Over the past three decades,religion has re-emerged as a key factor in domestic and international politics. One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular societies, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse.Religious people who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism. They discover that their populism is not in tension with their religious beliefs and practices. Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.
To the surprise of many scholars, religion has re-emerged over the past three decades to become a key factor in domestic and international politics (Grzymala-Busse, 2012). One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular Western Europe, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. What, then, is the relationship between religion and populism, and how has it manifested across the world and in different societies?
There are two different major dimensions to the religion-populism relationship. First, populism sometimes resembles religion, or at least fundamentalist interpretations of religion, insofar as of true believers if they follow a particular leader or party or participate in a particular movement. And like religious fundamentalists, populists often view the world through the prism of a Manichean antagonistic struggle between “the people,” who are good, and “elites” and “others” who are evil (Mudde 2004: 543; Zúquete 2017: 446).
Yet, populism is not a replacement for religion; instead, it is compatible with certain forms of religion, particularly religions which possess near absolute notions of good and evil. It should not be surprising, then, that Muslims and Christians who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism, and that their populism is not necessarily in tension with their religious beliefs and practices.
Populists may also have a functional relationship with religion. They may themselves be members of a religious group, church, or organization and may possess a political agenda based on or heavily influenced by religious texts and doctrines. We may call this group “religious populists.”
“Identitarian populists” reject religious government but use religion to identify “the people” and their enemies according to a religio-civilizational classification of peoples. There is inevitably some overlap between the forms of populist, and the boundary between them is often ambiguous.
The difference between the two, however, is significant. Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects as expressed through a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movements/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism, however, does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, it embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilizations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) It is not, then, religious itself, but often wholly secular.
What religious and identitarian populists share is civilisationalism—or a religion-based classification of world civilisations. Yet whether populists possess a genuinely religious agenda, or merely use religion to define national and civilizational identity, it is becoming clear that religion, in its various forms, is providing fertile ground not only for the construction of a receptive audience—“the pure people” of the populist imagination —but also provides relevant and highly valuable materials which help populists create “us” versus “them” dichotomies and at perpetuating these divisive binaries (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).
Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, in order to begin to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.
The democratic Muslim majority world is home to a number of powerful religious populist movements. Several of these movements have achieved significant electoral success, especially in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. These movements are mostly Islamist in nature, and therefore combine “material and cultural understandings of religion,” ultimately forming “a multivalent religio-moral populism—a potentially explosive articulation of different class interests and religious cravings” (Tugal 2002: 86). Because Islamism is itself attached to Islamic ideas of justice (both economic and social), it can be easily combined with the thin ideology of populism, which is itself based upon the notion that corrupt elites are acting unjustly towards “the people” and must be removed from power.
Perhaps the most significant Islamist populist party in the contemporary world is Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has led Turkey since 2002, replacing secular rule with a new programme, incorporating “Islamism, nationalism, and populism” and substantially blurring the boundaries between each (Taş, 2020: 2). While the AKP maintains a populist conception of society in which Erdogan is presented as “the voice of victimised ‘real people’ and the champion of their interests against old ‘elites’,” the party also pursues an Islamist, anti-secular project involving the Islamist religious education of the young. The AKP has a post-Kemalist, “Islamist civilisationist”(Yilmaz, 2021) outlook that has radically altered Turkey’s sense of itself, as well as elements of its foreign policy (Yilmaz, 2018: 54–55).
A similar religio-civilizational conception of the world can be found in Christian populist movements. However, we must be careful to distinguish between two broad types of Christian populism. In Greece, for example, we see evidence of a genuinely religious populism in the “populist character” (Stavrakakis 2004: 260) of the political discourse used by the Church of Greece and, especially in the rhetoric of the late Archbishop Christodoulos (Paraskevaidis). The very political Archbishop’s discourse was “organized according to an antagonistic schema,” and divided society into two categories: the “good” people who belonged to the Greek church, and the evil atheistic, secularizing, and modernizing forces of the government and its supporters (Stavrakakis 2004. 261–62).
In the United States, where religion has long had a powerful influence over domestic politics, religious populism played a role in the ideology of the Tea Party movement. A “convergence of libertarianism and fundamentalist religion” (Montgomery, 2012: 180–81), the Tea Party movement claimed that the American Constitution, “which restricts the powers of government… [was] divinely inspired.” Americans who called for “big government” were branded by Tea Party activists as not merely un-American, but un-Christian (Montgomery 2012: 180–81).
The generally secular orientation of Western politics, however, often precludes genuine religious populism. Instead, more common is Christian identity populism. The best example of Christian identitarian populism in Western Europe might be the Netherland’s Party for Freedom. A nominally secular, liberal party supportive of gay rights and women’s rights, the Party for Freedom is also a deeply anti-Muslim party which conceives of Dutch culture as the exclusive product of “Judeo-Christianity and Humanism.” This religio-civilizational conception of the Netherlands automatically excludes Muslims, who the party faults for being too conservative, undemocratic, and political.
A similar yet different Christian identitarian populism exists in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, Viktor Orbán’s ruling party, the populist Fidesz, also practices a religio-civilizational categorization of peoples, in which Hungary is defined as a Christian yet also secular society, and in which Muslims are demonized as belonging to a hostile foreign civilization. Yet, Fidesz is fundamentally illiberal and seeks to use Christian identity to protect traditional sexual mores and gender relationships from secular progressive forces, which are attempting to introduce gay rights, transgender rights, and multiculturalism.
Populism and Judaism have a complex relationship, partly due to the role of Israel as a somewhat exclusive Jewish homeland but also because “the link between the Jewish religion and populism in Israel does not require mediation between religion’s universal and populism’s particular claims, since for Jewish orthodoxy there is an absolute correspondence between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people” (Filc, 2016: 167).The most concrete example of a Jewish populist movement is the Israeli party Shas. Shas’ ideology divides Israeli society between “the people,” who are “all the Jews of Israel” and includes “the Ashkenazim and Sephardim” (Filc, 2016: 176), and others, especially Arabs, African asylum seekers, and secular “elites.” The party opposes secular notions of the necessity of separating the “public sphere and individual religion” and rejects the “neutral state and a pluralistic society” (Filc, 2016: 173). Instead, Shas claims the state must “define and build a common good” based upon Jewish theological understandings of these notions (Filc, 2016: 173).
Beyond the monotheistic faiths, populism is increasingly attached to Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In India, Narendra Modi’s populist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly uses a Hindu nationalist narrative—in which India is a Hindu civilization wounded by Muslim and British invaders—to shape its domestic politics and elements of its foreign policy. The BJP has won control of the government several times under Modi’s leadership, having successfully adapted the philosophy of Hindutva to a populist-nationalist framework, in which Hindus are identified as “the people” and secular nationalists (such as the former governing party, the Indian National Congress) are demonised as “elites” beholden to dangerous foreign ideologies (including secularism) (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 488–90).
In Sri Lanka, populism has been employed since the 1990s by Sinhalese Buddhist political leaders in order to construct and, when necessary, mobilize “the people”—that is, Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lankans—and to define Sri Lanka’s national identity. Political leaders such as former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tailored their rhetoric to typical populist binaries (ie., the people vs. the elites or us vs. them) to appeal to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (Stokke, 1998; Devotta & Stone, 2008). Moreover, as part of this populist rhetoric, they frequently referred to minority groups—particularly Tamils and Muslims—as threats to the people of Sri Lanka and the nation’s Buddhist and Sinhalese identity. They did this “in order to win the rewards of power” (Jayasinghe, 2021: 178). Buddhist organizations such as Bodubalasēna (BBS, Buddhist Power Army) play an important role in supporting populist politicians in Sri Lanka and frequently claim that minorities, and specifically Muslim Sri Lankans, pose a threat to national unity and the country’s authentic Buddhist identity (Sarjoon et al., 2016).
It may be tempting to view the rise of different religious populist movements, in both secular and religious societies, as ultimate proof of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. Yet, despite the emphasis placed on religion and civilization by all these movements, few could be called transnational or international, and all are deeply nationalist in orientation. Therefore, we might conclude that religious and identitarian populists use religion primarily as a framing devise, a tool with which they can divide people within a single nation between “the pure people” and their enemies, the ruling elite and “others.” We may also surmise that religion and religious identity remain powerful forces, even in the secular West—forces which can elicit deep and sometimes violent emotions. The power of religion to engender feelings of rage in people, when they sense something sacred being profaned, may be especially useful to populists, who must create a sense of national crisis to generate the demand for populism among the public.
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This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.
Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?
Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “politicaljihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.
Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.
As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).
While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).
Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?
Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”
Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).
For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).
The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).
What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?
Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by PrabowoSubianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).
In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).
While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).
The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”
The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”
This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).
At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).
Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?
Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).
This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).
The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.
(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.
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In this session, Dr. Cathrine Thorleifsson discusses her book “Nationalist responses to the crises in Europe” with Sabine Volk. The session is followed by a Q&A. In her book, Dr. Thorleifsson examines the drivers and local appeal of populist nationalism. Based on multi-sited anthropological fieldwork in England, Hungary and Norway, she explores the various material conditions, historical and social contexts that shape resentment of elites, migrants and diversity. Combining analysis of the discourses propagated by radical right parties such as UKIP and Jobbik with an analysis of the hopes and concerns of supporters, Thorleifsson develops wider conclusions about how populist nationalism is enlivened and reconfigured in response to destabilizing crises of economy, culture and displacement.
Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: “The crucial question is what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric … because he can still present himself as an ‘outsider.’”
One of the leading academics in the field of populism, Prof. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser argues that Turkey under the Erdogan regime can no longer be considered a democratic system and should now be classed as a competitive authoritarian regime. Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser—who teaches at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile—also stresses that once a populist is able to entrench him or herself into the political system, as Erdogan has, he or she is likely to be at the helm of the country for an extended period of time: “And this is [what] I think that the experience from Turkey, but also from other countries like Venezuela, shows…”
Asked whether authoritarian populism is itself here to stay, Prof. Rovira Kalwasser says it will in part depend on the aftereffects of COVID-19: “I’m thinking here mainly about the social and economic aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.” He indicates that if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal in a systemic way with those aftereffects, populism could lose its appeal. If not, Rovira Kaltwasser says, populist forces will exploit socio-economic tensions and the aftereffects of COVID-19, which — he stresses — could strengthen populism.
The following excerpts from our interview have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Populist Voters Tend to Have Very Illiberal Understanding of Democracy
You argue in your article on “the Populist Citizen” that “evidence suggests that populists are politically engaged citizens who do not want to overthrow the democratic system but rather push for the democratization of democracy.” If this is the case, do we not need to worry about the surge of populism?
This is an interesting question. I think it depends on how you analyze the data. What we found out when analyzing data in different countries—we have Latin America, Turkey, and a couple of European countries—is a striking commonality in all those places. The commonality is that citizens tend to have strong populist attitudes. At the same time, populist citizens tend to be in favor of the democratic system. From this study, one might conclude that democracy and populism are compatible. But I think this would be too easy an interpretation of the data because we don’t know what concept of democracy citizens have in mind. We only know that these citizens are in favor of democracy.
In fact, one of the issues we mention at the end of the paper is that we need much more research on the type of understanding of democracy that populist citizens have across all these countries. Currently, I am researching with two colleagues, analyzing data about populist citizens on the one hand and citizens’ concepts of democracy on the other. The data we have collected covers several Western European countries. What we found out is pretty interesting. We have data for those who voted for populist radical right-wing parties and populist radical left parties. One interesting commonality among those voters is that—when we ask them which concept of democracy they have in mind—they reference a very illiberal understanding of democracy. Populism can be a democratic threat, mainly because those who support populist ideas tend to have a very peculiar understanding of democracy at odds with the liberal institutions we know are crucial for consolidating a liberal democratic regime.
Populism: Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism
In the same article, you argue that the demand for populism can be interpreted as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Does this mean populism can also be something that corrects the defects of democracy? Could you elaborate?
Well, I mean, here you’re combining two questions in one, and each of them, I think, is interesting. The first question is about whether populism is a threat or a corrective for democracy. I would say that populism is both—there are many examples in which it is very clear that populism has destroyed the democratic system.
Venezuela under Chavez is one example, as is Turkey. If you think about Turkey and what is happening in the country with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. These are two examples in which we can clearly see that the coming into power of a populist figure represents a democratic threat. But there are also many instances in which you have populist forces that sometimes enter into government in a coalition with other parties. Think about the case of Spain’s radical left party Podemos, which is in a coalition with the Socialist Party. Or think about the case of Austria where we have radical right FPÖ (Freedom Party), which between 2017 and 2019 was in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. And the democratic system didn’t collapse in Austria—probably some things have been changing, but it’s not that the system has disappeared. And this is why I think that we need to be very careful with the theoretical arguments about populism and the empirical analysis. Depending on the case in question, we can say whether it is a threat or a corrective.
And the second part of your question is about this argument that I had been developing with my friend and colleague Cas Mudde that populism can be understood as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. And the argument that we develop is that if we think about liberal ideas both in the cultural sense and also in the economic sense, to a certain extent, many of these ideas have been pushed without asking the people whether they want to go in that direction. I think that the European Union (EU) is the best example of that. This is why we see in different countries within the EU that many citizens ask themselves whether this is the kind of EU they want. People are questioning the extent to which “we, the people” can control those liberal institutions, and I think this is a good question. While populism probably is not offering the right answers, it’s posing the right questions.
Erdogan Still Presents Himself As an “Outsider”
You’re currently researching Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), showing voters for the party are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about malign global forces than those who vote for other parties. Why is this the case?
Well, this is the topic of a new article that I have written with two colleagues from Turkey. They know much more about Turkey than I do but based on the findings from our article, I can say two issues are quite interesting here. This article is based on survey data that we have for contemporary Turkey. The first finding is very peculiar. We realize that those who support the AKP tend to have less populist attitudes than those supporting other parties. And this is sort of a paradox because we know that Erdogan and the AKP articulate a populist discourse.
But our data shows that those who support the AKP and Erdogan are not that populist compared to those in the opposition. So how can we interpret the paradox? And the argument that we develop here, and this is also based on literature covering other countries, is that once you have a populist force in government who can stay in power for a long time, that sort of populist actor becomes the establishment. I mean, Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years, so he’s controlling the system. So, in this sense, those who support Erdogan and AKP, for them populism is not really the key driving force for their support because they know that they are part of the elite, so to say.
But here comes the second finding that it’s also interesting, and this is related to your question. We find out that those who support the AKP tend to have a much firmer belief in conspiracy theories against global forces. And I think this is the sort of discourse the AKP is developing. This is the discourse populist forces typically develop in government. They say, in fact, “we are not the real elite of the country because the real elite who controls the country lives outside of the country, and they are controlling the system.” And this is why we cannot do all the things that we want for “the people” because we have these outside forces that are blocking the will of the people. And in this way, the populist figure can still present himself or herself as an outsider. And I think this part of the analysis that we develop in our paper and analyzing this interaction between conspiracy theories and populist attitudes is very promising for the case of Turkey, but probably for many other places in the world as well.
Erdogan Can Stay in Power for a Long Time
The AKP has been in power since 2002 as a single-party government. How long do you think the AKP can stay in power as a single party, given the rising populist rhetoric of Erdogan?
Well, again, I’m not an expert on Turkey, but based on my knowledge, my main fear here is that it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. It is, in fact, what many scholars call a competitive authoritarian regime. Turkey is a country in which you still have elections. Elections take place, there is opposition, but running against the AKP and Erdogan is very, very complicated. And this is why I think that the experience from Turkey, but also other countries—like, for instance, the case of Venezuela—shows that once you have a populist figure who is able to entrench itself into the political system, this figure can stay for an extended period of time. In the case of Venezuela, in fact, Hugo Chavez died, but even he was able to appoint (Nicolas) Maduro, who is the head of the government now. I think the case of Turkey, it’s very, very dependent on the leader Erdogan, so the crucial question is, “can we have AKP without Erdogan?” A similar question arose in Argentina a long time ago, “can we have Peronism without Peron?” In Argentina, that became a possibility.
The crucial question is, what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric, as I mentioned before because he can still present himself as an “outsider.” [Propagating the idea that] powers from outside are controlling the country … is the sort of language that many populist leaders in government develop.
Are populist systems able to stay in power for a long time, or are they prone to collapse? Can you offer examples for each one?
Well, you can see it all if you look at different cases across the globe. I mean, you have cases in which populist figures could come into power, and they had to leave quickly because they were not able to build a strong alliance with crucial actors. Or there was an economic collapse or something like that, and because of that, they had to leave power relatively fast. If you think about Brazil at the beginning of the 1990s, they elected Fernando Collor de Mello as president. A huge corruption scandal popped up, and after two years, there was an impeachment, and he left office. His brief story was one of a very unsuccessful populist figure.
But we also have other instances, as in the case of Turkey, where Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years. So, I think it’s difficult to generalize based on different examples. For example, Alberto Fujimori in Peru was ten years in government, and after that, he left office and disappeared from the political scene. But the division within society in Peru, to some extent, falls on whether you are in favor of Fujimori or against him. If you go to Venezuela nowadays, the whole political debate is the same: whether you are for Chavismo or against it. And I can imagine that, for example, in Turkey, there will arise a debate after Erdogan of whether you were in favor of Erdogan or not. Then you have the emergence of a new political cleavage. That is not necessarily a cleavage between left and right politics but a cleavage between being in favor or against that sort of populist project.
Liberal Institutions May Challenge the Will of the People
How do you explain the recent success of populist parties in the EU, which was once seen as the embodiment of liberal democratic values?
This goes back to our discussion before about this idea of undemocratic liberalism. I think that the EU, to a certain extent, is an example of pushing liberal values in an undemocratic way. If you think just in economic terms, consider that the EU has been developing both the eurozone and a whole infrastructure concerning economic integration and economic liberalization. Very often, citizens were not necessarily in favor of that process. However, politicians at the national level said, “Well, this is what Brussels is doing, and we cannot do anything.” To a certain extent, these politicians were using the EU as a foil, displacing responsibility to Brussels for these developments, which they supported at the national level but did not want to be held accountable for.
Later came the Great Recession (2008–2009), and then we realized the power of the EU economic structure. You had the European Central Bank telling certain countries, particularly in Southern Europe, you have to do A, B, and C. Then you realize that you have these liberal institutions that challenge the will of the people. If you asked people in Italy, in Greece, or Spain, they were saying, “we don’t want these policies.” So, you have here a supranational institution — a liberal institution —pushing against the will of the people. This is just one example that has not been completely developed in an engagement with the will of the people, and because of that, now we have the rise of populist forces of both right and left. They are politicizing specific issues that are relevant for certain sectors of the electorate.
British political scientist Paul Taggart argues that “populism requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary people.” Do you agree with him, and could you elaborate?
Yes, I one-hundred percent agree with that beautiful sentence from Paul. This is again a sort of a paradox because populist figures usually talk about ordinary people. But if you think about populist figures very often, they tend to be very peculiar. Think about Donald Trump, think about Nigel Farage, think about Fujimori and figures like that. This is part of the paradox because populists’ leaders try to do two things simultaneously to rise to prominence. The first thing that they try to do is to break certain taboos. If you break certain taboos, you will get a lot of visibility, and therefore they’re very good with social media because they say certain things that generate a lot of tension within society. So, in this way, they are in the news the whole time. At the same time, populist figures are very clever in presenting themselves as outsiders, although they’re not necessarily real outsiders. Take the example of Donald Trump. He’s a billionaire—I mean, he’s not a real outsider. But he presents himself as an outsider within the political system, and in that way, he generates a lot of publicity. This is part of the paradox that very well describes that sentence from Paul Taggart.
Socio-economic Inequality and Declining Legitimacy Threatens Liberal Democracies
After the end of the Cold War, it was predicted that liberal Western democracy had prevailed, and all the other systems would try to be like these democracies. However, as you mention in your book Populism: A Very Short Introduction,populism is at odds with liberal democracy. What went wrong, and why did Francis Fukuyama prove to be wrong?
Well, I think that the problem is, at the beginning of the 1990s, when we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and also a process of re-democratization in most Latin American countries, many people, I mean many people within academia— Fukuyama is probably the best example of that sort—thought this was “the end of history,” in the sense that we expected the prevalence of liberal democracy all over the world. But I think that sort of prediction was a bit naive, and it was based on seeing the expansion of democracy across many places of the world in a very short period of time. In contrast, what we’re experiencing today is an unambiguous signal that to have liberal democratic systems that can stabilize over time, we need specific prerequisites that are not necessarily present across all—or even most—societies. This is a problem not only for Latin America or for Turkey—for developing countries, so to say—but this is also a problem in developed countries like in Europe and the United States.
I think the two prerequisites are, to a certain extent, under stress today. The first prerequisite is legitimacy because most citizens believe that democracy is the only game in town. As I mentioned at the beginning, my feeling is that there is an important section of the electorate across different societies with a very peculiar understanding of democracy. I mean a non-liberal understanding of democracy. And this is why legitimacy is failing in many countries across the globe. The second prerequisite, I would say, is related to the issue of socio-economic inequality. To have a democratic system that can prevail over time, you need a certain minimum and a safety net within society. And if you don’t have that, there is a real chance that many people will start to feel deprived on either a subjective or an objective level because they’re saying the system is not working in a fair way. And this is a real problem for most countries of the world because of economic globalization. Socio-economic inequality and declining legitimacy are two of the main—although not the only—reasons that liberal democratic systems across the globe are under stress today.
How Is the World Going to Look After COVID-19?
Do you think current populist authoritarianism trends will continue? If yes, what sort of a world is waiting for us in the next five to ten years?
Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I think this is probably related to the major crisis that we’re experiencing today. This is the coronavirus, and the question is, how is the world going to look after COVID-19? One of the trickiest aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is that it generates a lot of social and economic inequality within countries and across the world. Take the whole debate, for example, about vaccines—we are seeing what is happening in India, a developing country that is not able to get enough vaccines. And this is generating a lot of tensions within that country. Also, we realize that social and economic inequalities are getting wider within countries. As mentioned, the expansion of socio-economic inequality is one of the main reasons there is democratic fragility across much of the world.
So, in this sense, the answer to your question of whether populist forces will continue to experience success in the near future is related to how well we can deal with the aftereffects of COVID-19. I’m thinking here mainly of the social and economic aftereffects of the crisis. And I think if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal with the aftereffects of the crisis in a systemic way, the likelihood is that populist forces will continue to diminish. But if this is not the case, I think the opposite will be true, and we might see populist forces of the radical right or the radical left exploit the tensions that arise with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.
Who is Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser?
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is a full professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University (UDP) in Santiago de Chile and an associate researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES)
Kaltwasser received his PhD in political science from the Humboldt-University of Berlin in 2008. His main area of research is comparative politics and he has a special interest in the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. Before his current job Kaltwasser worked as a research fellow at the University of Sussex, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Human Development group of the Chilean Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Together with Cas Mudde (Georgia University), Kaltwasser has written the book “Populism. A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2017), which has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai amongst others.
While many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations, others worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake. This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past. Vienna continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance.
Recently a dangerous package arrived in the post: a tango sent by a musician friend in Vienna who had found the sheet music at a flea market. “I’ve had absolutely no luck in finding anyone willing to take it here,” she wrote, noting the taboo around late 1930s music associated with the Nazi party. This orchestrated dance piece from 1938, titled “Mädi, nach dir hab’ ich Heimweh” (“Girl, I’m homesick for you”), also suggests the fraught word “Heimat” in the nationalistic sense of “homeland.” Because I work on antifascist music from that period, I found the music interesting as background, but also painful to hold in my hands. The composer, Horst Raszat, also contributed a song to a National Socialist anthology in 1939.
Like the problematic figure of Wagner, blatantly antisemitic in the nineteenth century and beloved by Hitler in the twentieth, many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations. Others, like Hanns Eisler and others who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht, worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake (Hart, 2018).
This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past, however. Vienna, once one of the most modern and diverse cities in Europe, until the Nazi Anschluss and subsequent gutting of its Jewish population stripped much of its cultural richness away (Weyr, 2005), continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance. Protest music plays a large role in how these tensions are embodied and whose voices are heard.
One response to xenophobic populism has been musical parody. In 2005, the FPÖ or Freedom Party in Austria campaigned with the slogan “Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden” (idiomatically translated as “Don’t let Vienna turn into Istanbul”), based on a 1990s slogan expressing the same wish not to “turn into Chicago” (Demokratiezentrum Wien, 2008) after the rise of far-right ideology under Jörg Haider. In response to the “Istanbul” slogan, Turkish-Austrian jazz singer Fatima Spar and her band The Freedom Fries turned the words around as a song title: “Istanbul darf nicht Wien werden” (“Don’t let Istanbul turn into Vienna”).
The anti-xenophobic song begins with these stanzas, sung in Turkish and translated with intentionally lower-case, democratizing typescript on the band’s website:
they are afraid
that in the city’s heart
we’ll soon raise a mosque
and pull down their church
that in masses we will settle
and run down their flats
with our mercedes
parked neatly at our doorsteps
The music works in a push-pull dynamic of parodic Viennese waltz and taverna music, a blend of styles that reflects crisscrossing cultures southeast of Vienna. Spar sings in quick, faux-panicky patter against this contrast of 3/4 and 4/4 time. Her voice slows and becomes almost mournful at the end, when she sings: “you let us row the boat/ yet our faces meet stone-cold/ “i say”, they say/ ‘that turkish girl sure is one of us.’”
In another vein, Isabel Frey, a young Yiddish singer who has found herself as uncomfortable with Zionist politics as with European populism, adapted an old protest song in 2019 that led to her own unexpected political career. After the “Ibiza Affair” became public in May of that year, linking Freedom Party officials with corruption and election support from the Russian elite, the Austrian coalition imploded. Frey responded with a song, outside the Chancellor’s residence “atop a white van with her guitar surrounded by speakers and protesters” (Baur, 2021).
The song “Daloy Politsey,” or “Down with the Police” was sung by Jewish protesters against the Tsarist regime in early twentieth-century Russia. Frey, who had already been learning Yiddish songs as part of contemporary Diaspora culture, added a German verse and chorus, and her adaptation became an anthem for the anti-populist Thursday demonstrations in Vienna (listen to it here). When she sang the song the day after the Ibiza Affair had been made public, she added the line, “heute ist Straches letzter tag” (“today is [Heinz-Christian] Strache’s last day”), referring to the Vice Chancellor and head of the Freedom Party (Hillis, 2020).
The Austrian LINKS party grew out of the Thursday demonstrations, and party member Frey won a city council seat in the recent election, representing the historically Jewish Leopoldstadt community. As part of her agenda, Frey presses for a more thorough reckoning with history and exclusionary politics in Austria. She has explained, “It doesn’t work if you just talk about the Holocaust and then use that as an expression of Austrian national identity, and use it to indirectly exclude other people from the national community, like refugees and Muslims” (Baur, 2021). With this year’s protests in Vienna over Covid restrictions, often involving Freedom Party supporters (Reuters, 2021), she will have plenty of work ahead in that area as well.
Adapting older protest music to meet current political crises is a practice with a long history. In 1949, American bass Paul Robeson, best known as a Black singer of spirituals, performed the Yiddish marching song “Zog Nit Keynmol” in Moscow. This expression of “solidarity with the Jewish people” in a “Holocaust-era Partisan song” (Kutzik, 2018) also intersected with the oppression of Blacks in the US (Rogaly, 2021). The performance led to both applause and boos in the USSR (listen to the recording here), where Jewish intellectuals were still facing persecution; Robeson’s support both for Jewish friends and for the USSR shows the complexity of anti-fascist music-making after the Second World War (Kutzik, 2018).
In today’s fraught political climate, older protest songs continue to be repurposed, from the Italian farmworkers’ “Bella Ciao” originally sung against Mussolini’s regime, and now sung in anti-authoritarian protests worldwide, to the “Marseillaise” appropriated on the right and reclaimed by the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) and Paris Opera workers in 2019 (Dorcadie, 2020). In the US, the familiar Woodie Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” is under new scrutiny, as its lyrics sound blatantly colonialist to Native peoples (Kesler, 2021). Twenty years ago, an adaptation by Mexican-American singer Lila Downs already included critique of the song’s assumptions, by speaking in the collective voice of immigrant farmworkers and then asking “When did you come to America?” in an accusing “white” voice (Downs, 2001).
Meanwhile, back in Vienna, the recent May Day demonstration occurred in the nexus of Covid fatigue and community concern over fair housing, especially for refugees (Vienna Online, 2021). Young organizers gave impassioned speeches in front of the famous opera house, with its own history of musical conservatism and recent resistance, in the form of an opera by Olga Neuwirth based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando(Ross, 2019). For all the ongoing anti-immigrant sentiment and resurging antisemitism in the city (Reuters, 2021), Vienna will continue to be an important site of protest. Though Austrian writer-of-conscience Thomas Bernhard, forced to sing Nazi marching songs as a child, lamented the “lethal soil” embedded in the beauty of cities like Salzburg, which “has always rejected those spirits it could not understand” (Bernhard, 2003: 100-101), spirited singers like Fatima Spar and Isabel Frey insist, today, on being present and being heard.
Bernhard, Thomas. (2003). Gathering Evidence: A Memoir. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Vintage.
Hart, Heidi. (2018). Hanns Eisler’s Art Songs: Arguing with Beauty. Rochester, NY: Camden House.
Rogaly, Ben. (2021). “Resisting racial nationalism and the depredations of capitalism.” Seminar presentation at the Department of Musicology, Lund University, April 27, 2021.
Weyr, Thomas. (2005). The Setting of the Pearl: Vienna Under Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Author Dr. Sara Kamali will discuss her book Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War Against the United States (University of California Press, 2021) with Dr. Todd Green, associate professor of religion at Luther College.
Based on over a decade of research, Homegrown Hate is a groundbreaking work that directly compares White nationalists and militant Islamists. In this timely book, Dr. Kamali examines their self-described beliefs, grievances, and rationales for violence, and details their organizational structures within a transnational context.
She presents compelling insight into the most pressing threat to homeland security not only in the United States, but in nations across the globe: citizens who are targeting their homeland according to their respective narratives of victimhood. She also explains the hate behind the headlines and provides the tools to counter this hate from within, cogently offering hope in uncertain and divisive times.
Innovative and engaging, this is an indispensable resource for all who cherish equity and justice in the United States and around the world.
Dr. Sara Kamali is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. She is an author, a holistic justice activist, and a scholar of systemic inequities, White nationalism, and militant Islamism. Her work examines how interlocking institutions of power oppress the many while maintaining systems of privilege for a select few.
Todd Green is Associate Professor of Religion and the Director for the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement at Luther College in the United States. He is also a former advisor on Islamophobia in Europe at the US State Department in Washington, DC. His views on Islamophobia have been featured in a variety of media outlets, including CNN, NPR, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and Reuters. He is the author of two books on Islamophobia: The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West and Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.
Colak, F.Zehra. (2021). “Dynamics and appeal of populist nationalism in Europe.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 30, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0002
Cathrine Thorleifsson (2019) Nationalist Responses to the Crises in Europe: Old and New Hatreds. Routledge. 134 pp… Drawing on multi-sited fieldwork conducted in England, Hungary and Norway in 2015, Thorleifsson’s book offers timely and critical insights into how hostility and racism toward migrants and minorities are situated within the material conditions, historical events and social contexts.
The recent resurgence of populist far-right across much of the west has attracted scholarly attention, with research investigating socio-economic, structural and globalized dynamics to explain their appeal for an increasing segment of the population. While there is a growing body of literature addressing the rise of exclusivist nationalism, such focus fails to fully account for the role of the everyday dynamics and appeal of nationalism for those who make and sustain it, mainly the supporters of the populist radical right (PRR) parties. This book is a welcome intervention in this regard. The essential aim is to explain the causes, dynamics, and local appeal of populist nationalism in contemporary Europe through an analysis of PRR parties and politicians as well as the PRR supporters’ concerns and motivations. Situating individual experiences within the wider socio-political, historical, economic and cultural context, the book focuses not only on the supply but also on the often-ignored demand side of populist nationalism.
The ethnographic study is based on fieldwork carried out in multiple sites across England, Hungary and Norway amongst the voters and supporters of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Fidesz and Jobbik, and the Norwegian Progress Party. It is acknowledged that these parties differ in their history, ideology and orientation, but what is notable is their convergence in constructing Muslim migrants and minorities as a threat to security, culture and national identity to instrumentalise sentiments of anxiety and fear. In addition to analyzing the role of PRR party leaders in shaping populist nationalism, Thorleifsson offers a comprehensive and clear account of how the supporters of these parties negotiate their belonging at the intersection of ethnicity, nationality and race.
Thorleifsson defines populist nationalism as “the exclusionary and polarizing nationalism that pits morally ‘pure’ and virtuous insiders against a set of internal and external others who are depicted as threatening to the nation-state” (pg. 2). The author interprets the rise of PRR parties as part of an attempt to downgrade the globalization processes rooted in the crisis of economy, culture and displacement. Furthermore, the resurgence of anti-immigration parties is attributed to working class resentments of economic insecurities, symbolic threats, and political discontent. Playing upon such anxieties and tapping into the grievances of disillusioned segments of the population, the PRR parties choose to frame migrants as a threat and capitalize on the so-called refugee crisis to strengthen national boundaries. Still, it is emphasized that the specific social context, historical background, structural circumstances and economic realities shape the manifestation and appeal of exclusionary populism across England, Hungary and Norway.
The book shows how in Doncaster, England, the UKIP breakthrough takes place against a background of neoliberal restructuring, economic transition and rapid demographic change, which is interpreted to have an overheating effect. It is explained that the party’s main support group is lower-educated working class, whose grievances and cultural or economic anxieties are addressed by UKIP as the party makes promises to restore the coal industry and protect the national borders from the so-called ‘job-stealing migrants’. Previous invisible privileges tied to whiteness became more prominent over the fight for resources and rights even though the local Shikh minority are also attracted to the protectionist vision of UKIP.
The notions of nostalgia and coal nationalism are adopted to explain the nature of exclusive nationalism and the political strategies adopted by UKIP in the industrial town of Doncaster. Similarly, it is elaborated how strategies such as dual essentialization are used during Trump and UKIP Brexit campaigns to foster white superiority through racializing the white working class as pure and authentic and non-white people as a threat to security, culture, and identity. In other words, “the Muslim Other became a spectacular projection that met the populist needs of whiteness and Englishness, of whiteness and Americanness” (pg. 46).
Hungarian radical right’s treatment of non-European and mainly Muslim migrant Others as disposable strangers uncovers the ways populist nationalism is manifested along racial, ethnic, and religious lines following the economic crisis and global migration. The book elaborates on how the framing of predominantly Muslim migrants as an economic threat laid the groundwork for their further dehumanization by the governing PRR party Fidesz. Despite Hungary being a transit zone for an overwhelming majority of migrants, it shows how Viktor Orbán copied Jobbik’s ultra-nationalist political style and capitalized on migration flows with anti-immigration campaigns and policies. The theoretical framing is based on various anthropological and philosophical perspectives exploring the notions of purity and the wider implications of the border-crossing act for the constructed nature of citizenhood. It convincingly argues that the rise of support for PRR parties needs to be understood against the background of socio-economic factors, historical background and the increasing ethno-nationalism fueled by anti-Islamic and xenophobic far-right rhetoric.
The discussion of the Hungarian far right is nuanced by showing how the former leader of the right-wing extremist party Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), Gábor Vona, adopts a pro-Palestinian and pro-Islam stance, unlike Fidesz and many other PRR parties in Western Europe. This strategic twist on the part of Jobbik, accompanied by antisemitic and antiziganistic propaganda, is attributed to the lack of a large Muslim presence in Hungary although anti-Muslim racism is still dominant in party campaigns and debates. The demonization of the Roma minority and Jews led to the party’s breakthrough in 2010 across regions with a sizeable Gypsy population, including the industrial town of Ózd, where Thorleifsson conducted part of her research. Her interviews with Jobbik supporters underline how people rely on conspiracy theories and intertwined categories of exclusion based on a merging of antisemitism and Islamophobia as they struggle with economic anxieties. While the main research focus is on far-right supporters, Thorleifsson briefly draws attention to the forms of Hungarian civil resistance contesting racialized securitization of migrants as an existential threat.
One of the common anti-immigration and mobilization strategies adopted by PRR across UK, Hungary, Norway and Sweden is argued to be based on a dystopian imaginary of Sweden where, supposedly, migration has created chaos and multiculturalism has failed. The book offers examples of how the imaginary of Swedish dystopia is reproduced across European far-right to warn against the so-called Islamification, demographic extinction and to promote nativism as a solution to disorder. In Norway, for instance, the anti-immigration Progress Party’s rhetoric feeds off the myth around the rise of violent crimes allegedly caused by immigration in Sweden. In Hungary, the call for protection of the white nation and Christian civilization is justified through securitization of the migrant Other who threatens its so-called purity to avoid the conditions of Swedish dystopic place.
The final chapter of the book is dedicated to unravelling the dynamics of exclusion and antiziganism targeting itinerant Roma in Norway to identify how Norwegian-ness is constructed. It provides an elaborate picture of how the dehumanization of the Roma and their inaccurate portrayal as ‘organized criminals’ are perpetuated by the populist right-wing Progress Party politicians and its supporters. Treating Roma as human waste and moralizing cleanliness, ethnic Norwegians fail to consider the role of structural conditions in creating precarious living conditions for the Roma. The book describes how, unlike in England and Hungary, the categories of difference and exclusion in Norway are not based on economic tensions but mainly rely on culturalist discourses.
The main argument of the book is based on a convincing account of the causes, methods and appeal of populist nationalism by drawing on the individual, local, societal, and global conditions and processes. Although mainstream parties and politicians are invited in the conclusion chapter to better respond to the concerns of citizens, the role of elites (e.g., journalists, intellectuals, politicians) and liberal institutions in mainstreaming the xenophobic far-right agendas and discourses is not fully explored. For instance, in addition to the discursive practices and policies of mainstream actors, media coverage of the populist far-right can contribute to the legitimization of the far-right and shape public discourse, albeit inadvertently. Mondon & Winter (2020) note that “the mainstreaming of the far-right is not simply or even predominantly the result of popular demand or the savviness of the far right itself,” calling for more attention to the systemic failures of liberalism (pg. 290).
Also, despite references to the concerns of voters to protect the white race from the racialized immigrant Other, a more critical engagement with the concepts of white privilege and white supremacy and their relationship to the rise of far-right remains absent from the discussion. For instance, the nostalgia for the past is not only an outcome of radical socio-economic change and uncertainty but also reflects a deep yearning for an ethno-racial pure nation without undesired non-whites. In this respect, nostalgia narratives involving idealized representation of a racially homogenous past are adopted to strengthen and reproduce white supremacy drawing on the conviction in the inherent superiority of the white people. Exposing such internalized racism can throw more light on the link between the reproduction of whiteness within the existing socio-political and cultural structures and the growing appeal for the far-right actors and discourses.
Overall, this book is an important contribution to the continuing debate on the rise of right-wing populism and throws much-needed light on the agency and motivations of PRR supporters based on a critical ethnographic approach. The analysis generates new insights into various factors and processes that explain local support for populist right-wing parties across Europe. The research also opens up avenues for further study, especially on the concerns and experiences of the disillusioned citizens of Europe, who actively contest, negotiate and draw the boundaries of nationhood.
Kenes, Bulent. (2021). “NMR: A Nordic neo-Nazi organization with aims of establishing totalitarian rule across Scandinavia.” ECPS Organisation Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 28, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0008
Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) rests on this century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism. Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR which aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state, has become the primary force of white power in Sweden and other Nordic countries.
Since the recent re-emergence of radical right-wing ideas across Europe (Mudde, 2007: 1), increasing numbers of security authorities warn of increased threats from the radical nationalist milieu. Terrorist attacks by radical nationalist lone wolves have been carried out in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway and El Paso (USA), Baerum (Norway), and Halle (Germany), along with other attacks, have created a sense of urgency around this growing threat. In August 2019, the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) warned of an increased threat from violent right-wing extremists (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020).According to Säpo, extreme right-wing organisations are the second biggest threat to Sweden after Islamist terrorism (Swedish Security Service, 2018). This warning brought attention to the most dominant extremist actor in Sweden, the national socialist Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7).
Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Sweden has had organized Nazi movements since 1924, when the Furugård brothers founded the first Nazi party (Lööw, 2004). During the interwar period, and until the end of World War II (WWII), various Swedish Nazi organizations developed in accordance with their conflicting attitudes toward the German Nazi party. According to Helene Lööw (1999), this led to a state of constant fragmentation of the Swedish Nazi movement, which partly explains why there was never a strong united movement during that time period. In the wake of WWII, the Swedish Nazi movement might have faded away but for the Nordic National Party (Nordiska rikspartiet, NRP), which was founded in 1956. NRP became the institution that restructured the ideas, experiences, and aims of the pre-war and wartime Nazi movements to create contemporary Nazi movements, generally in the form of subcultural groups and parties (Lööw, 1999; 2004; 2015).
By the end of the 1970s, the NRP had adopted right-wing populist ideas. This led to a portion of the movement taking a less radical position on the white race and focusing instead on a culturally racist view aimed at criticizing immigration policy and immigrants. When the group split, a new organization emerged, called Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt, BSS) (Lööw, 1999). This created more polarization within the milieu and contributed to the construction of two fractions: one that remained faithful to the Nazi ideology and another that looked for support by addressing immigration issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing movement was formed through both parliamentary aspirations and more violent revolutionary logic, as well as formal and informal groups, parties, and subcultural milieus (Lööw, 2015).
From the early 1990s onwards, older national socialist organizations such as NRP, the New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska Rörelsen), and Sweden’s Nationalist Federation (Sveriges Nationella Förbund) started dissolving and were ultimately replaced by smaller underground groups and networks such as Vitt Arisk Motstånd (White Aryan Resistance, VAM), Nationalist Alliance (Nationella Alliansen), Aryan Brotherhood (Ariska Brödraskapet), and Combat 18 (Lööw, 1995). These groups differed from the NRP, which had roots back to the Swedish National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsocialistiska abetarepartiet) of the 1930s (Kølvraa, 2019). Despite the dissolution of the NRP, during the 1980s it became the link between interwar National Socialism and a new generation of activists influenced by British and American White Power movements (Lundström, 2016; Hirvonen, 2013).
The Founders of NMR Came from Three Nazi Groups
Historically, Sweden has long been a global epicentre for White Supremacist activism and “intellectualism,” fuelled by an once world-leading White Power music industry in the 1990s (Teitelbaum & Lundström, 2017) and an extensive publishing industry (Lööw, 1999). With the recent rise in the visibility of extreme and openly violent groups and activities, Sweden offers a particularly interesting window into the media the media strategies and practices of violent extremists within liberal democracies—and why we should take this media seriously (Askanius, 2021a).
During the 1990s, the Nazi movement reconstructed itself and developed new exchange forums by adapting to the Internet and social media—moves thatbenefited a movement that struggled to gain visibility in more traditional public forums (Lööw, 2015). To attract members and sympathizers, the movement has used public demonstrations and local town rallies but also an intensified presence on social media (Kaati, 2017).By the beginning of 2010—and until 2013—there was small but significant growth in the Nazi movement’s followers, activities, and visibility. Two Nazi parties dominated the scene: The Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) and the NMR. Since 2015, the NMR, the only party remaining, has been the main hub for Nordic Nazi ideas (Lööw, 2015).
The founders of NMR came from three Nazi groups—VAM, the newspaper Folktribunen (The People’s Tribune), and the National Youth (Mattsson, 2018). The establishment of the NMR (then known as the Swedish Resistance Movement, or the Svensk motståndsrörelsen, SMR) was announced in the third issue of the Folktribunen in December 1997. The Nazi network Nordland, which has since closed down, was also included under the SMR (Harne, 2002). Folktribunen’s editor-in-chief, and one of NMR’s founders, was Klas Lund, who headed the organization for 18 years, between 1997 and 2015 (Ravndal, 2019). From 1997 to 2002, the Folktribunen was SMR’s communication channel, a place to communicate the organization’s positions and activities (Mattsson, 2018).
Apart from his lengthy leadership term, Lund’s played a role a series of dramatic events that preceded NMR’s establishment. Lund began his activist career as a militant skinhead, a form of militancy the NMR normally distances itself from because in an effort to emphasize political struggle over subcultural practices. In 1986, when Lund was 18 years old, he and a group of fellow skinheads beat and kicked to death a young man who had allegedly attempted to stop them from harassing young immigrants at a beach in southern Stockholm. Lund and two other skinheads were convicted of murder and received eight-year prison sentences. Lund’s sentence was later reduced to four years, and he was released after only twoyears(Ravndal, 2019).When he served his sentence, he became a leading figure in VAM which took its name from the American organization White Aryan Resistance, a group that carried out robberies and hoped to fund a “white revolution” (Hjälte & Kenny, 2011). (Expo, 2019).
Lund and his associates carried out several bank robberies to finance their activities and to prepare for an armed revolution. In this endeavour, Lund’s VAM was inspired by another American group, The Order (Brüder Schweigen). While amateurish, VAM was certainly violent (Hjälte & Kenny,2011); however, one of these robberies landed the perpetrators in prison (Lööw, 2009; Strømmen, 2017) again. While in prison, Lund had plenty of time to contemplate the means that would be most effective at generating a revolutionary outcome. He arrived at the conclusion that terrorism carried out by loosely organized leaderless networks might not be so effective. Rather, a strong hierarchical organization with the long-term ambition of radicalizing people through steadfast propaganda and street activism was a better alternative. These thoughts were further developed in Folktribunen, which Lund created after his second release from prison (Ravndal, 2019).
Folktribunen included material on Corneliu Codreanu, the founder and charismatic leader of the Iron Guard, an ultra-nationalist and violently antisemitic organization established in Romania in 1927. During the interwar period, Codreanu ran the violent underground fascist terrorist group, St. Michael’s Legionnaires—better known as the Iron Guard. As a Christian fanatic, Codreanu hated democracy and dreamed of a nation ruled by an elite—a country like a religious sect. The new society required a “new man,” and the Iron Guard would take the lead in the revolution. Codreanu’s organization was guilty of political assassinations and pogroms against, above all, Jews. Codreanu was imprisoned and executed in 1938 after his organization responded to his prison sentence with more assassinations (Poohl, 2014).
In 1995, a group of young people in Bromma, an upscale Stockholm suburb, founded an organization called Independent Young Nationalists (Oberoende Unga Nationalister) (Poohl, 2014). At the time, racist skinheads and white power music dominated the Swedish extreme right. As Daniel Poohl of the Swedish anti-extremist magazine Expo writes, the young ultranationalists from Bromma wanted to be something different. They didn’t allow drugs. They didn’t welcome skinhead hooligans. They wanted to be more serious(Strømmen, 2017).In 1997, Erik Hägglund was chosen to lead the organization, which had already changed its name to National Youth (Nationell Ungdom). Hägglund had previously been active in a fascist group called Riksfronten and under his leadership, Nationell Ungdom quickly radicalized. Ideas on “democratic nationalism” were replaced by revolutionary racism (Poohl, 2014; Expo/Svartvitt, 1999).
Out of Folktribunen, the new organization SMR was born. It was meant to be an elitist organization, with a strong focus on loyalty, discipline, and courage. The ethos was: “Weaklings and cowards have no place with us. No one shall avoid his manly duties.” Nationell Ungdom was to continue as the youth organization of the SMR (Poohl, 2014).This strategic shift has been overlooked by several observers who portray SMR as terrorists (Gudmundson, 2008). One reason could be that SMR does not reject extreme measures, including terrorism, in some distant future. A key element of their strategy is thus to use propaganda to prepare themselves and the Nordic people for a future racial war that is, in their minds, inevitable (SRM, 2009).
The extreme right-wing propaganda changed character over time; in 2009, the SMR launched an online campaign against paedophiles and rapists (Lööw, 2015: 66). At the same time, SMR members practised a sort of low-scale psychological warfare, where subtle threats were used to scare or silence their enemies. They also actively prepared for and sought out violent confrontations with the police and political opponents(Ravndal, 2018).
In 2003, the organization started publishing a new magazine, Nationelt Motstånd (National Resistance). Cooperation with Norwegian neo-Nazis led to a Norwegian branch of the organization, called Nasjonal Ungdom, being established the same year (Kragh & Lindberg, 2003; Expo, 2003). However, the Norwegian group faltered within a couple of years. In an article in Nationelt Motstånd, Klas Lund made it clear that the organization did not seek to recruit “as many as possible,” but rather wanted to build “an inner core of fanatic activists who can increasingly bring the national message out to the masses” (Poohl, 2014). Since 2003, the SMR has developed as an openly National Socialist organization following an “elitist” approach to membership. In addition to a traditional antisemitic focus, the organization based its ideology on openly racist anti-immigrant views(Strømmen, 2017).
In 2016, the organisation changed its name to NMR and declared, together with associate organisations in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, that now addresses matters concerning all of Scandinavia—specifically protecting the Aryan race (Mattson, 2018).
In its current shape, NMR rests on an almost century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism (Lööw, 2015).Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR has become the primary force of white power in Sweden (Mattsson, 2018). However,“white power” is not a term that the NMR uses to denote their movement—that is a term used by their enemies. Therefore, representatives of the NMR categorically claim in interviews that they do not belong to any “white power world” nor are they “Nazis” (Öberg, 2016).
The relatively civil discourse in NMR’s cultural productions also aims to seed elements of neo-Nazi ideology into the more acceptable anti-immigration rhetoric successfully used in the public domain by right-wing populist parties (Krzyżanowski, 2020). Thus, NMR have become co-producers of what Krzyżanowski (2020: 505) has dubbed “borderline discourse,” which merges uncivil (hate speech, antisemitism, and unmitigated racism) with civil discourse borrowed from the ideas of right-wing populism. In a sense, neo-Nazi groups today, and extremist actors more generally, dovetail on a broader cultural trend of an increasing symbiosis of popular media, political punditry, and persuasion. Part of this hybridity is about the convergence of the mainstream and extreme at the level of actual content on the platform(Askanius, 2021a).
NMR Aims to Overthrow the Democratic Order in the Nordic Region
NMR’s own cultural productions are also characterised by hybridity and a play with genre conventions. A convergence of popular culture and entertainment with political and news discourse is apparent. At the level of content and aesthetics, the extreme blends with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. These strategies continue the long history of “political mash-up” in protest movements’ media practices (Askanius, 2013) and of fascist movements aestheticizing politics (Ekman, 2014). To illustrate how neo-Nazis attempt to package their ideology in ways that shield it from immediate public condemnation, Kølvraa (2019) describes how NMR replaced swastikas and World War II imagery with symbols from Norse paganism and Viking iconography to make the ideology more palatable in a Swedish and wider Nordic context. The tactic served to construct a two-faced dynamic to Nazism, where a seemingly civil, respectable, and serious side masked a violent and uncivil side, much like the dissonance we see in NMR’s communication strategies seeking to normalise neo-Nazi discourse in Sweden (Askanius, 2021a).
Thus, the cultural expressions of NMR reinforce a value system that harmonises with the neo-Nazi programme. In their attempts to create a new and distinctly Nordic “Nazism light,” entertainment and culture work as key vehicles in conveying the story of “white genocide” and the impending race wars in a persuasive and entertaining manner (Askanius, 2021a).In this sense, NMR adopted some of the same normalisation strategies that seem to have worked for more mainstream far-right populist parties across Europe: re-packaging, softening rhetoric, and getting rid of or toning down overt hate speech and symbols associated with traditional fascism (Wodak, 2013). Therefore, to understand its contemporary reality, NMR’s Nazism must be recognized as something more than simply brutality, genocide, destruction, and war (Darwish, 2018: 4).
In Sweden, recent years have seen the National Socialist right mount public demonstrations and other “offline” activities with increasing numbers. Whereas earlier it was often noted that the extreme right secured media attention and impact through violence (Kimmel, 2007), and that such organizations usually preferred the relative anonymity of online propaganda (Askanius & Mylonas, 2015: 58); now the NMR’s membership—and their willingness to demonstrate in public—is increasing. Indeed, recent years saw a noticeable rise in activities (Eastman, 2017), and a third of active members in 2015 were new recruits (Kølvraa, 2019). At one march in Stockholm, in November 2016, some reports counted 600 NMR participants (Pasha-Robinson, 2016).As such, the NMR and its online media outlet Nordfront.se are today the central National Socialist voice on the Swedish extreme right—and possibly the dominant platform for such ideas in Scandinavia as a whole (Laclau, 2005, 1990).
As a neo-Nazi organization, NMR aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020; Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).In October 2014, Lund declared that a parliamentary branch of the movement would be formed, although this did not mean that the (then) SMR would become less radical. Nor did it mean that the SMR had transformed into a democratic party. Choosing to operate within the parliamentary system does not necessarily mean accepting it (Lööw, 2020: 86). The NMR has not entered the national level of government, but they entered several local governments around Sweden from 2014-2018 (Skoglund, 2017; Thomsen, 2018). The organization also made an attempt at a parliamentary breakthrough; however, it only received several municipal mandates after being added to Sweden Democrats’ (SD) lists. Despite this, the 2018 election saw an increase in both the NMR’s level of activity and their visibility in the Swedish political discourse(Blomberg & Stier, 2019).
After the 2018 election, the breakaway organization Nordic Strength (Nordisk styrka) was formed in August 2019, partly as a reaction to the failed parliamentary initiative (Lodenius, 2020: 129). Leading NMR activists, including Klas Lund, founded Nordic Strength (Askanius, 2021a), which is a distinctly elite organization, a return to the form of organization that was dominant before the NMR was created—that is, a group that does not accept everyone as a member (Lööw, 2020: 85). The purpose of Nordic Strength is stated as: “To create a new generation of strong and conscious Nordic people, and our ambition to create a strong and combative ideology, culture, community and organization.” Nordic Strength is also present in Norway and Denmark (Forwald, 2019).
NMR As a Fully-fledged National Socialist Organization
The NMR explicitly rejects democratic rule and envisions a more authoritarian system, headed by strong and competent National Socialist “senators” (Lund, 2010). It also promotes a racist and antisemitic doctrine. This is a neo-Nazi organization aimed at establishing a national revolution and totalitarian rule (Mattson & Johansson, 2018).While many emergent neo-fascist organizations across Europe distance themselves from National Socialism, the NMR remains a fully-fledged national socialist organization. Race theory is thus an inherent part of their ideology—and the alleged international Jewish elite remains their main enemy (Ravndal, 2018).
National Socialist and racist groups are sometimes introduced under the broader term “right-wing extremists.” National socialism’s main ideological components are nationalism, racism, “xenophobia,” a strong state, and anti-democratic notions (Lööw, 2020: 87-88). Although NMR can be characterized as a National Socialist organization, it did not use this label during its early years, for strategic reasons, and referred to its activists as “patriots.” In 2006, however, the NMR leadership decided to “come out of the closet” and be open about their National Socialist foundations.Behind this toxic ideology lay deeper ideas such as anti-modernism, anti-liberalism, collectivism, communitarianism, and the idea that people’s identities and meanings are closely tied to the territories, peoples, and cultures to which they naturally “belong” (Ravndal, 2019).
Meanwhile, in addition to Adolf Hitler, the NMR cites the Danish Nazi ideologue Povl Riis-Knudsen as an important source of inspiration. Biological racism is the explicit foundation of the party’s policy. Conspiracy theories and antisemitism are also central to their ideology. NMR praises Hitler and Nazi Germany but believes that their own ideology is a “new policy for a new era.” It agitates against the democratic state, immigration, and multiculturalism, as well as against “Zionism” and “globalism” (a code for Jews), capitalism, communism, feminism, and the LGBTQ movement. One of the party’s explicit goals is to deport “the majority of all those who are not ethnic northern Europeans or of closely related peoples” from the Nordic countries. NMR also directs propaganda against trade unions, whose members they want to attract as sympathizers (Expo, 2019).
Since NMR believes that the Nordic peoples are racially and ethnically related (Ravndal, 2018), it has merged the core National Socialist values with a political strategy of a united Nordic region under authoritarian leadership, all in an effort to conserve the Nordic race and culture (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). The concept of “ethnopluralism” is sometimes used to describe this idea—that people of different ethnic and territorial backgrounds should co-exist separately rather than being mixed, in order to preserve their unique qualities and collective identities (Ravndal, 2019).It seeks to preserve national identities by repatriating all or most people of foreign descent. Finally, they seek to replace the European Union—which they see as a liberal/capitalist/globalist/technocratic threat to the authentic European identity—with an autonomous European geopolitical alliance. Notably, this alliance should be detached from the current economic, cultural, and military grip of the US, and perhaps seek alliances with Russia (Ravndal, 2019).
Reinventing Vikings For Nordic Consumption
Besides an obsession with Jews and Muslims, religion does not occupy much space in the ideological view of the NMR. The party does not claim to support religious freedom in their political manifesto. They also draw on pagan myths and symbols in some of their propaganda—specifically, on Norse mythology. For example, their main symbol is constituted by an overlay of the Tiwaz/Tyr rune, named after the warrior god Tyr, and the Yngvi/Ing rune, named after the Yngling lineage, the oldest known Scandinavian dynasty(Ravndal, 2019). However,in much of the NMR’s more recent cultural productions, the Vikings have gone soft (Askanius, 2021a). At the core of this practice, through which boundaries are increasingly blurred, is an aspiration to make uncivil discourse and ideology appear more civil and the spectacular more mundane—and to tell the story of a new “sanitised version of Nazism that would normalise the Hitler state in the minds of contemporaries” (Blee, 2007: 15). Vikings are no novelty in the National Socialist imagination. They were extensively present in Third Reich propaganda (Lauridsen, 1995).The image of the Viking serves as the lynchpin of a distinctly Nordic reiteration of National Socialist ideology as articulated by NMR (Kølvraa, 2019).
Christoffer Kølvraa argues that the Viking becomes an “empty signifier”(Laclau, 1996),serving three distinct purposes in the construction of a cultural imaginary suitable for a Nordic National Socialism. First, it serves to signify the National Socialist idea of a “Nordic race” and, in that sense, implicitly links this ideology to a specifically Nordic historical-cultural space. Second, it serves to differentiate the pan-Nordic racial project of the NMR from a wider European far-right populist agenda of defending European Christian civilization. Third, it serves to symbolize a classic National Socialist body ideal of hyper-masculinity and homo-social community in a distinctly Nordic code (Kølvraa, 2019).
Perhaps the most obvious function of Viking heritage in the cultural imagination of the NMR is simply as a way of making National Socialism less of a “German” ideology and reorientating it towards a Nordic cultural-historical context. Indeed, the NMR certainly addresses its audience as modern-day Vikings (Kølvraa, 2019).The Nordfront.se site sees it as a core task to keep the audience updated on “all things Viking.” It offers lists of events with Viking or mediaeval themes, including Viking markets, re-enactments of Viking battles, and upcoming Viking rituals, festivals, and commemorative dates (Holmqvist, 2017; Editorial, 2017).
At the textual level, Viking heritage is often only alluded to in passing, such as when it is claimed: “Our forefathers knew the secret of the blood. They understood it so well, both regarding animals and people, that they did what they could to prevent mixing the Nordic-Germanic (Aryan) race with the other races of the earth” (Söderman, 2007). The NMR also distances itself from the far and populist right by adopting a severely critical attitude towards Christianity (Gardell, 2014: 131).)The popularity of notions of “Christian Europe” can be linked to the fact that it easily supports the construction of a violent antagonism towards Islam or a “clash” between Islam and European/western civilization. Furthermore, the NMR indulges itself at times by imagining the danger of what has been called “Eurabia”: the supposed grand strategy behind a Muslim takeover of the European continent (Carr, 2006).However, as a rule, the organization rejects the valorisation of Christian values and heritage. In fact, in most cases, the NMR’s attitude toward Christianity is to view it as a foreign, southern, and ultimately Jewish idea, unduly and forcibly imposed on their Viking ancestors with vast, ever-present detrimental consequences (Söderman, 2008).
“The religion of the Norse or German gods and associated forms of paganism are particularly popular among skinheads, precisely because of their violent, warrior ethos. Skinzines, and especially the Blood & Honour magazine, frequently point out that Odinism is a religion of warriors, whereas despised Christianity is presented in Nietzschean terms as a religion of slaves” (Pollard, 2016: 409).NMR rejects Christianity, which is considered “a kind of spiritual AIDS that has destroyed our natural immunity to non-biological thinking (Lodenius, 2020). It is a contagious mental illness that must be fought by all means” (Nationalsocialismen, 2011). With regard to the NMR’s view of religious freedom, all religions must adapt to National Socialism and must not run counter to its ideology and thus religious practice should be relegated to the private sphere (Redaktionen, 2016).
According to Kølvraa (2019), even when the Vikings are used as a means to mark religious difference, they function more as an empty signifier than as an actual counterpoint or alternative. It is not about becoming Vikings but about establishing a cultural imaginary in which National Socialism is linked, juxtaposed, and repackaged in Viking iconography for Nordic consumption.Viking heritage is central to the cultural imaginary of these modern Scandinavian National Socialists due to its ability to link the internal elements of their communal ideal: an ideal of a pure Nordic racial community undisturbed by foreign influences, Christian weakness, and degenerate modernity; a community shaped by an embedded hyper-masculinity lived out in homosocial interactions saturated with struggle, aggression, and the will to supremacy (Kølvraa, 2019).
NMR has used propaganda and direct action to “awaken” the people and prepare them for the upcoming “race war.” This is in line with the general National Socialist emphasis on action rather than on intellectualism (Ravndal, 2019).In many ways, NMR and the alt-right share the same destructive narrative. Common messages from both feature racial separatism, ethnopluralism, and conspiratorial notions of an impending societal collapse, stoking fears that “the people” and “culture” are about to be exterminated by external enemies. The external enemy is embodied by overseas immigration, which is supposedly orchestrated by an “elite” consisting of politicians, the media, and globalists (Jews). Not infrequently, antisemitic conspiracy theories also occur in connection with this notion. NMR actors also consider themselves to be waging “a cultural war” in order to preserve Swedish identity (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 8). NMR is anti-democratic and rejects global humanitarian rights. The party believes violence is necessary and legitimate to achieve its goals. In such a case, “racial traitors” and people of the “wrong race” will be exterminated, brought to justice, or deported (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20).
NMR has hopes to start a revolution through an extra-parliamentary struggle. They are opposed to the ruling government but do not engage in elections (Ravndal, 2019: 11-12). On NMR’s official website, Nordfront, the party claims a National Socialist stance in the “Nine Points” that make up their policy (Hellenstierna, 2019).These points are essential to their struggle and will be dictate the changes they make when they supposedly seize power from “the hostile forces that now rule the Nordic peoples” (Nordfront Policy A, 2015). The nine points include:
Immediately stopping mass immigration;
As soon as possible, initiating the repatriation of the majority of all non-Northern Europeans or closely related peoples;
By all means available, seek to regain power from “the global Zionist elite which economically and militarily occupy most of our world”;
Jointly with the other Nordic countries create a Nordic self-sufficient state with a common defence force, common currency and central bank, and common horizontal laws and regulations. This also means immediate withdrawal from the European Union and any similar hostile associations;
The media should be owned by citizens of the new Nordic region. Foreign as well as domestic media acting against people in a hostile manner will be prohibited; and
A public tribunal must be established with the aim of examining the difficult cases of treason (Redaktionen Nordfront, 2015).
NMR’s primary goal is to overthrow the Scandinavian democracies and create a Nazi state under NMR leadership.Three core themes in NMR’s ideology are, 1) the competition between the races; 2) antisemitism, with Jewish conspiracies at the centre (Immigration to Sweden and other Nordic countries will not be the main problem for NMR, but a by-product of the Jewish conspiracy); and 3) gender roles: for the battle ahead, men and women must have their strict gender roles. Men are supposed to be warriors and provide physical protection while women are supposed to stay home and reproduce and raise children. Less strict gender roles have resulted in “mixed races” and thus the “end of the race.” Feminist and LGBTQ movements are, therefore, not accepted and often threatened by NMR (Blomgren, 2020;Mattsson, 2018; Ranstorp, Ahlin, & Normark, 2020).
In NMR’s ideological narrative, thus, the central problem at the core of the conflict is construed as mass immigration and multiculturalism, spearheaded by Zionism and a feminised, degenerated Western culture. This problem poses a threat to a community—an “us,” meaning the white race, true Swedes, and the Nordic people—by a perpetrator, a “them” consisting of caricatured enemies including “racial strangers,” Jews, enemies of the people, or alternatively, Sweden-haters, which includes politicians, journalists, certain public intellectuals, feminists, and so forth. Against this backdrop, NMR proposes a “final solution”— namely, the deportation of all “racial strangers” and a race war, with the end result being Sweden as “white sanctuary,” enforced by a future pan-Nordic state founded on national socialism (Askanius, 2021a).
Moreover, the NMR propagates the superiority of the white race, fights for the “survival of the Nordic race,” and wants to bring about a revolution through an armed takeover (Edsenius & Jönsson, 2018). The party wants democracy to be “replaced by an elitist government with a strong leader at the top” (TT, 2017). In connection with this, parties must be abolished and citizenship in Sweden must be based on racial biology. A racial biology institute will “racially assess” the population of individuals born after 1975 and those who do not belong to the Aryan race will be forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin. Those born before 1975 could lose their citizenship if they were “convicted of anti-popular activities.” NMR’s leaders estimate that approximately 2 million “racial strangers” in Sweden would be sent back to their countries of origin, as well as another million people from the other Nordic countries (Lodenius, 2020).
According to the NMR, the entire survival and existence of the “white race” is at stake due to low birth rates combined with mass immigration of non-whites in “a low-intensity war of extermination against whites.” The Nordic countries are portrayed as occupied and the survival of the people a battle for life and death in a race war. The very image of the enemy being painted is dark and dystopian and is often described in dehumanizing terms as the “System.” The System includes the government and authorities, while politicians are referred to as “criminals.” The System has a vicious plan against the “people,” who are brainwashed and repressed by constant reprisals from the government and authorities. The System’s repression of NMR is enormous. NMR repeatedly uses enemy terms such as “racial stranger,” “criminal,” “traitor,” etc. NMR often weaves together a conspiratorial worldview of a “Jewish-controlled” elite of “globalists,” “big banks,” and “capitalists” who oppose and oppress the “people” (Lodenius, 2020).
NMR wants to establish a “people’s court” that will “try the difficult cases of treason” (Redaktionen, 2015). “Traitors” will be brought before the people’s court and hung from lampposts. NMR also advocates the reintroduction of the death penalty to be imposed for serious crimes (Lodenius, 2020). Media must be banned if they go against NMR’s ideals. NMR’s idea of freedom of expression is to tear up laws against incitement against ethnic groups and instead ban “anti-popular propaganda” which includes media that spreads “subversive and anti-popular messages” (Redaktionen, 2018a).
NMR Views World Through Prism of Antisemitism
The NMR’s worldview is based on antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that Jews promote immigration, egalitarianism, and racial mixing in order to destroy the white race (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20). According to this world view, no political achievements have any real value until the alleged Jewish world conspiracy is crushed. While the rest of the far-right is inspired by new ideological influences, the NMR has chosen to stick to its Nazi convictions and Hitler’s principles, including all the elements of antisemitism. The party claims it wants to “take back power over our country from the globalists who rule us.” “Globalists” is one of many code words for the alleged Jewish international conspiracy (Poohl, 2018).
Antisemitism is at the heart of the National Socialist ideology. Without antisemitism, National Socialism does not exist. According to Nazis, the notion of history is a struggle between Jews and “Aryans.” National Socialists often use terms such as “Jewish mentality” and “spiritual Jews.” These terms were synonymous with the Nazis’ political enemies, who were considered poisoned by the “Jewish mentality and morality” and who “sold their souls to the Jews” (Lööw, 2020: 89). Jews are at the top of the NMR’s enemy list; Nazis hate Jews more than they hate Muslims—they believe Jews invented the Muslims (Pascalidou, 2017).
Although the NMR is concerned with challenges posed by growing Muslim populations in Europe, they always make sure to remind themselves and others that the real cause of this “Muslim invasion” is the Jews, who have deliberately masterminded it in order to weaken the European peoples and nations for their own benefit (Lund, 2004). According to NMR, “the tentacles of Zionism” are everywhere, seen in a culture war which seeks to “destroy the indigenous European cultures and replace them with Americanized anti-culture” (Lund, 2008).
Nevertheless, NMR has recently changed its rhetoric and started use some indirect or coded words. In that rhetoric, individuals who are said to represent the imagined Jewish power are transformed into traitors. The previous terms, like “racial traitors” and “Jewish lackeys,” have been replaced simply with “traitors” (Lööw, 2019). NMR sees “our people” as being betrayed and replaced through marriage and migration—and sees these as conscious strategies to replace the “Nordic race” with a new people. According to this conspiracy theory, Europe’s population will be replaced through the migration of Muslims, which is actually a Jewish plot (Lööw, 2020). Immigration to Sweden and the Nordic countries is by-product of the Jewish conspiracy—a conspiracy that is manifested in the form of, among other things, socialism, capitalism, and humanism (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 46). According to the NMR, Jews are even behind recent terrorist attacks—and the police are supposedly “Zionist slaves” (Pascalidou, 2017).
The NMR also practises Holocaust denialism. In connection with memorial days linked to the Holocaust, NMR has organized demonstrations and various actions, in an effort to burden these dates with a different meaning (Lööw, 2020: 93). Nordfront’s editor-in-chief Fredrik Vejdelands denied the Holocaust during his closing speech in the Göta Court of Appeal (Redaktionen, 2015).
In accordance with the NMR’s worldview, Israel is the centre of a Zionist world power that exercises a destructive influence on much of the world, including Sweden. According to the NMR, Israel can be seen as the exact opposite of a National Socialist state: unnaturally created through mass immigration; built on a national, historical and religious lie and economic parasitism; a centre for espionage and global organized crime; etc. According to the NMR, Israel is, in practice, an extremist nationalist military base under the control of “international financial Judaism,” and, as such, it poses a threat to the rest of humanity. Naturally, the NMR sympathizes with the Palestinians and their struggle for a free Palestinian state (Editorial, 2012). With a focus on historical revisionism about the Holocaust (Lööw, 2019), NMR’s antisemitism is so strong that they congratulated radical Islamist HAMAS in 2006, just because the organisation stated in its statutes that it wants to destroy Israel (Redaktionen, 2006).
Hierarchically Organized with Militant and Fanatic Members
NMR is hierarchically organized and militant (Ravndal, 2018). Its colours are green, white and black. Its main symbol is the tyrruna, which was used Nazi Germany during WWII (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020).NMR’s model was inspired by the Romanian Iron Guard and has become a collection of fanatics (Poohl, 2014).
The organization is divided into so-called “nests” (nästen, a term borrowed from the Iron Guard), each with its own leadership and structure (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden is divided into seven nests, and they are controlled by operational chiefs directly handling the local activist groups—named fighting groups—each with no more than ten members. One nest can have several combat groups (Expo, 2020; Mattson & Johansson, 2018).In addition, there is a national council (Riksrådet) as well as a Nordic council (Nordenrådet) comprising members from the various national branches (Ravndal, 2019).
According to its Handbook for Activists, the NMR is “not a democratic organization where individuals gain positions of responsibility through elections or majority rule. Instead, it is a strictly hierarchically structured organization where all positions of responsibility are filled according to competence, loyalty and willingness to sacrifice” (Bjørgo, 2018). For the people who are part of the combat groups, NMR requires “regular activism, physical training and demonstration of willingness to sacrifice, and that members must be public with who they are” (Lindberg, 2019).
At the top of the hierarchy is the leader of the entire organization, currently Simon Lindberg. Besides these top positions, there are several other prestigious positions, such as operational leader, parliamentary leader, media spokesperson, editor-in-chief, news editor, head of radio broadcasting etc (Ravndal, 2019). Because the NMR envisions an actual take-over of the government, it needs a hierarchical organization on stand-by for when this critical moment arrives (Ravndal, 2019).
Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR underwent a reorganisation under new leadership and changed its name from the SMR to the NMR, following the establishment of associated divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark. NMR refers to this period as the “‘coming out party’ of national socialism” in Scandinavia and to Sweden as the new administrative centre and power hub of a future pan-Nordic state (Askanius, 2021a). Thus, NMR has shifted from being a closed subcultural group to trying to reach a wider audience. The organization has moved away from its subcultural roots and developed into movement focused more on political outreach (Mattson & Johansson, 2018).
The NMR has three levels of membership and strict criteria for joining. Full membership is restricted to activists willing to be publicly associated with the organization; affiliates are formal members whose involvement is on a more voluntary basis; supporting members provide financial support only and may remain anonymous.To become a full member, one has to dedicate him/herself fully to the organization and its day-to-day struggle (Ravndal, 2019). NMR recruits, educates, and trains activists in a hierarchical system, with the hope that violence and advocacy will create a spiritual and physical elite (Expo, 2020). Members practice martial arts in order to stay healthy, build confidence, and prepare physically and mentally for any type of threat (Holm, 2005).
Some NMR members have a military past (Sveriges Radio, 2014) while othersarm themselves with weapons when they move outdoors (Nerikes Allehanda, 2014). According to former NMR leader Lund, activists should be prepared to use force. “The practice of martial arts fulfils several tasks, it helps to maintain discipline within the organization while it [provides] physical education … It creates a powerful cadre of members who grow powerful and aggressive … This is necessary to create a fighting organization” (Poohl, 2014).
On the other hand, external activities constitute the groups’ interaction with the public, and their primary function is to convey the group’s political message to larger audiences, sometimes but not always through spectacular and creative stunts, or through shocking behaviour. By tracing these actions, one can see that the NMR creates a pattern in which the same types of activity are repeated over and over again (Ravndal, 2019).The members are secular and do not engage in religion per se (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020).Members at the highest level of activism are the ones that create the so-called “combat groups” (Mattsson, 2018).
As an “elite” organisation, the NMR has never aspired to fast growth but rather has been careful about recruiting what it sees as the “right” kind of person, meaning those who are fully dedicated, action oriented, and never question the organization’s radical stances. Thus, NMR members are expected to embrace everything the organization stands for, including conspiracy theories about Jewish elites and homosexuality being an unnatural and confused state of mind. This form of militancy borders on fanaticism, i.e., on an uncritical ideological devotion. In fact, NMR activists proudly present themselves as fanatics in the vein of prominent National Socialists from the Third Reich, such as SS troops (Ravndal, 2019).
NMR members are provided with detailed routines and instructions for how to live life as a member. Each activity is given points according to an incomprehensible logic. The points must then be reported to the superior and become an effective control mechanism for the group’s management. There are rules for how members should address each other depending on rank, instructions for who should sit where during lectures, how to present a case during a meeting, and how to eat, sleep, and march (Poohl, 2014). Tattoos on the hands and head, piercings, alcohol and drug abuse, or mental illness are not accepted. There is also a strict duty of confidentiality within the organization and all information that is not public is classified. Revealing this type of information counts as a “betrayal” (Lodenius, 2020).
In terms of clothing and lifestyle, members are encouraged not to wear flashy or expensive clothes but rather clothes that signal their political views. They are also encouraged to wear comfortable clothes appropriate for street fighting. NMR’s code of honour requires members to keep silent about the organization’s inner life, to remain loyal and humble, to show good camaraderie, to be disciplined and truthful, and to exercise and be prepared for fighting (Lund, 2010).
While the Swedish NMR branch currently claims a few hundred members, there are fewer than a hundred members in Finland—and fewer than 50 in Norway (Ravndal, 2019). In recent years, NMR has tried to attract more supporters and for a while, more people joined each new demonstration. However, the trend has reversed recently. In 2018, 350 people gathered at a Nazi demonstration in Ludvika. At the same time, 140 people marched in Boden—around 500 people in total. In 2019, similar marches only featured around 400 people in total (Poohl et al, 2019). According to Lööw (2015), NMR remains a relatively small organization, with estimates suggesting it has fewer than 1000 members.
An alleged coup attempt led to a split in the NMR in 2019. Former leader Lund left NMR and started a new group, Nordic Strength, which demands a higher degree of radicalism and fanaticism. More hard-line activists believe that NMR has become less radical during recent years, in attempts to broaden and attract more members. Before the 2018 elections, NMR described its ambition to become a popular movement. After the fiasco of the election, dissatisfaction has simmered in parts of the party, a group often described as NMR’s “spearhead” or “core activists” (Fröjd, 2019).
ThoughNordic Strength appears to be a somewhat more radical organization (Leman, 2018; Fröjd, 2019), so far, it has not made any major imprints. Although Nordic Strength can carry out individual acts of violence, the organization is actually restrained, as they have an aging leadership, a small number of members, and limited financial resources (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481).
As with other far-right extremist organisations, NMR is more attractive to men and boys. The ideological background is conservative and against equality, gender equality and liberalism, thereby making it harder for women and girls to identify with the organisation (Kimmel 2007; Ekman 2014).NMR members also tend to have similar backgrounds. Some had parents who drank, others had parents who fought at home (Pascalidou, 2017).
The organization was built on the idea of the trinity of people, family, and the homeland. It is based on the heterosexual core family, and if the core family is threatened, so is the future of the motherland (Blomgren, 2020).According to the NMR and other National Socialists, man and woman have different biological and spiritual conditions. These pre-given conditions form the basis for a division of society into a male and a female sphere. The man and the woman must complement but not replace each other. NMR members see women as wives and mothers (Lööw, 2020: 96).
NMR is against feminism and for strong traditional gender roles that idealize the woman’s role, including giving birth, raising children and taking care of household chores (Lodenius, 2020). At the same time, they are very strongly against homosexuality—or the “homosexual lobby,” as they call it. NMR members have participated in violent protests aimed at Pride parades, where NMR members hold up banners with messages such as, “Crush the gay lobby” (Lodenius, 2020).
NMR’s International Links
The leadership within NMR has been inspired by various international and ideological role models. SMR/NMR’s founder Lund was previously the leader of the VAM, which was inspired by the American neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and Robert Mathews, the founder of the white power group The Order. Richard Scutari of The Order (Bruders Schweigen) was also linked to NMR via Esa Henrik Holappa, the founder of the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM) (Redaktionen, 2011).
Other NMR leaders have also had close contact with American role models. Magnus Söderman was a member of the Aryan Nations under the leadership of its founder Richard Butler (Redaktionen, 2009). The Aryan Resistance Movement leader David Lane also knew Söderman, who worked to translate and disseminate Lane’s ideas. According to his own statement, Söderman also lived with The Order in the US (Söderman, 2007a). NMR/SMR was also inspired by William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance and author of the books The Turner Diaries and Hunter(Lodenius, 2020).
Over the years, SMR/NMR have developed extensive international connections outside the Nordic region. On the website patriot.nu, in 2002, SMR linked to its foreign organizations: the National Alliance, the German NPD, the Russian National Unity, and the Italian Forza Nuova (Lodenius, 2020). A very active exchange is taking place, including study visits to Germany and Hungary and participation in National Socialist demonstrations. For example, the NMR regularly participates in the annual Lukov March in Bulgaria, along with other foreign National Socialists. In 2013, information was published that members of the SMR had undergone paramilitary training with a Nazi group in Hungary (Holmberg, 2017). NMR has developed particularly good relations with the German Die Dritte Weg, the Italian Casa Pound, the Hungarian Legio Hungaria, the Greek Golden Dawn, and the American Patriot Front.
In March 2015, the NMR participated in the far-right “International Conservative Forum” in St. Petersburg, which was organized by the Russian party Rodina (Motherland) (Vergara, 2015). On behalf of the NMR, Peter Jusztin participated, and, after the conference, the NMR visited one of the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), in a suburb of St. Petersburg (Redaktionen, 2015b). Stanislav Vorobjev, the leader of RIM, visited the NMR during their Nordic Days and donated money to the NMR (Redaktionen, 2015c). The paramilitary branch of the RIM, Partizan, organized a training camp for right-wing extremists and, alongside groups from all over the world, NMR members Viktor Melin and Anton Thulin received eleven days of training in August 2016 (Wiman et al, 2017). In April 2020, RIM was branded as a terrorist organization by the US State Department (Kasurinen, 2020).
The connections between NMR and the RIM go back to 2012, when Vorobjev handed out diplomas to Nordfrontemployees Robert Eklund and Henrik Pihlström for “their objective and correct description of the political situation in Russia in the Swedish media” (Redaktionen, 2012). In October 2016, RIM donated an unknown amount of money to the NMR, and the contacts were described at the end of that year by Simon Lindberg as “good” (Expo. 2019).
The importance of NMR’s non-Nordic contacts is clear—NMR’s program is also published in English and Russian (Lodenius, 2020). In addition, NMR has a presence on Russian social media, with a significant number of followers (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 9). There is also an extensive digital exchange between the NMR and representatives of the American alt-right. This exchange seems to be primarily individual-based and not formalized. For NMR, the exchange offers an arena for new potential sympathizers abroad and creates opportunities to reach a new audience in Sweden (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481).
A Pan-Nordic Utopia: A Nordic Nation for Nordic People
Nationalist groups, in particular those with a militant or revolutionary outlook, usually emerge within nation-states (Ravndal, 2019); despite this,NMR seeks to expand its presence in other Nordic countries to establish a “Nordic nation for Nordic people” (Ravndal, 2019: 12). This goal is not new.Swedish National Socialist parties of the 1930s were also expansionist and intended to include all groups they defined as “Aryan.” The motherland was to be conquered by the workers, who were to be mobilized for the national idea and become part of the national community.
NMR’s party program is permeated by the idea of a united Nordic region (Lööw, 2020: 92). In 2008, a branch of NMR was founded in Finland, while a renewed Norwegian branch was established in 2011. In 2013, a Danish-language site, nordfront.dk, was established, and an attempt was made to set up an NMR branch in Denmark, via Henrik Jarsbo (Lindberg, 2013). An Icelandic web site, nordurvigi.is, exist and does contain some general information about the organization (Strømmen, 2017).
Following the establishment of sister divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, the SMR changed its name to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR). However, the organization has yet to mobilize nearly as many dedicated activists in the other Nordic countries as it has in Sweden (Ravndal, 2018).Sweden remains the country with most dedicated and active members (Ravndal, 2018: 15-16). Sweden is a special case in Scandinavia, at least in terms of the country’s historical experience of WWII and its subsequent attitude toward National Socialist ideas and symbols. While both Denmark and Norway endured German occupation, Sweden managed to avoid occupation by remaining neutral. This meant that Sweden did not experience the same post-war legal trials of Nationalist Socialist sympathizers that Demark and Norway did (Fangen, 1998).
Indeed, in Denmark and Norway a strong collective memory of national resistance was established; anyone designated as a “Nazi” was effectively excluded from the national community (Bryld & Warring, 1998). Finland also undertook a legal purge of sorts as the Finnish-Soviet armistice of 1944 required Helsinki to dismantle all fascist organizations. Here again, Sweden never went through the same post-WWII legal purge against Nazi sympathisers (Ravndal, 2018). Thus,in Sweden, the lack of memory of national resistance against Nazi Germany has meant that the extreme right is more prone to identify itself as National Socialist and to use the symbols and iconography of the Third Reich (Fangen, 1998).Sweden thus has a larger and better-organized national socialist movement than the other Nordic countries (Ravndal, 2018).
Moreover, youth unemployment rates have been considerably higher in Sweden than in Denmark and Norway. Sweden has also received far more immigrants than the other Nordic countries and has experienced more problems related to segregated suburbs and crimes allegedly committed by people of immigrant backgrounds. In combination, these two conditions may have fuelled grievances among segments of the Swedish population that can be exploited by the extreme right to recruit new followers (Ravndal, 2018). In fact, the most successful far-right populist party in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD), has undeniable roots in the neo-fascist milieux (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010)—unlike its equivalent in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) (Meret, 2011).
Nevertheless, in Sweden, too, National Socialists must attempt to package or frame their ideology in ways that might shield it from immediate public condemnation (Kølvraa, 2019). Since the Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) was dissolved in May 2015, the NMR has been the most important neo-Nazi organization in Sweden. The Norwegian and Finnish branches of the organization are also central parts of the neo-Nazi environment in those countries. The NMR fights, in the words of its former leader Klas Lund, for “a Nordic national socialist republic including the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and optionally the Baltic states” (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to antisemitism, “Nordic-ness” is something that binds the Nordic countries together and is central to NMR’s ideology (Lööw, 2020: 86). The party hopesto preserve the Nordic people as they are today, ensuring that the Nordic racial type remains dominant in the Nordic gene pool (Nordiska Motståndsrörelsens, 2015).
In 2003, former members of the Norwegian skinhead group Boot Boys became sworn members of the NMR’s first Norwegian branch. Shortly thereafter, a Norwegian version of the NMR’s website, Patriot.nu, was launched, and the first issue of the Norwegian version of the NMR’s publication Nasjonal Motstand was published. However, finding dedicated activists in Norway proved harder than in Sweden. The timing may also have been unfortunate. The Norwegian militant movement had receded considerably following the murder of Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 by two Boot Boys members. Another complicating factor was that leading figurers within the Norwegian branch had to serve prison sentences for various criminal activities, including a bank robbery. Thus, after a couple of years of activities, the first Norwegian branch of NMR largely ceased to be active (Ravndal, 2019).
It took several years before a second attempt was made to re-establish the NMR’s Norwegian branch. In 2010, Haakon Forwald, mostly known as a former member of the Swedish black metal band Dissection (Lindberg, 2014), joined the Swedish branch as NMR’s only Norwegian member. This followed several attempts to reach out to the defunct Norwegian branch. Forwald was soon promoted to leader of a resurrected Norwegian branch and given the task of rebuilding it. Later that year, a Norwegian version of NMR’s website, Nordfront, went online, mainly containing articles from the Swedish site translated into Norwegian. However, slowly but surely, activism reports began appearing on the Norwegian website as well, usually about night-time sticker raids (Ravndal, 2019).
Save its first years, the resurrected Norwegian branch was involved in few public activities, especially. This pattern changed post-2016, and Norwegian activists started carrying out more public activities (Martinsen et al, 2017).However, NMR’s Norwegian membership is much smaller than the Swedish and Finnish divisions. The Norwegian NMR also appears to be largely dependent on its Swedish mother organization. More Swedish than Norwegian activists have been involved in the few public events NMR has organized in Norway (Ravndal, 2018). Still,NMR has grown, however slightly, and counts several “nests” in Norway (Lindberg, 2014).
The Finnish Resistance Movement (Suomen vastarintaliike, SVL) was founded in 2008 by Esa Henrik Holappa (Hietikko, 2016b) following approval by the NMR (Wiman & Svensson, 2018). It immediately became the most militant Finnish Nazi organization. From its inception in 2008 until Holappa stepped down in 2012, he served as the official leader of the SVL and was one of the few members who operated openly under his own name (Strømmen, 2017).
Holappa’s decision to establish a Finnish branch of NMR was highly influenced by the American veteran activist Richard Scutari, who is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for his involvement in the American terrorist organization The Order, and was pen pals with Holappa. At the age of 17, Holappa started writing letters to Scutari. Holappa and Magnus Söderman—another of Scutari’s pen pals—have published their correspondences as a tribute to Scutari. (Söderman & Holappa, 2011). The book shows how Scutari put Holappa and Söderman in contact with each other, and how he advised Holappa to establish a Finnish version of NMR under the auspices of Söderman and the larger NMR (Ravndal, 2019).
When Holappa landed in trouble for crimes related to hate speech in 2008, he became increasingly convinced that he would be convicted. When his American neo-Nazi contacts heard about his problems, they encouraged him to travel to the US. In August 2008, he followed their recommendation (Strømmen, 2017). Holappa left the SVL in 2012 and has been considered by the NMR as a traitor and oath breaker (Ravndal, 2019).
During its early phase, SVL tried to keep a low profile; this changed after a stabbing at the city library in Jyväskylä in January 2013 (Lodenius, 2020).SVL members were involved in several violent attacks in the 2010s, including several assaults on leftist politicians, and the stabbing of a security guard at a book launch event in 2013 (the book was about the Finnish extreme right) (Hietikko, 2016). In 2014, the SVL also latched onto news about a multi-ethnic, suburban gang assaulting other youth in Helsinki and organized vigilantes to patrol the city. These vigilante marches have continued sporadically throughout the country. SVL and its activists were real threats to those it sees as political opponents or unwelcome in the country—or to outsiders who just happen to be in the wrong place or have the “wrong opinions.” Most violent crimes attributed to SVL members have fallen into the category of street violence (Strømmen, 2017).
SVL has several features worrying to the authorities: good organizational skills, a long-term approach to developing its activities, and an ideology that embraces violence. Like the NMR, the SVL is strictly hierarchical, with clear manuals for its activism and group structure. It is working to build a subculture through social activities intended to draw in new members, including lectures, martial arts training, sports events, forest walks, and outdoor survival training (Strømmen, 2017).
Following the refugee crisis in 2015, there had been a surge of interest in racist and xenophobic organizations in Finland. To exploit the situation and boost recruitment, SVL attempted to soften its image. Members began to call themselves nationalists and patriots; part of their work was carried out under the banner of Suomalaisapu, or Finnish Aid (Strømmen, 2017). At the same time, SVL has tried to be the gathering umbrella for various National Socialist (Hietikko, 2016a),right-wing extremist, and nationalist and racist groups in Finland. An example is the “612” nationalist torchlight procession, arranged December 6 (or “6/12”), which is the Finnish Independence Day. Despite the group’s efforts to become the umbrella for all extreme right organizations in Finland, the SVL has had little success achieving this goal (Strømmen, 2017).
Moreover, there were strong internal contradictions between the old Nazi line and those who advocate for neo-fascism (Hietikko, 2016a). Ideological differences between the NMR and SVL also exist and occasionally cause friction. While the Swedish branch is representative of an old-fashioned Hitlerian variant of neo-Nazism, the Finnish branch is more diverse. Some members support a “Third Position” neo-fascism and have contacts with the Italian movement Casa Pound (Strømmen, 2017).
Considering these schisms, SVL member Mika Ranta decided to form a separate vigilante group. Ranta is a self-declared neo-Nazi who has been convicted of violent crimes. He chose to call his organization Soldiers of Odin (SOO) (Rosendahl & Forsell, 2016). Despite some differences, SOOis modelled on the SVL, and Ranta sought SVL’s permission to from SOO. Lately, the SVL and SOO have openly referenced each other (Strømmen, 2017).
While Finnish authorities have kept the SVL under close watch for years, pressure to take legal action against the group began to mount in late 2016 after one of its members assaulted and seriously injured a passer-by in Helsinki. The victim died a week later. Although the assailant was ultimately found guilty of aggravated assault with a racist motive instead of homicide, Finland’s National Police Board sued the SVL in March 2017, on the grounds that the group contravened Finnish association law. The SVL was forbidden to operate in Finland, but the verdict did not cover every single association registered as members of the NMR. The group’s charity organization, Suomalaisapu (Finn Aid), remains active and its party project, Kansan Yhtenäisyys (The People’s Unity), was left similarly untouched by the ban (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020).
The ban came into effect at the end of November 2018. At the end of 2019, Finnish law enforcement agencies also conducted an investigation into information that the SVL continued its activity under the pseudonym Kohti vaputta! (Towards Freedom!) (Teivainen, 2019). Kohti Vapautta! has arranged street activism, training sessions and other similar activities.
Eventually, the Supreme Court of Finland issued a ban on the SVL on September 22, 2020. The historic decision follows the case that had been ongoing for several years. The Court decreed that the SVL and Pohjoinen Perinne ry (Northern Tradition), a registered association facilitating the group’s activities, were to be disbanded as they contravene Finnish association law. The verdict brought a close to nearly three years of legal deliberations and represents the first time since 1977 that an extreme right-wing group has been disbanded in Finland by court order (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020).
Denmark & Iceland
Since 2007, the SMR/NMR has developed its contacts with the Danish National Socialist Movement (DNSB). In the same year, NMR representatives participated in a DNSB demonstration in Kolding in memory of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, where participants attacked counter-protesters. In 2013, Henrik Jarsbo, a former member of the DNSP (Lindberg, 2013), attempted to found a Danish branch of SMR/NMR, and Nordfront.dk was launched in July of the same year (Lodenius, 2020). Despite the website becomingthe most developed of the non-Swedish Nordfront sites, the Danish NMR-branch soon became inactive (Ravndal, 2019); in 2016, the websitewas shut down (Kimmel, 2007: 206). Other groups with similar profiles are currently active in Denmark, most notably Denmark’s National Front (Ravndal, 2018).
In 2017, after consulting with NMR, a new organizational structure was formed in Denmark and divided into three nests. The new leader of the Danish NMR was Martin Durvad. The organization is better known as Nordfront.In the autumn of 2019, a coordinated action was taken against 84 Jewish cemeteries, which were desecrated with green paint. One of Nordfront’s members was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the act. The Danish NMR has about 50 members, with around 20 “hardcore” activists. Tommy Olsen assumed leadership after Forwald left to join Klas Lund’s Nordic Strength in 2019 (Lodenius, 2020; Nordisk Styrke, 2019).
Since 2017, NMR also has a branch and a website, nordurvigi.is, in Iceland. Led by Ríkharður Leó Magnússon, NMR Iceland held its first demonstration in Reykjavik in September 2019.
NMR Is Pro-violence and Uncompromising
NMR is pro-violence and uncompromising (Lodenius, 2020). In addition to spreading their political agenda, NMR members have used different kinds of violence, threats, and harassment to hinder individuals from participating in political debates and meetings (Swedish Security Service, 2018). While the NMR claims to resort to violence only in self-defence, both its national socialist ideology and its blood-stained history say otherwise (Stormark, 2017). Moreover,according to the organization’s Handbook for Activists, “The NMR is not pacifist. We are aware that we can only win through physical struggle and that ideas and beautiful ideals mean nothing and can never blossom if these ideas lack aggressive fanatical champions” (Delin & Carlsson, 2017; Lodenius, 2020: 115).
SMR/NMR’s former ideologue, Magnus Söderman, also highlighted David Lane’s clarification in his book Revolution: “You adults know very well that war is the only answer. ZOG’s (a term for Jews) henchmen will not voluntarily relinquish power. … because, they know that we will execute them for breaking the highest law of nature” (Söderman, 2007).”It is not a secret that the NMR is willing to use physical force to achieve a racially pure Nordic nation. The group makes no effort to distance itself from the use of violence. Instead, its members actively speak and write about the race war that, in their minds, is inevitable. Thus, NMR has been specialising in pushing the limits of democracy and the rule of law through harassment, threats, and violence against opponents and the police (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).
In order to analyse the contents and the various attacks perpetuated by the NMR, it is important to define NMR as a terrorist organization. It is a militant group with a hierarchical structure of nests, some of which consist of “combat groups” (Ravndal, 2019: 23). The groups use militaristic ways of training (Hellenstierna, 2019). Violent confrontation is something the activists train for regularly—for example in the form of single combat, where the winner is whoever is able to strike a deadly blow with a replica knife. But this is not just a game (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In Finland, one person who expressed opposition to the NMR was brutally assaulted and died a week later of complications that, to all appearances, resulted from the attack (Yle, 2016).
To date, the NMR—which is still a legal organization in Sweden—is generally not dangerous, assuming you don’t oppose them. However, should you be tempted to confront them, stand in their way, or refuse to let yourself be harassed, you are no longer safe. During several of the NMR’s demonstrations, there have been violent clashes between NMR activists and the police. One of these examples is a demonstration that occurred outside of a Book Fair in Gothenburg in 2017. NMR has also repeatedly clashed with civilians. They actively seek out these violent engagements to foster and attract internal group cohesion (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).
Politicians that step out of line and criticize the movement are quickly confronted by the NMR’s members. These intimidation tactics have also consisted of NMR activists following politicians to their parked cars. Council workers and opponents of the movement have also received subtle threats such as “Nice house you got there…” Some have also found stickers on their front doors or on the streetlamps outside their homes. These stickers feature a gallows with the slogan, “Reserved for traitors of the people.” By using such methods, the NMR spreads fear and gains influence far beyond its extremely limited public support(Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).
From time to time, NMR members have been involved in illegal activities, including violent attacks using weapons such as knives and explosives. Such activities are dismissed by the NMR leadership as something these activists have carried out on their own initiative. Interestingly, after some of these illegal actions, the NMR receives “exclusive” interviews from members of the self-titled “action groups” that claim to be behind them. One could speculate that the existence of such clandestine “action groups” may serve as a tool for the NMR to carry out illegal activities without compromising the organization (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).
Between the 2014 and 2018 elections, NMR perpetrated high levels of violence across Scandinavia. As mentioned, in Finland, a young man was beaten to death by NMR members. The Swedish branch of NMR also displayed violent tendencies. In 2013, approximately 30 NMR members attacked an anti-racist demonstration in Kärrtorp Stockholm (Vergara, 2013). During 2016 and 2017 several members of NMR were convicted of bombings in Gothenburg. In the north of Sweden, in Umeå, the Jewish association had to close down due to threats and harassment (Expo NMR, 2019).
Despite its denials, NMR has been part of a Swedish far right that produced more right-wing terrorism and violence (RTV) between 1990 and 2015 than Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined. Zooming in on the Nordic countries, the RTV dataset covers 141 events. The most frequently targeted victims are immigrants (70 events), leftists (38 events), and homosexuals (9 events). Other target groups include government representatives, police, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies/Roma, the homeless, and media institutions (Ravndal, 2018). Moreover, Expo has identified 111 people who for the first time participated in NMR activism in 2017. Of these, 64 already have a background in the racial ideological environment (Dalsbro et al, 2018). Expo has also mapped 159 of the most active members of the NMR and, in 2015 alone, just over a quarter were convicted of violent or gun crimes (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016).If all crimes are included, one-third (33 percent) were convicted or prosecuted for some form of crime. In total, more than half (56 percent) of the activists have been convicted of some form of crime. In almost a quarter of the cases, the penalty was imprisonment, which indicates that they were serious crimes. For a period, the NMR sold knives emblazoned with the slogan, “The struggle requires more than just words” (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016; Pascalidou, 2017).
In 2018, Swedish Radio also mapped 178 people who were judged to be the most active in NMR (Lodenius, 2020) andat least 90 of them were convicted of crimes—and about one in four were convicted of violent crimes such as murder, assault, or violent riot (Jönsson, 2018). The year before, the Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet newspapers examined 84 NMR members, and the results showed that 58 of them were convicted of crimes (Folkö & Leman, 2019). According to another investigation, of NMR’s approximately 160 Swedish members, several have been convicted of crimes, including bombings, aggravated weapons offenses, aggravated violent crimes, and incitement against ethnic groups (Wierup, 2020).
The same pattern is evident in NMR’s leadership. Its first leader, Klas Lund, was convicted of murder in 1987, and for aggravated robbery in the early 1990s (Lodenius, 2020).Since September 2015, the NMR has been led by Simon Lindberg, who was convicted of vandalism, threats, and aiding and abetting assault. Lindberg is joined by a leadership group that includes Emil Hagberg, Fredrik Vejdeland and Per Öberg. While Vejdeland has been convicted of hate speech-related crimes, Hagberg was also convicted on weapons-related charges and for rioting (Baas, 2015).
With regard to any terrorist threats from NMR, the Security Police (Säpo) stated that NMR has a large capacity for violence. Säpo also stated that “our assessment is that this is an organization that has the ability to commit serious crimes that could be classified as a terrorist attack” (Jönsson, 2018a). Since NMR has violent tendencies, it has been classified by Säpo as the second biggest threat in Sweden after Islamist terrorism.Säpo and The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) use the term White Power to describe groups like NMR (Blomgren, 2020).
As previously mentioned, in 2019, several core members of NMR decided to leave and create Nordic Strength (NS) which is considered to be more violent. However, there has been no evidence of an escalation of violence since the split (Expo Annual Report, 2019).
Another Battlefield for the NMR: the Media, Internet & Social Media
In 2000, SMR/NMR established a web portal called patriot.nu (Vejdeland, 2012) which provided various magazines, an online store with publications and white power music, and more. In the early 2000s, the SMR also printed newspapers Folktribunen and Nationellt Motstand . With the development of social media, SMR’s propaganda strategy and range of channels changed. The most influential online magazine Nordfront, NMR’s digital communication channel (Vejdeland, 2012), was started in 2011. Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR launched a number of new media and produced extensive online content in a strategic move running up to the general elections in September 2018 (Askanius, 2021a).
The NMR also established its own publishing house and bookstore, originally called Nationellt Motstånd förlag, but later changing its name to Nordfront förlag. Based in the small rural village of Grängesberg, it sells various National Socialist and antisemitic literature via its online bookstore, including a Swedish translation of The Turner Diaries, plus books by Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, and a collection of letters written by Richard Scutari, member of the US white supremacist terrorist group The Order. (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to Nordfront, NMR produces a whole battery of different radio and web TV initiatives (Sundkvist, 2017).
NMR has developed its presence on the Internet and greatly increased its involvement on social media (Blomberg & Stier, 2019); today, the organization has almost 20 different podcasts and TV channels. The purpose of this has been to reach out politically to normalize the organization and to project its reputation internationally. Through such outreach, NMR hopes to create closer relationships within the Nordic region and make contact with like-minded people across the world (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). In order to normalise National Socialism, NMR increasingly seeks to appeal to an audience beyond their own core members. Part of this strategy involves a shift in the tone of their online content—from militant propaganda to softer, less orchestrated and rehearsed political rhetoric packaged and presented in the form of infotainment and cultural content (Askanius, 2021a).
Nevertheless,images of violence and violent rhetoric have always been an intrinsic part of NMR’s propaganda and key to telling the story of being at war with both Swedish “traitors” and “racial strangers.” Increasingly, however, NMR’s media narratives are saturated by other, less explicitly political and militant registers in which violence, violent rhetoric, and openly racist hate speech reside in the background to give way to “lighter,” more civil discourse—and seemingly more harmless forms of propaganda. This is particularly present and potent in NMR’s cultural productions and online entertainment, which includes, for example, television and talk shows, music videos, memes, poems, and podcasts intended to amuse and entertain (Askanius, 2021b).
In the online universe, NMR mixes the extreme with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. In this manner, NMR seeks to soften, trivialise, and normalise neo-Nazi discourse using the power and appeal of culture and entertainment (Askanius, 2021).Discourse in these spaces represents what Blee (2007: 15) has referred to as “a sanitized version of Nazism.” NMR’s content has been polished and tailored to dodge allegations of illegal hate speech, and its shows are carefully edited to avoid being censored and removed (Askanius, 2019).However, images of violent confrontations between police and activists, street fights, hate speech, rallies, uniformed men marching in line, combat training, white-pride music, and beatings of “racial strangers” to the sound of the Waffen SS Choir are also present in the growing repertoire of online media produced by and for the NMR (Expo, 2018, 2020; Mattsson, 2018).
The use of extremist discourse, which characterizes the online conversations between members and sympathizers, comprises narratives about personal experiences, rumours of criminal refugees (often accused of rape), or claims that refugees “do not belong here.” These conversations “construct them as others” (Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017). These discursive strategies do not merely justify and legitimatize the exclusion of or racism toward these “others,” but create a sense of “we-ness” and identity among members and sympathizers as well as the movement they represent (Blomberg & Stier, 2019; Campbell, 2006; Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017; Wodak & Reisigl, 2015).
With Simon Lindberg as leader of the NMR, the organization has developed its propaganda network and massively developed its various media channels on social media. In a very short time, 19 Swedish-language podcasts and web TV channels were created alongside Radio Nordfront, Radio Regeringen, the English-language Nordic Frontier, the activist podcast More Than Words(Saxlind, 2018),Ledarperspektiv (ideological focus), Radio Ludvika, Radio Kungälv. Some of the TV content includes Studio Nordfront, Studio Bothnia, Studio Kungälv, Studio Skåne, NTV Live and Norwegian Frontlinjen and Finnish Studio 204(Lindberg, 2018). According to Lindberg, the ambition is to create more radio and TV broadcasts that will be broadcast around the clock (Lodenius, 2020), creating a “Nordic unity mindset.” This initiative aims to eventually broadcast in all the Nordic languages (Nordisk Radio, …)
The NMR’s website appears to have a considerable readership—between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors per month. To compensate for their lack of numbers, one important tactic is therefore to carry out spectacular stunts to draw the public eye, often aiming at national media coverage, and then spreading footage and videos from these stunts through the internet and social media, allowing NMR to reach an even larger audience(Ravndal, 2019).
The 2018 general election results in Sweden have shown that the NMR should not be exaggerated, despite concerns about it as a neo-Nazi extremist violent organisation. The organization is still relatively small. Despite its small size, one shouldn’t ignore the threats the NMR poses. The party’s major investment before the 2018 election resulted in only 2,106 votes in the parliamentary election (0.03%). The result was a great disappointment for the NMR; following this failure, the party’s seems to have hosted fewer events and engaged in fewer physical activities. Whether this is a temporary decline or not is difficult to assess, but according to the NMR’s strategic plan, the organization is investing in increasing its local influence, its geographical spread, the number of political seats at all levels, and its channels on social media and international contacts (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). According to observers, there is a low probability that NMR as an organization will develop in a more violent direction. Nevertheless, Sweden is currently following Finland’s footsteps and started a government investigation regarding a potential ban of the organisation (Regeringskansliet, 2019; Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 480; Directive, 2019: 39).
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Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights. This commentary tries to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders.
Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights.
This commentary seeks to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders. It also distinguishes between cases where the military supports populist leaders from those in which military leaders themselves become populist leaders.
The Role of Military in the Modern Nation-State
The contentious debate over whether war is part of human nature or the product of nurture continues. However, the link between power and the forces organized and trained to wield violence (i.e., the military) is ancient. As democracy becomes an ideal accepted by people worldwide, it is easy to forget that, for millennia, the military was the primary component for attaining and retaining power. The origins of almost all of the ancient and medieval empires can be traced to a single warrior (or a group of warriors). Most kings and emperors in the past spent more time learning how to fight than learning how to govern. The head of the military was either the king himself or a close confidant. Unsurprisingly, discussion and analysis of war and military force form a large part of the established literature and religious books. Both The Iliad and Mahabharata are war epics, and the Old Testament devotes much space to the Israelites’ wars with their enemies. Almost all heroes of antiquity were warriors, from Achilles and Arjuna, through to Karna and David.
Even today, the military cannot be separated from statecraft, public policy, and governance. The unbelievable misery suffered by the soldiers during the global conflicts of the twentieth century and the gross iniquity and carnage of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not resulted in lesser admiration for the military. Violence and turmoil across the world stare us in the face as an undeniable reality that calls for the maintenance and use of military force.
Militaries also play a critical role during emergencies. As an organized force, ready to be deployed at short notice, the military has assisted governments during floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. The raging COVID-19 pandemic has again shown the utility of military forces, which have been deployed in many countries to enforce lockdowns, transport medical equipment and patients, assist in delivering vaccines, and much more besides.
Modern nation-states are obviously different from the kingdoms and empires of old. The key distinction is that the ancient and medieval empires lacked a national core. Although some scholars have argued that proto-nationalism was present in some of them, nationalism was absent in these empires. Imperial control over subjects and the governance required of the center was minimal compared with the nation-state. Emperors left peripheries largely to themselves or appointed feudal lords or regional hegemons to rule in their stead. Unsurprisingly, emperors had few responsibilities. They were not responsible for education, health, potable water, sewerage, or any of the modern public utilities that we have come to expect. Nation-states, in contrast, usually exert complete control over their territory and are generally thought responsible for providing basic amenities. However, the military’s primary role has changed little from ancient times —namely, to defend the territory from internal and external enemies using instruments of violence.
Modern nation-states can be divided into two major categories—democracies and non-democracies. Various constitutional and legal bounds are either absent, defined, or violated depending on whether a nation-state is democratic or not. These variations determine the interaction between the military and the rulers. In non-democracies, the role of the military is generally not clearly demarcated or regulated. Constitutions or laws are usually absent, and if they are present, they give the ruler broad leeway. For example, the basic law of Saudi Arabia barely mentions (just two articles) the armed forces. In addition to the legal ambit, multiple and varied factors—such as the history of conflict, threat perception, governance, militarism, and public opinion regarding the role of the military and rulers—determine the checks and balances on the military.
In a state where the constitution is respected, there is usually a consensus within the political domain as well as in society at large to respect the clear constitutional role of the armed forces and its relationship with the state apparatus. This enables the civilian state apparatus to form a well-defined working relationship with the military, with the parliament and civilian leaders responsible for governance and security matters. The constitutional arrangements and laws also ensure that both civilians and the military have a mutually agreed framework to collaborate and cooperate for national security in a synergistic manner. In addition to the constitutional definitions, the power of the parliament to determine the budget also gives the civilian rulers a fair advantage as they can decide and limit the military’s size and activities. Lastly, public perception regarding the military’s defined role and its efficacy vis-à-vis its civilian counterparts is crucial to ensure the military remains subservient. Like the civilian bureaucracy, the country’s armed forces need to stay out of partisan politics and support all elected governments.
Thus, to ensure the apolitical nature of the national military, a country requires strong democratic checks and balances. However, not all democracies are fully functional—some are highly susceptible to military intervention, where—for various reasons—the military is a partisan political force and generally plays an extra-constitutional role. Most of these states have suffered military coups and subsequently martial law and even military governments. Unsurprisingly, once a coup is successful, it increases the probability of more coups in the future. Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar are examples of pro-coup states. South America was once a continent replete with pro-coup states and adventurist militaries but, during the last three decades, democracy has taken hold, and the armed forces have largely adhered to constitutional boundaries.
Populism, very broadly, refers to the idea that a small, corrupt elite is exploiting the moral majority. Besides this vertical dimension, there is also a horizontal dimension where the above-mentioned moral majority is also threatened by outsiders and traitorous insiders that are in cahoots with the corrupt elite. Populist leaders claim to represent this moral majority and condemn the financial and moral corruption of the elite. At the national level, populist leaders generally also add a temporal dimension to the populist idea. Thus, national history is divided into three parts: a glorious past, a vile and odious present, and a magnificent future. The populist leader then presents him or herself as the vehicle the nation can use to move from the execrable present to the promised nirvana.
While discussing the military’s relationship with populism, it is important to distinguish between two types of populism based on ideological preferences: left-wing populism and right-wing populism.
Before the 1950s, populism was a term primarily used by historians to describe two 19th century agrarian political movements—the People’s Party in the United States (nicknamed “Populists”) and the Russian Narodniks, which means populists in the Russian language. While these movements took place continents apart, they shared agrarian origins and common beliefs—namely, anti-capitalism, people’s rights, and anti-monopolism. Both stood opposed to industrial interests, which they saw as the driver of income and wealth inequality in their respective societies.
These left-wing populist movements cast the “elites” as those groups that illegitimately acquired and held onto economic power from “the people.” Economic power being the basis of all other types of power, it should therefore be returned to “the people” to restore balance in society. Their policies are closer to the concept of “populist-socialism” as coined by Crawford Young, which constituted of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism.
Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, where populist leaders such as Júan Peron in Argentina used a blend of charisma, ideology, strategy, and discourse to sway the masses. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, these leaders amassed a vast amount of public support. Many left-wing populist leaders also emerged in post-colonial Asia and Africa. They included multinational corporations and the Western governments as part of the international “elite” that has subjugated their “people.” Neo-colonialism was the strategy through which the former colonial powers continue to rule over Asian and African people. This added anti-globalization to the left-wing populist repertoire.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is right-wing populism, which is currently undergoing a surge globally. As opposed to its left-wing counterpart, this variant is rooted in ideas of “the pure people,” religious “righteousness,” and ideas of right to a “sacred” or “native land.” “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to “protect” their culture and values from “the other.” A wide variety of individuals are “otherized.” For instance, in Europe, an emphasis on “Christian civilization” has seen Muslims as “outsiders” who are unable and unwilling to integrate. Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of the “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture. Former US President Donald Trump constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “the other.”
Beyond Europe and the West, populism has also found ground across the world in a diverse range of political landscapes. The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has deployed right-wing populist rhetoric based on the Hindu religion (Hindutva) to win two back-to-back national elections. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Imran Khan have used Islamist populism to gain and retain power in their respective countries, Turkey and Pakistan. In southeast Asia, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has embraced populist rhetoric to win people’s confidence.
There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. However, in coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges.
Military and Populism
The points of contention between populists and the military are primarily populism’s anti-capitalism, anti-science, and anti-war program. Populists are generally anti-capitalistic, which is problematic to the military as capitalists are enthusiastic about military expenditures and generally support wars. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a former five-star general, warned the Americans about the rise of the military-industrial complex. Populists are also against foreign interventions and wars and are generally ready to decrease defense expenditures to increase the budget for social programs, which is not acceptable to the military. Populists are also anti-science, making their alliance with the army difficult as nowadays the armed forces use the most sophisticated technologies available.
There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. Depending on their institutional interests, the military elite silently helps or thwarts populist leaders while remaining within the laws and rules in advanced democracies. The interests of the military generally find more acceptance in right-wing populism than left-wing populism. The idea of the nation being in danger from foreigners or traitors who are constantly conspiring against it supports authoritarianism and an increased role of law-enforcement agencies, including the military.
The military is also considered the most nationalistic and less corrupt part of the elite. The familiar populist refrain of the glorious past is usually based on the past military victories of the national core—namely, the majority ethnolinguistic or religious group. This refrain also helps otherizing minorities, which the right-wing considers part of the problem. The right-wing populists are ready to militarily deal with this “problem,” which has less representation in the military. Left-wing populism is generally pacifist and against war and using the military against minorities. One area where both right-wing and left-wing populists seem to agree is that military interventions in other countries should be limited or avoided altogether.
While populism is largely a civilian political dynamic, as discussed above, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can become embroiled. In coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges. They may include the military in the corrupt elite they are fighting against. Therefore, neutrality is usually not an option. The army either negotiates and then aligns itself with the populist leader or opposes and condemns the populist narrative as destabilizing and traitorous. A closer relationship between the military and populism occurs when the leader of the military junta ruling the country becomes a populist. The populist military leader condemns the previous ruling elite and presents themself as the nation’s savior.
The following section presents examples of the different scenarios discussed above.
The Military’s Support for Left-wing Populist Leaders
During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Getulio Vargas became the President of Brazil in 1930, and—during his long tenure as elected president and then dictator—he favored socialist policies and was supported by the Brazilian military. Under Vargas, policies such as nationalization of industry, the 40-hour workweek, the expansion of education, a minimum wage, and many others were adopted, and laws regulating banks, insurance companies, and other industries were passed. The Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution.
Gualberto Villarroel led a successful coup in Bolivia in the 1940s. He adopted socialist policies to gain a foothold with the masses. His reforms included expanding indigenous peoples’ rights, recognizing worker unions, launching a retirement pension scheme, labor reforms, and much more besides. The Bolivian military initially supported him but later abandoned him when he became unpopular.
The Military’s Resistance to Left-wing Populist Leaders
In Pakistan, the populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) came to power on the back of a populist program of socialism and welfarism, combined with Bhutto’s personal charisma. He ended more than thirteen years of military rule that ended in ignominious defeat by India and subsequent division of the country, resulting in Bangladesh’s independence. Bhutto adopted socialist policies, such as nationalizing banks, industry, educational institutions, and land and labor reforms. Throughout his tenure, the military refused to accept him as the country’s leader and eventually dismissed his government and hanged him after an unfair trial.
Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, came to power using an anti-elitism rhetoric that targeted both the civilian and military elite. After the 1952 populist revolution, he carried out a wide range of reforms, including land distribution, nationalization of the largest tin companies on which the Bolivian economy relied, and universal suffrage for all adult citizens. He also disbanded the military and was replaced by workers and peasant militias led by men from his party. He was removed by a military coup in 1964.
Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force.
The Military’s Support for Right-wing Populist Leaders
Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force. One of the most famous right-wing populist leaders supported by the military was Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. He was elected president in 1965 but led a coup and imposed martial law, with the support of the military, in 1972. He remained in power until 1986 with the continued support of the military as he shared the spoils by increasing the defense budget, expanding military recruitment, boosting military industries, and placing military officers as heads of civilian organizations. The Catholic Church also supported Marcos during most of his rule as he protected the privileges of Catholicism as the majority religion.
Currently, in the Philippines, another right-wing populist supported by the military governs the country. President Rodrigo Duterte, a “strongman” populist leader, has been able to garner support with “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” and other social undesirables. Duterte’s action-oriented strategy to “crush” these undesirables has led him to use penal populism. This variant of populism is supported by the military, which Duterte has relied on heavily in his crackdown on those groups in the Philippines deemed a threat to good social order.
In Brazil, right-wing populism has also been supported by the military. After the election of Jair Bolsonaro —a right-wing populist leader and a retired military officer— there has been a growing trend of military presence in technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. According to one estimate, almost half of all cabinet seats, including those of President Bolsonaro and his vice president since 2019, Hamilton Mourão, have been occupied by retired military officers.
The Military’s Resistance to Right-wing Populist Leaders
One of the longest oppositions to right-wing populism by the military was seen in modern Turkey. From the 1950s to 2009, for more than five decades, the Kemalist military elite defended an aggressive secular nationalism against right-wing populous elected governments. The Kemalist military—supported by the judiciary, academia, and the media—kept right-wing governments on a short leash and imposed martial law on three occasions to thwart any attempts to challenge its control.
Another example of military opposing right-wing populist leader was in Egypt when President Mohamed Morsi was opposed by the Egyptian military and was deposed only one year after his inauguration. President Morsi was the only democratically elected leader in the history of Egypt and came into power after almost six decades of continuous rule by military officers. Still, he faced opposition by the military and was replaced by General Sisi in a coup.
Left-wing Populist Military Leaders
In rare instances, the military leaders go beyond their constitutional roles and assume power. Dictators, however, also require public support, so military leaders try to adopt policies that increase their popularity. Some embrace populism to legitimize their unconstitutional rule. In Argentina, Júan Peron, an army general, became the face of socialist populism. He was able to amass popular support by leading welfare and labor protection policies, combined with nationalization.
In Mexico, a similar pattern was observed when Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) came to power. His program led to significant economic strides and boosted people’s welfare by supporting the rights of women, indigenous groups, and rural communities. A similar course was taken by soldiers-turned-populist-politicians in Latin America and beyond, including President Manuel Odría of Peru (1950-56), Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (1956-70), Ben Bella in Algeria (1962-65), and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso (1983–87).
Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry took power in Sudan after leading a coup in 1969 and remained in control until 1985. He initially projected himself as a populist leader adopting socialist policies, such as land reforms and nationalization of banks and industry. He banned all political parties except his own, the Sudan Socialist Union.
Right-wing Populist Military Leaders
Right-wing coup leaders adopting populism is also quite common. Colonel Nimeiry started as a left-wing populist but became a right-wing populist at the sunset of his regime. In 1983, he introduced a campaign of Islamization across the country. Nimeiry justified his campaign by adopting populist rhetoric of going back to one’s roots and eliminating foreign colonial influence. This rhetoric was accompanied by populist measures such as emptying thousands of liquor bottles into the Nile, the prohibition of interest on loans, asking for bayah (the pledge of allegiance) from government officers, and declaring himself an Imam. Like other populists, he refused to acknowledge any divisions in the country and claimed frequent rebellions in South Sudan were driven by imperialist plots.
The Greek regime of the colonels in the late 1960s and early 1970s was another example of right-wing military leaders employing populism. The regime coined the slogan, “Greece for Christian Greeks,” and its leaders frequently talked about one Greek people and nation, Greece’s glorious past, and claimed it would restore the nation to its ancient grandeur. This obsession with race, heritage, and nation was combined with paranoia about foreigners and the use of religious imagery to bolster the military’s weak legitimacy.
Usually, ethnolinguistic or religious nationalism, conservatism, socialism, or Marxism are added to populism to develop a comprehensive political program. However, certain aspects of populism make it amenable – even attractive – to the military. Populism encourages the centralization of power as it exalts one people and extols one leader. Dissent and diversity are downplayed or ignored. The military, as an institution, is based on strict hierarchy, and the criminalization of dissent within is closer to populist politics than constitutional politics, which is based on the separation of powers. The anti-intellectualism and xenophobic rhetoric of populists are often also closer to the military’s thinking. The military—save for the most senior ranks—can also be anti-elite. Military officers, especially in lower ranks, may identify more with ordinary people than the ruling elite. Populists and the military may also agree on the importance of “getting the job done” instead of following legal or constitutional processes, which may cause delays.
Examples from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe demonstrate that populism is not a new phenomenon and that the military relationship with populism is largely dependent on context. Very broadly, it can be argued that the era of military leaders themselves becoming populist leaders is drawing to a close. Furthermore, one can see more affinity between right-wing populist leaders and the military than populists of the left because right-wing populists extol the military and are ready to increase defense budget in these times of fiscal constraint and austerity.
Discussing the impact of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) on the country’s foreign policy, Professor Verbeek highlighted his observation that the reputation and soft power of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened. Dutch diplomats had to rescue the image of the country and Dutch economic interests abroad.
In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Bertjan Verbeek of Radboud University in the Netherlands argues that—depending on how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—various populist parties may approach international politics differently.
According to Verbeek, a left-wing populist party often defines the “pure people” in terms of class. Class is not a national concept; in principle, it is a transnational concept. So, a left-wing populist party would look upon the “pure people” as the working class globally, and the “corrupt elite” may well be then policymakers within international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. On the other hand, Professor Verbeek underlines that for right-wing populist parties, the “pure people” is the native population of the country, whereas the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the “pure people.” Thus, right-wing populists judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the “pure people” within the nation.
The following excerpts from our interview with Bertjan Verbeek have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Your work has drawn on Cas Mudde’s notion of populism as a “thin-centered ideology.” Could you clarify how you understand populism in these terms?
First of all, the work I have written is co-authored with my colleague Andrej Zaslove at Radboud University. He is more the populist expert, and I am the foreign policy expert. We feel a focus on thin-centered ideology is important because there is so much debate on what populism actually is. And there are many ways of approaching and defining it. They all have their merits, but we see value in drawing a distinction between those who are really populists and those who use populist strategies for other purposes.
For instance, mainstream parties can adopt populist tactics and strategies because they want to fish in the same pond as the populists. So, we feel that it is difficult to tell whether an actor is a genuine populist or whether he or she is just using populist rhetoric. If you focus on populism as a strategy or as a style—which are two different alternative definitions of populism— you risk confusing the people who imitate the populists and those who really are.
So, that is why we preferred Cas Mudde’s suggestion of populism as “thin ideology” because it makes clear, first of all, what populism is really about. Populists see the world as the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” That is the core of all populist thought. The basis of that is ultimately a notion of the sovereignty of the people, which may result in proposals that relate to what we might call “direct democracy.” In such cases, the people are given more say in politics in whatever form. That is the core of the populist ideology.
But, as we all know, it is not enough for a political party to emphasize the notion of “the people.” You need to have additional ideas about what you want to do in a society policy-wise. This is where the idea of thin ideology comes from—these parties usually borrow from other ideologies to have a more or less coherent and efficient way to link their perceptions of society with what they want to accomplish in terms of policy. They might borrow from the left; they might borrow from the right. They might borrow, as we argued elsewhere, from more regional notions or liberal notions.
So, depending on where they borrow from, a populist party or organization or movement is more or less left- or right-wing. However, the core is always the notion of the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” More importantly, populist parties can differ on actually who constitutes the “pure people” or the “corrupt elite.” Beyond this, they can differ in terms of the kind of thick ideology they borrow from to develop a comprehensive vision that presents a whole variety of potential populist positions.
You argue that research on populism has focused more on domestic politics, thus neglecting the links between populism and foreign policy. In what ways does populism influence the foreign policies of states and affect relations between states?
There are several dimensions to the question. The first concerns how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populist parties—let’s focus on parties for the moment—may have a different idea of what international politics looks like. So, if you are a left-wing populist, you often define the “pure people” in terms of class. And class is not a national concept, in principle—it is a transnational concept. Thus, they would view the “pure people” as the global working class or the global poor. And the “corrupt elite” are—in the perspective of a left-wing populist—typically international organizations or their representatives like the IMF or the World Bank. This is a different kind of perspective to the more nationalist or nativist populist party that would say the “pure people” is the native population of the country, and the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the former. This party would judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the native population. That is the first dimension in which populist parties might differ vis-à-vis what international politics is about in the first place.
The second important element is the position of power or influence of a political party or a movement. Some populists are outside the parliament. They mobilize people in the streets and put pressure on the government. Some are in the parliament but not in government, so they can have some influence. Some are an official part of the government or even dominate a government like Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary. Other parties are not formally part of the government, like the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV). The PVV is a nationalist, right-wing populist political party in the Netherlands that formally supported the Dutch government between 2010 and 2012 but did not hold cabinet seats.
In contrast, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) is a right-wing political party in Denmark that has been in government for many years. Nevertheless, while outside the cabinet, the PVV still negotiated a formal agreement with the governmental parties on policy. That agreement gives them more impact on formulating policies in general and hence also on foreign policy. The second dimension is the relative power position of the political party in the system and how close it is to governing.
The third potential element is how the rest of the world views a robust populist movement or a solid populist party. What do international and transnational actors think? How do they react? This is ultimately what global politics is about. So, my colleagues and I investigated the impact of the Dutch PVV on the country’s foreign policy. One of the most interesting points was that the reputation of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened when the PVV was supporting the coalition government between 2010 and 2012. This is curious since the foreign minister was not from the PVV (because the PVV did not join the cabinet). Yet Dutch diplomats were still concerned. The soft power of the Netherlands suffered from this reputational loss. Dutch diplomats then had to rescue the Netherlands’ image somehow and protect Dutch economic interests abroad. The case shows the impact of this third dimension — how other countries or international players view a populist party’s role in the system — can affect a country’s reputation and its soft power. This is true even when the party is not strictly in the government.
Brexit May Intensify Scottish Nationalism and Separatism
You argue the rise of populism in Europe in the early 1990s coincided with three major international transformations—the end of the Cold War, the advent of globalization, and the intensification of the European integration process. How do you relate the success of populist movements within this international context?
Well, again, in very different ways… But first, I think it is a good question because I feel like this has been one of the most neglected elements in the study of populism. At the end of the Cold War, the ideological balance of power between left-wing and right-wing in many European countries—both West European and Central and Eastern European—ended. When communism died as an ideological enemy, domestic political systems became ripe for ideological realignment. In many countries, there were specific political parties that had been in power for a long time, partly based on the idea that “Well, you have to choose us because if you don’t elect us, then the communists will come to power.” The Christian Democratic parties often played this game, but not only them. The room for electoral volatility increased a lot because people became less attached to the dominant political parties.
The most disturbing effect of Brexit is that it has bolstered, not quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.
In addition, the established parties—particularly the Social Democrats—had no ideological alternative to appeal to voters. Indeed, in a way, neoliberalism captured the field ideologically and in terms of political discourse. The end of the Cold War, in this sense, created the possibility for a new politics.
Now, in different countries, that void was filled with different types of parties, and in some countries, it was populist parties that stepped into the breach. Some of them—for example, regional populist parties like the Lega Nord (a right-wing, federalist, populist, and conservative political party in Italy) or the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, originally the Vlaams Blok (a Flemish nationalist right-wing populist political party. It dissolved after a trial in 2004 condemned the party for racism and was reconstituted as the Vlaams Belang). The VB had already been engaged with European integration, not necessarily in a negative way.
As the Lega Nord did in northern Italy and VB in Flanders, they were also mobilizing masses, saying that Europe is an advantage because we can use it to promote the regional aspect central to our brand. So, the European Union’s (EU) importance was significant for some populist parties because they saw an opportunity to strengthen their regional position vis-à-vis the mainstream parties. Later that changed because of migration and the perceived adverse effects of European integration. Populist parties often took a much more negative attitude toward Brussels, but that has not always been the case. So that is how the EU comes in. But we should also interpret the role of the EU in the context of globalization.
Neoliberalism has become increasingly dominant on a global scale. European integration, just like any other regional integration scheme in the world, has served partly as a kind of protection from the effects of globalization by creating a bigger common market. And globalization has produced winners and losers. The EU, to a certain extent, protected some of the losers and maybe promoted some of the winners. The critical point is that some of the losers felt that the EU was not protecting them. Thus, the EU created its own perceived losers and winners through its integration scheme. So, in very different ways in different countries, globalization and European integration have provided grist to the mill for both left-wing and right-wing populist parties, who can cast these dynamics as threats rather than opportunities.
The fourth and final dimension is how the end of the Cold War changed matters in Eastern Europe. Populism in Eastern Europe has been driven by a failure to reckon with the role that politicians and parties played during and immediately after the collapse of communist regimes. Sometimes, like in Hungary, it relates to events that happened after the end of World War I in terms of loss of territory and prestige. That is a different type of populism, and sometimes we miss the point that it is more complicated than just anti-immigration. It taps into something much more profound. It relates as well to the end of the Cold War, which opened the possibilities for new parties and the possibility of pursuing a foreign policy that reflects less the current circumstances than the international politics of Europe in the 20th Century.
What is your take on the role of populist forces in the Brexit process?
Well, I’ve always been a little bit in doubt about whether or not to call UKIP (the UK Independence Party, a Eurosceptic, right-wing political party in the United Kingdom) a populist party. It seems more like a single-issue movement driven by a mission to correct a single historical mistake — namely, Britain’s entry into the European Community in the 1970s. At the same time, though, it is clear that the UKIP and later the Brexit Party have clear populist elements. They claim to represent the “pure people”—the citizens of Great Britain—and they perceive the presence of an apparent “corrupt elite,” the so-called Eurocrats. And they started with typical populist notions of trying to give the “pure people” a direct say in politics.
So, yes, I accept that we could call UKIP populist. But we cannot understand their success without looking into the less-than-politically-astute actions of then Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party, who deliberately took a gamble in putting this before the English public. His bet was that whatever he had negotiated with the EU to improve Britain’s position in the EU would see the British people back him unreservedly so that the internal critics within his Conservative Party would be silenced. Instead, he harvested a rejection of the very idea of Britain’s membership.
Even seeing UKIP as a populist party, we cannot understand its success without that strategic error or miscalculation of the Conservative Party and its leader. But, in the end, Brexit is still not over. The negotiations are over, but its implementation is still ongoing, as is often the case with international agreements. I find the most curious effect of Brexit—which drew most of its support in England outside of London and the southeast—is that it seems to have boosted, rather than quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.
A right-wing populist party considers diplomats to be representatives of the national elite, wasting resources on cocktail parties and global jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, populists seek to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.
Do you think there is a populist foreign policy? How shall we understand the foreign policy outlook of different populist parties based on the demarcation–integration cleavage?
Well, what my colleague Andrej Zaslove and I tried to do was first to establish how the various populist parties define “pure people” versus the “corrupt elites.” Next, if we know what type of thick ideology they draw on to complete their political program, we felt it should be possible to make some tentative predictions about what different populist parties might put forward in foreign policy.
If you are a real left-wing populist party that has a global outlook in which class contradictions are central, then you would favor foreign policies that are distributive on a global scale and that are somehow directed at opening up and gaining more influence over international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO. You would link up with transnational movements that seek to open up such international institutions, make them more pluralistic and inclusive. So, that is what we would expect from a left-wing populist party.
Meanwhile, we would expect a more right-wing populist party to see the “pure people” as a kind of national element, maybe even a nativist one. Arguably, representatives of the national elite in foreign policy would be the diplomats who are—from their perspective—mainly engaged in cocktail parties and jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, we would expect populists to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.
Moreover, we would expect populists to protect the “pure people” through their foreign policies by spending less on development assistance and transfers in the EU. Because they are likely to be particularly critical about migration, we would expect them to toughen up migration policies or engage in anti-migration policies in general. So, in that sense, we believe that we can formulate expectations about those foreign policies, but again—as I indicated before—whether they materialize much depends on the relative strength of such parties or individuals in their respective political systems.
All politics, in the end, is about compromising unless you enjoy an absolute majority like Fidesz in Hungary. The latter may be the best case to observe populist foreign policy. Hungary under Viktor Orbán clearly displays populist foreign policies—keeping out migrants, not complying with EU external policy (such as vis-à-vis Russia), or ignoring attempts to create European solidarity regarding Covid-19 vaccinations. All in all, they pursue a much more unilateral foreign policy. So, I guess that comes, reasonably, close to a populist foreign policy.
How do you make a distinction between the often-conflated concepts of populism and nationalism? How does a populist foreign policy differ from a nationalist foreign policy?
Well, we attempted to tackle this conceptual problem at some point. We are not sure whether we succeeded at that. The problem is the notion of nationalism. That is a complicated concept in the first place. One idea of nationalism suggests a common identity related to a shared past, present, and future. This identity is usually connected to a particular territory. The nation embracing the identity usually asks for and might be prepared to strive for some degree of autonomy or even full-blown independence.
Sometimes nationalism and populism may overlap. In foreign policy, nationalism is usually linked to promoting the nation’s interests abroad or protecting it from foreign interests (say, by subsidizing exports rather than opening up to the free market or by trying to conduct one’s own monetary policies despite fiscal and economic globalization). There are other things we can think of that might constitute some kind of nationalist foreign policy. If that is done by a country representing one nation, forming one sovereign state, then this notion of nationalism is unrelated to populism. This will also be the case if the sovereign state pursuing a nationalist foreign policy represents several nations within the state that somehow have built an inclusive set of institutions.
The populist element will only come if the nation is not considered an inclusive entity —namely, a situation in which some groups would not be considered part of the “pure people” that the sovereign state is supposed to represent in its foreign policies. In that sense, populist nationalism is much more internally divisive, rather than uniting the entire country behind the idea of the nation.
How do you explain the influence of populist foreign policies on multilateralism and global governance?
In the first lesson, a teacher of international relations would tell you that you should not just focus exclusively on the domestic side because any country with similar national interests would act similarly. For instance, Italy is a country that has very few natural resources. It depends on gas and oil from so many countries. For this reason, Italy often pursues unilateral foreign policies, sometimes deviating from the EU line. So, Italy strikes its own deals—like energy deals with Russia, Iran, and Libya—in the national interest, not because it is a populist thing to do.
It is a thing that may be any government would do given the dependency of this country on energy sources. Therefore, we need to be careful in that sense to explain everything based on party politics. After all, party politics is just one aspect of a more extensive system.
Trumpism Is a Product of a Divided Society
The Trump administration pursued a populist foreign policy dubbed “America First,” as the president put it. Donald Trump’s unilateralist foreign policy constrained multilateralism in the WTO (among other intergovernmental organizations) and created the impression that a wave of neo-mercantilism against free trade was in the offing. What do you think about the implications of the mercantilist tendencies of populist parties or leaders in power? And do you believe populist parties may trigger a process in which global trade becomes fragmented along neo-mercantilist lines in the near future?
I am going to take a very long road to answer this question. I may, at first, underestimate the importance of Trump’s personal style and his individual actions also in foreign policy. Having said that, though, I still feel that the success of Trump, being elected in 2016, can only be because a minority, but still, a sizable group of Americans voted for him. In that sense, Trumpism is also the product of a society that it is divided, of a society where at least some people have a clear notion of what we may call populism. I mean, Trump’s success heavily depended also on the organizational strength of the populist Tea Party for a long time.
The Tea Party was populist, I would say, in at least one important way. One wing of the Tea Party represented the traditional fear of an overweening federal government. So, it is about limiting the federal government based on the “pure people.” The “pure people,” of course, are the gun owners who consider bearing arms a legitimate way to protect themselves from government overreach.
Moreover, there is a potent populist sentiment that is traditionally very well organized within the Republican Party. On the one hand, I think that this thin ideology is pretty much unique for the United States. Of course, there are populist elements of style, some of them copycat behaviors, particularly the way Trump engaged in political debate in the first place—namely, the divisiveness that is part of his style. But I find the fundamental idea of the “pure people” very peculiar to the United States. I don’t think that is easily exportable to other countries, even though we may see everywhere little Trumps but not backed up in the same way or so forcefully by that type of populist organization.
The Conflict Over Global Trade Is Likely to Continue
The second element is that the United States is in relative decline. China is growing faster. India is growing faster. Foreign producers outcompete many American economic sectors. In that sense, no matter whether we have a Democratic or a Republican president, they will never be able to ensure global free trade on solely American terms. However, as we have often claimed, there will always be protectionist elements, neo-mercantilist elements in American foreign policy, if only to secure certain vital voters every two years in the midterms and their presidential elections. This mechanism will not readily disappear.
Trump has made a difference as Joe Biden will make a difference. But they have different styles. They have different interest groups to protect or to cater to. Within those boundaries, I think there will be a little bit less neo-mercantilism because Biden is slightly more open. He is engaging with the world, and he wants the United States to play a significant role. He wants the damaged reputation of the United States to improve. But I don’t expect him to be a complete free trader. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party of protectionism more than the Republicans.
It will mean that the United States will still play a very active protectionist role in international trade. We should not forget that the American reluctance to engage in multilateral agreements has been there maybe even since Clinton, but certainly since Bush and Obama. So, the United States has always had a kind of preferred strategy to strike bilateral deals with states before engaging in multilateral deals on the same subject because the bilateral approach strengthens their hand. First, having concluded the bilateral agreement, then going to the WTO for multilateral agreement— helps ensure the multilateral deal is closer to US interests.
That would, in general, of course, be an improvement in terms of more free trade. That is true, too. But that approach to global trade has been there under four presidents already, which will only continue, given the rise of China and India. After all, China and India —and Brazil for that matter— want to have more say in global trade and global finance, and the United States is getting weaker economically.
Gradually, but slowly, we will have to compromise if these countries want to stay in the same institutional framework. We know that if China is unhappy with the prevailing international arrangements, it is prepared to start its own international institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And Washington will probably find out that if they don’t compromise, or at least open up in a way to China’s interests, then China will work its way around the United States. So, briefly speaking, I don’t expect the United States to suddenly return to being the hegemon that it may have been in the past and magnanimous toward the rest of the world. In that sense, conflicts over global trade and global finance are likely to continue.
Who Is Bertjan Verbeek?
Bertjan Verbeek is a professor of international relations at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is an expert in the influence of populism on foreign policy, the role of international organizations during crises, and the learning ability of governments during and after crises. He is currently undertaking an international comparative study on crisis decision-making in foreign policy. He argues that, despite the populist radical right’s popularity among political scientists, little scholarship has focused on its influence on foreign policy. For Verbeek, this lack of study is due, in part, to a general lack of attention to the role of political parties in foreign policy, both in comparative politics and international relations.