By Dr Richard Shorten, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory
School of Government, University of Birmingham
The long-running BBC Radio 4 panel show ‘Just a Minute’ works on a simple premise, whereby guest panellists are invited to speak on a given subject for 60 seconds. During this time, fellow guests will listen out for pauses and lapses of various kinds, in which case they will press a buzzer, signalling that a present panellist’s turn in the game has come to an end. The errors, as such, are to hesitate, to deviate, or to repeat.
It has generally escaped notice, but these are common features of how present-day reactionaries express themselves, from Donald Trump to the previous pope, from Nigel Farage to Jacob Rees-Mogg. Whimsy aside, the implications are relevant. There is enough here for an interesting jumping-off point for a general theory both of what reactionaries believe and how.
I am attempting to work towards such a theory through a current Leverhulme-funded project. An article from the project just published tries to explain, for related reasons, ‘Why bad books matter’. The evidence is present in verbal communication, such as Trump’s monotony, Farage’s EU-bashing, Boris Johnson’s waffling.
The most compelling evidence – and indeed for a researcher like myself in political thought – comprises the books that reactionaries write (or co-write, or acquiesce in the writing of). Books produced by reactionaries suffer from some neglect. Generally, commentators on ‘populism’ prefer to pore over speeches, less-guarded semi-private remarks, or tweets. But the books are plentiful, varied, and precedented in the past – the last of which opens a promising historical line of inquiry. There is no single format.
Reactionaries use the written word to send out political messages via a mixture of campaign texts (Trump’s Crippled America, Joe McCarthy’s, er, McCarthyism); policy books (Sarah Palin’s America by Heart); quasi-treatises (Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France); state-of-the-nation essays (Éric Zemmour’s The French Suicide); online manifestos (Anders Breivik’s European Declaration of Independence); and autobiographies (Farage’s The Purple Revolution, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf). But the hesitations, deviations, and repetitions are widespread: they pay no heed to the varying expectations that might normally go with the different formats.
Yet the signs are that these mistakes may be beneficial for political success, at least in the short-term. They reinforce (even while mostly unintended). They allow for the display of non-immediate themes. They seem capable of striking special chords with audiences.
My research on the project so far confirms that reactionaries hesitate. In political thought, the ancient Greeks associated a related type of speech or writing – which is the ‘diatribe’ – with ‘point-dwelling’. Trump’s book promises arguments that never materialise; Palin’s book offers meandering quotes that go over two pages and more; Farage’s book side-steps tackling accusations of racism (after drawing attention to the allegations in the first place).
My research also confirms that reactionaries deviate. As the ancient Greeks further noticed of political arguments, if in doubt, one may digress. Trump’s book goes off on tangents to purse thin-skinned grudges; Hitler’s book holds court on nearly every topic under the sun; and Burke’s book includes an apology for one digression, after having waxed lyrical for long enough about the rough treatment of a French queen.
Finally, and without doubt, my research confirms that reactionaries repeat. Trump’s book constricts vocabulary and likes to trot out the one-sentence paragraph. In Farage’s book, the views or actions of others are nearly always ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unbelievable’; McCarthy’s book has repetition embedded into the page arrangement – the greater part of the book is in question-and-answer style.
What does this matter? Is it trivial? It is – but that doesn’t mean it must be trivialising. When, like the late Nicholas Parsons’ buzzer-pressing panellists, we spot a hesitation, a deviation, or a repetition, we find something worth paying far closer attention. The messages that right-wingers send out may not exist in isolation of these mistakes. The success of the messages may be revealed precisely in them.
In the very least, in entertaining such an idea, we would have little to lose. And we would manage to shake-up the usual reference points – coarse working-class ‘populism’; the temptations of nostalgia (all of us remember the past fondly on occasion?); the irresistibility of charisma; the proneness of idiots to conspiracy theories. In place of such stagnant, and often self-serving, platitudes, we would make the space for more original thoughts instead.