Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2021). “A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0007
Since its founding, both civil and military Pakistani governments have used religious populism to consolidate support and legitimize their actions. This has paved the way for religious populism to become a part of the nation’s cultural imagination and identity. During the country’s “infant” or “fragile” democratic phase, religious populism was repeatedly used to consolidate support. Religious parties and groups hold great political sway in the county. Through the use of religious populism, these factions have been allowed to nurture their own “people” who are partisan towards “others.” The weak level of governance, political turmoil, and distrust in institutional capabilities has pushed the public into the arms of religious populists.
Walk into a public school in Pakistan and ask the pupils, “what is the meaning of Pakistan?” and it’s likely they’ll chant “la ilaha illallah.” This exemplifies the extent to which religion has seeped into the Pakistani imagination. This is not surprising in a nation-state that was founded on the idea of religious difference from India’s Hindu majority—a difference that resulted in the partition of one country into two. Since then, over the period of nearly eight decades, both civil and military governments have used religious populism to consolidate support and legitimize their actions. This has led religious populism to become a part of the nation’s cultural imagination and identity. There has been some evidence of what one can describe as left-wing populism in Pakistan, but it has also been tinged with religion.
Pakistani populism, however, does not have a long list of leaders associated with it, due to several reasons. First, populism is anti-elite by definition and this anti-elite sentiment unites ordinary people behind the leader. But what if different regions of the country define “elite” differently? Should the Pakistanis, in the 1950s and the 1960s, have fought against the Punjabi-Mohajir elite or the Punjabi elite, the feudal elite or the civil-military bureaucratic elite, the West Pakistani elite or the Urdu-speaking elite or the business elite? The fragmented Pakistani society allows for populism but creates lots of hurdles for truly national populism. The polarization of the society— a hallmark of populism—is improbable where divisions in society are multi-dimensional.
Second, populism is about ordinary people and their struggles. Therefore, if the leader cannot speak the local language, it is difficult (though not impossible) for him or her to become a populist leader. It is challenging to become the true, long-lost, and authentic leader of the masses when one cannot even speak the language of the masses.
Populism has also been successful in Pakistan because it feeds on an open democratic society. Although populist movements may emerge under dictatorships, they are rare.
The Founding of Pakistan, Its Muslim Identity, and Secularism
Pakistan was carved out of the former British colony of South Asia. The political campaign for independence, the Pakistan movement, gained momentum in the 1940s, giving a voice to South Asia’s Muslim minority—”the people” in this case, who felt underrepresented in the politics of India as compared to “the others,” the Hindu majority (Jalal, 2010). South Asian Muslims are a rich and diverse blend of ethnicities and sects of Islam (Eaton, 2019). Establishing an “other”—Indian Hindus—created a point of convergence for the Muslim minority.
The founding father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a secular man, faced a dilemma at the time of independence in 1947. He had created a nation based on a Muslim identity but was not interested in establishing a theocracy. Non-Muslims, especially Hindus and Christians, were welcomed as citizens of the new country. In his first address to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, Jinnah said:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state” (Government of Pakistan, 2021).
During the first decade after independence, when Jinnah or his close associates were ruling Pakistan, religious influence was not peremptory. Religious and cultural sensitivities were kept in mind during the selection of the national flag, as the white-coloured portion represents the country’s minorities. This white is set amidst the deep green symbolizing the Muslim majority (Dawn, 2011). The national anthem also does not show a predominant Islamic influence as explained below:
“There are three religious references in the anthem. In the opening stanza, there are two such references: the blessed sacred land and the country being the centre of belief and faith. In the final stanza, the poet talks about Pakistan being ‘under the shade of Mighty and Glorious God.’ However, none of the three religious references are specific to Islam. References to the sacredness and blessedness of the national territory, or its being the centre of belief, are a common theme in anthems, and the word used for God is not Allah (the Arabic word for God used in the Quran) but Khuda (a Persian word used initially for Ahura Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism)” (Saleem, 2017 95)
Jinnah also handpicked Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Dalit, who served as the country’s first minister of law and labour but was later forced out of office and relocated to India (Balouch, 2015). The Parsi and Christian communities felt welcomed and played a pivotal role in developing the services sector (Notezai, 2019; Lentin, 2017).
This seemingly pluralistic and secular dream of Pakistan was gradually Islamised. After Jinnah’s death in 1948, the Objective Resolution, a blueprint for the constitution, was introduced which stated that, “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone” but also included “the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people” (Ahmad, 2019; Pal, 2010; Yilmaz 2016).
Gradual Increase in Reliance on Religion
This gradual increase in the government’s reliance on religion was synonymous with the growing political incapacity of Pakistan’s leadership. In fact, it can be argued that it was the incapacity of the leadership that forced the instrumental use of religion. However, it must be clear that during this period, Islam was more of a symbolic influence instead of a source of law. Political infighting and an alliance with the United States (US) gave confidence to General Ayub Khan, encouraging him to impose the first martial law. General Ayub (1958-69) initially did not use Islam to legitimize his hold on power. He was vehemently opposed to the religious right using religion in politics, and during his rule, Jamaat-i-Islami leader Abul A’la Moududi was sentenced to death. However, in the latter part of Ayub’s rule, he changed his tactics. The Ayub administration tried to delegitimize Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah, who fought an election against Ayub Khan to end the military regime. Ayub resorted to orthodox Islamism, claiming women are not allowed to rule in Islam (Ahmed, 2019; New York Time, 1964).
A war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir facilitated the rise of Islamic populism. India was “otherized” and the narrative of Pakistan was further Islamised and militarized (Kapur & Ganguly, 2012). The need to defend “the people’s” faith and nation became influential in the collective national imagination. The religious spirit from 1965 is evident in the era’s iconic songs, today a part of the nation’s communal memory. Vocabulary such as momin (pious Muslim), marde mujahid (valorous religious warrior), shaheed (martyrs), and ghazi (fighter) were used to glorify the “holy” war (Malik, 2018). However, Ayub—a military bureaucratic authoritarian leader, who was not a practicing Muslim—was never comfortable with religious populism.
Early Populist Leaders
If today one is asked who the first populist leader in Pakistan was, the most likely answer would be Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This demonstrates our lack of knowledge about Pakistan’s history, particularly the history of East Pakistan (the territory of the modern country Bangladesh). Consciously or unconsciously, East Pakistan’s role in Pakistan’s history is downplayed or ignored. The first populist leader of Pakistan was Abul Kasem Fazlul Haq, popularly known as A.K. Fazlul Haq or Sher-e-Bangla (the lion of Bengal). Fazlul Haq was elected Prime Minister of Bengal twice and remained the PM for six years (1937-43). He was immensely popular with the masses as he was anti-elite and fought against the Hindu and Muslim landlords.
Moulana Bhashani was another populist leader from East Pakistan. He was called the “red moulana.” It is hard to find a more fascinating political figure than Moulana Bhashani in the erstwhile united Pakistan. He not only fought the British, the West Pakistani politicians, and the Pakistani military but also his brothers-in-arms, Bengali Awami League leaders H. S. Suhrawardy and Mujibur Rahman. His commitment was only to the poor Bengali peasants that he represented all his life; he never held any government or official position. For his populism, he was called Mazlum Jananeta (leader of the toiling masses).
The heyday for left-wing populism in Pakistan was the late sixties, with Moulana Bhashani and Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan and Bhutto in West Pakistan all raising anti-elite banners. Both Mujib and Bhutto rejected the constitution and political culture of that time and vowed to create a new country with the help of masses. Both claimed that the “people” were with them and those on the opposite side were opposed to the people. Both were left-wing populists who thought socialism would restore power to the masses for the first time since 1947. They upended the politics of both wings in different ways. Mujib’s populism became a precursor of the Bangladeshi independence movement, while Bhutto’s populism eroded as he began tackling practical socio-economic and governance issues.
Bhutto’s Left and Right Populism
Systematic and institutional discrimination faced by East Pakistanis (who were ethnically Bengali) became a flashpoint for civil war (Nada, 1972). Mujib was the face of Bengali nationalism. Civil unrest, the use of brute military force against Bengali civilians, and invasion by India led to the formation of Bangladesh, in 1971. Mujib became its first President. This event generated ontological insecurity in what remained of Pakistan. Pakistanis could not understand how they lost a war and why half of their countrymen and women decided to leave. It was a critical juncture in national history, and it ushered Pakistani politics down the rabbit hole of religious populism.
Bhutto’s slogan, “roti, kapra aur makan” (bread, clothes, and shelter), and his campaign made ordinary people interested in politics. The era of mass politics was not new to East Pakistan, but it was Bhutto who introduced mass politics to West Pakistan. The following is an excerpt which contrasts Bhutto’s style with Mujib’s and shows the contrasts between populism in East and West Pakistan:
“When Bhutto was introduced to politics, he had no personal constituency of his own and did not develop one for as long as he remained in his job as foreign minister… [it was] when he began to tour the country that he developed a personal following. As with Mujib, the size of Bhutto’s following increased very rapidly but, in contrast to Mujib, people were attracted to Bhutto for the novelty of the cause that he had begun to espouse. Bhutto’s type of populism was not a new phenomenon in Third World policies. Very deliberately he had fashioned his style and his idiom after such Third World leaders as Sukarno [Indonesia], Nkrumah [Ghana], Peron [Argentina], and Castro [Cuba]. But for West Pakistan, this populist approach was a new development; until that time, West Pakistani politicians had followed a very low-key approach toward politics, preferring to negotiate among themselves rather than to use popular support to further their aims and ambitions. Bhutto was a new kind of leader. Accordingly, the constituency that he cultivated for himself was new—a constituency was galvanised into action very quickly, but when he left the scene, the constituency still remained. Like Peronism, Bhuttoism was to survive Bhutto” (Dutt, 2000: 351).
After the humiliating defeat in war and Bangladeshi independence, the Pakistani military took a backseat and the first directly elected national assembly chose Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Prime Minister. Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had been elected on a populist platform which had elements of both socialism and Islamism. Bhutto introduced the term “Islamic socialism” and claimed that Islam and socialism are compatible. However, he was soon forced to make “compromises” due to the increasing power of the religious right which promulgated religious populism against the “un-Islamic” Bhutto government. The 1973 Constitution made Islam the state religion and declared that not only the President, but the Prime Minister of the country would also be Muslim.
Bhutto’s popularity slowly began to wane as he became more and more authoritarian. He managed to get rid of elected opposition governments in two provinces. The religious parties, which had never accepted Bhutto’s religious credentials, suffered because of Bhutto’s oppression; envious of Bhutto’s popularity, they gradually ignored their differences and decided to form a united front. Their street power, rioting, and right-wing political collective forced Bhutto to make further concessions such as constitutionally declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims and banning nightclubs and alcohol for Muslims and replacing Sunday with Friday as the weekly holiday (Dawn, 2014). The religious right, and the opposition, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), “otherized” the “corrupt,” “elite,” and “un-Islamic” PPP leadership while positioning themselves as the legitimate reflection of “the pious people.”
The PNA was a populist and consolidated right-wing political alliance, consisting of nine political parties of the country. It competed in the national election in 1977 with the slogan Nizam-e-Mustafa (system of [Prophet] Muhammad)—i.e., if the PNA won, they would instil Prophet Muhammad’s system of governance. Bhutto was targeted as a “sinner” running a “sinful government.”
Bhutto won the elections handily but there were allegation of rigging and demonstrations started in the major urban centres. The government and the PNA leadership sat together; just when they were close to an agreement, the military imposed a third martial law on the country (Niazi 1987). Generals not only removed Bhutto from office but also subjected him to a trial that mocked due process. He was executed in 1979 (Schofield 1980).
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was a leader whose populism was an amalgam of left and right populism. He talked about socialism. True to his slogan of roti, kapra, aur makan, his signature policy was the nationalization of the economy. All his life, he was castigated by the right-wing, and they were instrumental in his downfall and murder. However, he also talked about the glory of Islam, otherized “Hindu” India, and promoted pan-Islamic identity. The two highpoints in his prime ministership were the unanimous approval of the 1973 Constitution, which declared Islam as Pakistan’s state religion and had numerous Islamic references, and the convening of the Organization of Islamic Conference’s (OIC) second summit in Lahore in 1974, when he managed to get most leaders of Muslim-majority countries—many of who were destabilizing each other—together on one stage. Was he a left populist or a religious populist? It is difficult to state definitively.
Zia’s Military Coup, Religious Nationalism, and Islamisation
Military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88) and ushered in a phase in which religious nationalism was fully espoused as the state narrative. He instigated a period of Islamization the likes of which Pakistan had never seen before—and hasn’t seen since. He uplifted right-wing Islamist parties to counter democratization and in exchange promised to introduce the Nizam-e-Mustafa (Snellinger, 2018). Left-wing parties, women, and human rights workers protesting the regime were curbed by state security forces and otherization and were exposed to ferocious outbursts of right-wing mobs. Television, radio, press, school syllabi, and other institutions promoted Islamic values and a spirit of jihadism.
Numerous amendments based on conservative interpretations of Islam were made to the constitution. For instance, the Federal Shariat Court was established. This court could declare any law unconstitutional if it deemed the law un-Islamic (Yilmaz, 2014). In this court, religious clergy served as judges and decided matters in the light of the Quran and Sunnah (Kennedy, 1990). The Soviet-Afghan war next door further added to the narrative of Islamic nationalism. Pakistan’s alliance with the US was termed as a “jihad” to defeat the “godless” Soviets (Lodhi, 2012). The Afghan war also brought petrol-dollars from the Gulf, resulting in the funding of many madrassas where jihadists were trained, creating even more of an audience with an appetite for Islamism (Lodhi, 2012).
Zia’s use of religious nationalism has in many ways shaped contemporary politics and populist rhetoric. However, Zia was not a populist. Although Pakistan’s other two long-term military dictators, Ayub and Musharraf, thought themselves as popular leaders, Zia knew better. He instrumentalized Islam, used the US and Arab support, and plied Pakistan’s military to brutally oppress the opposition—but he never thought he could win elections. The best evidence of this, is the referendum question he drafted in 1984 to get himself another five-year presidential term. The ballot paper asked voters: “Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?” Citizens could then vote “yes” or “no” (Aziz, 2015). He was not asking people to vote for him. He was asking people to vote for Islamisation, for the preservation of Pakistan’s ideology, and for the ending of martial law and the return of democracy. It would have been difficult even for people who hated Zia to vote “no.”
Pakistan is still grappling with the impacts of Islamic nationalism installed by both Zia and his predecessors. As the country’s institutional fabric, such as the legal system and parliamentary forums, have embraced sharia-inspired ideals, religious populism is now a matter of political success and survival (Aziz, 2015). At a micro level the social fabric of society has also been altered. The region that once perplexed the British due its diversity is increasingly pushing towards a homogeneous society where religion (Sunni Islam) and nationalism are knotted together.
Populism after Zia
General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime came to an end when he was killed in an air crash in 1988. After nearly a decade under Zia’s control, the country had the opportunity to hold democratic elections. Misgovernance, corruption, institutional clashes, and poor economic management led to highly unstable conditions that threatened the survival of the fragile democracy. Four elections were held between 1988 to 1999; governmental control alternated between the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
During the “infant” or “fragile” democratic phase, religious populism was repeatedly used by politicians and parties to consolidate support. The PPP was now led by Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the former prime minster Z. A. Bhutto. Like her father, the young Bhutto relied on reformist populism to galvanise voters. Her slogan, borrowed from her father’s campaign: roti, kapra, makan touched a nerve with the working class and poverty-stricken masses (Sekine, 1992). Bhutto’s lineage as the daughter of the first democratically elected head of state further added to her appeal—in Pakistan, dynastic politics is the norm (Sekine, 1992). Educated at Oxford, Bhutto was viewed as a modernist who had ambitions of developing the country and ending its reliance on Islamic populism (Sekine, 1992).
Her brand of populism was countered by the religious populism of Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N. Sharif was one of the conservative political protégés that Zia had cultivated to retain his power (BBC, 2018). During PML-N’s two terms in office, the party relied heavily on religious populism. In opposition to the PPP, PML-N members frequently “otherized” Bhutto by using Islamist populism. Fatwas were issued questioning the legitimacy of her government; the mullahs felt a woman heading an “Islamic” country was sinful (Azeem, 2020). Attacks such as these forced Bhutto to hide overt markers of femininity—for example, she hid her pregnancy during her first election campaign by wearing loose-fitting clothes(Khan, 2018).
Moving beyond religiously infused, populist sexism, Bhutto was portrayed as an “agent of the West,” placing her in opposition to “the people.” Her position against Zia’s Islamised legacy, criticism of radicalization of youth, promotion of “un-Islamic” programs such as family planning, and her affiliation with the Shia sect of Islam made her a prime target of the right-leaning PML-N and radical religious groups (Azeem, 2020). Eventually, she was forced into a self-imposed exile. After Bhutto’s second government was dissolved, Nawaz Sharif faced no real political opposition; thus, the clientelism between the state and religious factions continued (Javid, 2019; Puri, 2010).
Musharraf’s Military Coup
A fourth military-led coup deposed the second Sharif government in 1999. Going into self-imposed exile, the Sharif family sought refuge with long-time ally, the house of Saud. General Pervez Musharraf, like his predecessors from the military, sought control to “stabilize” the country. Unlike Zia, the Musharraf regime did not rely on religious populism. After nearly two decades as a refuge for international Islamist terrorists, Pakistan was under immense pressure to reform. The terrorist attack of 9/11 triggered the American-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan. The changing mood in the White House defined the Musharraf regime’s actions. Pakistan’s status as an ally in the “war on terror” ensured that the cash-starved state could sustain itself on incoming foreign funds (Ibrahim, 2009). The “carrot and stick” model, masterfully employed by the US, ensured that Pakistan complied with its demands in return for a monetary reward. The rekindled Pakistan-US alliance temporarily quashed the use of religious populism within the Pakistani government.
The Musharraf government’s crackdown on terrorist hubs on the Pakistan-Afghan border, school-curriculum reforms, madrasa regulation efforts, economic liberalization, and banning of terrorist outfits (parties, groups, and non-government organizations (NGOs)) were welcomed but were not fully achieved or implemented (Afzal, 2014; Morgan, 2011; Looney, 2008). The noose tightening around the necks of radical groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPL)—after years of direct or indirect support from the state—led them to rebel. The Musharraf tenure ushered in one of the most violent periods in contemporary Pakistani history, where suicide bombings ravaged cities across Pakistan (Looney, 2008). The state’s distance from religious populism was met with violence which brought the “war on terror” home.
The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) episode, in 2006, exemplified the state’s struggle to distance itself from radicalism and how the radicals pushed back with the use of violence and religious populism to gain public support. The mosque was serving as a madrassa where hundreds of students were radicalized and sent off to fight in places such as Kashmir and Afghanistan. The government laid siege to the complex and after months of failed attempts, a confrontation between the security forces and mosque residents left several devotees dead, injured, or arrested (Scroggins, 2012). The around-the-clock broadcasting of the event made it a national debate. Non-state factions (radical religious groups) used Lal Masjid as a rallying point. They recruited volunteer suicide bombers from across the country to attack the “tyrannical” and “puppet of the West” government that was “in cahoots” with the “kafirs” (Scroggins, 2012).
The groups that felt pressure from the government’s crackdown used religious populism to define religious extremists as “the people” while the state and its supporters became the enemy “other.” Local and international terrorist groups such as the Taliban (Pakistan or TLP), al-Qaeda, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and others orchestrated dozens of suicide bomb attacks all over Pakistan’s major cities, killing thousands of people (mostly civilians and security forces) (Scroggins, 2012). Benazir Bhutto, on her return to Pakistan, also became a victim of the raging violence. She was killed in Rawalpindi (a twin city of the capital Islamabad) during a pre-election rally in 2007. It is widely believed that TLP was responsible for her death due to her anti-Mujahideed-e-Islam stance and polices (The Economic Times, 2018).
A gradual shift to democracy during the late 2000s and 2010s brought the PPP and PML-N back to power, respectively. While terrorist attacks had paralysed economic activity and terrified the public, the continued appeal of religious populism provided jihadi groups with a stream of fresh recruits. Within the seemly “non-radicalized” public, the debate of “good” versus “bad” Taliban was common. Middle class and educated individuals were also gravitating towards the Taliban’s cause. Conspiracy theories regarding America, Zionism, Hinduism, etc., combined with years of Islamised content promulgated through media and the education system, caused large factions of the public to sympathise with the Taliban’s fight against the Americans and Pakistan’s “puppet” government (Siddiqui, 2018; Blair, Fair, Malhotra, & Shapiro, 2011).
The case surrounding Asia Bibi, which spanned nearly two decades, demonstrates the extent to which the prolonged use of populist Islamism by state and non-state actors has shaped the social fabric of Pakistani society. Asia Bibi was falsely accused of blasphemy when a fight between her and her fellow fruit pickers escalated. Asia is a Christian Pakistani. She became the face of the plight of many non-Muslims and non-Sunnis, especially those who were harassed and/or killed by being roped into false blasphemy charges. The circumstantial evidence pointed towards her innocence, yet populist religious factions used their street power and violence to pressure the courts into handing down a death sentence and then prevented it from being revoked. In 2011, the liberal Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own security guard—a state-provided security officer—for publicly supporting Asia Bibi’s predicament and stating that the blasphemy laws should be removed.
The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, shot Taseer 28 times in a busy market and in broad daylight. Qadri’s arrest and confession was shocking. He was convinced that his actions were “heroic” and safeguarded the country against the ghustakh-e-rasool. Video clips and pictures of him soon surfaced where he was seen smirking and sitting calmly reciting nats and declaring his victory (BBC, 2011). More worrying than his individual behaviour was the reaction of a huge faction of the public. More than 300 lawyers volunteered to act as his defence and rallies raged throughout cities in support of Qadri (BBC, 2011). Sentenced to death by hanging, some of Qadri’s last words to his supporters were, “distribute sweets when they hang me” (BBC, 2011). He is now immortalized as a ghazi and his resting place is a shrine and mosque complex in the vicinity of Islamabad (Pasha, 2016).
Asia, after nearly twenty years, was acquitted of the charges on October 31, 2018 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This was a bittersweet victory. This was not only justice delayed but also due safety concerns for Asia Bibi and her family, she had to seek asylum in Canada. Pakistan was no longer safe for her. The news of her release spread through the country like wildfire—a fire that engulfed every city and small village for four days. The destruction of public property, economic lockdown, theft, and vandalism left the country with an economic loss of 260 million PKR, in Punjab alone (Malik, 2018).
The master orchestrator of these protest was the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TL), a party that gained momentum thanks to its populist Islamist rhetoric of “saving the pride and greatness of the Prophet.” The vigilante group has massive support and has frequently hurt or aspired to kill those they deem as “blasphemers.” The vigilantes have now entered politics and, since 2018, their political party is called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which won a stunning number of votes despite its first-time participation in general elections.
Religious Populism and Imran Khan
Religious groups’ use of the rhetoric of religious populism has helped them gain a key position in society and politics. The murshid (students/disciples)—or “the people”—of these “sacred” leaders are “defenders” of their faith. They demonstrate their loyalty to the pir (spiritual guide) by going against the misguided “liberals” and puppet governments. With the power of religious conviction, “the people” feel they are unstoppable. Their creation was facilitated by the encouragement and—at the time—tolerant behaviour of the government. The post-9/11 withdrawal of support and disowning of such factions has only led an intensifying of their use of religious populism and an expansion their networks through social media platforms (Anthony & Hussain, 2018; International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy, 2012). Religious populism is now a “must have” for politicians and parties hoping to win support and legitimacy. Recognizing the undeniable need for religious populism and simultaneously the government’s need to reinvent its image in a more moderate light, a new wave of religious populism has taken root in Pakistani politics.
This new wave of religious populism is now part of mainstream politics—and is represented by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Khan launched PTI in 1996 as a small, personality-driven party run by himself and several of his close friends and family members. However, since the early 2010s, it has been able to amass a huge following. PTI’s has used various streaks of populism, including social-welfare, accountability, self-reliance, national revivalism, and religion. Following the 2018 elections, PTI has gained a majority in the federal parliament and most provincial assemblies. Religious populism is a core rhetoric of PTI and its leaders. Over the years, Khan and his party have overtly embraced Islamist populism; however, this is a more moderate and modest version compared to the radical Islam of orthodox groups and former dictators.
This “moderate” religious populism is advanced under the guise of “human rights.” The earliest example is the “good” and the “bad” Taliban debate instigated by Khan. PTI voiced its sympathy for the Taliban, who they believed had been “used” by the US during the Soviet era and were now being hunted. Khan believed there were “good” and “bad” Taliban, a common conservative position at the time (Mullah, 2017). The party talked of mediation, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation. Thus, PTI was a rational and pro-peace building party that believed in reforming and integrating the “good” Taliban back into society (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017).
However, the antithesis to Khan’s narrative was the tragic Army Public School (APS) attack in 2014. Nearly 130 innocent kids were ambushed and killed by the Taliban, in the city of Peshawar. Targeting defenceless children generated a consensus that the “good” Taliban was just a myth. But this has not stopped Khan and his team from positioning themselves as “peace loving Muslims” now that US troops are exiting Afghanistan. Under PTI leadership, the country is keen to play a positive role in stabilizing the region. It is again facilitating the integration of the Taliban into the democratic system of Afghanistan on the same premise—that the Taliban is a legitimate political force that needs to be negotiated with rather than handled through force (The Hindu, 2021; Afzal, 2020).
PTI’s reformist “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) is an Islamist populist’s utopia. Khan’s election campaign of 2018 merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism: he modelled “New Pakistan” on the early structure of the state of Medina (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). Khan has repeatedly expressed his desire the follow the examples of the four rightly guided caliphs of Islam. In countless speeches, his “struggles” and actions against “the others” are quoted in references to the state of Medina and the period of the first four caliphs. This idealization has garnered PTI immense support in a deeply religious country where Medina and the Prophet Muhammad’s life have unparalleled respect and devotion. In a way, Khan has re-packaged the dream of enforcing Nizam-e-Mustafa, the conservative slogan from the 1970s seeking the enforcement of Sharia laws. Now, under Khan, it more modern and “tolerant”—and in line with Pakistan’s need to revamp its image on “moderate” lines.
The Islamic populism used by PTI is also civilizational. Khan won the hearts of most Pakistanis when he called out the previous governments for their close ties with the West. He specifically targeted the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and said he would not take a “begging bowl” to the Western nations because it made Pakistan’s government a de facto “puppet” in their hands (Kari, 2019). Ironically, once in power, PTI was forced to take an IMF loan; however, the members were able to maintain their anti-West rhetoric on religious grounds. Through social media, Khan shares “good books” with the youth as highly recommended readings. Most of these books are related to discourses on Islam. Khan feels the youth need to be “re-educated” about their “roots” from a non-Western stance. He evokes extreme pride and sentimentality by using the works of the pan-Islamic national poet, Allam Iqbal, by calling them shahneen. There is also an excessive emphasis on conspiracy theories such as the CIA creating the Taliban and the West’s Machiavellian intentions towards Pakistan (Abbas, 2012).
Khan and the party have been highly un-sympathetic to the plight of factions that fall outside their Sunni-Muslim in-group, “the people.” When the ethnically and religiously distinct Shia Hazara protesters refused to bury their dead after repeated deaths due to targeted terrorism, Khan said their right to protest was the victim’s way of “blackmailing” him (Dawn, 2021). The government also washed its hands from assuming responsibility for an attack by conveniently blaming India for sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan (Dawn, 2021). Khan’s Islamist populism also surfaced when he called the Aurat March’s (Women’ March) feminist slogans a “Western concept” and highly unnecessary in a Muslim society. He said that in Pakistan, women are highly protected and respected—claims that run contrary to statistical evidence on violence against women in the country (Dawn, 2020).
Khan’s Islamist-infused populism also has a transnational element. His government has extensively collaborated with Turkey by introducing and popularizing TV serials with exceedingly Islamised content. The state’s motivation to transmit Ertugrul Ghazi is the prime example of this transnational, Islam-inspired, civilizationalist populism (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). PTI has repeatedly been proactive in highlighting its support for Muslims worldwide. Khan has felt the “ummah” needs to unite and that Islamophobia needs to be addressed; however, next to nothing is done when the rights of non-Sunnis and non-Muslims are violated in Pakistan on a daily basis (Shams, 2020).
The various instances and incidents of religious populism in Pakistan have shaped the identity of its people. Since its founding, religious populism has been employed by civil and military governments to consolidate their support and legitimize their actions. As a result, religious populism has become part and parcel of the Pakistani national imagination and identity.
The plurality that was once the crown of South Asia has now been brushed aside. Today’s mostly homogenous citizens glorify Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan and Muhammad bin Qasim and have disowned freedom fighters who faced down colonial forces such as Rani of Jhansi and Raja Ranjit Singh, labelling them as “infidel” others.
A void has been created by years of Islamic populism that has erased the collective memory of the Ganga-Gamaniidentity—that of a pluralistic culture. Disengaged, misled, and misinformed, today’s Pakistanis are Arabized and are now increasingly being Turkified—all at the expense of their South Asian heritage.
Religious parties and groups hold great political sway in the county. By using religious populism, these factions have been allowed to nurture their own “the people” who are partisan towards “the others.” The weak level of governance, high political turmoil, and distrust in the country’s institutional capabilities have pushed the public into the arms of religious populist groups.
Islamist civilizationism (Yilmaz, 2021) has allowed for “the people” to feel victimized by “the others,” legitimizing their anger, resentment, and hatred. Unlike the Taliban, they do not take up arms against the enemy; rather, they harbour xenophobic and racist ideas towards anyone from the otherized groups or sympathetic to the “other’s” ideals. Today, Islam is Pakistan, and a Muslim a Pakistani. “What is the meaning of Pakistan?” Most would answer, “la ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah.”
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 During Pakistan’s independence movement, a very popular slogan was “Pakistan ka matlab kiya; la illah illalah,” which means, “What is the meaning of Pakistan; I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah.” The two verses rhyme and as most will realize, the second part of the verse is the first part of the Islamic shahada. This slogan is still very popular.
 Dalits are a caste within the Hindu system. Dalits are the most oppressed and marginalized caste and known as the “untouchables.” Their social status historically prevented them for being an integrated and accepted part of mainstream Indian society. The move to elect a Dalit representative in 1947 was a progressive move to dispel centuries of religious caste-based oppression of the subclass.
 Fatima Jinnah played a critical role in the independence movement and was called madr-e-millat (mother of the nation). She was very popular, and Ayub was only able to defeat her because the elections were indirect and state power was used to Ayub’s benefit.
 Many populist leaders cannot graduate to become effective managers or administrators. They struggle to govern as governance requires political compromises and logical evidence-based data analysis and decision-making. Donald Trump is the most recent example.
 In 1947, Pakistan had two wings that were not geographically contiguous. The east wing is current-day Bangladesh and west wing is current-day Pakistan. The two wings were separated by more than 2000km of Indian territory, and, ethno-linguistically, they were poles apart. The only common factor between the two was the religious identity of Islam. The West Pakistani elite, which dominated the military and bureaucracy, was unwilling to share power with the East’s larger population and accept Bengali language and culture as equal.
 A catchy slogan, devised by the religious parties in the 1970s, that was vague enough to acceptable to Muslims of all hues. Its vagueness made it acceptable to all opposition parties many of whom were against implementation of Sharia laws or Sharia driven laws.
 The parliament was forced in 1985 to legalize/approve these changes in lieu of lifting of martial law.
 Estimates suggest that Pakistan received some 18 billion USD in military and economic aid from the US for its cooperation in the “War on Terror” from 2002–2011.
 Non-believers, in this case non-Muslims
 This version of religious populism was ferociously dangerous. The conviction of the people on a faith-based model made them ruthless towards the “others—who are judged kafirs and deemed worthy only of death.
 Translation: Warriors of Islam: radical, armed, Islamic militants
 Asia Bibi was a fruit picker form the district of Sheikhupura (some 30 miles outside of Lahore). Bibi and her family were, reportedly, the only Pakistani Christian family in the small village of Ittan Wali. Living as non-Muslims in a small town was not without challenges. After refusing “advice” to convert to Islam, she was accused of blasphemy in 2009. According to various accounts, a fight broke out between Asia and her fellow berry pickers wile harvesting falsa berries (which are harvested in the hottest month of the year). The fight is said to have started over Asia drinking water from the same glass as the Muslim women. After a heated argument, Asia was dismissed from the farm and falsely accused of blasphemy. In 2010, the local district court sentenced her to death under these charges.
 Taseer was an Anglo-Indian (with a Christian mother and a Muslim father). His identity as a Pakistani was not fully accepted by many who felt suspicious of his intentions due to his mixed-race background.
 Someone who commits blasphemy, in this case against the Prophet.
 Poems that praise Prophet Muhammad.
 After hearing a speech by TL leader, a young high school student killed his teacher in class on perceived blasphemy charges; then-leader Khadim Rizvi did not deny his role in the tragic incident.
 Pakistan League of Justice.
 Shaheen means a hawk. In Iqbal’s poetry they symbolize the potential of Muslim youth. He felt that the Muslim youth were misguided and unaware of Islam’s history and potential. If they embraced their historical roots and worked hard, they could excel in life as the apex creatures—the hawk, which knows no bounds and soars to great heights.
 The merger of Persian and Sanskrit culture that was a hybrid identity of Northern India.
 “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.
Darren Parry is the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, he speaks about his call for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead. The “seventh generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that seeks to ensure a sustainable world seven generations into the future by informing how we make decisions in the present.
Parry also emphasizes the need for Native Americans to be included in civil rights struggles. “Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.… We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion? … Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was (nearly) erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.”
Assessing former US President Donald Trump’s populist policies, Parry has expressed criticism: “(Under) the former president… in my communities we saw rollbacks to protections not only of the land but the wildlife. We also saw weakened environmental regulations. We have also seen the failure of the pandemic response, which has killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today.” On the issue of oil and gas extraction, which in conservative states like Utah tends to be underregulated, Parry notes that Trump deregulated everything. “He thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is—in every case—the extraction industry,” Parry said. He also discussed the pressures on the Ute tribe, which has environmental protection “in its DNA” but also benefits financially from the oil industry.
After a long time serving as the tribal Chairman of the northwestern Shoshone Nation, Parry stepped down last year to run for the US Congress, seeking to advance his political message of accountability, education, and Indigenous land rights. He believes that Native culture can better advance with Congressional representation and is deeply pleased that his friend Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, now leads the US Department of the Interior. Parry still serves as a council member on the Northwest Shoshone Tribal Council.
Parry grew up in Utah, which has always been home for him. His grandmother was a fierce advocate for her people. Parry says he has tried to continue her work, telling the Shoshone story from the tribe’s perspective, which — after several centuries of dislocation, genocide, and boarding school “re-education”—is seldom heard. He thinks that the more information people have about other communities that do not look like them, the better off that society as a whole will be. Today, Parry lives in Cache Valley, a place that his people have called home for centuries. He says that there is no better place to be.
The following excerpts from our interview with Darren Parry have been lightly edited.
Mehmet Soyer: Could you tell us about the Shoshone Nation and your culture’s ways of relating to the land?
We [the Shoshone Nation] look at land a little bit differently [than many non-Native communities]. But the relationship that we have with this land that we live on … is something so sacred and special that we call this land our mother—Mother Earth. She has always been the provider of our livelihoods. So, you know, in the mountains, in the streams … we believe the seasons walk around annually. We don’t distinguish ourselves as being superior to the land. If you look at Native ways, we consider ourselves [connected] not only to the land but also with our animal kinfolk, as we like to call them. From that perspective, we are not superior to the animals.
When you see injustice taking place not only with humans but with the Earth, with climate change, and extraction industries, it really hits home to Native Americans because we feel like they [our animal kinfolk] are a part of us. We feel they have a spirit, and they are a living entity. Our human way of thinking is not superior in any way to the values that the Earth and the animal kingdom hold.
At the Bear River Massacre Site [The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Franklin County, Idaho on January 29, 1863], we are doing a lot to tell the story of our people. But how can you tell the story of our people without doing the work to heal the Earth that is there? [For example, by] getting rid of the species that should not be there. So, the work of land restoration is just as important in being able to the story and restore our people’s story and the traditions that we hold. We don’t look at it any differently.
The land, and how we look at the land, and how we are stewards over the land, is really the most important thing to Indigenous communities. We have never felt like we own the land. A lot of people think, well, Native Americans feel like they own the land. It was never our land to own. We were just given stewardship over this land. And so, you know, those differences are really stark in comparison to Western culture today.
Heidi Hart: Populism, in combination with authoritarian government, is on the rise around the world. How do you think populism has affected Indigenous populations in the US?
Well, for one thing, it has just ensured the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in Indigenous communities like ours. And I think populism … has always [been a way for] people … to look at the past, to romanticize the past as “the good old days.” But you know what? The past has never been kind to Indigenous communities. It was often dark. It includes genocide or a complete erasure of people and culture. And, at best, history celebrates assimilation, which is still an erasure of communities. When we talk about that and its effect on our communities, it has just given us less of a seat at the table.
Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark. Because I really celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and I try to speak out on those issues as much as I can…. Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.…We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion?
I have never seen Indigenous communities included as part of the four or five things that we always include when we talk about diversity and equality in America today. Those other groups play a prominent role, as they should. I am not saying they shouldn’t at all, but if we really want to be inclusive, then all groups that are marginalized need to be included, including Native American groups. Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was [nearly] erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.
‘We Have Seen Rollbacks to Protections of Land and Wildlife Under Trump Administration’
Mehmet Soyer: So, and what have Native communities experienced during the Trump era that will change approaches to activism in the future?
That is a great question. [Under] the former president… in my communities, we have seen rollbacks to protections of not only the land but the wildlife. We have seen weakened environmental regulations. We have seen the failure in the pandemic response that killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today. So, as I look at that, [I ask] how might the pandemic change the way we go forward? I think our communities need to be much more organized and prepared. And I think we live in a different world today than 150 or 80 years ago. And we need to make sure that we elect politicians that can make a difference. We get in the court system and fight injustices that way. I used to think my way—activism—was the only way.
Let me just quickly explain the way I handle things. My way is gentle. I am not a loud, in-your-face activist carrying signs, marching down the street … In my world, it seems like other leaders have different opinions than me, that [they think the gentle way] is not the way to go about it. You know, it kind of puts them on the defensive…. In the past, I always thought: “well, if they just do it my way, if they are humbler about it to try to effect change, then everything would be okay.” As I have gotten older, I have learned about all of the different ways we tackle problems; [and] when we look at activism; it’s all important.
What the children at Standing Rock did was hugely important. They were loud, but they were respectful in most cases. They had a message, and it resonated. What it did is that it moved the needle a little bit, [but] it did not move it the whole way.… So, people [who] do not carry the big hammer can come in and kind of make a change to all different aspects of activism … I think at the end of the day, we really need to make sure that our activism leads to change. And change means a change in our political leaders and people that are like-minded. And then we can lean on the court system. I hate to [leave it] all, everything that we hold dear, to the courts, but sometimes, in the world that we live in today, we are eventually going to get there anyway. So, it is just really important that we look at all the various ways of doing activism and realize that we all play an important role in bringing about change, wherever that is on that spectrum.
Heidi Hart: In your recent book about the Bear River Massacre in the 19th century, you discuss the complex relationship between your people and white settlers in Utah and Idaho. How has this complexity affected your ability to speak to groups across political differences?
I am not so sure it has affected [me] … I think, over time, I have gotten to the point that my reputation—especially with political leaders that really do not, maybe, have my best interests at heart—means they know they are not going to be hit in the head with a hammer when they meet with me. And, I think that reputation has really helped me to engage with people that I think we can start making differences with.… I could be terrible in every interaction I have with the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day] Saints and hold them accountable at every turn. And they should be held accountable. But my story is always about acknowledging atrocities from the past. You have to acknowledge [that] if there is going to be a reconciliation; however, not remaining there [is important]. It is [about] recognizing the past, but [then asking] how do we move forward together? I think [things improve] when you take that approach with people who believe differently than you do—asking: how can we move together even though we do not agree politically on everything? What can we do to make this world a better place?
So, I think having that mindset has really helped me navigate some of these political waters that we swim in. I have a lot of good Republican friends.… Working together and having them respect me enough to listen to what I have to say; I think it can really make a difference going forward.
‘The Feelings of Trumpists Are Raw and Real’
Mehmet Soyer: So, I am seeing you as a bridge-builder. Since you are a bridge-builder, do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders who are caught in conspiracy thinking?
I get to exercise this [skill] a lot. Melody, my wife, flew to Florida yesterday to see her son and her granddaughter. He is a conspiracy thinker and a Trump guy. He is gonna be talking about Donald Trump 20 years from now. He is a “35-year-old kid” who is sometimes really hard to deal with. But what I have learned over time is … to listen. That is hard to do, especially when you are hearing [farfetched] things. I have come to realize that, as I listen, even though it might be hard, I show a little bit of respect for some of what they are feeling. Their feelings are real; they are raw, and they do not bring it up to just cause trouble. They have certain things in their mind that are problems. I always try to listen in a way that respects what they are saying. As I do that [with my wife’s son], he has been much more willing to hear me. …
When you engage with people like that, you need to make sure [everyone is] looking forward. Because those people always want to look in the past. They are always looking in the rearview mirror. But I think it’s important that we … support new policies that reflect the values of today. We need to prepare [ourselves] for change and diversity. The thing, I think, that is lacking in our society is an education system that trains people for social change. Today I think, we are failing miserably in our education system. And what that means is [we need to ask] how we are training our kids to interact with people that have different views than us.… How can we really do a better job of educating our kids, so they can deal with people that have completely opposite views … in a way that is constructive and a way that we can work together, moving forward?
But we have done a really poor job of teaching our kids the social skills needed to critically think of ways to be able to work together. And then we just need to do a better job investing in people, in education, and training and family, health care, and it is going to probably require a progressive tax that should fall more heavily upon those who benefit the most. So, I think our country has had it backward for a long time if you look at it from the view that I have always looked at it. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not. If you believe in a higher power, you have got to come to the same conclusion that the higher power loves and cares about everyone, not just those in power and those who have money.
It is plainly important to me that we spend much more of our effort with [marginalized] communities. [As] my grandmother used to say—we are only as strong in a community as our most vulnerable. Well, what does that mean? If we are going to be a strong community, we need to make sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable in that community, who are the most marginalized, and those who have never had a seat at the table; remembering that common ground probably does help, and talking with people who do have these raw feelings. However, ideas can seem so strange and scary sometimes.
Heidi Hart: Oil and gas extraction, especially on federal lands, is a thorny issue, and regulation has been very controversial. How has leadership change in the US affected these controversies among Indigenous populations?
That is a loaded question. Because in the last five years, we have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. We had a president, Trump, who deregulated everything, and he thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is, in every case, the extraction industry.
For me, not getting elected to Congress was really a blessing. I never really thought I would [win], but it was important to me to get the issues that are important to me out there and maybe set an example for Native American youth who might see what I did. [That way, they might] run in the future, [and my example] might make a difference, give them the confidence… [Speaking of] the current administration in place, that victory was really important to so many communities that have been marginalized. It was especially important to our environment. And when we talk about extraction and oil and other things, then not only President Biden being elected, but [also the appointment of] my friend Deb Haaland, a Native American, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior. Being in charge of federal lands—one-fifth of the United States is under federal control—she will now lead a department where she can really make a difference going forward. So, I am really heartened by that appointment; [and I read] in the newspaper that she will be making a visit to Utah in April.
When I went out to the Ute Nation in the winter to do a little campaigning and met with tribal leaders, I don’t think there were any young people that really voted for me, even though, generally speaking, tribal nations vote democratic. Because there is a complex story in that area: we see a Native tribe that was relocated to what was thought then [to be] the worst land in the world. But now they find gas and oil under their land. And so here you take an Indigenous population that has never had money, never had any means to sustain themselves … Now they have millions of dollars because of [what] the gas and extraction industries provide. Their DNA is wired to what I talked about earlier—about how we honor the land and how we need to make sure we take care of it. But now you have given a people that has never had anything a real taste of colonization or the Western world in the form of millions of dollars [in royalties].
‘I Am So Heartened With Deb Haaland’s Running the Interior Department’
They walk a tightrope as far as I am concerned because their Indigenous upbringing reminds them of our stewardship of the land, but their economic [resources] and how they take care of their people … go together. So, my message to them was, “look, I do not want to shut down your oil industry tomorrow, but we need to start looking for ways that we can get away from those things…” I mean, it is not a point of contention, that those things need to go away. But we need to make sure that we are replacing them with something sustainable and something that they can make money on for their people and really give them away to get back to who they are, as Native people. So, while I am so heartened with Deb Haaland’s running the Interior Department, we’ve certainly got to do a better job. I think the current administration and Haaland are the perfect fit for what we want to do in America going forward.
Mehmet Soyer: At a time when the populist right exploits nativism to push their agenda, hurting Indigenous, and minority populations in the process, what can be done to educate people and counter this kind of thinking?
Well, that is a big task. If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already. But we have kind of failed miserably with that…. I think our future leaders really need to reflect our values and how we are looking at things, going forward today, not looking at the past. But I read that [newspaper] article reporting that Haaland is coming to Utah, and there was a sentence that really struck me, and I wrote it down. One of the elected leaders … said [Haaland’s] visit to Utah would allow her to speak with people who live and work on the land and whose voices often go unheard. If you were just to read that quickly or to think, “yes, the Native Americans who have lived on that land whose voices of often gone unheard—those five Indigenous tribes that called Bears Ears their home.” But that is not who they were referring to. They were referring to the ranchers and the locals that have lived there the last 100 years who took the land from the Natives who had stewardship over it.
So, it got me thinking; we have got a big job ahead of us because our elected leaders today are thinking this way. They are not thinking of the Indigenous people that were displaced not very long ago. Well, that is just crazy talk to me—it is looking at the situation in a completely different way than I would look at it…. The task ahead and what we can [achieve] is really overwhelming if you look at it that way. But if you start breaking it down, those elected leaders are good people. [However] if we really [want] social change in America today, locally, we need to re-elect leaders that reflect our values more. I think that is the way you can really make a significant change going forward…. We need to look at it differently … at the people that have lived in America [for] 200 and something years and … at people that have lived here for thousands of years.
I think it is a big thing ahead of us. I am really heartened because, during my campaign, most of my staff were students at Utah State University. So, I am looking at the next generations. If we can activate the youth to really make a big change, even here in Utah, which is ultra-conservative, I think we are not very far away from seeing a huge shift. The people who worked on my campaign … want some change and want to be a part of it. Once we start getting more of what I see on the horizon with leadership, the possibilities are really heartening for me. I think we are going to be able to see some big changes.… I also love old-timers, but you know, here in Utah, they were raised in a different way and a different environment. Their value systems are a little bit different, less inclusive.
Mehmet Soyer: You have tried to reconstruct the narrative between White and Indigenous populations. Can you talk about your efforts in the community to create solidarity?
That is a great question. Look, in our culture, our elders are the most important commodity we have … in a culture that relies on oral history and oral stories. Our elders are so important to carry the stories that teach our children the values that we have today. When you erase a certain segment of that culture through boarding schools [and] assimilation processes—and you are raising a generation that could have grown up in a different way, with different ways of looking at the world—there is distress there. My grandmother had such a big influence on me. I guess what I can say is the way she taught me through stories she had learned. She was one of the very first generations that began writing these stories down and preserving our history and culture. And when you start doing that, we retain that old way of learning things, and we retain those old stories much better because we are not relying on just storytelling per se. The volumes of literature that we have from my grandmother now really speak to generations. They can read her works and get a feeling for the old traditional ways of our people.
‘Native Americans Can Best Balance Culture and Change’
However, knowing that change is inevitable, I have always been one that believes that the most successful Native Americans today are those who can best balance culture and change. That has been my guiding force going forward is honoring the deep, rich [Native American] culture by realizing that we have got to change a little bit going forward. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to be successful in the future. So, everything I have tried to do is honor the past as much as I can with every fiber of my soul. Since I realized that we live in a changing world today, that is why you see me with different groups. It is important to me that they hear from an Indigenous leader, maybe in a new way, different from the way their grandparents would have heard.… We are not going back to the old ways as much as we would want or celebrate that. That ship has sailed, and so [I ask] what can I do as a Native American leader today to prepare the youth to change and succeed with it? And if I had one thing to say, it would be “education.” Education is the key, and so that is always my focus, and my goal is to make sure that our youth are being educated in a way that can help their people going forward to a better way of life, but still respecting, and honoring the old ways.
Heidi Hart: Thank you so much. As we finish up here, could you say something about “Seventh Generation” thinking?
I wish the Shoshone Nation could take credit for that kind of thinking, even though I am sure we have that thinking [Editor’s note: the “Seventh Generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future]. The Iroquois People and Iroquois leadership do not make any decision without considering its effects … seven generations ahead. I tell that story because I think one of our leaders took that to heart. If all the legislation they proposed considered the effects on seven generations down the road, would we make the same decisions?
I don’t have any oral history or storytelling about that. All I know from a Shoshone perspective is that we have always considered what effect it would have upon the land, our animal kinfolk, and things going forward. So the “seven generations story” really resonates with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people about how our stewardship is. When you see populism and nativism and things like that, it is about the here and now. To me, the story is never about the past [either]. We can honor the past and look at it as a way to educate ourselves and to use a measuring stick to see where we are going. But the story is always about the future: “What can we do today to make our future better not only for my kids and me but for our grandkids and great-grandkids?” That should be the message.
At a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented findings from an international research project. Their findings warn journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.
At a virtual meeting of the European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented data and findings from the international research project entitled Right-wing Populism in the News Media: A Cross-Cultural Study of Journalist Practices and News Discourse funded by the Swedish Research Council.
The main research question centred on the challenge facing journalists as they try to balance disparate concerns while reporting on scandalous speech by right-wing populists (RWP). Based on a qualitative discourse-analytic approach, Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow examined key aspects of the discursive framing of undemocratic, racist, homophobic and otherwise scandalous speech by right-wing populists in European news reports, collected between 2014 and 2018. The issue is how these frameworks can contribute to the processes of normalizing populist discourse and agendas.
The authors presented case studies from current, ethically problematic speeches by radical right-wing politicians and their mediated representations in print, online, and broadcast news media from Sweden, Greece, and France. The main analytical aspects in the news were: blaming the actors and/or political parties responsible for the scandals; journalistic evaluation through the language constructed in the news (explicit/implicit); and aspects of the foregrounding and backgrounding—that is, was more emphasis placed on the conflict itself or on its moral content.
The Swedish case, presented by Marianna Patrona, shows the press reaction to a November 26, 2017 speech by local politician Martim Strid (of the Sweden Democrats – SD), in which Strid railed against Muslims. According to Patrona, the Akktuelt News Group reported the controversial statement and journalistic commentary that framed the event as a clear moral transgression, comparing the content of Strid’s statement to the Nazis. Moreover, the selection of quotes condemning relevant political actors in headlines, news articles, reports and political commentaries reflects the important work of journalistic evaluation. For Patrona, media coverage helped to highlight the unequivocal culpability of a politician, while highlighting the broader values of the SD. This served as an opportunity for the SD to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-democratic views and the discursive inclusion of the party in a political culture of democratic and legitimate debate.
Patrona also analysed an incident from Greece: reporting on a homophobic speech made by Konstantinos Katisics, MP of ANEL and member of SYRYZA-ANEL in 2018. During a parliamentary debate over a bill that would allow same-sex couples to become foster parents, Katisics equated homosexuality with pedophilia: “Love of pedophilia is a crime, why should homosexuality be any different?” The MP’s declaration provoked widespread public outcry. He was called to account on radio and television. On the “Good Morning Greece” (ATN1 channel) program, the MP was called to explain himself; from the beginning, the hosts framed the interview controversy of legitimacy: “We have many phone calls that agree and many phone calls that disagree.” Throughout the interview, Patrona’s analysis shows that the focus was on the conflicting styles between Katisics and his peers—and not on the homophobic content. The politician was given many opportunities on several occasions to reinterpret his homophobic statement and thus dismissing all charges.
Joanna Thornborrow presented about a scandalous comment overheard by a journalist in France. During a pre-campaign cocktail hour in Marseille, ahead of parliamentary elections in May 2014, the former leader of the National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen was overheard talking with other party members about the population explosion in Africa. At the time, he said that France was “submerged” by immigration and that “Monsignor Ebola can sort that out in three months.” According to Thornborrow, the racist and anti-democratic statement was presented in a neutral manner by journalists in most of the subsequent stories, including two major national daily headlines which ran it as breaking news. It was reproduced in direct quotes or speech attributed to the politician, with no journalistic evaluation of the content. Like Katisics’s case in Greece, when JM Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, was asked about the topic at Des Paroles et des Actes, interviewers allowed her to blame the press (…) “who have totally taken his words out of context …”
Following Thornborrow, neutral media positioning on JM Le Pen’s racist comment contributes to marginalize the FN; allows the party’s leadership, Marine Le Pen, to blame the media for being biased towards the party and against “the French people”; and enables the reinterpretation of racist discourse and its dissemination across digital media, rousing FN supporters.
Based on the evidence from the three case studies, the researchers concluded that there are three journalistic practices with regards to normalizing RWP speech: 1) neutral and non-evaluative reporting; 2) the media’s propensity to frame extremist discourse as a conflict narrative, without considering the ethical limits of racist and homophobic anti-democratic discourse; 3) the “scandalous” framing, giving free publicity to right-wing populist leaders without any ethical criticism of their undemocratic stances.
Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow’s findings warn academics and journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.
Ozturk, Ibrahim. (2021). “Populism and the rise of hybrid governance models: Saving the multilateral cooperation.” Populism & Politics. March 16, 2021. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0006
As compared to the existing top-down and rigid hierarchical governance models, the hybrid governance models (HGMs), which allow loose and minimal institutional structure are in continuous flux, more flexible and adaptable to the external shocks. However, an inherent weakness in that “hybridity” approaches is their equalization of the irregularity, arbitrariness, and uncertainty with “high adaptability,” which invites populism into the discussion.
Introducing the Problem
The limited capacity of the current liberal multilateral order (MLO) to properly address challenges such as successive financial crises, worsening income distribution, increasing migration, climate change, environmental degradation, pandemic, and unbalanced trade structure between different countries and regions have stimulated debates that neo-liberal globalization has reached its limits (Mearsheimer, 2019; Rodrik, 2020). These problems have put the existing multilateral organizations, such as the World Trade/Health Organizations, the IMF/WB, the UN, and the EU, which possess the global public good (GPG) characteristics for collaborative solutions, under immense stress.
On the one hand, excesses of unmanaged globalization have limited nations’ sovereignty, independence, and autonomy. However, global companies have remained immune to proper regulation. Existing mechanisms are not sufficient to motivate them to behave in the benefit of stakeholders. Therefore, mentioned failures have triggered a process of “governance crisis,” populist waves, and the search for alternative governance in the periphery as well as in the centre (Acheria, 2017 & 2018, Subacchi 2020). Increasing number of alternative regional or national cooperation models are emerging with both potentially positive and negative ramifications (Johnston, 2018). As taken together, populism and hybridity increasingly motivate new approaches to the state-economy-market-company relations at the international, regional, national, and even corporate levels (Aiginger, 2020). For instance, different varieties of the “parastatals” are rising recently in the field of state-owned enterprises, sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), and special economic zones (SEZs) (Khanna, 2012).
Under the observation that populist hybrid regimes offer individual, or at best, regional solutions, rather than providing more comprehensive and participatory solutions to existing problems, this article proposes that the MLO should be reformed to make it more participatory, fair and transparent. The view defended here is that the rising hybrid regimes should be effectively amalgamated into the existing MLO to address the underlying reasons that motivated their rise. However, in the absence of a decisive and a benevolent hegemonic leader that requires a “collective leadership” to manage the mentioned “creative destruction” for the upgrading of the rule-based, multilateral liberal statuesque. The recently ratified such comprehensive agreements between Japan and the EU to fill the leadership gap that arose after the withdrawal of the US in the field of global cooperation and even damaging it under Trump’s rule may evolve into a new stage with the return of the Biden government to international cooperation mechanisms after the US elections.
After discussing the nature of emerging populist-hybrid regimes as well as the characteristics of the needed hybrid governance (HGMs), recent attempt of Japan and the EU will be very briefly mentioned to highlight the importance of collective leadership in strengthening the existing MLO and open the door for their reformation finally.
On Hybrid Regimes and Populism
After the hyper-globalization era of the 1990s, when unfettered free markets dominated, the so-called post-Washington consensus came during the 2000s, this time with more emphasizes on macroprudential regulatory institutions (mainly) in the financial, social, and distributional sectors. Finally, a new phase of global (dis)order is emerging, called the age of hybrid norms and fragmented governance. By describing it as “multiplex world”, Acharya (2017: p.7) goes on to identify it as follows: “… [It refers] broadly to formal and informal interactions among states and other actors, at global and regional levels, based on common principles and institutions that are not dominated by a single power or group of powers. Instead, leadership is diffuse and shared among actors that are not bound into a hierarchical relationship linked to differential material capabilities.”
Given these approaches, hybridity represents the absence of a dominant and coherent paradigm advocated by a coherent core. Rather the contrary, competing norms coexist and challenge one another. As Jessop (2013: p.8) underlines, “governance models and structures are characterized by different and changing degrees of hegemony and hierarchy, overlapping spheres of influence, national components and transnational influences, interdependences and pockets of self-containment, embryonic and dying regions, marginal spheres and areas of confrontation.” In such a conjuncture, the rise of pluralistic and diversified governance structures is necessary and unavoidable. As viewed from this perspective, the clash of norms opens up new opportunities for more pluralistic patterns of globalization such as hybrid governance models (HGMs) and carves out precious space for emerging countries (Menard, 2004, 2010).
However, this outlook calls for different institutional responses to cooperation strategies to reflect the proliferation of transnational challenges, the diffusion of new ideas, and the expansion of actors and processes envision. As compared to the existing top-down and rigid hierarchical governance models (i.e., the EU or former Soviet models), the HGMs, which allow loose and minimal institutional structure are in continuous flux, more flexible and adaptable to the external shocks. However, an inherent weakness in that “hybridity” approaches is their equalization of the irregularity, arbitrariness, and uncertainty with “high adaptability,” which invites populism into the discussion. In the given context, it might be fair to define HGMs as populist regimes because of their divisive rhetoric of “we” and “others” and the way they criticise the global order. Both of them strongly express their emphasis on independence, autonomy and national interests. The HGMs seek to legitimize their underlying ideology through “the West versus the rest” rhetoric, and accordingly, they criticize the global establishment as serving predominantly in the interests of developed countries.
Notwithstanding, such legitimate criticisms of the MLO give a pseudo message that both HGMs and their populist ideologies can serve as a “democratic corrective” to the statuesque. On the contrary, again on a pretty legitimate ground, populist rhetoric of the HGMs can be seen as demagogy in a post-truth world towards consolidating the power of the “one-man rule” inside and authoritarian regimes outside through appealing to and claiming to embody the will of the people, nations, and therefore sustaining several authoritarian tendencies (Weyland, 2021). The gist of the point is that in the context of governance, the long-term issue concerns its sustainability. In contrast to the predictable, transparent, accountable, and rule-based institutionalized governance, the so-called HGMs open the door to a heavy populism, which generally attributes domestic problems to the “external enemies” or “imperialists” for the sake of self-legitimation (Öniş & Kutlay, 2020). Conditional upon the political needs and priorities, that antagonism can be easily and pragmatically extended other areas of international fragmentation, such as trade wars and economic protectionism.
A brief reference to China’s state capitalism and its implications on the dissemination of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can help to understand the inherent populism tendencies involved in HGMs. China has so far adopted a more selective approach to globalization in line with its underlying model of authoritarian capitalism. Overall, reflecting the opportunism and pragmatism of China, three dimensions of its political economy can be linked to the HGMs, as argued in this paper.
First, outside, China demands and requests for a greater say in the existing international institutions through modestly reforming the basic institutions of the MLO, such as World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to better reﬂect China’s increased economic power and status had encountered rejection and resistance by the US since 2010 until the related reform package passed in 2015. While the vested interest was hindering the long overdue reforms, China’s push for a regional institutions such and the BRI and The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), within which it would be dominant or at least have considerable impact was a reﬂection of Beijing’s frustration over the Western, especially American, dominance of the existing international multilateral bodies. In that context, reflecting both the emerging global conjuncture and his personality, Xi Jinping’s thought or doctrine has shaped China’s development and global engagement for decades to come, and perhaps longer.
Second, inside, China builds an authoritarian regime under rigid control of the Communist Party, which is facilitated by increasing digitalization of the governance processes. Among other things, it legitimizes several unfair trade practices, which are inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and distortionary industrial subsidies to the SEEs. Both the US and the EU have declared that these policies have built Beijing’s manufacturing base, at the expense of its competitors.
Third, the BRI, which evolves at the interface of China’s state capitalism and the liberal world economy, represents a modern form of old-historical tributary realm of influence, with the ultimate objective of expanding China’s influence. In other words, China invents the BRI as a “Chinese way of rule breaking, second stage towards hegemony before the final stage. President Xi states that: “We should not be a bystander or a follower, but an active participant and leader. We need to let more of China’s voices be heard and more Chinese elements to be noted in the process of making international rules, to maintain and expand China’s interests in pursuing development…in the future, the Chinese nation will forge ahead like a gigantic ship breaking through strong winds and heavy waves.”
Notwithstanding, as compared to what other great powers (the UK, the US) did throughout the 19th and the early 20th centuries, when they were hegemonic powers, Chinese way might be more peaceful way of expanding her realm of influence by providing some kind of regional public goods such as infrastructures, security alliances, financial networks and so forth. Since 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s gradual reform and opening era, state economic enterprises’ (SEZ) governance model has been closely supervised and gradually evolved through a “trial-error” and “learning by doing” process. That experience has partly shaped China’s state capitalism both inside and outside. Reflecting all these experiences, through the BRI, China’s expands its foreign economic policies and external reach. It is disseminated by the Chinese leadership as a model Chinese way of cooperation in doing business (Grimmel & Li, 2018).
Recent observations on the functioning of the BRI in infrastructure development across Eurasia and Africa since 2014 show that China’s insistence on an institution-less and contingency model of governance has created many problems. As BRI’s fragmented, multi-centric, multi-layered, and multi-pivotal sub-networks of interconnected and interwoven regional and international contact and diplomacy have not allowed the third parties’ participation with the credibility and experience of international best practices to oblige and engage Chinese companies in a rule-based, win-win game. Therefore, it has failed to fulfil a needed GPG for practical cooperation in bringing solutions to the global infrastructure gap. It neither performs an ex-ante rule-based contracting, for instance, at the stages of tendering, funding, construction, and operation nor an ex-post performance based-analysis to accurately measure the cost-benefits of the services it provides.
It seems that the current harsh competition between the Western paradigm of governance, which supports rule-based, structured, and centralized cooperation, and the Asian (and increasingly Chinese) models that promote flexible and non-structured contingency models would determine the future course of the expected forms of governance.
The EU-Japan’s Cooperation: Balancing Hybrid Governance
China’s efforts to export its systemic aspects through BRI with the mentioned institutional loopholes and implementations have triggered dangerous retaliatory acts from the US, increasing requests from the EU for further reciprocity wide range of economic activities and opposing waves in many developing countries. The BRI case shows that recently evolving HGMs need some transferable institutional lessons from the Western experience of public good provision.
In an environment of fragility created by the US’s withdrawal from multilateral cooperation mechanisms in the Trump administration and China’s efforts to expand its disproportionate and unilateral sphere of influence to fill this gap, cooperation between countries with a shared vision, such as Japan and the EU, is critical in providing the leadership required for the production of Global Public Goods (GPGs). After long years of passive position, both Japan and the EU have taken a more active initiative through several comprehensive agreements to create new opportunities and somehow balance China in the Asia-Pacific region and other critical geographies.
A recent EU-China policy paper clarifies the position of the EU visa-a-vis China as follows: “In different policy areas, China is simultaneously a cooperation partner, with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives. A negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests. An economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership. Finally, a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” (EU-Commission, 2019).
Under mounting lobbying from the industrialists, Germany also pronounced its “strategic industrial policy” to create “national winners,” and Brussel adopted measures to force China for reciprocity and fair competition. It can be argued that eventually, China reacted positively. After almost eight years, the EU and China have finalized the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment by the end of 2020, which was first proposed in 2012 and have arrived at a common language acceptable to European approaches, norms, and values. That shows, if the EU acts as a unified actor, similar to the US, it has an opportunity to exploit international pressure on China (Berkofsky, 2019).
On the other hand, after the highly ineffective “Silk Road Strategy” announced by the Hashimoto government in Japan in the mid-1990s to fill the gaps that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire (Öztürk, 2006), Japan has recently taken a similar position with the EU. Through the partnership for quality infrastructure, Japan offers collaborative opportunities, fair distribution, and a level playing field for all (Pascha, 2020a, 2020b). These similarities motivated two like-minded soft powers to take joint and decisive steps. To that end, Japan and the EU have signed strategic, economic, and digital agreements with the potential of protecting and promoting free trade, multilateralism, and the rules-based order. They want to develop multilateral international cooperation mechanisms in geographies where China has been quite active through its BRI, not only in Asia but also in the Europe-Balkan region and Africa.
Ongoing efforts for inclusive partnership between the like-minded actors, such as Japan, EU and multilateral organizations (i.e., the World Banka, multinational companies, civil society organizations) would create the required synergy for the needed public goods for cooperation with hybrid characteristics provided they fulfil the following properties (Berkowsky, 2020; Söderbaum, 2015).As Evenett and Baldwin (2020) correctly note, there is an obvious need for alternative ‘interface mechanisms’ (i.e., the BRI) that allows different forms of capitalism to co-prosper. Second, global and regional problems require international consensual compliance between different coalitions in creating alternative and more efficient public goods (Kaul, 2013). Third, as they are still needed with their proved performance after World War II, the MLO should be amended through viable reforms rather than thrown aside.
To synthesize these three factors, HGMs with GPG characteristics should be more open, transparent, accountable, and inclusive; on the one hand, and also reflect the facts, figures, norms, and civilizational values emerging in the new geo-strategic geographies, on the other. Having possessed these properties, the new HGMs conserve the West’s contributions while allowing the East’s indigenous contributions.
In that context, by considering the risks, uncertainties, complications, and fragilities of the current global power shift from the West to the East (Allison, 2017), the opportunities and threats in creating alternative HGMs through a comparative institutional approach should be sought. In that context, the EU-Japan cooperation mentioned above might offer a “buffer mechanism” to refrain from a dangerous East-West divide by proposing a more balanced and integrated approach to the needed and desired global governance reform (EU Parliament, 2020; Berkowsky, 2020). The rise of that synergy, however, depends on several factors, ranging from the harmony of cultural texture between Asia and Europe to the ongoing regionalization experiences in Europe, which is passing through new challenges, and in Asia, that has reached a new height with the ratification of recent free trade agreements, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP, 2020; EU Parliament, 2021).
This article argues that neither the current MLO nor the new populist and ideological approaches that reflect some aspects of “arbitrariness” and “contingency” under the so-called HGMs that are emerging in many countries is capable of solving participation constraints for international cooperation by addressing main principle-agent problems amongst the major stakeholders. The article believes that the creation of alternative GPGs for effective, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable cooperation through relevant HGMs is possible and needed. Provided that they combine the norms, values, and principles of both the West and the East in cooperation, they can more easily address existing challenges in development-related sustainable infrastructure projects such as transportation, communication, cybersecurity, data flow, energy, and industrial locations.
Similar to the transformation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1951) into the current EU over time, it can be expected that a new multilateral cooperation mechanism that starts in a relatively narrow area of infrastructure would eventually reach a tipping point to transform into the expected GPG. Considering the lack of required leadership that has resulted in the current global “reform fatigue,” a comprehensive economic, strategic, and cyber agreement between Japan and the EU, two “like-minded” entities, would help to supply some of the needed and expected GPGs in the manner mentioned above.
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 Parastatals are wholly or partially publicly owned but often privately managed; they include wealth funds, extractive companies, utilities, administrative and judicial centres, export-processing zones, and urban-development authorities that run—with little or no democratic scrutiny—some of the most significant pools of money and sites of growth.
 Known as “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” In Chinese, 习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想.
 On the other hand, despite such an “over-determination” to lead the new stage of global power shift, BRI has not a well-thought and well-prepared architecture. Such developments as global economic crisis, American containment policies, and several domestic economic challenges forced China to announce BRI to stimulate domestic demand and find external export markets in developing countries, mainly, through large-scale overseas (infrastructure) investment. See Jinping, Xi. (2014). A speech at the Collective Learning Session of the Politburo of CPC Central Committee, Dec. 5. The Governance of China. http://english.scio.gov.cn/featured/xigovernance/2018-11/28/content_74217442.htm (accessed on March 12, 2021).
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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).
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.
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).
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 possibilities. Q’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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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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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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
 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.
“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 Gauchet’s 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.
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.
The Chances of Populism Returning in Even 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.
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.
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”).
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.
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%.
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.
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.