Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.

1 https://www.vox.com/2020/5/21/21256324/viktor-Orbán-hungary-american-conservatives

2 https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/why-australia-s-conservatives-are-finding-friends-in-hungary-20190924-p52uim.html

3 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/13/trump-latest-viktor-Orbán-hungary-prime-minister-white-house

4 https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/europeanstateofhate-polling/

The state of hate in Europe

Image from Rio Times Online

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Written by Byron Clark.

The UK based Hope Not Hate campaign have released their annual report on the state of far-right extremism. While the report’s focus in on Europe there is a New Zealand connection, with the report noting that the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack, which was released last December found that the killer had made at least 16 donations to international far-right groups and people since 2017, including a total of £2,500 to numerous European branches of the Identitarian network Generation Identity.

New Zealand based fascist group Action Zealandia are also mentioned in the context of the British group Patriotic Alternative holding a day of action across the UK to coincide with International Indigenous People’s Day (IPD). The event involved repeating, at a national scale, a strategy the group employed last July where they displayed a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner on the top of Mam Tor, a hill in Derbyshire. Action Zealandia had submitted a photo of their own ‘White Lives Matter’ banner drop in Auckland for the day of action. The overtly white supremacist politics of Action Zealandia have meant that rather than attempting to grow in New Zealand, they have focused on building relationships with fascist groups overseas.

A section of the report looks at the spread of the Qanon conspiracy theory, which began on 4chan and had a distinctly US focus – claiming that Donald Trump was taking on a cabal of satanic child abusers among the “deep state”, the Democratic Party, and various liberal elites in Hollywood and media. In Europe, the conspiracy has taken on local characteristics, In Greece, social media posts use the relevant hashtags to blend Q-narratives with anti-Roma prejudices and racism against black migrants. In Hungary, there is a strong connection between Qanon and antisemitism, with a specific hatred of the Hungarian born billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

There has also been a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, which the far-right has exploited. While the movement started in the US, in Europe it has provoked continent-wide discussions about race, colonialism and imperial legacies. Generation Identity activists in France held an anti-BLM counter protest last June where they unfurled a huge banner reading “Justice for the victims of anti-white racism: #WhiteLivesMatter”. Generation Identity activists in Germany also sought to capitalise on a series of large BLM demonstrations across the country by launching a campaign titled #NiemalsaufKnien (Never on our knees) in response to protestors and politicians kneeling in solidarity with the victims of racial violence.

The report cites The 2020 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute of Economics & Peace, which highlights that we are experiencing a peak of far-right terrorism in the West with 49 registered attacks in 2019, an upwards going trend for five consecutive years. Data for 2020 is not yet available but Hope Not Hate points out that there remains “a large and active terror advocating far-right community.” They note that many terror-related arrests and multiple new groups were formed in 2020, and multiple attacks and attempted attacks occurred in Germany, Norway and the UK- directly inspired by the terrorism in Christchurch.

Polling shows attitudes towards immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities are poor across all eight countries surveyed, but particularly bad in Italy and Hungary.

There are however some positives in the report too. In October, after a trial lasting more than five years, the leadership of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were found guiltily of running a criminal organisation. That same month, former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party went on trial on kidnapping charges over an incident in 2019 when he prevented 116 migrants from disembarking in Sicily. With a few exceptions, far-right parties in governments have seen a drop in their support.

One of those notable exceptions is the Polish Konfederacja, who won eleven seats in parliament last year with 6.8% of the vote. Konfederacja has used social media to their advantage, gaining more engagement than the social media pages of more mainstream parties. Konfederacja’s links issues of gender and LGBT rights with the reform of the educational system and the rights of parents to educate their children in their own way. Parallels could be drawn here with New Zealand’s New Conservative Party, who grew a sizable Facebook following and focused on “gender ideology” in schools as a major part of their 2020 election campaign. Konfederacja has also attempted to capitalise on the pandemic by criticising measures taken by the government such as restrictions on businesses and movement.

Attempts at rallying support against immigration for example, did not succeed in capturing the public mood.

Elsewhere in Europe the far-right have not had much success with pandemic-related talking points. The spread of Covid19 has shifted migration rhetoric to include the risk to individual health, but the virus has not spread across Europe through the typical refugee and migratory routes. While far right politicians were calling for closing ports in Italy, for example, COVID-19 had already created clusters throughout the country, making anti-migrant rhetoric less effective.

The full report can be read at https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/research/state-of-hate-reports/state-of-hate-europe2021/

Fascism’s conservative enablers

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Written by CA Monteath-Carr.

In March of 2020, two nationalists and a libertarian sat down for “the ideological debate of the century: Conservatism vs Libertarianism.”1

The debate was not widely viewed, garnering less than a thousand views across YouTube, BitChute, and live viewers. The host, James Davidson, is a far-right content creator and former member of the ACT party. His past projects include JChannel, now rebranded as RightTimes.tv, a streaming channel that covers topics such as “white wellbeing” and how multiculturalism is a “cold war” against traditional Western values.

The libertarian, Stephen Berry, is a former deputy leader of the LibertariaNZ party – the fringe political party for people who think ACT are mainstream, statist sell-outs. Stephen is not an incredibly deep political thinker, and it is not clear that he realises who or what his interlocutors are; he presents his views, but never meaningfully pushes back against anything the other two participants bring up.

The third man, Dieuwe de Boer, is another far-right blogger. He runs Right Minds NZ, a blog where he rails against abortion (“Abortion Is Really Sick, Extreme, and Odious,” reads a blog post dated 19/03/2020,2 “we need those who can train Christians on how to agitate against abortion in the way that churches fought and ended slavery two centuries ago,” a somewhat ahistorical view of American Christianity’s relationship with the Peculiar Institution). His blog minimises and downplays systemic and societal racism in New Zealand (the Christchurch shooter’s eco-fascism is compared to climate change activists Extinction Rebellion; systemic racism in New Zealand is “the dirtiest of dirty lies … being peddled by people who have a special interest in New Zealand being viewed as a racist hellhole.”)

The debate is less interesting for any questions it poses and fails to answer as to the merits of xenophobic nationalism versus libertarianism as moral and political philosophies, and more interesting in how de Boer and Davidson market their xenophobic nationalism as mere ‘conservatism.’ The far right, in Aotearoa and around the world, realise that their beliefs are on the edge of political respectability, and so activists such as de Boer and Davidson go to some lengths to launder their beliefs and so push them further into the mainstream.

***

There is historical precedent for this. Ever since fascism – the particular blend of racism, nationalism, the allure of a romanticised historical greatness, the cult of libationary violence and heroic action for action’s own sake, and the rejection of modernity and multiculturalism – arose in the early 20th century in the shadow of the horrors of The Great War and gained traction in Europe following the economic collapse of the Great Depression, fascist parties and agitators have always needed the support of mainstream conservatives in order to take and hold power.

Mussolini, for example, was installed as dictator of Italy once his March on Rome convinced right-wing business leaders and the King that he was the best defence they had against a left-wing parliament. Hitler, too, was made Chancellor not by winning a free election, but by social conservatives and business leaders who feared Social Democratic reforms. Today, in the 21st century, far-right leaders and would-be dictators from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power by rising to the leadership of right- and centre-right parties and using their power to popularise their xenophobic nationalism.

While not every far-right activist believes in taking power through electoral politics, it is worth keeping an eye on the ones who do. The very online far-right activists are adept at seeding their ideas throughout the culture; this is how a popular celebrity chef ends up re-posting a cartoon containing occult Nazi symbolism or how the centre-right National party echoed far-right conspiracy theories about the UN Global Compact on Migration in 2018, and continued to do so as recently as July 2019, despite the fact that a man, acting on a sincere belief in these conspiracy theories, murdered 51 innocent people in Ōtautahi/Christchurch six months earlier.

***

Back in the debate, de Boer’s chief complaint against libertarianism, it seems, is that it focuses too much on the individual, almost as if there is “too much liberty,” and that libertarianism doesn’t have an anchor to the past.

While de Boer might be applauded for believing that there is, in fact, such a thing as society, the society he wants is a homogenous one, with no room for diverse lifestyles. There is a correct way to live, and it is the role of the state to promote and if necessary enforce that.

Without the state monopoly of force, he says, “you lose the ability to keep a cohesive nation of people who have similar values and similar ideas and similar backgrounds to keep your nation together, and you probably end up with a government that needs to get bigger and stronger to stop people from fighting each other.”

This emphasis on there being One True Way to live one’s life is a recurring motif in de Boer’s thought. The correct way of life has already been discovered and proven; all that remains is to follow it. This One True Way is, of course, grounded in “Anglo-Christian heritage and culture,” and can be applied very effectively throughout the world.

Colonialism, in other words, was good for Māori. According to de Boer, “Māori embraced and adopted a lot of this English culture, with high literacy rates compared to England.” It’s only when New Zealand adopts the “socialist approach” that Māori start to suffer:

…what happened in the 20th century it was the adoption of the more ‘socialist approach’ was what’s being very damaging to Maori and I think that conservatism does have the answer to the social issues that Maori are seeing and that what the Left in general and socialism is offering them that’s what’s actually maintaining the – you know if you have intergenerational welfare, if you have if you’re being encouraged to go back to these old ways, to ‘decolonise,’ that is actually harmful I believe and that the Western way of life is adaptable for everyone and that it will actually improve outcomes.

De Boer very explicitly ties British Imperialism, colonisation and conquest to his view of conservatism – they are one and the same. De Boer frames the spread of the British Empire, it’s exploitation of indigenous people, and extraction of foreign wealth, as merely “exporting Conservatism.”

Historically speaking that’s what conservatism especially in the English sense has done. What we refer to as the Anglosphere countries – you know, England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America – are basically the most prosperous and wealthy countries in the world. Singapore and Hong Kong [were] outposts there and you had some in Africa until recently anyway that were doing very well and so consider, it was mocked and it was mocked today but the idea that at least the English conservatives had was hey we can go to these people and we can share our religion with them and show them how we build our society and then they can come on board and join into this.

Not that de Boer means to whitewash or brush off the less savoury aspects of Colonialism, mind:

Sometimes a little bit too aggressively and too much force was used I’m not saying this was like perfect and all roses you know this was wonderful and lovely and everyone loved it and it was great for everybody but looking back at it in the long run this is something that did work and so I have no particular objection to it in that way. I get of course that not everybody might want to be a part of that but again that is something that did that conservatives have done and has worked well so the idea, you can export conservatism and especially the English did they exported their conservatism around the world and it exported very very well.

(Stephen Berry, asked for comment after this speech, says he has nothing to add.)

While it’s quite common for small-c social conservatives to romanticise the British Empire and make apologetics for colonialism, de Boer elevates this “Western Chauvinism” into an ideology, and justifies the violence and oppression of colonial rule by pointing to the material wealth hoarded by the perpetrators of the violence and descendants of the oppressors. White countries can be seen as the current global hegemon, therefore, white culture is the best culture, and should be imposed upon everybody, by force if necessary.

***

De Boer would go on to stand as the New Conservative party’s candidate for Botany in the 2020 general election, the seat vacated by Jamie-Lee Ross (Advance NZ) and ultimately won by Christopher Luxon (National).

De Boer only won 482 votes, a mere 1.54% of electorate votes cast in the seat. This can be thought of as a comforting statistic: de Boer is not a natural or charismatic public speaker, and Botany is a traditionally safe National seat, so this result is well within expectations for a neophyte candidate from a fringe party.

Alternatively, de Boer’s candidacy and the New Conservative’s campaign can be viewed as the normalisation of far-right views. Overshadowed by Christopher Luxon’s high-profile campaign – amidst speculation that Luxon was the heir apparent of former National leader John Key – de Boer did not attract much press attention. Local Auckland paper Times ran a favourable piece in their May 12, 2020 edition, downplaying a January visit from Police as “politically motivated,” noting his opposition to the Abortion Legislation bill but not reporting that de Boer views abortion as tantamount to barbaric human sacrifice.

While de Boer only received a handful of votes, more than a handful of Botany residents will have watched him speak at candidate events. Even more will have read coverage of New Conservative policies and received copies of their glossy literature. And in this way, far-right talking points can be re-framed as simply common-sense conservative ideas.

***

One last anecdote.

I met then New Conservative leader Leighton Baker at a candidate meeting in Christchurch, and engaged him in a conversation afterwards in regard to the party’s staunch opposition to hate speech legislation, on the grounds that free speech rights should be paramount.

I was making the point that there is an argument that ethno-nationalists and fascists do not respect the free speech of dissidents once they are in power, and that as these groups do not respect the marketplace of ideas, perhaps they should be excluded from it. Leighton was having none of it.

“But what if [fascists] get support, and then seize power?” I asked. “If people choose fascism, that’s OK with you?”

“Well, that’s a stupid decision,“ he replied. “But the people have to choose, because otherwise, someone has dictated to them what they’re allowed to choose. And isn’t that to some degree fascism?”

1 See https://righttimes.tv/libertarianism-conservatism-debate/

2 Archived at https://bit.ly/2NBEapC

ANZACs vs Jihadis? Examining the far right’s WWI narrative

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Article by Byron Clark.

On April 30, 2019, the website Right Minds, operated by Diewue de Boer, published an article headlined “Christian Man Threatened With Arrest For Anzac Day Sign”.1 The sign in question featured pictures of the man’s uncle accompanied by the text “Died of wounds incurred at Gallipoli fighting against the Islamic Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire — fighting for God, King, and Country.” The reverse side of the sign read “Allah has no Son and so cannot be the God & Father of Jesus Christ — the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob — the God of the Holy Bible — your Creator & mine. Honour our Fallen Soldiers — Resist Tyranny — Fight for Freedom.”

According to Right Minds, the man had been told by police, “people are feeling intimidated and unsafe”. Those feelings would be an understandable response to a man making an explicitly anti-Islam statement a mere six weeks after a far-right terrorist murdered fifty-one Muslims in Christchurch. It should be noted that de Boer, the co-founder of Right Minds, told Stuff that he had read parts of the shooter’s manifesto and agreed there are points where it overlaps with his movement, despite his opposition to terrorism and violence.2 (In early 2020 police raided de Boer’s home over a suspected illegal firearm.3)

The man attending ANZAC day commemorations in Titahi Bay, identified only as Aaron, was promoting the idea that the First World War was a clash of civilisations between the Christian and Islamic worlds. There are elements of truth in this narrative – for example the Sultan-Caliph of the Ottoman empire proclaimed an official “Great Jihad” on 14 November 1914 – but as is usually the case with the kind of historical narrative that can fit on two sides of a plywood board, the reality is much more complex.

When the war began, 90% of the world’s Muslims resided in lands colonised by Europeans.4 The Ottoman empire, where most of the remaining 10% resided, remained uncolonized but was highly sought after by the European powers. The Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck wrote in The Holy War, Made in Germany:

The competition with England, France, and Russia again made it desirable for all parties that their spheres of interest should be determined. Before the war the understanding had come so far that they were expected in the present year to reach an agreement, by which England would receive Southern Mesopotamia as its economic territory, France; Syria, Germany; the part of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor which is bounded on the one hand by the 34th and 41st degrees of east, longitude, and on the other by the 36th and 39th degrees of northern latitude, whereas the northern part of Asia Minor was to be given to a French-Russian combine for railway construction.”5

The Ottoman Empire in 19146

Snouck goes on to write “For this economic sphere of influence Germany would have felt slightly grateful, but by no means satisfied.”

Germany alone can save Turkey, and she has a huge interest in doing so since only the preservation of the complete integrity of the Ottoman Empire will make it possible for Germany to protect and to develop the economic position which she has gained in it. Besides, Germany is the only one among the large powers with which Turkey has to count who would not wish to annex a single foot of the country, and could not even if she wanted to. Germany’s geographical position would prevent her from effectively protecting such possessions and deriving profit from them. That is why during the twenty-five years of her more intimate relations with Turkey, Germany has always been the only trustworthy friend of the Empire of the Sultan-Caliph. There is between the two countries, apart from all questions of sentiment, a natural community of interests, whereas the interests of all the other large powers can only be furthered at the cost of Turkey’s welfare, and finally of her existence.7

For Snouck, the declaration of jihad was a ploy to further German colonial interests. His work Holy War Made in Germany is primarily a polemic against the writing of the German politician Hugo Grothe.

[T]he question remains whether, as Grothe hopes and expects, the Mohammedan nations under European rule will really be so charmed by the call to arms issued in the name of Sultan Mehmed Reshad, that they will attack their masters ”here with secrecy and ruse, there with fanatical courage.” Grothe already sees in his imagination how ”the thus developed religious war”—so he openly calls it—is to mean especially for England ” the decline of her greatness.”8

A goal of German strategy in the war was to have the Muslim populations of the British and French empires rebel against their colonisers – all in aid of Germany’s own imperial interests. To this end the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient (Intelligence Office for the East) was established. Max von Oppenheim, the head of this office, produced reports with titles such as “Die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde” (Bringing about a Revolution in the Muslim Territories of our Enemies).9 In a memorandum titled “Exploitation of Muslim prisoners of war” (“Benutzung der kriegsgefangenen Muhammedaner”, dated 2 October 1914 he suggested that a mosque be constructed in the prisoner of war camp where Muslims were being held.

The Intelligence Office for the East suggested the construction cost should be funded at least in part by Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II in order to present the mosque as a gift from the German Kaiser to the Muslims. Due to resistance from the treasury, the mosque’s construction was financed from the regular budget of the military administration of the prison, but the mosque was still used for German propaganda efforts. Newspapers at the time described the good treatment of Muslim POWs “nearly as guests of the German people” (“fast als Gäste des deutschen Volkes”).10 A newspaper produced by the Nachrichtenstelle titled al-Jihad was produced in numerous languages and distributed at the Halbmondlager (Half Moon Camp) where Muslim POWs from the British and French armies were held, and the camp in Zossen that was used to hold Muslim POWs from the Tsarist army.11The success of this propaganda effort was severely limited. Some former POWs were sent to the Ottoman empire as Jihad volunteers, where they were deployed mainly at the Iraqi front. They were expected to write enthusiastic letters to their fellow jihadists still remaining in Germany describing their successful inclusion in the Ottoman army and the weakness of the British enemy. In reality though there was a lot of dissatisfaction due to inadequate accommodation, lack of food and poor treatment by the Ottoman officers, which led to insubordination and desertion. Besides that, the Ottoman authorities had preferred Germany to send settlers and workers instead of soldiers. The Jihad propaganda was ended at the end of 1916.12There was divided opinion among Muslims regarding the war. The Islamic reformer Rashid Rida heavily criticised the Committee of Union and Progress, the ruling party in the Ottoman empire, describing them as “enemies of Arabs and Islam.” Highly sceptical of German colonial ambitions in the middle east, Rida believed if Germany succeeded in building their planned Berlin to Baghdad railway, then British military power would never be able to “stop the stream of German greed.”13While Rida was an advocate of full Arab independence – from both the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism – he regularly stressed that Britain was preferable for many Muslims to Russia, Germany and France for the justice and the religious freedom given to British subjects in the colonies. Throughout the war, Rida attempted to persuade British Intelligence in Cairo of his ability, through the Decentralization Party, to influence Arab officers in the Ottoman army to rebel against their Ottoman and German commanders. He was eager to replace the Ottoman Caliphate with an Arab one after the war. While he later confirmed his allegiance to the Ottoman Caliphate (which he distinguished from the CUP government) this was only after British authorities were unwilling to provide the Arabs with any support.14When looking more deeply at the historical context of Islam in the first world war, the idea that the war was some kind of clash of civilisations between Islam and the Western (or Christian) world is hard to justify. It may be true that the uncle of the man who brought his homemade sign to the ANZAC commemorations in Titahi Bay was “fighting against the Islamic Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire;” however the British Empire, of which New Zealand and Australia were part, was not in a religious war with an Islamic caliphate but in a war of rival colonial powers in which the interests of one of those powers, Germany, were aligned with the interests of the Ottoman empire.

Few of the world’s Muslims conceptualised the war as a religious conflict either (Rashid Rida for example saw the conflict as a “greedy” materialistic war which had nothing to do with religion.15) with most of the world’s Muslims living outside the Ottoman empire and many fighting alongside the allied powers.

Simplistic black and white narratives of history are pushed by those who seek to wield history as a weapon in the interests of power or the ideology of nationalism, they rarely – if ever – tell the complete story. This has implications for the present. Erik-Jan Zurcher writes in the introduction to Jihad and Islam in WWI, a collection of conference presentations first given on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Snouk’s book, that what fuels the fear of Jihad in the western world today is not so much the acts of extreme and demonstrative violence that occur, but the uncertainty about the degree of support for the Jihad among the large Muslim communities in European and American countries.16 It’s this fear that was exploited by Donald Trump when he campaigned on instituting “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”; closer to home, individuals like Aaron attempt to grow that fear.

1 “Christian Man Threatened With Arrest For Anzac Day Sign”, Dieuwe de Boer, Right Minds 30-04-2019, Archived at https://bit.ly/3rR22DR

2 “Radical losers and lone wolves: What drives the alt-right?”, Philip Matthews, Stuff, 23-03-2019. Archived at https://tinyurl.com/deboerstuff

3 “Far-right activist’s house raided over suspected illegal firearm”, Matthew Theunissen, RNZ, 11-01-20. Archived at https://tinyurl.com/o2kowvz4

4 Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. The Holy War, Made in Germany. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1915, p.9. Available at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Holy_War,_Made_in_Germany

5 Snouck, p.20

6 ‘Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914’, Ministry for Culture and Heritage (New Zealand). URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/map-ottoman-empire-1914, updated 14-Aug-2014.

7 Snouck, p.21

8 Snouck, p.22

9 “Introduction” in Zurcher, Erik-Jan (ed.), Jihad and Islam in WWI, University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 20

10 Gussone, Martin, “Architectural Jihad: The ‘Halbmondlager’ Mosque of Wünsdorf as an Instrument of Propaganda”, in Zurcher (ed.), p.189

11 Ibid. p. 23

12 Ibid. p.211

13 Ryad, Umar, “A German ‘Illusive Love’: Rashīd Ridā’s Perceptions of the First World War in the Muslim World”, in Zurcher (ed.), p. 312

14 Ibid p.321

15 Ibid p.316

16 “Introduction” in Zurcher (ed.), p 27

The genocide that inspired the Christchurch shooter

ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Article by Byron Clark.

At the start of the livestream video that accompanied the terror attack in Christchurch, (quickly deemed an objectionable publication) the shooter plays the song “Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs”. Karadžić refers to a Serbian war criminal dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” by the media in the 1990s. The song is also known as “Serbia Strong” and “God Is a Serb and He Will Protect Us”, or in the online far-right spaces the terrorist frequented, as “Remove Kebab”. It’s a jingoist folk song dating back to the conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, which culminated in the largest genocide on European soil since the Holocaust.

The Royal Commission report into the shooting notes that while the terrorist travelled in the former Yugoslavia in late 2016 and early 2017 it’s “at least possible that he visited some places because of their association with historical events in which he was interested”1 describing his travels as not the cause of his mobilisation to violence, but as the setting for it.

The individual was thus in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina between 25 December 2016 to 31 January 2017. It was during this time that he wrote to the Bruce Rifle Club, which we see as the first tangible indications of his mobilisation to violence.

This article will examine how a nationalism with a specifically anti-Muslim character, and a lack of historical remembrance of the Bosnian genocide created an inspirational story for the modern far-right, specifically the man who murdered fifty-one Muslim worshippers in Christchurch.

Historical background: constructing a nationalist narrative

The Balkan region was a kind of geographic midpoint for the different religious groups of Europe and the near east. After the great schism in Christianity in the eleventh century, the region contained the Eastern Orthodox Serbs and the Western Catholic Croats. There has been a history of armed conflict between these two groups, largely confined to the 20th century.

The region’s Muslim population dates back to the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the idea that Slavic Muslims and Serbs are ancient enemies, prominent during the wars of the 1990s, is much more recent; it was constructed by nationalist Serbs in the nineteenth century and projected back to the 1389 battle of Kosovo (and then back even further.)2In the five centuries following the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, Muslims and Christians coexisted in what was a relatively tolerant environment for the times. Under Ottoman rule a formal charter guaranteed the freedom of the region’s Christians to practice their religion, and Ottoman Sarajevo provided sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.3The battle of Kosovo was fought between the invading Ottoman Empire and a Serbian army led by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, who ruled the most powerful state on the territory of the disintegrated Serbian empire. The way history remembered these events has changed in recent times.

The battle was not the central theme of Serbian historical stories. Prince Lazar would become a significant historical figure only in the nineteenth century, when his story was taken up by Serbian nationalists. It was later also taken up by the Christchurch shooter, who wrote Lazar’s name on one of his guns.4Nations are not things that occur naturally; they are always socially constructed. The Serbian nationalists of the nineteenth century could have taken a cross-cultural, cross-religious view, and based their nationhood on language. This was the approach of philologist and linguist Vuk Karadžić (1787-1865). For him, Serb nationality was a function of the language; all speakers of the South Slavic dialects, whether Catholic, Muslim, or Orthodox, were considered Serbs.5This contrasts with the views of poet and prince-bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1813-1851) For Njegoš, the region’s Muslims could never be part of the nation. By converting to Islam , Njegoš insisted, Slavic Muslims had “Turkified,” adopting not just the religion of the Ottomans, but actually transforming themselves into Turks. By converting to a religion other than Christianity, Njegoš believed people were converting from the Slav race to an alien race.6After gaining its autonomy and then independence from the Ottoman empire in the 1910s, Serbia as a state expanded. In his book Genocide in Bosnia, Norman Cigar writes of what this meant for the region’s Muslim population.

In the territories acquired during this phase, the Muslims were forced to convert, leave, or be liquidated. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Serbia had been largely cleansed of native Muslims and of the Turkish minority. The problem re-emerged, however, after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia was able to seize and annex two predominantly Islamic provinces from the hapless Ottoman Empire: Kosovo and the Sandzak, as well as Macedonia, which had a large Muslim population.7The establishment of Yugoslavia in 1918 united all Serbs in a single state, but significantly this wasn’t a Serb nation state. In 1933 during a reshuffle of internal borders, Yugoslav President Milan Srskic explained changes saying it was “Because of the Turks [Muslims]. I cannot stand to see minarets in Bosnia; they must disappear.”

By the late 1930s, these ideologues were encouraged by the rise of intolerance in many parts of Europe, and the situation had reached the point that plans were drafted for the mass expulsion of Yugoslavia’s largely Muslim Albanians. Yugoslavia, at the time, didn’t have the political or military power to put this plan into action.

During World War II, fascist states allied to Nazi Germany were established in Croatia and Serbia. In addition to the pro-Nazi state established in Belgrade, other Serbian nationalists organised the Chetnik movement, led by Draza Mihailovic. The goal of the movement was to establish a Greater Serbia in the Balkans.8Operational orders provided by Mihailovic to his field commanders made the Chetniks’ intent toward the Muslim population clear:

Point 4. To cleanse the state territory of all national minorities and anti-national elements. Point 5. To create a direct, continuous, border between Serbia and Montenegro, and between Serbia and Slovenia, by cleansing the Sandzak of the Muslim inhabitants and Bosnia of the Muslim and Croatian inhabitants.

The objective was clarified further in instructions sent from Mihailovic’s headquarters to the commander of a Chetnik brigade:

It should be made clear to everyone that, after the war or when the time becomes appropriate, we will complete our task and that no one except the Serbs will be left in Serbian lands. Explain this to [our] people and ensure that they make this their priority. You cannot put this in writing or announce it publicly, because the Turks [Muslims] would hear about it too, and this must not be spread around by word of mouth.

The defeat of the Chetniks by the Communists in World War II left them unable to complete their nationalist programme, but as a compromise Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito granted Serbia control over several areas in the region, and Serbs were given a disproportionate share of posts in the federal bureaucracy, military, diplomatic corps, economic infrastructure, judicial system, and Communist Party – a situation which prevailed until the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Modern History: Nationalism in the late 20th century

By the time Yugoslavia disintegrated, a ready-made nationalist ideology was available for exploitation. But the re-emergence of nationalism was not inevitable. Cigar writes:

The transformation in interethnic relations needed for the mass mobilization of the Serbs in support of a more confrontational relationship, including vis-à-vis the Muslims, was neither spontaneous nor unavoidable. Instead, a preparatory phase, marked by an intensive and methodical top-down political and information campaign in the 1980s, was required to change the value system of an entire generation of Serbs.

Well before the actual breakup of Yugoslavia, influential figures in Serbia had begun to shape a stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior, and a threat. The novelist Vuk Draskovic in his book Noz, wrote Muslim characters as treacherous, cold-blooded murderers. The book even contains an explicit denial of the Muslims’ existence as a legitimate community. One future commander of the Serbian Guard militia spoke of the influence the novel had on him:

I beat up many Muslims and Croatians on vacation in Cavtat because of his Noz. Reading that book, I would see red, I would get up, select the biggest fellow on the beach, and smash his teeth.

Anti-Islam ideology become prominent among Serbian intellectuals. When, for example, Belgrade’s Muslim community requested land for a cemetery, political scientist Miroljub Jevtić responded:

From land for the dead, the next step is to conquer land for the living. They will then seek a mosque, fully legitimately, but then, around the mosque, they will seek land on which to settle Muslims. Then, it will not be long before non-Muslims will leave, initially voluntarily but later under pressure. . . . What is planned is to settle Muslims in those areas, and to then step up the birth-rate in order to achieve numerical superiority gradually.

This concern about birth rates among Muslims is a precursor to the modern ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, which posits that there is a deliberate plan to overwhelm white populations with people of colour (often Muslims specifically) – the Christchurch shooter went so far as to name his manifesto ‘The Great Replacement’. Much like the modern far-right’s claims of a “white genocide” being imminent, Serb nationalists in the 1980s claimed a genocide against Serbs by Muslims in Bosnia and predominantly Muslim provinces of Serbia was a real possibility. In his book The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia Michael Sells writes:

By the time the Bosnian conflict began, the national mythology, hatred, and unfounded charges of actual genocide in Kosovo and imminent genocide in Bosnia had been shaped into a code: the charge of genocide became a signal to begin genocide.

In the late 1980s Serbian nationalists marched in Bosnian cities with the bones of prince Lazar, and the proclamation “We will do our utmost to crush their race and descendants so completely that history will not even remember them.”

The Bosnian war

Beginning in 1992 Serbian militias began to put this plan into action. When Serbian nationalists came to a predominantly Muslim town, the first people they targeted were intellectual and cultural leaders. Religious authorities, teachers, lawyers, doctors, business people, artists, poets, and musicians. According to Michael Sells, the goal of this was to destroy the cultural memory of the Bosnian Muslims.

In an incident recounted by the Bosnian writer Ivan Lovrenovic, a Serb army officer had entered the home of an artist in Sarajevo. This artist was Serbian but among his works was a piece that depicted a page from the Qur’an. Infuriated, the officer had all the artwork taken out into the street, lined up, and shot to pieces with automatic weapon fire.

The Serbs destroyed the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, which was home to the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts in the region, and later the National Library and National Museum. Mosques were another target. Between them, Serb and also Croat nationalists destroyed an estimated fourteen hundred mosques. In many cases the site of the mosques were ploughed over and turned into car parks, all evidence of their prior existence removed. Graveyards, birth records, work records, and other traces of the Bosnian Muslim people were eradicated.

Prior to destroying the recorded history and culture of Bosnian Muslims, Serbian nationalists had been emphasizing their own historical narrative. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo had been elevated to the level of national lore by the nationalists of the nineteenth century. That was still very much the case a century later. In his speech commemorating the six hundredth anniversary of the battle, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic proclaimed :”Today, it is difficult to say what is true and what is legend about the Battle of Kosovo. Today, that is not even important.”

Norman Cigar wrote of this nationalist use of history, not as an actual chronological record of the past and its scholarly study, but as an “ideological club” whose greatest utility was as “a potential mobilization vehicle.” The story was influential not just in the region but worldwide. Cigar writes:

One cannot explain today’s developments, much less the occurrence of genocide, simply by taking a mechanistic linear view of such a milestone as, say, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in which the Ottomans defeated the medieval Serbian state. This battle, however, has been perceived by many Western observers as the root of an enduring Serbian-Islamic struggle and, ostensibly, the mainspring of the current situation.

Michael Sells writes that when the national mythology was appropriated by political leaders, backed with massive military power, and protected by NATO nations, it became an “ideology of genocide.” A set of symbols, rituals, stereotypes, and partially concealed assumptions that dehumanize a people as a whole, and justify the use of military power to destroy them.

In the city of Banja Luka, it was announced on local television that one thousand Muslims would be allowed to remain in the city (out of over 28,000). All the others would have to go, “one way or another.” By the end of 1993, of the 350,000 Muslims living in the Banja Luka region before the war, only 40,000 remained. In Bijeljina, Serb officials set the appropriate quota of Muslims who could continue to live in the town – 5 percent of the pre-war number. And in the town of Kozarac, houses were color-coded according to the owner’s ethnicity and then “destroyed systematically.” Samantha Power, a journalist covering the Yugoslav wars at the time who later became the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, writes:

Sometimes Muslims and Croats were told they had forty-eight hours to pack their bags. But usually they were given no warning at all. Machine gun fire or the smell of hastily sprayed kerosene were the first hints of an imminent change of domicile. In virtually no case where departure took place was the exit voluntary. As refugees poured into neighbouring states, it was tempting to see them as the by-products of war, but the purging of non-Serbs was not only an explicit war aim of Serb nationalists; it was their primary aim.9

For the next three years as this euphemistically named “ethnic cleansing” went on, the West did little to stop it, and in fact, did much to facilitate it.

Passing on September 25 1991, UN Security Council Resolution 713 imposed an arms embargo that locked into place the vast Serb army advantage in heavy weapons, reinforcing the power imbalance that allowed genocide to be carried out with impunity. The Serbs had access to the resources of the Yugoslav army, who, supported and financed by the Western powers, had stockpiled immense stores of weapons in anticipation of a Soviet invasion that never came The five permanent members of the Security Council; the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China all voted for the embargo.10In the following years it become increasingly clear that what was happening in Bosnia was not a civil war, but a genocide of one ethnic group by another. The international community didn’t completely ignore what was going on. The UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions, deployed peacekeepers, and helped deliver humanitarian aid. What the United States and its NATO allies did not do until it was too late, however, was intervene with armed force to stop genocide.11According to Samantha Power, the US was reluctant to intervene as they had no national interest in the region, unlike in the Gulf War of 1991.

Iraq had eventually threatened U.S. oil supplies, whereas Yugoslavia’s turmoil threatened no obvious U.S. national interests. The war was “tragic,” but the stakes seemed wholly humanitarian. It met very few of the administration’s criteria for intervention.

Within the US establishment there were numerous high-profile resignations in protest at the administration’s inaction. On August 25, 1992, George Kenney, the acting Yugoslav desk officer resigned from the State Department. News of Kenney’s departure made the front page of the Washington Post. “I can no longer in clear conscience support the Administration’s ineffective, indeed counterproductive, handling of the Yugoslav crisis,” Kenney wrote in his letter of resignation, which the newspaper quoted. “I am therefore resigning in order to help develop a stronger public consensus that the U.S. must act immediately to stop the genocide”12It was not as if the atrocities were unknown in the West; rather, they were simply ignored by those with the power to stop them. One of the most poignant demonstrations of this was the 14 January 1994 letter to the New York Times from Louis Gentile, a Canadian diplomat who at that time was working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bosnia:

The so-called leaders of the Western world have known what is happening here for the last year and a half. They receive play-by-play reports. They talk of prosecuting war criminals, but do nothing to stop the crimes. May God forgive them. May God forgive us all.“13

The Bosnian war

On 6 July 1995 the Serbs attacked the UN safe zone of Srebrenica. There had been attacks before, but what made this one different was that the Serbs did not just attack the Bosnian Muslims, but surrounded the positions of the UN peacekeepers. Knowing about the UN soldiers’ ‘don’t shoot unless shot at’ mandate, the Serbs never directly attacked them.

Colonel Tom Karremans, the Dutch commander of UN troops, requested NATO air support from his superiors. But because the UN soldiers were not directly under threat, his request was denied. On July 9th, Ratko Mladić, general of the army of Republika Srpska, the Serb- held territories in Bosnia, took over the Srebrenica operation. The next day, the Serb forces pushed forward, with the goal of taking over the enclave. Two subsequent air support requests were rejected, the first because the Serbs stopped advancing until the planes ran out of fuel and had to return to base, and the second because when the planes were refuelled and the Serbs started advancing again, it was too dark. Karremans met with Muslim military leaders that night and assured them that forty to sixty NATO planes would arrive at 6am the next day to stage a “massive air strike.” But that didn’t eventuate.

There is no agreed-upon account of why the planes didn’t come that morning, but they didn’t. Karremans made another request over the phone, and was told he needed to submit a paper form. So a form was filled out, then returned because it was the wrong form. Once the right form was submitted, he was told air support would arrive within 45 minutes, but at 9:45am it was denied. The misunderstanding was that command support said air support *could* arrive in 45 minutes, not that it would. Another request was made at 10am. Again though, Karremans was told he had to submit a form. By the time the air strike could be approved, the planes again had to refuel. This bureaucratic back and forth arguably prevented a decisive change in the course of events.14Mladic summoned Karremans for a pair of meetings at the local Hotel Fontana; he warned that if NATO planes reappeared, the Serbs would shell the UN compound in Potocari, where refugees had gathered. Later, with Karremans looking on, Mladic asked the Muslim representative of the Bosnian government who had been called to negotiate whether the Muslims wanted to survive or “disappear.”

The Serbs had chosen that the Muslims would disappear. What followed was the largest massacre of the war, later ruled a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. One survivor described what he experienced:

They took us off a truck in twos and led us out into some kind of meadow. People started taking off blindfolds and yelling in fear because the meadow was littered with corpses. I was put in the front row, but I fell over to the left before the first shots were fired so that bodies fell on top of me. They were shooting at us … from all different directions. About an hour later I looked up and saw dead bodies everywhere. They were bringing in more trucks with more people to be executed. After a bulldozer driver walked away, I crawled over the dead bodies and into the forest.

In the town of Kravica, north of Srebrenica, Muslim men were herded into a large warehouse. Serb soldiers positioned themselves at the windows and doorways, fired their rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and threw hand grenades into the building, where the men were trapped. After the soldiers shot bullets into any bodies that were still twitching, they left a warehouse full of corpses to be bulldozed.

Eventually, there were NATO air strikes which did lead to the end of the war in Bosnia. It came too late, though, for the eight thousand dead in Srebrenica. When Serbia began to ethnically cleanse the province of Kosovo, NATO was not as slow to act as it had been in Bosnia.

There was a section of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto about that Kosovo conflict. It wasn’t quoted in any New Zealand media, but it was in Balkan Insight, the website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. The terrorist criticised NATO forces for what he saw as attacking Christian Europeans who were attempting to remove “Islamic occupiers” from Europe.

This view was held not just by extremists like the terrorist, but by mainstream politicians in Europe and elsewhere. In 2008, the Austrian MP Heinz-Christian Strache argued that Kosovar independence was an attack on Serbia’s identity, that European nations had to band together to protect the “Christian Occident” and that a failing to do so would entail that “Europe is likely to experience the same fate as Kosovo”.15 When the attack happened in Christchurch, Strache was Austria’s vice chancellor.

In the quarter century since the Bosnian genocide the events of the early 90s haven’t taken their rightful place in our collective memory, where we can recognise Islamophobic rhetoric and fearmongering about birth rates and know the end point of this rhetoric is genocide. Instead, we have seen publications such as Renaud Camus’ Le Grand Remplacement (2011) a book whose English title is shared with the shooter’s manifesto, and Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe (2017).

Perhaps more significant though has been the deluge of far-right content on social media, in particular on YouTube. The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shooting noted that “[the shooter’s] exposure to such content may have contributed to his actions on 15 March 2019 – indeed, it is plausible to conclude that it did.”16 The commission also found that the shooter had donated money to Rebel Media, which employed Lauren Southern, who produced a documentary on the supposed Great Replacement, and Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel promoted discredited ideas about race and intelligence.

Southern and Molyneux travelled to New Zealand in 2018. While they were eventually unable to find a venue to host their speaking tour, the event had sold a significant number of tickets, showing that their rhetoric is resonating here. If we do not learn from the atrocities of the past, we are never far from similar atrocities happening again.

1 https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/the-report/firearms-licensing/the-regulation-of-semi-automatic-firearms/

2 Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, University of California Press, 1998.

3 Cigar, Norman. Genocide in Bosnia, Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

4 https://www.smh.com.au/world/oceania/christchurch-shooter-s-manifesto-reveals-an-obsession-with-white-supremacy-over-muslims-20190315-p514ko.html

5 Sells.

6 Sells.

7 Cigar.

8 Cigar.

9 Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books, 2002.

10 Sells.

11 Power.

12 Quoted in Power.

13 https://www.nytimes.com/1994/01/14/opinion/l-in-banja-luka-terror-seems-uncannily-normal-870200.html

14 Untold Killing podcast, episode 2: “The Fall”

15 Zdravko Harmens, Hans. Karadžić Lead your Aussies?, 2020. https://studenttheses.universiteitleiden.nl/handle/1887/137654

16 Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack in Christchurch: https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/the-report/firearms-licensing/assessment-of-the-individual-and-the-terrorist-attack/

What is the base of right-wing populism?

Image via BBC.

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

By Ani White.

Given the global surge of the populist right in recent decades, it’s worth investigating the demographic base of this political phenomenon. Probably the most prominent example of right-wing populism, largely due to prominence of the United States in general, is Donald Trump’s former presidency. This article will therefore examine Trump’s base, before moving on to international comparisons.

Trump and the ‘white working-class’

It’s a commonplace claim that Trump appeals to the “white working class.” This is almost too commonplace to need a source, but an article in UK conservative rag The Times typifies the claim:

Trump was elected for a reason. He spoke to a downwardly mobile, mostly white working class that had been forgotten by the elites raking in money from the global economy. By re-engaging these outcasts with the political system, he…turned politics upside down.

It’s worth teasing out what is meant by ‘white working-class’ here. According to a Marxist definition, workers are those who do not control the means of production, and must work for a wage. This definition includes educated white-collar workers, among other groups not commonly stereotyped in the term ‘working-class.’ By this definition, any successful candidate in a mass electoral system will have a majority of working-class supporters, regardless of their other demographic features. But the Times‘ claim is more specific: that Trump appeals to an economically insecure section of the working-class, a section of the working class that has been left behind, those affected by increasing inequality.

Yet this notion of Trump voters as economically left-behind is not borne out by the numbers. According to exit polls in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump appealed to higher-income households, while Democrats appealed to lower-income households:

Voters from wealthy households swung further towards Mr Trump in 2020. Just over half of those whose family income was more than $100,000 a year supported the president, compared with 45 per cent in 2016.

By contrast, those making family incomes of less than $50,000 voted Democratic by an 11.5-point margin (55 to 43), compared to an 8.2-point Democratic margin in 2016 (50 to 42)1

These numbers do not measure class in the Marxist sense (unfortunately exit polls do not gather data on voters’ relation to production) but they do undermine the thesis that Trump’s base is the most economically left-behind of the working-class. The average Trump voter is economically better-off than the average Democrat voter, and better-off than the average American. This played out prominently when participants in the January 6 Capitol coup attempt checked in at five-star hotels such as the Grand Hyatt,2 Wealthy racists support wealthy racists.

Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois: small-business owners. A poll of small-business owners in the US in 2016 found that the majority supported Trump3, and this majority only increased in 2020.4 Admittedly, Trump lost support from big business in the 2020 election5, but the point remains that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (this is also the classical base of fascism).

A common mistake conflates geography with class. Red States are portrayed as working-class, obscuring that lower-income voters, particularly people of colour, still largely do not vote Republican – with many suppressed from voting at all. Many commentators highlighted the segment of Wisconsin voters that swung from Obama to Trump, with the apparent assumption that everybody in Wisconsin is a factory worker. But the demographic makeup of Trump support in Wisconsin was much the same as it was nationwide, with the Democrats attracting lower-income voters and Trump attracting higher-income voters.6,7 The focus on Wisconsin, as a swing state, also reflects the narrow electoralist logic of the US system, which both encourages parties to chase ‘the middle’ (a common feature of liberal electoral systems), and gives certain states disproportionate weight (a more distinctive feature of the US Electoral College). Focusing so heavily on ‘swing voters’ is a recipe for rightward drift.

Another argument maps education on to class. An article on popular academic non-profit blog The Conversation, with the headline “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election”8, quotes political scientists Noam Lupu and Nicholas Carnes defining working-class as “those who do not hold a college degree and report annual household incomes below the median”,9 and explicitly goes on to say that small-business owners may be included in this category. However, while education does factor into economic access, to define working-class status based on education assumes that workers are uneducated and lets reactionary petit bourgeois off the hook. Additionally, even by Lupu & Carnes’ cultural definition of the “white working-class” as those on low incomes without higher education, only a minority of Trump’s base qualifies.10

So, what are the defining features of the populist right’s base, if not working-class status? Trump’s base is primarily white and wealthy,11 and more consciously motivated by cultural than economic factors: nationalism, race, and religion.12 Even if we were to argue that economics are self-evidently more important than culture, we would still be left with the point that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (though also drawing in the more reactionary and privileged sections of the working-class). This petit bourgeois, culturally conservative character of right voters has international parallels.

Right-wing populism in Europe and Australasia

Before moving on to international examples beyond Trump, it’s worth defining a term: right-wing populism. Populism in general can be defined as a contentious politics that polarises the field between a broad “people” and a “narrow elite”’13 – this has both left and right variants, but the question of left-populism will be set aside for now. Right-wing populism tends to define its “people” in national rather than class terms, and its “elites” in cultural terms – not necessarily the rich, so much as the liberal or cosmopolitan. Nazism is the far end of right-wing populism, with Jewish people defined as the “elites” that must be purged from the nation. My analysis of right populism is focused on the ‘imperialist core’ countries – the Anglosphere and Northern Europe, as centres of white supremacy – but similar dynamics can play out in the majority world, as with India’s Hindutva movement.

The base of populism in Europe correlates with the base of populism in the US. Political scientists Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris conducted a meta-analysis of the voters most likely to support populist parties in Europe, and their motivations. Comparing the cultural backlash thesis (“support can be explained as a retro reaction by once-predominant sectors of the population to progressive value change”) and the economic insecurity thesis (emphasising the impact of neoliberalism on working-class voters), they found more support for the cultural backlash thesis. Conservative cultural attitudes were the strongest predictor of support for populist parties, to a much greater degree than economic insecurity. Unsurprisingly, populist support was strongest among “the older generation, men, the less educated, ethnic majority populations, and the religious”. Moreover, support for populists was strongest among the petit bourgeoisie, not among workers or unemployed.14

Australia has also seen a surge of support for minor populist parties. In the 2016 federal election, more voted for minor parties than at any other point since the Second World War. Unusually, the Australian minor party vote increased most strongly during periods of wage and income growth15 (this contrasts with an international pattern, measured over 140 years across 20 developed countries, whereby political polarisation increases most after financial crises16). In Australia, as elsewhere, support for populist parties was most correlated with conservative anxieties about cultural change.17 Australia has also been ahead of the curve with the mainstreaming of racial populism, with its Mandatory Detention policy for refugees initially emerging as exceptional for the OECD, but increasingly echoed internationally (as with Trump’s detention camps).

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, 2020’s General Election saw newly-formed populist parties roundly defeated.18 Labour PM Jacinda Ardern was able to sell herself as a competent crisis manager, winning over a broad swathe of the electorate including many traditional right voters.19 Ardern was successful where Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US were not, despite the dreams of some on their populist-left flank20: win over the base of the right. In doing so, she demonstrated why this is not a viable left strategy: Labour is unwilling to alienate their new friends with any radical measures, or even moderate measures such as property taxes to address the housing crisis, which would cut into the wealth of the property-owning middle-class.21 22 23 Although Ardern’s strategy is centrist rather than populist, it demonstrates a central danger in appealing to the right’s base: the danger of successfully becoming the sort of party right-wingers want to vote for.

What does this mean for left strategy?

The simplest strategic point to draw from all this is the following: the left should not build a strategy on appealing to the most culturally conservative, economically wealthy section of the electorate. While this point may seem blindingly obvious to some, it’s apparently not obvious to ‘left’ commentators such as Glenn Greenwald, who recently commented that he considered (millionaire right-wing Fox anchor) Tucker Carlson and (Trump strategist) Steve Bannon to be ‘socialists’, explaining that “you have this kind of right wing populism, which really is socialism.”24 Although this statement may be patently absurd, it’s also reflective of the mindset that the far-right are potential allies of the left.

Although there are conservatives that can be won over, this should not be our primary orientation. Moreover, those that can be won over should be won through a politics of solidarity, rather than pandering.

The claim that the populist right’s base is primarily “white working-class” is both misleading, and inherently beneficial to the right. The claim gives conservatives a stamp of authenticity, given their discrediting association with business interests, and generally unpopular social policies. The circulation of this claim among leftists and liberals is an own-goal at best, and a gateway to reactionary politics at worst. The outsize focus on the “white working-class” also obscures that the working-class are disproportionately people of colour.

The good news is that we don’t need to win over the base of the right to win. In the US, crudely rounding the numbers, Republican voters make up about 25% of the population, with about 25% voting Democrat, and about 50% not participating in elections (the actually left-behind). A strategy appealing to that 75% working-class majority, rather than the wealthiest and most reactionary 25%, has more transformative potential. And beyond the USA, the global working-class are mostly people of colour.

1 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020.” Financial Times, November 8, 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

2 Bradley, Diana. “Hyatt faces backlash for ‘harboring domestic terrorists’ following Capitol riots.” PR Week, 7 January 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/h5j0i7k1). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

3 Ioannou, Lori. “Small business says Trump is their pick for president.” CNBC, 5 October 2016 (tinyurl.com/sm-biz-4trump). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

4 De Leon, Riley. “President Trump’s approval rating among small business owners hits all-time high of 64%, survey reveals.” CNBC, 20 February 2020 (tinyurl.com/smbiz/4trump20). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

5 Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew. “Business breaks up with Trump.” Financial Review, 1 November 2020 (tinyurl.com/bbiz-trump). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

6 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2016”. CNN, last updated 9 November 2016 (tinyurl.com/2016-wisconsin-exit). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

7 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2020”. CNN, n.d. 2020 (tinyurl.com/2020-wisconsin-exit). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

8 Ketchell, Misha. “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election.” The Conversation, 29 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-wwc). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

9 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “The White Working-Class and the 2016 Election.” Perspectives on Politics, First View, pp. 1-18, 2020. American Political Science Association.

10 Carnes et al. “The White Working-class…” Perspectives on Politics, 2020.

11 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” Washington Post June 5, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/ybmv7lel ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

12 Rubin, Jennifer. “Trump’s voters were more motivated by nationalism than economic hardship.” Chicago Tribune June 19, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/yypnrreg ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

13 Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. Verso. 2005.

14 Inglehart, Ronald. The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics. Princeton Legacy Library. 1977.

15 Wood, Danielle; Daley, John; Chivers, Carmela. “Australia Demonstrates the Rise of Populism is About More than Economics.” The Australian Economic Review, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 399-410, 2018.

16 Funke, Manuel; Schularick, Moritz; Trebesch, Christoph. “Going to extremes: Politics after financial crises, 1870-2014.” European Economic Review, vol 88, pp. 227-260, 2016.

17 Wood et al. “Australia Demonstrates…” Australian Economic Review, 2018.

18 Clark, Byron. “Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election.” Fightback, 5 December 2020 (tinyurl.com/nz-losers). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

19 Malpass, Luke. “Forget left and right, Jacinda Ardern’s in the middle.” Financial Review, 23 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/ardern-middle). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

20 Lawless, Daphne. “Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?” Fightback, 25 August 2020 (tinyurl.com/dead-populism). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

21 Sachs, Justine. “Jacinda Ardern Is Not Your Friend.” Jacobin, 12 February 2021 (tinyurl.com/jacobin-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

22 White, Ani. “’Lawmakers, not lawbreakers’”: Jacindamania as a bastion of the Third Way.” Fightback, 1 September 2020 (tinyurl.com/fightback-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

23 Green Left Radio. “New Zealand Elections: Left Response.” Green Left Radio, 24 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/greenleft-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

24 Richardson, Reed. “Glenn Greenwald Describes Tucker Carlson, Bannon and 2016-era Trump as Right Wing ‘Socialists’, Mediaite, 4 March 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/wow-greenwald). Web. Accessed 05/03/2021.

Fightback Conference talks online now

In January 2021, Fightback hosted a series of online public talks as a part of our annual conference. Recordings of these talks are now all online at the Where’s My Jetpack podcast:

Unfortunately, the audio files from our most popular session on union and workplace struggle were corrupted. However, you can find interviews with the two speakers on our blog here:

The crowded mess on NZ’s populist Right

New Zealand’s New Conservatives promote conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 virus being bacteriological warfare by the Chinese Communist Party; Facebook attaches a warning label.
By BYRON CLARK. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html

The 2020 election has shown that New Zealand is not immune to the wave of right-wing populism that we’ve seen overseas. In June Fightback covered the entry of various far-right ideas and individuals into the New Conservative Party.[1] Newshub picked up the story in July.[2] Right Minds founder Dieuwe de Boer, who has described his movement as having overlapping goals with the content of the Christchurch shooters manifesto is standing for the party in the Botany electorate.[3] Deputy leader Elliot Ikilei talks about the superiority of Western culture, and has repeatedly denied that the shooter was a white supremacist.[4] (Leader Leighton Baker usually appears more moderate.)

The party is a rebranding of the old Conservative Party led by Colin Craig, which in 2014 came close to getting representation in parliament with 4% of the vote. In 2017 though, without Craig’s leadership -and without his substantial financial backing, their vote plummeted to 0.2%, just over 6,000 votes. In the intervening years, however, they have built a sizable following on social media, especially Facebook, and typically poll at around 1%.

While their zero net migration policy dates back to the Craig era, New Conservative courted a particularly xenophobic base through their involvement in the campaign against the UN Migration Compact which had been started by far-right groups in Europe.[5] That campaign had been worryingly successful, with mainstream right-wing parties adopting opposition to the compact as policy. When the man who carried out the mass shooting in Christchurch was revealed to have had “here’s your migration compact!” written on one of his guns, National and ACT backtracked on their opposition. This resulted in a minor scandal after National removed a petition against the compact from their website in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, claimed it had been removed weeks earlier, and when that was shown to be false, scapegoated a former press secretary who then leader Simon Bridges described as an “emotional junior staffer”.[6] The New Conservatives however have dug in their heels on the issue.

The party has fomented a panic about transgender “ideology” being taught in schools,[7] and has a policy to put solo mothers in “residential accommodation with a suitably trained/experienced couple as hosts.”[8] Despite their ideal New Zealand sounding like The Republic of Gilead from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, the New Conservatives avoid referring to themselves as an explicitly Christian party.

In March 2019 Ikilei told The Spinoff that “Despite not being a Christian party, we are the only party who has universal values that Christians hold to.”[9] However, as Ikilei gave that interview, Destiny Church, the evangelical ministry led by Brian Tamaki, was also launching a party. They had done so before, with the Destiny Party gaining 0.6% of the vote in 2005. The new party, today called Vision New Zealand after the electoral commission rejected the name ‘Coalition New Zealand’, is led by Hannah Tamaki (wife of Brian).

Vision has come out with numerous alt-right friendly statements, with Tamaki calling for a 97% cut to immigration numbers,[10] suggesting that rather than accepting refugees New Zealand should pay them not to come here[11] and vowing to ban the construction of new “mosques, temples and other foreign buildings of worship” if elected.[12] Her husband Brian had previously claimed that broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer across the country during a remembrance service in for the Christchurch mosque shooting would turn New Zealand into an Islamic state,[13] and in a sponsored Facebook post stated “we can not accept the proliferation of Islam in our country”.

Despite Vision’s obvious links to Destiny Church, Tamaki, much like the leaders of New Conservative, has claimed that her political vehicle is not a Christian party. This makes it possible for the newly registered ONE party to somewhat accurately make the claim that they are the only Christian Party running in the 2020 election.

ONE offers, according to their website, “a fresh wave of political forerunners who uphold not only the Christian values, but the Christ that we value”.[14] To hammer the point home, the party launched at the site of the first Christian service held in New Zealand.[15]

On immigration, ONE stops short of the dramatic cuts proposed by Vision and the New Conservatives (though they would slash the annual refugee intake from 1500 to just 350). Aspects of the policy appear to have been written with Muslim immigrants in mind, appealing to those concerned about potential ‘Sharia law’ with the position that “Immigrants entering New Zealand cannot advocate or practice alternative law courts contrary to New Zealand law courts”.[16]

Surprisingly for a party their size, one of their ten policies is on Israel (there is no detailed policy on relations with any other country).[17] ONE would like to see New Zealand establish an embassy in Jerusalem and apologise to Israel for New Zealand’s sponsoring of UN Resolution 2334, which states that Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied territories constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law. These views are shared by the New Conservatives, who list New Zealand–Israel relations as one of their eight policy pillars.[18] Presumably in both cases the policy and the priority given to it results from the influence of Christian Zionism in these groups.[19]

For the New Conservatives, this policy upset the anti-Semitic supporters they had picked up by speaking at rallies attended by the far-right. “Jews are a threat to the Goyim, that’s their name for non-Jews, it means ‘Cattle’.” wrote one commenter on the Facebook post announcing the policy.[20] “I was a huge supporter until this. This is your true colours laid bare. Total Ziocon shills.” wrote another.[21]

The Outdoors Party

The Outdoors Party was formed in 2015, so will be contesting their second election this year. In 2017, they won 1,620 votes, just over half of the 3,005 gained by the single issue Ban1080 party. With that party gone, The Outdoors Party has picked up the issue and plans to ride a wave of opposition to the use of “1080” poison for pest control to parliament.[22] (They have yet to register in any polls)

The party also seeks a moratorium on the roll out of fifth generation mobile technology (5G).[23] Fears about the technology, including conspiracy theories linking it to the Covid-19 pandemic, have become widespread, resulting in a number of arson attacks on communications infrastructure.[24] In a statement on the arsons, party co-leader Sue Grey was quoted as saying “The New Zealand Outdoors Party understands the frustrations felt by New Zealanders as unwanted new cell towers have emerged like pimples around New Zealand, without consultation or consent from local residents or councils”.[25] (The mobile towers that have been set alight were not 5G towers.)

The party made headlines in June, but perhaps not for the reasons they would like. At a rally where supporters were encouraged to share thoughts by writing in chalk on the pavement, a woman (not involved with the rally) rubbed out the phrase “it’s okay to be white” a slogan that began as a trolling campaign on 4chan and was soon adopted by white supremacists.[26] An Outdoors Party supporter chased the young woman, who is Asian, yelling “You are racist! You are racist against us New Zealanders, now get out! Look at you rubbing out all of our words – go back to your own country!”[27]

In March the party had absorbed another small right-wing populist group, The Real New Zealand Party, with founder David Moffet being appointed to their board. “When it became apparent that the Real NZ Party was not going to reach the 500 member threshold to form a party, it engaged in discussions with the NZ Outdoors Party. It quickly became evident that they are a great bunch of people with almost identical aspirations to ours.” he said in a press release.[28]

Moffet, a former New Zealand Rugby CEO, had previously been on the board of the New Conservative Party (it’s unclear why he left to form his own party). Stuff reported that he was motivated to get involved in politics by the campaign against the UN Migration Compact. Moffet claimed that the pact would lead to “plane loads” of violent rapists from East Africa arriving in New Zealand and that a “boatload” of 200 Indians was on its way.[29]

“I don’t think they are refugees.” Moffet told Stuff in January 2019:

…immigrants is not the right word. I don’t want to use the word invaders because I don’t want this to be right in everybody’s faces. But they are seeking to land in a welfare country such as New Zealand and they are doing it illegally…what the people smugglers tell them [is] if you get to Australia or New Zealand… they’ll give you a house, they’ll give you medical, free schooling, free everything else.

Moffett’s imagined boatload of Indians never arrived; in fact, no asylum seekers have reached New Zealand by boat. When asylum seekers do arrive in New Zealand by plane, they are not given houses, medical care and schooling. They are detained in prisons. “You know the last 20 years of policy and action on this issue is actually pretty shameful.” Amnesty International’s Anneliese Johnson told The New Zealand Herald in January. “I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that we have asylum seekers currently in our prisons in New Zealand.”[30]

The New Zealand Public Party

A late comer is the New Zealand Public Party, led by Billy Te Kahika Jr, son of a famous blues-rock guitarist and a noted musician himself.[31] Te Kahika started the party after his Facebook live videos claiming that the public wasn’t being given the true facts about the coronavirus gained a large audience. The government’s support for the goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is also a concern for him. “Where this is all going is Jacinda wants to sign us up to the UN programme Agenda 2030 and that’s a complete destruction of Kiwi freedoms and democracy.” he told Waatea News.[32]

These goals, which relate to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice, were agreed upon by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. Its predecessor, Agenda 21, which came out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, is a popular target of right-wing conspiracy theorists.

“The demonization of Agenda 21 began among extremist groups like the John Birch Society” reads an article on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a US based organisation that tracks extremist groups. “The Birch Society and an array of other radical-right groups see Agenda 21 and virtually all other global efforts as part of a nefarious plan on the part of global elites to form a socialistic one-world government, or “New World Order.”“[33] This “Bircher” rhetoric is echoed by the NZ Public Party: “It does not matter which of the two main colours you vote for” reads their website. “They are both in bed with the UN, despite the fact that YOU, the public, never voted for this”.[34]

Right-wing unity?

Billy Te Kahika made overtures to the other right-populist parties to merge with his NZ Public Party. An arrangement with Vision New Zealand looked close to happening. “Our proposal to Vision was simple & consistent with what we had discussed with members and other parties” wrote Te Kahika in a statement posted to Facebook by the party. “1. Merge with NZPP and rebrand to NZPP. 2. Hannah could be Deputy Leader 3. We would take all of and respect their candidates.”[35]

But in a “last-minute meeting” Vision had apparently decided Hannah Tamaki would remain leader with Te Kahika as deputy. Te Kahika rejected this arrangement. “This would have destroyed all that NZPP stood for and built. We were astounded at the lack of integrity and forthrightness of a ‘Christian’ organisation.”

An attempt to merge with the Outdoors Party also failed, according to Waatea News.[36] A statement published on the Outdoors Party Facebook page claims “There is almost mass hysteria on facebook begging us to join with Billy Te Kahika and the Public Party.” and lists eleven questions they want answered before any possible merger. Among them:

We understand Michael Stace (formerly known as Michael Leon) who proposed the Reset NZ Party is involved in marketing Billy. We need clarification as to why he changed his name and an explanation about his “Master Mason” title and his work for and any ongoing relationship with the Freemasons so our team can better understand and implications this may have.[37]

It seems promoting UN Agenda 2030 conspiracy theories isn’t enough to get other conspiracy theorists on side if your organisation has a Masonic connection. “I’m gonna tell you right now, I’m not going to be voting for the New Zealand Public Party” states Damien de Ment, an American expat who has become New Zealand’s biggest promoter of the Qanon conspiracy on YouTube.

I have too many concerns, too many red flags have come up in the last couple of weeks. For instance, party manager Michael Stace, his background in Free Masonry (sic) – he was the director of communications and marketing for the Free Masons of New Zealand, that’s a pretty big title for an organisation that has tentacles in a lot of places”.[38]

De Ment is voting for the New Conservatives, he explains:

They may not be jawboning the whole truth movement that I’m very passionate about, ya’ know, crimes against humanity, Qanon, taking down the cabal and the deep state, but I promise you, Elliot and Leighton know that these – this paradigm exists, that these conspiracies are absolutely real, but they have to run an effective campaign to get as many votes as they can and appeal to a wider audience. So you may be frustrated right now that they’re not talking about these truth topics as much as the New Zealand Public Party, but I don’t see how the New Zealand Public Party right now is benefiting the political landscape if they’re not even registered yet.

On YouTube, still the video platform of choice for voters who have rejected the “mainstream media”, the differences between the various minor parties are debated and defended. “Billy’s a really charismatic guy, I like him.” says Elliot Ikilei, appearing on The Vinny Eastwood Show. “From the very first time we had lunch it was really cool. I like the way he thinks about – in terms of specific agenda items and the UN.”[39]

Eastwood is a New Zealander, but his show is broadcast on American Freedom Radio (as well as on YouTube), AFR shows cover all the usual topics for conspiracy theory enthusiasts – chemtrails, UFOs, the New World Order etc. When I visit for researching this article, their website tells me that there have been over 21,000 other visits from New Zealand this month.

“When it was discussed about the idea of a merger” continues Ikilei “or at least the model that was put forward, we politely declined.” The New Conservative Party believes joining with the New Zealand Public Party would have resulted in them doing most of the work, but Billy Te Kahika getting the publicity. This episode of the show is sponsored, somewhat ironically, by The New Zealand Public Party, who seem to know where to find a receptive audience.

Te Kahika: a polarising figure

Aside from petty sectarianism and clashing egos, a significant divide on the populist fringe is race. To some Pākehā social media personalities Billy Te Kahika appeared to come out of nowhere with a large following, but conspiratorial ideas have been gaining a foothold among Māori for some time. That a Māori populist leader would emerge parallel to but independent from the likes of New Conservative, who favour abolishing the Māori seats in parliament and call institutional racism a “well debunked myth”[40] is not wholly surprising.

“Amid this pandemic, the conspiracy theories are like a virus on social media…Māori are really susceptible, it seems to me, to these kinds of really bad information and fake news” That was how Bay of Plenty regional councillor Toi Iti put it in a livestreamed korero with Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey in April. “It’s driving me crazy, is it driving you crazy Tamati?”

“It is driving me crazy” replied Coffey “it’s driving me crazy, in fact I was asked about it this morning, the whole 5G thing…I don’t believe in chemtrails, but I know plenty of my whānau that have brought into it, and subscribe to the Facebook pages and get updates regularly.”[41]

Karaitiana Taiuru, a Māori cultural adviser in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) area, and a doctoral student at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, told The Spinoff that Māori communities are vulnerable to believing these kinds of ideas because of widespread, generational mistrust in the government.[42]

For Terry Opines, a far-right YouTuber who is supporting the New Conservatives, Te Kahika’s connection to te ao Māori is a big red flag:

I want some real questions answered, like who’s funding him, is he being funded by Iwi? And why is he so closely associated with Mark Solomon? The former leader of Ngai Tahu, is he funding him? and given the fact that his business interests have focused explicitly on Māori interests as opposed to New Zealanders in general we must ask this question, is he a separatist?

These questions were asked in one of what are now several exposé style videos on Te Kahika. [43]

Lee Williams, the man behind another local far-right YouTube channel; ‘Cross The Rubicon’ spoke of the backlash he received for sharing Opines’ video “I got a backlash for backing up Terry’s video and sharing Terry’s video…a lot of people got on to me calling me a racist, racist against Māori – and some of these people have been my subscribers in the past”.[44]

Williams has posted numerous videos where he scaremongers about immigration, particularly of Muslims. He was visited twice by police following the attacks on Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic centre, and has used that incident to further his popularity on YouTube, today he has over 13,000 subscribers. The Māori share of that audience were evidently on board when he spoke about foreigners, but have now changed their opinion of him.

“I’m getting so much push back from my last video with concerns of Billy TK’s NZPP.” Williams wrote in a text post on YouTube. “Some real venom showed here calling me racist and Māori hater. It’s like I’ve asked questions of someone from the left, and the cultural Marxists have come out to do what they do.”[45]

Where next for the populist right?

Williams reneged on his opposition to Te Kahika after meeting with him at his motel room in Christchurch. On the 15th of July he posted a video titled “For the greater good of this nation we should join together”:

For the greater good of New Zealand sacrifices have to be made by the leaders of the smaller parties [he wrote in the description]… Put your differences, and egos aside to be stronger as one United force. The most important thing now, with two months to go to the election is getting this UN, CCP, WHO, Soros, Gates backed puppet out of power. Jacinda has to go![46]

William’s rhetoric is detached from reality, as the combined vote for these five parties is at best 2%, but commenters on his video turn the detachment dial up to 11: “Māori and European nationalists must join to defeat the radical left who will destroy New Zealand’s traditions and way of life…2020 is the most important election NZ has ever faced.”

On July 26, Billy Te Kahika announced an alliance with Jami-Lee Ross, parliament’s only independent MP. Ross was elected on the National Party ticket and is expected not to retain his electorate seat. Te Kahika will stand in the Māori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau, where his Christian ministry is based. A win is unlikely but not necessarily impossible.

Ross told media that the goal was to form a “centrist version” of the Alliance, a left-of-Labour grouping that existed in the 1990s and 2000s. The New Conservatives and the Outdoors Party reiterated their disinterest in this idea. Geoff Simmons from the Opportunities Party, a populist party that unlike the aforementioned could fairly be called centrist, was even less keen: “no way would I ever stand on a stage and shake hands with those snake oil salesmen.” he told The Spinoff.[47]

Social Credit, who were part of the original Alliance, have been approached, as has the Heartland New Zealand Party led by former Franklin District mayor Mark Ball. Vision New Zealand appear to have burnt their bridges. Even if some sort of alliance is cobbled together in the weeks leading up to the election, it looks like there will be multiple parties competing for the same target audience of right leaning conspiracy theorists.

Most voters will go to the polls and wonder who all these parties are. Those who sympathise with these group’s views will make a decision as to which one will get their tick, or in some cases cast a vote for National or ACT out of concern a minor party vote would be ineffective.

By the time the 2023 election rolls around, it’s unlikely the exact same parties will be there. Conservative Christianity has always had a small political presence in New Zealand, so it’s probable that at least one party will be around to represent those voters. With the decline of New Zealand First, the traditional choice for voters motivated by xenophobia, it’s possible New Conservative could fill that niche – perhaps while also being the choice for Christian fundamentalist voters.

Diewue de Boer, who straddles both those demographics, has indicated he is in this for the long haul. “I hope to learn lots from this campaign season, contribute as much as I can, and look forward to being part of conservative politics in the coming decades” he wrote in the introduction to his speech at the New Conservative campaign launch.[48]

As social media platforms do more to prevent the spread of misinformation – Twitter recently removed 7,000 accounts associated with the Qanon conspiracy, for example[49] – the growth of these movements will slow. Research has shown that as a tactic to limit the spread of disinformation, deplatforming works.[50] Nonetheless, conspiracy theories and far-right beliefs existed prior to the rise of social media, so deplatforming won’t make them disappear entirely. Applying a false information label to content shared by the New Conservatives (as Facebook did last April) might deter a few potential supporters, but not those already convinced that fact-checking is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy.

The hard-right in New Zealand is inspired and motivated by events overseas: Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US and the success of various ideologically similar parties in Europe – Hungary in particular- so to some extent what happens in this country will depend on what happens elsewhere.

The perfect storm of factors that led to five different right-wing populist parties – or even more, depending on how loosely one defines right-wing populist – gaining enough members to be on the ballot (even if only the largest of them managed to register in polls) is likely to be confined to 2020, but the views these groups espouse will continue to be a part of New Zealand’s political landscape. The question is whether they will return to the margins, or inch closer to the mainstream. Dr M. R. X. Dentith, a philosopher and conspiracy theory expert, told Newsroom that we shouldn’t ignore these movements because of their small size.

Part of the problem with the growth of the alt-right in Europe and the US, for a long period of time we said these people are minor parts of the population, they’re always going to be around, but they’re not particularly big and they’re not particularly popular. We can ignore them in political debates…

And that allowed them to grow in the background with no one paying any attention to them to the point where they actually emerged as a big problem. Actually, if we had dealt with this years ago, this wouldn’t be an issue now.[51]


[1]              https://fightback.org.nz/2020/06/12/how-the-far-right-found-a-home-in-the-new-conservative-party/

[2]              https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/shows/2020/07/new-conservatives-defend-western-culture-as-greatest-in-the-world-warn-nz-sliding-toward-socialism.html

[3]              https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111387889/radical-losers-and-lone-wolves-what-drives-the-altright

[4]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUwlWlRQzeU

[5]              https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/31-12-2019/summer-reissue-the-furious-world-of-new-zealands-far-right-nationalists/; https://www.politico.eu/article/united-nations-migration-pact-how-got-trolled/

[6]              https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/emotional-junior-staffer-national-worker-who-deleted-petition-not-so-junior

[7]              https://fightback.org.nz/2019/08/23/a-report-from-the-new-conservative-meeting-in-christchurch/

[8]              https://www.newconservative.org.nz/welfare-policy

[9]              https://thespinoff.co.nz/the-bulletin/23-05-2019/the-bulletin-christian-and-conservative-party-field-gets-crowded

[10]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/05/hannah-tamaki-calls-for-97-percent-immigration-cut.html

[11]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/10/hannah-tamaki-wants-to-pay-refugees-not-to-come-to-new-zealand.html

[12]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/11/hannah-tamaki-s-vision-nz-says-it-will-ban-the-construction-of-mosques-temples-and-other-foreign-buildings.html

[13]             https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12241008

[14]             https://oneparty.net/faq/

[15]             https://www.nzherald.co.nz/northern-advocate/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503450&objectid=12340560

[16]             https://oneparty.net/priorities/immigration/

[17]             https://oneparty.net/priorities/israel/

[18]             https://www.newconservative.org.nz/nz-israel-position-statement

[19]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/18-08-2020/a-revelation-in-marton-the-spinoff-meets-new-zealands-newest-christian-party/

[20]             https://www.facebook.com/NewConservativeNZ/posts/2368235069919483?
comment_id=2368617633214560

[21]             https://www.facebook.com/NewConservativeNZ/posts/2368235069919483?
comment_id=2368640313212292

[22]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/11-01-2020/outdoors-party-reckons-it-can-ride-an-anti-1080-wave-to-parliament-in-2020/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1080_usage_in_New_Zealand

[23]             https://www.outdoorsparty.co.nz/nz-outdoors-party-policy-on-5g/

[24]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/18-05-2020/how-5g-and-covid-19-mixed-to-make-a-toxic-conspiracy-cocktail/

[25]             https://suegrey.co.nz/index.php/2020/05/18/cell-towers-burning-off-democracy/

[26]             https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/its-okay-to-be-white

[27]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2020/06/race-relations-commissioner-blasts-appalling-racist-abuse-towards-young-woman-at-outdoors-party-rally.html

[28]             https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO2003/S00246/former-rugby-ceo-david-moffett-joins-the-nz-outdoors-party-as-executive-director.htm

[29]             https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/110099964/former-nz-rugby-boss-david-moffett-now-tackling-populist-politics

[30]             https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12339908

[31]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_TK

[32]             https://www.waateanews.com/waateanews/x_news/MjQ5NjI/Paakiwaha/COVID-19-gives-Billy-TK-the-UN-red-flag-blues

[33]             https://www.splcenter.org/20140331/agenda-21-un-sustainability-and-right-wing-conspiracy-theory

[34]             https://www.nzpublicparty.org.nz/un-agenda-21-and-agenda-2030

[35]             https://bit.ly/32HVYnM

[36]             https://www.waateanews.com/waateanews/x_news/MjUwMTc/Public-Party-praying-for-electoral-lifeline

[37]             https://www.facebook.com/nzoutdoorsparty/posts/3390632597661581

[38]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyL0jLqvskY

[39]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGlnVrwtkuI

[40]             https://www.facebook.com/NewConservativeNZ/photos/a.552878204788521/3080786001997716/

[41]             https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=553179278654470

[42]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/14-07-2020/why-Māori-communities-are-more-vulnerable-to-5g-conspiracies/

[43]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L113FB319_o

[44]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yoMxSs3oVQ

[45]             https://www.youtube.com/post/UgynPk8_11oi5CJD3JF4AaABCQ

[46]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTfiPO0mQNQ

[47]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/26-07-2020/jami-lee-ross-billy-te-kahika-and-the-rebel-alliance-of-election-2020/

[48]             https://www.rightminds.nz/articles/doing-what-works-my-speech-new-conservative-2020-campaign-launch

[49]             https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/22/qanon-twitter-bans-7-000-accounts-linked-to-conspiracy-theory-group-thecube

[50]             https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/2019/10/04/deplatforming-works-lets-get-on-with-it/

[51]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/26-07-2020/jami-lee-ross-billy-te-kahika-and-the-rebel-alliance-of-election-2020/

How the far-right found a home in the New Conservative Party

by BYRON CLARK

Candidates | newconservative

“We’ve got some awesome candidates that are stepping up for us,” announces New Conservative Party deputy leader Elliot Ikilei in a video posted to their Facebook page on March 27, 2020. “This is going to be one person over here. Now he is a little bit over there, a little bit over to the far-right…” (Ikilei moves to his left.) “So here we are, and this is a great man, this is a man who many of you will know, and we are so excited to have him on board! Now I’m just going to give it over to him. Sir! What is your name, and tell us a little about yourself?”

“My name is Dieuwe de Boer, and I am a candidate for the New Conservative Party.” announces de Boer. “I’m rather infamous at this point, for my conservative political commentary,” he says to giggles from Ikilei. The joke about de Boer’s infamy, and the earlier double entendre about his location on the far-right, is in reference to an article published by RNZ in January which described him as a “far-right activist”, when reporting on a police raid of his home over a suspected illegal firearm.

Not everyone saw the humour in that headline. Max Shierlaw complained to the Media Council about the use of the term “far-right”. He noted that de Boer was a Christian, a conservative, and a family man who supports gun ownership; these things did not, in Shierlaw’s opinion, make him a “far-right activist”, a term he argued was more properly used for neo-Nazis and racists, which de Boer is not. The Media Council did not uphold the complaint, noting in their response:

It is RNZ’s view that Mr de Boer’s statements put him somewhere on the far-right continuum and the Council agrees that, while ‘far-right’ is an inexact term, it was not an unreasonable description. While not everyone who opposes immigration has far-right views, Mr de Boer has also been openly critical of Islam, saying it was ‘fundamentally incompatible with western values and culture’, has expressed support for nationalism and had supported visiting speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, whose views have consistently been described as far-right. It was also telling that Mr de Boer himself had been quoted as saying that ‘far right’ might not be a bad description of his views.

“All of that makes far-right a rather meaningless and harmless slur.” commented de Boer in an article on his Right Minds website. He’s not necessarily wrong; the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish NGO based in the United States which combats anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, describes the term as “more vague than extreme right or radical right”, the terms they use to describe violent hate groups that exist outside of mainstream conservatism.

While begrudgingly accepting that the far-right label is going to stick, in that same article de Boer announces that his barrister had issued a cease and desist letter for what he describes as “a series of libellous tweets” about him, including one noting that he “regularly appears on Australian hate-monger Tim ‘Pinochet did nothing wrong’ Wilms’s podcast”. Dieuwe de Boer is indeed a regular guest on the podcast in question, The Unshackled, appearing in a weekly “trans-Tasman talk” segment. The slogan quoted in the tweet, “Pinochet did nothing wrong” is one that appears on a t-shirt that Wilms has worn in YouTube videos.

Augusto Pinochet was military dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990, and is known for his  persecution of leftists, socialists, and other political critics. In particular his regime is remembered for death flights, a method of extrajudicial killing where dissidents were thrown to their deaths from helicopters. The phrase “free helicopter rides” has become a meme on the alt-right, a dog whistle to those who know the meaning, and a seemingly nonsensical joke to those who don’t.

Wilms’ t-shirt belays another meme to those in the know: the letters RWDS printed across the sleeve stand for Right-Wing Death Squads. While originally coined to describe paramilitaries in Colombia in the 1980’s, the term has been adopted by the modern alt-right. Searching for the phrase will bring up a SoundCloud track by that name featuring a picture of an armed man in silhouette in front of a Black Sun, the symbol featured on the cover of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. One SoundCloud user comments: “Remember lads: Subscribe to PewDiePie”, quoting the shooter’s livestream and echoing another meme appropriated by the alt-right.

Of course, there are several degrees of separation between de Boer and these commenters; he can easily distance himself from them, and even from Wilms. “I am not responsible for Tim’s wardrobe.” he writes, before going on to say, “Tim’s views are generally not too different from mine”.

The Right-Wing Death Squads meme is noted in another of de Boer’s articles. Reporting on a protest he attended in Auckland’s Aotea Square where the right clashed with anti-fascist activists, he writes:

On our side there was someone in a t-shirt that said “Right Wing Death Squad” with a helicopter on it. No one on the other side knew the meaning of the joke, and it is unlikely that everyone reading this would get the joke too, which is why I think it is a terrible one.

He notes that this protestor can’t be labelled a white supremacist because while he would occasionally “yell something in German and talk about physical removal of leftists”, he was ethnically Chinese.

The Unshackled podcast and YouTube channel was previously a joint effort between Wilms and Sydney man Sukith Fernando, but Fernando was dropped from the project after it became widely known he was a Holocaust denier following an article published by Honi Soit, the student paper at the University of Sydney where Fernando was studying at the time. Fernando repeatedly claimed that he “didn’t know” whether the Holocaust happened when confronted by liberal students on campus. He had been part of a ‘Holocaust Revisionism’ Facebook group and had commented “Wow Hitler really did nothing wrong” under a video questioning the holocaust that was posted on his page.

The Unshackled has on numerous occasions provided a platform for one of Australia’s most notorious far-right extremists, Blair Cottrell. Cottrell is the founder of the United Patriots Front (UPF), and later the Lads Society. As reported by ABC News, the man who perpetrated mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques in March 2019 had been an admirer of Cottrell, frequently commenting on his Facebook live streams, referring to him as “Emperor” and donating to the UPF.

Tom Sewell, president of the Lads Society, had – prior to the shooting – tried to recruit the man who was later to perpetrate the Christchurch mass shooting to join a group looking to create a society of only white people. The man, who at this point was about to move to New Zealand, declined. “The difference between my organisation, myself and [the shooter], is simply that we believe, certainly at this stage, that there is a peaceful solution for us to create the society we want to live in,” Sewell told Newshub“If we are not given that opportunity, well, time will tell. I’m not going to give you any explicit threat but it’s pretty fucking obvious what’s going to happen.”

Again, de Boer maintains a degree of separation from these figures, but he has spoken openly about the overlap between the content of the Christchurch mass shooter’s manifesto and his movement. “The overlapping views obviously are that we favour nationalism and have an opposition to the United Nations,” de Boer told Stuff. “We want stronger controls on immigration. We haven’t talked much about replacement, but I would definitely highlight that Western nations in general have low birth rates.”

And highlight those birth rates he has. A 2017 article on Right Mindsis headed with a line graph showing the declining birth rate in New Zealand since the 1960s. Despite saying that Right Minds haven’t talked much about replacement, this article heavily implies that something akin to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, after which the Christchurch mass shooter named his manifesto, is going on. “Every single one of our childless liberal leaders wants to import more immigrants to be the children they don’t have” writes de Boer. “Perhaps these parties should remove their gender quotas, official or otherwise, and replace them with some offspring quotas.”

Coming into the New Conservative fold

Initially de Boer was less than enthusiastic about the New Conservatives. In a June 2018 article he describes them as “boring” and lambasts them as “more green than the Greens” for missing an opportunity “to stand out here to and straight up call out the global warming lie”. In reference to an income splitting policy he asks rhetorically “does that mean a Muslim man can split income between all four of his wives and pay no tax?”, and concludes that the party has “run-of-the-mill socialist policies, much like every mainstream party in New Zealand.” By eighteen months later he had completely changed his attitude.

I got a message from deputy leader Elliot Ikilei, who told me that he had read my critically dismissive review, he thought I had some good points, and he wanted to meet up to talk about it. That one simple olive branch changed my life and I know he’s extended many more like it to others. Perhaps enough to alter the course of this nation.

Rather than ignoring the fringe blogging of a young man who said his party was not pushing climate change denial hard enough while dismissing every mainstream party as “socialist” and throwing in some barely hidden Islamophobia, Ikilei had specifically sought out de Boer. It may be that the politics of New Conservative are not as different from Right Minds as de Boer originally thought. His article endorsing the party praises Ikilei for saying that western culture is superior to all other cultures: “That’s a line you won’t hear from any politician”.

Other figures from New Zealand’s far-right have also been drawn to the New Conservatives. Canterbury man Lee Williams, whose YouTube channel boasts over twelve thousand subscribers, posted a video on July 19th 2019  calling for the small “right of centre” parties opposed to the United Nations Compact on Safe Orderly and Regular Migration (commonly known as the UN Migration Pact) to unite together. Underneath the video, one commenter writes: “A party has been formed”, “New Conservative Party (NZ) Good people here. Check it out.” Williams replies, “I’m in touch with Elliot”.

A few weeks later, he was in Auckland to speak at a Free Speech rally, along with Elliot Ikilei and others. Speakers were introduced by Dieuwe de Boer. In his speech, Williams begins “Well here we are, the white supremacists of New Zealand, according to Patrick Gower and the lying New Zealand mainstream media!”, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Williams is referencing a Newshub piece that reported on members of the far-right attending a protest against the UN Migration Pact in Christchurch. Newshub reports that at that rally the notorious while supremacist Phillip Arps had called for Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters to be hanged. Arps has served a prison sentence for sharing the livestream video of the mass shooting at Al Noor Masjid, and had left pigs’ heads at the same mosque in 2016.

Williams was not mentioned in the piece, but has reason to gripe about the story. He was the one speaking at the rally when Arps, who had been standing beside him waving a New Zealand flag, yelled out “Hang him! Publicly hang him!” when Williams mentions Peters. In his speech, Williams states that “Europe and its people are being replaced”, referencing the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, a phrase that New Zealanders would become familiar with a few weeks after that rally when it was used as the title of the Christchurch mass shooter’s manifesto.

It’s likely that the content of that speech, and other videos such as one uploaded two weeks later where Williams claims “these [Muslim] wives are just knocking out babies with baby factories, you know, and vastly outnumbered the birth-rate of native populations – this is in every country in Western Europe”, were the impetus for police visiting him on two occasions after the Christchurch shooting.

After attending a public meeting in Christchurch in August, Williams made a video announcing his endorsement of the New Conservatives.

Anybody who’s informed and they watch what’s happening in Western Europe and they know what’s happened in the United States with the Democrats, Donald Trump if you – if you support Donald Trump, if you’re on one of the secret supporters of New Zealand then I would say you’d probably like New Conservatives. If you’re pro-Brexit, if you’re pro-freedom of speech, if you’re anti-mass migration, anti-United Nations Global Compact on migration, then the New Conservatives is for you.

When a commenter asks if the New Conservatives are “of a similar persuasion to A-M Waters and the ‘For Britain’ party in [the] UK?”’ Williams replies: “yes similar”. The For Britain Party was founded by the anti-Islam activist Anne-Marie Waters after she was defeated in the UK Independence Party leadership election in 2017. Their platform includes reducing Muslim immigration to the UK to near zero.

The New Conservatives have a zero net migration policy that doesn’t single out any particular ethnic group or religion. But the comments from their Botany candidate are not the only time the party has been associated themselves with that kind of ideology. On April 2nd 2019, the New Conservative Facebook page shared a video promoting Douglas Murray’s 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam,describing it as “a powerful understanding as to why our culture is suffering,” and noted: “We absolutely agree.” The book claims that Europe is under threat from Muslim immigration and higher birth rates, and is popular on the far-right.

Much like Ikilei’s olive branch to de Boer, the party didn’t ignore the endorsement of a fringe YouTube personality who believes – among other things – that the United Nations is run by an “unholy alliance” of Islam and “cultural Marxists”, and that there is a deliberate plot to emasculate western men to weaken white majority countries. Instead, they shared Williams’ video on their Facebook page with the comment: “we are so humbled and encouraged to see critical thinkers jumping onboard.”

In a video uploaded to his channel in September 2019, Williams and an unnamed friend, who also attended that same meeting in August, call on people to vote for the New Conservatives, describing them as “the closest we’ve got to a Salvini or a Viktor Orbán”, referring to far-right politicians in Italy and Hungary. Lee Williams is wrong about a lot of things, but in that instance, he’s probably correct.

COVID-19 and the alt-right media ecosystem

Screenshot_2020-04-07 What is the coronavirus 5G conspiracy The dumb theory circulating the internet rn
Image from The Tab.

This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on Media. To subscribe click here. NOTE: While NZ is under lockdown, print issues cannot be sent out, however e-publications are being sent out, and we will print and mail issues when it becomes possible.

“A mainstream media article, written by an academic from Massey university who has not gulped down koolaid to fawn over the government? We are taken aback, greatly.”

That was how the New Conservative Party (New Zealand) introduced an opinion piece by Steve Elers that was published on Stuff, New Zealand’s largest news website, stating the country should have closed its borders in February. The fringe right-wing party, outside of parliament and polling around 1%, has spent the past year telling their Facebook followers-  an audience comparable in size to the following of more mainstream political party pages- to distrust mainstream media and academia.

“Time to get rid of the China virus that’s infected our government. #chinaliedpeopledied”, comments one of their followers, a man with a profile picture proudly declaring hs support for the party. Another man comments with a link to a YouTube video claiming that telecommunications workers destroyed a cellphone tower to warn the public about 5G. “5g being set up during LockDown!!!! I do not consent to radiation”, comments a woman with a “top fan” badge.  “UN agenda 21 can only be implemented in a climate of fear”, states another follower.

While some comments are supportive of the government’s decision to place New Zealand on lockdown, closing all but essential services and banning gatherings of people in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19, the above comments are not atypical. For some followers, the New Conservative praise for Steve Elers isn’t convincing: “If you take a closer look at this guy, he is an Alt left Maori activist.”

Posting a link to an RNZ article about coming job losses at NZME, Stuff’s major rival and owners of the New Zealand Herald, a New Conserative follower comments “bye bye fake news.” While a number of NZME’s redundancies are occurring at Radio Sport which has ceased broadcasting as globally the pandemic puts a halt on sporting competitions, the email to staff from NZME Chief Executive Michael Boggs indicates a reduction in the number of news journalists is coming: “The ongoing decline in revenue caused by the impact of COVID-19 continues to be significant. This is uncharted territory, and no one knows when that will change.

We must now make changes to the scope and scale of our business and do so quickly. This will inevitably result in job losses.”

The pandemic is speeding up the decline of professional journalism, already well underway in New Zealand as elsewhere. Traditional media has struggled to maintain advertising revenue, in particular due to the shift in advertising to Facebook, which has become one of the primary platforms for the spread of misinformation.

In March, Wired published an article headlined Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are a Public Health Hazard: “Anti-vaxxers think the virus is an effort to force vaccines on them, possibly orchestrated by Bill Gates. Others blame 5G networks”, writes Wired’s Emma Grey. Ellis, showing linking the virus with 5G conspiracy theories is not unique to the supporters of a fringe right-wing party in New Zealand. In the UK people influenced by conspiracy theories claiming symptoms of Covid-19 are actually caused by 5G mobile towers have abused technicians and even destroyed telecommunications infrastructure.

There has also been a documented increase in racist incidents against Asians and Chinese in particular in a number of countries, including New Zealand and Australia. In February, before New Zealand had any confirmed cases of Covid-19, parents of children at a Canterbury school received an email stating “our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders.” In Western Australia, shoppers who appeared Asian were removed from a supermarket, and in Tasmania a student from Hong Kong was assaulted by a man who first shouted “you’ve got the virus” and “go back to your country.” Notably these incidents occured after headlines like “China Virus Panda-monium” and “China kids stay home.” appeared in mainstream Australian newspapers in January. Politicians and pundits have continued to racialise the the virus with terms like “China virus” “Wuhan virus” and “kung-flu” the latter appearing in the title of an Australian alt-right podcast episode in February.

While new Facebook pages have emerged to take advantage of growing Sinophobia, other far-right pages have used the pandemic to spread false information about their usual targeted groups. A page primarily Islamophobic in nature has repeatedly claimed Muslims “were the first to bring the plague to NZ from Iraq”, possibly confusing Iraq with Iran, where an infected New Zealand citizen returned from (notably neither the ethnicity or religion of this woman is publically known).

Another post on the same page claims a private jet owned by a Saudi billionaire, which landed at Christchurch airport to repatriate Saudi citizens, was there to bring COVID-19 “to the hookers and street workers of Christchurch”, adding “No one else can travel to NZ, except Jacinda’s wealthy handlers.” One commenter suggested the plane was there to pick up the Christchurch shooter, who according to a baseless conspiracy theory pushed by the tiny One Nation NZ party was not part of the far-right, but actually a Muslim convert. One Nation NZ stood in a by-election in 2018, but otherwise barely existed beyond Facebook page- which has since been removed for violating policy of hate speech and graphic violence.

”All over the world, from Iraq to the United States, people have been spreading anti-Semitic memes and messages suggesting that Jews, or Jewish stand-ins like George Soros, the Rothschilds, and Israel, are to blame for the outbreak”, writes Ellis in Wired. “In the internet’s darkest corners, the scapegoating is being used to stir a movement that is less conspiracy theory than actual conspiracy.”

According to Oren Segel, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists have discussed deliberately infecting ethnic minorities and exploiting tensions between ethnic groups to hasten “the boogaloo” an alt-right slang for race war. In the USA the FBI stopped a man who was planning to bomb a Missouri hospital treating COVID-19 patients. NBC News reported that he had done so to further the goals of his white supremacist ideology, and had told an undercover FBI agent he had chosen a hospital as a target due to “the increased impact given the media attention on the health sector.”

In the USA, polls showed that 42% of Republicans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about COVID-19, compared to 73% of Democrats. 83% of Republicans who consumed only a diet of outlets with right-leaning audiences believed the news media had exaggerated the risks of the virus. Comparable poll data is not available for New Zealand, but clearly a similar far right echo-system exists, though its reach has not been adequately investigated.

In Australia, the far-right have used the government’s Covid-19 response to stoke distrust in state institutions and encouraged mobilisation and violent action as a response to the crisis, according to Sydney based think tank The Lowy Institute. In the lead up to the first anniversary of the Christchurch shooting, Australian counter-terrorism police in New South Wales arrested a 21-year-old man for an alleged terrorist plot. The man had allegedly tried to buy military equipment and firearms and was planning to blow up an electricity substation.

“The situation is ripe for exploitation by the far right”, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University sociologist and expert on the far-right, told Al Jazeera “the uncertainty the pandemic creates creates fertile ground for claims about the need for change or the solutions the far right purports to offer.”

This is certainly evident in recent Facebook posts from New Zealand’s alt-right adjacent New Conservative Party, such as a picture of laughing women captioned “when someone who wants open borders sounds worried about the coronavirus spreading” and a screenshot of a BBC headline about the EU closing borders to non-citizens  with the comment “so nationalism is back and borders are good?” (This rhetoric ignores the fact that the borders of Europe were far from “open” prior to the pandemic- last year, over a thousand migrants drowned attempting to enter Europe on their southern sea border).

But New Conservative are, relatively speaking, moderates. On a page run by a Christchurch based man who in the months following the Christchurch shooting threatened to “destroy mosque after mosque until they take me out” an article from a known fake news website, alleging that France is not subjecting predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods to quarantine is shared with the comment “r@pe and sickness are just a part of the rich diversity pill we are all going to have to swallow.” (The @ replacing the a is likely an attempt to avoid Facebook algorithms removing the post).

Misinformation and conspiracy theories can move quickly from the far-right fringes to more mainstream social media with larger audiences. In April Buzzfeed reported that numerous lifestyle and parenting influencers on Instagram were “seamlessly weaving in evidence-free far-right conspiracy theories that are usually found in the significantly less Instagrammable parts of the internet, such as 4 and 8-chan, in between their usual idyllic family snaps.”

With millions of people confined to their homes there is also concern that more people will be susceptible to the kind of online rabbit holes that lead people to the far-right. Mak Kapetanovic, a young man who had previously been influenced by alt-right narratives encountered on 4chan and has since left the right, told Time of his concerns that the pandemic could lead people down the same path. “Feelings of isolation, anger, grief and frustration, all of those things are happening. A lot of people are scared, and people are not sure what to think.”

“It is the far right who always seem to take advantage of these insecurities.”