How the Smug Politics of COVID-19 Empowers the Far Right
A few weeks ago, the center-left government of the Australian state of Victoria announced new restrictions to combat COVID-19. Victoria has already had, by some measures, the longest lockdown of anywhere in the world, employing curfews, curbs on outdoor activities, and the closure of children’s playgrounds.
The latest rules targeted the construction industry, closing down building-site “tearooms,” where workers escape the elements for breaks and meals, and imposing a vaccine mandate for the entire sector with little notice. Soon after, several construction workers took part in a peaceful protest, setting up their tearooms on the street and blocking major roads. Demonstrations soon grew, targeting both the state government and the local construction union for not doing enough to fight for the industry.
Before long, however, the protests were co-opted by members of the far right, and some turned to violence—engaging in street brawls, throwing bottles of urine at journalists, and kicking dogs. The state government countered harshly; images of police brutality circulated widely.
Yet in their response, the authorities (as well as their fellow Australian progressive politicians and commentators) have illustrated how the left, both in Australia and abroad, has largely abandoned working-class voters and ignored their concerns. This progressive political binary—one in which those opposed to harsh restrictions aimed at combatting COVID-19 are castigated for wanting to “let it rip”—has exploded during the pandemic, alienating huge numbers of people and aiding far-right recruitment.
I have been researching the far right and its connections to masculinity for four years, and the data indicate that although some people join the movement with deeply held racist and white-supremacist ideologies, that is not always the case. Many instead look to the far right primarily because of a sense of social alienation; they feel disconnected from family, social groups, and society more generally. The far right, in these cases, appeals not necessarily as a consequence of its ideology, but because it was the first group that listened. Ideology comes later.
In Australia, we are starting to see this growing sense of social alienation. My colleagues and I recently found that disenchantment with politics and our democratic system is on the rise, part of a long-term trend of disillusionment in which individuals see governments as more of a threat than a benefit to their lives. Echoing the sentiment that helped elect Donald Trump and cement Brexit, many Australians are turning against their country’s elites.
At the same time, progressive politics itself has become more elitist. Elements of the left have adopted what the Australian writer Jeff Sparrow calls a “smug politics,” one that looks down upon the working class. “Rather than treating working people as an agency for change or a constituency to be served,” Sparrow writes, progressives have “publicly declared them a problem to be solved.” This paternalistic worldview scolds workers for their failures, and says that a strong state is needed to tell them how to live their lives.
This trend has become more prominent during the pandemic. After the initial success of Australia’s response in 2020—we suffered far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than the United States and Europe—multiple cities this year have been plunged into months-long lockdowns, many of which have been harsher than those of the year before. Today in Melbourne, more than 80 percent of the eligible population has had the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, yet a nighttime curfew is still in place, outdoor gatherings are limited, and city residents cannot travel more than 15 kilometers (about nine miles) from their homes. Drinking alcohol outdoors, which is legal in Australia, has also been banned. Although the state has eased some of these rules, other restrictions, such as the bans on outdoor drinking and workplace curbs such as those in the construction industry, are harsher than last year’s regulations.
These restrictions have left many people suffering—the (conservative) federal government has thus far failed to implement financial support for those unable to work, and mental-health problems are worsening. Yet while several good campaigns have been introduced by some state and local authorities, as well as charities, to provide support for those struggling, big chunks of the left have instead lambasted individuals who have complained, accusing them of wanting to remove all restrictions entirely—to “let it rip.” Politicians and media members alike have engaged in an often racist and classist ritual humiliation of so-called wrongdoers: Dan Andrews, the leader of the Labor Party in Victoria, has been a ringleader, using his pulpit to attack individuals for apparently breaking the rules, although in many cases, later evidence has shown they hadn’t, while Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Labor premier of Queensland, mocked individuals who wanted to travel overseas, despite her own recent trip to Japan for the Olympics.
Here we return to Melbourne’s tearoom protests, which were seeded by genuine concerns from those whom we in Australia call “tradies.” The closure of tearooms represented a major safety issue, removing the only place workers have to take some rest, and the vaccine mandate gave workers only six days to prove that they had gotten their first jab, an incredibly short period in a country that has suffered from delays to its vaccine rollout. (In discussion I monitored online, many expressed fears that they would not be able to book vaccine appointments in time, leaving them unable to work, while others said that although they supported the vaccine, they did not want the government to force them to take it.)
In response to the earlier, more peaceful tearoom protests, however, one high-profile progressive writer in Australia said that construction workers were engaging in “man baby tantrums.” Later demonstrations, which were largely against the government’s vaccine mandate, elicited a similar response. The former Labor Party leader Bill Shorten described protesters as “man baby Nazis,” and Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton accused protesters of “living in a fantasy world,” saying “let’s not pretend these are otherwise rational individuals. They’re absolutely wacky.” But in monitoring the Telegram messenger groups that organized these protests, I found that many of the people who took part were not opposed to vaccinations themselves; rather, they believed that the policy was heavy-handed and would unfairly cost people their livelihood.
When you look at these responses from officials and progressive leaders, it is easier to understand how the far right was able to co-opt these protests. It was the only group willing to listen, empathize, and fight back. Many, if not most, of the people protesting were not “Nazis,” but the far right mirrored their anti-establishment rhetoric effectively. Writing about the authorities’ response to these protesters, Jay Daniel Thompson, a communications lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, argues, “It’s not difficult to imagine how such remarks might be framed as evidence by, say, anti-vaccine groups that governmental ‘elites’ are uncaring of—indeed, actively hostile toward—their constituents.”
The far right was also able to capitalize on simplistic narratives that labeled all participants as white supremacists or extremists. As Elise Thomas, an intelligence analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, notes, far-right groups could turn that labeling around, telling protesters who are not white supremacists that elites are clearly lying, and if elites are lying about this, then what else might they be lying about?
This is how the far right achieves success, and why COVID-19 has been such a boon for its recruitment efforts. Far-right groups tap into genuine anger about government policy and elite response and direct that into their favored ideas. Progressives, by contrast, over the course of the pandemic, have insisted that we must trust elites to implement some of the biggest social changes carried out in recent decades. When people ask questions or raise concerns, they are criticized and told they are letting it rip. The far right has done a good job of bringing those who may have reasonable suspicions of these policies into the fold.
Progressives—and I would include myself in this group—need to rethink how we engage with individuals tempted by far-right ideas. I’m not suggesting we repeat the mistakes of many journalists who have interviewed far-right leaders to try to “understand” their views, thus giving them a platform to normalize these beliefs. But there is a difference between those leading the far right and those who have a looser connection to it. The latter group needs more engagement.
This starts with solidarity, recognizing that those of us in the working class have more in common with each other than we do with the elite. We should strive to improve people’s material conditions, reduce the power of the state to control people’s lives, and restore the fundamental right to dissent through protesting and striking. Most important, we need to understand that people’s distrust of the elite is based on real failures from governments of all political persuasions.
A better narrative and true engagement are the ways forward. Dismissing people’s real concerns as “man baby tantrums” does not cut it—if anything, it is making the situation much worse.