QAnon Shaman, Jake Angeli is seen as roaming  near the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection which was initiated by Former US President Donald Trump in Washington D.C.. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud

QAnon: A Conspiracy Cult or Quasi-Religion of Modern Times?

Kenes, Bulent. (2021). “QAnon: A Conspiracy Cult or Quasi-Religion of Modern Times?” ECPS Organisation Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 13, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0007

 

As with ISIL, QAnon’s ideology proliferates through easily-shareable digital content espousing grievances and injustices by “evil oppressors.” To perhaps a greater degree than any comparable movement, QAnon is a product of the social media era which created a perfect storm for it to spread. It was QAnon’s spread onto the mainstream social media platforms—and from there onto the streets—that made this phenomenon into a global concern. Social media platforms, again, aided and abetted QAnon growth by driving vulnerable audiences to their content.

By Bulent Kenes

The US was shocked by images of a man in a horned headdress roaming the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection. These frightening images feature the “QAnon Shaman”—or “Q Shaman”—the online persona of Jacob Anthony Chansley, from Arizona (he also goes by Jake Angeli). Chansley is a known super spreader of conspiracy theories (Tollefson, 2021; Giannotta, 2021). Both on the Mall and inside the Capitol, countless signs and banners were seen promoting QAnon, whose acolytes believe that former US President Donald Trump has been working to dismantle an occult society of cannibalistic paedophiles. At the base of the Washington Monument, Chansley was seen assuring people, “We got ’em right where we want ’em! We got ’em by the balls, baby, and we’re not lettin’ go!” (Mogelson, 2021).

Many of the January 6 rioters subscribed to QAnon (Jankowicz, 2021), which is an umbrella term for a baroque set of (Bracewell, 2021) eclectic super-conspiracy theories essentially rooted in populism (Smedt & Rupar, 2020). The QAnon movement emerged from the primordial swamp of the internet on the message board 4chan in October 2017 and has aimed to trigger the resentments of the “everyman.” Its series of confusing claims resemble the conspiracy legends of the past, but the power of online social media has given platforms to members of “Q” to share, promote, and connect (Smedt & Rupar, 2020; Wong 2020). 

QAnon alleges without evidence that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who are abducting, abusing, and ritualistically murdering children by the thousands. This global child trafficking ring counts among its members powerful elites like Pope Francis and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as many prominent members of the Democratic Party like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump also plays a leading role in the QAnon mythos as a secret-agent/warrior/messiah figure. Recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016, Trump has been working tirelessly behind the scenes ever since to defeat this Satanist cabal. What gives the QAnon movement its unmistakable populist tinge is the role it proscribes for its supporters in the apocalyptic confrontation between Trump and the paedophilic cabal (Bracewell, 2021). QAnon supporters believed, in the leadup to the 2020 election, that there would soon be mass arrests, and members of the cabal would be brought to justice (Beckett, 2020).

The QAnon narrative includes centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes, like the belief that the cabal is harvesting blood from abused children. QAnon’s followers, who also believe there is a “deep state” effort to annihilate Trump, have peddled baseless theories surrounding mass shootings and elections and have falsely claimed that 5G cellular networks are spreading the coronavirus. Experts call these extreme, baseless claims “an incitement to violence” (Beckett, 2020;Vazquez, 2020; Liptak, 2020), since QAnon believers—who have not brought a single child abuser closer to justice—have radicalized people into committing crimes and taking dangerous or violent actions (Beckett, 2020) (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

The movement has been linked to several violent acts since 2018, with QAnon supporters arrested for threatening politicians, breaking into the residence of the Canadian prime minister, an armed standoff near the Hoover dam, a kidnapping plot, two kidnappings, and at least one murder (Beckett, 2020). The FBI named QAnon a domestic terrorism threat in 2019 (Jankowicz, 2021) and the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point described it as a “novel challenge to public security” (Beckett, 2020). That threat nevertheless continued to grow (Jankowicz, 2021). 

Like many others, David Lawrence and Gregory Davis (2020) also argue that QAnon is no longer just a conspiracy theory. As it stands today, QAnon is a decentralised, grand, and multifaceted phenomenon—a political movement and a quasi-religion. Marc-André Argention (2021) agrees that over the past four years, QAnon has evolved into an extremist religio-political ideology and a “hyper-real religion” (Argentino, 2020a). This hyper-real religion is based on the premise that pop culture shapes and creates actual reality, with examples including, but not limited to Heaven’s Gate (Hafford, 2017), Church of All Worlds (Caw.com, 2021), Jediism (Lavelle, 2020), etc. Adrienne LaFrance (2020) is also among those who argue that QAnon represents the birth of a new religion. LaFrance underscores this argument by highlighting the apocalyptic tendencies found in QAnon; its clear-cut dualism between the forces of good and evil; the study and analysis of Qdrops as sacred texts; and the divine mystery of Q. 

According to Argentino, QAnon, as a movement is in a constant state of mutation and clearly blurs the boundaries between popular culture and everyday life. What this means is that technology and the marketplace of ideas have inverted the traditional relationship between the purveyors of religion and the consumers of religion. Some might argue that a hyper-real religion isn’t a “real” religion because it’s invented. QAnon is blatantly invented: it openly uses works of popular culture, media, entertainment, American evangelicalism, and conspiracy theories at its basis. Belief in QAnon reflects a created hyper-real world based on such theories (Argentino, 2020a). This situation is defined by Jules Evans(2021) as “conspirituality,” which refers to the overlap between New Age/wellness culture and far-right conspiracy culture like QAnon. 

Joseph Uscinski argues that QAnon’s ideation resembles a cult. What Q has done is to galvanize people around a set of ideas and weaponize them in a way that observers haven’t normally seen (Brooks et al., 2020, 25:44–27:46): Q’s followers act more like a virtual cult, largely adoring and believing whatever disinformation the conspiracy community spins up (Murphy, 2020). Conspiracies themselves may not be new, but the internet has enabled fringe thinkers to “find their people;” and “the power of the social web” allows groups to spread from “a niche or regionally-specific cult to a global movement” (Brooks et al., 2020, 31:30–31:51).

A satanic priest.

Paul Thomas (2020) sees many similarities between QAnon claims and prior rumour panics that employed satanic rhetoric. Thus, QAnon does not portray perceived political adversaries as merely having a difference of opinion, but as being downright evil. For example, in an Aug. 10, 2018 post, Q stated, “Many in Power Worship the Devil.” On Aug. 26, 2020, Q posted an image suggesting that the 2020 Democratic National Convention logo resembled a Satanic Baphomet pentagram, which incorporates a goat’s head and a five-pointed star. Accompanying text asserts that one party—the Republican party—discusses God while the other party—the Democratic party—discusses darkness. Such dialogue rises beyond the level of us versus them. Instead, QAnon elevates the conspiracy to a matter of cosmic good versus monstrous evil. Through that process, Qanon followers may see themselves as would-be monster-killers ready to use violence to remove evil (Thomas, 2020). While the religiously charged demonization of globalists dovetails with QAnon, religious maximalism has also gone mainstream. Under Trump, Republicans throughout the country have consistently situated American politics in the context of an eternal, cosmic struggle between good and evil. In doing so, they have rendered constitutional principles of representation, pluralism, and the separation of powers less inviolable (Mogelson, 2021).

Argentino writes in an article about the presence of a QAnon church operating out of the Omega Kingdom Ministry (OKM)—which is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches as an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity—and where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself. The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube. OKM provides formalized religious indoctrination into QAnon (Argentino, 2020b).

Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. That helps explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement (LaFrance, 2020). The QAnon narrative is also inflected with shades of millenarianism: the battle between Good and Evil will end when the messianic President overthrows the Satanists, ushering in a new period of global prosperity. The role of orthodox QAnon influencers is to guide less well-informed adherents in much the same way as scholars interpret sacred texts for religious movements (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

Of course, QAnon also deserves to be studied for its various populists aspects. First of all, QAnon offers comfort in an uncertain and unprecedented age as the movement crowdsources answers to the inexplicable. It becomes the master narrative capable of simply explaining various complex events and providing solace for modern problems: a pandemic, economic uncertainty, political polarization, war, child abuse, etc. (Argentino, 2020a). Secondly, QAnon has an anti-establishment ideology rooted in a quasi-apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing, corrupt world and usher in a promised golden age (Argentino, 2021). Thirdly, it has a worldview characterized by a binary approach through a sharp distinction between the realms of “good” and “evil”. Fourth, QAnon has an anti-science stance and unreasonable character. At its heart, QAnon is non-falsifiable. Belief in QAnon as the source of truth is a matter of faith rather than proof. Furthermore, by considering QAnon as a hyper-real religion, it becomes possible to frame how QAnon has found resonance not only within the American electoral system, but with populists around the globe. This is especially important in the context of framing the global response to the pandemic and public health. Last but not least, there’s an increasing overlap between QAnon and the far-right/patriot movements (Argentino, 2020a).

With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer pandemic, QAnon conspiracies have found an enthusiastic audience. QAnon, as a “superconspiracy,” is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown; and capable of merging numerous pre-existing subconspiracies, with new theories flourishing and older tropes finding a new lease of life under its rubric.

 

Social media campaign for coronavirus plus fake news and total disorientation in society. Photo: Iryna Budanova

QAnon As Both Fertile Mother and Brainchild of Conspiracy Theories

It is a widely accepted idea that conspiracy theories are born during times of turmoil and uncertainty. Fuelled by hysteria and unfounded claims of nefarious plots involving corruption and immorality practiced by unfeeling, immoral libertines, conspiracy theories emphasize the power that small cults of anti-human elites have upon the stability and established moral practices of a society (Kline, 2017). Conspiracy theories have been constant throughout history and existed since time immemorial, regardless of nationality, age, race, ethnicity, or any other marker of identity (Beene & Greer, 2021), but 21st-century technological advancements have provided a powerful infrastructure for connecting conspiracy-minded individuals on a global scale (Smedt & Rupar, 2020). Conspiracies tell a powerful story about the “zeitgeist” of a particular moment and of the deep uncertainties and anxieties of those who believe them, even if that story isn’t true (Brotherton, 2016; Butter, 2020, Uscinski, 2019)

Robert Brotherton (2013) defines conspiracy theories through several characteristics. First, conspiracy theories are unverified claims at odds with the mainstream consensus, and they grow and thrive because of their opposition to consensus (Brotherton, 2013: 10). Second, they are sensationalistic—of all the conspiracies throughout history, those that gain the most notoriety most often surround disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks, celebrity deaths, political figures, plane crashes, and aliens (Brotherton, 2013: 10–11). Third, conspiracy theories assume everything is intentional, nothing is coincidental, and the world is divided into “good… struggling against evil” (Brotherton, 2013: 11). Fourth, those adhering to conspiracy theories have low standards of evidence. Lastly, conspiracy theories are epistemically self-insulating “against questioning or correction” (Brotherton, 2013, 12). Therefore, the most successful conspiracy theories morph and evolve in order to stay relevant for followers (Beene & Greer, 2021).

With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer Covid-19 pandemic, QAnon conspiracies have found an enthusiastic audience hungry for the promise of salvation from tyranny at the end of a struggle dubbed “The Storm” (Farivar, 2020). While disinformation expert Joan Donovan describes QAnon as “a densely networked conspiracy theory that is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown” (Manjoo, 2020), several researchers argue that it is a “superconspiracy,” capable of merging numerous pre-existing subconspiracies, with new theories flourishing and older tropes finding a new lease of life under its rubric (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

During the volatile 2016 US presidential campaign, a flurry of conspiracy theories erupted, aimed at demonizing the candidates. One of the most outrageous conspiracy theories—involving child sex trafficking, ritual murder, and cannibalism—is examined to reveal its archetypal elements and relevancy to hard-wired taboos shared by all of humanity(Kline, 2017; Farivar, 2020). The anarchical group’s birth, and its continued seepage into mainstream American life, comes on the coattails of the Russian disinformation campaign that targeted US elections in 2016. ​While the Russian campaign had an apparent objective—to influence voters to elect Trump—QAnon is decentralized, having no clear objective aside from its popular slogan, “Question everything.” However, there’s no evidence that any of what QAnon claims is factual. ​Followers make unfounded claims and then amplify them with doctored or out-of-context evidence posted on social media to support the allegations. These theories have been further elevated through high-profile figures and organizations (Murphy, 2020).

QAnon has its roots in previously established conspiracy theories, some relatively new and some millennia old (Wong, 2020). The most recent precursor of QAnon is the “Pizzagate” theory that emerged ahead of the 2016 Presidential election, which alleged that Democratic politicians were trafficking children for use in paedophilic rituals (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Right-wing news outlets and influencers promoted the baseless idea of Pizzagate, which believes that references to a popular Washington DC pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, in the stolen emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring (Wong, 2020). The theory touched off serious harassment of the restaurant and its employees, culminating in December 2016, when a 28-year-old man named Edgar Maddison Welch, having driven from North Carolina to Washington, DC, fired an assault rifle inside Comet in a bid to rescue the children he thought were locked away there. No one was hurt. Welch was sentenced to four years in prison (Breland, 2019).

There are many threads of the QAnon narrative, all as far-fetched and evidence-free as the rest, including subplots that focus on John F Kennedy Jr. being alive (he isn’t), the Rothschild family controlling all the banks (they don’t), and children being sold through the website of the furniture retailer Wayfair (they aren’t) (Wong, 2020). The frantic, independent theorising of QAnon followers has proved capable of rolling any event into its grand narrative, from the momentous—such as the JFK assassination or the sinking of the Titanic—to the seemingly insignificant, such as the mispricing of items on the retail site Wayfair or a “hidden symbol” in a frame of a Disney film. This gives QAnon a certain fluidity: in some cases, adherents of the broader ideology might choose to emphasise certain aspects and minimise others as part of a calculated effort to maximise its appeal (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Therefore, it is not illogical to say that QAnon, like other conspiracy theories, is fundamentally a form of political propaganda to mobilize people (Tollefson, 2021).

However, the most striking part of the QAnon conspiracy theory is, perhaps, the fact that its followers believe that Trump is waging a secret battle against the cabal of devil-worshipping cannibal paedophiles (O’Donnell, 2020) and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the malefactors and send them all to Guantánamo Bay (Wong, 2020). Media scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (2020) argue that the claims about the existence of a “deep state” have a long history in America (Bodner, 2021: 144), as it has antecedents in influential 20th century political conspiracy thinking found in places like the John Birch Society, even if the term itself is not native to the US (Bodner, 2021: 145).

Ryan Gingeras (2019), who minutely details the term’s history, finds it first emerging in Turkey to explain the disparity between the apparent government and the relationship and influence of organizations within the state, the armed forces, and organized crime, each of which act as forms of parallel government. Turkey’s long history of coups, civil wars, and extrajudicial killings of political enemies makes the “deep state” a common way for Turks to understand their government and history. After 2000, the term is widely used in academic literature to discuss not only Turkey but other Middle Eastern countries (Bodner, 2021: 145). 

In the eyes of QAnon followers, the “deep state” actors in the US context are Democrats, especially those left over from the Obama administration (Bodner, 2021: 144). The concept has also been partially shaped and nurtured into a more precise form of official political conspiracy theory by Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to former President Trump. Published under a pen name, the term was introduced on Bannon’s website Breitbart News a month after Trump’s election (Virgil, 2016) and heavily promoted ever since (Bodner, 2021: 145). A public poll in March 2018 showed that 37 percent of respondents had heard of the “deep state” (Bodner, 2021: 146).

The utility of the “deep state” hypothesis to Trump is clear, since it is an absent and voiceless enemy that excuses any and all of his failures. For the last 12 years, Alex Jones—and since 2017, QAnon—have spent their time recycling and recontextualizing several traditional right-wing conspiracy traditions to repopulate the “deep state” with the correct kind of enemies. Democrats are an obvious choice. For wealthy businesspeople, they have substituted George Soros, amorphous “elites,” and Hollywood celebrities (Bodner, 2021: 146) QAnon has also amplified the rare appearance of a conspiracy category called “the benevolent conspiracy,” arguing that Trump and a surprising gang of allies are conspiring from within the government to bring down the “deep state” (Bergmann 2018: 52). If Trump won in November 2020, QAnon would be vindicated in their beliefs and said this is what God had mandated, reinforcing the belief that they were right. Since Trump lost, it was attributed to the “deep state” Luciferian cabal (Argentino, 2020a).

For many QAnon believers, the naturally-occurring chemical compound adrenochrome, produced by the oxidisation of adrenaline, is at the heart of the conspiracy. It is a potent drug/elixir of youth harvested by the cabal from the adrenal glands of children, who are tortured to intensify the drug’s effects (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). A cabal of elites didn’t just harvest children’s blood: they consumed the flesh itself. As proof, conspiracy theorists pointed to a website that falsely claimed that Raven Chan—Mark Zuckerberg’s sister-in-law—was involved with a fake restaurant called the Cannibal Club. Although the story has since been debunked, it’s alive and well on social media (Evans, 2020). Adrenochrome is real—it has hallucinogenic compounds—but everything else about this narrative is fiction. The origin of this concept is easily linked to Hunter S. Thompson’s novels Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973). Thompson’s character “Dr. Gonzo” says adrenochrome has to come from “the adrenaline glands from a living human body.” That the bodies are children is a QAnon addition (Bodner, 2021: 158)

The use of exotic drugs by dangerous deviants is a traditional element in several previous legends and conspiracy theories about endangered children (Brunvand, 2001). However, QAnon shifted the focus from enemies within to enemies above—namely, members of the “deep state.” Thus, QAnon has weaponized fears over Satanism and child harm and shoehorned them into conspiracy thinking associated with the “deep state” (Bodner, 2021: 163). The essential problem is that this conspiracy theory’s central narrative subverts legitimate concerns about child trafficking and child abuse with fantastical misinformation and anti-Semitic tropes, fostering dangerous anger in the process. It also risks obscuring genuine child abuse and hampering legitimate efforts to better child welfare (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

Conspiracy theories and populism both employ a binary worldview that divides societies between corrupt or evil elites and the pure or unknowing people, a framework that contextualises fears and hardships by personifying them into an identifiable enemy (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Gregory Stanton (2020), the founder of the Genocide Watch, says many people are perplexed at how any rational person could fall for such an irrational conspiracy theory. But modern social science shows that people in groups don’t always think rationally. They respond to fear and terror. They blame their misfortunes on scapegoats. They support narcissistic demagogues they hope will rescue them (Stanton, 2020).

Photo: Axel Bueckert

What Does “Q” Stand For, or, Who Is “Q”? 

On October 28, 2017, the anonymous user now widely referred to as “Q” appeared for the first time (LaFrance, 2020; Lawrence & Davis, 2020) on the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm” and in subsequent posts, Q established his legend as a government insider with top (Q-level) security clearance (Martineau, 2017; Bodner, 2021: 147) who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Trump, the “deep state” (Winter, 2019), Robert Mueller, the Clintons, paedophile rings, and other elements. Since then, Q has continued to drop “breadcrumbs” on 4chan and 8chan, fostering a “QAnon” community devoted to decoding “Q”s messages and understanding the real truth about everything (Wong, 2018).

Anonymous internet posters claiming to be high-level government officials are not entirely uncommon: in recent years, other so-called “anons” have emerged with claims that they were revealing secrets from inside the FBI or CIA. But “Q” is the first such figure to have achieved such a broad audience and real-world political influence. This is largely due to the activism of three dedicated conspiracy theorists—Pamphlet Anon or Coleman Rogers, BaruchtheScribe or Paul Furber, and YouTuber Tracy Diaz—who latched onto Q’s posts in the early days and translated them into a digestible narrative for mainstream social media networks. The three built and shepherded the Q-community by expanding it to more accessible platforms like YouTube and Reddit and finding homes for the community when various sites shut them down, like Reddit and 8chan eventually did (Zadrozny & Collins, 2018; Bodner, 2021: 149).  

These activists worked to develop a mythology and culture around QAnon and cultivated an audience for it on mainstream social media platforms. (Zadrozny & Collins, 2018). According to Julia Carrie Wong (2020), QAnon might have faded away as well, were it not for the dedicated work of these three conspiracy theorists. Despite being de-platformed from numerous social media venues, there exists an entire QAnon media ecosystem, with enormous amounts of video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to snare the interest of potential recruits, then draw them “down the rabbit hole” and into QAnon’s alternate reality (Wong, 2020)—all allegedly leading to a “Great Awakening” (Wong, 2020a). 

“Q” has been communicating Trump’s plans to all brave patriots with ears via encoded online messages known as “Qdrops.” When the time is right, Q will give the signal and the people will rise up and join Trump in one final Armageddon-like showdown against the forces of darkness—an event that QAnon adherents call “the Storm” (Bracewell, 2021).

 “Q” first attracted attention with a wild premonition: Former Secretary of State and Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested, and riots would ensue. The prediction, needless to say, proved false, as did many others that followed, including the forecast of mass indictments of other Democrats. But that did not stop Q from continuing to post about Trump’s “secret war” against a deep state cabal of paedophiles, with his “Qdrops” parsed and amplified by a growing ecosystem of believers (Farivar, 2020).

Despite rampant speculation, no one has unravelled the mystery person behind Q. Outside QAnon circles, few take him as a real insider. Many experts believe more than one person may have been behind the Q account over the years (Farivar, 2020). Until July 2020, QAnon supporters believed that “Q” was a high-ranking Trump administration official, or maybe even Trump himself. But now, a good portion of QAnon believers have become convinced that Q is none other than JFK Jr, even though he died in a plane crash more than 20 years ago. (Sommer, 2018).

July 2018 was a rough month for QAnon followers. After making a post on July 4th, Q didn’t leave any clues for 20 days, marking the longest gap between Q hints since the scheme began. Around the middle of July, the anonymous poster, who was soon dubbed “Ranon,” posited that Kennedy hadn’t actually died in a plane crash. Instead, he’d faked his death to avoid the supposed deep-state cabal and teamed up with Trump to kick off a decades-long strategy. While Trump laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, Kennedy had become Q. In late July 2018, “Q” returned to posting and denounced “R,” its newfound rival for impressionable Trump supporters. Still, the Kennedy theory persists among a segment of QAnon believers (Sommer, 2018).

“Q”s posts are cryptic and elliptical. They often consist of a long string of leading questions designed to guide readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research”. Despite “Q” having consistently made predictions that have failed to come to pass, true believers tend to simply adapt their narratives to account for inconsistencies. For close followers of QAnon, the posts (or “drops”) contain “crumbs” of intelligence that they “bake” into “proofs.” For “bakers,” QAnon is both a fun hobby and a deadly serious calling. There are subcultures within QAnon for people who approach studying Qdrops in a manner similar to Bible study (Wong, 2020). Like medieval scholars engaged in interpretation of metaphysical texts, readers have constructed elaborate illuminated manuscripts and narrative compilations (Tuters, 2020).Moreover, those who subscribe to Qdrops are presented with elaborate productions of evidence in order to substantiate QAnon’s claims, including source citation and other academic techniques (Argentino, 2020a).

Commenting that the Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America, Adrienne LaFrance talks about the possibility of QAnon becoming another. “It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Qdrops as instalments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming,” (LaFrance, 2020).

There are around 5,000 posts attributed to Q in an online archive. Q’s posts are purposefully cryptic in order to protect his cover—or, alternatively, to employ the common stereotype of the commercial fortune teller’s trick: to make a statement as broadly applicable across any number of possibilitiesQ’s posts cryptically refer to a dizzying array of current events and various conspiracy theories (Bodner, 2021: 147). In analysing the Qdrops, Paul Thomas (2020) has noted a discourse of evil woven throughout Q’s messages. Peppering the Qdrops are claims like “many in our government worship Satan.” According to Anons, Trump is engaged in a battle of cosmic significance between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness” (Thomas, 2020).

The QAnon universe is sprawling and deep, with layer upon layer of context, acronyms, characters, and shorthand to learn. The “castle” is the White House. “Crumbs” are clues. CBTS stands for “calm before the storm,” and WWG1WGA stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” which has become an expression of solidarity among Q followers. There is also a “Q clock,” which refers to a calendar some factions of Q supporters use to try to decode supposed clues based on time stamps of Qdrops and Trump tweets (LaFrance, 2020). QAnon supporters have likened Qdrops to Hansel and Gretel-like breadcrumbs (Murphy, 2020). 

Trump supporters and some QAnon followers march around the SC State House in protest of Joe Biden (D) wining the 2020 presidential election in Columbia, South Carolina, November 7, 2020. Photo: Crush Rush

Who Are QAnon Adherents?

For the first two and a half years of its existence, QAnon attracted a devoted but relatively small coterie of followers. However, in the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced millions of people to hunker down at home and made the internet their almost exclusive connection to the outside world, QAnon’s popularity exploded (Bracewell, 2021).QAnon does not possess a physical location, but with its infrastructure, literature, growing body of adherents, and great deal of merchandising QAnon is now much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. As Adrienne LaFrance (2020) underlined, it is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. The group harnesses paranoia to create fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging, and they are demonstrating the ability to produce, share, and tie together worldviews that distort and shatter reality, creating an environment that resembles the birth of new religion (Smedt & Rupar, 2020) and political ideology (Argentino, 2020c).

It’s impossible to know the number of QAnon adherents with any precision, but the ranks are growing. While Q has hopped from one fringe imageboard to another, his followers have thrived on mainstream platforms: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Telegram. On any given day, even in the first half of 2020, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people posted about QAnon on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, according to Argentino, who says that it would be a mistake to dismiss them as “lunatics with tin foil hats living in their parents’ basement” (Farivar, 2020).

QAnon has gained traction as a political force, especially in the Republican party. 97 congressional candidates embraced QAnon during the 2020 election cycle—including two who won. In total, 89 of the candidates were Republicans, two were Democrats, one was a Libertarian, one was a member of the Independent Party of Delaware, and four were independents (Kaplan, 2020). It is not a secret that QAnon is most popular among older Republicans and evangelical Christians. Other followers appear to have come to QAnon from New Age spiritual movements, from more traditional conspiracy theory communities, or from the far right. Since adulation for Trump is a prerequisite, it is almost exclusively a conservative movement, though the #SaveTheChildren campaign is helping it make inroads among non-Trump supporters (Wong, 2020).

However, QAnon has developed beyond its roots in the intensely hyper-partisan and US-centric right, moving from a niche far-right interest that Lawrence and Davis (2020) have termed “orthodox QAnon” into a broader, less uniform type they call “eclectic QAnon.” This development has enabled the theory to gain supporters from across the political spectrum and of diverse backgrounds.

QAnon nearly reached the main stage of the Republican Party at Trump’s July 31, 2018 rally in Tampa, Florida, where signs reading “We are Q” and “Q” appeared near the front of the crowd during his speech. Four months later, Vice President Pence posted—and then deleted—a photo on Twitter with a law enforcement officer wearing a QAnon patch on his uniform. And in July 2019, the White House invited a QAnon supporter to a “social media summit” (Murphy, 2020).An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted in fall 2020 found that nearly a quarter of Republicans believed the outlandish core claim of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Therefore, Francis Fukuyama (2021) argued that the Republican Party is no longer a party based on ideas or policies but something more akin to a cult. Uscinski also said most QAnon followers are Trump supporting evangelicals who are predisposed to believe a pro-Trump, anti-liberal narrative (Wong, 2018).

With a brand ambassador like the “QAnon shaman,” it’s easy to dismiss QAnon followers as deranged, troubled, and isolated. But that is not the case, according to Brent Giannotta (2021). Most QAnon followers lead largely mainstream lives. A survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 27 percent of white evangelicals nationwide believe in QAnon. That percentage is higher than any other faith group surveyed, and more than double the support for QAnon beliefs among Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and non-Christians (Colarossi, 2021). Flags seen at the Jan. 6 insurrection read, “Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president.” Making the jump from religious devotion to conspiracy theories requires an animating emotion—namely, anger (Giannotta, 2021).

For all the focus on QAnon on the “supply side,” the “demand side” is an even greater concern. As the journalist Charlie Warzel stresses, “Millions of Americans are actively courting conspiracies and violent, radical ideologies in order to make sense of a world they don’t trust” (Goldgeier & Jentleson, 2021). More than one in three (39%) Americans believe in the existence of a so-called “deep state” which was working to undermine President Trump – another tenet of QAnon (Ipsos, 2020). Also, as many as one-third of Republicans believe QAnon to be “mostly true” (Rothschild, 2020), and almost half (47%) of Americans say they have heard of QAnon, as of September 2020 (Mitchell et al., 2020).

Since QAnon expanded onto YouTube and Facebook, the movement has seen its ranks swollen by Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). White Boomers overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016, and they have also become enthusiastic transmitters of conspiracy theories via social media (Binder 2018; Bodner, 2021: 150). Many of QAnon’s supporters are middle-aged whites, many with stable jobs and businesses (Giannotta, 2021). Though academic research would suggest that conspiracy theories are for “losers,” QAnon has thrived. After all, the community propagating the QAnon conspiracies was on the winning side of the 2016 US presidential election (Argentino, 2020c).

According to QAnon adherents, the eventual destruction of the global cabal can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in clues posted by Q, who requires followers to reject mainstream institutions, ignore government officials, battle apostates, and despise the press (LaFrance, 2020). A large number of Q supporters believe in—and are increasingly vocal about—demons as active forces in American life and politics. Trump’s alleged battle against the “deep state” here adopts cosmic meaning, as not only the US government but undocumented immigrants and Black and LGBTQ people are cast as agents of demonic forces (Greenwood, 2020). In this regard, QAnon has many overlaps with spiritual warfare and its practitioners. It uses similar ideas of religious revival and donning the “armour of God” against unseen foes (O’Donnell, 2020).

People display Qanon messages on cardboards during a rally in Bucharest, Romania on Aug. 10, 2020. Photo: M. Moira

Women of the Movement: Pastel QAnon

In parallel to the findings of Daniel Halpern and his colleagues, who argue women and people with politically right-leaning views are more likely to share conspiracy theories (Halpern et al., 2019), QAnon has gained popularity among women (Butler, 2020). According to numerous reports, a significant number of QAnon followers are women introduced to QAnon ideology through images, videos, and stories shared by some of the most popular beauty, lifestyle, and parenting influencers on social media (Breland, 2020; Butler, 2020; Flora, 2020; Kelly, 2020; Tiffany, 2020). These women are using warm and colourful images to spread QAnon theories through health and wellness communities and by infiltrating legitimate charitable campaigns against child trafficking. Argentino names this as “Pastel QAnon,” which exists in adjacent lifestyle, health, and fitness communities and softens the traditionally raw QAnon narratives to spread the conspiracies to new audiences (Argentino, 2020).

It is not surprising that QAnon’s message would resonate in virtual spaces to which millions of women turn every day for advice on how to optimize the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families. Mothers, upon whom a disproportionate share of the burdens of pandemic-era child-rearing have fallen, are trying to keep their children safe and healthy. The QAnon movement ministers to their anxiety by providing them a window into an alternative reality in which the Coronavirus is a hoax and the “real” threat to their children is the deep-state cabal (Seitz and Swenson, 2020). As one QAnon adherent at a “Freedom for the Children” rally in London put it, “Saving our children is far more important than a fake pandemic” (Kelly, 2020; Bracewell, 2021). So sprawling is the QAnon universe that it seems to be able to adapt to prey on the specific fears of subgroups. In the case of mothers, of course, that’s kids. So, some members used moms’ groups to organize in-person rallies against child trafficking and what they believed was rampant paedophilia under the #saveourchildren QAnon hashtag. Many moms who shared these ideas didn’t know that they were part of a broader conspiracy theory (Butler, 2020).

Many female QAnon believers are “lifestyle influencers, including mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages, and “alternative healing” accounts. “These influencers provide an aesthetic and branding to their entire pages, and they, in turn, apply this to QAnon content, softening the messages, videos and traditional imagery that would be associated with QAnon narratives,” Argentino wrote. QAnon influencers—some with substantial followings—post images of quotes with baby-pink and sky-blue palettes that read:“#whereareallthechildren,” “COVID is over,” and “child sex trafficking is not a conspiracy theory.” Several posts from users speak of the journey down the “rabbit hole,” the so-called “great awakening,” and being “red-pilled,” a reference from The Matrix which conspiracy theorists use to describe “sudden enlightenment” (Gillespie, 2020). The enormously affecting idea that thousands of children are being kept captive in dungeons and tunnel networks across the world has drawn in many who might otherwise have rejected the heavily pro-Trump and narrow political narratives of QAnon (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

According to Lydia Khalil, research fellow at Deakin University, there is a history within the wellness community which has been anti-establishment and very sceptical of big pharma; the QAnon conspiracies tend to feed into this. Adding to this, QAnon has also co-opted certain sayings or hashtags that will resonate with the community. #TheGreatAwakening is one of the group’s main hashtags and followers often talk about “waking up to the truth,” which are common phrases in new age spirituality practices such as yoga and meditation (Aubrey, 2020). Therefore, some influencers have even felt compelled to speak out against the QAnon movement. Seane Corn, a yoga teacher with 108,000 followers, wrote on Instagram that “QAnon’s agenda is to use manipulative means to recruit folks who are rightfully scared, angry and disillusioned with the state of our nation” (Gillespie, 2020).

Pandemic Accelerates and Widens QAnon’s Reach   

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to many conspiracy theories, including the idea that the pandemic is part of a plan imposed by world elites to vaccinate most of the world’s population (Labbe et al., 2020). The pandemic has created an environment of uncertainty, distrust, fear, and powerlessness, and QAnon has successfully taken advantage of this atmosphere by expanding the scope of the conspiracy theory and using it to spread misinformation and fake news about an already complex and unsolved public health crisis. QAnon supporters have also managed to garner support for the antivaccine movement and anti-lockdown protests. In this regard, COVID-19 has become a vital part of the QAnon movement itself (MDI, 2020; Wong, 2020) and a boon for the movement in terms of new members (Argentino, 2020c). QAnon has grown louder by attaching itself to scepticism about the pandemic and fears over 5G and vaccination (Aubrey, 2020), as well as to theories that the coronavirus was engineered to earn money for vaccine makers (Tollefson, 2021).

In his long-winded “drop” on July 31, 2020, Q ranted that the coronavirus pandemic was partly designed to help “shelter” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden from appearing in public and participating in debates and to “eliminate” or delay Trump rallies (Farivar, 2020). A simple narrative explained that Trump was using the lockdown, especially travel restrictions, to prevent Satanic elites from escaping overseas before he could arrest them; and the stay-at-home orders would protect citizens during mass military actions (Mantyla, 2020). In other variations, the lockdowns provided cover for more complex military operations against the child traffickers (Bodner, 2021: 156).

The number of QAnon Facebook group members has jumped 800 percent to 1.7 million while Twitter accounts that post on QAnon related hashtags have increased 85 percent to 400,000 during the pandemic (Farivar, 2020). As the pandemic took hold, QAnon became a hotbed for medical misinformation. Analyses by Gallagher, the social media researcher, and the New York Times demonstrated how QAnon groups fuelled the viral spread of “Plandemic,” a 26-minute video chock full of dangerously false information about Covid-19 and vaccines. Facebook’s algorithms appear to have detected this synergy between the QAnon and anti-vaccine communities (Wong, 2020a).

According to Kiera Butler (2020), it all started with a trickle of odd posts when lockdowns began in March 2020. First, came the questions about social distancing measures; then there were posts with pseudoscientific “research” about how masks make coronavirus worse and social distancing can weaken the immune system. In May, Plandemic appeared and after that, the trickle of memes became a torrent (Butler, 2020). The exponential growth of QAnon has dovetailed with a boom of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which include claims that 5G radiation is the cause of the health crisis and/or that a potential vaccine will contain a microchip to track populations. This is at least in part due to the efforts of Q, who has repeatedly suggested that measures to control the pandemic were part of a plot to subvert the US election. QAnon followers have variously speculated that the virus is either entirely fabricated or a deep state bioweapon to allow for election rigging, scuppering Trump’s “Plan” and allowing the cabal to tighten their totalitarian grip; prominent figures in the fight against COVID-19, such as Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, have been widely condemned as members of the cabal (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

In fact, during the pandemic, most of Q’s posts proved derivative, reinforcing standard conspiracy thinking about the virus. Unlike the supposed insider information that early Q drops pretended to offer, pandemic-era Q presents no secret or privileged information (Bodner, 2021: 151-152). Seema Yasmin, a Stanford physician and expert on health misinformation, says conspiracies thrive in the absence of clear and consistent guidance from leaders. As the pandemic wore on, the Trump administration continued to contradict itself, sending mixed messaging on testing, schools, masks, and social distancing—not to mention the possible vaccine. Parents were left to their own devices, relying on incomplete information to keep their families safe. She said, “Charlatans are plugging those knowledge gaps. They’re saying completely false things with a sense of authority,” (Butler, 2020). QAnon is a significant force during the pandemic because of its reach into the very heart of the Trump Administration and the GOP (Bodner, 2021: 144).

Former US President Donald Trump at rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who is the Republican candidate for governor in Topeka Kansas, USA on October 6, 2018. Photo: Mark Reinstein

QAnon’s Ties With Trump As Conspiracist-in-Chief

The QAnon conspiracy gained adherents throughout the US as the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns heated up. Trump—who proved himself to be conspiracist-in-chief (Evans, 2020)—is revered among the conspiracy’s followers, who believe he was recruited to help eliminate the criminal conspiracy they allege is gripping the world’s power structures. Trump has repeatedly retweeted messages from accounts that promote QAnon while more than a dozen Republican candidates running for Congress have embraced some of its tenets (Farivar, 2020). Before he was banned, he amplified tweets from supporters of QAnon at least 185 times (Kaplan, 2021), including more than 90 times following the start of the pandemic (Argentino, 2020c).

Trump associates—such as his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, campaign manager Brad Pascale, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and son Donald Trump Jr.—have all amplified QAnon content as well. Trump’s son Eric Trump promoted QAnon on Instagram when plugging the president’s controversial rally that was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Argentino, 2020c) on June 20, 2020. He deleted the image relatively quickly, but not before screenshots spread across the Facebook Q-sphere. “So Eric Trump posted a pic with a ‘Q’ in the imagery,” an administrator of one of the larger QAnon groups wrote. “The pic has been taken down but the message was received!” (Wong, 2020a).

Although he never endorsed QAnon, Donald Trump repeatedly refused to condemn the conspiracy theory and once praised its followers for their support (Tollefson, 2021). He claimed that all he knows about the movement is that “they are very much against paedophilia” and that he agrees with that sentiment (Vazquez, 2020). Trump’s refusal to denounce QAnon throughout his term further strengthened the movement, whose members, unsurprisingly, helped push the president’s false allegations of a “rigged election.” Activists from across Trump’s base—who all bought into that disinformation narrative—arrived en masse at the US Capitol on January 6 with the express goal of overturning the democratic process, causing mayhem, and shaking the country to its core (Jankowicz, 2021).

During a town hall meeting, Trump also tried to separate himself from his retweet of a conspiracy theory from an account linked to QAnon, which baselessly claimed that former Vice President Joe Biden orchestrated the killings of Seal Team Six to cover up the fake death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. “I know nothing about it,” Trump claimed. “That was a retweet—that was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves” (Vazquez, 2020).

He also refused to condemn the group in August 2020 and went so far as to embrace their support. “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said (Liptak, 2020). “I have heard that it’s gaining in popularity,” Trump added, suggesting QAnon followers approved of how he’d handled social unrest in places such as Portland, Oregon. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country and they just don’t like seeing it.” Trump has also defended his decision to endorse Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, despite her history of promoting QAnon theories and making racist and anti-Semitic remarks (Vazquez, 2020).

On August 19, 2020, at a White House press briefing, asked if he believed the crux of the theory, described by a reporter as the belief that he “is secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of paedophiles and cannibals,” Trump said: “Well, I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” He went on, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are, actually, we’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country and, when this country is gone, the rest of the world will follow” (Liptak, 2020; Wong, 2020).

One debate in the conspiracy-theory research community is whether Trump has pushed more people into QAnon, or whether he just emboldened those who already believed. It’s been a lesson in modern populism: a world leader amplified once-obscure conspiracy theories, with each tweet and retweet strengthening their ideas and emboldening their supporters (Tollefson, 2021). Moreover, much of what is shared in QAnon groups on Facebook is a mix of pro-Trump political speech and pro-Trump political misinformation. Memes, videos and posts are often bigoted and disconnected from reality, but not all that different from the content that is shared in non-QAnon, pro-Trump Facebook groups (Wong, 2020a).

Demonstrators thank America and QAnon for the help and support in Berlin, Germany on August 29, 2020.

Global QAnon As an American Export 

Conventional thinking about far-right extremism often frames it as a domestic problem within nation-states. But such groups and movements, including QAnon, are transnational, sharing ideas and tactics across borders (Miller-Idriss & Koehler, 2021). QAnon has spread all over the world (MDI, 2020). Despite this, its growth in Europe and other parts of the world has gone mostly unnoticed. QAnon narratives are feeding on local contexts and attracting followers—both through popular local misinformation websites but also celebrities and politicians who are spreading the Q gospel. During the last two years, many new QAnon websites, pages, groups, and accounts appeared in the UK, France, Italy, and Germany, and quickly amassed large numbers of followers. They have also been shared within uniquely local groups, including pro-Yellow Vests groups in France and long-standing far-right conspiracy groups in Germany (Labbe et al., 2020).  

Although QAnon has spread to Europe, Latin America, and Australia—where it appears to be catching on among certain far-right movements (Wong, 2020)—every fourth QAnon tweet still originates in the US (Rupar & Smedt, 2021; Farivar, 2020). Fuelled by worldwide anxiety over the pandemic, QAnon has gone global, with adherents popping up in at least 71 countries (Farivar, 2020). In August 2020, Argentino identified QAnon’s presence in almost every country in Europe other than Estonia, Montenegro, and Albania. On August 22, 2020, as many as 200 street rallies were held across the US, Canada, and other countries under the inoffensive slogan of QAnon, “Save Our Children.” QAnon narratives have also inspired a series of street demonstrations across the UK, which have been held in 17 cities and towns. Whilst most have been small, some have attracted hundreds of people, and QAnon is becoming an important component in the wider, conspiracy theory-driven, anti-lockdown movement (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

The earliest explicitly QAnon Facebook group was identified in the UK in June 2018, roughly eight months after the first Q drop. However, QAnon remained an exceedingly niche interest in the UK for the first two and a half years of its existence. This was to change with the onset of the pandemic. On August 22, 2020, several hundred protesters marched to Buckingham Palace, where a section of the crowd angrily chanted “paedophiles” outside the gates; a clip quickly went viral, receiving 3 million views in a matter of days. What many commentators missed in the moment was the QAnon iconography in the crowd (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). QAnon is particularly well suited for adoption by right-wing reactionaries, who present themselves as chivalrous “protectors” of the nation and the family. However, QAnon has yet to spread wholesale into the British radical and far right, currently featuring as one of a myriad of fragmented concerns. But, its potent blend of anti-elitism and exploitation of deep-seated fears, combined with the growth of anti-COVID-19 conspiracy theories, means there is room for far-right converts and opportunists to take up its mantle and spread the theory further (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

Along with British influencer Martin Geddes, the European QAnon influencer who has had the greatest impact on the movement, both in the USA and internationally, is Janet Ossebaard, the Dutch producer of the viral documentary, “Fall of the Cabal.” Having described the Pizzagate theory of mass-scale child abuse by Democratic politicians in the US, she then listed what she claimed were similar examples of elite Satanic abuse networks in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the UK. This linking of QAnon themes to older European reference points is a key element to packaging QAnon for an international audience (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

In Germany, which has the world’s second-highest number of QAnon believers (Wittig, 2020), QAnon has formed a distinct identity through its adoption by the Reichsburger movement, an existing far-right conspiracy theory that denies the legitimacy of the modern German state (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). When about 40,000 demonstrators gathered in Berlin on August 22, 2020 to protest Germany’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions, a small group broke off from this larger demonstration and approached the Reichstag. These far-right agitators attempted to storm the building. Inevitably, Germans saw shadows of this event in the January attack on the US Capitol (Miller-Idriss & Koehler, 2021). 

Nevertheless, perhaps the most vivid examples of the conflicting political interpretations of QAnon is visible in its manifestations in the former Yugoslav republics. Pro-QAnon groups can be found in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia. The largest QAnon Facebook group in the region is called QAnon Balkan which, as its name suggests, aims to unify the peoples of the region in support of the theory. Yet there are other Facebook groups which reflect national concerns rather than regional unity. Much of the discussion in the largest Serbia-specific QAnon group, for example, is fiercely nationalistic, with group members frequently expressing the desires to reassert Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

QAnon: One of the Evil Products of Social Media

As with ISIL, QAnon’s ideology proliferates through easily-shareable digital content espousing grievances and injustices by “evil oppressors” (Giannotta, 2021). To perhaps a greater degree than any comparable movement, QAnon is a product of the social media era (Lawrence & Davis, 2020) which created a perfect storm for it to spread (Jankowicz, 2021). However, without the anonymity provided by 4Chan and 8Chan, Q could not have kept up the charade of their assumed identity, nor could they have found a more receptive audience than the users of those platforms. Host to a legion of bored, alienated, and predominantly far-right users, the /pol/ forum of 4chan was almost uniquely suited to birth an ideology that conspiracy theories, a promise of violent retribution against a liberal elite and, importantly, the encouragement of the audience to participate by conducting “research” of their own. Q’s reach would have remained fringe, however, if it was limited to 4chan and 8chan (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

It was QAnon’s spread onto the mainstream social media platforms—and from there onto the streets—that made this phenomenon into a global concern (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Social media platforms aided and abetted QAnon growth by driving vulnerable audiences to their content. For instance, Facebook was not merely providing a platform to QAnon groups; its powerful algorithms are actively recommending them to users. Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that 64 percent of all extremist group “joins” are due to their recommendation tools (Horwitz & Seetharaman, 2020). The digital architecture of Facebook groups is particularly well-suited to QAnon’s collaborative construction of an alternative body of knowledge. The platform has created a ready-made digital pathway from public pages to public groups to private groups and, finally, secret groups that mirrors the process of “falling down the rabbit hole or taking the red pill” (Wong, 2020a). Recommendation algorithms on platforms prioritize engagement over truth, meaning that a search for natural health remedies, for instance, could lead users, in only a few clicks, to far more dangerous content (Jankowicz, 2021).

On the other hand, QAnon followers, some of whom spent 6 hour per day poring over Q’s messages for clues to the conspiracy puzzle (Brooks et al., 2020), have used a wide range of online tactics to achieve virality and garner mainstream media coverage, including making “documentaries” full of misinformation, hijacking trending hashtags with QAnon messaging, showing up at rallies with Q signs, or running for elected office. A very potent iteration of this tactic emerged in summer 2020 with the #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren campaign (Wong, 2020). 

The hashtags, which had previously been used by anti-child-trafficking NGOs, has been flooded with emotive content by QAnon adherents hinting at the broader QAnon narrative. Hundreds of real-life “Save Our Children” protests have been organized on Facebook in communities across the US (and around the world). These small rallies are in turn driving local news coverage by outlets who don’t realize that by publishing news designed to “raise awareness” about child trafficking, they are encouraging their readers or viewers to head to the internet, where a search for “save our children” could send them straight down the QAnon rabbit hole (Wong, 2020). 

Even prior to the explosion of interest in conspiracy theories as the pandemic struck, QAnon had become a visible and viral presence online. Prominent promoters of the theory had gathered hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and YouTube, while QAnon Facebook groups had grown to tens of thousands of members (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Most of the QAnon profiles tap into the same sources of information: Trump tweets, YouTube disinformation videos, and each other’s tweets. It forms a mutually reinforcing confirmation bias—the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms prior beliefs or values (Rupar & Smedt, 2021).

Since the movement’s earliest days, YouTube has played an essential role in the dissemination of QAnon narratives. In fact, it has been the gateway by which it first spread into the mainstream. Just one week after the first 4chan posts by Q, a YouTuber named Tracy Diaz produced a video summarising the emerging narrative from Q, bringing it to the attention of the wider conspiracy theorist community for the first time. Over the next few years, a huge community of QAnon interpreters emerged on YouTube, developing vast audiences for videos in which they dissect Q’s posts and analyse the news cycle through the lens of QAnon. A spate of documentaries that promoted aspects of the QAnon narrative, such as “Fall of the Cabal”, “Out of Shadows,” and “Plandemic” were also posted on YouTube. These videos received millions of views (Lawrence & Davis, 2020) while YouTube and other social media companies faced pressure over whether they would be banning QAnon-related activity. 

Eventually, in August 2020, Twitter removed a false claim about coronavirus death statistics that Trump had retweeted. And Facebook said that it would ban any pages, groups, and Instagram accounts representing QAnon (Vazquez, 2020).While Facebook has policies banning hate speech, incitement to violence, and other types of content that it considers undesirable on a family-and advertiser-friendly platform, QAnon does not fit neatly into any single category. The anticipated purge by Facebook never came. Instead, QAnon groups on Facebook have continued to grow at a considerable pace. With more than 3 million aggregate followers and members, the groups and pages play a critical role in disseminating Q’s messages to a broader audience (Wong, 2020a). 

While QAnon thrives on Facebook, another social media site took timely and decisive action against it. Nearly two years ago, Reddit carried out a site-wide purge of QAnon—and made it stick (Wong, 2020a). In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, Twitter banned Trump, disconnecting him from his nearly 89 million followers, and took down more than 70,000 accounts linked to disinformation about campaign fraud and conspiracy theories. Facebook and YouTube have also suspended Trump’s accounts. These actions have stifled the online conversation. An entire section tied to QAnon on Twitter disappeared overnight (Tollefson, 2021). 

From August to November 30, 2020, Facebook removed about 3,000 Pages, 9,800 groups, 420 events, 16,200 Facebook profiles, and 25,000 Instagram accounts for “violating its policy against QAnon.” Since then, the company continued to enforce this policy. As of January 12, 2021, Facebook had removed about 3,300 Pages, 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 Facebook profiles, and 27,300 Instagram accounts for “violating its policy against QAnon” (Facebook, 2021). Twitter also suspended 70,000 accounts that share QAnon content at scale (BBC, 2021). Social media platforms’ crackdown on QAnon disrupted the movement’s ability to spread radical messages, but it won’t stop the group completely (Argentino, 2020).

Following the announcement that YouTube would remove “conspiracy theory content used to justify real-world violence,” many of the most prominent QAnon channels were removed, including the X22 Report, PrayingMedic, and others. Many of those users had already set up backup channels on largely unmoderated video platforms such as BitChute, the owner of which has expressed support for conspiracy theories and welcomed its proponents onto their platform. Yet none of the alt-tech sites can begin to match the audience sizes that YouTube can offer, and as such this move represents a significant blow to both the channel owners and the movement as a whole (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

After having their content restricted, QAnon supporters abandoned the big platforms and migrated to 4chan, a more permissive message board. When 4chan’s moderation teams started tempering incendiary comments, QAnon followers moved to a new platform, 8chan (now called 8kun). These conspiracy theorists can still communicate with one another through ordinary email or on encrypted channels such as Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp (Fukuyama et al., 2021). Some groups changed their names, substituting “17” for “Q” (the 17th letter of the alphabet); others shared links to back-up accounts on alternative social media platforms with looser rules (Wong, 2020a; Jankowicz, 2021).

QAnon has further fragmented into communities on Telegram, Parler, MeWe and Gab. These alternative social media platforms are not as effective for promoting content or merchandise, which will impact grifters who were profiting from QAnon, as well as limit the reach of proselytizers. But the ban will push those already convinced by QAnon onto platforms where they will interact with more extreme content they may not have found on Facebook. This will radicalize some individuals more than they already are or will accelerate the process for others who may have already been on this path (Argentino, 2020). 

Experts doubt the disciplinary measures will banish the movement. Banning QAnon followers from Facebook and Twitter would also reinforce their belief that they’re engaged in an information war against media elites and others in the deep state (Farivar, 2020). A Textgain analysis of 50,000 QAnon tweets posted from December 2020 – January 2021 showed toxicity had almost doubled, including 750 tweets inciting political violence and 500 inciting violence against Jewish people (Rupar & Smedt, 2021).

Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), founder of the international banking family. Ca. 1790. Photo: Everett Collection

QAnon Is Inherently Anti-Semitic

A strong anti-Semitism has run through QAnon since the beginning—and is only growing more pronounced (Sales, 2020). QAnon draws together anti-Semitism, sexual excess, homophobia, and race-baiting in a modern-day moral panic (Evans, 2020). Whilst some followers may be conscious anti-Semites, others may be ignorantly regurgitating tropes they are unaware are racist; still others are simply turning a blind eye, denying charges of anti-Semitism as a mainstream media smear. Regardless, QAnon is promulgating an ancient form of prejudice and has the potential to radicalise converts towards Jew hatred (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

According to Gregory Stanton, who published a piece titled “QAnon is a Nazi cult, rebranded,” QAnon is the latest version of “the conspiracy ‘revealed’ in the most influential anti-Jewish pamphlet of all time: Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (Sales, 2020), a fictional document first published in Russia in the early 1900s (Thomas, 2020). The fabricated document purports to expose a Jewish plot to control the world including infiltrating the media and political parties to brainwash and enslave populations and was used throughout the 20th century to justify anti-Semitism (Wong, 2020; Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Examining past rhetoric targeting Jews reveals how such a discourse lubricates the machinery of violence—Hitler called the Protocols “immensely instructive” (Thomas, 2020).

Stanton (2020) also says QAnon’s conspiracy theory is a rebranded version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The cabal supposedly held the American Presidency under the Clintons and Obama, nearly took power again in 2016, and lurks in a “Deep State” financed by Jews, including George Soros, and in Jews who control the media. They want to disarm citizens and defund the police. They promote abortion, transgender rights, and homosexuality. They want open borders so brown illegal aliens can invade America and mongrelize the white race. According to Stanton, the world has seen QAnon before. It was called Nazism. “In QAnon, Nazism wants a comeback,” he said.

Q has identified “puppet masters” at the centre of the international cabal: the Rothschild family and Soros. They have long been common targets for anti-Semitism, with the first smeared as sinister, sometimes supernatural global financiers for 200 years. Q has directly tapped into this toxic legacy, for example erroneously alleging that Rothschild has a controlling interest in every nation’s central bank (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Both the Rothschild family members and Soros were condemned, slandered, and blamed for supposedly trying to take control of the world and profiting from it because they are both wealthy and Jewish. QAnon supporters have continued to use this method of implicating them. In fact, this appears to be the most commonly used anti-Semitic dog whistle (MDI, 2020).

One general claim often used by QAnon supporters is that the Rothschild family and Soros are deeply involved in the “evil Project of billionaires” and are “exploiters of the pandemic” who own the COVID-19 “patents” that were supposedly used to manufacture the disease. In one video in particular, posted in French on Facebook, Soros is referred to as the “evil creature.” Both the Rothschilds and Soros have also been condemned for their links to one another and to other large organizations. One particularly prominent example involves the World Health Organization (WHO), which is framed as a vehicle for global elites to exert control and ultimately perpetrate a global hoax supported and run by Bill Gates. QAnon supporters also frequently name the Rothschild family members and George Soros as founders and continuous funders of the WHO (MDI, 2020).

QAnon also has its roots in much older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories centring on the vulnerability of children. These are neither new nor distinctly American. The QAnon conspiracy about adrenochrome is a modern remix of the age-old anti-Semitic blood libel (Wong, 2020). In the Middle Ages, this was driven by a fear of Jewish magicians kidnapping and stabbing Christian children for evil rituals. The blood produced from these rites was rumoured to be ritually consumed as drink or mixed into matzo. It was a demonic fantasy and not based in any reality. It is noteworthy that QAnon claims about child abduction and blood consumption are linked to prominent Jewish figures (Thomas, 2020). “Hurting children is one of the worst things you can say someone is doing. It’s an easy way to demonize your enemy,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California-Davis (Breland, 2019).

Some of QAnon’s supporters are surely aware that they are targeting Jews. But, according to Sales (2020), the ideas of harvesting children’s blood and controlling the world through a secret cabal are anti-Semitic, even if the growing numbers of QAnon adherents don’t realize it or don’t directly refer to Jews. These ideas are so old and established that they function as codes for anti-Semitism and obviate the need to mention Jews directly. These ideas act as dog whistles for neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites; they have the effect of propagating anti-Semitism regardless of their original intent (Sales, 2020).

Many of those within the QAnon movement have utilised this anti-Semitic dog whistling. In other words, QAnon supporters are repeatedly referencing certain people, terms, and narratives that may appear vague and harmless without context, but which actually signal a more insidious form of hate speech against all Jewish people. ­­­Specifically, dog whistling is being used as a tactic within the QAnon movement to denounce prominent Jewish public figures and global Jewry in ways that are all too familiar. Jews are being implicated in the spread and creation of Covid-19, as they have been blamed for many diseases throughout history (MDI, 2020). 

A rally goer representing QAnon has their “Q” sign taken away from them by security during the “Make America Great Again” rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA on August 2, 2018. Photo: Brandon Stivers

Conclusion: Why Does QAnon Matter?

First of all, there is a threat of violence. For those who truly believe that powerful figures are holding children hostage in order to exploit them sexually or for their blood, taking action to stop the abuse can seem like a moral imperative. While most QAnon followers will not engage in violence, many already have—or have attempted to—which is why the FBI has identified the movement as a potential domestic terror threat (Wong, 2020). The FBI has already described “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat. It lists a number of arrests, including some that haven’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs. An FBI document specifically mentions QAnon (Winter, 2019).

The FBI acknowledges that conspiracy theory-driven violence is not new—but also says it’s gotten worse with advances in technology combined with an increasingly partisan political landscape. “The advent of the Internet and social media has enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access,” the document says (Winter, 2019). Indeed, there have been numerous incidents of real-world violence linked to QAnon, and in May 2019, the FBI identified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat in an intelligence bulletin. The bulletin stated the online narratives were determining the targets of harassment and violence for the small subset of individuals who crossed over into real-world action (Wong, 2020a)which can have serious consequences for the targets (Wong, 2020).

What’s more, extremist groups like QAnon endanger democracy primarily when they leave the periphery of the Internet and enter the mainstream. This happens when their voices are either picked up by the media or amplified by a platform (Fukuyama et al., 2021). From the point of view of someone who believes the QAnon conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party elite are behind a vast paedophile ring threatening innocent children, perhaps January 6th really did seem to be an act of patriotism. Samuel Johnson famously claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but as Zacek (2021) underlines and as is so often true, the reality is undoubtedly far more complex.

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Man buying The Guardian newspaper from press kiosk with Braking news from Theresa May British Prime Minister "Brexit delayed two years" in Paris on September 25, 2017.

The Populist Hype and “the Mainstreaming of the Far Right”

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon’s findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism: It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors; euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism; and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence.

By Erdem Kaya

The scholars Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a remarkable presentation on the unintended adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 6, 2021. Brown and Mondon presented their findings in their recently published article “Populism, the media, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study” calling for a “more critical and careful use” of populism both as a descriptive term and a social science concept. 

Brown and Mondon use a mixed-method discursive analysis based on both quantitative data and qualitative insights and take The Guardian’s investigative series on populism from November 20, 2018 to November 20, 2019 as the case study. The authors explore how populism has been hyped in elite discourse and illustrate how this constructed hype has informed the respective public discourse. Their findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism. It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors. It also euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism, and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence. 

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a presentation on the adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 6, 2021.

Brown and Mondon’s study exposes how the centrist parties abuse the “populist” threat and how their targeting the “populist” actors further disguises the subtle racism and xenophobia in the status quo. The study shows how the indiscriminate use of the concept of populism serves the far right’s search for a destigmatized image as well as how the editorial mistakes in media enable the far-right politicians to platform their ideas. The authors highlight that the populist hype emanated from such pervasive and uncritical uses of the term facilitates the legitimization and mainstreaming of the far-right figures and ideas. They do not argue for “the complete withdrawal of the term” but, referring to Cas Mudde’s earlier warnings, suggest a more careful and critical use of it. 

Brown and Mondon’s study draws attention to the implications of the hype in using the populist epithet for the far right. The populist hype stands for an evident causal factor in their research. However, the way and the context in which they measure the implications of this hype over the legitimization and the mainstreaming of the far right require further attention. Considering the exponential growth of the usage of the term in the last half-century and the overall rightward shift in politics in the West during the last thirty years, and against the backdrop of the ramped-up tension between global capitalism and national politics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, determining the causality may not be a straightforward task. 

As the authors put it, the lack of care in the pervasive usage of the term produces palatable depictions of racist ideas and turns populism into a weasel word. However, the increased frequency, the vagueness and the pervasiveness of the term are not necessarily tantamount to a legitimizing effect. Or, the fact that The Guardian’s investigative series do not represent an objective coverage of a political phenomenon and the argument that the series cannot be taken as independent of the power structures that influence the development of the public discourse on populism are not sufficient grounds to establish the causation for the legitimacy and mainstreaming of the far right.  

Likewise, although the association of populism with illiberalism deflects attention away from “populism” and implicit racism within the centrist political structures, it may not generate a legitimizing or mainstreaming effect. Depending on the context, associating populism with illiberalism or placing the populist actors as outside liberal democracy may strengthen the centre but can also raise the expected awareness. So, the unintended consequences of using the concept of populism may not entirely negate the intended consequences. For especially the cases in which the populist parties in power, speaking truth to power and naming the populist demagogue -without attributing harmlessness to the far-right ideas- are not worthless.  

As Brown and Mondon point out, the populist hype is not all about emitting “a positive or ambiguous light” on the concept of populism. They do not treat the full coverage of populism in The Guardian as problematic. They also do not deny that there is a “generally negative slant” in the overall usage of the term. So, whether the extensive use of the term populism or the lack of care in the use of the term facilitates the move rightwards in European politics and the mainstreaming of the far right is disputable. Populism, as a political style or a floating signifier, still has a negative connotation, while far-right political actors tend to stick with populist rhetoric to expand their voting base. But, even though the far-right groups receive undue coverage, the influence of the coverage of populism in totality might even be the other way around. 

Brown and Mondon’s study avoids selection bias to a large extent by adopting The Guardian—a left-liberal leaning newspaper—as its case study. However, further research is needed to establish a sound causal connection between the populist hype in elite discourse and the mainstreaming of the far right. Discourses do constitute social realities but theorizing the implications of the populist hype on the mainstreaming of the far right may require collecting longitudinal data over the course of different time frames as well as exploring cross-national variation.

Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı

Does Erdogan offer a populist blueprint for Modi and Netanyahu?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These op-eds are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer 

Taking the study of populism beyond the familiar geographies of Europe and the Americas, my series of commentaries for the ECPS explores how right-wing populism undermines fragile democracies, particularly in Turkey, India and Israel—countries that are all marked by deep social, ethnonational and religious divisions. This final commentary argues that, despite differences in size, history and institutional culture, all three democracies exhibit a remarkably consistent populist strategy. 

What distinguishes Turkey, India and Israel from polarised societies in the European Union and the Americas is each countries’ dangerous, conflict-ridden neighbourhood, which makes threats to the nation an ever-present reality. Fear of conflict nurtures the populist strategies employed by each country’s leader. Military interventions in neighbouring countries, such as Erdogan’s ongoing campaigns in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Modi’s strikes on Pakistan in 2019 and Israel’s confrontations with Palestinians in Gaza serve to rally nationalist sentiment in ways that make membership of- and exclusion from the “people” morally salient. All three countries deny the national aspirations of a substantial minority – the Kurds in Turkey, Kashmiris in India and Palestinians in Israel – and threatens to conflate rights-demanding minorities with terrorists. 

While the relationship between populism and democracy remains disputed[1], populism’s antidemocratic potential is notable across the countries examined in this series. In fact, the populist playbook employed by each leader is comparable, with Erdogan offering a broad blueprint for the measures employed by Modi and Netanyahu. 

The right-wing populist strategies used by Erdogan, Modi and Netanyahu have three pillars: First, their neoliberal economic policies break from early conceptualizations of populism as advocating economic equality. Second, their conflation of nationalism, patriotism and religion allows leaders to address issues of belonging within the national community and to sow divisions between “us” and “them.” Third, the undermining of independent news media has emboldened each leader’s attack on democratic institutions. 

This common populist playbook is neither statist nor unabashedly free market. Though each leader’s policies differ in the types of intervention each leader is willing to make in the national economy, each leader undermined state institutions, preferring to bolster growth through the private sector. All three replaced social and welfare services available to all citizens with benefits that specifically target the “people”, thus, undermining the liberal citizen-state relationship. Membership of an exclusively defined “people” becomes preconditions for access, thereby nurturing unmediated relationships between the leader and the “people” outside of formal state structures. The resulting relationships of dependency allow the populist leader to conflate the government with the state. 

Erdogan’s justification of his policies concerning an Islamic mandate, Modi’s embrace of Hindutva and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision.

Unlike former US President Trump and populists across Central and Eastern Europe, Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu are not primarily resisting social changs like those attributed to large-scale, irregular migration. Although refugees have recently become an important political issue in all three countries, the developments analysed in this series precede the emergence of irregular migration as in issue on the national stage and shape how this issue is perceived in each country—namely, in sectarian, ethnoreligious terms. 

Instead, each leader studied in this series attempts to homogenize an intrinsically heterogeneous society by mobilizing one authentic, ethno-religiously conceived “people.” By infusing definitions of “the people” with pre-existing sectarian conflicts Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu undercut minority rights and liberal democratic values. They also jeopardize relatively stable, if reluctant, compromises between the ethnic and religious groups in each state by seeking to exclude their political opponents from the national political community.

Each leader’s adversarial relationship with the fourth estate corresponds with wider trends in twentieth- and twenty-first-century populism, which span Donald Trump’s allegation of “fake news” and the Alternative for Germany’s invocation of the Lügenpresse (lying-news-media). The cultivation by Erdogan and Netanyahu of their own loyalist media and Modi and Netanyahu’s use of state resources to support their favourite news outlets suggest that populists in power are not opposed to institutions per se provided that the institutions in question are their own. 

The similarities between these three leaders have not escaped local critics: Netanyahu’s war on democratic institutions led his political opponents to warn of his “Erdoganisation” (Ahval, May 25, 2019), while the revocation of the special status of the region of Jammu and Kashmir, prompted commentators to decry the “Israelification” of India (Middle East Monitor, December 24, 2019). Our analysis supports such claims.

In short, this series argues that Turkey, India and Israel signify different stages on the slippery slope between fragile democracies and authoritarianism. Turkey appears furthest down this path of democratic decay. While Erdogan has gradually stripped Turkey of all meaningful democratic choice, democracy in India remains free- though not fair- despite the severe erosion of minority rights. In Israel, fiercely contested elections and Netanyahu’s struggles with the Supreme Court suggest that he has not yet monopolized Israeli democracy. Our concern for all three countries is not the descent to absolute dictatorship, but rather a rescission to formal democracy, where elections take place but clientelism, incitement against minorities and assaults on democratic institutions skew the political playing field so as to deprive voters of a say in national politics.


[1] Compare Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens. (2007). “Populism Versus Democracy.” Political Studies. 55, no. 2: 405–424. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00657.x. with Laclau, Ernesto. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Professor Brian C. J. Singer, a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. Photo: Erdem Kaya

Prof. Singer: Populism’s thin ideology renders performative truth

“Populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war. This is less likely to happen when the populist movement arises from the bottom up and retains both its internal divisions and a critical distance relative to its leaders.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya

Professor Brian C. J. Singer is a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. He is the author of two monographs and numerous scholarly articles and book chapters in both French and English, covering a range of topics in philosophy and social theory, especially French social and political thought.

In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Singer asserts that ideology supposes a relation to truth, as it seeks to justify a given socio-political order and its corresponding power. But to the extent that populism entails a “thin” ideology or, possibly, no ideology, its relation to the truth of external reality can be dramatically diminished. In such a performative truth, one can ignore or oppose the facts when the facts appear contrary to the truths that people claim for themselves. A lightly edited transcript of the conversations follows.

There is much debate in the populism literature as to how to define populism. But you come up with a particular definition that speaks of a loose and symbolic “logic” while drawing on Marcel Gauchets argument. Could you clarify how you define populism? 

It is a bit of a fool’s game to seek to define populism empirically, as if one could establish a set of traits that all discourses, movements, and governments must have in order to merit being called “populist.” There is a necessary, minimal definition that opposes “the people” to “the elite” — particularly the political elite. But almost every democratic government (and many that are not properly democratic) claims to govern in the name of the people, and most opposition parties (and even some parties in power) claim to be against an existing political elite. In other words, this minimal definition, however necessary, barely distinguishes populist from non-populist regimes. 

Of course, the claim to oppose the people to an elite can be made more or less adamantly and understood more or less literally. There is, thus, a “populism light” that remains merely rhetorical and a “populism heavy” that promises or threatens much more than just another change in government. Concerning the latter, reference is made to what I would call democracy’s founding “primal scene,” when “the people” overthrew an aristocracy, monarchy or dictatorship, and established a democracy—though here the reenactment of the primal scene would occur within an already existing democracy, however discredited the latter may be. 

It Is a Fool’s Game to Define Populism Empirically

In this sense, such a “populism heavy” appears as a revolution, not of democracy, but within democracy, a revolution achieved by an election, thus a “revolution without a revolution,” but introducing its own torsions. In speaking of this reenactment of a “primal scene,” I am suggesting that populism draws on democracy’s most fundamental symbolic resources, insisting on the rule of the demos, the idea of the people as sovereign, a people whose power is absolute, the source of all legitimate powers. 

In drawing on such symbolic resources, populism can initiate a far-reaching, if loose, symbolic logic, as it seeks to translate the imperatives that result from this appeal to the sovereign people. Who are the people that are being appealed to? Clearly, not people in their empirical diversity, but a people formed discursively with purportedly distinctive traits. And what does it mean to represent such a people when the very existence of political representation threatens to divide the representatives from the represented and thus betray the people? And in the appeal to the people, is one conjuring up a sovereign constitutive power that, no longer held in reserve, is actively opposed to the constituted powers associated with government institutions? To what degree is one seeking to overturn the institutional mediations that seem to distance the people from the immediacy of what is said to be their will? 

When speaking of a loose symbolic logic, one is referring to tendencies to respond to such questions in certain coherent ways. But whether a given “populist” movement or government so responds very much depends on the context and whether that context supports, and how it supports, such tendencies. This is why it is a fool’s game to define populism empirically in accordance with a delimited set of defining characteristics. 

Crowd of people walking on the street of Moscow. Photo: Anton Gvozdikov

To follow up with Gauchet’s work, how do you understand the difference between “the political” and “politics” and with the rise of populism, how do you explain “the revenge of the political” in terms of the socio-historical dimension? 

The distinction between “the political” (le politique) and “politics” (la politique) is used by other thinkers besides Marcel Gauchet, though often with different nuances. “The political” exists in every society, as every society has to, as it were, establish sufficient distance from itself in order to identify itself as a specific society, to describe and reflect on its order, coherence, and values, and to act on itself as a coherent whole. In pre-modern societies, this place at a distance entails a reference to the divinity or divinities, or some cosmic principle—in short, to a heteronomous power that transcends those humans who live in that society. With modern societies, there is a movement towards establishing an autonomous human power—that is, to individual and collective self-determination.  For Gauchet, this movement is away from all figures of transcendence towards a totally disenchanted world.  

In my view, this claim must be qualified. First, because we still speak of, and indeed argue about, values such as justice or truth that speak to the socio-political order not so much as it is, but as we would like it to be—values that, therefore, transcend society as it presently exists. And second, because the reference to a sovereign people, which exists in the singular and is said to have absolute power (at least within its own frontiers), does not refer to an existing, empirical people. The reference is to a power that is simultaneously above and beneath society, both within and without; within in the sense that it is composed of those who live (and sometimes who have lived or will live) in that society; and without both in the sense that, as a power, it is established less by the people than it establishes the people as a people, and in the sense that it still corresponds to the distance from society presented by “the political.” In this regard, the sovereign people can be said to bear an immanent transcendence; it carries more than a whiff of the sacred. 

The term “politics,” in contrast to “the political,” is deemed exclusive to democracies, both because in democracies power, being autonomous, politics occurs largely “within” society, and because, even as it is “within,” it is only one sphere of activity amongst several, each with its own set of institutional mechanisms and norms. It should be noted that often—though less in the case of Gauchet—“politics” is seen, relative to “the political,” as less oriented towards “transcendent” matters, being more concerned with the often rather dirty struggle for positions of power.  

The expression “the revenge of the political” is Gauchet’s. His argument, which is not without merit, is that in the last fifty years, the economic sphere (with neo-liberalism) and the juridical sphere (with the emphasis on charters of rights) has eclipsed the political, seemingly rendering democratic politics increasingly impotent and irrelevant. Populism appears as a reversal of this situation, as the return of politics with a vengeance. Suddenly the stakes of politics have been raised enormously. But the degree to which populist politics then seeks its revenge on neo-liberal economics and individual rights claims is contestable, at least relative to the United States. Donald Trump’s economic policies could be described as “neo-liberalism in one country,” and his supporters refused to wear masks or socially distance themselves in the name of their individual, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, effectively blocking a political response to the pandemic, with the tragic results that we are all aware of.

Former US President Donald Trump at rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who is the Republican candidate for governor in Topeka Kansas, USA on October 6, 2018. Photo: Mark Reinstein

The Chances of Populism Returning iEven More Brazen Form in the US Are All the Greater

In this respect, what are the characteristics of American populism that distinguish it from the European brand? 

There are three characteristics that I would like to note:

First, right-wing populism in Europe today appears very much a reaction to (in some cases the threat of) increased immigration, particularly from the Islamic world. In American right-wing populism, the opposition to immigration cannot be separated from America’s original racial divide between whites and blacks (and, to a lesser extent, the indigenous population). Trump’s reference to Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” is a perfect example of condensation, these epithets having been used against blacks for centuries.  Thus, in Europe, populism claims to be preserving Europe from a recent external threat. In the United States, where blacks, not to mention the indigenous populations, have existed on American soil before most whites, one faces a problem that is not recent and cannot simply be projected outwards. The “race problem,” with its dynamics of backlash and what Jeffrey Alexander calls “frontlash,” has dogged the United States from its beginnings. This renders the definition of the people at once more contested and more fraught.

Second, the American right has long traditions of anti-government folk libertarianism, which Trumpism has only exacerbated. This is why, to allude to the previous question, right-wing populism in the United States appears opposed to the welfare state, whereas in Europe, notably Eastern Europe, populist parties have expanded the latter, if selectively, to benefit their supporters. And this is why the response to the pandemic was politicized in the United States in the name of the defense of individual liberties. Trump, who, one must remember, is a germaphobe, made a calculation—which was correct in itself but politically disastrous—that his supporters would balk at mask-wearing and social distancing. Right-wing parties in Europe, by contrast, can draw on much more centralist and openly authoritarian traditions. 

And third, the United States has a two-party system. Until recently, populism appeared limited to third parties (e.g., those of George Wallace or Ross Perot), so it seemed unlikely that it would gain political power. But once one of the two parties became populist, its success could be all the more complete, particularly to the extent that it succeeded in dismantling the system of checks and balances. By contrast, in most of Europe (the exceptions being Hungary and Poland), populist parties can hold government positions, but as part of a multi-party coalition, which neutralizes at least some of their influence. Because the United States remains a two-party system, the chances of populism returning, and returning in even more brazen form, are all the greater. 

“Populist discourse often seems to swing between claims to a more direct democracy and a barely disguised representative despotism.”

Regarding Michel Foucault’s “power and knowledge” approach, where the two were almost echoes of each other, you argue in your recent article for a new approach—namely, “separation of power from knowledge.” How does this separation occur? Could you elucidate it a bit more?

In pre-democratic Europe, monarchic power was modeled, if at a distance, on the divine power, which was said to be all-powerful and all-knowing. In this sense, monarchic power did not separate power from knowledge, and as such, was tasked with maintaining truth—at first, the truth of religion and then the suppression of untruths through censorship. The struggle against the latter by the Enlightenment supposed a different understanding of the relation of truth and power: where truth does not have its source in power; where power does not (or should not) regulate the production of truths; and where, at times, truth should speak to (i.e., oppose) power.

When Michel Foucault sought to bring power and knowledge together, it appeared scandalous, another of his anti-Enlightenment moves. But note that he brought them together not in the visible domain of political power but in the relatively concealed domains where power was hidden by expertise and woven into non-political institutional practices.  

For those interested, I have written two articles with Lorna Weir, in which I discuss Foucault’s claims concerning “knowledge/power” with reference to democracy as a symbolic regime (in European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2006 and Thesis Eleven, No. 94, 2008). In these articles, we argue that the separation of knowledge and power at a political level is not a “screen” covering over what is really happening, but a condition for, but also a limit on, the sorts of things that Foucault examined.

You also indicate that the separation of power and knowledge cannot be absolute. What makes this separation unstable? 

When one claims that the people are sovereign, the claim is that their power is absolute (within the limits of the nation-state), not that their knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, the claim that the people are absolutely separated from knowledge (i.e., that they are congenitally ignorant and irrational) is an anti-democratic trope. Democratic discourse must defend itself by establishing a weak relation between the people and truth, if only in the longer term, by speaking of some notion of moral virtue, common sense, or public opinion, often attached to some pedagogical project.

Even populism claims that the people understand the truth, the truth of who they are, and what is required to preserve their sense of themselves and their well-being. Thus, if the people claim something to be true (e.g., that crime rates are rising despite data demonstrating the contrary), then something must be taken as if true. There is another, more practical reason why the separation cannot be absolute, though it applies not to the people but their representatives. If they are to be at all effective with regard to their ends, the latter must have some knowledge of the environment in which they are acting. Again, even Donald Trump, despite his apparent disdain for much scientific expertise, listens very carefully to one set of experts, those who are versed in the “techne” of winning elections.  The Cambridge Analytica affair, which supposed a sophisticated knowledge of psychological modeling, as well as the digital world, was a demonstration of how far right-wing populism is willing to go in this direction.

Authoritarian Leaders Appear Less Intent on Speaking the Truth

In explaining the fusion of power and knowledge under monarchic regimes, you state that “representation renders present what it represents” to point to how representation itself shapes and gives meaning and form to the real world. So, “what is represented” loses its positive existence, and “representation” becomes the only reference point. Do you think such a fusion of power and knowledge can serve a new modern and secular form of apotheosis of the representative leader? I mean the authoritarian-leaning leaders that remain or expected to remain in power for life with nearly unlimited powers and turn into a kind of savior “god-king” in the eyes of the supporters since they are the ones not necessarily representing divinity like the monarchs of the middle ages but becoming reality itself and speaking “the truth” in spite of the establishment. 

When stating that “representation renders present what it represents,” I have in mind, amongst other things, the concept of sovereignty, including popular sovereignty. The latter does not represent that which already exists independent of its representation; it refers to the people’s symbolic, not its empirical, existence. Thus, it is wrong to think that such representation is exclusive to democracies. But in democracies, if we follow Claude Lefort’s discussion of “the empty place of power,” the political representative can never fully embody the place of power held by the sovereign people.

The question here, however, concerns secular, non-democratic forms of power. In the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the leaders sought a fusion of knowledge and power but had to seek their knowledge in this world, that is, in representations that represent what is present in the real world, in this case, the laws of history, whether given by a “racial science” or by “scientific materialism.” (Xi Jinping in this regard claims a form of such fusion, as his thought is now capitalized and incorporated in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party and mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China).  The problem, of course, is that, in the end, actual events tend to give the lie to the sciences that claimed to know and master them.

Aleksandr Dugin, Russian political analyst, strategist and philosopher, in a press conference in Bucharest in 2017.

It is noteworthy that the populisms of the “post-truth” era appear to oppose science and scientific truths rather than claiming to speak in the name of a superior (pseudo-)science.  Today’s authoritarian leaders appear less intent on speaking the truth, at least relative to an external reality, than one undercutting not just claims concerning reality that they see as threatening—they seek to undercut the very existence of that reality as a horizon of possible knowledge. One thinks of the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Whether such a strategy is possible in the long term is another matter. Even Putin references, at least for local consumption, the neo-fascist, Aleksandr Dugin, who sought to revive the notion of an “eternal Russia” as the third Rome.

You argue that Ernesto Laclau’s concept of a “constitutive outside” obscures the arbitrariness of the populist representation, and you criticize his singular emphasis on political rhetoric and disregard of populists’ truth claims, such as the definition of the “real people” and “the enemy.” How do you think the representatives’ truth claims shape the relation of the people to the truth?  

The problem is not with Ernesto Laclau’s idea of a “constitutive outside,” which implies that the meaning of a term is given by its relations with other terms. And Laclau is quite aware that a “constitutive outside” introduces a degree of arbitrariness in a term’s meaning, as the latter changes with a change in that outside. The problem is that the “constitutive outside” is understood in terms of simplified semiotics based on binary oppositions, such that the “constitutive outside” appears opposed, and thus as a threat, to the “constituted inside.” In other words, the sense of “the people” is defined by its enemies, and if one wants to change that sense, one can find new enemies. What Laclau does not state is that when the “inside” is constituted by its enemies, the sense of the “inside” hardens and thus loses its arbitrariness, at least in appearance.  

A more complex semiotics would understand meaning as given “diacritically,” but that implies only a web of differential terms. Canadians define themselves as “not-Americans” without seeing Americans as their enemies. At the same time, Canadians see themselves relative to other peoples, as well as in relation to values that they are supposed to have, geo-historical adaptations they are supposed to have made, traditions they are supposed to keep, and so on. It is all really quite complex, fluid, and subject to constant questioning and revision. Of course, if Canadians were single-mindedly focused on an enemy, as in times of war, the sense of being Canadian would be simplified, not to say rigidified, and all questioning would be discouraged. Populism often entails a focus on an enemy for precisely these reasons. 

For Laclau, politics is about the formation of a people, that is, the formation of its identity as a people, and in the manner just criticized. In truth, most of the time, politics is not about the identity of a people but about different policy options. Most Canadian elections are not about who we are as Canadians, certainly not directly. Politics is only about the identity of a people when that identity is (or is made to appear) under threat and cannot, therefore, be backgrounded. In seeking to foreground the appeal to the people, to its identity as a people, populism often exploits such a sense of threat.  

“Populism often claims an identity between the people and their representatives, but a complete identity would render one of the two terms redundant, either the representatives (as the people could speak directly) or the people (as the voice of the representatives would be the more than adequate substitute for the voices of the people).” 

Still, Populism Is Not Able to Entirely Fill the Place of Power

In this context, could you also clarify how we should understand the interplay between “the empty place of power” and the populist claim of appealing to the people? 

When Lefort claimed that democracy implies an “empty place of power,” he meant that those who held power, the powerholders, held it only under the sufferance of the people who may well decide in an election to “throw the bastards out.” Suppose the people, as the sovereign, can be said to hold the ultimate power. In that case, the representation of their power is necessarily uncertain, as the people and the will of the people are “introuvable” and “immaîtrisable”—that is, they can never really be determined (both because it is divided and changeable) and thus can never be mastered. 

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro poses with anti riot police agents after cast their ballot in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 29, 2020.

The loose symbolic logic of populism seeks to reduce the emptiness of the place of power without, I would argue, being able to fill it entirely. This requires two moves. First, a move to lessen the indetermination of the people, such that the identity of the people, its purported character, appears more determinate. This often entails a rhetorical division of the people into those who are the real, genuine, or authentic people and those who are not. The second movement concerns the reduction of the division between the people’s representatives and the people themselves. Populism often claims an identity between the people and their representatives. However, a complete identity would render one of the two terms redundant, either the representatives (as the people could speak directly) or the people (as the voice of the representatives would be the more than adequate substitute for the voices of the people).

Thus, populist discourse often seems to swing between claims to a more direct democracy and a barely disguised representative despotism. And when a populist movement is clearly identified with its leader, there is a tendency to suppress divisions, not just between the representatives and the represented, but divisions within the representatives and within the people—divisions that ensure the “openness” that is characteristic of a functioning democracy. Still, populism cannot entirely fill the place of power, at least in so far as the populist leader can still be overturned in an election and cannot embody the will of the divine, the principles of truth or justice, the laws of history, and so on. 

Then it comes to the question of the relationship between populism and post-truth politics?

Populism has been described as having a “thin ideology.” Beyond the claim that there is a crisis of political representation, which opposes the people to their political (and other) elites, the definition of populism requires no other content. Of course, any given populist movement may borrow an ideology (Chavez in Venezuela borrowed from socialist ideology, Bolsonaro in Brazil draws from the ideology of the military dictatorship of the late sixties and seventies). Ideology supposes a relation to truth, the truth of an external reality, though one whose relation is distorted, as ideology seeks to justify a given socio-political order and its corresponding power. 

But to the extent that populism entails a “thin” ideology or, possibly, no ideology, its relation to the truth of external reality can be dramatically diminished. For the only truth with which it is concerned is that of its appeal to the people, to its sense of identity, and to the symbolic wounds that nourish this sense of identity. And such an appeal can be powerful in a very literal sense, for it conjures up the sovereign, the power at the base of all power. Now, note that this appeal “renders present what it represents,” that is, it presents its own truth, at least to the extent that it resonates with those to whom it appeals—such resonance being precisely the measure of its veracity. In effect, one is dealing with a performative truth, one that can ignore or oppose the facts when the latter appears contrary to the truths that this people claims for itself. Indeed, given the fragility of the identity of the people, opposing the facts that threaten it cannot but appear to strengthen its truth claim.

Having said this is a form of “post-truth politics,” how can democratic societies fight against conspiracy theories that, as you stated, present the world as totally opaque but potentially totally transparent? 

There is a sense in which one cannot fight against conspiracy theories, particularly what Muirhead and Rosenblum (in A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy) characterize as contemporary conspiracist theories, which thrive on mere assertion and repetition — these theories too are, in a sense, performative. One cannot argue with claims that, by virtue of their refusal, both facts and any logical criteria cannot be disproved. And attempts at the regulation of social media and the public sphere more generally, however desirable, will have only limited effects and can potentially be quite dangerous. 

More promising, at least in the middle to long term, would be efforts to improve civic education (thus providing greater political literacy regarding democratic institutions, their strengths, but also their weaknesses). And such education should examine how to judge the validity of an argument, realizing that arguments can be more or less true and some conspiracies are genuine. Still, the problem with contemporary conspiracism is not primarily epistemological but “psycho-social.” In this respect, there are certain things that one should not do, such as rub salt in the symbolic wounds. Attempting to demonstrate to people that they are deluded, ignorant, immoral, racist, etc., is liable only to cause them to double down, as such demonstration only threatens an already embattled and fragile sense of self. In truth, conspiracy theories bear on a more general topic. 

Claude Lefort spoke of democracy as dissolving the markers of certitude. Sometimes and for some people, the degree of uncertainty appears, or is made to appear, unbearable, particularly when things are not just going one’s way, but when they no longer appear to make sense, leaving one feeling totally alienated and disoriented—“a stranger in one’s own land.” This is when matters appear totally opaque, and one reaches for the magic formula that would render them entirely transparent. A functioning democracy is one that enables and, indeed, teaches people to live with a certain level of uncertainty. This, however, supposes that they also live with a level of certainty sufficient to allow them to believe that they can work and struggle for a better future. 

“At the level of political form, populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war.” 

Is it correct to demonize populism at all? Isn’t there any argument that populist movements truly raise? For instance, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of “the people” rather than “ruling elites” and “bureaucrats,” as this argument intrigues the masses. And the record of ruling elites so far is not so promising all around the world. 

Populism supposes a crisis in political representation, which often reflects a larger, “organic crisis.” In this respect, it is a response to a failure, or a perceived failure, of the ruling elites and their policies. Populism today, both in its right and left-wing versions, is generally a response to the failures of neoliberalism and globalization. Of course, a response can be progressive or regressive. Here, I believe, one must distinguish between political content (the different policy options) and political form (which plays at the level of what I am terming “loose symbolic logics”).  

Bolivian president Evo Morales participates in the traditional Aymara New Year ceremony in Tiwanaku, Bolivia on June 21, 2019. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski

As populism is “thin,” it can deploy very different political contents, some of which may be progressive. The People’s Party in late nineteenth-century America prepared the way for the Progressivism of the early twentieth century; the classical Latin American populism of Peron in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil, but also of Morales and MAS in Bolivia (to take a more contemporary example) certainly improved on the oligarchical regimes that preceded them.

My argument is that, at the level of political form, populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war. This is less likely to happen when the populist movement arises from the bottom up and retains both its internal divisions and a critical distance relative to its leaders. Such was the case with the original People’s Party and, it would seem, Bolivia’s MAS, assuming it succeeds in sidelining Evo Morales. 

“We are living in a period where the future appears in crisis.  Contemporary right-wing populist movements play on this, presenting a vague reference to a better past, with few concrete policies to confront the problems posed by the future as, to quote Hartmut Rosa, conservatives no longer believe in conservation, liberals in progress, and the left in the Revolution.”

There Are Convincing Ways to Fight Populism

A handful of scholars and a small number of NGOs that favor a free world strive to fight against rising populism despairingly. Their outreach efforts do not appear to resonate among the masses since populist movements are discrediting “elites.” Do you think a convincing way to fight populism exists?

There are, to be sure, convincing ways to fight populism, as evidenced by the fact that populist movements and governments often suffer defeat, most recently in the United States. Here I would emphasize two points. First, one needs to struggle to maintain the integrity of democratic institutions. Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the last election only failed because members of the Republican Party in key states and key positions chose to defend democracy as a set of rules and processes over the wishes of their party’s leaders. These people are presently being purged, even as the parties in Republican states are seeking to change the rules of democratic functioning. This is extremely worrying. At the same time, I realize that elections are generally not won at the level of the defense of seemingly arcane democratic norms.  

Second, one must acknowledge the failures that led to the rise of populism while offering alternative and ultimately more credible solutions. This often requires a critique of earlier policies and of those who advocated them; it may entail the rise of new parties or at least a considerable circulation of elites. We are living in a period where the future appears in crisis. Contemporary right-wing populist movements play on this, presenting a vague reference to a better past, with few concrete policies to confront the problems posed by the future as, to quote Hartmut Rosa, conservatives no longer believe in conservation, liberals in progress, and the left in the Revolution.  

Trumpism, in particular, seems to present itself as a sort of survivalism (both individual and collective) in the face of an increasingly dangerous world. The alternative must reconstruct a vision of a future, a better future, one that brings us together. The alternative must also reconstruct the institutions that enable us to feel not just that the future is being reconstructed but that we can actively contribute to that reconstruction.

You argue that the division in knowledge—I mean the differences between the “instrumental” knowledge of the representatives of people and the “substantive” knowledge held by the people—is a potential point of vulnerability for populists. What do you think is the best way to widen and make use of this division in knowledge for the fight against populism?

Nobody likes to feel that they have been hoodwinked, particularly by politicians. But some have invested more in the con than others and will find it easier to divest themselves of its more fantastic elements (which they never really believed in). However, they may still remain with the party because everyone they know identifies with the party, and they hate the alternative.

On the other hand, for those who reveled in—and felt empowered by—the con, it takes a particular inner strength to admit one was blind to what was going on. In this regard, what is happening to the right-wing militias in the aftermath of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is illuminating. Clearly, many now feel that they have been duped: the fantasies of QAnon proved to be just that, fantasies; the politicians in whose names they felt were acting ultimately condemned them, however ambivalently; they now feel exposed to the “deep state’s” retribution; and in the case of the Proud Boys, there are doubts about the loyalty of their leader.

As a result, some are clearly drifting away, and one can imagine that a few of these will find careers as “deprogrammers” of hate groups. However, some are reinvesting themselves in the same sorts of narratives, but without, as it were, the semblance of an official stamp of approval. In other words, they are fragmenting, moving further underground, and dreaming ever more desperately of the Great Reckoning. One can use this division in knowledge between instrumental and “substantive” forms—and between the representatives and whom they represent—to fight populism, but the results will not always be happy.

Who Is Brian C.J. Singer?

Professor Brian C. J. Singer is a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. He is the author of several books and of numerous book chapters and articles. Singer’s first book, Society, Theory and the French Revolution(1986), presents a fascinating reading of the period of the French Revolution (1789 –94) that sheds new light on the revolutionary imaginary of the period and its heritage. His most recent book, Montesquieu and the Discovery of the Social(2013) offers a new reading of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. It uncovers the multiple ways “the world’s first social theorist” defined and used “the social” and the important implications of Montesquieu’s work for our own time. This interview mentions an article of his that recently appeared in Thesis Eleven on March 9, 2021.

Celebration of the Labour Day in Prague, Czech Republic on May 1, 2017. Banner is illustrating democracy as a leaf bitten by caterpillars with names: Putin, Kaczynski, Orban, Babis, Trump, Fico. Photo: Jolanta Wojcicka

Prof. Heinisch: The end of liberal democracies is possible

Prof. Reinhard Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. He has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading experts on populism, Prof. Reinhard Heinisch, of Salzburg University, has argued that the end of liberal democracies—or the dawn of illiberal democracies—is possible. Prof. Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. Heinisch has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers. “Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy,” he said. Prof. Heinisch also criticized European Union (EU) for not taking necessary measures in a timely manner.

The following are excerpts from our interview with Prof. Heinisch.

Why do you think Austria has been the cradle of populist and far-right parties? Is it about culture, politics, or what? 

There were two main factors: to recover from civil strife and WWII, Austria created the ultimate consensus democracy—to the point that elaborate power sharing mechanisms between the two major parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, dominated national politics for over 40 years. Their complete control of all political institutions—and even civil society—resulted in power cartelization, influence peddling, and political nepotism. This, in turn, provided the initial raison d’être for the radical-right Freedom Party to style itself as an anti-system, protest party fighting corruption.

The second factor is sociocultural: The forebearers of today’s Austrians considered themselves largely German. The experience of Nazism—and the need to distance the country from its German past—left Austrians with a highly ambivalent and insecure national identity. Often local customs, lifestyle, and widely shared sensibilities serve as superficial substitutes for a deeper understanding of what it is to be Austrian. To be a “real” Austrian often just means to like and do certain things and not others or to look and behave a certain way. Cultural outsiders and immigrants challenge these ideas and force Austrians to confront their own ambivalent identity. Political operators can effectively appeal to this sense of cultural insecurity by claiming that Austrian culture is under threat. Austrians also have a selective view of their past, often glamorizing the imperial legacy but exorcising the darker chapters. External criticism has in the past led to a rally around the flag that was exploited by populists. 

In your article with Fared Hafez, you argue that right-wing populism has changed Austria’s political approach to Islam. In what ways did these changes occur? Can you please elaborate?

Austria had very tolerant and liberal political approach to Islam going back many decades. While this was in part a consequence of Austria not having a [large] Muslim population, this also did not change once the share of guestworkers and immigrants, especially from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, substantially increased the population. Also, a number of terrorist attacks in and around Austria carried out by Middle Eastern commandos in the 70s and 80s never resulted in a discussion about Islam. Even after 9-11, this was essentially not the case. Only the radical-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) mobilized against Islam in the 1990s, opposing the construction of mosques and minarets, raising the issue of headscarves and foreign imams, and constantly associating Muslims with terrorism and the subversion of Christian civilization. Gradually this language was picked up—especially by the Christian Democrats, who adopted an anti-Islamic discourse and aim to pass new legislation directed against what they call “political Islam.” Under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Christian Democrats moved substantially to the right in an effort to steal voters away from the Freedom Party.

Islam has been one of Austria’s official religions since 1912, yet it is so alien. What is the correlation between the rise of populism and Islamophobia?

Islam is the third largest religion in Austria, ahead of Protestantism, and the fastest growing. In Vienna’s largest district, the name Mohammed was the most popular name for a baby-boy in 2020. In general, the Austrian [Muslims] population has grown substantially in recent decades (by about 20%) resulting in sizable increases of both foreign residents (18.5%) and Austrians with an immigrant background—for Vienna, this percentage is 34%. 

Activists of the identitarian movement Austria block the access-road to the border from Hungary to Austria at Nickelsdorf on October 17, 2015. Photo: Johanna Poetsch

Immigration and asylum also mean increases in the Muslim population, which is now 8% of the total population but highly concentrated in certain areas. At the same time, we have seen a general decline of traditional Austrian religions, which has prompted traditionalists and the radical right to frame the issue of immigration and asylum as a battle for national identity and culture. The extent to which populism is an ideology framing politics as an antagonism between corrupt elites and dangerous outsiders on one hand and the virtuous people of the heartland on the other, allows populists to score political points by portraying Muslims as the “cultural other” who pose a threat to the “heartland,” whose identity and way of life is in need of defending. Immigrants—especially from outside Europe–are the most palpable sign of global change in everyday life and can be easily framed as a danger and scapegoated by populists, whether in Austria or in the US of Donald Trump.

Francis Fukuyama in his famous article The End of the History claimed that liberal democracy had won, and it [liberal democracy] would spread all over the world. Yet today we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

Like all complex developments, this one is multicausal and represents a confluence of developments. First and foremost, there is a loss of political legitimacy of established institutions and parties who have committed failures of representation. A growing number of people have the sense that vital decisions affecting their daily lives are made by unaccountable elites in far off capitals, in opaque international institutions and trade organizations, in Brussels or some boardroom. These policies may in and of themselves be efficient, rational, and in the long-run economically beneficial, but for countless people the consequences are disruptive, divisive, and feel at best technocratic. 

Second, globalization and the spread of sociocultural liberalism resulted in traditionalist and parochial backlashes. We may not necessarily agree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but most of us clearly underestimated the ability of political actors to mobilize on the basis of identity and construct identity narratives. 

The third cause is technical in the sense that new forms of electronic communication and the internet have resulted not only in competition at a global level but also in raising both expectations and fears. Whereas the former may induce merely discontentment or a willingness to migrate, the other breeds resentment. In times of change that induce distress and pressures to adjust, people crave stability and a return to the status quo. This is when authoritarians and populists can excel by promising order and thus a modicum of protection and safety. Populists are change agents who promise that in the future, the present will be more like the past, a familiar place where the community was whole, and everyone had their place—Make America Great AGAIN. In Eastern Europe, the return to a rose-coloured past is precluded by the negative historical experience, so populists construct an imagined and idealized national destiny, be this a hyper Catholic Poland or an ultraconservative and authoritarian Hungary that has moved past its Trianon trauma.

The integration of economies and the creation of large markets created new forms of competition and winner and losers…

Yes, this is an important aspect in global or integrated markets: the economic winners can uncouple themselves from the local economic losers. As a result, the experience of two groups within the same political system become detached from each other. In Austria, wages—especially of male workers in certain blue-collar jobs—have experienced significant stagnation. As such, they [blue-collar male workers] become susceptible to populist politicians scapegoating immigrants and purportedly uncaring elites. In Austria, the radical-right, populist Freedom Party has been the dominant blue-collar party going back to the late 1990s.

Looking at the huge surge of populist leaders all over the world, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

I think both are possible, and we are likely to see further increases either in illiberal democracy from the top (cf. Hungary) or populist democracy from below (unchecked majoritarian dictates through clever mass mobilization). However, as we saw in the US and also in Austria when populists were in government (2017-19), in long established democracies, institutions are quite durable and sticky. Despite Trump’s best efforts, he was unable to bend election officials, the courts, and the media to his wishes. It is the institutions of liberal democracies and the roles of individuals therein that give me confidence in the durability of democracy. Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy. 

Facing a huge boom of populism, do you think the European Union has taken necessary steps to counter it? Fidesz has left the EPP only yesterday!

Clearly no! Democratic institutions are not set up to fight democratically supported parties and groups operating from within democracy. This is what makes populism both so effective and dangerous in that it plays within the rules of democracy. Populists are responsive but not responsible actors; however, democracy generally rewards responsiveness more than responsible action. The EU especially often acts responsibly by being measured, deliberate, and bringing in diverse interests but this is precisely what gives it a bad reputation in the eyes of those who see only their own interests, favour quick but simple solutions and focus on headlines and messages.

In the cases of Hungary and Poland, there was a clear failure of imagination on the part of the EU. Brussels and the member states would have had to take actions much sooner and much more decisively. They would have had to imagine effective mechanisms that work even if more than one-member state decides not to play by the rules and that result in automatically suspending the offending member countries. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived action by EU member states against Austria in 2000 because of its inclusion of the radical right in the government backfired badly and spooked the EU later, when forceful action would have been warranted.

Nested dolls depicting world autocrats Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan on the counter of souvenirs in Moscow

Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, there are some populist leaders—like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin—who have kept power for a long time. How can their long stay in power be explained

This thesis of success in opposition and failure in government, which is the title of my most frequently cited article, needs to be qualified. There is something in the DNA of populists that makes them a poor match for running governments because populists are fundamentally voter-seeking in their strategy; thus, their operation and organization, their candidate selection and campaigning, is geared toward maximizing votes. This means they simplify and overpromise and ignore policy talent and policy expertise in favour of popularity and charisma. This catches up with them in government.

However, this is mainly a problem when populists need to interact in government with non-populists, such as in coalitions with mainstream parties (Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, etc.) or with strong democratic institutions (the US). There, populists either fail or are sufficiently tamed/mainstreamed that they have little lasting effect. However, where they end up in complete control of government and where institutions are weak, they are able to dominate the discourse and reframe the issues, engage in conspiracy theories, and explain away their own failures as the result of the machinations of “fake news media” (Trump) and “corrupt elites” (think of Orban’s campaign against George Soros). This is why successful populists try to change the rules (election laws, the constitution, the composition of high courts) to give themselves more control. Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan, and Putin are each in their own way good examples. Trump was trying hard to do likewise but failed this time.

What will replace eventually failed authoritarian populists? Liberal democracies or harder dictatorships?

This is hard to say. Social scientists are not good at predicting the future as we do not have hard data on what will come next. Even successful authoritarians such as Erdogan, Putin, or Orban differ from a more totalitarian system like China in that power in the former is highly personalized. Take the person out, what happens? These are all not young men (Trump included). While the formula for power is clear, it is still not easily transferrable because in each case leaders also require personal attributes that make them successful—successful populist leaders were each able to convert certain personal abilities and strengths into political power, and they will each leave a certain vacuum that may result in wars of the Diadochi. Venezuela, with the transfer of power from Chavez to Maduro, is the most successful example. Personalized power that is neither dynastic nor based on a police-state like structure is hard to preserve when leadership changes. We would expect that after the leader’s demise, these systems will revert to flawed liberal democracies prone to seeking populist answers to political problems when needed, so that at some point the cycle may start again.

Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground? 

As argued above, my answer revolves around liberal institutions. I know this is unpopular, because these days it is all about grassroots activism and mobilization against political evils, and people often do not trust institutions. But my concern is that mobilization can go in different directions, and, of late, we have seen a lot of mobilization against Coronavirus measures where neo-Nazis, populists, people waving rainbow flags, and leftists were all marching in lockstep. Conspiracy theories come in all stripes, and people who are convinced that they are right and need to do what they need to do to save the planet or save something will ride roughshod over those standing in their way. Strengthening liberal institutions is an important antidote by providing sufficient funding for courts, prosecutors, and the justice system, for shoring up media independence and investigative platforms, for training civil servants, for supporting NGOs and watchdog groups, for strengthening parliaments to increase staff and boost the policy expertise of MPs, to fortify election systems and enhance the democratic accountability of social media platforms. Politically, we know that a so-called cordon sanitaire—that is the ostracization of populist actors—has worked to weaken their policy influence (e.g., the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) whereas adopting populist policy positions by mainstream parties may strengthen populists in the long run because it legitimizes these positions. As populism is a multicausal phenomenon, the answer is also multicausal—there are no silver bullets.

Some argue that populism has, to a certain extent, a democratizing aspect in terms of increasing democratic participation. Do you agree? When do you think populist parties/actors start to pose a danger to democratic values?

There is good empirical work on this by two of my former students, Robert Huber and Christian Schimpf, who have shown that in opposition, populism can have a democratizing effect by bringing into the political arena new or politically marginalized groups (this was especially the case in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Populists also successfully draw the spotlight onto existing problems and democratic corruption (Austria, Italy, France) or on policies that were quite unpopular but hard to change within the existing political system (Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc.). There are also scholars who persuasively argue that politics and political systems require conflict and choices between opposites and that in late capitalist liberal democracies, all this has vanished. By reintroducing conflict into the political system, populism serves a purpose. However, we have also seen that once in government, especially when they are not controlled by checks and balances, democratic quality suffers, and corruption goes up substantially. So, if populists gain too much power, they do pose a danger to democratic values, which was clearly on display in the US following the relentless campaign to overthrow the outcome of the last election and culminating in the storming of the US Capitol.

Who is Reinhard C. Heinisch

Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian politics and also Head of the Department of Austrian Politics in Comparative Perspective at Salzburg University. His main research interests are comparative populism, Euroscepticism, and democracy.

He is the author or co-author of numerous publications including Understanding Populist Organization: The West European Radical Right (Palgrave 2016), Political Populism; A Handbook (Nomos/Bloomsbury 2017) and Populism, Proporz and Pariah: Austria Turns Right (Nova Science 2002). Other publication appeared in West European Politics, Democratization, Comparative European Politics, and others. He is currently co-editor of a special issue of Comparative European Politics on Populism and Territory as well as contracted for a book with Routledge on the same subject.

 

The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements”.

Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism*

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.

By Heidi Hart

Introduction: Primeval Streaming

In the Netflix series Tribes of Europa, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors has retreated to the forest, where they live “happily” and “in harmony with nature,” to quote the opening voiceover (Netflix, 2021). These “Origines” live protected, or so they think, from the other tribes warring over the former European territories, decimated by an unexplained global and technological meltdown in 2029. The sudden crash of a drone-like object in the forest drives the series’ central conflict, resulting in heavy bloodshed between the Origines and rival tribes. 

The Origines call their forest home “Refugium,” fear another tribe called “Crows” (a name that would carry obvious racist overtones in the US), and utter lines such as “We are the voices of the forest, the blood of the earth, and the breath of the wind.” These lines ring painfully close to Blut und Boden Nazi rhetoric. The Origines’ unironic use of the word “Heimat” is also problematic, in light of the Nazi fetishization of that term, for all the critical cultural work around it in the decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany (Krug, 2018). In one of the opening scenes, the young protagonists’ dancing to a contemporary indie rap song gives a sense of forgetfulness of that past, as does the series’ Game of Thrones-like aesthetic of violence and torture (see Gjelsvik and Schubart, 2016)

According to series creator Philip Koch, the “shock” of Brexit led him to develop this dystopian-utopian fantasy (Scott, 2021), with its “ruin porn” (Riley, 2017) of abandoned concrete structures and geodesic dwellings in the woods. The idea of a destroyed European Union certainly haunts the series, but on a deeper level, it echoes back-to-nature fascinations on both the political right and left, especially in a time of ecological collapse. The nativist idea of retreating to one’s roots, to an imagined state of Indigeneity, or to an impossibly “virgin” wilderness (see Solnit, 1994: 52) may seem like a 1970s hippie fantasy and is certainly nothing new, but it has gained traction as ecological anxiety and COVID-driven outdoor adventurism have led more privileged humans to bake sourdough, take to the road in converted vans (Anderson, 2020), and watch screen fantasies of a simpler life in the woods. 

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods. 

The Real Barbarians?

COVID-era Netflix offers another pagan fantasia to viewers more or less confined indoors. Like Tribes of EuropaBarbarians is informed by Game of Thrones and the recent explosion of “Viking TV.” This series also valorizes forest-dwelling as Heimat and, in its real-life historical setting, portrays the Romans as vicious colonialists who not only demand unreasonable tributes from their Germanic neighbors but behead and crucify them as well. Blonde tribal teens appear as innocent, playful, and fierce when necessary. They joke about human sacrifice and fear the wolves on the outskirts of the forest, a repeated motif that comes uncomfortably close to contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming the “wolf” of fairy-tale infamy in Germany (Bennhold, 2019). A key moment occurs when the young heroine Thusnelda takes the heraldic eagle from the Romans, making it a tribal icon – with its inevitable future on the German flag. 

The invading Romans come across as the “true” barbarians here, fitting paradoxically into liberal, post-colonial critique as much as they do into nativist, pro-Germanic narrative. Meanwhile, the series’ torchlit ceremonies and marches recall atavistic Nazi aesthetics, as does its “primeval forest” or “Urwald” setting, not far from that of the 1936 propaganda film Ewiger Wald, or Eternal Forest, which has found a new generation of fans on white supremacist websites. Both that film and the Netflix series focus on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a weighty historical moment for the German far right (see Winkler, 2015). Though Barbarians writer Arne Nolting claims that part of the series’ goal is to reclaim this material, Teutoburg Forest remains a pilgrimage site, and the battle that took place there is “an ideological rallying point” for white supremacists (Rogers, 2020). German Studies scholars have expressed concern, via social media threads (see Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum, 28 October 2020), that this series also promotes essentialist thinking and toxic masculinity. 

Some neo-pagans claim that, although their Germanic ancestors (literal or figurative) may have beaten back the Romans in 9 A.D., they have long been a “conquered people” (Lindenschmidt, 2015) under Christianity, and their practices constitute anti-colonial resistance. Combined with the idea that “when they destroyed paganism, Christians made exploiting nature possible” (Kaplan, 2016: 27), a Romantic inheritance with appeal to the ecologically conscious left, especially in light of many evangelical Christians’ support of Trump in the US, neo-paganism’s ideological tangle remains complex. 

Martin Heidegger.

Roots and Purity

Concepts of ancestral “roots” and “unspoiled” countryside have a long and tangled history, too, especially in German culture, and not just because of these ideas’ appeal in stereotypically xenophobic, rural communities. The still-influential philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unapologetic member of the Nazi party, extended his love of the literal forest to ideas of rootedness in language and existence itself, “not simply a rootedness in the soil, in the past, or in the tradition from which one ‘views’ the world” but “something concealed, mysterious, and chthonic whose meaning lies hidden beneath the surface of the earth” and that validates the “destiny of a Volk” (Bambach, 2003: 19). His quasi-poetic wordplay shows a fascination with etymology as a depth-seeking practice: where is a German word’s most profound origin, and what does that mean for a nativist sense of identity? In his 1951 “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” Heidegger traces the German verb “bauen” (“build”) vertically back to the Old High German (and Old English) “buan,” or “to dwell in one place;” he then relates this word horizontally to “ich bin” (“I am”), linking dwelling with Being itself (Heidegger, 1977: 324-325).

This close link between home and existence, and the fascination with what lies underneath the ground, continues to surface in German literature and film, and not always with ill-considered tribal forest scenes. For example, novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s critically sensitive take on the Heimat problem, Heimsuchung (Visitation or Haunting, 2008), treats historical trauma in a way that reverberates in one piece of land over centuries, with particular attention to the years during and after the Second World War (Goodbody, 2016). The philosophically informed and ecologically terrifying Netflix series Dark invites viewers to ask why a cave in the woods can have such a strong pull, and how much damage humans can do to each other once inside it. 

One writer responding directly to the toxic aspects of Heidegger’s nature-driven thought is Elfriede Jelinek, best known for her unsparing critiques of Austrian “whipped cream” culture and the violence it sugarcoats, for example in her novel Die Klavierspielerin or The Piano Teacher (Hanssen, 1996). Jelinek’s 1991 spoken-text play Totenauberg (its title a play on the name of Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin) includes an “old man” character (Heidegger) and a “middle-aged woman,” meant to stand for Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who was Heidegger’s sometime lover and, in what gave their relationship an excruciating twist, a Jewish antifascist who, with her teacher Karl Jaspers, coined the term “banality of evil” when writing about the Nuremberg trials (Diner and Bashaw, 1997).

Totenauberg is not just a dialogue between these two historical figures, though, as Jelinek also includes skiers and other performance athletes, some hunters and men in Tracht (traditional Bavarian dress), and even a few cheerleaders. As the “old man” laments that nature has simply become an image for those who consume it (in a statement foretelling today’s outdoor selfie culture), the other nature enthusiasts lay their claims to “authentic” enjoyment of the woods and mountains (see Jelinek, 1991: 25). This text shows, uncomfortably, how outdoor recreation can be as much about ego as eco-awareness, and how concerns about the purity of that enjoyment cross conventional political lines. 

Mad vikings warriors in the attack, running along the shore with Drakkar on the background.

Current Nativist Tensions

In our present moment, the appeal of purity culture across the political spectrum (from the vegetarian “QAnon shaman” who helped to storm the US Capitol to left-leaning consumers of organic-only foods), can lead to a strange nexus of virtue and violence, onscreen or otherwise. Adherents of “conspirituality,” a blend of New Age beliefs and conspiracy thinking, include anti-vaxxers on the right and left as well. The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements” (Richards, in Haslam, 2021: 8).  

Recently in North Carolina, a group belonging to what the Southern Poverty Law Center has termed “the neo-Völkisch hate scene” (Ball, 2021) purchased a church building, causing anxiety and pain for their Black neighbors. Claims of “ennobling” pagan practices rooted in white European heritage, along with an ideology of “healthy, active lifestyles” and rules about racial purity (Ball, 2021) are painfully familiar in a part of the US that is deeply split about reckoning (or not) with its own racist past. Fans of Wiccan culture and “Viking rock” bands such as Wardruna may argue that neo-pagan fascinations are not in themselves dangerous, but the agendas of groups like North Carolina’s Asatru Folk Assembly (Ball, 2021) show how thorny such attractions can be.  

In Norway, a recent self-examination by a Viking re-enactment blogger has caused intense debate. After years of cultivating craft skills and appreciation of pre-Christian culture in Scandinavia, Ingrid Falch found herself implicated a few too many times in right-wing propaganda. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “blood and swords sell more tickets than cooking and spinning wool. Better keep it speculative, cheap and easy – reproducing the stereotypes making sure that ‘most people’ won’t see the difference between you and the Q-shaman” (Falch, 2021). For all the efforts to puncture too-earnest Norse aesthetics with humor, as in the Norwegian TV series Norsemen and Ragnarok, this “beast I can’t control” has led Falch to leave the re-enactment community. The resulting online repercussions have been brutal at times, often reinforcing ideas of white supremacy and misogyny associated with neo-pagan culture (Falch, 2021). 

Collapsing beds situation for Corona Virus patients. Medical staff work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 multiple patients inside a special hospital in Bergamo, on November 11, 2020.

Problems of Appropriation

What about Indigenous fantasies relating to cultures not one’s own? In the US, wealthy suburbanites have been purchasing Dances with Wolves-style tipis ever since that film appeared in 1990. A recent manifestation of this trend is the use of traditional tipis as “après ski” pods for COVID distancing (see Compass Rose, 2021), which often leads to exactly the opposite effect, as libertarian business owners make free with Native traditions for entertainment. On the other end of the political spectrum, shamanic training groups, Vision Quest trips, and festivals such as Burning Man have long attracted educated, left-leaning whites (Aldred, 2000). “White guilt” over several centuries of Native genocide and oppression may contribute to this phenomenon, but much of the attraction seems to be toward spiritual nourishment in an age when religion is often associated with right-wing politics (Olomi, 2019).

In Germany, a generation raised on Karl May’s Western adventure novels has contributed to ongoing romanticization of Native American culture (Schumacher, 2020) that may seem innocent of right-wing politics but fosters damaging stereotypes. In addition, what many “Indian hobbyists” in Germany may not know is that Nazi researchers studied US discriminatory policy toward Native peoples in order to hone the 1935 Nuremberg Laws (Miller, 2019). Meanwhile in southern Sweden, Wild West fascinations have become more complicated, as a theme park called High Chaparral became a camp for 500 Syrian refugees in 2015 (Loewinger, 2017).

White appropriation of Native symbols and rituals is of course different from European seeking of ancestral “roots” in the primeval woods, but it is equally problematic. A drum circle intended for specific cultural or medicinal purposes, for example, can become an excuse for vague trance-like experiences when used in a New Age setting, and shows disrespect to the very Indigenous practices it takes as inspiration (Johnson, 2020). Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations project has created an open call for Indigenous voices to address this issue, with additional attention to cultural practices in the COVID era and in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement (Keene, 2020). As Mark Rogers has put it, “Everyone wants to be an Indian, but nobody wants to be an Indian,” referring to Paul Mooney’s comment about “everyone want[ing] to be Black” without the “experience of being part of that culture” (Rogers, 2014, 2018).  

Debate is ongoing in the US about sports team mascots named for Native peoples, or using racist nicknames (National Congress for American Indians, n.d.); traditional clothing imitated in fashion, such as feathered headdresses (Wood, 2017); stereotypes in Hollywood films, from Pocahontas to one-dimensional warrior figures (Little, 2021); appropriations in the classical music world, as in quoting or imitating traditional songs stripped of their cultural purpose (Davids, 2019); and academic writing about Indigenous topics without consulting those who know them best, an issue of concern outside the US as well (Arbon, ed., 2010). With the regenerative agriculture movement gaining traction around the world, Indigenous voices are also speaking up about the need to give credit for soil restoration practices where it is due, and to reconsider value systems driven more by “commodification” than by the land itself (Mangan, 2021).

Ecofascism and “Avocado Politics”

To return to the problem of purity culture, back-to-nature advocates across the political spectrum often cite a wish for “unspoiled” wilderness (Cross, 2018), meaning outdoor spaces free of others except themselves. Especially in the age of COVID, this wish has resulted in what is now termed “wreckreation” in the American West (Wilkinson, 2020), with overcrowding and trash becoming increasingly problematic, though the political stakes for public lands protection are very real (Hart and Soyer, 2021). As an avid hiker in the mountains where I live, I admit to getting up at 5 a.m. to walk my favorite trails without the noisy, selfie-obsessed crowds I have come to resent – and this reminds me, uncomfortably, of Heidegger’s comment in Elfriede Jelinek’s play, about his own resentment of nature becoming only an image. I have felt smug triumph when reading about quieting oceans during the pandemic, and I have laughed at recycled satire about overpopulation and climate destruction (The Onion, 2011)

In a more innocent time, I might have been a deep ecology adherent, following the ideas of Arne Næss about the natural world as more than “natural resources” and about the need to acknowledge human-nonhuman interconnectedness. These ideas do in fact permeate most ecological discourse in academia, with reference to Donna Haraway’s metaphor of tentacle-like entanglements among species. While I draw on this thinking in my own work in the environmental humanities, I am also aware of the dangers of wishing for a post-human utopia, however tempting the overgrown cities Alan Weisman evoked in his 2007 book The World Without Us. For all my own selfish wishes to have a mountain trail to myself, my long study of Nazi nature-cult thinking has made me wary of ideologies that promote purity and idealistic “harmony with nature.”

Ecofascism, the belief not only in racial but also in environmental purity, posits that the world really would be better off without us – or at least without the darker-skinned climate refugees a warming planet will increasingly push out of their homes. This nexus of ecological and racial purity, an ideology that also fosters “deep” connections with the natural world, complicates conservationist thinking, as young activists are discovering amid the hype surrounding COVID-era planetary recuperation (Newton, 2020). What this ideology ignores, too, is that the first wave of climate refugees is the wealthy, who can afford to flee the California wildfires or rising coastlines in Florida (Bakkalapulo, 2018), and as “climate gentrification” (Hu, 2020) pushes marginalized people further away from affordable housing.

Though many deep ecologists disavow far-right, eugenics-driven thinking about population reduction for the planet’s sake (Drengson, n.d.), that movement’s tendency toward oversimplified ideas of purity, depth, and harmony has contributed to ecofascism insofar as it ignores political misuses of “nature” in the past century. Murray Bookchin (1999: 203) expresses it this way: “Vital as the idea of “interconnectedness” may be to our views, it has historically often been the basis of myths and supernatural beliefs that became means for social control and political manipulation.”

Likewise, immersive ecological artworks and “primeval TV” series such as Tribes of Europa can promote a feel-good sense of environmental connection, rather than encouraging activism that takes environmental racism into account, too. 

Over the past decade, ecofascism has become a draw in far-right recruitment, linking deep-ecology ideas of humans as “parasites” with its own anti-immigrant sentiment (Lamoureaux, 2020). White supremacist shooters from Christchurch to El Paso have also identified as ecofascists (Lawrence, 2019). In Austria, “avocado politics,” in which brownshirt ideology hides in green political agendas (Gilman, 2020), has led to an unlikely alignment between the center-right People’s Party and the Greens. Austrian agitator Elfriede Jelinek’s work seems as urgent as ever, with its uncomfortably close-to-home portrayals of right-wing immigration policies (Dege, 2016). Her Heidegger- and purity-culture critique Totenauberg would be a timely piece to revisit as well.

Conclusion: Contamination, Curiosity, and Reciprocity

While back-to-nature idealism can certainly foster environmental care, it has a dangerous side, too. Narratives such as the currently popular series Tribes of Europa and Barbarians promote a nativist vision of paganism that veers close to the “blood and soil” ideology of Nazism. Purity culture in eating and recreating, along with the seeking of “unspoiled” nature, however understandable, can feed this ideology across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, appropriating Indigenous cultural practices works as a wishful-thinking kind of nativism that bypasses the real experiences of Native peoples who have suffered oppression and genocide. And as deep-ecology values spill over into ecofascism, this form of environmental activism becomes not only anti-immigrant but also anti-human.

How to untangle the toxic threads that have found their way into ecological consciousness, from Martin Heidegger’s nativist philosophy of “rootedness” to today’s Viking re-enactment controversies? One approach is to allow for what some environmental artists call “contamination,” the practice of refusing purity in one’s work in order to accept that the planet is irrevocably compromised and, at the same time, to salvage what is left. Some artists work intentionally with waste and pollution, as in John Sabraw’s work creating pigments from contaminated streams in the UK (Surugue, 2019), while others, as in the Parallel Effect group’s recent Vigil for the Smooth Handfish, work with rituals for grieving a planet already in collapse (Audrey Journal, 2020).

In more practical terms, many conservationists are becoming less focused on restoring an “ideal” state of nature and more concerned with managing the messes that already exist. Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Gardens (2011) has won an enthusiastic following but has created controversy, too, as it goes against conventional wisdom about removing non-native, invasive plant species. At the same time, Marris outlines concrete practices for rewilding and assisted migration, such as building wildlife bridges over highways. Climate adaptation thinking has its dangers, too, in terms of normalizing catastrophe; as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright (2018: 71) have noted, “simply to claim that ‘society must adapt’ is to represent social responses to climate change […] in a way that makes these adaptations seem natural and functional.” That said, the crisis at hand does not allow the luxury of wishing for a pristine future based on an imagined, “harmony with nature” past. 

An ethos of planetary care that does not fall into nativist or purity thinking requires critical evaluation of environmental media (even in the form of Netflix entertainment!) and of one’s own attitudes (the wish to have the forest to oneself, for example). One aid in this can be learning about Indigenous approaches to land and culture without disrespectful appropriation. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), written from her dual perspective as a botanist and as an Indigenous woman learning about her own heritage, has become a guide for environmental thinking that views other species as kin but does not sentimentalize those relationships. Curiosity and humility are key, so that humans can ask, “Who are you?” instead of “What is it?” (Kimmerer, 2013: 42) and can appreciate what we see and hear without needing to own it (see Robinson, 2020).  

In many Indigenous cultures, reciprocity is also essential to co-regulation with the land. One way to express this is to ask for consent before entering a forest, logging it, or building a home there, a practice Native communities in the US are now asking others to honor, especially as oil and gas interests threaten traditional lands (Danesh and McPhee, 2019). In more personal terms, reciprocity can be a form of gratitude. As Kimmerer puts it, “What could I give these plants in return for their generosity? It could be a direct response, like weeding or water … Or indirect, like donating to my local land trust so that more habitat for the gift givers will be saved” (Kimmerer, 2020). If nativism is a kind of narcissism, critical curiosity and reciprocity can break the mirror we humans seem to want to project everywhere, and so that we can see the world around us as a subject, not the object of our deep, dark forest dreams. 

(*) This article follows up on topics of neo-paganism in the Feb. 3 commentary “Music and the Far-Right Trance,”calling critical attention to nativist themes in entertainment media, problems of cultural appropriation, and ecofascist strains in environmental activism. 

References

Bambach, Charles. (2003). Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Biel, Janet. (1999). The Murray Bookchin Reader. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Erpenbeck, Jenny. (2007). Heimsuchung. Frankfurt a. M.: Eichborn, 2007.

Gjelsvik, Anne and Rikke Schubart. Editors. (2016). Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements. London: Bloomsbury.

Heidegger, Martin. (1977). Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1991). Totenauberg. Hamburg: Rowohlt. 

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Mann, Geoff and Joel Wainwright. (2018). Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London: Verso.

Marris, Emma. (2013). Rambunctious Gardens: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. London: Bloomsbury. 

Richards, Barry. (2021). “Leaders.” In: S. Alexander Haslam, Editor, Psychological Insights for Understanding Covid-19 and Health. London and New York: Routledge.

Robison, Dylan. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.Winkler, Martin M. (2015). Arminius the Liberator: Myth and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford 

Secretary of Northern League Matteo Salvini and PVV leader Geert Wilders, after the closing press conference of the first ENF Congress at the MiCo Center in Milano on January 29, 2016. Photo: Marco Aprile

Populist International (II) – Geert Wilders, an Agent of Anti-Islam Populist International Alliance

Geert Wilders’ populism is based on Islamophobia. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. 

By Mustafa Demir & Omer Shener 

Looking through the lens of global populism, the relationship between the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders and like-minded political figures in the Western world is striking. Wilders’ efforts to reach out to like-minded groups and leaders go beyond courtesy visits. Through such efforts, Wilders attempts to construct an international front built on the common ground of anti-Islamic ‘concerns’. These ‘concerns’ are overhyped, with the aim of constructing an international, if not a transnational, front to challenge the Western world’s long-standing liberal norms of:

“Wake up, Christians of Tennessee! Islam is at your gate! Do not make the mistake which Europe made. Do not allow Islam to gain a foothold here… My friends, fortunately, not all politicians are irresponsible. Here, in Tennessee, brave politicians want to pass legislation which gives the state the power to declare organizations as terrorist groups and allowing material supporters of terrorism to be prosecuted. I applaud them for that. They are true heroes.”

This is how the Netherlands’ right-wing populist Geert Wilders addressed a crowd gathered in Cornerstone Church in Tennessee in May 2011. If, as Arditi (2007) suggests, populism is ‘the awkward dinner guest’ who, after drinking far too much, asks ‘inappropriate questions’, then Wilders’ populist dinner table discourse has been all about hype, defamation, and demonization.

Five years later, in July 2016, Wilders was in the US again, this time having been invited to Cleveland by US Senator Bill Ketron to attend the Republican National Convention. Wilders was in a state about Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, expressing his excitement with the following words“I wish we had political leaders like this in the Netherlands who defend their own country… and forget the rest.”

In another gathering, Wilders addressed the crowd as followsIn America you see the same happening as in the Netherlands. The hard-working people, what they call the blue-collar workers here, no longer feel represented by the political elite. That people no longer want the policy of open borders, immigration and Islamization.”

On the other hand, his host, Senator Ketron, responded to Wilders’ critics and ‘justified’ extending an invitation to Wilders by saying: “He just wants to take his country back like Mr. Trump and supporters want to take our country back. If you wanna come here and assimilate and live by our laws is his position as well as mine.” 

Wilders’ populist outreach is not limited to the US. In 2013, the Q Society of Australia, a far-right anti-Islamic organization, organized a speaking tour with Wilders. In Melbourne, amid protests, Wilders spoke to the rally, warning Australians about Islam as follows: “I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology… If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties… Yes, my friends, there is hope. But only if we outgrow our fears and dare speak the truth… The future freedom of Australia, the liberties of your children – they depend on you. The ANZAC spirit helped keep Europe free in the past; the ANZAC spirit will keep you free in the future. Be as brave as your fathers, and you will survive.

This very same society organized a conference titled “Islam and Liberty” in Melbourne in 2014. The purpose of the conference, according to the Q Society’s spokesperson, was to bring “together many people who are concerned about the march of Islam into many western democracies, and how it changes the laws and values of western democracies… You get segregation when you get Muslims coming in, because their core belief is that Muslims are better people than non-Muslims… We’re keen to have integrated societies, but we think it’s important to have integration, not segregation.”

On the first day of the conference, Wilders was welcomed in a pre-recorded message in which he cheered a new anti-Islam party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. He spoke as follows: “Like you, good people in Europe, America and Canada have had enough of politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare that all cultures are equal and who lack courage to speak the truth and say that Islam is the biggest threat to freedom today. You too will soon have the opportunity to turn the tide in Australia.”

In 2015, Wilders visited Australia again to launch the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), a new anti-Islamic right-wing populist party led by Debbie Robinson, former president of the Q Society in Australia. Speaking to the media in Perth, he urged Australians to be vigilant about migration from Muslim countries with the following words: “You will have millions of people coming to Australia, like we do in Europe, and you will not be able to handle it…You should be a sovereign country that closes your borders to those kinds of immigrants.”

Praising the ALA and the potential ‘protector role’ it will play for Australia, Wilders told the media: “If you read their manifesto it is clear that they are the freedom fighters of Australia… They have none of the political correctness that so many of the leaders in the world have today… and [they want] Australia to stand firm and stay Australian without the appeasement and giving in to multiculturalism, I think it will have a lot of support.”

Deciphering Wilders’ points made during the press conference, Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian newspaper explains that: “‘Those kinds of immigrants’ are Muslims. Opposing Islam is the central tenet of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has been leading the polls in the Netherlands since August. It is also the key policy of the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), the new party that Wilders flew to Australia to launch.”

Wilders’ populist appeal is, of course, not limited to Australia. He is actively engaged in the politics of European countries and has been forging closer ties with like-minded populists across the globe. He does not shy away from showing up at right-wing populist rallies all over the Western world. In March 2015, Wilders was invited to a gathering of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) organized by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and addressed the rally with similar anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

To recap, Wilders’ populism is based on an Islamophobic worldview. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. Returning to our earlier discussion of populism as ‘the awkward dinner guest’, despite the discomfort, this gauche visitor can, in fact, help uncover underlying problems in society (Moffitt, 2010).

Populism can be a positive force, one that demonstrates the shortcomings of the system and challenges the status quo. However, it can also hinder the proper functioning of the democratic system if it violates the principles of democracy and human rights. In the same way, populism can also be a force for good if it can ‘identify otherwise overlooked political problems’ and become the voice of minorities and ‘marginalized groups’ (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). However, as discussed above, Wilders’ rhetoric does the opposite: it turns minorities and marginalized groups into scapegoats.

References

Arditi, Benjamin. (2007). Politics on the Edge of Liberalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gidron, Noam & Bonikowski, Bart. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. Working Paper Series, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2010). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Populism as the Awkward Dinner Guest of Democracy.” Connected Globe, Conflicting Worlds: Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Melbourne.

Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gives press conference of 81st Thessaloniki International Fair in Thessaloniki, Greece on Sept. 11, 2016. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Anatomy of a Populist Speech

 

Millas, Hercules. (2021). “Anatomy of a Populist Speech.” Populism & Politics. March 8, 2021. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0004

 

Abstract

In January 2021, two party leaders in the Greek parliament debated the government’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic. This made possible a detailed analysis of the populist argumentations of one of the speakers. His basic method was the repeated use of arguments that were “true” but irrelevant to the matter at hand. Other “methods” were accusations made out of context, mixing up issues, deriving generalities based on singular cases, ignoring certain aspects, and making unfounded insinuations. Analysis of these discursive aspects contributes to our understanding of populist discourses.

Keywords: Populism, demagogy, populist discourse, discourse analysis

By Hercules Millas

Usually, one feels that one is confronting populism when one hears a particular kind of discourse. There is a palpable sense of deceit and demagoguery. In this article, I will try to show that populist argumentation is basically composed of a “plethora of irrelevant true arguments,” even though it may or may not include other methods such as lying, silencing, and the like.[1]

The opportunity to study a populist speech in detail was given to me when I listened to a debate in the Greek parliament between Prime Minister Kostas Mitsotakis and the leader of the main opposition party, Alexis Tsipras. Mitsotakis leads the New Democracy Party, and Tsipras heads Syriza (united left and environmentalists). The debate took place on 15 January 2021 and on the topic of the Greek government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and its performance in addressing the crisis. My study focuses just on the debate between the two leaders, excluding the arguments advanced by other political parties in the Greek parliament.

Mitsotakis presented graphs and statistics showing Greece’s performance in handling the Covid crisis relative to other European countries. The comparative approach demonstrated that Greece had been relatively successful in coping with the pandemic, at least until the day of the debate. I was curious to hear the opposition’s counter-arguments. I tried to put myself in Tsipras’ shoes. It occurred to me that the opposition leader had two alternatives, either to acknowledge the government’s positive performance or to claim the opposite. Tsipras had little choice but to pursue the latter, given any opposition leader is “compelled” to hold the government to account. Thus, Tsipras’ only option seemed to be a refutation of the argument of Mitsotakis by all means.

I foresaw a populist counterattack and decided to take notes of the arguments. Later, I found the complete debate on the parliamentary website, and I transcribed it.[2] I had ample time to carefully examine the arguments and the counter-arguments and decipher Mitsotakis’ and Tsipras’ “methods.” The leaders spoke five times in total. After an initial speech from the prime minister, all the other party leaders presented their views; a second round followed, with Mitsotakis assuming the final right of reply. Mitsotakis spoke for a total of 89 minutes and Tsipras a total of 94 minutes.

I summarize Tsipras’ argumentation—which I will discuss in further detail below—as follows:

  1. He mentioned many “truths”—that is to say, situations and evaluations that nobody can deny or oppose. Usually, this kind of argument is known as “truism.”
  2. He shrewdly used his body language (and style of address) to support his arguments.
  3. He repeated the same accusative and pejorative characterizations against Mitsotakis.
  4. He “returned serve” to accusations launched at him to get even.
  5. He condemned successful government initiatives as failures on the ground that they could have been “even better.”
  6. He used the technique of irony, insinuation, silencing, and arbitrary, debatable views as valid assumptions.
  7. He asserted general conclusions based on isolated singular events.
  8. He associated unrelated situations to reach conclusions.

1 – Mentioning various self-evident “truths”

This tactic composed the basis of Tsipras’ argumentation. The truisms had nothing to do with the agenda of the debate — namely, the policies vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic that were followed (or ought to have been followed) by the government and their consequences. The first big part of his speech included the following: “We experience a pandemic… the Greeks are facing problems … we should be showing solidarity… the politicians are usually hypocritical and express extreme views … citizens lives should be the main concern of everybody … we should help those who are fighting on the front-line of the epidemic … one should learn from one’s mistakes… we should face reality … tomorrow looks problematic … all of us should do something about the situation… ideological prejudices may result in death …”

Tsipras elaborated at length each of these logical, self-evident, and widely-accepted arguments, but they were not supported by corresponding examples of government action (or inaction). These truisms could have been voiced by any politician, in any country, and under any circumstances. Nobody could object to these comments. Why then did Tsipras voice them?

The answer is that they proved useful since populism is addressed to the sentiments of the listeners. The citizens who follow a debate pursued in this manner and are short of critical thinking see and listen to a person who is clearly espousing some basic, sound principles; they feel that they share the same principles with him. They see somebody who thinks like them and who has the same sensitivities. He is for the needy; he sees the same social problems, and so on.

That the other side does not speak in the same way or repeat the self-understood realities is usually interpreted as indicating a lack of “sensitivity” and an inability to act accordingly. In this sense, populist argumentation is very effective. Probably, the strongest point of this discourse is that its refutation is impossible simply because all arguments are true—they are, in fact, truisms.

During the rest of his speech, Tsipras adopted this approach many times, re-iterating a similar set of “arguments,” “proposals,” “warnings,” and “advice”: “One should accept and learn from one’s mistakes … due to the lockdown, retailers are facing problems … the timing of an action is important … delays have a price … many of our compatriots are dying … vaccines should belong to the people … we should face reality … one should not be pedantic … one should take the initiative… we should discuss the issues between us … vaccines save lives … the economy faces problems … people are losing their jobs.”

 2 – Body language and style of address

The shrewd use of body language while speaking is not unique to populism and is, in fact, a common feature of all rhetorical debate. Yet, since populist conclusions are not related to inductive reasoning but to emotional insinuations, the body language and the style of the orator are of particular importance. All politicians have this in mind, and they pay attention, not so much to the consistency and sense of their arguments, but to the appearance of the speaker—his posture, his self-confident style vis-à-vis his opponent, and so on.

Tsipras often appeared as being ready to compromise and to come to terms with Mitsotakis for the sake of the common good while simultaneously accusing Mitsotakis of ill-will to the point of insult, as I show below. Tsipras also often appeared shocked and exasperated with Mitsotakis’ policies and actions. A couple of times, when Tsipras referred to well-known numbers, facts, and examples, he declared, “these are not my numbers, not my sayings, but yours; they are numbers from independent agencies… This is not something that I say; scientists all around the world are saying it … It is not us who say that, but the media worldwide.” This is all redundant as it could hardly be otherwise. Facts, data, and statistics cannot be “somebody’s” —they have to be from a reliable source. It suffices to mention the source. Utterances of the kind “these are not my numbers but of the X source” is an unnecessary, excessive emphasis that seeks to create a favorable impression on the unsophisticated listener.

3 – Repeated pejorative characterizations

Many derogatory accusations against Mitsotakis accompanied Tsipras’ speech. The following phrases were used as general characterizations: that Mitsotakis has ideological prejudices, believes himself to be omniscient, has no sense of responsibility, is detached from reality, lacks awareness of reality, is in favor of the elite, and is in favor of exploiters. In addition, words or their derivatives directed against Mitsotakis by Tsipras included arrogance, hypocrisy, complacency, indifference, unclear mind, carelessness (2 times), negligent, obsessive, slanderous, unserious, divisive (2 times), incompetent (3 times), irresponsible, vulgar (returning the same expression used earlier by Mitsotakis), without dignity, and liar. All these were heard in a speech that lasted 90 minutes.

This tactic serves a purpose. The listener watches a speaker who is against all these vices, which means—logically—that he is exempt from these. Since Tsipras is so much against ideological prejudices, arrogance, and the like, this should mean that they do not apply to him.

This approach is the other side of the “repeating of irrelevant truths” mentioned above. The mentioning of many “truths” works in favor of the speaker’s image, which is enhanced. Derogatory characterizations work against the image of the Other; the opponent’s image depreciates.

4 – “Returning serve” against accusations

Anyone familiar with Greek political life over the last decade will notice that the above-mentioned negative characterizations present a peculiarity. Some of them are new utterances in Greek political life, having been first used against Tsipras and his political party. A closer look at the above accusations recalls that there is a process of “returning serve” against adjectives that have been used lately against “us” (in this case, Tsipras and Syriza). Some of these are the following:

“Having ideological prejudices” — this was originally used against Tsipras for his leftist ideological vision. “Arrogance” was once used to characterize Tsipras’s harsh accusations against the Right. Tsipras’s wish to change the “right-wing” policies of the European Union was cast as a “lack of awareness of reality.” His anti-liberal stand has been called “obsessive,” and his policies in dealing with the EU were labeled “incompetent.” Finally, Tsipras has been called a “liar” for going back on promises that he would not follow the EU’s instructions and “memorandums.”

The use of such language is a strategic choice. By “returning” the accusations with the same wording, the “charges” are neutralized, and Tsipras gets even. As mentioned, many of these characterizations were used in the past against Tsipras and regarding some of his actions and policy decisions. Now, they are “returned,” mostly out of context. This is a way to counter-balance attacks. Probably it is reckoned that this kind of a symmetrical counterattack will cancel out and nullify the accusations recently addressed toward “us,” thus cleansing the record of them. The repeated use of some accusative adjectives also nullifies their worth through superfluous repetition. All in all, the method can be seen as a psychological and political defense mechanism.

5 – Things could have been “even better”

This is another “true” argument that cannot be contradicted. The best performance could have been better. An Olympic champion can be criticized for failing to run a little faster and break a record. Mitsotakis demonstrated by graphs and statistical analyses that Greece had a much lower death rate per 1 million people relative to other European countries. He said that it is a macabre and sad endeavor to talk about people who have lost their lives, but that still, in general, Greeks have followed the rules and done fairly well, comparatively speaking. Mitsotakis showed a map of Europe with the national death rates indicated by different color codes; Greece and Finland were colored the same, sharing the lowest death rate in Europe at the time of the parliamentary debate.

Tsipras resorted to comparing Greece to the unreasonable benchmarks, not comparable cases. In fact, he compared Greece’s record to that of other countries only once — when he noted that Greece had experienced the worse economic recession in Europe due to Covid-19. He said: “Greece in this field is the last in Europe. You may say that this is due to the epidemic. All countries are experiencing an epidemic but not the same impacts. These are the comparisons that one has to take into consideration.” In all the other cases, he was adamantly against any “comparative” approach, unless it was to compare Greece to “the hypothetical condition.”

In all the other cases, he used the conjunction “if” as a conditional. “If you had taken some more precautions… if you had made more tests… if you had put more busses into circulation… wouldn’t we have fewer deaths?” At some point, Tsipras said: “If, if, if, if, I can use many ifs of this kind.” And, actually, he did. This is a common trend of populist argumentation: good outcomes could always have been better.

6 – The use of irony, insinuation, silencing, and debatable views as valid assumptions

Defense mechanisms operate rather unconsciously and as automatic reflexes in all debates, not just in populist discourse. For example, some facts are “forgotten,” and others are unduly emphasized according to the purposes of the speaker. These tactics operate to complement the populist approach.

Irony involves humor or sarcasm. It is an indirect way of expressing criticism. It is also an accusation that is difficult to respond to since it is not openly stated. Usually, it is a sneaky way of voicing an attack that would not be possible to bring to the fore otherwise, either because it cannot be documented or it is ethically not permissible. In sum, it is difficult to answer an ironic statement for two reasons. First, the criticism is not openly stated, and any effort to counter it implies that one accepts the accusations —namely, that “what is insinuated concerns oneself.” Secondly, the accuser may hide himself behind the pretext that he is simply “making a joke” and that his opponent lacks a sense of humor.

Tsipras, for example, was ironical and “humorous” when he attributed the sentence “coronavirus is not contagious in the buses” to his opponent. Meanwhile, he overlooked or obscured what Mitsotakis had really said —namely, that the government had increased the number of buses to control congestion. Tsipras jokingly said that somebody living on the island of Lesbos had been required to go to the island of Limnos to be vaccinated. In contrast, it was in fact claimed by others that the person concerned had given Limnos as his home address. He was also sarcastic when he asked rhetorically, “how many deaths do you need to accept that you have been unsuccessful?” A probable answer of the kind “how many deaths do you think would make me successful” would sound macabre and counterproductive for Mitsotakis. So, the sarcasm was ignored.

An example of assuming characteristics—the validity of which first needs to be proven—is when Mitsotakis is presented as the proponent of the “elite,” of the privileged classes, and of his immediate environment. This was repeated quite often by Tsipras, placing himself “on the side of the needy.” This supposedly diametrically opposite social status of the two leaders is presented as self-evident. That there is no need to prove the accusation makes it even more persuasive: it does not need to be proved because “everybody knows it.” This is the vicious circle of truth.

It was insinuated (because it could not be demonstrated) that Mitsotakis has said that “the pandemic cannot be managed” or “God will help us in that.” In both cases, it was not made clear precisely who had said these things or when and where they had been said. For these accusations, one may use the term “lies.”

There were various cases of arbitrary characterizations: “You are working in favor of certain social groups … you are in favor of the elite … you are against the social security system (and in favor of a privatized one) … you have not recruited new personnel into the hospitals (that Mitsotakis had, in fact, announced the opposite was ignored) … you only support private interests … some of us cannot pay the €500 fines handed out for violating the restrictions you impose while others go to Dubai to celebrate Christmas (inferring that those heading abroad are in the same camp as Mitsotakis—the “elite,” and the “neoliberals”).

Naturally, the political programs of the socialist Tsipras and center-right Mitsotakis differ. Moreover, each part has its self-evident facts and truths, which form its respective ideological framework. The “truths” of each are valid within each group, and the supporters of each group perceive the arguments of their leader as rational and understandable. Each argument, however, needs to be documented and proved when presented to the other side, as it was in the case in the parliamentary debate. Therefore the “numbers” that Mitsotakis presented were more persuasive to the third-party listeners, whereas the “arguments” of Tsipras were persuasive only to his in-group. Actually, no single personality can be the conclusive judge of a reality for everyone.

7 – Conclusions based on isolated events

The method of reaching conclusions based on an isolated case of secondary importance is an everyday phenomenon. It usually starts with a saying of the kind, “let me give you an example…” That is to say, a single example is considered enough to prove a case. If there is some bad guy in the village (in a family, a city, a nation, etc.), the whole community can be blamed. This is the way stereotypes and prejudices operate.

Tsipras said, “you vaccinated your own families, and if we had not made it an issue, you would have continued doing that.” But how many families were they? Were they really going to continue with the vaccination?

On the other hand, Mitsotakis presented numbers, statistical analyses, and graphic presentations. Tsipras demonized these because they impair the stereotype, i.e., the populist story. The listeners who are unaccustomed to numbers do not see the populist approach anyway. The single “typical” example is more persuasive to many people (How can one be sure that an example is “typical”?).

During this debate, Tsipras said: “If you feel content saying ‘the pandemic cannot be managed’ [without evidence this was ever said] and if you make macabre comparisons of the dead, as you did a while ago mentioning the percentages of the dead, then you will never learn anything from your mistakes.” And again, “4,500 deaths! The people mourn for their fathers, their grandfathers, grandmothers, for their wives. Furthermore, the government, instead of trying to limit the pandemic, tries to find refuge in the statistics.” Or, “The dead people are not statistics; they are human beings. When you say that the numbers are positive in comparison to other countries, the families that at this moment feel the pain of their losses will not feel any better.”

That many people mourn is true. It is also true that the “good numbers” are not a consolation for those who feel the pain of their losses. One may add that the people are also worried; they are concerned for the coming days, anxious about the future, etc. Naturally, the sound management of the pandemic cannot rule out the pain that comes with a single death.

Is there, however, anybody who would disagree with the above? Don’t all politicians see what is happening? Here, one sees the same tactics: various “truths” that are irrelevant to the debate are repeatedly mentioned, all addressed to the listeners’ feelings. On top of this, the populist, through rhetoric, makes an effort to demonize the numbers. And that is because numbers are difficult to cope with. They give a clear picture of the situation. Tsipras tried to “discredit” the numbers since he could not reject them.

The sentence “the dead are not statistics; they are human beings” is devoid of meaning. It is voiced either because of ignorance or as a conscious choice, as demagoguery. Statistics and human beings cannot be compared; they are heterogeneous categories. Statistics are tools that humans use and, like photographs, depict some situations. They may be about heart attacks or traffic accidents in a country. The numbers themselves are not heart attacks or accidents; they only give information about these. Similarly, the statistics about the pandemic inform us about the pandemic. I feel embarrassed to be in a position to try to demonstrate what is self-evident!

The numbers and the statistical information on 15 January, the date of the debate, showed that among the 30 countries of Europe and in the case of Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, there were only three countries that were in a better situation than Greece: Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These numbers change every week, but in general, Greece managed the pandemic reasonably well. This is not a consolation to the people who have lost loved ones, but it is a consolation to many Greeks that feel that they do not belong to the unfortunate countries that had many more losses. The demonizing of numbers is a way out for populists but does not serve self-awareness.

8 – Associating unrelated situations to reach conclusions

This method is basic for populists and is, to boot, an ancient technique. There is an ancient Greek story known as the Paradox of the Court or Protagoras’ Paradox. It is said that the famous sophist Protagoras took on a promising pupil, Euathlus, on the understanding that the student would pay Protagoras for his instruction after winning his first court case. After finishing the course, Euathlus decided not to enter the legal profession but entered politics instead, not paying Protagoras for the lessons. Protagoras decided to sue Euathlus for the amount owed.

The teacher argued that if he were to win his suit, he would be paid his money. If Euathlus were to win, Protagoras would still be paid according to the original contract because Euathlus would have won his first case. Euathlus, however, claimed that if he won, then by the court’s decision, he would not have to pay Protagoras. If, on the other hand, Protagoras won, then Euathlus would still not have won a case and would therefore not be obliged to pay. The question then is, which of the two men is right?

There are various versions of this story and many more uses of its hidden demagogy. There are actually two distinct cases that are shrewdly combined to reach the desired end. In the first case, Protagoras loses; in the second, he wins. The student simply repeats the first trial, in which he wins, avoiding mentioning the possible second suit. It seems as if history is being repeated—in the same land—in the parliamentary debate of 15 January 2021.

Tsipras said: “According to Mitsotakis, nobody asked him to take more austere measures in Thessaloniki where there were a high number of virus cases, whereas the local authorities had warned him.” Mitsotakis answered that he had said, “Nobody among the opposition in the Parliament had warned him.” At this point, Mitsotakis seems to be correct. However, Tsipras answered back, saying: “The opposition cannot tell the government what to do since the relevant information is not in its possession.” Now it seems that Tsipras is correct, and consequently Mitsotakis wrong!

The approach of Tsipras was to introduce new issues to the initial claim, which was simply “what Mitsotakis had said.” In so doing, he first stated that the opposition could not tell the government what to do since it does not control the situation, and second, he indirectly accused Mitsotakis of (naively) expecting the opposition to propose what the government should do. Tsipras is right in both these new issues. And by this approach, the initial argumentation is bypassed. The changing of the agenda is used repeatedly in populist discourse.

An assessment

1 – Populist speech is characterized by arguments that are “true” (truisms) but irrelevant to what is being discussed; by the merging of various unrelated issues; by the repetition of negative characterizations against the opponent and by some other “auxiliary” techniques such as silencing, irony, insinuations, “tools” which are used in almost all debates. “Lies,” per se, are secondary. Examples of all these were presented above.

2 – The populist discourse is both difficult to notice (to recognize) at first glance and very influential. In the case of populist politicians, this technique is a powerful tool precisely because populist speech is hard to distinguish, but also because the messages are addressed to the unconscious part of the human intellect, to the feelings. This article is written hoping that it will help the receptors of the populist speeches be more ready to understand what is being done.

3 – The populist approach presented above differs from demagogy and lies due to its social dimension. Populism is a term that presupposes two components: The addressor and the addressee; the populist agent that propagates the populist views, speeches, promises, hopes etc., on the one hand, and a group of audience, followers, and believers that share the populist messages as a social group, on the other hand. In other words, for the listeners who do not believe in the populist leader, orator, etc., the populist person is only a charlatan, a demagogue, a liar. In connection with this, it is understood that the way to cope with populism is not limited to fighting the populist agent. Improving the ability of the listeners’ comprehension is also needed. The opposition should not be directed to the addressor only but to the addressee, too. Intelligent persons with critical thinking skills are the best barrier against populism.

4 – Finally, all the above are about the techniques that populists use, the tactics, and the methods. What populism actually produces is a different topic. Still, in the above example, we see some of the “essence” of the populist worldview, understanding, ideology, or whatever other names one may see fit to describe this phenomenon. We see:

  1. A Manichean world of good (“us”) versus the negative, the dishonest, the unpatriotic “other.” This is done mainly on an ethical basis.
  2. Socially, the supposed divide is between the “people,” the in-group, “us” versus the “elite,” the rich, the out-group. It is a quasi-class divide.
  3. The out-group beyond the national borders are the foreigners, the leftists, the Jews, the enemies of “our” country (if the source is politically right-wing and conservative), or the imperialists, the capitalists, and the neoliberals if the accuser is a leftist.
  4. In the last resort, the whole endeavor leads to a world of strife, nationalist stereotypes, and widespread othering.

[1] This article does not aspire to define populism. It is a case study of a special discourse which, as a working hypothesis, here is called populist. This discourse is characterized by a special technique which, if it is encountered repeatedly in other cases, too, it may shed light on “populist argumentation.” 

[2] See: https://www.hellenicparliament.gr/Vouli-ton-Ellinon/ToKtirio/Fotografiko-Archeio/#7fb5d5dd-3f51-4456-8432-acb1015ed39d. Or see: hellenicparliament.gr. 

Frederique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education and Research. Photo: Gerard Bottino

France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race

By launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the French government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics.

By F. Zehra Colak & Erkan Toguslu

The French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, has recently announced an investigation into so-called “Islamo-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions. She has accused scholars of colonialism and race of “looking at everything through the prism of wanting to fracture and divide.” This attempt to discredit scholars working with critical and postcolonial perspectives by targeting them with an ambiguous pseudo-concept —“Islamo-leftism” — underlies a strategy of silencing conversations about racism, white supremacy, and the impact of the colonial past to maintain an unrealistic image of France as a post-racial and egalitarian society. 

The use of the term “Islamo-leftism”—islamo-gauchisme in French— has gained traction in France among some academics and right-wing politicians. It refers to an unlikely political convergence between the far-left and radical Muslim movements standing against imperialism and neoliberal globalization. Today, it is used pejoratively by the current government, the far-right, and conservative media and academics in France to accuse left-wing anti-racist intellectuals of being overtly occupied with racism and Islamophobia and of justifying Islamism and terrorism. The widespread use of this tag by government figures risks stigmatizing all Muslims and left-leaning academics by lumping them into a crude category that carries extremist undertones. 

Even the National Center for Scientific Research, which Vidal assigned the task of investigating the fields of study concerned, has described “Islamo-leftism” as a poorly defined term with no relation to scientific reality. The center has also warned against “the instrumentalization of science” and infringing academic freedom in France. While the fuss over the term “Islamo-leftism” appears to be restricted to France, similar political trends are visible across Europe, where ministers often attack critical social theories depicting them as being against the “people.” Extremism experts have also attempted to link postcolonial theory with certain Muslim communities. 

The long-standing and dominant conviction about continental Europe having achieved a post-racial and egalitarian status still serves as a substantial barrier to recognizing systemic racism and the ongoing impact of colonial legacy on Black and racialized minorities. While the removal of “race” from public and academic discussions in the aftermath of the Holocaust has by no means diminished systemic racism, it has made it difficult to name or redress the profound consequences of racial inequity. France is no exception as it refuses to face up to its colonial past and denies racism by reproducing the rhetoric of a universalist and color-blind Republican ideal, which prioritizes national identification over racial or religious identity. 

In other words, Frenchness is seen as essential to achieving integration, whereas references to racial inequities are interpreted as identity politics endangering societal cohesion and leading to segregation. The establishment refutes references to institutional or structural bias as racism is seen as an individual moral flaw rather than being systemic. There are no race- or ethnicity-based statistics, and the term “race” was removed from the constitution in 2018. Such a race-blind ideal based on the myth of shared universal rights disguises the harmful consequences of racism by serving to sustain structures of racial inequity rather than dismantling them. This, despite the persistence of widespread discrimination targeting racialized minorities across societal institutions. 

Recent global and national incidents, such as the brutal killing of George Floyd in the US and the death of a Malian French man, Adama Traoré, in 2016 while in custody in France, triggered riots and protests against police violence and brutality in France. They have fuelled heated debates about race, discrimination, and the widespread concern about the racialization of security targeting young men living in French banlieues. People are demanding justice for those exposed to racial profiling, police brutality, and the systematic discrimination entailed in targeting racialized populations.

In France, young activists particularly have been vocal in defying the national narrative of color-blindness. The protests have galvanized long-brewing grievances leading to intense discussions about white supremacy, deeply ingrained systemic racism, and demands for decolonization. While fostering broader awareness and encouraging activism among a younger generation, such nation- and European-wide debates and protests have also increased fears that racial identity politics—ridiculed as woke culture—is being imported from the US. 

President Macron, who is tilting further to the right, made derogatory comments accusing academics of racializing socio-economic issues in the aftermath of anti-racist protests in France. By defying calls for racial justice as the influence of American multiculturalism and constructing demands for racial equity as a divisive threat, Macron’s government is attempting to gloss over the impact of racism on the everyday realities and experiences of France’s racialized minorities. In fact, Dan Hicks, a professor from Oxford University working on colonial violence, interprets the French government’s pushback against the progress made by anti-racist movements as the “invention of a culture war.”

Macron’s hardening rhetoric and attacks on academics and his recent campaign against the so-called “Islamist separatism” following the murder of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher, need to be understood within the context of wider socio-political circumstances in France. Macron portrayed himself as a defender of free expression after the beheading of Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free expression and censorship. The recent attacks by Macron’s government on certain fields of academic inquiry, however, suggest otherwise. Some see Macron’s pandering to the French far-right on immigration issues, Islam, and labeling academics with defamatory terms as a strategy to capture support from conservative voters against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. Such divisive and stigmatizing government narratives targeting selected groups carry the perilous risk of aggravating existing social and systemic problems and further harming the very social cohesion it purportedly seeks to protect. 

Indeed, by launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics. The concern over being targeted by the French government has been expressed by some academics on social media, including Michael Stambolis, an American sociologist teaching race in France, who wrote on Twitter: “When you’re literally an American sociologist in France who studies sexuality, runs a gender studies program, and teaches race, intersectionality, etc., it’s impossible not to feel targeted. I’m most concerned for my students and colleagues of color.

Despite the French government’s unprecedented attacks targeting academics working in postcolonial, race, and intersectionality studies, only 2 percent of publications in French academic journals since the 1960s have been dedicated to these studies, according to Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics. So, if these studies are incredibly marginal in French academia, why is there so much concern about them? This is because their findings strongly challenge the national myth of a race-blind and egalitarian French society with no issues of systemic racism or colonial abuses. 

According to Macron, however, the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants “revisiting their identity through a postcolonial or anticolonial” discourse poses the risk of nurturing “self-hatred” against France. Against Macron’s claims, these fields of academic inquiry mainly offer a way of critically engaging with the colonial legacy and a racialized system drawing inspiration from minority epistemological perspectives that have long been ignored. If anything, what they offer the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants who study them is a deeper sense of knowledge, understanding, and a critical awareness about their position in a societal structure that fails to acknowledge and value their realities and experiences. 

Studying these critical perspectives is particularly important for racialized students who are trying to make sense of their place and negotiate their multiple identities in higher education settings, which often function as spaces of exclusion and marginalization. Suppose Macron wants the (grand)children of immigrants to forge positive identities as multicultural French citizens. In that case, he should better encourage universities to decolonize their curriculum and more actively participate in structurally engaging with the (post) colonial past and the experiences of racialized minorities in contemporary France. Because persisting racial inequities in a society cannot be solved by pretending that race does not exist and smearing academics who are researching it. 

Iconic Fallen Roof Ruin in Road Canyon on Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. Photo: Colin D. Young

Access or Protection? Contested Lands in the American West

“Work and wilderness: surely, these two glare at each other across an intellectual clear-cut.”

Daegan Miller, This Radical Land

By Heidi Hart & Mehmet Soyer

Open lands foster a sense of community. You gather memories as you hike, hunt, climb, picnic, or drive a truck to work each day, but what happens if, all of a sudden, the federal government decides to expand or restrict the public lands where you live without asking your opinion? 

For rural workers in the American West, the phrase “wilderness protection” usually means less “access” – their own key word – to trails for off-road vehicles, less freedom to graze cattle and hunt wild game, and fewer jobs in the energy industry. On the other side of the divide, environmental activists call for government protections of non-motorized trails, water and air quality, and wildlife habitats. Though people in both groups resent development in open spaces, especially as wealthy second-home owners move in (Bowlin, 2021), the fight over how public lands can be enjoyed is often bitter. As Indigenous tribes push back against oil and gas leases and over-tourism, after several centuries of profound loss, the picture becomes even more complex.

One of most pressing Western land controversies is over the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The region contains “breathtaking geological spectacle(s), knife-edged ridges, sleek white domes, lush valleys and cloud shaped rock formations” (Nordhaus, 2018). This dramatic geography is familiar to many Europeans, especially in Germany, where visits to Utah’s redrock country have been a part of popular fascination with the American West since Karl May’s adventure novels, however “unrealistic,” were “the German counterpart to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’” in the first half of the twentieth century (Spröer, 2016)

But Escalante is more than a rich space for speculation, whether in books or in mineral leases. The region contains many areas that are sacred to Native tribes, in southern Utah and beyond, with Bears Ears an important place in migration narratives of Zuni pueblo in New Mexico as well (McLeod, 2019). The area also includes many archeological sites that contain important cultural resources (Eaton, 2001) “from small lithic scatters to large highly complex village sites” (Enote, 2021). Though exploring the area’s deep sandstone canyons is popular with tourists, “the mesa tops are covered with great houses, ancient roads, underground pit houses, villages, and shrines” that may not be obvious to untrained eyes (Enote, 2021).

Indian ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, USA. Photo: Krista Hardin

Bears Ears National Monument was created under the Obama administration in 2016, giving the region’s famous twin buttes (the “ears”) and surrounding Native heritage areas a new level of protection. This was the first time a coalition of tribes had been able to request and give input into a national monument. These groups have traditionally been underrepresented in decisions about the lands they have occupied for thousands of years. A Ute tribal chairman, Shaun Chapoose, told reporters at the Washington Post, “We knew exactly what was within that geographical boundary. We knew the gravesites, we knew where the artifacts were, we knew where certain plants and herbs grew” (Fox et al., 2019).

Less than a year later, Donald Trump moved to reduce the monument by 85 percent, raising the fury of wilderness advocates and Native tribes, while winning approval from local residents whose populist bent favors limited government if it interferes with hunting, grazing, and mining rights (Ban, 2017). Driving through San Juan County where Bears Ears National Monument is located, you can still see “NO MONUMENT” bumper stickers and yard signs. Although different leadership groups had been included in Obama’s decision-making process, many local residents felt that their way of life and livelihood had been ignored. Some tribal leaders opposed the monument as well, feeling that it would invite too much outdoor recreation in sacred sites (Buhay, 2017).

With Trump’s extreme reduction of Bears Ears, opening it to oil and gas leases, wilderness advocates felt that their own concerns had been completely disregarded. In December 2017, 5,000 people gathered at the Utah State Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s move (Wood, 2017). This protest included scientists, activists, families, students, community leaders, and representatives from a rare coalition of tribes, some with their own history of land disputes: the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Zuni Pueblo (McLeod, 2019). The crowd fell silent as Carl Moore, chairman of Peaceful Advocates for Native American Dialogue and Organizing Support, danced in a traditional feathered headdress and a gas mask (Leonard and Cortez, 2017).

Valley of the Gods, Utah, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Krista Hardin

Though the Bears Ears controversy has been particularly fraught, Utah has been the focus of “divisive unilateral national monument decisions” for the past quarter century (Nordhaus, 2021). In the US, “business and development interests are often privileged” due to a long history of “maximizing production of resources from ecosystems” (Grumbine, 1994: 11). But a new era of public lands protection, with Native voices included in policy making, is taking shape today. The Biden administration is expected to reverse the shrinking of Bear Ears and Grand Escalante national monuments. Supporters of wilderness and Indigenous land protections take particular comfort in Biden’s nomination of the first Native secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico. 

Back in San Juan County, local leaders have expressed new willingness to work with the tribal coalition but are still wary of governmental “overreach” (Douglas and Brewer, 2021). As has long been the case in the American West, every community has a strong sense of belonging in the land. Descendants of the white Latter-day Saint settlers in the Utah desert, with their own migration story of fleeing persecution, often resent the “VanLife” nomads and second-home newcomers who do not understand what it cost their ancestors to survive here, or what it meant to them symbolically. “Mormons didn’t mind the desert,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “It reminded them of the Old Testament” (Solnit, 1994: 52)with its story of exodus from Egypt. 

At the same time, many desert recreation enthusiasts resent those they perceive as being less respectful than they are. The Bears Ears area’s most recent claim to fame is not actually its “monumental” controversy but the strange appearance of a monolith resembling the one in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: Space Odyssey. As images of the monolith went viral in December 2020, so did COVID-frustrated tourists’ efforts to find its remote location. Within days, the Martian-looking landscape had been trashed by Instagrammers rushing to document themselves as much as the shiny object that, it turns out, had been there since 2016. Suddenly one night, the monolith disappeared. This was the act of a wilderness enthusiast who could not bear the crowds and left the words “leave no trace” – as, ironically, his own trace in the desert (Wells, 2020)

Perhaps the pain that locals or wilderness advocates feel when the federal government changes public lands policy, or when “outsiders” want to use the land, can serve as a reminder of what Native tribes have experienced for centuries. When white settlers arrived and displaced Indigenous communities, they saw the land as a thing to be owned. They did not appreciate how deeply they violated relationships with a life-giving landscape meant to be known, where, as the Zuni say, “as we live in the present ways of our people, we live also within the realm of our ancestors” (The Zuni People, 1972: 180). As one wave of newcomers disgruntles the next, perhaps some can step back and imagine what has come before and what will remain, or not, for future generations.

References

Grumbine, R. Edward. (1994). Editor. Environmental Policy and Biodiversity. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Miller, Daegan. (2018). This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Zuni People. (1972). The Zunis: Self-Portrayals. Translated by Alvina Quam. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.