, beginning with the leader they have championed, Donald Trump, who hasn’t for a moment during his presidency acted in the economic interests of the American people, and who is himself the personification of a plutocrat, with his private jets, golf resorts, and golden toilets. Robinson is correct to point out that the success of a show like Rising comes from the hosts’ reluctance to get into deep waters of debate. Much of the show is centered around the failings of the neoliberal order, where the hosts poopoo the Pelosi’s and McConnell’s of the old guard, and champion the likes of Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley, respectively.
However, while Enjetti is quick to praise Hawley for his family-first politics on Rising—say when he’s presented a UBI bill in the midst of a crisis—he’s less likely to critique the foundation of Hawley’s politics, which are actually quite friendly to big business. Like that of all Republicans in the Senate, Hawley’s allegiance lies not with the people, but with the Koch Brothers and Tiel Capital (so much for being anti-Silicon Valley) and whomever else greased his palm during the campaign. As evidenced by his vocal support for Trump’s criminal tax bill that was a massive gift basket to the opulent and that Hawley described as “the right way forward.” Or how about his opposition to ballot measures in my home state of Missouri that would raise the minimum wage and reject the state’s right to work legislation? Not a peep.
The show is quick to chastise someone like Elizabeth Warren for compromising her position on rejecting Super PAC support, admonishing her for her quick return to the neoliberal order, a criticism I share, however the show remains almost laughably unwilling to castigate these supposedly populist Republican candidates falling over their own feet in a frenzy to fill their pockets with corporate cash.
“I have regretfully come to the conclusion that The Hill, owned by one of Trump’s close personal friends, puts on Rising mainly for the purpose of trying to trick leftists into softening on Trump & see nationalist racists as preferable to moderate Democrats” Robinson later tweeted, a remark dripping with petulance, and like much of Robinson’s writing is wrought with unelaborated hyperbole. However unlikely it is that The Hill is coordinating a conspiracy with Trump and gang, it is perfectly reasonable to critique the pair’s habit of equating left and right-wing populist candidates as pursuant of the same goal. In practice (and in theory) this is just plainly untrue.