How Donald Trump's Tweets Could Boost The British Far-Right

Jayda Fransen is a far-right activist and convicted purveyor of hate speech—in 2016, she was found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment of a Muslim woman—but on Wednesday afternoon (29 November) she was ecstatic, after getting retweeted by a political celebrity.

"THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, DONALD TRUMP, HAS RETWEETED THREE OF DEPUTY LEADER JAYDA FRANSEN'S TWITTER VIDEOS!" she tweeted, capital letters and third person hers. "GOD BLESS YOU TRUMP! GOD BLESS AMERICA!"

In the U.K., Fransen's party is a marginal force electorally. Its leader Paul Golding took just 1.2 percent of the vote in last year's London mayoral election, for example. When the winner, British Muslim Sadiq Khan (56.8 percent) gave his victory speech, Golding turned his back.

Jayda Fransen
Deputy leader of the far-right organisation Britain First, Jayda Fransen gestures as she participates in a march in central London on April 1, 2017. Donald Trump controversially retweeted a number of Fransen's incendiary tweets on 29 November. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

When Trump shared three posts from Fransen's account, unverified videos purporting to show violence by or between Muslims, he gave her a brief taste of the mainstream. He also gained her more than 5,000 followers by the time of writing, and earned her a prominent interview slot on BBC television.

"Very clearly the immediate effect is one of being emboldened," says Matthew Feldman, a professor at England's Teesside University and a specialist on fascist ideology and the far-right in Europe and the USA.

The retweets come at a time when many of the British far-right's messages are gaining greater acceptability in mainstream politics.

"Twenty years ago in both America and in Britain we would have said: 'here's the British National Party' or 'here's the Aryan Nations, and they are beyond the pale,'" Feldman told Newsweek. "They're over there, and here's the mainstream."

"You can now slip what looks to me like a cigarette paper between the two of them," he says. That's the result of two decades of concerted efforts by far-right parties to make themselves more acceptable. But it's a process exacerbated, Feldman says, "by Donald Trump's... moving the Overton window to the right, and embracing some of these themes."

The endorsement of their positions by mainstream figures like Trump could help these groups as they attempt to recruit, Feldman adds.

"I can't see that it harms them," he says, "those people who might already be distrustful of the British political class... might say 'well gosh, we can't get quote unquote truth here, we have to get it from Donald Trump. And if Donald Trump says Britain First is OK, maybe it's time to give them a second look.'"

Wednesday's retweets also came on the same day as a report was released by Hope Not Hate, a charity that researches the far-right, highlighting the importance of social media for spreading anti-Islam messages at a time when many of the groups devising them are small and weak in terms of real-world presence.

The report showed how Fransen, Golding and other activists saw their follower counts explode during recent Islamist terror attacks on the U.K. "With each increase in Twitter followers comes a larger potential reach for every single tweet and therefore a potential influence on the public debate," the report warned.

"It beggars belief that a U.S. President would share this material," a Hope not Hate spokesperson told Newsweek. "The organisation has been in disarray recently.... What on Earth was Trump thinking, trying to propel it forwards?"

The threat from the far-right, Feldman stresses, has its limits in the U.K. He argues that the collapse of the British National Party, for many years the country's principal far-right movement, a comparatively well-organized one, has led to a proliferation of other groups but not necessarily an increase in the number of activists.

But, he says, that comes with its own dangers: the likes of Thomas Mair, the far-right extremist who killed MP Jo Cox last year while shouting the words "Britain First," are harder to spot when they are not part of a high-profile movement.

As to how the rest of society should respond? Feldman says there needs to be a reconsideration of "What do we understand as beyond the pale."

"How do we repair that, so that someone who says these things goes back to being ostracized?"