While debates on the effects of the post-9/11 counterterrorism measures (CTMs) on civil society organizations (CSOs) exist, there is a paucity of data on how CTMs are shaping the spaces and actors of CSOs in Nigeria. During this ECPS seminar, Dr Emeka Thaddues Njoku discusses CSOs’ perceptions on the effects of counterterrorism measures, the countermeasures that CSOs are taking, and the government’s views on security threats posed by CSOs with Saskia Brechenmacher.
“When populists included [others] it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained,” says Professor Carlos de la Torre.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
Professor Carlos de la Torre, who is director of Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, believes populism is here to stay. Prof. De La Torre, whose new book Global Populisms will be published soon, argues that the task of citizens, students, and scholars is to understand populism’s complexities without demonizing it. He underlines that we need to understand why these parties mobilize citizens: “Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook.” Yet he warns about the solutions populists present: “If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctioning of democracy, their solutions are problematic.”
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Do the policy makers and intellectuals in the North have anything to learn from the experiences of Latin America? Can you please elaborate?
The surge of populism studies in English has unfortunately relegated the Global South to a few marginal footnotes. Most scholars compare Europe and the US, and do not pay attention to the rich bibliography on populism written about Latin America and other regions of the Global South and published in English. For instance, most introductory volumes do not even mention the pioneering work of Gino Germani on populism and fascism. Even when scholars compare the North and the Global South, the categories that they use are derived from European experiences that are posed as the universal norm.
For instance, Cas Mudde’s concept of populism that was developed to explain right-wing extremist parties located on the fringes of the political system is used as the matrix that supposedly allows comparisons between the West and the rest. Yet his categories do not travel well to explain cases worldwide. As an example, Mudde does not consider that the leader is central to his definition of populism. His assertion makes sense if the object of his study is small extremist right-wing European political parties. But in other regions, populism revolves around powerful leaders. In Europe, successful populist mass-based parties like the National Rally, Syriza, or Podemos are leader-centric.
The bibliography on the Global South might give answers to what to expect from populists in power, and how to better resist them. After all, in Latin America, populists got to power before [they did] in Europe and the US.
Populism is based on interactions between two antagonistic camps. Populist attempt to be the centre of the social order and the media tends to obsessively focus on the leader allowing him or her to dominate the news cycle. When the opposition felt that all democratic channels were closed, they called the military to solve civilian problems. These irresponsible and undemocratic acts play into the hands of the populist that presents herself as a victim and the avatar of democracy. Not all populists will have the same effects on democratic institutions.
People as Ethnic, Political, or Social Constructions
How do you compare and contrast Latin American populism with European populism? Do we find more similarities or more differences when it comes to these forms of populism?
To distinguish types of populism, it is important to analyse how they define “the people” and its enemies. The people could be constructed with ethnic or political criteria, and as a plural population or as a unitary actor. Ethnic constructs could be exclusionary, as when the enemies of the people are minority populations such as Muslims and non-whites in Europe and the US. “The people” as constructed by Donald Trump for example faces ethnic and religious enemies such as Mexicans and Muslims. He launched his presidential candidacy from Trump Tower in New York City asserting, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some I assume, are good people.” He expanded his racist platform by calling Muslims terrorists and promising to monitor Muslims within the US and banning those who want to enter this country.
Differently from Trump’s racist view of the people as white and its enemies as cultural, religious, and ethnic “others” fundamentally different and dangerous to the true white-Christian, and heterosexual people, Evo Morales and his political party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement Toward Socialism), successfully used inclusive ethno-populist appeals. Given the fluidity of race and ethnic relations in Bolivia, they were able to create an inclusionary ethnic party grounded in indigenous organizations and social movements. The MAS and Morales were successful because they also incorporated non-indigenous organizations and candidates. The term indigenous was politicized to include all Bolivians who defended national sovereignty and natural resources from neoliberal elites. It was an embracive category that signified a claim to post-colonial justice, and for a broader political project of nationalism, self-determination, and democratization. Morales’ enemies were the neoliberal political and economic elites that served the interests of multinational corporations, supranational institutions like the IMF, and US imperialism.
Left-wing populists tend to construct the people with political and socioeconomic criteria as those excluded by neoliberal elites. Hugo Chávez framed the political arena so that he did not face political rivals, but instead an oligarchy that he defined as the political enemy of the people, “those self-serving elites who work against the homeland.” Left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe like Syriza and Podemos similarly construct the category of the people as the majorities in their nations who are excluded by neoliberal policies imposed by supranational organizations like the IMF or the Troika.
Democrats imagine the people as a plurality of actors with different views and proposals. By constructing the people as plural, democrats face rivals that have legitimate institutional and normative spaces. Populists like Donald Trump or Hugo Chávez on the contrary claim that they and only they represent the “true people.” Chávez boasted, “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a ‘people.’ I represent, plainly, the voice and the heart of millions.” On another occasion he commanded, “I demand absolute loyalty to me. I am not an individual; I am the people.” Even though Chávez’s political and socioeconomic construction of the people was inclusionary, his view of the people-as-one was anti-pluralist, and in the end, antidemocratic because he attempted to become its only voice.
When ethnic or religious views of the people are combined with constructs of “the people” as one, populism becomes exclusionary and antidemocratic. Under these conditions, populism can be a threat to the basic values of modernity such as a pluralistic, critical, and inclusive civil society. Because ethnic and religious enemies are seen as a threat to the purity and morality of the true and rightful people, they might need to be confined or expelled. Therefore, ethnic constructions of the people in the most extreme cases could lead to ethnic cleansing. Political and socioeconomic constructions of “the people” can lead to inclusionary policies. Yet when “the people” is viewed as one, as Chávez did, his populism was inclusionary and antidemocratic because he assumed that the part of the people that he embodied was the only authentic group.
Light Populism versus Full-blown Populism
Populist not only differ on how they construct the people and on the right and left axis: light and full-blown populism should be differentiated. By light populism, I refer to political parties and politicians that occasionally use populist tropes and discourses, but that do not aim to rupture existing institutions. Under this criterion, Bernie Sanders, who did not break with the Democratic Party creating a third party in 2016 or 2020, is a light populist. Full-blown populists aim to rupture existing institutions by polarizing society and the polity into two camps of enemies and constructing a leader as the symbol of all the demands for change and renewal. Light populists are almost indistinguishable from other politicians in contemporary democracies that appeal to trust in their personas and use the mass media to bypass traditional parties. Full-blown populists often use democratic institutional mechanisms and mass mobilization to try to bring change. When seeking power, full-blown populists appeal to constituencies that the elites despise or ignore. They use discourses and performances to shock and disturb the limits of the permissible and to confront conventions.
Despite their different constructs of who is “the people” and dissimilar politicizations of grievances and emotions, populists do similar things when in power. Populists aim to rupture exclusionary institutional systems to give power back to the people. They face enemies, not democratic rivals. They appeal to reason and emotion to reduce the complexities of politics to the struggle between two antagonistic camps. Regardless of its potential inclusionary promise, the pars pro totodynamic of populism is inherently autocratic because a part of the population claims to be its whole and pretends to rule in the name of all. A leader is constructed as the true voice and the only representative of the “real people.” Some populist leaders are represented as the saviours of their people. Other leaders become avatars of patriotism and claim to know how to make things right for their people.
What can we learn from Latin American populism to explain its relationship with democracy worldwide?
Populism forces scholars to define what they mean by democracy not only as an analytical term, but also as a normative ideal. Whereas critics argue that it is a danger to democracy, populists claim to embody democratic ideals. Whereas some argue that populism is an anomaly of malfunctioning institutions, for others it is a permanent possibility in democratic politics. Three approaches about the relationship between populism and democracy can be differentiated: populism is democratizing; populism leads to autocracy; and populism is a sui-generis combination of inclusion and autocracy.
i) Populism Is Democratizing
For scholars that understand democracy as policies that mitigate structural inequalities, the record of populism for democratization is positive. The sociologist Carlos Vilas argues that from the 1930s to the 1960s, populism in Latin America led to its fundamental democratization. During the first two terms of Juan Perón [Argentina] from 1946 to 1955, the percentage of voters surged from 18 percent of the population in 1946 to 50 percent in 1955, and women voted for the first time in the 1952 elections. The share of wages in the National Gross Domestic Product increased from 37 percent in 1946 to 47 percent in 1955. Similarly, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand (2001-2006) materially improved [the lives of] the poor by creating health programs, giving debt relief to rural cultivators, and introducing a loan system for low-income university students. Poverty fell and he led the political involvement of the informal sector, the rural poor, urban middle classes, and the northern small business and landowners.
Populist material, political, and cultural inclusion was not accompanied by the respect for pluralism and dissent. Perón for example expropriated critical newspapers. His government created a chain of radio stations and newspapers and produced movies and other propaganda materials. Perón dominated the labour movement by displacing and jailing communist, socialist, and anarchist leaders, and by promoting cronies to the leadership of the powerful national labour confederation CGT.
When populists included it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived of as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression, and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained.
Despite the historical record of populist power being at best ambiguous for democracy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe view left-wing populism as a normatively desirable democratizing alternative to stopping the xenophobic and racist populist right. Populism, Laclau argues, entails the renaissance of politics. It is a revolt against technocratic reasoning, the surrendering of national sovereignty to supranational institutions, and of the popular will to neoliberal political elites. With the global rise of neoliberalism, understood as a rational and scientific mode of governance, public debate on the political economy was closed and replaced by the imposition of the criteria of experts. When all parties accepted neoliberalism and the rule of technocrats, politics was reduced to an administrative enterprise. Contrary to social democrats that embraced neoliberalism, the populist right used nationalist and xenophobic arguments to challenge globalization and the surrendering of national sovereignty. To stop right-wing variants, the left must construct popular democratic subjects.
Laclau’s normative defence of populism is problematic because he relies on Carl Schmitt’s view of the political as the struggle between friend and enemy. Under these constructs, it is difficult to imagine democratic adversaries who have legitimate institutional spaces. Enemies, as in Schmitt’s view, might need to be manufactured and contained. Moreover, the historical record of left populists in power in Latin America does not support views of populism as democratizing tout court. The leftist governments of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Ernesto and Cristina Kichner, and Rafael Correa were inclusionary. When the prices of commodities were high, for example, they reduced poverty. Yet their governments entered into war against the media, attempted to control civil society, and attacked freedoms of expression, association, and the inviolability of the individual.
ii) Populism Leads to Autocracy
A second group of scholars argue that populism in power leads to authoritarianism. Kurt Weyland differentiates two routes by which populists erode democracy. The first is that when populists close all democratic institutional channels to the opposition, they provoke the most reactionary sectors to plot military coups. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the history of Latin America oscillated between populists in power being ousted by military coups.
After the third wave of democratization, when the international community accepted elections as the only tool to name and remove presidents, coups became too costly. Nowadays, populism, Weyland argues, is leading to slow processes of democratic erosion. The systematic yet incremental confrontations between populist presidents with the media and with critical organizations of civil society, the instrumental use of laws to punish critics and to favour cronies, and the concentration of power in the presidency leads to what Guillermo O’Donnell conceptualizes as the slow death of democracy—or to competitive authoritarian regimes.
iii) Populism Is a Sui-generis Combination of Inclusion and Autocracy
For a third group of scholars, populism in democratizing contexts and when citizens were not incorporated into political parties is a unique mix of inclusion and autocracy. Populism in Latin America was simultaneously inclusionary and anti-pluralist. Populists’ democratic credentials were grounded in the premise that legitimacy lies in winning free elections. In the 1930s and 1940s, Juan Perón in Argentina and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador fought against electoral fraud and expanded the franchise. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa used elections to displace traditional neoliberal elites and to build new hegemonic blocks. Yet elections under populism are plebiscitarian, and rivals are turned into enemies. Populist inclusion is based on the condition of surrendering one’s will to the leader who claims to be the embodiment of the people and the nation.
If global populist trends continue, what sort of a world will we be inhabiting in 20-30 years?
I don’t know. But what we learned after Trump was voted out of office in 2020, and his attempts to stay in power at all costs, is that populism is here to stay. Our task as citizens, students, and scholars is to understand its complexities without demonizing it. We have to comprehend why these parties mobilize citizens without using stereotypes that label followers as irrational.
Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook. They, for instance, politicize anger at socioeconomic and political exclusions. If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctions of democracy, their solutions are problematic. Populism can lead to processes of democratic disfigurement when the complexities of modern society are reduced to the struggle between two antagonistic camps, and when one part of the population claims to represent the population as a whole. Under these conditions, opponents do not have institutional or normative spaces to articulate dissent, becoming the hideous oligarchy or the anti-national other. The populist critique needs to be taken seriously, yet we have to interrogate whether their solutions will actually return power to the people or will lead to what Nadia Urbinati calls “the disfigurement of democracy.”
Who is Carlos de la Torre?
Carlos de la Torre is Director of the UF Center for Latin American Studies. He has a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. He was a fellow at the Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. His areas of interest are populism, democratization, and authoritarianism, as well as racism and citizenship in the Americas.
His most recent books are The Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (Routlege, 2019); Populisms a Quick Immersion(Tibidabo Editions, 2019); De Velasco a Correa: Insurreciones, populismo y elecciones en Ecuador (Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 2015); The Promise and Perils of Populism (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015); Latin American Populism of the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Cynthia Arnson, (The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013); and Populist Seduction in Latin America (Ohio University Press, second edition 2010).
This article discusses the Chinese American trickster tradition focusing specifically on archetypes and several key themes, such as racism, populism, and essentialism. We argue that the figure of the Monkey King is central to Chinese American literature, particularly in Chinese American women’s writing, and the concepts of populism and racism are made relevant through the cultural appropriation of this folk figure in the writings of Chinese American authors. Furthermore, the article discusses tricksterism in relation to politics and cultural production, particularly the Monkey King. In this regard, the article makes an original contribution to the literature on tricksterism and cultural populism by analyzing the Chinese American trickster tradition from these fresh perspectives.
By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir
There is a thriving Chinese American trickster tradition with distinctive characteristics peculiar to Chinese American literature, specifically Chinese American women’s writing. Producing some of the earliest examples of Chinese American women’s writing, the Eaton sisters—Edith Eaton (also known as Sui Sin Far) and Winnifred Eaton—used trickster techniques in their writings, although they did not create a trickster tradition based on one protagonist, like Sun Wu Kong. On the other hand, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen, all established Chinese American authors, have developed a Chinese American trickster tradition with trickster characters. The primary source and inspiration for these characters is the Chinese trickster tradition with hints of the African American Signifying Monkey (Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land comes to mind). It is fair to say that Kingston’s trickster character Wittman Ah Sing became the basis of the Chinese American variety, while Tan and Jen further shaped this evolving tradition with new tricksters, such as Mona, Lanlan, and Kwan Li.
When we talk about the Chinese American trickster tradition, the monkey as an archetype emerges as a prominent motif. This can take the form of an actual monkey-like character in the narrative, or like the Signifying Monkey, through narrative elements and language use. However, the use of the monkey trickster as an archetype is ever-changing and open to new interpretations, as each author brings something new to the table, with new characters as well as new trickster narratives and traits. Writing about the dynamic nature of myths and tricksters, Estella Lauter holds that “myths are part of the dynamic of history instead of being one of its reservoirs”—as such, myths are not “records of a completed process” (1984: 3). set Never set in stone, tricksters as archetypes adapt, change, and transform as time goes on through new narratives and via cultural adaptation. Thus, they are dynamic and fluid rather than static.
Kingston, Tan, and Jen have all contributed to the development of a Chinese American trickster tradition which, as mentioned, draws extensively on the Chinese trickster tradition. However, it is distinguished from the classic approach by its distinctive trickster types and styles, its own arguments, and a “communal signification” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). It is therefore focused on the concerns of the Chinese American community and its ethnic heritage.
The main aims of the Chinese American trickster tradition can be summarized as follows: Re-establishing bonds with one’s ethnic community, reclaiming one’s heritage, and reinterpreting the same ethnic heritage and traditions. “Ethnic” here signifies the broadest range of cultural and racial elements, concerns, and issues. As such, while gender plays an important role, the connecting tissue of the Chinese American trickster tradition is ethnic belonging as well as inter-ethnic relations and tensions.
Maxine Hong Kingston bases her trickster character—Wittman Ah Sing, an assertive and popular trickster—on the Monkey King. The Sing (星) in Wittman’s name means “star” in Cantonese). Kingston’s primary concerns in writing The Woman Warrior, published in 1989, were gender inequality, patriarchy, and oppression. However, her central theme and driving point in creating Wittman Ah Sing and writing Tripmaster Monkey, published some years late, was to create a popular Chinese American trickster who is concerned for the wellbeing of his community and fights racial stereotypes of the Chinese.
Shades of Populism in Culture
According to Jagers and Walgrave, populism is a type of discursive practice and is essentially a form of rhetoric (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). For others, populism is a well-devised strategy (Barr, 2009) formulated with the intention of transforming the existing system of governance or taking over the state apparatus. For others still, it is essentially a political style or performance (Moffit, 2016).
Although there are many different approaches to populism—focusing variously on ideology, strategy, style, or discourse (Mudde 2004; Bar 2009; Moffit 2017)—there is a scholarly consensus that it is a social plague creating antagonistic us versus “the enemy” other binaries. Furthermore, populist figures see such divisions as an opportunity and try to capitalize on them by further dwelling on the sociological faultiness to portray themselves as the savior of the “real people” of the country from the exploitation of the enemy “Other.” Thus, exaggerating divisions and threats, the populist aims to deconstruct society’s social fabric in a way that defines the interests of “the people” (i.e., the populist’s followers) versus those opposed (“the Other”). Therefore, “notwithstanding its competing definitions, leaving its ontological nature to the discussion in the extant literature, … populism is about constructions (construction, de-construction, and re-construction) of ‘the people(s),’ and mobilization in an antagonistic fashion by the populists. This is because construction of ‘the people’ is ‘the main task of populists’.” (Yilmaz et al. 2021: 3).
Populist divisions and binaries are created at different levels or in different dimensions such as “vertical” and “horizontal” (Taguieff, 1995: 32–35) or in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Concerning this civilizational aspect of populism, Taggart (2000) explains how populists construct “heartlands” and appeal to the people, stirring a feeling of nostalgia in them. Thus, populists invite the people—“the rightful owners” of the native land to reconstruct and live in these “heartlands.” In the construction of these heartlands, the primary reference is to history. However, more than history, it is the culture that keeps those emotions alive in mind and practice. Therefore, we argue that it is culture that allows for the conversion of certain periods of history into emotional spaces— namely, “heartlands” that people yearn to reconstruct and live. In this regard, we can view certain aspects of the trickster, as in the example of the Monkey King, appropriated for the purposes of patriotism, nationalism, and populism, as the tools of culture used to carve out history for “heartlands.”
Populism in Literature
Populism as a concept is more discussed in the realm of politics than culture. However, culture and populism are related concepts that need to be scrutinized in relation to one another. Hence, the merging of the two concepts as “cultural populism” is understood to mean “primary cultural production” or “aesthetic populism” also denotes the “study of popular cultural texts” (McGuigan, 1992: 2). As such, cultural populism can be understood as the infusion of “popular cultural elements” into “‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). Thus, at the intersection of populism and culture, we see that populism lacks the default negative connotation it has vis-à-vis politics. Rather, at least in one of its meanings, it is understood simply as the popularization of art and cultural production among the masses.
On the other hand, populism, in its negative connotation, is also present in the cultural domain. Hence, cultural populism is criticized for trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (TV films versus cinema, popular bestsellers versus literary books). This kind of populism does not mobilize the masses; rather, it affects the consumers in ways more subtle, which are criticized (creating less complex, watered-down versions of literary characters or stories, with the assumption that the masses cannot comprehend more complex forms of storytelling or art).
Finally, concerning cultural populism and mass media, the criticism that populism creates “lowbrow” (cf “highbrow”) culture is worthy of discussion and analysis (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 108). As can be observed in our paper, the difficulties involved in popularizing classical literature (in the form of the Chinese classic Journey to the West) and creating popular forms of culture in the form of animation films and TV cartoons while appropriating the themes as characters to popular political leaders (as in the case of Mao Zedong), are all the more apparent here, and worth discussing in relation to populism and tricksterism.
Wittman Ah Sing
This article attempts to identify and analyze the different trickster types in the Chinese American tradition. Each of thesehas specific functions and attributes (ranging from countertypes to mediators), in line with specific themes (such as populism, essentialism, and racism). Hynes and Doty have previously categorized tricksters and identified their attributes, such as trickster as “shape-shifter,” “deceiver/trick player,” and trickster as “situation-inverter” (1997: 34). We argue that such categories are necessary to comprehend the functions of tricksters in the Chinese American trickster tradition.
There are different dimensions of the trickster created by Kingston. In Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Kingston creates a new trickster archetype with Wittman Ah Sing. On the second level, she creates a “trickster countertype” in the person of Wittman, countering the culture and dominant worldviews that produce stereotypes of Chinese Americans. Wittman Ah Sing set an example in Chinese American literature as a new archetype by being the first fully-fledged trickster protagonist written by a Chinese American author. The concept of archetype was initially used to mean a “symbolic figure” in tribal lore (Jung, 2003: 4).
According to Jung, while it can be “disseminated … by tradition, language, migration,” an archetype can also “rearise spontaneously” with no apparent influence from outside factors, and at any given time or location (Jung, 2003: 13). Joseph Henderson also talks about “trickster archetypes,” but unlike Jung, whose definition is based on parapsychology, he bases his definition on the study of tricksters in oral literature. Henderson gives the example of the Coyote in the Native American oral tradition as a trickster archetype ( 2005: 28). Henderson holds that a “trickster archetype” can assist people in “mediat[ing] between the powers of good and evil” (2005: 28).
So, a trickster archetype is not an archetypal figure with a purely evil or purely good presence but is marked as a go-between with the abilities of “creative experimentalism” (Henderson, 2005: 28). In parallel to these definitions, by “trickster archetype,” we mean a model that sets precedence in creating trickster characters in a literary tradition. A trickster archetype contains the basic attributes of all other tricksters within the same trickster tradition, as it represents the trickster tradition as a whole.
On the other hand, tricksters that follow the archetypal example take a specific attribute of that archetype and embellish it, developing in this way new types. In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the trickster archetype of Chinese American women writers’ fiction (and Chinese American literature in general) and was followed by other trickster characters with different traits.
Referring to her study of myths in the work of women artists and poets of the twentieth century, Lauter explains her stance regarding the uncovering of myths and archetypes. She remarks that “[t]hese women have not discovered truths that are outside history; they have simply responded to the imperatives of their own history in ways that may disclose the imperatives of ours” (Lauter, 1984: x). Thus, while these writers write and rewrite traditional trickster figures, and in some cases, create a new trickster archetype, they also write to respond to their own past and present in a dynamic understanding of meaning production through tricksters.
Wittman Ah Sing parallels other trickster archetypes, such as the trickster archetype of the Coyote, but especially the Monkey King of classical Chinese literature. In line with Henderson’s description of a trickster archetype, Wittman’s actions and character are ambiguous. His transgressive and disruptive behavior can be considered harmful, but his intentions and the results of his actions can be considered positive and constructive. Like other trickster archetypes from various traditions, Wittman Ah Sing also stands out with his creativity, experimenting with new trickster strategies, and becoming the prime example of the trickster in Chinese American literature.
With this said, let us now look at the attributes of tricksters in the Chinese American tradition and the general discourses and themes that they are associated with in Chinese American women’s fiction.
The “Awkward Dinner Guest:” Populism and the Chinese Trickster
One of the themes and discourses that is relevant to Chinese American tricksters is populism. We argue that one of the trickster archetypes is the trickster in the guise of an “awkward dinner guest,” who—after getting himself drunk—challenges the hosts by asking difficult and bizarre questions. Nevertheless, such questions can lay bare underlying problems, however discourteous it may be of the guest to raise them (Moffitt, 2010). In fact, according to Moffitt, the “awkward dinner guest” is the very personification of populism in relation to liberal democracy (2010).
In this trickster guise, the awkward dinner guest can be a positive force, laying bare the shortcomings of the system and challenging the status quo. However, the guest can also be a hindrance in a democratic context. The functioning of democracy is undermined if the guest challenges democratic practices. However, the trickster can also be a force for good if it can “identify otherwise overlooked political problems” and become the voice of minorities and “marginalised groups” (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the perfect example of a popular and populist trickster who becomes the voice of marginalized Chinese Americans. The discursive challenge to populism is highlighted in Wittman’s tricksterism through the example of Wittman’s unsuccessful efforts to find work at an employment office. Here, unemployment as a recurring issue in American society is laid bare and implicitly critiqued via the narrative.
Furthermore, in line with the Monkey King archetype, Wittman Ah Sing creates chaos, disrupts authority, and challenges stereotypes about Chinese people created by the majority culture (Kingston, 1998: 78–79). Similarly, Wittman’s final aim is to create his own one-man show through which he plans to share his populist discourse about tackling stereotypes. Through the show, he aims to unite the Chinese community, echoing in a way the discursive goals of a populist “leader of the people.”
However, it is more noteworthy that the very archetype of Chinese tricksterism, Sun Wu Kong, on which Wittman Ah Sing was based, was also utilized as a banner holder of populist political discourse. Thus, in the context of this trickster archetype, the trickster is not only the awkward dinner guest but a cultural hero of populism itself. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the archetypal Chinese cultural hero and trickster, Sun Wu Kong, was used by the Chinese Communist Party as a symbol of communism, appropriating the figure of the trickster to fit the party’s populist discourse. It is no coincidence that a cartoon version of Sun Wu Kong, the Chinese trickster, was shown on Chinese national television for decades.
What is more, books and films were published in China where Sun Wu Kong was identified with none other than Mao Zedong through political undertones and allusions. In Havoc in Heaven, a Chinese animation film from 1965, the Monkey King challenges the authority of the Jade Emperor in line with the Journey to the West narrative. The difference here is that, unlike the classic novel, the animation has a “political backdrop” that became apparent to viewers and film critics in China, who noticed the political undertones with its revolutionary themes (Harvard Press, 2014). In light of the film, Mao was “compared … to the mischievous Monkey King,” and Heaven, where the Jade Emperor resided, was compared to the Chinese bourgeoisie, which Mao was fighting against.
Thus, Monkey King became a populist trickster who challenged the despotic ruler in the form of the Jade Emperor. This strife between Monkey King and the Jade Emperor was appropriated to fit the populist discourse of China’s communist government. However, even before the new political and populist signifiers attached to Monkey King, it can be said that the original Chinese trickster archetype had populism as a central theme, as he went on to challenge all the gods stuck in their old ways, as a way of challenging authority and mobilizing the masses, in the form of his monkey followers (Harvard Press, 2014).
The Trickster Countertype
A countertype is created in the face of a stereotype about a certain group or ethnicity. Thus, countertypes are positive portrayals that show how wrong the stereotypes are concerning the targeted group, as they demonstrate the positive traits of that group or show the opposite of the stereotype. In this way, a countertype operates as a “positive stereotype” (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238).
Two important cultural examples that showcase countertypes about African Americans are The Cosby Show and the American film Shaft. Nachbar argues that The Cosby Show presented an African American family with none of the stereotypes associated with African Americans, while Shaft presented the viewers with an African American private detective protagonist who was assertive, courageous, and clever (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238). However, The Cosby Show’s presentation of Black people can be criticized. The countertypes in the show do not represent the conditions of the majority of African Americans. Rather, the show presents a middle-class version that ignores the poor living conditions and economic inequalities true for many Black people in American society even today.
Similarly, Shaft’s creation of a countertype for Blacks is not entirely benign, as the film lauds gangster culture and presents Black men as dangerous and prone to violence. These examples presented as countertypes were, in fact, criticized for showcasing a selective and sometimes misleading and harmful version of the ethnic group they were thought to represent. Another criticism against countertypes in general is that they fail to meaningfully change or transform the stereotypes they confront. Countertypes on their own are not politically effective in overcoming stereotypical depictions. The main criticism of countertypes is that despite their utilization in media and literature, the stereotypes associated with ethnic groups persist in other domains of popular culture and popular imagery.
The trickster countertype functions similarly to the cultural countertype, with a few significant differences. While the countertype directly aims to replace existing stereotypes, the trickster countertype does not necessarily aim to take the place of a stereotype. Rather, a trickster countertype, such as found in Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, functions to challenge and dispel the essentialism, inequalities, and cultural reductionism that create stereotypes. Another significant difference of the trickster countertype is its ability to utilize some of the traits of the stereotypes about a particular ethnic group to mock and disrupt the dominant discourses that made these stereotypes possible.
Rather than countering stereotypes headlong, the trickster countertypes often point at the problems and inequalities. The trickster countertype does this effectively by utilizing the trickster’s characteristics of transgression and transformation. The trickster countertype depends largely on the existing trickster narratives, and ethnic-minority writers such as Gish Jen create trickster countertypes as protagonists.
Jen transforms Sun Wu Kong into a trickster countertype in her novel. While in Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston creates a Chinese American trickster archetype and countertype in the person of Wittman Ah Sing, in Mona in the Promised Land,it is Mona who follows in the footsteps of the trickster archetype, disrupts inequalities, racism, and essentialism in the American society, while at the same time providing a utopian alternative with her trickster powers.
The Trickster Mediator
Tricksters have always been noted for their role as mediators between the known world and the supernatural world and as interpreters of the gods, as they communicate with the unseen world and channel their knowledge to the world of humans.
When discussing aspects of tricksters from Afro-Caribbean folklore, Gates emphasizes the role of Afro-Caribbean tricksters as mediators (1989: 6). Esu, a trickster in the Yoruba oral tradition and other African cultures, is mainly known for his function as the “messenger of the gods,” as he makes sense of the messages of the gods, and brings those messages to men, and carries the wishes of men to the gods in turn (Gates, 1989: 6). Given the tricksters’ ability to cross boundaries, they can also take on the role of a messenger between the world of the gods and the mortal world (Stookey, 2004: 129). Hermes, a mythical figure from Greek mythology who is characterized as the messenger of gods, also performs the role of the trickster: as a trickster, he is not bound by any restrictions and can also communicate “lies and deceits” (Stookey, 2004: 130). As a trickster, Esu is, like Hermes, a “shifty mediator” whose mediation can be disruptive and full of tricks (Hyde, 2008: 125).
For Gates, the tricksters’ tricks are themselves his “mediation” (1989: 6). Although most tricksters have some attributes of mediation, not all tricksters are messengers of the gods and communicators of gods’ wishes to humanity. The trickster as mediator is a specific type whose relationship with the supernatural is his primary attribute and specialty. Like the two classic trickster mediators, Hermes from Greek mythology, and Legba from African folklore, all trickster mediators are scarcely “rule-governed;” therefore, they can both make sense of the gods’ messages and leverage them for their trickster ends (Stookey, 2004: 130). Another attribute of the trickster mediator is his role in making sure that human beings offer sacrifices to the gods; otherwise, he brings them suffering and afflictions (Hyde, 2008: 125).
Like the trickster mediators Hermes, Legba and Esu, the Monkey King has also mediated between deities and mortals. The Monkey King is constantly in touch with the supernatural world, always summoning spirits, gods, and demons, either to his aid or to question them for a wrongdoing. Like the trickster mediator, he can also be mischievous in his communication and tricks humans and deities into believing in him, twisting and distorting facts for his benefit.
When the Monkey King visits the Underworld, he communicates with Yama, the King of the Dead, and then erases his records from the archive of the dead to become immortal. When he is appointed to a position to take care of the horses in the palace of the Jade Emperor, he ditches work to trick the gods and eats the pills of immortality. As part of his penance for wrongdoing in a past life, Monkey King is also punished for his trickery in his mediation with the gods: he promises Kwan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, that he will join a Buddhist monk on his journey to India and abide by his rules. But after a while, he relapses into his old violent ways, fighting and killing many of those who cross his and the monk’s path on the journey to India. Because of his mischief, Kwan Yin metes out another punishment, forcing the Monkey King to wear a magical iron helmet that causes him severe headaches whenever he descends into mischief.
As a trickster mediator, Kwan Li in The Hundred Secret Senses also communicates with the supernatural world, which she calls the World of Yin. In line with her attributes, she is also a trickster mediator, as she has a close affinity with the Monkey King trickster of the Chinese tradition. While Kwan follows the patterns of a trickster mediator, she is a reinvention of the Monkey King character, emphasizing his attributes of mediation. Like traditional trickster mediators such as Hermes and Esu, Kwan Li interprets the messages she receives from spirits residing in the World of Yin and conveys them to her sister Olivia and anyone who comes to her to seek help from the World of Yin.
Unlike traditional tricksters, Kwan Li has an altruistic nature, always wanting to help her sister Olivia and her friends. However, it is striking to observe that as a trickster mediator, Kwan Li is also not a stranger to the idea of sacrifice. While traditional trickster mediators like Esu request that humanity makes sacrifices to the gods, Kwan Li gives up her own lifeto save a precious friend from death.
The Trickster Disruptor
One of the key characteristics of tricksters in various oral traditions is disruption. The trickster’s attribute of disruption creates chaos, unsettling the balance and breaking the “order of things” (Wiget, 1994: 95). The Monkey King often disrupts the schemes of the authorities to achieve his aim of immortal life. He tricks the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the universe, and disrupts the Heavenly Peach Banquet, wreaking havoc there after realizing that the authorities have not invited him. Following the example of the Monkey King, Wittman Ah Sing also creates chaos, disrupting parties and challenging accepted stereotypes about Chinese people (Kingston, 1998: 78–79).
The trickster disruptor is different from Wittman Ah Sing and the traditional Chinese trickster Monkey King in one important aspect: The Monkey King and Wittman break the order of things with a particular aim and with positive results in the end. While the Monkey King destroys opponents and the many bandits who cross his path on the way to India, his ultimate aim is to safely take delivery of and bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China for the good of the community. Similarly, despite Wittman’s transgressive behavior, his particular aim is to found his own one-man show and, through his show, bring together his disparate community.
The trickster disruptor breaks the balance and makes life difficult for others, creating disorder and chaos without any particular aim, acting as a negative force. Even if the results of her actions may have some relatively positive outcomes, this is not deliberate and conscious, as the trickster disruptor disturbs the balance without such goals. However, despite the trickster disruptor’s primary role as a troublemaker, she shares one significant trait with the trickster mediator—namely, the source of inspiration. This source is the Chinese oral tradition, through which proverbs, stories, sayings of Chinese scholars are incorporated into the trickster discourse. Despite this positive aspect, the trickster disruptor’s role is often not welcomed by society. Finally, like the trickster mediator, the trickster disruptor also feels she belongs nowhere. Since she leads a liminal life, even if she may feel some connection to particular individuals and places, she is not ultimately bound to any one place or person.
Trickster Techniques in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s Work
In this final part of the article, we would like to look at some of the trickster techniques that refer to a specific use of language, characters, and style in a given text, which gives the text its trickster qualities, which in return has ideological functions and implications for the writer and readers. According to Gerald Vizenor, the “trickster is a liberator and healer in a narrative, a comic sign, communal signification and a discourse with imagination” (1993: 187). By identifying the trickster both as a sign and a discourse, Vizenor emphasizes that the trickster does not necessarily always appear in a given text but can also manifest itself as a discourse and style.
A trickster language and style are not necessarily only apparent in texts with trickster figures, given that the trickster can also manifest itself as a “language game in a comic narrative” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes the trickster’s use of formal language, particularly in the context of the Afro–American trickster figure of the “Signifying Monkey” (Gates, 1989: xxi). The Signifying Monkey becomes relevant in analyzing the narrative style and language of the trickster, given that it is more a rhetorical device or a “rhetorical principle” than an actual figure (Gates, 1989: 44), and it has significant functions in the production of meaning alongside the trickster’s actions in the text. The Signifying Monkey, as the “‘ironic reversal’ of the insulting stereotype of the Black as monkey-like, uses language to break away with stereotypes, using different language tropes such as puns, metaphors, repetition, irony, and hyperbole, all of which constitute his trickster ability of ‘Signifying’” (Gates, 1989: 52).
The most important aspects of a trickster tradition in the context of Chinese American literature in general and Chinese American women writers’ fiction, in particular, are their stance against essentialism and stereotypes and their close-knit connections with different forms of storytelling. The trickster technique of Kingston, Tan, and Jen foregrounds storytelling as a significant part of the construction of identity and community. By telling their stories from multiple perspectives, the tricksters in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s novels create narratives that do not have one central “authorial” perspective that dominates their trickster novels. Their challenging essentialist constructions of Chinese identity is another significant and definitive aspect of the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition. This technique is apparent in Kingston’s characterization of Wittman Ah Sing, who invokes the trickster Monkey King. He also culturally dismantles reductionist depictions of the Chinese through his trickster ability of transgression. Kingston’s trickster strategy, which challenges essentialist discourses about Chinese Americans, is shared with Jen, who also challenges Chinese stereotypes in the trickster character of Mona.
A significant technique in the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition is building a trickster identity that is fluid and subject to change. It has been noted by critics such as Hynes that essentialist conceptions of identity are rigid, static, limited, and limiting and that the trickster figure provides a significant challenge to this static view of identity, intersecting with the postmodern conception of identity. Hynes remarks, pointing to the divergent character of the trickster, that “the logic of order and convergence, … is challenged by another path, the random and divergent trail taken by that profane metaplayer, the trickster” (1997: 216).
Another trickster technique utilized by the authors is the use of laughter and parody to dismantle dominant ideologies and hegemonic constructions. The novel is “a fundamental liberation of cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language” (Bakhtin, 1998: 366). According to Bakhtin, “the rogue, the clown and the fool” represent the negative side of the Rabelaisian novel (1998: 406), as symbols of what Bakhtin calls “Rabelaisian laughter” and as figures that clearly have trickster qualities. In Bakhtin’s view, Rabelaisian laughter signifies a quality in the novel that operates to bring out “the crude, unmediated connections between things that people otherwise seek to keep separate” and to “destroy … traditional connections and abolish … idealized strata” (1998: 170). On the other hand, for Bakhtin, the positive side in Rabelais’ conception of the novel form relies “upon folklore and antiquity” (1998: 169–170). Thus, Kingston, Jen, and Tan use laughter and criticism to expose ethnic stereotypes and essentialist constructions of ethnic identity on the one hand while maintaining their connection to their cultural narratives and myths through trickster strategies and figures in their novels on the other.
Another central aspect of a trickster technique in the fiction of Chinese American women writers is “liminal cultural position,” characterized by the transgression of existing boundaries, whether they are cultural, ethnic, or ideological boundaries. Liminality as a concept was first coined and discussed in the context of anthropology as a phase in the rites of passage of tribal peoples. Arnold Van Gennep, who coined the term “rites of passage,” uses the term “liminal” while discussing initiation and transition rites of tribal societies (1960: 11, 21, 53).
Van Gennep also associates rites that involve passing through a door or a portal with the liminal, calling them “liminal/threshold rites” (1960: 21–22). As part of the rites of passage of a tribe, the liminal phase represented a threshold in the ritual, which was preceded by the separation of the individual from the society. The trickster’s apparent autonomy from society’s norms and restrictions is a metaphor that stems from the actual condition of the liminal phase in the rites of passage of a tribal society. As Turner observes, the person who goes through the “liminal period” in the rites of passage gains an ambiguity and enters a “cultural realm” that is unstable, and completely separate from and dissimilar to the past and coming phases of the ritual ( 2008: 94–95).
At the same time, the attributes of liminality as a condition are, also, the attributes of the person who dwells in the liminal space, what Turner calls the “liminal personae” or the “threshold people” and what we call the trickster embodying a “liminal position,” echoing Smith’s argument that the trickster has a “liminal cultural position” that allows him to move beyond the confines of the world (1997: 12). Hence, the main characteristic of liminality is ambiguity and the condition of eluding any fixed definitions or classification. Therefore, “liminal entities” “are neither here nor there” and are “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial” (Turner, 2008: 95).
Tricksters are relatively free from society’s laws and restrictions, which allows them to expose these same restrictions and create new spaces of meaning production on a textual level. Despite liminal space being confined to the homogenous and monolithic character of the tribal society, the liminality utilized in the fiction of the trickster writer functions as a bridge between different cultural influences, genders, and ethnic groups in a society while also evading monolithic definitions of culture and ethnicity, reflecting Van Gennep’s association of threshold rites with liminality (1960: 21).
Paralleling the liminal space of threshold rites, which allows the initiated individual to travel between the world of immortals and the world of gods or from the world of the dead to the world of the living (Van Gennep, 1960: 53), the trickster in the liminal space of the novel can cross ethnic boundaries and challenge existing worldviews. In this way, Wittman Ah Sing can defy Frank Chin’s claims to a belligerent and patriarchal Chinese tradition and reject being enlisted in the Vietnam War. Mona Chang of Mona in the Promised Land can go beyond ethnic boundaries and freely exchange cultural traditions with Sherman Matsumoto of Japan and Seth Mandel, a Jewish American. A “liminal position” informs and empowers the fiction of trickster writers such as Kingston, Tan, and Jen. What we call the “liminal space” of the trickster text allows for questioning ethnic stereotypes and becomes useful for women and people of color in the face of racism in a patriarchal society.
In this article, we have analyzed the different aspects of the trickster in Chinese American literature and attempted to provide an overview of the different trickster types and discourses found in the Chinese American trickster tradition, from populism to countertypes, with particular attention paid to the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Gish Jen, whose writings, we argue, have had an enormous impact on the way the Chinese American trickster tradition found its unique identity within American literature.
Finally, we discussed the Chinese American trickster tradition through the lens of the techniques utilized by Chinese American authors in shaping and influencing the literary tradition in question. During our research, we have found that while Tan and Jen’s trickster characters are female, they are still based on the male trickster Monkey King, and their primary concern is to challenge ethnic stereotypes, create inter-ethnic and inter-communal harmony, and challenge racist ideologies.
To conclude, the Chinese American trickster tradition evolves with each new novel and short story that utilizes trickster techniques and characters. While each is worthy of study in its own right, we can nevertheless trace common origins in classical Chinese literature and in the figure of Sun Wu Kong.
(*) OMER SENER holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters, cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.
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 The title of the article in question, “Havoc in Mao’s Heaven,” is a reference to the animated film, Havoc in Heaven, and could also be a reference to a quote attributed to Mao Zedong: “There is great chaos under Heaven; the situation is excellent” (“天下大乱，形势大好”). Understood to refer to the Cultural Revolution, as a way of creating order through chaos, the attribution of the quote to Mao is nevertheless questionable.
 We use “liminal space” to denote the complete narrative space of a trickster text that accomodates the trickster, while using “liminal position” to denote the liminal attributes of the trickster in literature. Thus the trickster has relative freedom in the liminal space of trickster fiction, which allows him or her to cross the “limen” of societal restrictions and hierarchies.
Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat: “The most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that ‘we.’ And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”
Interview by Merve Reyhan Kayikci
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a commentator on fascism, authoritarian leaders and propaganda and the threats they pose to democracies, said that any society can be susceptible to an authoritarian strongman figure if it’s the right time. “It’s very important to see the warning signs in the beginning and stop these people in their tracks,” she warned.
Giving an interview to Sweden-based Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), Prof. Ben-Ghiat talked about her latest book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” the rising authoritarianism around the world, the link between masculinity and authoritarianism and how to stop the “strongmen.”Stating that the most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we” Ben-Ghiat said that “they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”
The following is the excerpts from the interview.
In the book you begin by describing how there is a strong link between masculinity and authoritarianism. What are some aspects of masculinity that make an authoritarian leader and draw the support of people?
There are many types of masculinity in the world, but the strongman is an authoritarian leader who not only damages or destroys democracy but uses this kind of toxic, arrogant masculinity as a tool of rule. So some of them, like Mussolini and Putin, will use their bodies, they strip their shirts off, and so they let their bodies become kind of emblems of national strength. And they also use threats. Their strength is also threatening. This is a kind of masculinity that’s about domination, possession of others, and it connects to a worldview where these leaders have a proprietary conception of power and the state so that they seize businesses, as Erdgan does in Turkey and Putin in Russia. So this is a kind of masculinity, and the reason I use arrogance is that there is nothing that shouldn’t be theirs.
Ultimately, Authoritarian Governments Are Very Destructive and Unstable
Do you think in some societies people are more drawn to a father figure, a savior, than in other societies?
One of the ways these leaders find popular appeal is that they correspond to ancient archetypes of male figures, such as the protector or the father figure and also the savior. One common theme is that they all say they are going to save the nation. Only they have unique qualities, and this is where their charisma can come in or their personality cult. Only they can save the nation. On the one hand, they project themselves forward in time, where they say, “I’m going to make things great in the future.” They often pose as modernizers where they’re building highways and airports. But they also channel nostalgia, where they say, so it’s not “Make the nation great again,” as Donald Trump would say, it’s not “Make the nation great,” it’s “Make it great again.” So the nostalgia for a world that used to be better, for a lost empire, is very important. Mussolini had the Roman Empire, Erdogan has his fantasy of reviving the Ottoman Empire. … They attract people by playing into fantasies of grandeur and power.
One of the things my research taught me is that any society can be susceptible to this strongman figure if it’s the right time. The right time is sometimes after a defeat … or a time where there has been a lot of social change that includes gender emancipation or racial equity, and white males in the European and American context often feel threatened.
In the book you mention that most strongmen have anger issues. Could you elaborate on that?
Historically people have seen authoritarians as crazy, starting with Hitler. People said he was a ranting fool and crazy. I was astounded doing my research at how similar the personalities of authoritarian leaders were. They each have their own quirks and not exactly the same, but they all have paranoia, narcissism, they all are very aggressive, and they like to humiliate others. This leads to certain styles of governance that are very dysfunctional and full of turmoil. So they create inner sanctums around themselves with family members — like Erdogan — because they’re corrupt and need people to keep their secrets. But everybody else is humiliated and fired and re-hired. So their governments are not stable at all. Their personalities are impulsive and they think they are God sometimes and that they’re infallible. They make snap decisions which are not good for policy making. Ultimately, their governments are very destructive and unstable, even though the myth of authoritarians is that these are take-charge men who will bring peace and stability.
Their personalities are full of turmoil, but dismissing them as crazy is shortsighted because they’re opportunists who are extremely skilled at managing people. They know how to connect with people. Erdogan cries a lot and shows a lot of emotion. Not only are they highly aggressive, they have got this politics of emotion that makes people feel included. So all of this does not add up to somebody who’s crazy. It adds up to somebody who’s very skilled and very savvy, actually.
Authoritarian States Need Intellectual Legitimacy
When the political situation in Turkey turned for the worse, one of the first groups to be targeted were academics who were critical of the government. What is the fixation with academia and academics for authoritarians and populists?
Authoritarian states need intellectual legitimacy because they are thug states, mafia states. Violence is their everyday behavior. On the one hand they need intellectuals to write their propaganda, to be their spokespeople, to do nationalist research. They need intellectuals to rewrite the schoolbooks to support their nationalist historiography. On the other hand strongmen disappear people, but they also disappear fields of knowledge that conflict with their goals. While they promote certain things, they also ban other things and threaten people to not work on those topics.
In Hungary Orbán banned gender studies overnight. That was a prelude to his anti-trans policies. So sometimes universities are the first place where the recasting of knowledge and propaganda shows itself. … In authoritarian regimes academics become political people, the government sees them as political people, and then sometimes they become enemies of the state. Erdogan has jailed and detained so many academics, and he is threatened by certain kinds of research.
At a broader level, authoritarians are always threatened by fact-based knowledge. The facts are their enemy. Propaganda means that you have to create an alternate reality that your believers will follow, and research based on science and scientific method becomes the enemy.
What about international support? Did the EU support the stability of Erdogan’s regime for the sake of the migration deal?
Erdogan is a good example of benefitting, that the EU has not been standing up for democracy. They shouldn’t be funding Erdogan, who has locked so many people up and is so corrupt. So what is the EU standing up for? There are groups of foreign enablers because authoritarians, in all areas of their policies, depend on foreign capital and goodwill. Erdogan is just the latest who is doing all these infrastructure improvements with foreign money and foreign debt. If financial institutions were guided more by morality, they could easily retract these foreign lending practices and make them dependent on democratic actions.
These are leaders who care only about money and power, so the West not only does not use its power to change the behavior of autocrats, they help them. The same could be said for international financial institutions and law firms that help autocrats store their money in offshore tax havens.
The anti-globalism of authoritarians is fake because they are the biggest globalists of all. They are dependent on international infrastructure coming from democracies and also foreign autocracies to keep in power. A few years ago Erdogan had five different American PR firms working for him to support his interests in Washington. He and Trump were quite close.
What do you think Western democracies could have done differently to prevent what is happening in Turkey today?
It is very important to see the warning signs at the beginning and stop these people in their tracks at the start and let them know that the EU is not going to fund them anymore or make treaties for migration, and really flex the muscle of democracy and open society and use that. These are men who see any weakness or gentility towards themselves as weakness. They’re always testing the boundaries. … Violations of international law are a test, so the first time there’s a violation, we need to strike very hard. All of these guys in power now have been there for a long time, so it’s too late to retrain them, but we don’t do what we could do. These men only listen to force, and if the EU and democracies don’t show that, then we’re not going to get results.
Authoritarians Like to Believe They Have Divine Guidance
Can we say that authoritarianism is in part the result of democracy failing to fulfil its promises?
To some extent, absolutely. Authoritarians have managed to make people feel included and give them a sense of community. They have been better at that with rallies and chants which may seem superficial but are part of a political culture. Liberal democracy has never been as skilled at that. Authoritarian leaders are able to make an emotional connection. Liberal democracy has been about reason and not raw emotion. This goes back to the figure of the leader who cries in public like Erdogan and who has this charisma that’s constructed.
Once they’re in power, there are huge resources devoted to their personality cults. But people connect with them, and one of the reasons I want to concentrate on leaders is because they are so important for the success of these dynamics. For example, on the personality cult it’s fascinating that the rules of personality cults actually haven’t changed for a hundred years, even though today we have social media and back then there were news reels. So the leader needs to be an everyman who can connect with anyone. At the same time they have to be superman, they have to be men above all other men. They need to be someone who’s all powerful and can get away with things. They like to believe they have divine guidance. It’s the same all over the world and says something about human psychology that we seem to need this in our leaders.
In recent years gender-based violence has increased and even become more visible in Turkey. Would it be right to assume that there is a correlation between rising authoritarianism and the vulnerability of women?
Women have been the targets of authoritarians as much as lawyers, judges, journalists and the critical opposition. They have traditionally been an enemy, even in situations where the state ideology preaches equality, like in communism, you know, Joseph Stalin took away abortion rights. Most authoritarians have ambitions to re-found the family. And this is where the father figure comes in. Authoritarians fear demographic change, so women become pawns and tools of larger social demographic political schemes. If authoritarians are expansionists like the former fascists, then women have to produce babies. Women’s bodies and rights become legislated.
When you have a leader who models through his person disrespect for women or even hatred for women and a kind of violent aggressive personality, then this is reflected throughout society, and it’s often backed up with policies. It’s a little-known fact that Trump, who is a serial sexual assaulter who became president, partly decriminalized domestic violence in the US in 2018. Physical violence was still domestic violence, but all other kinds of abuse — emotional, psychological — were no longer considered domestic violence so women couldn’t get help from the authorities. This leaves them more vulnerable.
Gaddafi was a real revolutionary in the beginning and believed in women’s rights. He hugely bettered the legal status and the employment status of women in Libyan society. Women had the right to work and own their own property. But he fostered a culture of sexual assault and violence as his hold over the country strengthened.
Accountability Is Key
Do you think it is possible to recover from an authoritarian period? After countries are ruled by authoritarianism, is it possible for them to return to liberal democracy, or will they always have some sort of political instability?
If you don’t hold people accountable and you don’t have a mechanism for testimonials to come out for people, like in the former East Germany, when they made public the Stasi files and people could go and see their own file on themselves. This was very empowering to people and created for many decades a lot of stability in Germany. But Germany versus Italy is an interesting case because Italy did not go through an aggressive de-fascism. So the fascists went underground, but it was not rooted out. It was not made to be as taboo in the culture as in Germany. After Franco in Spain you were not allowed to talk about it, so there was democracy but no accountability. There’s always a lot of fear around revenge, retribution, vendetta, and so sometimes in transitional eras sometimes even the people who are on the side of the victims can be afraid to let the energies of the victimized find the full expression. Accountability is key.
What do you think of the use of the “us” and “them” dichotomy? Such as the use of anti-Semitic, anti-migrant and anti-West narratives.
Authoritarians create a community of the included through excluding others. All the community building rituals like rallies, are built on the active exclusion of some so that others feel included. There can be various enemies who are demonized. Sometimes these are Jews, other times these are illegal immigrants, or George Soros, who kind of is everything. He’s a very convenient symbol of many things. But this is the essential dynamic that appeals to very primitive and powerful feelings in people, to feel one with a community and to feel superior. Nazism and fascism because it was so racially oriented made a woman who was deemed an Aryan superior to a man who was not Aryan. So when people ask why women so often support these leaders, it’s because they have status if they are in the included community over men.
In the US, for example, a white woman who loves Trump felt superior to a non-white man. So it plays with gender hierarchies and is a very powerful thing. The most successful of these rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we.” And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that “we.” Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits. That is very interesting to me as a clue to this very insecure and prideful personality who gets pleasure out of humiliating and ruining others. 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people. They make it too tiring so you can’t survive and you’re harassed. So you self-censor, and that’s their ultimate goal.
Authoritarians Need to Be Shamed and Outed
In Turkey people like to say geography is one’s fate. Is authoritarianism a “fate” for some countries?
I find this fatalistic. Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up. … In fact the suffering of the past can make people much more determined to have freedom. The opposite being a place like the United States, which has never had a national dictatorship or foreign occupation, and so people did not see the warning signs of what Trump represented. … They don’t have the history at all and can be complacent, and this is also a problem.
What can we do to safeguard our democracies? Especially, people who are still living in free democratic countries, what can they do for its continuity and also to protect those in vulnerable and dangerous situations?
I think going back to pressuring the EU, pressuring financial and legal institutions and all the enablers of authoritarianism. We don’t have enough journalism articles devoted to them. They need to be shamed and outed, and that is one thing that would have a practical effect, making these authoritarians pariahs, so that US law firms and PR firms won’t take their cases on, so that Erdogan won’t have five different companies to convey his propaganda to US politicians.
The kind of work the SCF does in defense of human rights is important because a lot of that means publicizing the stories of the victims. This is why I included a lot of unpleasant material in the book because today we have the far-right all over the world who openly say, for example, “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” This erases the history of what he did do, so that’s why although it’s not nice to write about the torture, it’s very important. So in real time when Erdogan is beating up people and they come out of prison and they have the marks of what they have suffered, it’s important to show that because this is the kind of evidence they try to cover up.
Who is Ruth Ben-Ghiat?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy. She writes frequently for CNN and other media outlets on threats to democracy around the world. As author or editor of six books, she brings historical perspective to her analyses of current events. Her insight into the authoritarian playbook has made her an expert source for television, radio, podcasts, and online events around the globe. She is also a historical consultant for film and television productions.
Ben-Ghiat’s work has been supported by Fulbright, Guggenheim, and other fellowships. Her books Fascist Modernities and Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema detail what happens to societies when authoritarian governments take hold, and explore the appeal of strongmen to collaborators and followers. Growing up in Pacific Palisades, California, where many intellectuals who fled Nazism resettled, sparked her interest in the subject. Her latest book, the #1 Amazon bestseller Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020), examines how illiberal leaders use corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power, and how resistance to them has unfolded over a century. She also publishes Lucid, a newsletter about abuses of power and how to counter them.
Richard Bertrand Spencer is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America for a “dispossessed white race.” He has also called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of what he describes as “white culture” and to achieve a “white homeland.” Spencer has become the most recognizable public face of the white supremacist and nationalist movements. As an ardent white supremacist and ethnonationalist, Spencer says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanics and African Americans, and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime. In Spencer’s “America,” Asians, Muslims, and Jews don’t qualify as “white” either.
By Bulent Kenes
White supremacy and white nationalism are real threats to democratic societies across the globe, as evidenced by the presidency of Donald Trump and the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As more people embrace a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-multiculturalist worldview, this has fuelled hostility and violence toward those deemed “others” or “outsiders” because of their religion, skin colour, or national origin (Jipson & Becker, 2019).
Driven by fear over the loss of white primacy and white privilege, white nationalists believe that white identity should be the organizing principle of Western society (Jipson & Becker, 2019). The United States is a hub of white supremacy, whose adherents fear that demographic changes will lead to the extermination of the white race and white culture—even though the US remains 77 percent white (Jipson & Becker, 2019). Eight years of Republican demagoguery against the US’ first black president, Barack Obama, made it easier for some whites to be persuaded that the system is rigged against them (Harkinson, 2016).
As a natural result of this process, hate crimes against Muslims, immigrants, and people of colour have been on the rise in the US since 2014. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented 892 hate crimes. The next year, it counted 917 hate crimes. In 2017—the year Trump took office, stoking nationalist sentiments with promises to build walls, deport Mexicans, and ban Muslims—the US saw 954 white supremacist attacks. In 2018, white nationalists killed at least 50 people in the US. Every perpetrator of deadly extremist violence in the US in 2018 had links to white nationalist groups (Jipson & Becker, 2019).
Richard Bertrand Spence is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America (Beckett, 2017) for a “dispossessed white race.” Spencer has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of what he describes as “white culture” (Lombroso & Appelbaum, 2016; SPLC, n.d.; Graham, 2016 & Kirchick, 2014) and to “reconstitute the Roman Empire” (Scott, 2014). Spencer has become the most recognizable public face of the white supremacist white nationalist movements. In 2008, in an article in Taki’s Magazine, a far-right publication, Spencer coined the term “alternative right,” from which “alt right” is derived as a sanitised word for the extreme right (Younge, 2017) (ADL, 2018). (Paul Gottfried, a Jewish paleo-conservative also employed the term “alternative right” when he gave a speech entitled, “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” at the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting in November 2008. For this reason, some sources credit Gottfried with birthing the term.) Spencer further popularized the term when he chose “Alternative Right” as the name for an online publication that debuted in 2010 (ADL, n.d.).
Spencer rejects the label “white supremacist” in favour of the more opaque “alt-right” and prefers to describe himself as an “identitarian” (Cox, 2016); however, the SPLC has described him as a leading “academic racist,” who “takes a quasi-intellectual approach to white separatism” and as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.” The ADL says Spencer us a “leader in white supremacist circles that envision a ‘new’ right that will openly embrace ‘white racial consciousness’” (Cox, 2016).
As an umbrella term “alt-right” is used to describe a movement that is a mix of populism and white nationalism and was birthed predominantly online (Helsel, 2016). The alt-right portrays refugees, Muslims, and progressives as a threat to white culture (Jipson & Becker, 2019). As a loose network of people who promote white identity and reject mainstream conservatism (Beckett, 2017, alt-right has been used by Spencer to refer to people who oppose, among other things, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and open immigration (ADL, 2018).
Spencer has beguiled the American media. Profiles of Spencer have been accompanied by brooding portraits: the racist, looking serious in a blazer; the racist, slouching picturesquely against a wall. Spencer, who has basked in the media attention, was not shy about telling reporters that image is everything; that he and other young racists are the hipster whisperers, ready to bring a new generation into the white nationalist fold (Beckett, 2017). “We have to look good,” he said, because no one is going to want to join a movement that is “crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid” (Fox, 2013).
Growing up in a wealthy part of Dallas in the 1990s, Spencer attended St. Mark’s School of Texas, an elite, all-boys prep school long associated with blue-blooded conservatism. Spencer’s father, an ophthalmologist, did not care much about politics but voted Republican out of habit. Spencer was friend with the only African American student in his class, John Lewis. Lewis says he never thought of Spencer as racist, but another classmate who asked not to be identified recalls Spencer making “a bunch of conservative, racially laced comments” that were objectionable even in high school. However, Spencer says he did not think much about race back then. After graduating high school in 1997, Spencer went to the University of Virginia, where he double majored in music and English and became deeply involved in avant-garde theatre, trying out and discarding various radical ideologies like costume changes (Harkinson, 2016). Eventually, Spencer came to embrace his ideology—and then continued further out on the ideological spectrum (Fox, 2013).
Red Pilled: Waking Up to Reality
After entering the humanities master’s program at the University of Chicago, Spencer discovered Jared Taylor, a self-proclaimed “race realist” who argues that blacks and Hispanics are a genetic drag on Western society. By the time Spencer entered Duke as a Ph.D. student in European intellectual history, in 2005, his views were on his sleeve. Fellow students recall Spencer openly sharing his opinions on biological differences between races and endorsing books such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, which argues that Hispanic immigrants are less suited than Europeans for assimilation. Yet Spencer was charming enough to maintain collegial relations with his peers. “Not many of us had ever come across an out-and-out fascist,” says a college professor who studied in the same history Ph.D. program as Spencer. “We didn’t know how serious he was” (Harkinson, 2016).
Spencer uses a metaphor to explain the jarring experience of waking up to a different worldview. In the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” the character of Morpheus offers Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, a choice between taking a blue pill—“the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”—or a red pill, which shows “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” In the alt-right’s telling, the so-called “normies” swallow the blue pill, digesting the fiction of racial equality, while those who get “red pilled” are stripped of the virtual-reality cloak that blinds them, waking up to the shattering realization that liberalism is just a mirage designed to obscure the hard, ugly truths of a world programmed by genetics. “You’re destroyed by it,” Spencer says, “and put back together again.” After getting red pilled, Spencer began quietly pursuing related ideas through his academic work (Harkinson, 2016).
After dropping out of Duke, Spencer remained preoccupied with race while at The American Conservative, where he became an editor in 2007. Spencer was fired, because he was “a bit extreme for us,” recalls TAC editor Scott McConnell. Then, Spencer moved to a new job as the sole editor of Taki’s Magazine, the online vanity publication of Taki Theodoracopulos, who was notorious for his racist remarks. Spencer steadily evolved Taki’s into a magazine aimed at white nationalists. By 2009, he’d published essays by Jared Taylor and was regularly using the term “alternative right” to describe his youthful brand of anti-war, anti-immigration, pro-white conservatism (Harkinson, 2016). In December 2009, Spencer left Taki’s Magazine.
In 2010, he founded AlternativeRight.com, a white supremacy-themed webzine aimed at the “intellectual right-wing,” (SPLC, n.d.). The site caught the attention of the conservative publisher William Regnery II, who had tried to start a whites-only online dating service and funded the white nationalist National Policy Institute (NPI). With Regnery’s backing (Harkinson, 2016), Spencer became president of NPI in 2011, following the death of its chairman. Concurrently, he also oversaw NPI’s publishing division, Washington Summit Publishers, home of such scientifically bogus works as a 2015 reissue of Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence and screeds by other white nationalists, including Jared Taylor, editor of the racist American Renaissance journal, and Sam Francis, the late editor of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens’ newsletter (SPLC, n.d.).
According to NPI’s mission statement, it aims “to elevate the consciousness of whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights. The institute…will study the consequences of the ongoing influx that non-Western populations pose to our national identity” (SPLC, n.d.). Under the auspices of NPI, Spencer has worked to create an intellectual class of white separatists. The group rejects the calls for violence which appear in Internet chat rooms and public campaigns of hate. Spencer prefers a more professorial approach of publishing books and organizing conferences.
“Our goal is to form an intellectual community around European nationalism,” he said (Mangan, 2016). The “lesbians” and “Latinos” have advocates working for them, so why shouldn’t whites, Spencer asks in a video (Fox, 2013).
NPI seeks to preserve the “heritage, identity and future of European people in the US and around the world” (Mangan, 2016). In 2012, Spencer launched an offshoot of Washington Summit Publishers that he called Radix Journal, a website and biannual publication (SPLC, n.d.), and he also started to host a weekly podcast, “Vanguard Radio” (Bar-On, 2019).No longer confined to the dark corners of social media, Spencer tried to bring a scholarly air of respectability to a movement commonly associated with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (Mangan, 2016), and he managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic (Harkinson, 2016). He envisions a world in which his ideals are embraced by the mainstream, and he has vowed to keep pushing until that happens (Cox, 2016).
However, Spencer has failed to conceal his movement’s darker side. While being interviewed by David Pakman, he was asked if he would condemn the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler; he refused, saying, “I’m not going to play this game,” while stating that Hitler had “done things that I think are despicable,” without elaborating on which things he was referencing (Pakman, n.d.). In early 2016, Spencer was filmed giving the Nazi salute in a karaoke bar, and leaked footage also depicts Spencer giving the Sieg Heil salute to his supporters during the August 2017 Charlottesville rally (Bernstein, 2017). After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Spencer urged his supporters to “party like it’s 1933,” the year Hitler came to power in Germany (Cox, 2016). In the weeks following, Spencer quoted Nazi propaganda and denounced Jews (Goldstein, 2016). At a conference Spencer held celebrating the election, he cried, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” (Bradner, 2016). In early-to-mid 2017, when Spencer’s following was at its height, his supporters would reportedly give him the Sieg Heil salute when he entered a room (Marantz, 2019).
Spencer emerged as one of the most visible white separatist agitators during the Trump campaign (Mangan, 2016). After Trump’s election, Spencer was the focus of a lot of media attention. He never denied that his objective is white supremacy. “I’m trying to normalize ‘racism,’ as you call it,” he told ABC (Ali, 2016). His far-right ideas had travelled quite rapidly from the margins to the mainstream and were infecting the US body politic at the highest level (Younge, 2017a).
In some ways, Spencer resembles an older generation of “academic racists”—or “racialists,” as he prefers to put it (Harkinson, 2016). In his writing, speeches, and interviews, he has given an intellectualized explanation for how he came to advocate for a whites-only “ethno state.” While in graduate school, he has said, he was compelled by critiques of multiculturalism and political correctness and by demographic data indicating that whites are en route to minority status in the US (Williams, 2017).
One of Spencer’s first acts after taking over NPI was to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Whitefish, Montana, where his family has a home (SPLC, n.d.). Whitefish, where Spencer lived after 2014, was not particularly thrilled with his presence. Several local restaurants have refused to serve him. He was compelled to resign his membership from the exclusive Big Mountain Ski Club after he got into a chairlift argument about the Iraq War with the neocon Randy Scheunemann, a former adviser to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and to John McCain during the 2008 election. In 2014, a local human rights group known as Love Lives Here urged the city to bar Spencer from conducting NPI business in town but settled for a resolution condemning hate groups (Harkinson, 2016).
It’s possible to connect the Spencer family’s business interests and geographic history with Richard Spencer’s racist politics. The family’s farm holdings are a legacy of its ties to the Jim Crow South, passed down by Spencer’s grandfather, who built the business during the turbulent civil rights era. Generations of Spencer’s family lived in the South (Williams, 2017). There is a long history of white supremacy in the American South, which has also contributed to the attitudes and, especially, symbolism used by the modern alt-right (Bezio, 2018). Records Show Spencer’s mother attended segregated schools as a girl in the small north-eastern Louisiana city of Monroe. Later, she other inherited farms in northeast Louisiana from her late father. The region has a history of slavery and racism. Throughout the civil rights era, the Ku Klux Klan targeted black residents in northeast Louisiana (and elsewhere) with lynchings, cross burnings, and other violence. In Tensas Parish, where the Spencers own 3,000 acres of farmland, blacks didn’t win the right to vote until 1964. However, in an open letter sent to their local newspaper, Spencer’s parents, Sherry and Rand, said that while they love their son, “we are not racists. We have never been racists. We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism” (Williams, 2017).
“You Will Not Replace Us!”
Spencer abdicated his position as editor of Radix Journal in January 2017 to serve as the American editor of his new site, AltRight.com. Launched on January 16, 2017, AltRight.com brings together several well-known white nationalist personalities (SPLC, n.d.). According to Spencer, however, the site is populist and a big tent for members of the alt-right (Wilson, 2017). Swedish publisher Daniel Friberg of Arktos Media is co-founder and European editor of the site (Porter, 2017). The SPLC describes the common thread among contributors as antisemitism, rather than white nationalism or white supremacy in general (Solomon, 2017). In the same year, Spencer rented space in Alexandria, Virginia, to serve as a hub for the alt-right movement. Some local residents were—and are—not pleased. The city has received at least 25 complaints about Spencer’s rental (Anand, 2017).
On May 13, 2017, he led a torch-lit protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, against a vote by the city council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (CBS News, 2017). Spencer led the crowd in chants of “You will not replace us!”; “Blood and soil”; and “Russia is our friend” (Hayden, 2017; Laughland, 2017).
“You will not replace us” refers to the idea that white Americans are being “replaced” by non-white people through “demographic replacement,” while “blood and soil” is perhaps better known in its original German, “Blut und boden.” The concepts “blood” (meaning racial identity) and “soil” (referencing the land) are inextricably linked in the expression, which meant that peasants and farmers were the most racially “German,” while urban dwellers were racially suspicious. In 1933, “blood and soil” even became an official Nazi policy, requiring that farmers were certifiably “Aryan” in order to receive certain benefits from the state (Coaston, 2019). Local police reported minor verbal confrontations between two opposing groups but confirmed no arrests had been made(Laughland, 2017).
Things didn’t go as quietly at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on August 12 of the same year. Spencer was one of the promoters and scheduled speakers at Unite the Right, which was ostensibly organized to oppose the removal of Confederate monuments. The rally attracted more than 500 white supremacists and many hundreds of counter-protesters, and confrontations between the two groups sparked violent clashes. A white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 30 (ADL, 2018). James Alex Fields Jr., a 22-year-old neo-Nazi from Ohio, would later plead guilty to killing 32-year-old Heyer. Fields and eight other people who attended the rally are in state or federal prison after being convicted of a variety of crimes. Spencer wasn’t accused of any criminal wrongdoing related to Charlottesville. But he and more than two dozen others are defendants in a civil lawsuit brought by people injured during the rally (Barrouquere, 2020). This lawsuit has accused 25 far-right individuals and groups of conspiring to commit violence. At a federal courthouse in Charlottesville, attorney Karen Dunn told the court that, following the march, Spencer declared to a crowd: “We own these streets. We occupy these grounds” (Smith, 2018).
The repercussions for the alt-right and the larger white supremacist community were immediate. Scores of them were “doxxed”—their real identities exposed—and as a result, some were fired from their jobs, had to leave their universities, or were rejected by their families or romantic partners. Many white supremacists’ social media accounts and websites were taken offline, and some were kicked off popular crowdfunding websites, eliminating a key income source. Meanwhile, Spencer, who helped spearhead the events in Charlottesville, has become increasingly unpopular in the alt-right due in part to the perception that he failed to capitalize on the energy generated by Unite the Right (ADL, n.d.).
Since that weekend in Charlottesville, dissension and infighting has overtaken the alt-right movement. On one side are the American Nationalists who believe white supremacists should appeal to whites by using innocuous symbols like the American flag and avoid openly white supremacist symbols like swastikas. On the other side are the National Socialists and other hard-right groups whose members display white supremacist symbols at rallies and don’t care about “optics” or appealing to the white middle class. Spencer, who walks the line between the two groups, appears to be testing out new ways of attracting attention (ADL, 2018).
In October 2017, two months after the rally, he returned to Charlottesville to lead 35-40 people in an unannounced “flash mob.” Afterwards, Spencer called it a “great success” and a “model” for future events. This kind of small event with no advance warning hugely diminishes inherently risky interactions with law enforcement or counter-protesters. Spencer only employed the “flash mob” model a couple of times before turning his attention to scheduled public events like campus speeches (ADL, 2018 & Hawley, 2017).
In December 2017, Spencer announced that he had formed a new organization with other alt-right leaders. “Operation Homeland” was unveiled as a core group of alt-right leaders and activists poised to lead the movement as a whole. The group held a demonstration in December 2017 in Washington DC, to protest the acquittal of an undocumented immigrant in the 2015 murder of a young woman in San Francisco (ADL, 2018).
If You Aren’t a White American, That’s Fine—But You Should Leave
Spencer’s clean-cut appearance aims at concealing his radical white separatism and his goal of establishing a white ethno-state in North America. His writings and speeches portray this as a reasonable defence of Caucasians and Eurocentric culture. In Spencer’s worldview, white people have been “dispossessed” by a combination of rising minority birth rates, immigration, and establishment politics and policies (SPLC, n.d.). “We are undergoing a sad process of degeneration,” he said about minority births in the US. “We will need to reverse it using the state and the government. You incentivize people with higher intelligence, you incentivize people who are healthy to have children. And it sounds terrible and nasty, but there would be a great use of contraception.” He didn’t mean the government should encourage people to use birth control pills and condoms (Fox, 2013); he was advocating for eugenicist forced sterilisation (Stokes, 2017).
As an ardent white supremacist and ethnonationalist, Spencer also openly advocates for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to achieve a “white homeland.” He says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanics and African Americans and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime (Stokes, 2017). Asians, Muslims, and Jews do not qualify as “white” either. Spencer knows that a white ethno-state is at most a distant dream, but he hopes America’s non-whites can be made to agree that returning to the lands of their ancestors would be best for everyone: “It’s like presenting to an African that this hasn’t worked out…We haven’t made each other happier. We are going to have to take part in this paradigmatic shift together” (Harkinson, 2016).
Despite often saying, “you have to look at culture and not just race,” lighter skin colour apparently matters more to Spencer than acculturation when it comes to Hispanics. When pressed about what really sets whites apart, he waxes decidedly unscientific: “I think there is something within the European soul that we haven’t been able to measure yet and maybe we never will… and that is a Faustian drive or spirit—a drive to explore, a drive to dominate, a drive to live one’s life dangerously…a drive to explore outer space and the universe. I think there is something within us that we possess and that only we possess” (Harkinson, 2016). In line with Spencer, NPI is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the US, and around the world” (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer claims, among other things, that Africans have benefited from white supremacy and that Europe would always be more his home than it would be for Blacks (Younge, 2017).
Moreover, he said in an interview that, “The American nation is defined by the fact that it is derived from Europe…white Americans, European-Americans, in particular Anglo-Saxon Americans, Anglo-Saxon Protestants…defined it in a way that no other people did. So, of course, African Americans have influenced American culture and American identity. Of course, Asians have and so on. But it really was Anglo-Saxons who truly defined it. Who made America what it is. Who were indispensable…” (Letson, 2016).
Spencer is also known for his public advocacy of violence against non-whites. He has advocated for the enslavement of Haitians by whites, the ethnic cleansing of racial minorities from the US, and even the ethnic cleansing of Turks from Anatolia (Holt, 2018). He claimed, “Today, in the public imagination, ‘ethnic-cleansing’ has been associated with civil war and mass murder. But this need not be the case. 1919 is a real example of successful ethnic redistribution—done by fiat, we should remember, but done peacefully” (Fox, 2013 & SPLC, n.d.).
On the subject of neo-Nazism, Spencer has expressed admiration for the political tactics of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell for using “shock as a positive means to an end” (Miller, 2018). Therefore, the SPLC has classified Spencer as a leading academic racist, but he rejects the notion that he is driven by hatred and considers “racist” a “slur word” (Fox, 2013). Spencer believes that if you aren’t a white American, that’s fine—but you should leave (Harkinson, 2016).
Despite having no visible tattoos advertising white pride or hate against non-whites, Spencer is a racist (Wertheimer, 2017). His stances conflict with common mores in American society (Wertheimer, 2017. Spencer supports nations segregated by race and called the idea that America is based on rights “silliness” (Helsel, 2016). SPLC (2016) underlines Spencer’s alt-right claims depart from traditional, establishment conservatism and embrace more identity-based politics, such as American Identitarianism. The alt-right proclaims to have move passed the right–left divide, towards a politics that promotes racial homogeneity and to challenge and dismantle mainstream conservatism (Gray, 2015).
“Even if all immigration was stopped tomorrow, there is still going to be a massive minority population,” argues Spencer. “All I know is that in order for white people to survive, we’ll need consciousness of ourselves, or we really will reach a state of humiliation, if not extinction. White people are going to enter a new world where we are a hated minority, where it is seen as a good thing that we have less power. We must fight against that” (Mangan, 2016). He even claims that “The alt-right would not exist if it weren’t for terrible immigration policies and social justice warriors and liberalism and maybe the Barack Obama presidency.” He says, “they made us” (Harkinson, 2016). According to Spencer, immigration “is a kind of proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile” (NPI, February 2014).
In a promo for NPI’s 2013 Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., Spencer opined that both Europe and America are experiencing economic, moral, and cultural bankruptcy under the pressure of “mass immigration, multiculturalism, and the natural expression of religious and ethnic identities by non-Europeans” (SPLC, n.d.). He said on another occasion that, “I believe that selective deportations could set a new tone and that millions would self-deport. It does not matter to me whose ‘fault’ it was that they are here, or if that’s even the right way to look at it. The survival of my people takes precedence” (Mangan, 2016). However, Spencer has said he would gladly accept Germans, Latins, and Slavic immigrants in his proposed ethno-state — ironically, groups that faced severe discrimination in late 19th-century America (SPLC, n.d.).
Spencer and his group claim that their history and identity as white people is being erased by “political correctness.” Specifically, they see the identity and history of whiteness in the US as antithetical to those of people of colour. They claim to be marginalised and oppressed by policies of inclusion and diversity; thus, they reject multiculturalism and diversity (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer subscribes zealously to the idea that America’s white population is endangered, thanks to multiculturalism and lax immigration policies that have gone unchallenged by mainstream conservatives. He envisions a future for the US along the lines of “a renewed Roman Empire,” a dictatorship where the main criteria for citizenship would be whiteness (Harkinson, 2016).
According to Spencer, it falls to people like him to be engaged and savvy if America is going to combat the growing threat of diversity. In particular, he’s irritated by the rise of minority births, which outnumbered white births for the first time in 2011. “Even if we shut off all immigration, the country is going to demographically undergo a tremendous transformation,” Spencer said. White people “need to start thinking about a new ethno-state that we would want to be a part of. This is not going to happen in the next election or in the next 10 years probably, but something in the future that would be for our great grandchildren” (Fox, 2013). Spencer justifies his claim by saying that, “By 2042…white people will become a minority… In 2042 are we going to all decide oh well you know race doesn’t mean anything anymore. Identity is meaningless… No. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think whites are going to be, they’re going to have a[n] amplification of their consciousness of being white” (Letson, 2016).
During the American Renaissance conference, in April 2013, Spencer suggested his solution: “The ideal I advocate is the creation of a White Ethno-State on the North American continent…so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family and feel safe and secure.”
How, he was asked, in a nation with more than 100 million blacks, Asians, and Latinos, could a whites-only territory be created without overwhelming violence? He offered an answer: “Look, maybe it will be horribly bloody and terrible” (Cox, 2016).
During his speech, he quoted Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and termed his mission a “sort of white Zionism” that would inspire whites with the dream of such a homeland just as Zionism helped spur the establishment of Israel. A white ethno-state would be an Altneuland—an old, new country—he said (SPLC, n.d.). “So that we would always have a safe space,” he said. “We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to…how Jews conceive of Israel” (Letson, 2016).
“We want our identity, too,” Spencer argues. “Blacks are quite good at identity politics. They know who they are. We want that, too…When they talk about ‘white privilege,’ they’re making us feel guilty about the fact that we are awesome. I’m not trying to justify slavery or say we weren’t terrible to other people. We definitely were. But I am proud of the fact that we changed the world and dominated the world. We should be trying to expand white privilege, not feel guilty about it” (Mangan, 2016). Stressing that they live in a world of a “white guilt complex,” Spencer said, “Yes, white people are generally better off than many other people…(But) all of these institutions are not acting on behalf of white people. They are acting on behalf of non-white people. And you can talk about this being fair” (Letson, 2016). Typically, white supremacist discourse includes notions of a “racist double standard” that affords Blacks preferential treatment from social institutions. They use metonymical concepts such as “black assault[s]” discussing the way Blacks “burden” the state to show that a zero-sum game exists wherein “black gains equate to white losses.” This discourse presupposes that Black survival and success has become the white person’s burden (Brown, 2009).
According to Spencer, even Martin Luther King Jr. “is a fraud and degenerate in his life, has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of Occidental civilization. We must overcome!” (NPI, column, January 2014). As Villet (2017) notes, white victimhood is a generic right-wing tactic that inverts the left’s narratives of minority discrimination and neo-colonialism. This tactic denies that there is such a thing as white privilege and attempts to camouflage white domination. Whites can surely be victims of crime or discrimination as individuals, but white victimhood goes much further. It implies that whites as a demographic group are victims of discrimination, oppression, or even persecution. The most extreme version of this victimhood is “white genocide” (Villet, 2017). The perceptions of “reverse” discrimination have a significant influence on whites’ decisions to join the alt-right (Adams & Roscigno, 2005).
Spencer claims that the alt-right seeks to “restore” the US as a white, European country, instead eliminating racial others.He denies that his organisation is dedicated to the eradication or marginalisation of minorities but rather seeks to promote white racial pride (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). However, he was caught on tape using racist slurs against African Americans and Jewish people. The expletive-laden audio recording was released by former Breitbart writer, Milo Yiannopoulos. The 54-second long audio, supposedly recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, appears to feature an angry Spencer ranting against Charlottesville citizens. On the recording, Spencer says, “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octaroons. My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit.” Later, he continued, “Those pieces of shit get ruled by people like me…That’s how the fucking world works…” (Coaston, 2019). He declined to deny that the voice in the video was his. Spencer also later tweeted a link to a right-wing video titled: “Never Apologise” (Wilson, 2019). His radical ideas have been cited as a source of concern by the SPLC and ADL (Los Angeles Times, 2017).
The Alt-right: An Ideology Around Identity
Spencer believes the alt-right is “deeply connected” with his work. “I would say that what I’m doing is we’re really trying to build a philosophy, an ideology around identity, European identity,” he said (Gray, 2015). Unlike old-school white supremacism, the “alt-right” incubated online, fed by memes and inside jokes and vicious battles over feminism and videogame culture. The Associated Press’ standards guide defines “alt-right” as “as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.” “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist,” the standards guide noted (Beckett, 2017).
Therefore, some have argued that the alt-right is simply the latest iteration of an old, racist strain of US politics. And indeed, the alt-right’s ultimate vision—a racially homogeneous white ethnostate—is similar to that of earlier groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, and the National Alliance. Yet, according to Hawley (2017), the alt-right considers itself new and distinct, in terms of both style and intellectual substance. Stylistically, it has attempted to distance itself from the ineffectual violence and pageantry of what it derisively calls “white nationalism 1.0,” instead preferring a modern aesthetic that targets cynical millennials on social media and online message boards. Ideologically, the movement represents a break from American racist movements of the past, looking not to US history but to the European far-right for ideas and strategies. Spencer is often inspired by ideas that are alien to most Americans—especially those of the European New Right. The European far-right has in turn adopted tactics pioneered in the US, such as online trolling(Hawley, 2017).
Alt-righters reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centred on ideas of white nationalism. The alt-right is a loosely connected far-right, white nationalist movement (ECPS, n.d.). Dylan Matthews defines Spencer’s alt-right as a label that blends together straight-up white supremacists, nationalists who think conservatives have sold out to globalization, and nativists who fear immigration will spur civil disarray. People who identify with the alt-right regard mainstream or traditional conservatives as weak and impotent, largely because they do not adequately support white racial interests or are not adequately racist or antisemitic. Some alt-right adherents prefer other labels, such as the “New Right” and the “Dissident Right.” They identify with a range of different ideologies, all of which centre on white identity (ADL, n.d.)
One body of adherents is the ostensibly “intellectual” racists who create many of the doctrines and principles of the white supremacist movement. They seek to attract young, educated whites to the movement by highlighting the achievements and alleged intellectual and cultural superiority of whites. Alt-righters use terms like “culture” as substitutes for more divisive terms such as “race,” and promote “Western Civilization” as a code word for white culture or identity (ADL, n.d.). According to Bar-On, Spencer defends “racialist and antisemitic agendas” of the Old Right under a new metapolitical guise, acting as a cultural influencer rather than a direct political actor, and using various media outlets to “disseminate his views to ordinary people in an accessible manner” (Bar-On, 2019).
White Supremacy to Reinstate White Power and Domination
However, many newspapers have given instructions to their reporters to use the term “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi” rather than “alt-righters” while referring to people like Spencer (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). White supremacists drew on discontent rooted in political fundamentalism and the fear of abdication of power to non-Whites (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile, 1997). Early forms of white supremacy relied on anti-Black social rituals and actions such as burning a cross on a Black person’s property, spewing racial epithets such as “nigger,” denying Black people social opportunities, and committing to Jim Crow segregation. These violent and coercive actions defied US reconstruction efforts and alienated Blacks from mainstream society (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile, 1997)—an alienation that persisted until the civil rights movement began in the 1960s (and persists in some ways today) (Feagin & Vera, 1995). Thus, extremists had to search for new ways and strategies to spread their message of hate in the midst of an increasingly racially tolerant society (Brown, 2009).
White supremacists often combine derogatory notions based on physical appearance with cultural attributes such as language, geography, character traits, and customs. White supremacist metaphors not only highlight unwarranted physical inadequacies, but they also position Black people in an inferior social and cultural position. White supremacists use metaphors such as “lower evolutionary plane” and “jungle dweller,” and spatial concepts such as “pull it down” and “lowest scale,” and “total bastardization,” to support the racist notion that “Negroes” cannot live in a civilized environment among human beings. The positioning of whites (presumably men) as warriors and civilization builders reinforces a broad racist ideology that buttresses the belief that the nation is synonymous with “Whiteness” (Brown, 2009).
Accordingly, “race is something between a breed and an actual species,” Spencer says, likening the differences between whites and people of colour to those between golden retrievers and basset hounds. “It’s that powerful” (Harkinson, 2016).The specific types of messages that are propagated by Spencer and other white supremacists are about reinstating white power and domination. Spencer said, “… I am proud of the fact that we changed the world and dominated the world. We should be trying to expand white privilege, not feel guilty about it,” (Mangan, 2016). Spencer has also said, “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us” (Seipp, 2016: 1). In a speech at Texas A&M University, he repeatedly stated that the US “belonged to white men,” and that he is “European.” He conflates European identity with whiteness and presents race as a rigid notion (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer also claimed that “We don’t gain anything from other racial groups’ presence. They need us and not the other way around,” (Jackson & Stelloh, 2016).
Antisemitism & Islamophobia
In Spencer’s “ethno-state,” whites should live separately not only from non-whites but also from Jews. While Spencer generally shies away from blatant displays of antisemitism, he began expressing antisemitic views more openly in 2014, when he wrote that Jews have an identity apart from Europeans. At a press conference two years later, he announced that he did not consider Jews to be European.
Spencer has been influenced by a number of white supremacists, including the late Sam Francis, Jared Taylor, and retired professor Kevin MacDonald, who wrote a series of antisemitic books. At the 2016 conference, a number of people in the audience threw Nazi salutes after Spencer “hailed” Trump’s victory in the presidential election. Spencer, who refused to condemn the salutes, has aligned himself with groups and individuals who openly express virulent antisemitism, including TWP and Patriot Front. Spencer has also shown a willingness to work with antisemitic leaders such as Matthew Heimbach, the former head of TWP, and Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, who runs The Right Stuff website (ADL, 2018).
As an atheist (Spencer, 2017), Spencer believes that the Christian church held some pragmatic value, because it helped unify the white population of Europe. But he opposes traditional Christian values as a moral code, due to the fact that Christianity is a universalizing religion, rather than an ethnic religion. Spencer’s Radix Journal has promoted paganism, running articles such as “Why I am a pagan” (Beinart, 2017). He is also blatantly Islamophobic. According to Spencer, Islam, “at its full flourishing … isn’t some peaceful denomination like Methodism or religion like Buddhism; Islam is a black flag. It is an expansive, domineering ideology, and one that is directed against Europe. In this way, Islam give[s] non-Europeans a fighting spirit and integrates them into something much greater than themselves” (Interview with Europa Maxima, February 2017). Therefore, Spencer aggressively supported Trump’s “Muslim ban” (Buchanan, 2017).
A “Psychic Connection” With Donald Trump
During the 2016 presidential race, the alt-right, which was a tiny, marginal, and almost exclusively Internet-based phenomenon, achieved mainstream attention (Wertheimer, 2017) thanks in part to its connection with the presidential campaign, and then administration of, Donald Trump. For years, Spencer’s “identitarian” movement barely flickered in the dark corners of the internet (Cox, 2016) on sites such as Reddit and 4chan. But Trump’s ascendancy was like kerosene dumped on a brushfire (Harkinson, 2016). Then the term “alt-right” was often applied to a much broader group than it is today; at times, it seemed to refer to the entirety of Trump’s right-wing populist base (Hawley, 2017). Spencer argued that “If Trump wins we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the ‘R(acist)’ word, all sorts of things. People will have to recognize us” (Harkinson, 2016).
Throughout the presidential campaign, Spencer was a vocal advocate for Trump due to his signature proposal to build a wall along the US border with Mexico and his racist statements referring to Mexicans as criminals and rapists (SPLC, n.d.; Barrouquere, 2020). Spencer believed the alt-right had a “psychic connection” with Trump in a way they did not with other Republicans. He said the alt-right had, before the election, been like a “head without a body…The Trump movement was a kind of body without a head…I think moving forward the alt-right as an intellectual vanguard can complete Trump” (Gray, 2016).
On election night, Spencer exulted in Trump’s victory. “The alt-right has been declared the winner. The alt-right is more deeply connected to Trumpian populism than the ‘conservative movement’,” Spencer tweeted. “We’re the establishment now” (ADL, 2018). An extremist website associated with Spencer also wrote: “It was a time when more people joined our movement than ever before and when our ideas began invading the mainstream” (Ali, 2016). For Spencer, Trump is not the logical outcome of a radicalized Republican Party, but an entirely new phenomenon born of the alt-right’s growing prominence and mainstream conservatism’s collapse (Posner & Neiwert, 2016).
Trump’s victory emboldened the bigots and channelled their thinking in a fashion not seen in modern times. A president who draws a moral equivalent between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters, who baits black athletes and black journalists, and brands Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists. “Trump wouldn’t have run the campaign that he ran if he didn’t feel some sense of loss, that America has lost something,” Spencer argued (Younge, 2017). In an interview, Spencer also stated that he didn’t think it was just an unusual election with an unusual candidate: “I think this really was a paradigmatic shift. The new paradigm that Donald Trump brought into the world was identity politics and in particular white identity politics” (Letson, 2016).
Only days after Trump’s surprising victory, the NPI held its fall conference on November 19, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Spencer, flush with victory, offered the toast, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” to the nearly 200 attendees. He was met with a handful of stiff-armed salutes from the crowd. At other points in his speech, like Trump’s assaults on the media, Spencer used a term employed by Nazis to attack the media—“Lügenpresse,” German for lying press. “It’s not just that many are genuinely stupid,” he said of reporters. “Indeed, one wonders if these people are people at all.” One tactic of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was to declare enemies inhuman. Spencer speculated that the media may be “soulless golem,” a reference to magically animated beings from Jewish folklore (Lombroso & Appelbaum, 2016; Jackson & Stelloh, 2016; Mangan, 2016). The gesture electrified the more radical sectors of the white supremacy movement. He later stated that it was done in a spirit of “irony and exuberance” (Stokes, 2017, Jackson & Stelloh, 2016; Helsel, 2016).
Nevertheless, Spencer gained international notoriety after this speech (Helsel, 2016). Though the ties between Trump and him have not been officially recognised by the former president, the connections between Trump and white nationalist movements have been a lingering question in light of the alt-right’s support and Trump’s refusal to condemn the racially motivated violence in Charleston in August 2017 (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Furthermore, Spencer was among the most optimistic about Trump’s presidency. “With Donald Trump, we feel like we have a dog in the fight for the first time,” Spencer told the Guardian. “And with him there’s a real chance we could start influencing policy and culture.” His hope was that “alt-right” ideas could enter the mainstream (Gabbatt, 2016). According to him, the Trump phenomenon was about identity at some deep level: “He’s not a mainstream conservative…It’s important for young people to listen to a speaker articulate what this means on a metapolitical and philosophical level” (Mangan, 2016). Spencer expressed his hope, saying, “I don’t think Donald Trump is alt-right. I don’t think Donald Trump is an identitarian as I would use that term. I think Donald Trump is a kind of first step towards this. He’s the first time that we’ve seen a genuinely if, you could say incomplete, politician who’s fighting for European identity politics in North America…” (Letson, 2016).
The intense media coverage of the Nazi salutes, while further raising Spencer’s profile, also splintered the alt-right, with some leading right-wing figures denouncing Spencer and his antisemitic beliefs. The outrage over the Nazi salutes even led to Trump explicitly disavowing and condemning Spencer’s group. When Trump appointed Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s executive chairman, as his chief strategist, the move prompted widespread alarm and protest—and seemed to cement the “alt-right’s” rise. Bannon had once described Breitbart, a popular right-wing site, as “the platform for the alt-right.” At his inauguration, Trump, an unabashed populist, made a clear effort to separate the “white” from the “nationalism” (Beckett, 2017).
In November 2018, an openly frustrated Spencer declared, “The Trump moment is over, and it’s time for us to move on.” The SPLC reported that the white nationalist movement was dissatisfied with Trump’s presidency (SPLC, 2018). Spencer believed Trump was practicing a “con game” and not clearly developing a white nationalist agenda as Trump “gives us nothing outside of racist tweets, and by racist tweets, I mean tweets that are meaningless and cheap” (Yee, 2019). In 2020, following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Spencer even said that he regretted voting for Trump (Palmer, 2020). In August of that year, Spencer announced that he planned to vote for Joe Biden. “The MAGA/Alt-Right moment is over. I made mistakes; Trump is an obvious disaster, but mainly the paradigm contained flaws that we now are able to perceive. And it needs to end…It’s not based on ‘accelerationism’ or anything like that; the liberals are clearly more competent people.” Shortly after, Biden’s campaign forcefully disavowed Spencer’s endorsement. Andrew Bates, the rapid-response director for the Biden campaign tweeted that, “What you stand for is absolutely repugnant. Your support is 10,000 percent unwelcome here” (Sheth, 2020).
Conference Series and Abusing The First Amendment
Strong free speech protections in the US enable Spencer to hold conferences (SPLC, n.d.). Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment of the US Constitution follow such a logic: The right to free speech must be universal, with no exceptions. Thus, Nazis and white supremacists must be allowed to speak freely, even at a university campus where no one seems to want them, and even when their speech openly rejects other core values, such as the dignity of all persons. The US permits limits on free speech rights only in rare cases of “fighting words” that pose an imminent threat of violence. No one has yet used the “fighting words” argument against Spencer, despite Charlottesville (Peterson, 2017).
By exploiting the First Amendment, Spencer has focused on getting college students to attend his annual events, including the NPI conference, and he’s had some success (ADL, 2018). NPI’s first conference, held in DC in 2011, drew about 85 people. Its second, in 2013, attracted a little over 100 (Harkinson, 2016). In Spencer’s view, his resentments have cropped up among younger, college-educated whites for whom “enforced multiculturalism” on college campuses is giving shape to a new kind of white identity politics (Harkinson, 2016). Spencer has influenced a younger generation of college-age racists. In 2010 and 2011, leaders of the now defunct racist student group, Youth for Western Civilization, invited Spencer to speak at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Providence College in Rhode Island. In both speeches, Spencer attacked affirmative action (ADL, 2013).
The white-nationalist groups seem to believe that teens and 20-somethings are particularly susceptible to their messaging, said Oren Segal, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. Segal noted that the groups are aiming for a younger demographic by reaching out through social media and trying to set up talks on college campuses or disseminating fliers there. Spencer also made a highly publicized visit to Texas A&M University in December 2016, further fuelling concerns about the alt-right on campus (Wertheimer, 2017). Although over 10,000 people signed an online petition to ask university officials to ban Spencer from speaking on campus, the university and student representatives simultaneously condemned and supported Spencer’s presence on campus. They claimed that while they disagreed with his message and ideology, they supported his right to appear and speak, per the First Amendment (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).
In 2016 and 2017, Spencer launched a college tour to bring his white nationalist message to campuses nationwide (Mangan, 2016). After Texas A&M University, he spoke at Auburn University in April 2017. In October 2017, he spoke to a small, mostly hostile audience at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In March 2018, he spoke to a small group of supporters at Michigan State University, while members of TWP fought with antifa activists outside, leading to a number of arrests. After the MSU speech, Spencer decided to cancel his college tour, saying he would try to find other methods of reaching the public (ADL, 2018).
Across the whole tour, Spencer’s visit to Texas A&M University was unique for several reasons. In addition to being his first visit and speaking engagement on a university campus, it is Texas A&M University’s military and racialised history that made Spencer’s presence so provoking. Spencer gave his speech at the Memorial Student Center (MSC), which is a student union dedicated to the memory of Texas A&M University students who lost their lives in war, specifically World War II. Though Texas A&M University officials and students lambasted the event as insulting to the legacy of the university students who fought Nazi Germany, as a historically white institution, the university has had a highly contentious and problematic history (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Its first president (and 19th governor of Texas), Lawrence Ross Sullivan, was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan (Slattery, 2006). At A&M, Spencer spoke to a ballroom of nearly 400 individuals. “America, at the end of the day,” Spencer told his audience, “belongs to white men. Our bones are in the ground. We own it. At the end of the day America can’t exist without us. We defined it. This country does belong to white people, culturally, politically, socially, everything” (SPLC, n.d.).
Spencer’s Efforts to Spread His Ideas Internationally
Spencer and his alt-right movement has exploited all possibilities to build bridges with their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. However, his efforts to reach out to European nationalists have not gone well. In October 2014, he attempted to hold an NPI conference in Budapest, Hungary, as part of an effort to reach out to “European traditionalists” all over the world (Gray, 2014). On paper, Budapest seemed the ideal venue for the NPI, which thinks rising discontent with EU migration policy has created an opening for it. Economic stagnation and political sclerosis in the European Union have given fodder to anti-immigrant parties across the continent, and Hungary is home to Jobbik, one of Europe’s largest far-right parties, which won 20 percent of the seats in parliament (Seddon, 2014a). Dubbed the 2014 European Congress, the conference featured an array of white nationalists from both Europe and America. Among the scheduled speakers were Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, Philippe Vardon from the far-right French Bloc Identitaire movement, Russian ultranationalist Alexander Dugin, and right-wing Hungarian extremist MP Márton Gyöngyösi (SPLC, n.d.), who once called on the government to draw up lists of Jews who pose a “national security risk” (Seddon, 2014).
Hungary’s populist strongman Viktor Orbán ordered the country’s interior ministry to ban the conference after several parties and ministries complained about it. Interior Minister Sándor Pintér said in a statement that the conference was against Hungarian law protecting “the human dignity of others, of the Hungarian nation or of national, ethnic, racial of religious communities” and vowed to bar the conference speakers from entering the country (Seddon, 2014). Before the conference even started, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a statement condemning “all xenophobic and exclusionary organizations that discriminate based on religion or ethnicity.” Planned reservations at the venue, the Larus Center, were cancelled. On Oct. 3, Spencer was arrested while meeting informally with other participants at a cafe that was to have been an alternate venue. He was jailed for three days, deported, and banned for three years from entering all 26 European countries (SPLC, n.d.). He was declared a “national security threat” (Harkinson, 2016).
In 2016, the Home Office of the British government also banned Spencer from visiting Great Britain, citing his white supremacist views. In November 2017, Poland’s state-run news agency PAP reported that Polish authorities had extended Spencer’s ban from the Schengen area for another five years (ADL, 2018) citing Spencer’s Nazi rhetoric and the Nazis’ genocide of Slavic people during World War II (The Guardian, 2017). Spencer had to cancel his plans to travel to Poland fora far-right conference in Warsaw after seeing reports the government was threatening to keep him out of the country. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski described Spencer as someone “who defames what happened during World War II, defames the Holocaust” (Haaretz, 2017). In July 2018, Spencer was detained at Keflavík Airport in Reykjavík, Iceland, en route to Sweden and was ordered by Polish officials to return to the US (Michel, 2018).
Despite these efforts to keep Spencer at bay, the idea of white victimhood has crossed international borders and the idea of white people falling victim to an “onslaught” of refugees and immigrants has become a major factor in elections across Europe (Villet, 2017). Spencer has partnered with two Swedish outfits to create a media company and keep race at the centre of the new right wing. Called the Alt-Right Corporation, it links Spencer with Arktos Media, a publishing house begun in Sweden to print English-language editions of esoteric nationalist books from many countries. The other Swedish partner is Red Ice, a video and podcast platform featuring white nationalists from around the globe. It was natural for Spencer to turn to Swedes as partners in the new enterprise, given the country’s history as an exporter of white nationalist ideas. But forging formal bonds between nationalists across the Atlantic makes even more sense as the politics of Northern Europe is heavily driving the politics of immigration and Islam in the US (Feder & Mannheimer, 2017). Spencer believes in white pride and the unification of a pan-European “white race” in a “potential racial empire” (Harkinson, 2016)
Spencer has also advocated for the US pulling out of NATO and called Russia the “sole white power in the world.” His former partner, Nina Koupriianova, under her penname Nina Byzantina, referred to herself as a “Kremlin troll leader” and regularly aligned with Kremlin talking points. She also had ties to Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right ultranationalist Russian leader in the Eurasianism movement (Bertrand, 2016). Koupriianova has translated several books written by Dugin (Gessen, 2017; Porter, 2017a). The books were later published by Spencer’s publishing house, Washington Summit Publishers (Shekhovtsov, 2017). “I think the fact that we’re inviting Dugin is expressive of the fact that we want to have a real healthy dialogue with the major currents of Russian conservatism,” Spencer said (Gray, 2014). Spencer also explained the chants in support of Russia during the Charlottesville rally: “There is a common brotherhood that stretches from Portugal to Siberia and includes North America. Even though we’re very different, we obviously have common ancestry and there’s that tie of blood” (Laughland, 2017).
His wife and Spencer have each appeared on Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language news and propaganda network. Spencer admires Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, and he would gladly admit most Russians into his ideal ethnostate (Harkinson, 2016). His thoughts on the Ukraine crisis hew closely to Moscow’s: “…I am more sympathetic towards Russia as a major power entering the world stage. Russia has the opportunity, to put it bluntly, to make the world a better place.” He also said, “I’m sympathetic toward Putin in many ways” (Gray, 2014).
Spencer and the alt-right have also lifted up Bashar al-Assad as a hero. Support for the Syrian president means they can further tangle internet conspiracy theories, tap into a deep vein of antisemitism, anti-interventionism, and anti-globalism, and wind up their biggest enemy: liberals. Spencer is able to aggressively support Trump’s “Muslim ban,” while also getting behind the Syrian dictator just because Assad was “educated in the West and offer[ed] a civilized variant of Islam.” Spencer said he’d been “aware” of Assad since the early 2000s. The core of it for Spencer was that Assad, in addition to being the “rightful, legitimate ruler of Syria,” was fighting ISIS (Buchanan, 2017). After the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Trump’s decision to strike Syria caused a rift between the then-president and his alt-right supporters. Spencer led a protest against Trump’s decision, leading to a handful of skirmishes with counter-protesters in front of the White House. “We want walls, not war!” chanted some of the protesters accompanying Spencer (Hernandez, 2017).
He also criticized the Trump administration following the targeted killing of Iranian General Soleimani for escalating tensions between the US and Iran. In January 2020, Spencer tweeted: “To the people of Iran, there are millions of Americans who do not want war, who do not hate you, and who respect your nation and its history. After our traitorous elite is brought to justice, we hope to achieve peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness” (Palmer, 2020).
Spencer and His Movements Are Hypermasculine, Misogynist and Anti-feminist
While the group led by Richard Spencer is typically defined by its racist views, sexism is also central to its ideology (Paquette, 2016). The alt-right is hypermasculine, misogynist, and anti-feminist. The alt-right women claim feminism has failed white women, robbing them of the opportunity to have a male provider, a happy family, and a nice home. According to this narrative, the #MeToo movement only confirms the dangerous world feminism has created for women, a world where men no longer respect them for their femininity and fertility and, hence, feel free to assault, harass, and rape them (Love, 2020). An aspect of their subculture is its connection to the online world of misogyny, known broadly as the “manosphere.” Men in this movement believe they are being stripped of power by women and pro-feminist social structures. They are hostile to women on a personal level, with some believing that women are objects to be possessed and used for sexual gratification, while others resent women for their own inability to attract them or to form meaningful relationships with them (ADL, n.d.).
The alt right opposes “women’s liberation” because it gives women choices that make it less likely that they will “get married, have children, and perpetuate the white race” (Center on Extremism Report, 2018: 7). Its members call liberated women “thots,” which means “that ho over there,” and celebrate the femininity and fertility of women who accept their traditional sex/gender roles, calling them as “tradhots” (Center on Extremism Report, 2018: 6–7). In short, the alt-right would return white women to their biological roles as wives and mothers for the white race (Love, 2020).
The predominant demographic of the alt-right is white men aged 18 to 35. Alt-right populism is the product of people for whom whiteness and masculinity have been their primary form of social capital. The suggestion that whiteness and maleness are no longer a form of political or social currency means that there is now room for forms of citizenship and leadership that do not belong to the proverbial “old white men” (Bezio, 2018).
The Guardian reporter Adam Gabbat’s (2016) observations at one of Spencer’s meeting also confirmed these descriptions:
“When the time came for questions, I pointed out that there were very few women at the event. It prompted a surreal discussion between six white men about the sexual preferences of women. The almost entirely male audience cheered when Spencer made his statement about women’s desire for a ‘strong man.’ ‘I’ve looked at a lot of romance novels that women read and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern,’ Spencer said. ‘Romance novels about cubicle-dwelling boring computer programmers don’t sell very well. Romance novels about cowboys and Vikings seem to be very popular. We might want to look at something like that and see if that tells us something about human nature” (Gabbatt, 2016).
During the 2016 US presidential election, Spencer tweeted that women should not be allowed to make foreign policy (Bowman, 2017, Hayden, 2017a). His views about women—that their role in politics minimal—would be unrecognizable to almost anyone in modern America. “I don’t necessarily think that that’s a great thing,” Spencer said of women voting in US elections. Spencer has also suggested that the US should be protected from what he views to be the danger of having a female commander-in-chief (Hayden, 2017a). He also stated in an interview that his vision of America as a white ethnostate includes women returning to traditional roles as child bearers and homemakers (Cox, 2016; Paquette, 2016).
Although the alt-right movement appears to be composed primarily of white men in their “manosphere,” similar to other far-right movements that emphasize hypermasculinity and patriarchy (Kimmel, 2017; Lyons, 2017; Tien, 2017), white women continue to participate actively in white supremacist movements. The presence of women as “shield maidens,” “fashy femmes,” and “trad wives” serves to soften and normalize white supremacy. Women in the alt-right serve as auxiliaries rather than leaders. This partly explains why women’s participation receives less media and scholarly attention. However, white women shield white supremacy in less subtle and more traditional ways, representing their roles as community service and social welfare. Women in white supremacist groups have organized church socials, Klan picnics, charity fundraisers, and white nationalist online dating sites (Love, 2020). These white men and women provide fertile ground for an anti-modern populist mobilization (Kelly, 2018). The internalization of traditional patriarchal gender normative beliefs influence affiliation with the alt-right movement (Boehme, & Isom Scott, 2020).
According to some sources, in late 2007, Spencer dated a woman who is Asian American. The two met when she was working for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. “I am not the only Asian girl he has dated,” says Spencer’s ex (Harkinson, 2016). Spencer acknowledged that some of his comrades would probably find that “terrible.” Later, he said that he would not date a non-white woman again and that he still wants interracial relationships barred. That belief is core to the alt-right’s most radical goal: an all-white country (Cox, 2016). Spencer also opposes same-sex marriage, which he has described as “unnatural” and a “non-issue.” Despite his opposition to same-sex marriage, Spencer barred people with anti-gay views from the NPI’s annual conference in 2015 (Falvey, 2016).
In October 2018, Koupriianova accused Spencer, in divorce documents, of multiple forms of abuse. She provided hours of recordings and text messages to the press in order to substantiate her allegations. Court documents detailed emotional abuse, financial abuse, and violent physical abuse, frequently in front of their children. She has accused him of choking her, dragging her by her hair, and attempting to punch her while she was pregnant, according to divorce filings. “One of [Spencer’s] favourite statements to me is, ‘The only language women understand is violence,’” Spencer’s wife alleged. She claimed he called her “genetically defective” and a “parasite”, and that he verbally abused her in front of their young daughter. “I’m famous and you are not! I’m important and you are not!” Spencer would sometimes tell her when he was angry, she claimed (Beckett, 2018). A caregiver to the children testified in court about Spencer’s abuses towards both her and Koupriianova. She also suggested that Spencer had sometimes failed to provide for his family and care for her and their children (Beckett, 2018). Spencer denied all allegations made against him and was not charged with a crime.
Moreover, the documents said that Spencer’s “controversial public life” led “his entire family to be targets of violence.” “Despite the risk to his family,” Koupriianova argued in the court, “[Spencer] continues to engage in extremely polarizing public speech advocating ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ and a white-only ‘ethno-state’ which tends to invite passions and violence.” “Most, if not all, of his public speaking events result in violence,” the affidavit stated. The documents also claimed that Spencer was verbally abusive to their children’s babysitter, including in front of their children, where he allegedly called the babysitter a “fucking sub-mediocre human being” and a “fucking moron” (Ansari, 2018).
Spencer, the Alt-Right, and Social Media
The alt-right has flourished online (Guynn, 2016) and its expansion can largely be attributed to the internet (Love, 2017)—and especially social media, thanks to the anonymity these platforms provide users of extreme ideologies (Lyons, 2017).Swastikas and Hitler references have long punctuated the irreverent banter on the message boards of Reddit and 4chan, but they are no longer just jokes as they’re swept up in a tide of the alt-right’s memes such as Pepe the Frog and Napoleon Trump (Harkinson, 2016). Cyber-bigots, including Spencer’s followers, who maintain First Amendment protection, anonymously and blatantly promote racism, and propagate a separatist ideology (Brown, 2009).
The alt-right is generally hostile towards the conventional media, including by using the term “lügenpresse,” a term used by the Nazis and meaning “lying press. Alt-right Twitter trolls have aggressively attacked journalists (Gray, 2016).Spencer has also embraced the young internet activists who create the racist, antisemitic and misogynistic memes, symbols and slogans that characterize much of the alt-right’s online presence (ADL, 2018). Their rhetoric in cyberspace shows that right-wing images of Black identity haven’t much changed since the time of slavery. The key elements of White supremacy are reinforced by their representation of Black men as hypersexual, aggressive, and violent, which define their physical bodies as inferior to white men.These groups no longer have to communicate in isolation. The Internet provides them immediate access to their followers and makes it easier to spread messages of hate (Brown, 2009).
Facebook banned two pages associated with Spencer, just days after Congress grilled the social network’s CEO about its influence on the public (Dalrymple, 2018). Spencer has also faced crackdowns from other tech companies. In 2016, Twitter suspended both the NPI’s account and the account of Spencer himself, though his personal page was eventually reinstated. A year later, after Charlottesville, Twitter yanked Spencer’s verification badge but allowed him to continue using the platform. Web-hosting company Squarespace has also booted the NPI (Dalrymple, 2018).
After Twitter suspended the NPI’s official account (@npiamerica) and its online magazine (@RadixJournal), in addition to a separate book publishing company run by Spencer called Washington Summit Publishers (@washsummit), Spencer told The Daily Caller, “This is corporate Stalinism.” He said, “Twitter is trying to airbrush the alt-right out of existence. They’re clearly afraid. They will fail!” In a YouTube video, entitled “Knight of the Long Knives,” an apparent reference to the purge of Nazi leaders in 1934 to consolidate Adolf Hitler’s power, Spencer said Twitter had engaged in a coordinated effort to wipe out alt-right Twitter (Bennett, 2016).
Spencer also said, “I am alive physically, but digitally speaking, there has been execution…across the alt-right.” He said, “This is a clear sign that we have power. Even if it’s in our own little small way…we have power, and we’re changing the world” (Andrews, 2016). In response to the purges, many alt-right users transferred to Gab, a Twitter substitute platform with a much more aggressive free speech policy (Bennett, 2016). However, Spencer’s ability to raise funds has been hampered since he was kicked off Facebook and other major fundraising sites (Barrouquere, 2020).
Following the Charlottesville rally, as the alt-right’s views became better known, many people who had flirted with the movement broke ranks, leaving it smaller but more ideologically cohesive (Hawley, 2017). Spencer’s NPI has mysteriously gone quiet and appears to be in disarray (Barrouquere, 2020). The most recent article on the NPI website was posted Dec. 15, 2019, three months after Hatewatch began asking questions about the non-profit’s status. The previous post was from Nov. 6, 2018. The website still says Spencer is “President and Creative Director” but lists no other officers (Barrouquere, 2020). Despite its diminishing power, the members of Spencer’s alt-right movement still tend to demonstrate in-group love and outgroup hate of “others.” Therefore, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) listed white supremacy of the sort practiced by Spencer and the alt-right as America’s largest domestic terrorist threat.
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Erdogan and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of the “Muslim Other” within their own countries and silence over the Uighur genocide in China earn them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders.
When pressed on why he is outspoken against Islamophobia in the West but silent about the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the Islamist populist prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, responded: “I concentrate on what is happening on my border.”
Following in the footsteps of Turkey’s authoritarian (Islamist) populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Imran Khan has emerged as among the most prominent faces of religious populism in the (Sunni) Muslim-majority world. “There is so much debate about moderate and radical Islam, but there is only one Islam,” declared Imran Khan in 2019. This echoed the tone adopted several years earlier (in 2017) by Erdogan, who asserted “there is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” The idea of “one Islam” or “Islam is Islam” is part of a populist process of “Islamizing Islam.” This comes in the wake of the leadership gap that opened up with the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia as the Sunni Muslim hegemon. Thus, in neo-Ottoman fashion, Turkey seeks to fill this gap, with Pakistan acting as its aide to address its “ontological insecurities” (Yilmaz, 2021). In highlighting Islam in this way, both Erdogan and Khan define “the people” or “the pious” against an antagonistic “Other,” which includes the West, non-Muslims, liberals, and usually non-Sunni groups (Gursoy, 2019; Yilmaz, 2018; Mudde, 2017; Moffit, 2016; White, 2013).
Other than their political instrumentalization, the sheer size of these two countries’ populations makes this phenomenon a concern worth exploring. Turkey’s population is 82 million, while Pakistan’s is even greater at 217 million people. Moreover, over the last decade, both Erdogan and Khan have increasingly instrumentalized religion to galvanize electoral support and gain diplomatic sway with (Sunni) Muslim-majority countries under this populist framework.
While Turkey and Pakistan are two very culturally and ethnically different societies, they share a long historical political affiliation that dates back well into the late medieval period. South Asia was ruled by the Mamluk (slave) rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, who were ethnically Turkic (Eaton, 2019). After the Ottomans achieved the status of the Muslim Caliphate, all leaders in South Asia —from emperors to princely state rajas —sought royal endorsement from Constantinople, which usually came in the form of an adorned robe from the Caliph himself (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). This political link built a healthy network of trade between the regions that also led to the exchange of soldiers, resources, literature, art, and other labor that infused the Ottoman Turkish elements in the Mughal court and smaller sultanates in united India (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). Despite being over 3,000 kilometers away, the profound connection between the two regions was felt when the Khilafat Movement in British India, initially led by both Muslims and Hindus, tried to oppose the Treaty of Sèvres to preserve the Ottoman caliphate (Niemeijer, 1972). This centuries-old pan-Islamic connection is now undergoing an Islamist populist transformation that seeks to redefine Islam under Turkish and Pakistani leadership.
We argue that this “reengineering” is, in fact, a pragmatic political maneuver of both leaders to consolidate their power within their respective countries and overseas. It is a convenient tool that is used when needed and shelved when it is politically expedient. Thus, both leaders have used (or expediently avoided) Islamist populist rhetoric, policy, and programmatic interventions depending on the context and the audience.
Once the definitional boundaries are constructed, anti-Western and liberal rhetoric is put into place to create a “crises” situation in which Muslims are presented as being under attack from “moral” degradation or simply victims of Western imperialism and Islamophobia. This “crisis” is portrayed as a transnational issue when it extends to Muslim victimhood, especially on the issue of Islamophobia. Both leaders have highlighted their concern over discrimination, killings, and terrorist attacks targeting Muslims in Western countries and the plight of Muslims in conflicts that target them, such as the Gaza conflict, the Kashmir dispute, and Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
In June 2021, when a Canadian white supremacist killed a family of four Pakistani Canadians in a racially motivated Islamophobic attack, Prime Minister Khan termed it a “terror” attack. In 2020, following the gruesome killing of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth in France, the state introduced harsh measures to regulate and monitor Muslims. Khan’s furious reaction on this occasion targeted the state and not the victim of the attack, while Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods even as he publicly insulted the French head of state, saying, “What is the problem that the individual called Macron has with Islam and with Muslims? […] Macron needs treatment on a mental level.”
In addition to creating a sense of moral panic, both these Islamist populists have blamed “outside forces” or “dark forces” for supposedly carrying out attacks on the respective countries to undermine and destabilize them. This extends “the Muslim victimhood narrative” (Yilmaz, 2021) further and accentuates the economic and security failures of “hypocrites” within and “enemies” outside as well.
When the Shia Hazara community in Pakistan was targeted as part of sectarian terrorism, the blame for orchestrating the attacks was shifted to India, which was accused of seeking to undermine Pakistan’s stability. While visiting the victims’ family, Khan said, “no doubt what happened was part of a bigger game” and showed his determination to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap. He continued, “my mission is not only to unite the whole country but the entire Muslim ummah. To end this divide, we have tried to remove differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” In a similar manner, President Erdogan has also warned the Turkish nation of the “the sneaky plans of the dark forces” who are blamed for a wide variety of issues such as the devaluation of the currency, organizing anti-AKP protests, the 2016 failed coup attempt, and the like (Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021; Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).
With crises both tangible and intangible in place, Khan and Erdogan have not shied away from presenting themselves as the “strongmen” that their nations and the ummah need. In an unapologetic manner, both have justified various undemocratic measures as necessary to confront the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Khan reminded the nation to vote for him because “visionary leaders do not make popular decisions; they make the right decisions” — his way of justifying his anti-Western stance along with anti-corruption policies. Erdogan has also felt the need to remind the citizens that “every country needs a strong leader in order to progress.”
On various occasions, both leaders have called for cooperation among the ummah to counter Islamophobia and other pressing issues. In 2020, Erdogan called on the Muslim world to undertake joint action to defend the interests of the ummah: “As Muslims, we should exchange our views more frequently […] many areas of our geography of fraternity are subject to blood, tears and instability […] We will never harm our brothers […] those, who become troubled with the rise of Islam, attack our religion.” on multiple occasions since his 2018 electoral victory, Khan has advocated for Muslim brotherhood in international forums. In an open letter to leaders of Muslim-majority countries in late 2020, he expressed his concerns and urged Muslim leaders to “act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states.”
To put words into action, both leaders have taken specific measures at home and overseas to mobilize “the pious ummah.” Given Turkey’s better governance structures and institutional capacity and nearly two decades of AKP rule, the country has taken more concrete measures. Specifically, a network of state organizations, such as the “Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its European extension DITIB, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and humanitarian NGOs with close ties to AKP officials” Erdogan has been able to transmit this narrative of Islamist populism among the Turkish diaspora and other Muslim communities. In a sense, the Turkish state has created through these organizations a support network endorsed by disenfranchised Muslim communities in the West while university exchange programs, mosque sermons, knowledge-production, and media (both entertainment and news) have highlighted Islamophobia and discussed anti-Western and anti-imperialism.
While Khan has not funded programs of such scale, he has used his speeches at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the United Nations (UN) to address the Pakistani diaspora in America and other Muslim communities. For example, during COVID-19, when Khan visited Sri Lanka, he helped local Muslims by negotiating with the government to ensure they would receive ground burials (as is the Islamic tradition) rather than being cremated like the rest of the Sri Lankan population. For this, he was hailed a hero by the Sri Lankan Muslim community. At the same time, Khan has imported Turkish entertainment media to Pakistan with shows such as Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), Kurulus: Osman (Establishment: Osman), Payitaht: Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor), and Yunus Emre: Aşkın Yolculuğu (Yunus Emre: The Journey of Love) which have neo-Ottoman and anti-Western themes and subtexts and call for unification of the ummah.
Their Call For Action Not Based On Human Rights
Cooperation also extends beyond these soft power links to the realm of hard power, with distinctive jihadist undertones. The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. Not only did neighboring Turkey lend support to “fellow Muslim” Azerbaijan but also Pakistan. Moreover, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has also seen these two partners within the ummah take a leading role in negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government. “Efforts” like this taken on behalf of the Muslim ummah are no doubt why Erdogan and Khan are consistently found to be among the most influential Muslim leaders in the world in various rankings.
Despite the global recognition among many Muslim circles worldwide, the use of Islamist populism by both Khan and Erdogan is selective, making it pragmatic. Two distinct features of both populist governments show that the call for action is not based on human rights; rather, it is a convenient instrumentalization of religion for political gain.
Firstly, Turkey and Pakistan both have ethnic and sectarian rifts. Under the AKP leadership, since the fallout of the Kurdish opening, not only has the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) been vilified as a terrorist group but the AKP’s political opposition has faced increasing harassment and charges of aiding and abetting “terrorism” (Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Yilmaz et al., 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another community, the Alevis, has also been increasingly targeted on sectarian lines. Even though most Kurds and Alevis are Muslims, these minorities in a Sunni-majority country are often persecuted on ethnic and sectarian lines.
In Pakistan as well, the sectarian rifts between Shias and Sunnis are deepening, and other than condemning targeted attacks on Shia minorities in Pakistan, the PTI government has done little to uproot the anti-Shia sentiments of variousclerics in the country. Moreover, ethnic tensions between the state and the Pashtun and Baloch communities have seen little effort at conflict resolution. Instead, the state chooses to ignore the rifts and at times sanctions police- or military-led action against Pashtun or Baloch rights activities (Yousaf, 2019).
It is clear that both Pakistan and Turkey have constructed a particular ideology that casts the ummah as majority Sunni and favors the major ethnic group in power. Thus, despite their repeated call for “social justice” and “equity” for victimized Muslims abroad, they have been persecuting Muslims within their own borders.
Secondly, both leaders have been highly selective in their cherry-picking of “Muslim causes.” Thus, they often speak about the conflict in Palestine, the Rohingya genocide, and the Indian government’s restrictions in Kashmir while avoiding discussion of the Uighurs (or Uyghurs), a Muslim population in China, who are subjected to genocide by the Chinese government. Given the deep investment and strategic ties between China, Turkey, and Pakistan, both leaders have chosen to remain silent about this “Muslim” issue. When confronted about this selective silence, the PTI government and Imran Khan have called the issue “an internal matter” and a “non-issue” or simply dismissed it and called China “a great friend of Pakistan.”
Erdogan’s and Khan’s Use of Islamist Populism
Ankara has also maintained a similarly muted approach towards the issue by preventing the opposition from bringing the issue up and ignoring international efforts to impose sanctions or even condemn the Chinese suppression of the Uighurs (Erdemir & Kowalski, 2020; Shams, 2020). The Uighur majority of Xinjiang is connected with Pakistan through the territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). In addition, Turkey shares a cultural bond with the Uighurs through their common Turkic roots. Yet, both leaders continue their silence over the issue. While Erdogan and Khan have both condemned France, America, and other Western and non-Muslim countries for discriminating against Muslims or attacking them, this deafening silence by these two “most influential” leaders of the ummah reveals their selective approach and use of populist Islamism.
Erdogan’s and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of “the Muslim Other” within their countries and silence over the Uighur genocide earns them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders. Moreover, both Erdogan and Khan are co-opting and pursuing a pan-Islamist brotherhood for the Sunni Muslim world. This synchronized populist agenda risks further deepening political divides — not to mention sectarian and ethnic conflict — within both countries.
At the same time, by positioning themselves as the leaders of the ummah, Khan and Erdogan risk homogenizing the Muslim faith under the Sunni archetype, which would repudiate the plurality of the faith and its various schools of thought. Moreover, isolating the Uighurs in exchange for “hush money” from China is a dangerous precedent being set by Turkey and Pakistan. Moreover, it goes to show how readily economic interests trump morality even for those who traditionally claim to “stand up” for the marginalized and disadvantaged. Finally, the transnational nature of the selective Islamism of these allied populist leaders means their project will have a broader impact that transcends Turkish and Pakistani geographical borders with as yet unknown consequences.
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“I think the words that we use are very important. Quite a lot of studies on the Capitol [attack], on 9/11, and on July 22 [in Norway] really illustrate that. I know that people have been working on how violence in the US tends to be described; you don’t have school shooters, for example, described as terrorists, as long as they are white. If something is done by a Muslim person, the word ‘terrorism’ is far more easily used, as we can see in media studies.”
Interview by Heidi Hart
July 22, 2011 is a date Norwegians and many others around the world will not forget. Right-wing adherent Anders Behring Breivik carried out two politically motivated attacks, a bombing near the government centre in Oslo and a mass shooting of participants in a Workers Youth League (AUF) summer camp, located on a lake island northwest of the city. These two acts of violence killed 77 people and injured over 300. Professor Anne Gjelsvik’s new book, Bearbeidelser. 22.juli i ord og bilder (Adaptations: 22 July in Words and Images, Universitetsforlaget, 2020, available in Norwegian), gathers and reflects on a variety of responses to the attacks, from music and poems to portrayals in visual art, film, and theatre. In this interview with ECPS, Prof. Gjelsvik describes some of these memorial adaptations and discusses ongoing controversies around far-right ideology, cultural populism, and terrorism.
Arguing that one topic that’s really, really important to someone can lead to extremism, Professor Gjelsvik said that actual violent attacks have been fewer, so [right-wing groups] tend to do other things. “They tend to infiltrate public debate; they try, or instance, to get left-wing politicians to silence them, by threatening them online and so on. And so, it’s moved from the explicit violence, but it’s evident that there are a lot of right-wing extremists out there doing what they can do to threaten the democracy in Norway,” she said.
The following are excerpts from the interview lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can I ask you first of all to introduce yourself and say a little bit about your work and how you started working with film, violence, and political movements around the world?
Yes, my name is Anne Gjelsvik, and I am a Professor of Film Studies at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. I’ve done quite a lot of work on violence and issues related to violence, particularly in cinema but also in media in a broader sense. This was actually triggered by one question, in the 1990s, the question of what violence in cinema meant.
In Norway this peaked, with quite a big debate, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers came to the cinema. I became interested in film reviewing and noticed that reviewers tended to be very positive toward Tarantino’s film, whereas in relation to Stone’s film, they were much more reluctant to say that this was a good movie … The first thing I decided to do was a study of film reviewers and how they responded to violence in film, when they thought it was a problem, when they thought it was valuable in a film. Sometimes they do; for example, in relation to David Lynch’s films, they would say, “It’s art, it’s valuable.”
So, this is how my interest was triggered, that sometimes we think about [violence] as a problem, and sometimes we think about it as something that needs to be there. This led to my Ph.D., which was on popular American cinema containing violence. My research from then on has been about the relationship between film and society, I would say, and the issue of violence has been a recurring topic in different ways.
“We’re Not As United As People Thought in the Beginning”
Thank you. That helps me with a little background. So, this is the 10-year anniversary of the massacre in and around Oslo, Norway, perpetrated by a right-wing adherent. You’ve just edited a book on artistic and literary responses to the 2011 attacks. Can you talk about the different modes of responding and how effective they’ve been in helping the country to heal?
The book project is the direct result of a big research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council. It started out by looking at media responses, and it became quite evident to me that the terror attacks had been treated in many different ways throughout these ten years, or the nine years when we were working on the book. These [responses] served very different purposes, and they also have been treated very differently. That was what we wanted to find out by collaborating between fields within the humanities, from literature to art and music and theatre studies, as well as film and media studies, which is what my group is working on. And what we see is that at the beginning, Norway [focused on] memorial events or gatherings, where music was particularly important.
We saw that from the beginning, music was used as a way of comforting, an artistic means to bring people together. We also saw that writers were very early in addressing this trauma, [as] they reached out to write mostly poems and short stories that were trying to grasp what happened. Later on, we have had other art forms such as film, which have been way more controversial.
In order to bridge the whole period, I would say that in the beginning, art was seen as something that could bring all of Norway together, and process the event, whereas today it’s a bit more complicated and a bit more controversial, because there are different pulls in different directions, and it’s more evident that we’re not as united as people thought in the beginning. It’s very notable in Norway … that we would have what we call rose parades, in the first week after the attacks, where people came together, bringing roses, marching in the streets, and then gathering with music being performed. Nowadays, people would say, “What about all those people who didn’t show up for those events?”
That’s a good question, always the question of who’s excluded, or who chooses not to participate. Can you discuss the more controversial memorials and other responses to the massacre? There’s a “Memory Wound” project that I think has been suspended, if that’s correct – an environmental intervention, and then some theatrical portrayals of the perpetrator that have also been controversial.
I would say that these are two instances where the art, or artistic treatments of the terror attacks, becomes controversial. One issue is art that is in the public square … a memorial, or artwork that you can’t choose to ignore, because it’s in your working place, for instance. The question about the public memorials has been controversial, and then when it comes to topics, it’s the question about the perpetrator, or the terrorist.
To take the first [question], the Norwegian government decided that they wanted a national memorial, early on, only a few months after the attacks. They put up a competition, and the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg won the competition with his work “Memorial Wound.” There were two attacks, one in Oslo, at the government headquarters, and one at Utøya, which is an island in a lake. This memorial was planned to be on the land side, not on the island, and what happened was that some of the neighbors were very reluctant to have this kind of memorial in their neighborhood, in part because they didn’t want the visitors, and in part because they thought that the art that they chose was so brutal. It is a wound in the landscape, as you say, it’s a cut. Some wanted something else, and some wanted it away from where they live. In the end [the government] chose to not only postpone it but terminate the contract with the artist.
Now they have started working on a more comforting, more traditional memorial, which is still in the making because of the controversies with the neighbors. It was put on hold, and they won’t make it to the tenth anniversary as they’d planned to, but it will be there. This really illuminates that it’s not everyone who wants to remember; it could be because they have this as a traumatic experience themselves, it could be political issues, but it could be related to what art can do in a public environment.
So, that has been very controversial and disturbing in many ways, and then we have the issue of how to portray the perpetrator, which has also been very challenging. We’ve had a couple of theatre performances where this was really, really controversial. We have that issue in the depiction of him in the newspapers, and we have that as a challenge when it comes to the films that have been made. None of the Norwegian films have actually portrayed him at all. The only cinematic representation of July 22 in which he is actually portrayed is the Paul Greengrass Netflix production, whereas the Norwegian productions emphasize the victims and the survivors. This is really hard to handle, still, after ten years: how to deal with him, how to think about his background, his reasons for doing this. Was he insane, was it political … all of this is very controversial.
Because you’ve written quite a bit about this, what about films that portray violent events? It’s a very difficult thing to do. Erik Poppe’s July 22 film uses one long take to portray the [Utøya] massacre, in contrast to the Netflix version, which has very quick edits, is very fast moving. How do these films work? I’m wondering, is it possible for these films to work in a critical way, without just providing entertainment?
That’s a good question, and it’s actually difficult to say something that [applies] as a general rule. Erik Poppe’s film is only situated at Utøya, at the youth camp, where as many as 69 people were shot and killed during that attack. A lot of people in Norway were very worried about what kind of movie could this turn out to be – it would brutal and horrible to watch. But in the end, when the film premiered in Norway, it got really good reviews, and it’s been very well received in Norway. What I think Poppe did, which is good, is that he doesn’t really exploit the violence. The violence is there, but a lot of it takes place outside the camera, offscreen. What he’s trying to portray is the experience of being there. The young people who were there, many of them didn’t actually see that much violence, they were hiding, they tried to escape. So, it’s that kind of experience that he tries to portray. And he wanted to do this, because he felt that too little attention was given to the victims and the survivors.
You really have to have a lot of courage and good preparation to be able to pull that off, and I think he does it in an ethical, satisfactory way. It doesn’t feel exploitative to me. But then I also know that if you don’t really know the event, you don’t have all the information about what happened, and the trial afterwards, and the political debate, and so on, then it feels more exploitative. I’ve looked into the German reception, for instance, and for them it was more of an experience of the violence, and too little of the context, which is what Paul Greengrass tries to add, by getting the terrorist to talk about his idea, and so on. So, it is a tricky field. I think Erik Poppe’s film works in Norway, because Norwegians know the context, but it doesn’t necessarily travel that well, in order to tell the context and the reasons why this happened. It was a political attack, and that doesn’t really show in the film.
“Today, There Are More Instances of Right-wing Opinions and Propaganda in the Public Square”
Thank you, that’s what I wondered about, reception in different places and audience reactions. To broaden our questions a little bit here, in the past ten years since this event, what changes have you observed in far-right populist movements in Scandinavia?
As a matter of fact, I was actually at a seminar, my first in-person seminar during the pandemic, in Oslo last week. It was hosted by a center that does research on right-wing extremism, called C-REX [Center for Research on Extremism] at University of Oslo. [Based on] the research they presented, I think it’s fair to say that in the public debate in Norway, we can see that today there are more instances of right-wing opinions and propaganda in the public square, more than we were used to. A lot of people would say that things that Anders Behring Breivik put in his manifest ten years ago, which were then seen as really extreme, you can now find in debates on Facebook, etc. So, the [dark] web is not the only place where you find it.
When it comes to the climate of debates and opinions, Norway has turned more toward right-wing development than before. But when it comes to the more explicit extremist behavior, that is less of an issue. For instance, the group SIAN [Stop the Islamization of Norway], which is really right-wing, is coming to Trondheim next week, actually, to have a demonstration. They are allowed to do that, because freedom of speech makes it possible for them to demonstrate. But, these kind of events don’t gather a large group. So, if we talk about that kind of development, it hasn’t increased, but the mainstreaming of extreme attitudes, that has developed toward a worse situation.
That’s helpful, and it’s similar to what’s been happening in the US, where things like nooses left in trees in public places, and swastikas left on synagogues, that’s become more common, unfortunately, as well as Facebook debates and all the things you’re describing.
I can also add that what the C-Rex research showed is that actual violent attacks have been fewer, so [right-wing groups] tend to do other things. They tend to infiltrate public debate; they try, or instance, to get left-wing politicians to silence them, by threatening them online and so on. And so, it’s moved from the explicit violence, but it’s evident that there are a lot of right-wing extremists out there doing what they can do to threaten the democracy in Norway.
That makes sense, thank you. I’m going to move into the topic of ecofascism, which has been the subject of some of our commentaries here. The “deep ecology” movement has roots in Norway – I’m thinking of the writings of Arne Næss and similar thinkers – and now has problematic links to ecofascism [and also “ecoterrorism” from either side of the political spectrum]. What is your sense of how violence “for” nature plays out in popular culture?
I know that you have also been intrigued by the Icelandic film Woman at War. I’ve been teaching that film, and when I describe for the students that Halla, an activist in Iceland, is portrayed as a terrorist, the students say, “No, no no,” they don’t see her that way. They don’t make that connection, which I find very interesting. It’s not a big topic in Norwegian popular culture, at least, but we can see that this influences the public debate to some extent. Recently, we had activists who forced themselves into pig farms and took pictures that they have been sharing to the news media. This has really generated a big debate about how animals are treated in Norwegian farming, whereas Norwegian farming has sold itself as something other than the animal industry that we know from abroad. “Buy Norwegian food,” you know, “it’s safe.” And then you’ve got these pictures from these farms showing that the pigs didn’t have an ethical environment to live in at all.
Another interesting thing is Viking re-enactment culture. We’ve been writing here about cultural populism, and this valorization of nature, getting back to the earth through Stone Age and Viking traditions. You mentioned to me a few months ago a young blogger who has been involved in the Viking re-enactment culture and has started to question it. Could you say something about that?
There have been a lot of Norwegians who have been intrigued by their heritage from the Viking era. That could be crafts, that could be costumes, that could be re-enactments, and so on. But what we have seen is that this has become way more offensive for some people, and we also see that those who are interested in Viking traditions sort of take over what has been an interest for people who don’t have the right-wing attitude that goes with some of these groups. So, there was this Norwegian [blogger], now she’s working in film, but she used to do LARPs [Live Action Role Play], talks, walks, and workshops with the Viking tradition. She got more and more online harassment from these groups, so she actually decided to step down from sharing the traditional work that she had been doing, because of this harassment, by groups that have sort of taken over the Viking tradition.
Outside of Europe, too, deep ecology and close-to-nature sentiment has traction on the right and on the left, for example the YPJ militia group fighting against the Syrian government. How do you see this playing out beyond Europe?
This is out of my territory in a way, but we can see that these groups and this way of thinking encourages people who are opposed to government and opposed to authority. You see how these ideas can travel from right-wing to left-wing. You can be on one side then change in ways that don’t really make sense, in terms of the topics or the issues, because the same elements get triggered. One topic that’s really, really important to someone can lead to extremism.
“School Shooters Are Not Described As Terrorists, As Long As They Are White”
We see this crossover in the US, too, for example in organic food culture. I think of this as a sort of purity culture, too, that can cross those political lines. I want to come back to the word “terrorism,” though, because after the January 6 insurrection in the US, there was a debate on the left about how to use that word. Some people were saying, “We need to call this what it is, and call it domestic terrorism,” and others were saying, “No, that word has racist implications after 9/11, in the way Muslims were demonized.” So, I wonder if you’ve found any challenges in using the word “terrorism,” in the Scandinavian context.
I think the words that we use are very important. Quite a lot of studies on the Capitol [attack], on 9/11, and on July 22 [in Norway] really illustrate that. I know that people have been working on how violence in the US tends to be described; you don’t have school shooters, for example, described as terrorists, as long as they are white. If something is done by a Muslim person, the word “terrorism” is far more easily used, as we can see in media studies. We’ve also seen this in Norway, in relation to July 22, in the question of whether this was something done for political reasons. If the shooter in these attacks is, for instance, in a shopping mall, if you determine it to be due to illness, then you would describe it as something else … In Norway, the issue of whether this is a political attack, which is what terrorism is, has been downplayed in some environments.
Today the AUF [youth wing of the Labour Party] has really put on the agenda that we need to describe what happened on July 22 as terrorism, and the perpetrator as a terrorist, and don’t describe it as an “event” or just as a “shooting.” They really stress the importance of using that word today. I think in Norway most people today would agree that we describe this as terrorism. A lot of people would also be eager to say that this is what happened in January in the US, seen from our perspective with our experience here, that it’s clearly political violence with the clear intention to get a lot of attention. From my perspective, I wouldn’t be reluctant to call that terrorism at all.
Thank you, that’s very clear. Now to move to a topic related to terrorism, especially with regard to the right-wing attacks we see in the US, you’ve also co-written a book on gender in Game of Thrones. In light of growing concerns about violence against women, especially since domestic violence is an indicator in those who commit mass shootings, how do you see the intense onscreen portrayals in this series? I’ve just read a think piece on this that takes the “blame the media” route, but that may be a bit too easy. What are your thoughts on that?
We also saw this with Anders Behring Breivik, that this is clearly an issue of what he thinks about gender as well, and it’s something we see with a lot of violent attacks. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an attack on women but [could result from] an influence on the whole attitude. The book that I co-edited with Rikke Schubart, Women of Ice and Fire [Bloomsbury, 2016], had a starting point exactly because Game of Thrones was mostly seen as a feminist show, with strong women, and that this was really popular culture at its best, where you see women having different roles than we are used to: they could be the queen, or a knight, with different ways of portraying all types of gender roles. But in my work, I was particularly concerned with the actual violence that I saw onscreen, where rape scenes and violence against women changed from book to screen.
It is difficult to say how this influences the audience, and it’s really complicated to find causal connections. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying, “This one show creates violence against women.” But I think if you broaden the perspective, you can actually say something about how HBO portrays violence, how they tend to have violence towards women, and how crime fiction tends to have a lot of dead young women. It’s hard for me, who has put so much time into researching film and television and media, to think that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t have a role. I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing, that you see a film and then get violent, but it does influence how we think about violence, and how we think about gender roles, for sure. I think it is a complicated mix, and it does play a part.
Thank you, this is helpful. One final question: I know you’ve also worked with environmental media, for example climate-crisis films. Where is your work going in that direction now and in the next few years?
As we’re wrapping up the project on terrorism, I’m thinking about what’s next. I’m part of an environmental humanities group at NTNU, and one thing that we see is that Norwegian popular culture has been a bit slow. We don’t have a lot of Norwegian films on climate change, for instance. But we have noticed that there are quite a lot of films about oil [coming out] in the next couple of years, a big disaster movie about the oil platforms in the North Sea, for instance, so I’m looking into that as a possible topic for research.
As you know, Norway is very dependent on the oil industry, so “the green shift,” as we call it, or “grønne skiftet,” is really, really challenging in terms of politics now: when should we stop making oil, how can we make a transition, and what should Norway live on in the future? So, it’s a big topic, and it’s very interesting to see so many films and television series coming up in the next few years.
Another thing I’ve seen, in Norwegian documentaries, is related to one of the issues that you brought up earlier, the more nostalgic [approach], with a lot of documentaries looking into the traditional ways of living, particularly in the western part of Norway. This also intrigues me, to think about what kind of portrayals of Norway are happening now, and what kind of “man and nature” relationship these documentaries are showing.
Thank you so much, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in that direction.
Who is Anne Gjelsvik?
Anne Gjelsvik, Professor of film studies at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway. She has published on different topics within film studies and is currently working on media and terrorism and cinematic representations of the Anthropocene. She is currently the project leader for “Face of Terror. Understanding Terrorism from the Perspective of Critical Media Aesthetics.” (2016-2021), funded by the Research Council of Norway. She is member of Environmental Humanities research group at NTNU.
She has published several books both in English and Norwegian, as well as a large number of articles in journals and anthologies. Her latest book is Bearbeidelser. 22.juli i ord og bilder (in Norwegian. Universitetsforlaget, 2020) which features art and articles about the artistic treatments of the Norwegian terror attacks in 2011.
Among her publications are Cinema Between Media (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) Co-written with Jørgen Bruhn, Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones and Multiple Media Engagements (co-edited with Rikke Schubart, forthcoming on Bloomsbury 2016), Hva er film (What is Cinema) (Universitetsforlaget, 2013), and the co-edited anthologies Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. An Critical Engagement With Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima(Columbia University Press, 2013) and Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions (Bloomsbury, 2013).
CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups emerged in Europe. Its supporters say they are not ‘racist’ but are against immigration because of its impact on wages and houses; not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the ‘traditional family’. Never before there was in Italy an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying the strategic viability and the marge of political manoeuvre that was secured today by the CasaPound. Although CasaPound remains substantially marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their communication campaigns.
By Bulent Kenes
The last two decades have seen the rise of populist right-wing extremism characterized by political campaigning targeting immigration, European integration, and globalization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014) and a growth in nationalist, radical populist parties and movements in Western Europe. In the contemporary European Fascist “black galaxy,” Italy has been an important incubator and generator of ideas. Italian post-war Fascism “may be seen as the vanguard of right-wing extremism for roughly 40 years.” (Mammone, 2015: XIV) CasaPound, as Mammone (2015: 213) describes it, is “the most interesting, and atypical in some ways, right-wing enterprise of these recent years” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
The majority of these populist, right-wing extremist organisations have been defined by their opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, the effects of international capitalism on workers’ rights, and their concern for protecting national and European culture. This is combined with “anti-establishment” rhetoric used to appeal to those who are disillusioned with mainstream political parties, the media, and government. As members of an anti-establishment movement, CasaPound supporters have very low levels of trust in the government, the EU, political parties, trade unions and the press (Bartlett et al., 2012). However, according to Bartlett et al. (2012), these organisations do not fit easily into the traditional political divides; one of the most difficult to classify is CasaPound, which was originally founded in Italy in 2003 but was formalised in 2008 under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI) (Jones, 2018). A “populist” rubric is a staple of new-Fascist politics and CasaPound is no exception: theirs is translated through the rhetoric and material enactment of an “exclusionary welfarism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
Today, CPI is the most visible neo-fascist organization in Italy—and probably one of the most visible extreme right movements in Western Europe (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). CasaPound’s emphasis on nationalism, its welfare chauvinism that privileges ethnic Italians for the receipt of welfare services, and its direct take-to-the-streets approach have made it a member of the “new right” European street-based movements (Bartlett et al., 2012). CPI has also been central to again normalising fascism in the country of its birth (Jones, 2018). Thanks to CPI, similar extremist organisations and far-right populist parties’ extremist violence, harassment, and xenophobia re-emerged in Italy. Italy’s intelligence services have warned about the growing appeal of radical right groups, especially among young people (Povoledo, 2018).
As with other far-right groups, the economic crisis in Europe in the early 2010s provided CasaPound with fertile ground for spreading its ideas. The crisis allowed the CPI to strengthen its criticisms of international capitalism as well as eurozone fiscal policy. It has also argued against the weakening of the nation state and the increasing power of unelected technocrats (Bartlett et al., 2012). CasaPound was born as a single-issue movement as a result of the social problem associated with the lack of housing spaces for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Since its origins, CasaPound has stood out for its attention to the issue of affordable housing, engaging primarily in struggles on the social and cultural right to adequate shelter for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The group’s name is composed of two elements: i) “Casa,” the Italian Word for “house.” The largest number of eviction orders in 2008 were issued in Rome (7,574), among which almost five thousand were for arrearage. During the following five years, the evictions numbered over 31,000, of which 19,273 were for arrearage. In Rome, the evictions numbered 11,612 (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). ii) “Pound,” referencing the 20th-century American poet Ezra Pound, who supported Mussolini’s dictatorship (Redman, 1991), adhered to the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), and was an antisemite (Kington, 2011; 2012). The organization’s name explicitly connects it with one of the pillars of the group’s ideology, Ezra Pound’s theory of housing rent as “usury” (Pound, 1985), and the poet’s views expressed in his poem Canto XLV opposing rent and rapacious landlords. For the poet, everything that is not used by its owner becomes capital, which is then brought in the market obliging others to pay a monthly tangent: the rent (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
Since its birth, CasaPound has conceptually associated its political engagement to Ezra Pound’s conception of “holiness” of the “house.” The groups’ opposition to market capitalism has to do with this, since the house is given a symbolic value that goes beyond its material price (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The name CasaPound also has a great symbolic meaning, since Ezra Pound was the incarnation of the ideal fascist revolution, meaning the struggle against plutocracy (Redman, 1991; Feldman, 2013). Despite many scholars having demonstrated the influence of the poet’s anti-capitalist and anti-communist discourse on CasaPound (Rinaldi & Feldman, 2015; Lidell, 2012) Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary De Rachewiltz, has repeatedly gone to court to stop CasaPound from using her father’s name (Kington, 2011, 2012). “This organisation is hiding behind Pound’s name for intellectual cover,” De Rachewiltz said and added: “He made mistakes and we have to take the good part of him, just as he did with others. He fell into certain antisemitic clichés that were rampant in Europe and the US at the time.” Pound later told the American poet Allen Ginsberg that his worst mistake in life was his “stupid suburban antisemitic prejudice” (Kington, 2012).
A Brief History
CasaPound was born as a youth organization on December 26, 2003, in Rome, during the occupation of a building in the Esquilino district, a multiethnic neighbourhood populated mostly by Chinese and Bengali people (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). On that night, five men broke into a huge, state-owned, empty office complex. According to the story of the seizure of the building, which is now part of the group’s origin myth (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), a few days earlier, the men had put up fake fliers, appealing to the public for help to find a lost black cat called “Ezra.” It was a way to avoid suspicion as they surveyed the building before breaking in. Nothing was left to chance: the date, between Christmas and New Year, was chosen because there wouldn’t be many people around. Even the name and colour of the cat wasn’t casual: “Ezra” was a nod to the American poet; black was the colour associated with their hero, Benito Mussolini (Jones, 2018). While the details may differ, the repetition of this narrative very usefully serves the purpose of mythmaking. Multiplied by the attention of media, CasaPound has been able to frame a Fascist archetype, creating an at once folkloric and banal construction of “the neo-Fascist” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
CasaPound was founded as a branch of the Fiamma Tricolore (FT) party of Pino Rauti, making specific reference to the history of the post-war neo-fascist party Movimento sociale italiano (MSI, Italian Social Movement, which was founded on December 26, 1946) and Mussolini’s legacy. The occupation on the same day was not accidental, since it furnished an explicit initial link between the CasaPound movement and the fascist era and its legacy (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
The man giving orders that night was Gianluca Iannone (1974-), who came from a more “old style” Fascist activism (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). Then 30, Iannone had “me ne frego” (“I don’t care” – the slogan used by Mussolini’s troops) tattooed diagonally across the left side of his neck (Jones, 2018). At the beginning of the third millennium, Iannone already had an interesting career behind him as member of a minor extremist extra-parliamentary right-wing group which was dissolved by law in the 1990s for hate-speech and racism. In 1995, he had been one of the founders of the Rupe Tarpea Produzioni, an independent record company that produced, and still produces, Nazi rock groups such as Hobbit, Intolerance, etc (Jones, 2018).
In 1997, Iannone founded the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which gave voice to concerns that had been disregarded by established parties of the radical right: housing, globalization, and the need to revolt against the establishment (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). ZZA became an evangelising force for fascism. Touring all over Italy, the band sang raucous punk-rock songs with lyrics such as, “I love this proud people / that doesn’t know peace.” However, the song that became a crowd favourite was Cinghiamattanza, meaning “death by belt”: at all the gigs, it became a ritual for fans to take off their belts and lash each other (Jones, 2018).
Iannone was also one of the leaders of the Romanist hooligans, the animator of the fascist pub Cutty Sark which was a meeting point for Rome’s extreme right, and the owner of the “non-conventional” bookshop Testa di Ferro in Rome, which disseminated nostalgic fascist literature. Armed with charisma and a strong reputation, Iannone became the leader of the “right-wing” house occupations in Rome (Wolff, 2019; Jones, 2018).
The men gathered together and hugged, feeling that they had planted a flag in the centre of the Italian capital—in a gritty neighbourhood which was home to many African and Asian immigrants. Iannone dubbed their building “the Italian embassy.” The building became the headquarters of the movement called CasaPound (Jones, 2018). In this building, which is still occupied by activists, there are three apartments per floor that host the activists and 23 families. The police did not intervene at the time of the occupation, nor did they act in the following months or years. Successive mayors of Rome have treated the fascist occupation with a degree of tolerance (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Actually, it was not the first building that was occupied by the group. In 2002, CasaPound occupied a state-owned building in Rome and established the so-called “Casa Montag.” The name came from Guy Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Indeed, Bradbury’s critique of a totalitarian state was transformed into Casa Pound’s intolerance against anti-fascism in Italian politics. CasaMontag became the first example of right-wing Occupazioni Non Conformi (ONC, or Non-Conventional Occupation), which aimed to use musical events to get young people to discuss politics in a non-structured way (Wolff, 2019).
CasaPound Has Already Fulfilled Its Mission by Normalising Fascism
Initially, Casa Montag did not have a real political and communitarian aim but was a centre for people to meet, socialise, play music, and discuss political and social issues. The squatting inside Casa Montag and subsequent building occupations had the primary goal of housing Italian families that lost their houses and protesting against the rising rents in Rome and related real estate speculations: the group’s slogan was “rent is usury: stop the increasing costs of living” (Bartlett et al., 2012). Iannone has called usury “the worst thing… the head of the octopus… which creates unemployment, debt and threatens the future of our children” (Lidell, 2012). CasaPound argues for a form of “social mortgage” (mutuo sociale)—a housing policy that would guarantee all Italian workers the right to own a property; the right of home ownership is crucial to the movement’s message (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Only one year later, in 2003, Iannone led the expedition that occupied the building in via Napoleone: CasaPound. That squat occurred under the slogan “Occupazioni a Scopo Abitativo” (OSA: Occupations for Housing Purposes). Several others followed. Many make a clear distinction between ONC and OSA, arguing that the former has a metapolitical nature while the latter has a social purpose (Wolff, 2019). The concern for housing is the core of CasaPound’s ideology and policy and is reflected in the group’s name as well as its use of the turtle as its main logo: “The turtle is one of the few living beings which is fortunate enough to have with them the house” (Bartlett et al., 2012). The stylized turtle symbol also refers to the Roman formation called Testudo, the army of Rome that showed the greatness and force of the Empire and which emerged “from a vertical order and from a hierarchical principle.” Contextually, the octagonal shape is reminiscent of the historical monument Castel del Monte, built by the “last Cesare” in Italy. The arrow is the same as that in the flags of other far-right movements across Europe (Wolff, 2019).
From 2006–2008, Iannone was active as leader of a youth group in the FT trying to conquer the party’s leadership—without success (Wolff, 2019). In 2008, CasaPound, whose activists define themselves as “third millennium fascists”(Gretel Cammelli, 2018; Bulli, 2019), broke off from the FT to become an officially registered association with offices in all major Italian cities under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI). As a legally recognized association, CasaPound was eligible to receive voluntary pre-tax donations (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI openly rejects left-wing and right-wing labels, and distances itself from traditional parties and has instead rooted itself in the tradition of Italian Fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
Starting from 2011, however, CPI regularly took part in local and national elections, and progressively expanded its programmatic agenda on socioeconomic affairs. At first, its candidates ran as independents within centre-right coalitions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2013, it developed a new strategy as an independent political party and participated in local elections in February (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI’s evolution is also reflected in changing electoral slogans between 2013 and 2018: from “Direction Revolution” to “Direction Parliament” (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).
While the results at the national level have been poor (0.14 percent in 2013), CPI won 0.69 percent of votes in Lazio, comprising 8,734 votes in the city of Rome. In 2014, it struck up informal relations with the Lega Nord (LN) and contributed to the election of an LN candidate to the European Parliament (EP). In 2015, a new political formation called Sovranità established an alliance between the two parties supporting the LN’s leader Matteo Salvini and secured the election of its own officials to local councils. In 2016, CasaPound participated in the elections as an independent party, winning 1.14 percent of the vote in Rome, equivalent to around 14,000 votes. In the 2017 local elections, CPI scored results above five percent and elected council members in different municipalities within Central Italy. Moreover, a former member has been elected mayor of L’Aquila as part of a right-wing list (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018; Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Italy’s political panorama is defined not just by radical right-wing parties, which received considerable support by voters during elections in March 2018, but also by the presence of extra-parliamentary organizations that increasingly engage in the public debate by presenting radical arguments and propositions. One of these is CasaPound Italia (Wolff, 2019). CPI ran with an independent list in the local and national elections. On this occasion, CPI failed to elect any candidates to parliament (winning a meager 0.9 percent of votes), yet doubled its electoral support compared to the previous national elections—from 50,000 to about 130,000 votes (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018; Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The results of the 2018 elections were a shock to the Italian political establishment, delivering a historical blow to the parties of the centre-left; the feared entry of the neo-Fascists into Parliament did not materialize, however (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
Nevertheless, CasaPound has already fulfilled its mission by normalising fascism in Italy. At the end of 2017, Il Temponewspaper announced Benito Mussolini as its “person of the year.” It wasn’t being facetious: Il Duce barged into the news agenda every week of the year. Even a left-wing politician in Florence said that “nobody in this country has done more than Mussolini.” More than 75 years after his death, he is more admired than traditional Italian heroes such as Giuseppes Garibaldi and Mazzini. Moreover, in just 15 years, CasaPound has grown so large that its initial ambition—to be accepted into the theatre of “open debate”—is now obsolete. Instead, its leaders now talk of eradicating anti-fascism entirely. Fascism, Iannone enthuses, was “the greatest revolution in the world, the completion of the Risorgimento [Italian unification].” Mussolini’s regime was “the most beautiful moment of this nation” (Jones, 2018).
Meanwhile, an Italian judge ordered police on June 4, 2020, to seize CasaPound’s headquarters in a move hailed as a victory by the city’s mayor Virgina Raggi from the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (M5S). The order to seize the building, issued on the 76th anniversary of Rome’s liberation from Nazi occupation by US troops in World War Two, has not yet been carried out (Reuters, 2020), because the government has temporarily halted evictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (Roberts, 2020).
“Hybridization” As an Ideological Choice and Recruitment Strategy
At the beginning of the 1990s, a new phase in the Italian party system was ushered in with the inclusion of a post-Fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale (AN, National Alliance), in centre-right coalitions. This normalization at the party level did not occur in the same way at the subcultural or grassroots level (Bulli, 2019). Though “apologizing for fascism” was still a crime in Italy (Wolff, 2019), for Italy’s modern neo-fascist groups like CasaPound, Il Duce was—and is—very much about ideology. According to CPI’s vice-president, Simone di Stefano, CPI’s youngsters already see Mussolini as the country’s father (Kington, 2013). In addition, the rise of populism, and CPI’s explicit rejection of traditional right and left categories, has changed the landscape of party politics and affected political movements, especially those of the far right. During this period, a symbolic hybridization between the far-right and the far-left (Miller-Idriss, 2018) and nostalgia defined CPI’s recruitment strategy (Bulli, 2019).
This hybridization manifests itself even in the entrance hall of CPI’s headquarters. CasaPounders painted a hundred or so men’s names, suggesting their ideological lineage. Many were obvious—Mussolini, Oswald Mosley, Nietzsche, war criminals like Hamsun, Degrelle, the writer and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola—but many more were bizarre or delusional: Homer, Plato, Dante, Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, as well as Ahmed Shah Massoud (the Afghan jihadi leader), and even cartoon characters such as Captain Harlock and Corto Maltese. “Delusional” because most of these characters are more frequently seen as representing liberal and progressive values, and “bizarre” because CasaPound mobilizes the “other” as representative of Fascist thought (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020; Jones, 2018).
Drawing on populism, expressionism, and pluralism, as a fascists movement CPI creates political orientations that defy easy placement along a right-left axis (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). By adopting symbols, dress codes, and participation models typical of the extreme left, CPI shows its indifference to the codification of rituals according to a left–right understanding of politics. From this perspective, the group tries to differentiate itself from the “neither right nor left” rhetoric of the New Right and from the “aesthetics of the ‘Third Way’ of Italian Fascism” (Ben-Ghiat, 1996). Despite CPI being commonly placed in the category of the Italian radical right, at the rhetorical level the group asserts differences from traditional radical-right parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
However, all the elements that make up the multifaceted cultural imaginary of CasaPound originate from the ideology of Fascism, including its cultural manifestations, its exaltation of the masculine body, virility, and speed of action, and its concept of “lifestyle” (Bulli, 2019). In this context, CPI refers mostly to the social and labour legislation during the Fascist regime: the Labour Charter from 1927, the Verona Manifesto from 1943, and in general all documents that testify to the fascists’ engagement in social policy, corporatism, and socialization (Wolff, 2019). The party strategically downplays the most stigmatized aspects of Fascism, such as antisemitism and racism (Castelli Gattinara et al. 2013; Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
CasaPound accepted that the racial laws of 1938, which introduced antisemitism and deportation, were “errors.” The movement claimed to be “opposed to any form of discrimination based on racial or religious criteria, or on sexual inclination” (Jones, 2018). Despite its realignment with the xenophobic, law-and-order and nationalist agendas of most radical-right populist parties since 2014, CPI tends to distinguish itself from Italian parties of the extreme right by underlining its anti-establishment character (Gattinara, Froio, & Albanese, 2013) in an effort to create a political traditionalism that coexists with an open challenge to all forms of pre-defined belonging (Bulli, 2019). Even if CPI claims its origins in Italian Fascism, it builds its political message on the framework of “metapolitics”—a Gramscian approach to politics, in which cultural change and hegemony precedes political change (Wolff, 2019). Namely, unlike other radical-right organizations in Western Europe, the bulk of CasaPound’s policy positions, ideas, and practices revolve around economic and social areas (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013) and are directly inspired by the leftist current that has always existed in Italian Fascism and neo-fascism. In particular, three major concepts that connect CasaPound to three different tendencies of neo-fascism should be highlighted: the Destra Sociale (Social Right), the spiritualism of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), and the tradition of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013),
The Destra Sociale was a group internal to the MSI and connected directly with the experience of the Italian Social Republic. Partisans of this political trend stressed the “socialist” aspects of the fascist doctrine, clamouring for a strong state able to take care of its citizens from the cradle to the grave. Similarly, CasaPound calls for a stronger state to protect citizens from the “dictatorship” of the banks and the international financial system (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).CasaPound also takes direct inspiration from Italian Fascism in its restless fight against international capitalism. The reference here is to Mussolini’s attacks against the international plutocracies which were held responsible for the destruction of national economies (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). CPI has also opposed Italy’s austerity programme, most notably in the campaign “Ferma Equitalia” (“Stop Equitalia”). Equitalia is the public company in charge of the collection of taxes and the Italian symbol of the austerity movement. Since the beginning of 2012, different bases of Equitalia have been the target of several bomb attacks (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Among the 18 points of CPI’s political programme, the first calls for the “public control of banks.” The nationalism and autarchy of CPI is characterized by an aversion to all multinational corporations and European institutions (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The state is also supposed to be “ethical, organic and inclusive” and “something spiritual and moral” aimed at ensuring that the nation remains independent of private and international interests. Society was seen as an “organism” in which individuals were merely tools for pursuing the interests of society as a whole (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Ordine Nuovo was founded in 1956 by Pino Rauti and other militants of the MSI. They disagreed with the party on a number of grounds, including the recognition of NATO. The group developed a strong cultural commitment but also a sense of militancy where particular importance was given to violent actions against opponents. Numbers of its militants have been accused of terrorist activities (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Finally, CasaPound inspires parts of its ideology from the experience and practice of the Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist.
Together with the Nuova Destra, these were among the most interesting political experiments of the 1970s. Following the protest movements begun in May 1968 in Paris, intellectuals tried to renovate the right wing, emphasizing or adding issues such as federalism and ecology, but also an ethnic-identarian vision, communitarism, anti-imperialism and Europeanism (Mammone, 2008).
In line with the aforementioned ideological debate, CPI’s self-styled revolutionary fascist members have declared themselves to be “the fascists of the new millennium” (Wolff, 2019). The group has voluntarily embraced this label as effectively portraying the mixture of Fascist traditionalism with the promise of the future and a contemporary ethos. As Mammone (2009: 187) observes, CPI exemplifies “a modern blackshirt Janus with one face looking backward and the other forward towards the future.” The label also emphasizes the adaptation of a classic extreme-right movement to a fast-changing environment in which language, communication, and behaviour play a role comparable to values and ideology, thus creating a cultural imaginary suitable for the political mobilization of new members (Forchtner & Kølvraa, 2017).
“Fascism à la Carte”
The CPI’s success at recruiting new members derives from: i) Its variable approach to a new form of political identification. This consists of both a “strong” approach, allowing for a conceivable return to codified traditions and symbols of Fascism, and a “soft” attitude towards the strategic selection of symbols, metaphors, topoi, and fallacies from a wide repertoire (Reisigl, 2008). ii) Its professionalized use of political language to encourage both the embrace and rejection of an ideological understanding of politics. iii) Its mixed use of symbols and the connected cultural imaginary (Bulli, 2019).
CPI’s ideology has been described as “fascism à la carte” or “à la carte Fascism” (Albanese et al., 2014), indicating the movement’s adoption of only certain elements of Fascist ideology and making use of them to recruit members. CPI selects those elements of the Fascist tradition it finds useful for the clear definition of its own political raison d’être in ideological and social terms. However, quite often CPI ends up taking contradictory positions in order to accommodate the needs of different audiences. “Fascism” remains the backbone by which the group substantiates its criticism of supranational institutions, globalization, and the establishment; yet, CasaPound approaches it by making a strategic mix of different elements depending on the issues that are debated, selectively emphasizing some relevant aspects, and omitting others (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Meanwhile, contextualizing its increasing popularity following the 2008 financial crisis, CPI’s position has been outlined as the typical third-wayism: “The refusal of neoliberal economic theories and the neo-nationalist defence of workers’ rights.” However, less attention has been paid to CPI’s Euroscepticism, anti-globalism/mondialism, anti-Zionism, and racism. These have manifested as cultural racism; nationalism based on identarian discourse (ethno-nationalism); “welfare chauvinism;” exclusionary nationalism,; rejecting a multi-racial society; the defence of ethnic identities; opposition to immigration; a desire to exit from NATO and to remove Italy from the US sphere of influence; a quest to nationalize strategic economic sectors; and a fight against “usury” and for the cancellation of public debt (Wolff, 2019).
CPI’s political discourse reproduces the nationalist and anti-imperialist features of Italian Fascism. In this sense, the financial crisis directly originates from the contradictions of capitalism and its “wild” economic regime, which CasaPound would instead control by means of a strong state capable of avoiding the inequalities of the market economy. The strong state would also regain the national sovereignty that has been given up in favour of transnational organizations, in particular the EU, the IMF, and the ECB (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
Despite these stances, the group is keen to use symbols and practices that are generally considered distant from the culture of the extreme right culture. This appropriation is also applied to figures and practices traditionally associated with left-wing culture (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The ideological pillars of CasaPound’s view of the economy are also reminiscent of the Weimar’s campaigns of economic supremacy and Italian ambitions for food production self-sufficiency in the 1930s. Economic self-sufficiency is a way to reconnect with nature, and this bucolic image of naturalism is not new to radical-right organizations. In this sense, CPI builds a discourse around natural order which affects the environment but also the economy and society at large: a societal ecology (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Thus, CPI emphasizes its organic understanding of national identity and state sovereignty and legitimacy, conceived as natural expressions of the Italian nation: “The Italian nation needs to become once again a national organism with powerful and long-lasting life, aims and means of action, which are well above those of its single or grouped individuals” (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
The CPI, which adopts “welfare chauvinism” and “welfare populism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), also uses the concept of ethnopluralism to attain ideological coherence. Ethnopluralism offers a consistent framing of core themes—like social welfare and globalization—as well as issues considered of secondary importance, like gender and the environment. Hybridization thus allows CPI to emphasize its ideological roots in the tradition of the extreme right, while avoiding stigmatization as being outdated or openly racist (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). Unlike other far-right movements and parties in Europe for which immigration is the key issue, CasaPound’s policy positions cover a range of economic and social areas (Bartlett et al., 2012).
A Political Party That Functions to Trivialize Concerns About Fascism
The social movement rhetoric and engagement in disruptive forms of protest did not prevent CasaPound engaging in institutional politics. Starting with the 2011 elections, CasaPound presented their candidates in local elections in civic lists or on the centre-right and succeeded in electing its representatives (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). The CPI leadership also announced in October 2012 that it would participate in the local elections in Rome and Lazio, and subsequently in the national elections with an autonomous list of candidates. This came as a surprise to many observers who had underlined the non-electoral nature of CasaPound’s activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Since 2013, CPI has regularly taken part in elections with its own electoral lists (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, the choice did not prove particularly successful in the first elections, when CPI won only 0.14 percent of the vote for the Italian House and Senate, and less than one percent in the municipal and regional elections in Rome. However, the success of extreme right actors is not exclusively related to their immediate results. According to the “contagion effect” literature, contemporary extreme right activism strives for the radicalization of mainstream values and political agendas more than for an immediate transformation of the status quo (Lubbers, 2001; Minkenberg, 2001).
CasaPound’s electoral participation contributed to further increasing the visibility of the group as well as its reputation as the main non-partisan actor mobilizing on the issue of national sovereignty, as well as its opposition to austerity and the EU. As a consequence, the subsequent months saw an unprecedented electoral alliance between CasaPound and the regionalist populist party Lega Nord (Albertazzi & McDonnell 2005). This unofficial electoral cartel was first tested in European Parliament (EP) elections in May 2014, when CasaPound explicitly supported one of Lega’s candidates (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
In November 2018, the election in the Roman suburb of Ostia was considered by the Italian media as “a test” for the affirmation of CPI in Italian political life. CPI got 9 percent of the votes and obtained one seat in the local municipal council (Torrisi, 2018). In the March 2018 national elections, the CPI obtained 0.94 percent of the vote (310,793 votes) but it couldn’t enter parliament. CPI’s electoral support of the euro-sceptical and xenophobic Lega under the leadership of Matteo Salvini in 2018 influenced public discourse to such a degree that its slogan “Prima gli italiani!” (Italians first!) became the slogan for Salvini’s party (Wolff, 2019).
In order to participate in the 2019 EP election, an electoral list was formed by CasaPound and United Right. CasaPound leader Simone Di Stefano topped the list; however, the coalition was unable to win any seats in the EP.
CPI has never won a seat in the national parliament or the EP, but the group has successfully made extreme-right themes more routine in the public sphere, trivializing concerns about historical fascism and racial discrimination (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Nevertheless, on June 26, 2019, CasaPound’s leader Iannone announced CasaPound was no longer a political party; instead, the group would return back its original status as a social movement.
A Hierarchic and Meritocratic Organisation
Although the Italian Constitution bans “the reorganization in any form of the dissolved Fascist Party,” CasaPound, like other neo-fascist movements, has skirted the law by identifying as the descendants of Mussolini (Horowitz, 2017). In terms of its organisational structure, CasaPound opted for a strategy of differentiation in order to carve out a space for itself within the extreme right milieu. In this sense, the main goal of CasaPound has not been the development of a concrete organizational alternative for extreme-right activism, but rather the promotion of a claim of generic “otherness” from all existing political organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The organization of CasaPound is hierarchic and meritocratic. Those who work the most, who are most capable to commit, are recognized as leaders—and followed. The leadership is officially embodied by Iannone, who is a widely recognized figure in the subcultural milieu of the Italian extreme right. His involvement in the everyday politics of CPI has, however, decreased over time; most of the ordinary business is delegated to the vice-president, who acts as spokesperson and runs as candidate in national and local elections (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). On November 13, 2017, Simone Di Stefano was elected secretary and nominal prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 general election.
The internal structure, decision-making, and recruitment does not fully conform to either the model usually followed by electoral actors or that of grassroots organizations. Rather, it combines formal and informal features, hierarchical procedures, and spaces of socialization, merging the organizational practices of social movements with those of formal political parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). All strategies and policy proposals are decided upon by the inner leadership in Rome and communicated to members, militants, and local branches. Decentralized grassroots initiatives are also possible and welcome but have to be ratified by the offices in Rome. Political activities are further differentiated through separate organizations with thematic responsibilities. There are groups in charge of social voluntary work (e.g., health, workers’ rights, the environment), ideology and propaganda (including a daily paper, web radio, and web TV), and specific campaigns (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). The leader creates or displaces social movement practices and accompanies virtually all actions that can be associated with CasaPound. In addition, personalization takes place through the systematic exhibition of symbols that can be immediately associated with the group (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
CPI has its headquarters in Rome and branches in other northern and southern cities (Bulli, 2019). The building, which sits incongruously in the heart of an immigrant neighbourhood, has served as CasaPound’s home since it was occupied (Horowitz, 2017). In 2006, the movement that arose around the first community centre gained with its student organization, the “Students’ Block” (“Blocco Studentesco”). Blocco Studentesco is a mainstay in Rome youth politics, winning 11,000 votes in school council elections in 2009 (Kington, 2013). A fascist women’s movement, Tempo di Essere Madri (“time to be a mother”), was founded by Iannone’s wife. A pseudo-environmental group, La Foresta Che Avanza, began to put “the regime into nature” (Jones, 2018). Among the many groups directly linked to CPI is the “Circolo Futurista” (“Futurist Circle”), an association devoted to the organization of cultural events (Bulli, 2019).
As of December 2017, CPI had 106 headquarters/local offices across Italy (Wolff, 2019) and Iannone described each new centre as a “territorial reconquest.” Because every centre was self-financing, and because they claimed to “serve the people,” those new centres in turn opened gyms, pubs, bookshops, parachute clubs, diving clubs, motorbike clubs, football teams, restaurants, nightclubs, tattoo parlours, and barbershops. CasaPound suddenly seemed everywhere, echoing the influential fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who wrote in 1925 that fascism was “before all else a total conception of life” (Jones, 2018). Today, CasaPound is present in virtually all Italian regions. It owns fifteen bookshops, twenty pubs, a web radio station (Black Flag Radio) and a web TV channel (TortugaTV). CasaPound also produces publications such as the monthly journal L’Occidentale and the quarterly Fare Quadrato (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
Members: Fascists of the Third Millennium
CPI has made enormous improvements in terms of recruitment during the last years (Wolff, 2019). CPI members, who define themselves as “Fascists of the Third Millennium” (Bulli, 2019)—complete with black boots, tattooed necks, and shorn hair—guard floors decorated with pictures of Fascist-era marches and banners reading “Arm Your Soul.” The members exhibit fondness for Roman salutes and mythic glory days (Horowitz, 2017). Members are referred to as a “camerata” (the fascist version of “comrade”) and exchange the old-fashioned “legionary” handshake, grasping each other’s forearm rather than the hand (Jones, 2018). Members of CPI’s grassroots associations do not always declare their political allegiance, thus facilitating the recruitment of new members. Often, in fact, their first contact with the movement is not an ideological one (Bulli, 2019).
It is important to underline that CPI does not envisage membership without active militancy; becoming a member entails active participation in the events and activities promoted by the group. The selection of members follows very strict, yet informal, criteria, and generally occurs by co-optation. After being introduced to the group by other militants, prospective members are invited to public events and activities organized by CPI, “as a way to test their motivation, before introducing them to the circuit of real militancy.” Sympathizers unable to become active militants can be appointed as “web supporters” in charge of promoting CPI’s messages, images, and activities online. CPI does not have staff or employees on its payroll, and elected officials are required to devote most of their emoluments to the organization (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).
Although membership in CPI is considered on the rise, it is difficult to rely on declared figures. While the founding group included a few dozen individuals, data from CPI’s official website claimed over 2,000 members in 2008 (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2011, it was estimated that CPI had 5,000 members, while in 2017, the group reached 6,000. As of January 2018, the Facebook account CasaPound Italia had 230,000 followers (Wolff, 2019). CasaPound Facebook supporters were slightly more likely to be unemployed than the average Italian citizen (11 percent vs 7.9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012).
CPI’s Women: Deconstructing the Theory of Fascist Misogyny
The common assumption that fascism is a misogynist ideology which has tended to exclude women, has been contrasted with cases of women’s active participation in fascist politics in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK (Durham, 1998).Women “shockingly” participating in far-right politics has received much media attention despite fascist movements being known for stressing women’s responsibilities at home. Conservative ideals of good fascist mothers and wives have also been prominent in CPI’s propaganda (Provost & Whyte, 2018). According to Gretel Cammelli, “since the foundation of CasaPound, women’s presence was overexposed, but in reality, there was a small number of them.” Cammelli observed that back in 2010, in CPI “women’s roles were extremely marginal, they were basically absent from all the high hierarchies,” and that the movement is very “macho.” The researcher recalls that she went to a CPI event in 2010 and “the number of women was quite embarrassing: they were about 20 out of 500 people. Almost all of them were in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches for the men” (Torrisi, 2018).
All of this makes the movement edgy and decidedly masculine—87 percent of the CPI’s Facebook supporters are male (Jones, 2018; Bartlett et al., 2012). According to the CPI’s ideology, today as in the fascist era, the role of women is to procreate for the wealth and prosperity of the Italian nation. Women have a duty to ensure that the history of Italy is kept alive into the future, and CasaPound perpetuates a normative vision of female gendered identity (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Caterina Froio notes that the far right has struggled with the so-called “gender gap” among members, voters, and political personnel because women represent a large potential reservoir of support electorally for the far right (Torrisi, 2018).
In 2017, CasaPound expressed support for same-sex marriage and supported abortion rights. Even if it is not officially homophobic, CasaPound believes in the “traditional family” as the basic unit of the nation. One example of this was the “Tempo di essere madri” (“It’s time to be mothers”) campaign, which advocated lowering the amount of working hours for mothers without affecting their pay (Bartlett et al., 2012).
In November 2017, the Italian edition of the women’s magazine Marie Claire published an article entitled “Do you know who CasaPound’s women are?” It profiled female militants of CPI, giving readers a glimpse into their private lives, sharing fashion tips, what they like to wear, and how they juggle their family and social lives with the demands of being part of a violently fascist movement (Torrisi, 2018). Like Marie Claire, the Italian media in general have helped CasaPound to “glamourise” fascism. Torrisi shows how media coverage focused on the movement’s female members has fawned over their beauty and their dedication to their children and husbands, while glossing over the violence and danger of this increasingly visible fascist group (Provost & Whyte, 2018). For instance, Italian media christened local spokeswoman Carlotta Chiaraluce in Ostia “Lady CasaPound” and called her a “beautiful, fascist… vote-catcher” and the “queen of the far-right movement.” Interviewed by one right-wing newspaper, Chiaraluce said that there are a lot of women in the movement, and they are all happy with what they are doing. She said: “Even if there is not a lot of media attention on this aspect, we are deconstructing the theory of the misogyny of fascists” (Torrisi, 2018).
Hybrid Ideology Facilitates Diversified Activities
CPI emphasises direct activism, and its strategy is based on the synergic union of ideas and actions. In CPI’s view, ideas cannot be separated from political participation (Bulli, 2019) and it has successfully managed to construct its own self-styled activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Thus, CPI enjoys important visibility in Italy and in the European extreme-right subcultural milieu despite its limited number of supporters (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Until the late 2000s, CasaPound was mainly engaged in expressive activities aimed at developing its network of associations. It was also protagonist of a series of demonstrations, which included the occupation of a state-owned building in Rome in 2002 (CasaMontag) and developing a number of “non-conventional” squats, the attack against the emission “Big Brother,” and numerous violent riots involving Blocco Stundentesco (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Meanwhile, CPI’s political campaigns have aimed to implement laws, promote referenda, and directly influence the national political debate over different topics related to housing, Italian workers, the public austerity programme, and the importance of the traditional family (Bartlett et al., 2012). In its early years, it stood out for its unconventional actions, most notably highly demonstrative protests, occupations of state-owned buildings for housing purposes, and squatting for political and cultural activities. Even during electoral campaigns, CPI combined conventional party activities such as handing out leaflets, collecting signatures, and promoting fundraising events with contentious politics, including the storming of rival candidates’ offices, clashes with anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations, and direct actions and interventions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).
As mentioned previously, CPI builds its political narrative upon the framework of the “metapolitics”: a counter-cultural power for which cultural change is expected to precede political change. This is also confirmed by the groups’ preferred modes of activism; it engages in a number of different arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). The hybrid nature of CPI has shaped its actions, which consists of both unconventional and conventional activities (Bulli, 2019).
From its very beginnings, CPI insisted on the creation of an image that diverged from the institutional character of the Italian far right of the late 1990s (Bulli, 2019). It has adapted a “new political style.” Instead of parades, memorial rituals, or celebrations, they organize rock concerts where people can meet up and “community” can form and, through chorus and dance, celebrate itself. Music has especially played a crucial role in this strategy. Producing music and live performances has been seen as one of the principal ways of creating the desired distinction between the traditional far right and the new model proposed by CPI (Bulli, 2019).
This is possible thanks to CPI’s leader Gianluca Iannone, who is also the front man of the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which lies at the origins of the entire movement. Iannone is an actor capable of updating the new political style, making the CasaPound community feel a desire to take part in the leader’s power. When Iannone sings and stands at the centre of the stage, everyone flocks to be near him. As one activist stated, ZZA is not a single artist; rather, “if you listen to Zeta Zero Alfa, you understand that they are like the tip of the iceberg, that there is a whole community behind them.” ZZA’s concerts are an important tool for communication. One of ZZA’s most well-known songs is called “Cinghiamattanza.” When “Cinghiamattanza” is performed, the activists take off their belts and begin to beat each other with them, often until bleeding, as the lyrics themselves encourage them to do (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CasaPound defines “cinghiamattanza” or “massacre belt” as a “sport” (Lidell, 2012).
Another distinguishing feature of CasaPound is its explicit emphasis on physical activity and confrontation. The function and importance of sports and physical confrontation is more broadly conceived as a “cult of the body.” CasaPound offers a range of sporting activities to its core members and sympathisers, including trekking, speleology, rugby, combat sports and martial arts, karate, boxing, wrestling, parachuting, water polo, diving, horse-riding, motor-riding, and hockey (Kington, 2011a). These activities allow those who practise them to show courage and masculinity. CPI is also engaged with a number of youth clubs dedicated to sports, as well as with art galleries and theatre schools. Similarly, sports and leisure activities play a fundamental role in developing a sense of shared community (Bulli, 2019; Wolff, 2019).
Since camaraderie is represented as the highest form of political and social commitment for its members, CPI adopts a particular style of communication intended to present the group as a valid alternative to the traditional politics (Bulli, 2019). Thus, CPI organizes solidarity actions so as to reinforce its close connection to the social legislation of the Fascist regime. CPI’s grassroots associations play a crucial role in these activities, in which there is direct contact with those being helped and CPI promotes a series of “para-welfare activities” addressed to Italian families facing difficult times (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Unlike conventional forms of activism, they do not seek the mediation of representative authorities to solve public problems, but seek to directly redress a problem (Bosi & Zamponi, 2015: 371). These actions were at the core of campaigns on housing rights and extended to other issues over time. CPI then mobilized on environmental requalification and voluntary work to help disabled, unemployed, and elderly people (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). CPI’s engagement in society covers a wide range of different activities, from house-occupation and street protest to social welfare and housing programmes, from vigilante excursions against illegal migrants in the peripheries of Italian cities or against illegal street sellers on Italian beaches to pro-bono health and legal counselling, first aid teams, fundraising activities for foreign populations, and aid to orphans and single-mothers (Wolff, 2019).
CasaPound has especially used food drives to bolster its bonafides in the community and to point to the absence of the Italian state “that should take care of its own before it takes care of others.” Through such actions, CasaPound spectacularizes Italy’s social precarity, while less-than-obliquely hinting at a logic of crisis induced by the non-Italian “other” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). CPI has especially worked for the working class and peasantry and set up its own workers’ union. In 2006, CPI members hung 400 mannequins all over Rome protesting the city’s housing crisis; and in 2012, they occupied the EU’s office in Rome and dumped sacks of coal outside to protest on behalf of Italian miners (Jones, 2018).
As mentioned above, CasaPound combines traditional right- and left-wing concerns, approaches, and symbols. For example, despite an open devotion to Mussolini, it regularly organises events to celebrate famous left-wingers such as Che Guevara or Peppino Impastato (a militant communist who died fighting against the mafia in Sicily). These ambiguities are also reflected in the group’s culture and music: its official radio station, Radio Bandiera Nera, broadcasts traditional right-wing music as well as the anarchist songs of Fabrizio De Andrè. The images used by the group include the so-called fascio littorio (the symbol of Mussolini’s ideology and regime), as well as posters of Corto Maltese or the leftist singer Rino Gaetano. These ambiguities account for CasaPound’s appeal, particularly among young people, as they strive to appear as non-conformist as possible. The anti-conformism is a strong pillar in the language of the organisation(Bartlett et al., 2012).
According to Castelli Gattinara, CasaPound aims at constructing a sense of comradeship by diversifying its political supply across numerous issues, inspired by a philosophy of life built on fascist myths and aesthetics, and on a mix neo-romanticism, irrationalism, spiritualism, and volunteerism. It is in this framework that CasaPound has developed its environmental project La Foresta che avanza (The forest that advances), which takes inspiration from the fascist’s “Mystic of the Earth.” CasaPound’s volunteerism is also mirrored by its social and civic engagement (such as La Salamandra, which operates in territories tormented by natural and/or humanitarian disasters) (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
Iannone has stressed the logic behind the CPI’s activism and said that CasaPound works on dozens of projects and with various methods: “It is fundamental to create a web of supporters rather than focusing on elections. For elections, you are in competition with heavily financed groups and with only one or two persons elected, you can’t change anything. Politics for us is a community. That is why we are in the streets, on computers, in bookshops, in schools, in universities, in gyms, at the top of mountains or at the news stands. That is why we are in culture, social work, and sport” (Liddell, 2012). More than four in ten (44 percent) of CPI’s Facebook supporters reported participating in a street demonstration or protest. However, only one in five reported being a formal member of CasaPound. This might reflect the wider appeal that CasaPound cultural activities hold for people (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Violence as a Method of Demonstration and Expressive Action
The main traits of Italian Fascism and the mythology of violence are inseparable (Lupo, 2005). The widespread use of violence and violent vocabulary by CPI has also to be understood as an explicit reference to Italian Fascism, which was strongly characterized by a martial rhetoric and by the glorification of violence (Blinkhorn, 2000: 69). In Mussolini’s system of values, violence represented the most just and moral, as well as the most practical way to defend one’s ideas. In a similar way, CasaPound’s militants glorify their political activism in terms of battlefield values and concepts (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Violence is actually a basis for the “militia” identity (Payne, 1999). Research (Bjorgo & Witte, 1993; Bjorgo, 1995) has shown that militants, supporters, and sympathizers are incentivized to violent action by the organization, which offers rationales for mobilization and synthesizes grievances in political and ideological discourses based on race, religion, and gender superiority. Similarly, justifications may be based on symbolized concepts such as the homeland, blood, and honour (O’Boyle, 2002; Taggart, 2000).
Despite acts of violence being rejected in official CPI policy, the group declares itself ready to defend itself in case of challenges to its survival (Bulli, 2019). CasaPound’s most explicit position with respect to violence can be found on its official website’s FAQ section: “CasaPound Italia does politics, not hooliganism. CasaPound is not interested in showing its muscles. CasaPound calls for quiet force. At the same time, however, CasaPound does not allow others to challenge its legitimate right to exist and act. We are open to dialogue, but we don’t reject confrontation when this is imposed on us and when our political and physical survival is at stake.” CasaPound militants also claim that they’re constantly under attack from anti-fascists. “We’re not a violent organisation,” one militant said, “but we’re not non-violent either.” CasaPound has sometimes relished its violent reputation, and has sometimes been angered by it (Jones, 2018). Violence is not officially endorsed, yet neither is it fully rejected; it remains an important corollary to political activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
CasaPound’s position on violence, therefore, has to come to terms with two opposing forces: i) The necessity of protecting the movement’s external credibility, which would require a full rejection of violence; and ii) The ideas and rhetoric of Italian Fascism were built upon a number of inherently violent elements, such as the cult of bravery and squadrismo. Squadrism expresses the image and memory of fascist violence, a specific kind of political violence committed in particular against political opponents with the purpose of gaining power (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Since Italian Fascism justified the use of violence against its opponents on the basis of the alleged superiority of its political ethics (Gentile, 1934) and also as a tool to safeguard the group’s right to expression against coercion and repression, it is impossible for CasaPound to completely disregard violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). In this sense, violence represents the noblest form of resistance against a hostile, repressive external world and becomes a means not only of survival but also of self-determination (Scianca 2011: 362).
CasaPound cadres often underline how physical training is fundamental for CasaPound militants, as they should always be ready and “physically trained for any threat.” Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2014: 158) note that there is a threefold function of violence within CasaPound’s identity, discourse, and practices. In the first place, violence should be understood in terms of a discursive dimension (Koopmans & Olzak, 2004). It rejects political violence as a means to achieve policy success in its external rhetoric. Yet, given its need to reconnect with its fascist past, violence cannot be fully erased from the CPI’s political platform. The result is the development of a specific narrative in which violence is framed as a defensive tool used to respond to forms of repression. Secondly, violence emerges within an aesthetic dimension, by which CasaPound romanticizes and reproduces the myth and symbolic violence of Fascist Italy. Lastly, violence plays a fundamental role in CasaPound within an identity-building dimension (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
The use of violence has been mythologized in CPI’s images and practices. A good example is cinghiamattanza (belt-fighting) in which violence is directed not against out-groups but within the in-group (Castriota & Feldman, 2014: 231-232). The practices of physical violence are used to build feelings of comradeship. The medium through which networks of solidarity are built within the community is the (male) body, through practices of physical contact where the body of the militant is symbolically blended with the collective body of the community. The most widespread of these practices is collective training in combat sports. Common participation in combat sports is a fundamental moment where the militant joins in spirit and body with the collective entity.
Besides its instrumental use as a form of action, violence also plays a fundamental role in the group’s narrative and political discourse. Violence, in other words, is rationalized as a form of resistance against an oppressive and “intolerant” anti-fascist society. Yet, when approaching internal audiences, violence emerges as a fundamental tool to strengthen solidarity and camaraderie among group members (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015) and plays a role as a constitutive element of the group’s collective identity and collective socialization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
In the public domain, CasaPound shifts the attention away from its own use of political violence, focusing instead on repression it suffers. This strategy allows the group to avoid the stigmatization often suffered by extreme right organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Authors increasingly recognize the importance of collective narratives, rituals, and symbolic repertoires in the development of protest events and violence and within processes of exclusive identity building (della Porta, 2013; Goodwin, 2004). In this understanding, the symbolic, cultural, and emotional aspects of political violence are often more significant than its material and strategic consequences. Recent research has in fact rediscovered the role of emotions in the construction and structuring of collective identities (Aminzade & McAdam 2001; Goodwin et al., 2001). Apart from physical violence, CPI makes strategic use of the mythology around a readiness to fight, verbal and physical confrontation, and speed of response in case of attack (Bulli, 2019).
As Castelli Gattinara and Froio (2014) have suggested, violence in CasaPound is linked to the history and rhetoric of fascism “justifying the use of any kind of violence against its opponents.” Violent activities have accompanied CasaPound since its birth. Reports on CasaPound in the newspaper La Repubblica between 2004 and 2012 show that about 15 percent of reported CasaPound actions were confrontational, while an additional 35 percent of events involved some form of violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Moreover, about a third of press releases issued by CPI involve physical or symbolic violence (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). Another analysis of CasaPound’s activism between 1995 and 2013 reveals that 51.5 percent of activities have been confrontational and violent (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Music is another fundamental element for understanding CasaPound’s semiotic of violence (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991). Although extreme right musical culture has generally been associated with the skinhead scene, similar tendencies have recently permeated other subcultures (O’Connell & Castelo-Branco, 2010). In the music of ZZA, violence is associated with a set of different meanings. First of all, it represents a revolutionary tool to fight the habits of consumerism and cultural homologation, and to oppose the rulers of the country and the economic system (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
On December 13, 2011, Gianluca Casseri, a CasaPound sympathiser in Tuscany, left home with a Magnum 357 in his bag. On that morning, 50-year-old Casseri had a plan to shoot as many immigrants as possible. He went to a square in Florence and, at 12:30 pm, killed two Senegalese men. He shot another man in the back and throat and then got in his car and drove off. Just over two hours later, Casseri was at the city’s central market, where he shot two more men, who survived the attack. He then turned his gun on himself in the market’s underground carpark (Jones, 2018). These murders suggest that a mythological narration of the past does not prevent it from being reproduced in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Neo-Fascism as Show Business
The relationship between extreme right-wing organizations and the media is far from straightforward. The far right is, on the one hand, traditionally suspicious of the media which it blames for promoting liberal values and sustaining the status quo (Mudde, 2007); media attention, on the other hand, allows dissemination of far-right messages (Ellinas, 2010). In such a context, Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2015) underline that newsworthiness is the primary motivation for CPI’s choice of showcase activism and the group is primarily involved in the organization of highly media-friendly events and actions, specifically by tackling ongoing problems and public concerns, using new vocabularies, innovative symbols, and unconventional forms of protest.
CPI has also been well aware that their visibility depends on the capacity to offer the media a product that is at the same time personalized, spectacularized, and creating controversy and debate (Esser, 2013). The media interest in CPI can, thus, be explained by their fascination with the imaginary of violence, marked by the group’s simultaneous use of conventional and unconventional forms of activism mostly centred on its idealization of a myth of action, courage, and predominantly masculine bravery (Bulli, 2019). Images traditionally associated with Italian Fascism, such as warriors, soldiers, etc., are also part of CasaPound’s visual communication (Mosse, 1996) which aims at increasing the visibility of CasaPound in the media—which may represent a fundamental tool for CPI’s survival (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
What makes CasaPound unique is its game of smoke-and-mirrors with fascinated Italian media. The media—whether intrigued, anxious, or excited—has reported on every initiative: as Di Stefano said, “everything CasaPound did became news” (Jones, 2018). There is a convergence between CPI’s activism and its communicative strategies. In this sense, the framing, and actions of CasaPound are first based on an accurate study of the mechanisms of news production and subsequently justified ideologically. In so doing, CasaPound is more than simply recognizable; it is a “trademark” that can be identified well beyond the traditional audiences of neo-fascism. Today, vast shares of Italian public opinion are very familiar with CasaPound thanks to CPI’s performances and ability to attract media attention (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Moreover, CPI pays particular attention to the promotion of its events on its online platforms, so that journalists often find all the information, photos, and material they need directly from the sources of the relevant group, thus allowing CPI to exert control over its own imagery and narratives. Accordingly, demonstrations and public events are organized and planned with extreme caution to produce “iconographic” results. CPI has thus demonstrated a considerable knowledge of developing a form of storytelling based on dramatization of narratives, visual staging of protest, and the construction of controversy by means of symbolic innovation and discursive hybridization (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
Thank to hybridization strategies—i.e. the strategic combination of organizational features and activities inspired by different political cultures, institutional party politics, and non-institutional contentious actions—five features of CPI’s politics are blurred: ideology, internal structure, activism, mobilization, and communication. Hybridization in these five main aspects of extreme right politics allows CPI to attract quality media attention while also validating extremist views in the public sphere (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020) via agitprop (agitation propaganda) actions—propaganda and demonstrations aimed at mobilizing public support. CPI benefits from this strategy of hybridization, which taps into commercial media demand for entertaining stories and simplified messages. Its unconventional mix of extreme right, pop-culture, and left-progressive styles helps ensure media coverage in both the protest and electoral arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).
In terms of political symbols, CPI also offers a hybrid media product associating pop and left-wing icons with extreme right codes. The goal is not only to empty established symbols of their meaning, but also to present an innovative and unusual narrative for responding to the commercial needs of the mass media (Castelli Gattinara, 2017). Through hybridization and media-savviness, CasaPound increasingly meet the commercial media appetite for sensational, entertaining stories and polarizing news. Ultimately, CPI has realized that complying with the logistics of news production helps ensure that fringe or extreme ideas drift into the mainstream (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).
CasaPound have reconstructed fascism as what Castelli Gattinara and Froio have characterized as a “hybrid communication style.” Images of Mussolini and fascist iconography mingle with references to cultural figures sympathetic to fascist ideas, or those who might be termed proto-fascist—Ezra Pound, obviously, but also Marinetti, D’Annunzio, Sorel, Knut Hamsun, Yeats, and Nietzsche. The effect is a strange collage of nostalgic nods to the years of the fascist ventennio and to “pop culture” (Barnes, 2019). CPI’s visual propaganda also features Che Guevara and Karl Marx alongside popular pirate cartoon characters Corto Maltese and Captain Harlock, and music by anarchist songwriter Fabrizio De André (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). This strategy has gained CasaPound a significant degree of media attention. News agencies seem to be interested in the phenomenon of “acquisition” of left-wing issues and repertoires of action by extreme-right organizations: CasaPound’s squats, concerts, and “showpiece” protests, as well as the attention it gives to issues such as homosexual rights and the environment (Castelli Gattinara et al, 2013).
Moreover, CPI activists favour hip symbols and neutral clothing—jeans and T-shirts—rather than stereotyped extreme-right styles, such as shaved heads and combat boots. This improbable mix of aesthetic influences has fascinated the Italian media, building the notion that CPI promotes a new, glamorous approach to extreme-right politics (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Meanwhile, to maximize the visual impact of CPI’s demonstrations, participants form ranks of seven or eight persons and then march in orderly lines separated from one another by a maximum of two meters. Ideologically, these practices clearly reflect the idea of order and unity—strategically, they help the group to exert control over its own image when it interacts with the mass media during public events and enable it to extend its visibility well beyond the extreme-right milieu (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
Competing in elections also increased CPI’s presence in the mainstream media. To enhance its political newsworthiness, CPI developed professionalized media management techniques designed to locate the party on the “friend” side of the “friend-foe” relationship between the media and the radical right. To do this, CPI specifically satiated the media’s desire for the spectacular and theatricality (Bulli, 2019). CPI made use of theatricality in all its political demonstrations, from traditional rallies to symbolic performances. By employing shocking tactics—like hanging dummies from town bridges in order to denounce rising prices, unemployment, and the pressures of immigration, or dyeing the water in the Senigallia fountain red in memory of the blood of Italians who committed suicide due to the pressures of debt—the movement achieved extensive media coverage. CPI used the term “squadrismo mediatico” (media squadrism) to describe this strategy (Bulli, 2019).
Gretel Cammelli (2018) lists some of CPI’s actions that have been defined as “mediatic squadrism”: a 2012 demonstration inside a high school in Rome that involved setting off smoke bombs and shouting for the Duce (Mussolini) to return; an incursion into the public television studio (Rai Tre) in 2009 to express disapproval of a programme (Chi l’ha visto), in which militants ran into the studio and warned the Italian public and politicians “not to play with their lives.” They had several t-shirts printed bearing the text “perfect squadrist style: dress up as a rockstar.” The media helps CPI gain visibility by providing attention to issues on which they enjoy enhanced public credibility, notably immigration and security (Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007).
When CPI has sought to clean up its image in order to penetrate mainstream Italian political debate, the media have again played a starring role in the project, helping to normalise and even glamourise the far-right movement (Torrisi, 2018).
While CPI’s outward-oriented media practices have shaped public policy and state action, and/or set the terms of public debates and agendas, it also displays an internal media politics focused primarily on reinforcing ideological consistency and subcultural identification and constructing a brand identity that ensures internal cohesion and external distinctiveness. Hence, inward-oriented activism stands out for its function in structuring collective identities and ideological coherence (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020) associated with an alternative culture and community (Atkinson & Berg, 2016).Rather than being solely an instrument of internal propaganda and control, inward-oriented media practices serve the purpose of building the collective identity of the groups, binding militants within a common culture and ensuring their coherent representation towards the outside world (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
CPI is also expert in the use of social media. It uses social media to garner support and help appeal to a young demographic. The language they use tends to be based on slogans, incitements, and abstract concepts, rather than articulated ideological positions.
In addition, they use self-produced media innovatively (Bartlett et al., 2012). It now counts on one Internet television channel (Tortuga TV) and a monthly newspaper (Occidentale). The radio channel Radio Bandiera Nera (RBN, Black Flag Radio) was created in 2007. Initially hosted on the online forum Vivamafarka, RBN is now carried on fifteen radio stations in Italy and three abroad. It puts out political and cultural news and interviews, but its main content is far-right music. In 2013, the newspaper Il Primato Nazionale was created as an online newspaper covering CPI’s internal and external activities. Since its founding, it has become the press organ of CPI and hosts articles by its most prominent political and cultural figures (Bulli, 2019).
Indeed, there is a considerable symmetry between CPI’s internal structure and its media apparatus. The group can count not only on official social media profiles (Facebook, 240,000 likes; Twitter, 18,000 followers), and on a website summarizing its basic values, activities and proposals, but also on dedicated pages for each territorial branch, and individual pages for national leaders and candidates.
Despite this fragmentation, these online platforms are very coherent in aesthetic choices and in the diffusion of messages. The graphic design and format of all websites and platforms are intended to provide a sense of ideological purity and belonging, not only through the selection of symbols, but also through the homogeneity of colours and fonts, creating a continuity between the main portal and the pages of its peripheral organizations and increasing the distinctiveness of the network. At the same time, these choices closely correspond to those observed in CPI’s offline communication and activities (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
The coherence of CPI’s network is ensured by online activists and “web-supporters.” Web supporters are “CPI’s online task force” and are as important as other members and activists. In this respect, CPI’s media practices also produce innovative and more flexible forms of participation beyond traditional party membership (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, Facebook and Instagram closed CPI’s official accounts in 2019. A Facebook spokesman told the Italian news agency Ansa: “Persons or organisations that spread hatred or attack others on the basis of who they are will not have a place on Facebook and Instagram” (Tondo, 2019). However, a civil court in Rome has ruled that Facebook must immediately reactivate CPI’s account and pay the group €800 for each day the account has been closed (Giuffrida, 2019; Global Freedom of Expression, 2020).
Anti-Immigration & Antisemitism
While CPI supporters oppose immigration and multiculturalism, their arguments against immigration are unconventional and on “progressive” grounds (Jones, 2018) compared with other far-right-wing organisations and is an example of “care racism.” CPI argues that immigration is bad for the immigrants themselves, as it is a form of “modern slavery” (Bartlett et al., 2012).
“We want to stop immigration,” says Di Stefano. “Low-cost immigrant workers mean Italians are unable to negotiate wages, while the immigrants are exploited” (Kington, 2011a). Though Italy has fewer migrants than many other Western European countries (Eurostat, 2019), conservative lawmakers have painted an alarming picture of an invasion that has plunged the country into an unmanageable emergency (Povoledo, 2018). According to Bartlett et al. (2012), CasaPound’s arguments against immigration are mainly economic in nature. CasaPound argues that it is not against immigrants per se, but rather criticise immigration as a forced result of globalisation. They claim that globalisation creates a “multirazzista” (multiracist) society, where the rising number of immigrants prevents the state from protecting its own citizens.
In the political programme of CasaPound, migration constitutes the third priority, and the movement states its clear opposition to the “migration mechanism.” The programme proposes “blocking all migration inflows, sending back all irregular migrants, and sustaining any identity-based movement active in other countries capable of promoting the re-settlement of people in their own countries.” CasaPound declares its desire for “a world where the differences are protected and promoted… in order to prevent the confusion and spoiling of each identity.” Succinctly, it is stated in the programme: “Stop invasion; Italians first!” (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The “real human values” are expressed through a racially exclusionary, moralized claim on social housing. Leading up to the 2018 elections, the movement recalibrated their discursive and material focus on the housing issue in more directly xenophobic terms, with the slogan “Italians should come first and then, maybe, foreigners” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
The “manifesto della razza” published in Italy in 1938 affirmed the existence of hierarchically positioned races and the importance of preserving the “Italian race” before all others. CPI has edited its programme to eliminate any explicit references to the racist policies of the fascist epoch; nevertheless, many CasaPound statements reveal an updated version of this tendency to consider human beings different from one another (Castelli Gattinara, Froio & Albanese, 2013: 250). These statements provide an example of what in the social sciences is known as “differential racism” (Wieviorka, 1998).CasaPound does not grant any value to race as a genetic attribute, but identity is promoted as a feature deriving from the person’s culture and linked to a specific national territory. In this discourse, such identities are naturally linked to national borders and history, elements which determine the specific culture of the area in question. This specific culture in turn produces the identity of individuals, and CasaPound has declared itself ready to defend these specific cultures and traditions against the supposed risk of contamination entailed in encountering and living with different cultures. According to this logic, migrants should be sent back to their own countries because different cultures cannot live together. This example of cultural fundamentalism (Stolcke, 1995) claims different access to citizenship and civil rights depending on the origins of the individual in question (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
CasaPound’s actions often target centres hosting migrants and asylum seekers through outright attacks (Selmini, 2016) or symbolic demonstrations. Throughout 2014 and 2015, CasaPound’s leaders organised rallies against asylum centres that were due to open. All over Italy, every time a vacant building was converted into an asylum centre, CasaPound members contacted local citizens opposing the centres, offering strategic advice (Jones, 2018). This occurred, for instance, in Goro Gorino in the autumn of 2016, when CasaPound and Lega Nord activists coordinated with local resident to put together a committee to prevent asylum seekers from settling in the town, erecting a barricade across the street at night. CPI members also invaded the emergency area of a hospital in Bolzano in 2018 to protest homeless people who took refuge there overnight (Povoledo, 2018).
Furthermore, in May 2019, angry protesters and members of the CPI tried to block a Roma family from accessing its assigned council apartment in the Casal Bruciato district of Rome. When riot police escorted a woman and her child back to the apartment, some protesters raised their arms in a fascist salute; others shouted racial insults and rape threats (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Some female residents in the district said, “we want to see them all hanged, burned.” “Shall we call Mussolini back from the dead?” asked another woman ironically. “I wish,” replied the others (ANSA, 2019).
Eventually, CasaPound militants went on to actually kill migrants. The first incident took place in Florence in 2011, when a CasaPound militant with a gun shot and killed two workers from Senegal; another occurred in Fermo in the summer of 2016, when a CasaPound sympathizer beat an asylum seeker to death. CasaPound’s rhetoric of opposition to migrants and different cultures open the way for violent actions and shows how the fascist past can find space for its mythological narration and thereby legitimize a specific identity in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Meanwhile, despite CPI’s Di Stefano stating that Mussolini’s racial laws were “a mistake… We believe in the national community and the Jews in Italy are part of that,” (Kington, 2011a) CPI is antisemitic. It cooperated with Lebanese radical Islamist group Hezbollah in 2015. While CasaPound borrows a significant amount of its ideology from Italian Fascism, it attempts to disassociate itself officially from antisemitism (Staff, 2012).
CasaPound has condemned Mussolini’s racial laws as a mistake—while also adding that they have to be understood in a context in which antisemitism was a worldwide phenomenon and not specifical to Italy (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Di Stefano said, “We are not racists, we are not antisemitic, we do not have problems with Israel,” when CPI’s political ally Matteo Salvini was denied entry into Israel on the purported basis of his CasaPound connection. In 2018, Di Stefano defended then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies regarding repatriation of illegal immigrants to Africa as “undoubtedly excellent,” and criticised humanitarian organisations and the United Nations for intervening to prevent them.
CasaPound’s Transnational Connections and Impact
Despite being a small group, CPI has been able to set an example for extreme-right social movements (Koch, 2013).Indeed, CasaPound has become a reference point at the European level, attracting the attention not only of the observers of political extremism, but also of the media and the public (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Over the years, CPI’s leaders have been invited to explain its “political model” in many major European capitals (Paris, Madrid, London, Lisbon, Brussels, Warsaw). In 2011, the Finnish Resistance Movement invited members of CasaPound to a seminar in Helsinki (YLE, 2011). Other extreme-right organizations in Europe are also increasingly studying CasaPound’s experience: in November 2014, the leader of CPI was invited to the international conference, “The Awakening of Nations,” organized by the French Groupe Union Défense, along with other extremist groups such as the Greek Golden Dawn (and its Cypriote branch ELAM), the Belgian Nation, the Spanish Movimiento Sociale Republicano and Liga Joven, the French Mouvement d’Action Sociale, and some representatives from the online platform Synthèse Nationale (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Moreover, CasaPound has always voraciously consumed foreign trends and repackaged them for an Italian audience: it absorbed the anti-capitalist ideas of France’s Nouvelle Droite movement and built friendships with members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (Jones, 2018). CasaPound has also promoted initiatives outside Italy through its non-profit organization Solidarité Identités. Through the Sol.Id network, CasaPound activists have engaged in projects in Burma, Crimea, Kosovo, Palestine, and Syria. Ten percent of CasaPound’s income is dedicated to the efforts of Sol.Id. Despite the group’s engagement in Syria, in support of the Assad government’s “struggle to defend its people” CasaPound activists saw no contradiction between supporting the Syrian people in their homeland and being opposed to granting asylum to Syrians fleeing to Europe (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
On foreign policy, CPI’s core beliefs include fondness for Russia and sharp opposition to the EU, globalization, and immigration (Horowitz, 2017), and supporting a communitarian-nationalist Europe. CasaPound Facebook supporters have very negative attitudes towards the EU. CasaPound supporters were significantly more likely to cite the following when asked about their views about the EU: loss of cultural and national identity (63 percent vs only 12 percent of the Italian general public); waste of money (48 percent vs 16 percent); bureaucracy (33 percent vs 7 percent); and not enough control at external borders (46 percent vs 9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012). Nevertheless, CPI defines itself as a pro-European organization, unlike many contemporary radical-right movements. Once more, this element connects them to the tradition of the neo-fascist right dating back to the early 1950s, when fascist groups were transnational actors proposing an ideal European nation-state based on shared traditions and homogeneous cultures and values. To these ideals, CasaPound adds the proposal of a protectionist Europe, with the goal of achieving a European-wide area of economic and welfare self-sufficiency (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups to emerge in Europe in recent decades (Bartlett et al., 2012). Its supporters say they are not racist—but they oppose immigration because of its impact on wages and housing; claim they are not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the “traditional family” (Lidell, 2012). Never before has Italy seen an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying strategic viability that CasaPound today enjoys. Although CasaPound remains marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their policies (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Like other extremist movements, CasaPound is an example of the tendency in contemporary Europe to play on fears and social crisis in order to advance a right-wing ideology (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Despite its grassroots nature and extreme ideology, CPI has acquired national relevance and gained international media exposure. In recent years alone, the group opened 94 new local chapters, successfully penetrating mainstream public debates and receiving disproportionate attention by national media. The visibility of CPI’s symbols, campaigns, and brand among mainstream audiences is unprecedented for a fringe group so openly inspired by historical fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). CPI has also exploited COVID-19, calling the Italian response to the pandemic, “amateurish and partisan” (Willson, 2020).
In the closing sentences of his essay titled “Ur-Fascism” published in the New York Review of Books, Umberto Eco (1995) warned that “it would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying: ‘I want to re-open Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares. Life is not that simple’.” The spectre of a new fascism currently haunts Italy—and Europe—but is not readily identifiable in the black-shirted urban and rural spectacles of CasaPound. It is alarming to see that a survey by Censis research institute showed 48.2 percent of Italians are in favour of having a “strongman” in power who does not care about parliament and elections, while a poll by Demos in November 2017 revealed that almost 60 percent of Italians were “very worried about the rise of fascism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
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A new wave of populist politics defined by anti-establishment, nationalist and anti-minority agendas is gaining power around the world. Understanding the drivers and the impact of populist politics on democracy is key to tackling the most critical challenges facing our world today. The ECPS Academy Civic Leadership Program supports the empowerment of future generations by deepening their understanding of global challenges, helping participants to develop constructive and effective responses. The five-day Civic Leadership Program offers young people a dynamic and engaging learning environment with an intellectually challenging program, allowing them to grow as future academic, intellectual, activist and public leaders.
Each day offers interactive lectures, led by world-leading practitioners and experts from varied disciplinary backgrounds. The lectures are complemented by discussions, group interactions, and assignments on selected key issues to upgrade participant knowledge, qualifications and skills. Participants have the opportunity to collaborate with those from different socio-political contexts, developing invaluable cross-cultural skills and a truly global knowledge of our times. This program seeks to contribute to the personal and academic development of each participant and foster social responsibility and awareness among future leaders from all around the world.
Who should apply?
This unique course is addressed to outstanding candidates interested in gaining a more comprehensive and critical understanding of how current global issues are linked to the rise of populism. A select group of participants will be chosen based on merit, with applications welcomed from students pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees of any discipline, and early career professionals between the ages of 18 and 30. Participants are selected on the basis of a letter of motivation, a CV and a research proposal of between 250 and 500 words. We value the high level of diversity on our courses, welcoming applications from people of all backgrounds. The deadline for submitting applications is June 20, 2021.
- Populism: an introduction
- Varieties of populism
- Populism, democracy, and authoritarianism
- Populism, nationalism and identity
- Populism and religions
- Populist discourse and digital technology
- Digital populism: internet and far-right
- Gender, race and populism
- Environment and populism
- Radicalization and violent extremism
Individual project: Participants write an article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to plan and produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. They will be mentored by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program, and selected papers will be considered for publication on ECPS Youth blog.
Group project: Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Participants are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need. The projects need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program.
To consolidate their intellectual and personal growth, we ask that each participant share their personal reflections on their development, as well as the design and content of the program.
Meeting the assessment criteria below is required from all participants aiming to successfully complete the program and receive a certificate of attendance in the end. These three evaluation criteria include full attendance, active participation in lectures, successful completion of individual paper assignment and successful completion of group project assignments.
- Full attendance and active participation in lectures
Participants are expected to show up in all the lectures and actively participate in the discussions to meet the minimum assessment requirements. In case of failure to attend a lecture without a valid reason, participants will not be considered for assessment. Acceptable reasons for not attending a lecture include 1) serious illness at the time of the lecture (i.e., illness sufficiently serious to warrant a visit to a health professional); 2) grave family or personal emergency.
2. Successful completion of individual paper assignment
Participants are to write a blogpost article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. Participants can request mentorship by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. This will be arranged based on the availability of our experts when the request is made.
The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program. Please make sure that the facts you mention are supported by research and include a primary reference in the form of a hyperlink. You can also use footnotes to provide context and explanation for your article. Selected articles can be published on ECPS website or submitted elsewhere for publication. Each completed article is assigned to one of our in-house experts to be evaluated based on the following criteria: clarity, depth, originality, and relevance.
3. Successful completion of group project assignments
Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Each group will be informed by the coordinators about who they will work with after the end of the program. Groups are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, artistic or literary projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing project, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need.
For any selected project, two reports are required. One is a project proposal of between (300-500) words specifying the goals and objectives of the project and secondly a final report (1,000-2,000) describing the results and outcomes of the project. The project proposals will be submitted before the project initiation. The completed projects and the final reports need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program. They will be evaluated by a committee made up of three ECPS experts based on the project’s societal impact, relevance, innovation, and content quality.
Educational outcomes of this program for participants’ intellectual, professional and personal development include:
Knowledge: Participants deeply engage with multi-disciplinary issues surrounding populism with a range of experts to build critical knowledge and understanding. They are able to identify populist rhetoric and its impact on democracy, human rights, and values and draw advanced connections between how populism operates in different parts of the world.
Skills: Participants attending this program develop a comprehensive set of skills that are highly valuable to their intellectual and personal growth and empowerment. The training will cultivate participants’ use of basic methodological skills and tools needed for academic research and learning. In addition, working together on a group project will advance their collaborative skills and creativity.
Cross-cultural Competence: Participants develop their cross-cultural competencies, meeting with like-minded individuals from around the world to develop a higher understanding of current world problems. They learn to speak confidently and respectfully on complex and controversial issues, and value contrasting perspectives. As they engage in academic exchange and share their ideas and experiences with others, participants develop empathy, tolerance, curiosity and understanding for each other’s views.
Social/Civic Responsibility: Participants build a sense of civic responsibility and awareness of global challenges as they are taught concrete strategies to deal with the impact of populist politics. They apply critical thinking and media literacy in countering misinformation and learn about how they can foster community engagement and solidarity in fighting against critical global challenges.
This course is worth 5 ECTS in the European system. If you intend to transfer credit to your home institution, please check the requirements with them before you apply. We will be happy to assist you in any way we can, however please be aware that the decision to transfer credit rests with your home institution.
Certificate of Attendance
Awarded after program to all participants based on the satisfactory participation in, and completion of, the course assignments. Certificates are sent to students only by email.
ECPS believes that this world-class opportunity should be open to all, regardless of financial background. Therefore, this five-day program is available for just €20.
The program will take place online via Zoom between July 5-9, 2021. There will be two sessions on each day. Please note that this schedule is tentative and may be subject to change depending on the circumstances.
July 5, 2021
- Populism: An introduction(13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Anthoula Malkopoulou
- Varieties of populism (18:30-20:30 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Steven M. Van Hauwaert
July 6, 2021
- Populism, democracy, and authoritarianism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Tsveta Petrova
- Populism, nationalism and identity (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou
July 7, 2021
- Populism and religions (14:00-16:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Jocelyne Cesari
- Populist discourse and digital technology (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Majid Khosravinik
July 8, 2021
- Gender, race and populism (13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Haley McEwen
- Digital populism: internet and far-right (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Eviane Leidig
July 9, 2021
- Environment and populism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Kai Bosworth
- Radicalization and violent extremism (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daniela Pisoiu
This program is coordinated by Dr. F. Zehra Colak in collaboration with ECPS Youth Program members. Submit your application: [email protected]
The Turkish regime is competitive-authoritarian a la Levitsky and Way (2010, Cambridge UP). Elections are held but manipulated, with massive government overspending and a great deal of pressure on the opposition (e.g., the Kurdish party, the HDP). So, the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed. Nevertheless, opposition forces do have a chance to win, as in 2019 in Istanbul.
Professor Kurt Weyland from the University of Texas at Austin argues that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has destroyed democracy in Turkey and adds that although elections in Turkey are held, they are manipulated to a large extent. He argues that Turkey is now a “competitive-authoritarian” regime. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Prof. Weyland says the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed but draws attention to the opposition’s electoral victory in Istanbul at the 2019 local elections.
Prof. Weyland argues that the idea that advanced democracies are vulnerable to populism is exaggerated, stressing that advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation. “Advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation, with firm institutions, independent judiciaries, reasonably strong party systems, a vigilant press, a vibrant civil society, and an energetic and resourceful citizenry,” he says.
The following are excerpts from the interview lightly edited for clarity and length.
Trump Did Not Have Much of a Chance for His Undemocratic Efforts
You think former US President Donald Trump’s threat to American democracy is overestimated. Can you explain why?
Trump certainly intended to concentrate power, weaken checks and balances, disadvantage the opposition, and so on. So, he did pose a threat. But as my 2020 article in Perspectives on Politics explains, US democracy is highly resilient, institutions are very firmly rooted, a constitutional transformation was out of the question, and checks and balances (including the federal division of power) “held” to quite some extent, as evident in the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, the US has a strong, vibrant civil society and an independent press, good parts of which constantly monitored and strongly opposed Trump. Therefore, he did not have much of a chance to succeed in his undemocratic efforts.
Trump could not impose his populist system but has democracy in the United States emerged intact from the challenge of Trump’s populism? Has Trump left lasting scars on US democracy?
Trump has exacerbated the partisan polarization that has plagued US democracy for many years and has further deepened the hostility between different political forces, especially Democrats vs. Republicans. Moreover, Trump has sown doubt about “the truth” in many Republicans’ minds and thus helped to weaken the public sphere, civic debate, and political pluralism. So, Trump has done some damage to US democracy.
But institutionally speaking, US democracy remains almost entirely intact. Trump has not managed to undermine or weaken the institutional framework of US democracy. There has been no constitutional transformation, no major change in institutional checks and balances, in election laws, and so on. So, US democracy is largely intact.
Why do you think the argument that advanced democracies are vulnerable to populism is exaggerated?
Advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation, with firm institutions, independent judiciaries, reasonably strong party systems, a vigilant press, a vibrant civil society, and an energetic and resourceful citizenry. Populist efforts to concentrate power and undermine liberal democracy, therefore, face very substantial obstacles.
Note that populist leaders who have governed in advanced democracies (e.g., Berlusconi and Trump) have done no significant damage to democracy. Note also that even during the turbulent, crisis-wracked interwar years, democracy in advanced countries (Northwestern Europe) survived, as Cornell, Moller, and Skaaning highlight in their 2020 Oxford University Press book.
For democracies to succumb to populism, you argue that a second precondition is necessary, which is either to experience some kind of acute crisis or be blessed by huge hydrocarbon windfalls. However, in Turkey, the second precondition has not been met. How do you explain that Erdogan’s populism has been so successful?
Sure, there was – the fallout of the 2001 economic collapse, which significantly weakened the opposition and helped Erdogan win a clear election victory in 2002.
Trump Has Inadvertently Re-energized US Democracy
You argue that President Trump’s populism could inadvertently spark a revival of American democracy. Could you expand on this a little?
I cover much of this in the last part of my 2020 article. Precisely due to the partisan polarization in the US, Trump’s problematic machinations prompted a strong reaction—a lot of anti-populist, anti-Trump energy—from many sectors of civil society and, of course, the Democratic Party. And because of the institutional strength of US democracy, this energy did not lead to contentious protests, which can be problematic for democracy and can fuel populism by playing into populist leaders’ penchant for confrontation. Instead, this energy was channeled into conventional channels, especially elections. So, in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections, voter turnout was significantly higher than in the recent past—and the anti-Trump forces won! Thus, Trump has inadvertently re-energized US democracy and counteracted the tendency toward low electoral participation (in comparison to Europe).
You argue that Erdogan destroyed democracy in Turkey. How do you define Turkey’s political system today?
Competitive-authoritarian a la Levitsky and Way (2010, Cambridge UP). Elections are held but manipulated, with massive government overspending and a great deal of pressure on the opposition (e.g., the Kurdish party, the HDP). So, the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed. Nevertheless, opposition forces do have a chance to win, as in 2019 in Istanbul.
Unlike many colleagues of yours who deal with populism, you started writing on populism in the 1990s. How do you explain this?
The root cause is my old age! At the tail end of my dissertation research in Brazil, I witnessed the electoral campaign and early government of Fernando Collor de Mello (1990–92), who was a right-winger but used a typically populist political strategy to win and exercise power. As a charismatic leader, he appealed directly (without any organized party) to the heterogeneous masses — “the people.” His base came disproportionately from the politically unorganized people in the urban informal sector and the rural poor. Then in government, he constantly invoked his 35 million votes and tried to bypass established parties and civil-society groupings, willfully imposing his projects from the top down.
I then “saw” a similar strategy in Argentina under Carlos Menem (1989–99) and especially Peru under Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000), whose government I followed closely, starting my field research in Peru with a brief visit in 1995 and then an extended stay in 1996. Together with the borderline case of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico (1988–94), those three leaders inspired my analysis of neopopulism. These were also foreshadowed by Alan Garcia of Peru (1985–90), as analyzed by Cynthia Sanborn in her 1991 Harvard dissertation.
My early writings on neopopulism then gave rise to my conceptual article (2001) on populism as a political strategy. Due to my interest in populism, I also followed the rise of “Bolivarian” populism a la Hugo Chavez. And then, finally, Trump.
Overall, populism has had a long tradition in Latin America that I have followed since taking a graduate seminar on Argentina’s history in the 19th and 20th century in 1984 (!) as an MA student at the University of Texas at Austin. The military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s failed in their efforts to extirpate populism, which made a comeback in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in the 1980s. Thus, for almost a century now, populism has played a very important role in several Latin American countries, which any student of these countries must recognize.
Political Developments Often Do Not Advance in Linear Trajectories
If populist waves continue, what sort of a US and Europe will we witness in 20–30 years?
That is very difficult to predict! One usually thinks in terms of continuities and ongoing trends, such that things would get worse and worse. There certainly are factors that would point in that direction, such as the continued weakening of “established” party systems, which creates political space for populist leaders. There is also the growing complexity of modern politics, which leaves citizens at a loss and makes them susceptible to the simplistic slogans and appeals of populists. Finally, there are specific issues that populist leaders take advantage of, such as the seemingly growing pressures of international mass migration.
But then, political developments often do not actually advance in linear trajectories. Instead, there can be surprising turnarounds, driven, for example, by processes of learning or other counteracting tendencies. I hope that over time, citizens will learn to “see through” the simplistic slogans, the unproductive resentments, and the facile promises made by populist leaders and won’t “fall for” these kinds of politicians anymore.
Fukuyama predicted the victory of liberal democracy after the Cold War. Instead, we now witness the rise of populism. What went wrong?
First, with his specific claim, namely that all ideological alternatives to liberal democracy had collapsed, Fukuyama was essentially correct. Populism constitutes, in Juan Linz’s term, a vague “mentality,” not a real ideology. And it has no real institutional alternative to democracy, as Marxist communism and fascism did. All that populism proposes is to add a few plebiscitary mechanisms, and of course, to concentrate power in the presidency and to soften or limit institutional checks and balances. At the same time, populists, as we know, sneakily distort that whole framework through overbearing personalistic leadership. But that’s a surreptitious effort, not an institutional project.
Consequently, there is no ideological and institutional alternative to liberal democracy, just as Fukuyama argued. Nobody has come up with another project, vision, or utopia – neither the right nor the left.
But for sure, liberal democracy hasn’t remained as triumphant as it was circa 1990, nor has it flourished, as Fukuyama had hoped. Instead, a deep malaise has set in – not unlike the malaise affecting earlier hopes of liberal progress in the late 19thcentury. This is partly a product of the fact that the ideological alternative to liberal democracy has folded. Ideological projects often look better, find more support, and are more vibrant when they confront dangerous adversaries. Note that in the struggle against an authoritarian regime, liberal democracy looks great. But as soon as the battle is won—authoritarianism is defeated, and democracy established—disenchantment (desencanto in Spanish) usually sets in. This is because democracy is not wonderful, because it involves compromise rather than heroic struggle, and because politicians often pursue particularistic deals rather than programmatic projects.
But there are also deeper, serious structural problems. I believe that one of the most important difficulties arises from the incredible (and growing) complexity of modern politics, which citizens have increasing difficulty grasping. Moreover, all governments have felt compelled to enlist more and more technocrats, who tell citizens and especially their governments what they “can” and “cannot” do. Therefore, governments often diverge from their campaign promises to citizens who want more social benefits and more police in the street, yet lower taxes. How can this circle be squared?
These gaps diminish citizens’ trust in politicians and governments and create space for populists, who irresponsibly promise even more than establishment politicians. And nowadays, can citizens still have the civic competence that democracy presupposes? Do they know how best to advance their own interests, who it is in their best interests to vote for, and which party or leader represents them best?
I think these fundamental structural problems, examined, for example, in Yasha Mounk’s 2018 book, are among the root causes of democracy’s contemporary problems.
Who Is Kurt Weyland?
Kurt Weyland is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Austin. Weyland’s research interests focus on democratization and authoritarian rule, social policy and policy diffusion, and on populism in Latin America and Europe. He has drawn on a range of theoretical and methodological approaches, including insights from cognitive psychology. He has done extensive field research in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, and Venezuela. After receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1991, he taught for ten years at Vanderbilt University and joined UT in 2001. From 2001 to 2004, he served as Associate Editor of the Latin American Research Review.
Weyland is the author of several books and many articles in journals such as World Politics, Comparative Politics,Comparative Political Studies, Latin American Research Review, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Democracy, Foreign Affairs, and Political Research Quarterly. He has also (co-)edited two volumes—namely Learning from Foreign Models in Latin American Policy Reform (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004) and, together with Wendy Hunter and Raul Madrid, Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings (Cambridge University Press, 2010). His latest book, Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.