Richard Shorten


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 which 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 the ways in which present-day reactionaries express themselves, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage to Viktor Orban.


Mostly, recent politicians of this ilk have inhabited a particular patch in the field of the political Right. That may not necessarily replicate in the past or over wider geographic terrain of study.  Neither does ‘populism’ quite seem right.  There are overlaps with non-populist politicians and traditions which imposition of that category obscures.  The implications of expressive tics are relevant.  They ought, I suggest, to form jumping-off points for developing a general theory of reactionary belief; a theory that could extend to answering one of the most vexatious question raised by the politics of recent times: namely, ‘how’ reactionaries believe, their leaders and their supporters.


Reactionaries persuade – including self-persuade – by rhetoric.  The hesitations, the deviations, the repetitions – none can be exempted from the inquiry into belief-formation required.  That is one reason why reactionary rhetoric matters.  It is also why reactionary rhetoric needs modelling in a new version – beyond the highly rationalistic version made influential, for an earlier generation of political scientists, by the economist Albert O. Hirschman.


Evidence of all three tics appears in the verbal communications of the archetypical figures who have been on political scene since the events of 2016: Trump’s monotony; Farage’s EU-bashing etc.  Sign of something serious – something deeper-lying – is that the response to the coronavirus crisis has not banished these tics, but continued them; in instances, exacerbated them.  That is, despite the notional cover of the return of ‘expertise’ to political life, the curiosities have not gone away.  


For Trump, the pandemic has been the occasion not to abstain from the ‘blame game’, rather to hunker down (Covid-19 was the ‘Chinese virus’); while in other tempers it has been the occasion for him to pour doubt on the existence of the whole thing; and, in the weirdest spectacle, to pursue out-loud – at a run-of-the-mill press conference – the internal thought-train that the solution to infection could lie in self-administered lung-bleaching.


In the UK, Boris Johnson’s enunciations have so far followed a course that has been no more predictable and even; swerving away from Farage’s anti-immigrant chorusing (to pay tribute to overseas workers in the NHS), but hardly genuflecting before science, because they have been just as likely to undermine the government’s own public health guidance, by following discursive flights of fancy into national invincibility.  Since the start of the pandemic, some commentators have explained the actions and statements of right-wing incumbents of political office by the pursuit of cynical opportunity for political or personal gain.  This perspective will not explain everything. 


So, where do these urges come from, these apparent predilections to pursue what we might, with good reason, call ‘diatribes’?  And why is it that broadcasting diatribes should co-exist with political success?  If we really want to know, a good resource would be to look beyond the truncated records of verbal communication, whether speeches, less-guarded semi-private remarks, or tweets.  It would be, instead, to pay close attention to something which is far more plentiful than might be imagined, namely the books that reactionaries write and publish: in history, because it allows a long-term perspective in comparison, and in the present, because that may allow us to compare writings across countries.  Books, furthermore, are a boon for rhetorical analysis: in their typically extended pages, they offer themselves up for lingering, stretched-out reading, to spot these special moments of hesitation, repetition, and digression which may peel back, prospectively, to reveal even more that is generic to reactionaries in, say, the paragraphs, sentences and phrases thereabouts.


A quick overview: There is no single format, rather reactionaries use the written word to send out political messages via a mixture of genres.  There are the campaign texts (for example, Trump’s Crippled America, Joe McCarthy’s, MccCarthyism); the policy books (Sarah Palin’s America by Heart); the quasi-treatises (Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France); the state-of-the-nation essays (Éric Zemmour’s The French Suicide); the online manifestos (Anders Breivik’s European Declaration of Independence); and the autobiographies (Farage’s The Purple Revolution, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf). 

How does this sample just listed confirm the recurrence of just-a-minute moments? What may we learn?  The ancient Greeks associated a type of speech which was related to diatribe, by etymology, with ‘point-dwelling’.   Point-dwelling is manifest inasmuch as that Trump’s book promises arguments that never materialise; that Palin’s book offers meandering quotes that go over two pages and more; and that Farage’s book side-steps tackling accusations of racism (after drawing attention to the accusations in the first place).  The ancient Greeks further noticed of political arguments that one may ‘digress’ if one is ‘in doubt', and perhaps also attack.  Trump’s book goes off on tangents to purse thin-skinned grudges; Hitler’s book holds court on nearly every topic under the sun (from architecture to fashion to physical education); and Burke’s book includes a frank apology for one digression, after having waxed lyrical for long enough about the rough treatment of a French queen.  As for repetition, 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’; and McCarthy’s book has repetition embedded into the page arrangement, for the greater part of the book is in droning question-and-answer style.


What does this matter?  Is it trivial?  It is – but that doesn’t mean it must be trivial-ising.  The messages that right-wing populists send out may not exist in isolation of these ostensible mistakes: the success of the messages may be revealed exactly in them. In the very least, in entertaining this possibility, we have little to lose.  And we may manage to shake-up the increasingly banalised, entrenched reference-points.  Those include, amongst other things, the image of coarse working-class ‘populism’; the temptations of nostalgia (for all of us remember the past fondly on occasion); the mythical irresistibility of ‘charisma’; and the reputed proneness of idiots to conspiracy theories.                      


Author biography

Richard Shorten is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Birmingham, and (in 2019-20) Leverhulme Fellow.  He is currently finishing a research monograph under the title ‘The ideology of political reactionaries’.  His recent article ‘Why bad books matter’ appears in Politics, Religion & ideology. Image credit: White House/Flickr.