Steve Hilton’s silence speaks volumes about the hollow men of the right | Nick Cohen

The ex-Tory guru’s failure to challenge vile lies on Fox News is a sign of a deeper rot

TS Eliot didn’t get it quite right. The world doesn’t end with a whimper but a giggle, which reveals that cruelty and lies can pass unchallenged. What was once outrageous is now just a joke at the expense of humourless moralists who don’t understand how obsolete their scruples have become. The laughter comes loudest from the “left behind”. Not the working class, but the left-behind elite who attach themselves to far rightwing (and on occasion far leftwing) movements because they boil with resentment that they no longer have or were never offered the status they took to be their entitlement.

Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch and, to an extent, Boris Johnson are examples that walk among us. As are so many rightwing “contrarian” journalists who show their independence of mind by never contradicting their readers’ prejudices. The origins of their bitterness are wholly obscure to outsiders: how can Murdoch, for example, believe a British establishment that fell at his feet has “slighted him”? But the psychic wounds are real enough in their minds and allow them, however deceitfully, to connect with the humiliations of their base.

If today’s radical rightwing movements are filled with sore losers – nervous members of the left-behind white working and middle classes, who see immigration destroying their culture and economic stagnation destroying their security – they are led by sore winners. Unlike the 20th-century fascist movements, the leaders of the “alt-right” were either born to wealth, as Trump, Murdoch and Johnson were, or, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Putin, have been in power so long they have nothing to feel insecure about. Their privilege ensures that laughter in the form of the sneer of the victor and the snigger of the abuser comes naturally.

If you’re from the old world, nothing could be less funny than the overmighty state tearing immigrant children from their parents and locking them in cages. The imprisonments were not a bureaucratic error but the result of a deliberate act by the Trump administration to create a “hostile environment”, as British conservatives would put it. Migrants would not think of coming to America if they knew that child snatchers would circle their kids. Such premeditated inhumanity demands honest reporting so that everyone, especially its supporters, understands the moral consequences.

If you want to see the authentic mentality of fascism old and new, watch the clip of Trump ideologue Ann Coulter asserting on Murdoch’s Fox News that the stolen toddlers sobbing “Daddy! Daddy!” were “child actors”.

Lies bind a political or religious tribe together. Fox News viewers and perhaps Coulter herself might know what she is saying is not true. By acting as if they believe outrageous falsehoods, they announce they are so dedicated to the conservative cause they will believe anything its propagandists produce and so determined to insult Latinos they will endorse any lie told about them. The reaction of Fox’s host was more telling than standard self-deceit. Steve Hilton, a privately educated Englishman, considered challenging Coulter. He mumbled a few words as if he were about to protest. But then he pulled himself together and did something as shocking as the oppression Trump had enforced and the calumnies Coulter had advanced: the little creep giggled, made a lame joke, then called for the ad break.

Any competent surgeon could locate Hilton’s wound. He was once at the centre of power. He helped draft David Cameron’s modernising conservatism and was all for caring about the environment and using the internet to empower citizens. His thought was largely vacuous: Hilton was against big bureaucracies and in favour of children being free to enjoy “wholesome play” (I haven’t made this up). He was banal, but his was not the banality of evil.

His career fell apart in 2012. Cameron lost patience with him and he left Downing Street. The former Tory guru, who was once the centre of attention, had joined the left-behind elite. If he was known, he was known because of his wife, a successful Silicon Valley executive – and not all men are happy with being upstaged by their partners. Once a somebody, Hilton was a nobody. He did what yesterday’s men have always done and jumped on the next big thing, which in the case of rightwing politics was the Trump movement. A job at Fox followed and the nobody was a somebody again.

I’ve saved the best for last. Hilton is the child of Hungarian refugees who fled communist oppression and found a safe home in Britain. Now he can do nothing but stretch his mouth into an inane grin when the bureaucracy he once abhorred cages the children of today’s refugees and his fellow conservatives slander its victims as actors.

The far right’s laughter recalls Sartre’s comment in 1944 that antisemites amuse themselves and “delight in acting in bad faith”. The calculation that embracing Trump is the smart career move recalls Dorothy Thompson’s warning in her 1941 essay, Who goes Nazi?, to watch out for the man who has risen beyond his real abilities and “whose sole measure of value” is success. If the Nazis were a minority movement, it would not attract him. “As a movement likely to attain power, it would.”

Not that Hilton or even Murdoch have found power by attaching themselves to Trump. If Hilton had spoken out, Fox News viewers would have turned on him. I have heard wistful liberal Republicans say if only Murdoch and his sons would tell Fox to drop Trump, American conservatism could crawl out of its sewer. They do not understand how deep the rot has set. If the Murdoch family tried to change course, Fox would lose its audience, as surely as Republican politicians who challenged Trump have lost their seats. The iron law of autocracy is that the strongman rules and his courtiers, however grand, obey.

All they can do is to fix a smile on their sagging faces and giggle.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist


Nick Cohen

The GuardianTramp

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