Challenging SA media’s use of right-wing populism

Right-wing populism has a seductive appeal to some. But its solutions to social ills are dangerous and paranoid and must be rejected.

The radical far Right thrives in times of political and economic instability. Generalised fear and anxiety can build cultural support for ultra-nationalism, hate and authoritarian responses to social problems.

This radicalisation process does not, however, begin and end with winning elections and taking political power. It also entails attempts to shift the mass media and culture in more reactionary directions by normalising extremist viewpoints. This includes using dog whistles and coded language to appeal to more mainstream conservatives, and even liberals and leftists. 

Some far-right ideologues refer to shifting political opinions as “metapolitics” – a concept that is, somewhat ironically, derived from the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, which explores how beliefs that serve the ruling class are imposed as social norms in media, academia and popular culture. 

In the past few years, the Right’s culture war has yielded major political successes, evidenced by rulers like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi. While much of their support has been fuelled by disreputable “alternative” media, which freely circulates disinformation and outright fabrications, extremist ideas have increasingly gained access to the established mass media. In turn, the far right uses existing xenophobic and anti-poor biases in the media as a vector to advance its beliefs. 

Normalising hate 

In August, for instance, the SABC, eNCA and national newspapers gave positive coverage to various biker rallies “against farm murders and racism”, which involved protests by biker clubs. The reporting presented this as concerned citizens taking a public stance against violent crime in South Africa. What was crucially omitted, however, was that the term “farm murder” is not a neutral description, but is often a dog whistle for the “white genocide” conspiracy theory. 

Furthermore, the most voracious online support for these events came from far-right Twitter and Facebook accounts, often accompanied by overt racism and reactionary paranoia. By not acknowledging this political context, the media gave a misleading image of the rallies as multiracial, apolitical events.

At the same time, The Sunday Independent published a virulently xenophobic article under the headline “SA under foreigner control”, which made migrants the scapegoats for the country’s economic problems. Using a “South Africa first” type argument, it claimed that scarce jobs are being taken away from citizens by what it described as foreign outsiders. 

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Similarly, a recent anti-migrant march in Pretoria that attracted only 50 people was reported by EWN as being motivated not necessarily by xenophobia, but by a concern for “law and order”. A news article on the march reported statements like “it’s not a xenophobic march, we’re here against human trafficking, drug trafficking and against illegal immigrants”, without much challenge or qualification. 

After The Sunday Independent article was condemned by the South African National Editors Forum, editor Piet Rampedi wrote a reply in which he claimed that opposition to the article was motivated by elitism and hatred of the masses. Twisting Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s research on media propaganda to suit his argument, he brazenly asserted that hostility towards migrants is an unpopular yet legitimate truth which deserves a media platform. 

But, as Steven Friedman recently demonstrated in New Frame, xenophobia is in fact already institutionalised in South African politics, with political parties and the media readily making scapegoats of African and Asian migrants and building fear around immigration. 

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This usage of anti-elitist sentiment to advance a regressive and dangerous political agenda is characteristic of right-wing, authoritarian populism. In this case, the original article identified an urgent, valid social crisis in the form of South Africa’s unequal and non-inclusive economy, but instead of blaming political and financial elites, it punches downwards at migrants with little political and cultural influence.

Compare The Sunday Independent’s article to the rhetoric of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager. Bannon regularly rails against the ills of neoliberal globalisation and the inequities of capitalism, often echoing common leftist critiques. His solution, however, consists of building walls against migrants, entrenching nationalism, embarking on a “Judeo-Christian” crusade against Muslims and China, and suppressing progressive politics.

Defining right-wing populism

While right-wing populists denounce the status quo, their political solution is an aggressive and paranoid ethno-nationalism. As argued by American journalist David Neiwert, who has closely covered the radical right for decades, right-wing populism is built around a mythology of “producerism” in which “hard-working producers are beset by a two-sided enemy: a nefarious elite suppressing them from above, and a parasitic underclass of ‘others’, reliant on welfare and government benefits, tearing them down and sucking them under from below”. 

Right-wing populism scorns authority when it is imagined to come from “liberal elites” and “pretentious academic experts”, but its supporters long to have the authority to punish the groups they blame for the world’s ills – the leftist degenerates and criminal immigrants they imagine are lurking around every corner. 

It is important, however, to clarify that populism is not the exclusive terrain of the Right. As Belgian political philosopher Chantel Mouffe argues, populism is a tactic of politics – rather than a set ideology – that “establishes a frontier” between an idea of ordinary people and oligarchical elites.  

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And as American historian Tom Frank writes in his new book, The People, No, the term “populism” is often deployed by elites to denigrate the democratic aspirations of the masses. Many media pundits continue to use this framing in an attempt to present leftist political demands for change as indistinguishable from Trumpism.

However, there exists a fundamental line between rightist and progressive conceptions of populism. Leftist populism is motivated by emancipatory and egalitarian goals, and aims to use the idea of “the people” to drive social advances and reforms that benefit everyone. Historical examples of this include the mass movement which helped to achieve New Deal reforms in the United States in the 1930s and the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front which sought to build popular democratic power from below in 1980s South Africa.

Populism for the select few

In stark contrast, Right populism is predicated on an “in-and-out” group binary, aiming to only benefit a select ethnic or national grouping. And not only does Right populism always kick down at less powerful scapegoats, it actively entrenches class dominance and social hierarchy. It allows pampered buffoons Trump or Boris Johnson to present themselves as straight-talking men of the people rather than members of the capitalist ruling class. As Frank wrote in another context, Right populism teaches “the man on the breadline … to weep for the man lounging on his yacht”. 

This, of course, does not mean that Left politics is totally immune to chauvinism or unscrupulous demagoguery. Indeed, the Right actively tries to capitalise on these elements by channelling the alienation and anxieties that inspire progressive movements for social change into repressive and regressive ends. The Right uses scapegoating and the politics of fear to divert attention from the real causes of social ills. It also actively seeks to co-opt and, as American historian Alexander Reid Ross puts it, creep into Left discourses and organisations. 

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In the 1920s and 1930s, the Italian fascists and German Nazis borrowed concepts and terms from the socialist and trade union movements to attract disaffected leftists. This pseudo anti-capitalist rhetoric was always shallow, however, and subordinate to their true goals of ultra-nationalism and crushing the organised Left. As Ross writes of Nazi Germany, “proclaiming the slogan ‘Honour the worker, respect the worker’ … [the Nazis] occupied trade union offices, confiscating their funds and sending their leaders to dismal concentration camps”. 

Such pseudo anti-capitalism was also a major facet in the persecution and genocide of European Jews. A common antisemitic trope was that of the exploitative Jewish industrialist (as distinct from an imagined patriotic Aryan bourgeoisie) who was responsible for the Great Depression and the myriad evils of capitalism. At the same time, the Nazis also blamed Jewish people for communism and socialism.

It was not just the hardcore fascist right that used anti-elitist rhetoric to advance an elite agenda. In the 1980s, politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher presented themselves as populist champions for the little guy, standing up to snobbish liberal elites and overbearing governmental power. Once in power, however, they aggressively pursued neoliberal policies that benefited the super-wealthy and drastically increased social inequality. They also campaigned on an authoritarian platform of restoring “order” and “national pride”, with Thatcher even co-opting ideas from fascist groups like the United Kingdom’s National Front.  

Threatening social democracy

In the past 40 years, this new Right populism has influenced politics throughout the world while rolling back the advances of social democracy in Europe and New Deal progressivism in the US. Despite this, however, right-wing media maintains that politics and the economy are run by a shadowy leftist cabal, displacing the blame for capitalism’s failings on to a Left that is far from being a power, often weak and fragmented.

After the 2008 financial crisis, a new wave of Right populism shifted economic and social anxieties on to asylum seekers. In the European Union, for example, right-wing political parties actively campaign on the message that migrants are scroungers seeking to live off the surviving remnants of the welfare state. Rather than blaming failed austerity policies and corporate oligarchy, the enemy becomes the demonic foreigner. 

Turning socio-economic anxieties into racialised and xenophobic hate was central to the 2016 victories of both the Brexit and Trump campaigns. New social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube became fertile grounds to spread paranoiac conspiracy theories and lurid disinformation. But these campaigns were not simply grassroots, democratic expressions of popular angst. They were fuelled by operatives like Bannon and billionaire Robert Mercer, who used the discredited and now defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to spread targeted political adverts which advanced the “culture war” of the populist Right. Rather than revolts of the excluded, the politics of Trump or Johnson respond to the prerogatives of extremely right-wing members of the ruling capitalist class, albeit dressed up in pseudo anti-elitist rags.

Biases in South African media 

In this era of rampant political reaction, it becomes imperative to challenge the normalisation of extremist viewpoints when they appear in the mass media. However, the South African media has its own weaknesses and institutional biases that make it highly susceptible to right-wing populism.

The mass media in South African often has a smug sense of its ethical superiority as the voice of truth and defender of democratic norms. In particular, this self-perception was fuelled by the reporting of political corruption during the disastrous presidency of Jacob Zuma.

However, the same media is often highly biased and selective in its coverage, and fails to address the lived reality of the country’s impoverished majority. Much of South African media is written from a technocratic and indeed elitist perspective, which fails to address how dismal and grim life is for ordinary people. Debates and commentary offer little in the way of compelling suggestions for how to deal with our multiplying social crisis beyond orthodox neoliberal austerity and moralistic platitudes. These omissions create a space for right-wing populism to flourish, because its language of resentment and fear seems to connect with people’s visceral feeling that something is very wrong with this society.

Simultaneously, the media often fails to cover the grassroot activism of groups like Abahlali baseMjondolo and unions that have taken a principled stance against xenophobia. This disconnection from popular politics means that the media treats xenophobic demagogues like Herman Mashaba as the legitimate voice of the disenfranchised, falsely equating media attention and social media influence with mass support.

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A political consequence of the Zuma years is that xenophobia and a paranoid hunting for social enemies are often expressed in language from the Left and anti-colonial struggles. During the Bell Pottinger scandal, the UK public relations firm was hired to detract attention from Zuma, his relationship with the powerful Gupta family, and the broader climate of elite criminality in the state and big business by rebranding state capture as a progressive stance against “white monopoly capital”. Legitimate, urgent questions about racialised inequality were cynically deployed to benefit a powerful politician and a wealthy family.

This helped to create a formula whereby populist rhetoric about uplifting the impoverished majority is used to whip up anti-xenophobic sentiment. Because this language is often disguised with valid points about inequality and social dysfunction, it requires careful interrogation and debunking.

However, as big media companies increasingly focus on cost-cutting and the constant pursuit of audience attention, journalists lack the resources or inclination to demystify the siren song of authoritarian populism. This is a boon to cranks and fanatics of all stripes, because it provides them with the legitimation and attention they need to advance their political projects. 

As a result, South Africa faces a perverse situation in which xenophobia and other regressive politics are normalised and even presented as democratic expressions of the popular will. Not only is this sure to contribute to social polarisation and violence, but reproducing the dangerous logic of exclusion and separation actively entrenches inequality, political corruption and elite impunity.

Debunking right-wing populism means appreciating its narrative power as it offers a compelling imaginative account of the world’s problems. However, this pseudo anti-elitism falls apart under even the tiniest bit of scrutiny. It is the job of the Left not only to expose the scapegoating and derangement of the populist right, but also clearly and cogently to express humane and cosmopolitan alternatives that connect to the socio-economic needs and lived experiences of ordinary people.

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