Recently-built Taksim Mosque and Republic Monument in Istanbul's Taksim Square symbolises new and old Turkey. Photo: Sener Dagasan

ECPS Book Talks — Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Sep. 14, 2021)

Author Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz will discuss his book Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2021). The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Simon P. Watmough.

For decades after the declaration of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Turkish state promoted the idea of a desired citizen. The Kemalist state treated these citizens as superior, with full rights; but the ‘others’, those outside this desired citizenship, were either tolerated or considered undesirable citizens. And this caused the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities, religious Muslims and leftists alike. 

In his book, Ihsan Yilmaz shows how historical traumas, victimhood, insecurities, anxieties, fears and siege mentality have negatively impacted on and radicalised the nation-building projects of the two competing hegemonic ideologies/regimes (those of Ataturk and Erdogan) and their treatment of majority and minority ethnic, religious and political groups. Yilmaz reveals the significant degree of overlap between the desired, undesired citizen and tolerated citizen categories of these two regimes, showing how both regimes aimed to create a perception of a homogenous Turkish nation.

Date and Time: Tue, September 14, 2021, 8:00 PM CEST

Registration link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZ0sce6trTktGNTnFXPWesNFsaX-tQjz367O

Speakers

Ihsan Yilmaz is Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He has conducted research on nation-building; citizenship; ethnic-religious-political identities and their securitization (Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia); minority-majority relations (Australia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA); socio-legal affairs, identities, belonging and political participation of Muslim minorities in the West (the UK, Australia, and the USA); Islam-state-society relations in the majority and minority contexts; global Islamic movements; political Islam in a comparative perspective; Turkish politics; authoritarianization; Turkish diasporas (the UK, Australia, the USA); transnationalism; intergroup contact (Australia); and politics of victimhood (Australia, Turkey).

Dr. Yilmaz was a professor of political science at Istanbul Fatih University (2008-2016). He was a lecturer in law, social sciences, and politics at SOAS, University of London (2001-2008) where he taught “Islamic Law and Society,” “Legal Systems of Asia and Africa,” and “Turkish Politics” at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Before SOAS, he was a fellow at the Center for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford (1999-2001) where he worked on Muslim political participation in the UK and unofficial Muslim laws of young Muslims in the West.

Simon P. Watmough is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leipzig in Germany and a non-resident research fellow in the research program on authoritarianism at ECPS. He was awarded his Ph.D. from the European University Institute in April 2017 with a dissertation titled “Democracy in the Shadow of the Deep State: Guardian Hybrid Regimes in Turkey and Thailand.” Dr. Watmough’s research interests sit at the intersection of global and comparative politics and include varieties of post-authoritarian states, the political sociology of the state, the role of the military in regime change, and the foreign policy of post-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. 

His work has been published in Politics, Religion & IdeologyUrban Studies and Turkish Review. Since 2005, Dr. Watmough has taught international relations, diplomacy, foreign policy, and security studies, as well as Middle Eastern history at universities in Australia and Europe. In 2010–11 he was a research fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at the London School of Economics. He has held Visiting Scholar positions at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul (2012), the University of Queensland (2013), Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand (2014) and the University of Graz (2017). In addition to his academic publications, he is also a regular contributor to The Conversation and other media outlets.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes.

Dog Whistles vs. Slide Whistles: Humor as Weapon and Resistance

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes.”

By Heidi Hart

At a recent demonstration by the anti-immigrant populist group SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway) in Norway, painfully close to the ten-year anniversary of the far-right terror attacks in Oslo (Gjelsvik, 2021), a small far-right contingent voiced their vitriol through loudspeakers in front of Stortinget, the capitol city’s parliament building. Several hundred counter-protesters met them with chants, drums, a jazz trumpet, cowbells, an electric guitar, and (thanks to my son, Evan Hart, who has lived in Norway since 2016) a slide whistle. “It was a bit chaotic, but that was the point,” he said, recalling our talks about rhythmic disturbance as a way to interrupt lockstep behavior in far-right demos.

The syncopated chants “Vi er alle antifascister” (“We are all antifascists”) and “Ingen rasister i våre gater” (“No racists in our streets”) worked against any marchlike beats coming from the SIAN speakers. Off-kilter, improvisational noisemaking, along with homemade banners and Pride flags, certainly helped deflate SIAN’s racist, populist posturing – however protected by free speech concerns in Norway – and humor helped as well. I even caught a duck call whistle in the sound clips my son recorded. 

Humor in the form of satirical cartoons has long been a flashpoint in European immigration debates. In Denmark, the Netherlands, and France over the past 15 years, cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed have incited violent reactions, not only as caricatures but also as insults to a religion that is “iconoclastic” in that it “does not permit God to be anthropomorphized … and prizes textual scripture instead” (Taub, 2015). Attacks on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and on several sites in Copenhagen (related to another cartoonist, Lars Vilks) from 2010 to 2015, along with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, fed far-right populist reactions throughout Europe, from Pegida and the AfD party in Germany to SIAN and many online splinter groups; a 2014 study predicted this development, showing that particular, controversial events lead to spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment, which has not grown in a single, steady curve.  

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen, who has studied anti-Muslim views expressed in social media, finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes” (Fangen, 2021).  

Fangen has also noted the use of emojis to “camouflage” anti-Muslim and misogynistic views (“Gendered Images,”2021). Though far-right fanzines used similar tactics in the 1990s, she points out, the ease of viral spread on the internet has attracted far wider audiences, using humor as a seemingly harmless gateway to mainstreaming racial stereotypes and stoking fears that Muslims are “taking over” countries like Germany or Norway, failing to see that most immigrants are fleeing extremist governments in their own countries. 

In the memesphere, the American webcomic StoneToss has attracted controversy for its Holocaust-denial dog whistlesand other semi-coded references to white supremacist, homophobic, and misogynist thinking. On sites like Reddit (often politically problematic in its own right), critics have parsed racist, sexist tropes veiled in “edgy humor.” One reaction among leftist groups has been to appropriate and “remix” StoneToss comics (Gilmour, 2021), with what my son calls “layers of irony” that may escape not only less sophisticated populists but even older progressives like me. The “antifastonetoss” page includes completed remixes, blank-thought-bubble templates, and test runs for community feedback. Subreddit links and critiques of source StoneToss comics abound, as do comments that, under their clever snark, show real concern for the damage hateful content can do, and that offer what might incite a Gen Z eyeroll if I say this: kindness, as in “Trans people are biblically accurate angels.” 

Another surprising site of weaponized, white supremacist humor is the ostensibly “friendship is magic” world of My Little Pony. For the past decade or so, young men calling themselves “Bronies” have associated themselves with the toy-inspired cartoon series for various reasons, one of which is an incel-driven need to bond with other straight, white men who feel socially and/or sexually outcast. What could be, and is in some cases, ironic or escapist enjoyment of characters like Rainbow Dash and their sparkly adventures has morphed into a whole memeverse of trolling and counter-trolling, coded vocabulary, and some explicitly violent content, such as “a My Little Pony character presiding over three lynchings and one beheading of cartoons drawn to represent various marginalized groups” (Tiffany, 2020). Over the past several years, a virtual civil war has erupted over the “4chan ethos” of archiving everything, leading to some censorship of violent images but not of racist messages (Tiffany, 2020).

On the other side of the political divide, in the post-Trump, pandemic-exhausted, heatwave-traumatized US, humor still has its place as a site of coping and resistance, as in plague memes referring to anti-vaxxers or “Disaster Girl” memessatirizing climate crisis deniers. The point in both cases is not to incite hate for particular groups but to point out the costs of disinformation in a disarming way. Perhaps a small percentage of hoax theorists will find themselves laughing and, who knows, even reconsider their stances on “personal freedom” or (to use a strangely misappropriated word) “research.” Perhaps a SIAN hanger-on in Oslo last week noticed that his or her cowbell-clanging foes were having much more fun marching down Karl Johans Gate than those shouting racist rhetoric through loudspeakers. I’d choose the “anti-fascist slide whistle” any day.


(*) This essay follows up on the 23.06.21 interview with Anne Gjelsvik and on several commentaries on music in protest and in far-right populism. Thanks to Evan Hart for audio clips and internet culture insights.

Women protest the decision taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw the country from the Istanbul Convention in Kadıkoy/Istanbul, Turkey on March 20, 2021. Photo: Gokce Atik.

Right-wing populism, political Islam, and the Istanbul Convention

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

By Hafza Girdap

An “obsession with gender and sexuality” has been a common feature of contemporary right-wing populism. This manifests in various discourses that “conjure up the heteronormative nuclear family as the model of social organization, attack reproductive rights, question sex education, criticize a so-called ‘gender ideology,’ reject same-sex marriage and seek to re-install biologically understood binary gender differences” (Dietze & Roth, 2020: 7). The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, has been a recent target of right-wing populists, ironically enough in Turkey, where the convention was opened for signature and thus gets its name. 

Women in Turkey have always found it challenging to protect themselves from violence and discrimination at the hands of the social, institutional, and structural actors due to the poor implementation of the existing national laws. Particularly within the last two decades, Turkey has seen a drastic increase in cases of domestic violence and femicide, according to the civic platform “Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz” (“We Will Stop Femicide”), which has been documenting and publishing the monthly and annual number of femicide cases since 2013. In 2020, when pro-government voices in Turkey carried out a vigorous campaign against the Istanbul Convention, the Kadin platform reported 300 cases of femicide, a higher number than usual due to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders (130 femicide cases have been detected so far in 2021). 

As is common in European right-wing populist discourses, the campaign against the Istanbul Convention in Turkey was built on religious (Islamist) themes and protecting the traditional family unit.  Although it was the same Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that hastily ratified the Convention in 2011, the authoritarian turn of the government after 2013 has significantly eroded the hype for European Union membership in Turkey. Hence, when the Convention finally became law in 2014, it lacked the government support to be properly implemented. Still, the human rights organizations saw the Convention as progress and pushed for its proper implementation to combat gender-based violence and domestic violence. 

As Eren Keskin, the Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chair, mentions, “until 2005, violence against women was not even a ‘chapter title’ in the Turkish Penal Code.” The title of the section regulating violence against women in the law was ‘general morality and crimes against family.’ So, a woman was just an ‘element’ of ‘morality and family’.” Keskin also highlights that the law was amended in 2005 only because of the struggle of women and the “winds” favoring the European Union at the time. Consequently, violence against women were brought into the penal code as “sexual assault crimes.” However, even if the written law has changed, it cannot be said that there has been a significant change in practice and understanding. In other words, language, discourse, and mentality matter greatly in the proper understanding and implementation of laws. 

On July 1, 2021, the day when Turkey officially exited the Istanbul Convention, people came together to protest this decision in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Okan Ozdemir.

Understandably, women’s rights groups that have been fighting for the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention were shocked and frustrated when Erdogan declared Turkey would withdraw from the Convention in a late-night presidential decree on March 20, 2021. Protests erupted in many cities of the country, demanding the government retract the decision. Journalists, legal professionals, academics, politicians, human rights defenders have declared their deep concerns in various ways, including articles, social media campaigns, TV shows, and artworks. On the other hand, there has been considerable support for the withdrawal decision among right-wing voters, who nonetheless appear to have little or no knowledge about the actual content of the Convention. So, what exactly makes this international treaty a target of right-wing populist anti-gender propaganda?

The Istanbul Convention is described as “a landmark treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” by the Council of Europe (CoE). It is “the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set out binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women,” which has been ratified by 34 member states of the COE and signed by a further 12 (pending ratification). However, simply by its feature of being an international treaty, it has come under the nativist and nationalist radar of the AKP government, which has increasingly returned to its anti-Western and anti-secular Islamist roots since 2011. Indeed, one of the first steps of the AKP government regarding women’s issues was renaming the “Ministry of Women and Family” into the “Ministry of Family and Social Policy.” By doing so, women’s policy became restricted to families matters and the traditional role of women as mothers and wives. 

Along with this official change, the discourse of the party and Erdogan himself supported the restriction of women’s roles. President Erdogan explicitly declared that “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. Our religion regards motherhood very highly. Feminists do not understand that; they reject motherhood.” In its attempt to expand its Islamist political base by tapping on the valued social symbols of family, children, and religion, the Turkish government manipulated some specific articles in the Istanbul Convention, which went in line with the party discourse and religious elites’ confirmation. The Turkish society, which is mostly conservative, has been tightly tied to religious and traditional discourse with a pro-family approach. In other words, as Eslen-Ziya purports, the “AKP government adopted populist discourses involving Islamist elements of nationalism and conservatism” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4).

So, is the Istanbul Convention actually a threat against the family concept as claimed by the Erdogan regime? All articles related to family issues in the Convention are entirely aimed at combating domestic violence. The first article explains the purpose of the Convention to “protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.” This is followed by the second article that emphasizes legal implementation: “Parties are encouraged to apply this Convention to all victims of domestic violence. Parties shall pay particular attention to women victims of gender-based violence in implementing the provisions of this Convention.” 

In this vein, Article 52 advises the parties to take “necessary legislative or other measures” to restrain the perpetrators of violence from the victims, which was put into practice in the Turkish Penal Code with Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women. As repeated throughout the text, the Istanbul Convention focuses on protecting all family members from domestic violence without dictating any particular notion of the family. However, this ambiguity and inclusiveness in its language make the Convention a target of the populist claims of undermining the “God-sanctioned” heteronormative family by giving room for the normalization of other “deviant” forms of family. As Kuhar and Pajnik note, “In the zero-sum logic typical of populist discourse, the more homosexuality (and, by virtue, ‘gender ideology’ as an empty signifier for anything, from gender studies to sexual education, to reproductive rights) is presented as normal, the more children, traditional families and the nation are threatened and under attack” (Kuhar & Pajnik, 2020: 178).

The terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the specific articles of the Convention have been claimed to promote and encourage homosexuality and LGBTQ+ identities. In Article 3, gender is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Following that is Article 4 that guarantees to protect the rights of victims “without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.” 

Another point of concern raised by the opponents of the Convention is the education and teaching materials requirement in Article 14, which calls the governments to educate their people on “equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity…in formal curricula and at all levels of education.” A common obsession with the term gender and its academic studies can already be observed in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention with the same arguments and removed the accreditation from gender studies MA programs in Hungarian universities in 2018. 

Despite the frequent expressions of concern and criticism from the international community, the populist authoritarian leaders have insisted on their anti-women and anti-gender campaigns. Turkey did not target gender studies and academic programs directly, unlike Hungary. However, it consolidated its dominance in the university administrations and the civil society with an attempt to counteract the liberal Western gender studies discourse and replace it with a conservative or Islamist one. This is clearly seen in the mixed messages on the withdrawal decision sent by KADEM (the Women and Democracy Association), co-founded by Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan. While initially expressing support for the Convention during the ongoing campaign against it, the organization did not join the major women’s rights groups to protest the decision once it was made official in March 2021. Instead, they blamed the Convention for creating societal tension and commended the decision to withdraw. As an unofficial mouthpiece of the government on the issues of women and gender, KADEM “serves to institutionalize pro-government, right-wing populist gender ideology” and plays a role as an agency to supporting “policies through protecting family as an institution and embracing gendered roles (women as mothers and wives and men as bread winners and head of the households) where patriarchal order is protected” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4–5).

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

References

Dietze, Gabriele & Roth, Julia. (2020). “Introduction.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Eslen-Ziya, Hande. (2020). “Right-wing populism in New Turkey: Leading to all new grounds for troll science in gender theory.” HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies. 76(3):1-9. DOI:10.4102/hts.v76i3.6005 

Kuhar, Roman & Pajnik, Mojca. (2020). “Populist Mobilizations in Re-traditionalized Society: Anti-Gender Campaigning in Slovenia.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Group of people protesting and giving slogans in a rally. Photo: Jacob Lund.

Resentment and populism: A philosophical inquiry

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

By Luca Mancin

Anger, resentment, and rancor characterize the present. As hate speech, violence, and discrimination—which are a natural consequence of discontent, distrust, and disillusionment—invade our societies, politics seemingly mirrors such behaviors. After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, several social groups manifested their dissatisfaction and intolerance toward the “system” and “powers that be.” Consider, for instance, movements as the Indignados (a Spanish anti-austerity movement), the Gilets Jaunes (a protest movement for economic justice in France), and the V-Day protestors (an Italian political and civic initiative to “clean up” the parliament). They are forms of protest that claim general and generic changes but are animated by the desire for revenge against those in power and therefore held responsible for the their current malaise.

Such groups’ quest for revenge reflects an elite legitimacy crisis that stems from experts’ (purported) failure to guarantee social well-being and security. For instance, the challenges faced by virologists and scientists in getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic (at least in the beginning) have heightened the risk that messages that epistemic elites are useless and that the costs of their existence outweigh the benefits will become more entrenched and widespread.

Thus, social frustration, originating from socio-political and socio-economic problems, has been channeled by the populist parties, which feed and sharpen social polarization. Populist parties exploit discontent stemming from a perceived elites’ failure, and they find fertile ground in times of crisis. Such tendencies increase tribalism among ordinary citizens and the political establishment and originate from social resentment. Therefore, it is essential to understand the political importance of social resentment and investigate it from a philosophical perspective.

Resentment and Populism

I decided—among several alternative interpretations—to focus on the resentment dimension of populism by adopting the ideational approach, which considers populism a thin-centered ideology. Consequently, following Mudde (2004: 543), I define populism as: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

I believe such a definition helps better define the polarization and dichotomy that populism entails and the tribalism it promotes. Indeed, I consider social and collective resentment a crucial factor in the development of populism. Current democratic societies feature internal contrasts and tensions, and social opposition and the search for culprits to blame for unsatisfactory circumstances are widespread. Besides, as a recent report from the Nordic think tank Timbro (2019) shows, in times of crisis, populism gains ground —from 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, to 2018, voter support for authoritarian populists in Europe expanded significantly. Tonello et al. (2016) suggest the most recent wave of populism in Europe has emerged from voters’ desire to communicate a clear “rejection” of incumbent governments (deemed unable to cope with the challenge to the economic crisis).

The research and statistical surveys conducted by Algan et al. (2017, 2019) stress how three types of crisis—political, economic, and cultural– stimulate the rise of populist forces. The political crisis manifests itself in the form of distrust of national and international political institutions. In particular, the data show a sharped relationship between voting in favor of anti-system forces and citizens’ distrust of institutions. The economic crisis, one of the triggers of political resentment, is instead produced by the economic upheavals that have resulted in income erosion and unemployment. Statistics confirm the relationship between the economic crisis and the success of populism. Here, according to the authors, a 1 percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate leads to an average increase of 2–3 percentage points in favor of anti-system parties. Finally, the component of mistrust also returns in the cultural crisis because the unfulfilled promises have caused broad disillusionment to spread among the citizens.

Consequently, it is plausible to consider resentment as a cause of populism. According to Foa et al. (2019), the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election were political events driven by resentment. The article’s data show social cleavages that create a socio-political identikit of pro-Leave voters or Trump’s electors. What such people had in common was deep anger toward the political establishment and social resentment toward elites (the European Union in the Brexit case, and the Democratic Party in Trump’s).

Mudde’s definition of populism allows us to highlight the importance of resentment in populism’s origins. After all, populism is an ideology (albeit a thin-centered one) and so evokes a vision of how the world is and how it should be. Being thin-centered reflects “the empty heart of populism that gives it both weakness and potential ubiquity” (Taggart, 2004: 275). It is, therefore, an incomplete and chameleonic theoretical approach because the terms “people” and “elite” are in turn shaped on other ideologies, representing empty categories fillable in different ways depending on the context. Such a solution allows populist politics to stir up the crowd’s anger toward ever new and diverse scapegoats. For this reason, it is now opportune to focus our attention on resentment—particularly on its philosophical dimension—to better understand current social problematics.

A Philosophical Genealogy of Resentment

Resentment (or ressentiment) is defined as the indignation that an individual feels toward someone or something due to behavior considered harmful or unfair. Such a feeling is a combination of resentment, hatred, envy, humiliation, and helplessness. The resentful person hatches hatred and anger in an almost pathological way, envies the goods and qualities of others, suffers from his weakness and inadequacy.

Concerning the aim of the commentary, it is worth focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1994) conception of resentment, exposed in his On the Genealogy of Morality (first published in 1887). The work in question theorizes how the “good”—that is, noble and strong individuals—have defined themselves as such, arrogating the right to forge their values ​​and emphasizing their peculiar superiority. Thus, the crucial contrast for the entire Nietzschean moral theory emerges—between knights and priests and between nobles and slaves. The former are physically thriving and the latter utterly powerless. As a result, the “bad” harbor a certain degree of resentment, which in turn feeds a desire for revenge over the nobles and the brave. The men of resentment, thirsting for revenge despite wearing the clothes of judges, are guided by the “ascetic priest” and are the enemies of life because they desire another world; in so doing, they demean their will to power. Nietzsche describes men of ressentiment, worn out by envy and prey to frustration, as follows: “These worm-eaten physiological casualties are all men of ressentiment, a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge” (1994: 91).

Nevertheless, it is essential to consider Max Scheler’s reworking of the Nietzschean ressentiment. Indeed, it provides the best theoretical basis for making the transition from personal resentment to social resentment. Scheler understands ressentiment as the ethos of the bourgeoisie. To occur, resentment requires “repression,” the failure to vent negative emotions. The origin of resentment consists in the repression of hatred, hostility, and aggression in stifling their outburst. Generally, the Schelerian ressentiment involves powerlessness and passivity but also a diminishing of others’ success and Schadenfreude. Scheler (1912: 4) describes this sentiment as a: “…self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”

Therefore, ressentiment is a reaction whose natural consequence is the impulse to revenge. However, it manifests itself only and exclusively when the feelings of hatred, rancor, envy are not followed by a moral overcoming (as forgiveness can be) nor by a physical overcoming (violence or threat, for example). The ground of resentment is especially limited to those who find themselves in conditions of servitude or domination, unable to rebel against such harassment. Such a condition is identifiable as “existential envy,” the bitterness deriving from the fact that one person cannot be similar to another. Thus, it is apparent that Schelerian ressentiment is always the result of the confrontation between the self and the other that is not disciplined but instead results in a self-conviction of weakness and ineptitude.

A constant reciprocal competition emerges here, as men compare themselves with others to obtain feedback on their value. Such a dynamic conducts us to the “mimetic theory” developed by the French anthropologist René Girard. Mimesis is defined as the desire of an individual to be like the other. According to mimetic theory, the model is both admired/imitated and envied/hated because it always occupies the place one would like for oneself. A triangular relationship then emerges between subject, model, and object, in which both the subject and the model desire the same object, but the latter almost loses its importance in light of the conflict between the two parties. Therefore, resentment for Girard is the feeling that the imitator feels toward the model he wants to imitate, which constitutes the impediment to taking possession of the object on which both focus their desires.

Existential envy and social mimicry, which are based on comparison and competition with others, are essential theoretical presuppositions for the analysis of social and collective resentment, which is currently widespread in populist and political rhetoric. Understanding the philosophical origins of resentment allows us to read contemporary political life through the lens of an emotive dichotomy between people and the elite.

The Cultural Politics of Resentment

The phenomena of existential envy and social mimicry on a collective level feature liberal democracy because citizens tend to look at those who enjoy greater power and wealth with rancor and anger. Moreover, resentment is a natural component of democracy precisely because it stimulates and fuels reactions in the face of any injustice and inequality. However, resentment is often added to the envy of inequalities, dictated by the belief that they have suffered harm. Crisis and uncertainty exacerbate such a provision. This happened after the Great Recession of 2008, as was the case following the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. And it is happening today with the Covid-19 pandemic underway.

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

What Nietzsche, Scheler, and Girard describe is expressed today in populist rhetoric. Marlia Banning (2006) defines such behavior as the “political culture of resentment.” Her meaning here is that this rhetoric aims to divert attention from socio-economic issues such as job loss, underemployment, and growing economic insecurity. The political culture of resentment is a “smoke machine” that diverts attention and public discussion from the changes taking place in society toward minority or immigrant groups. In this way, the ressentiment conveys insecurity, fear, and anger against an indeterminate “Other.”

Besides, according to Banning, the political culture of resentment favors the development of identity politics, or rather an identity alliance necessary to cement a group that shares a series of values, diverting attention from material difficulties and socio-economic changes. In this way, a “politics of division” is created, which increases polarization and bias within society. Attitudes of tribalism are sufficiently heightened that all critical thinking fails—it is enough to be part of the so-called “other” to become the target of insults and political attacks.

Populist rhetoric, thus, manages to manipulate and exploit the resentment of citizens and direct it against a common enemy by satisfying the thirst for social revenge by identifying a scapegoat for this purpose. Society needs to channel the resentment and suppressed anger of its citizens toward an external enemy, as Girard illustrated in The Scapegoat (1986) and James Frazer did in The Golden Bough (1890). Today this “Other” is often represented as a threat to the individual mass and can take on different features—the establishment, the financial elite, or migrants—and is an essential element of the rhetoric typical of the populist style. The populist political forces leverage the resentment that arises against the elites in conditions of fear and uncertainty when security expectations are disregarded. By doing so, populisms channel citizens’ anger by obtaining voters’ support and cementing the sense of value-ideological belonging.

The examples of Brexit and Trump I gave above are crucial in describing the practical developments of the phenomena of social resentment. The Leavers have directed their discontent toward the European Union, convinced by politicians that the problem was external to Great Britain (as with the issue of migrants). Trump, for his part, has incited with his tweets to protest against the alleged electoral fraud, thus channeling the discontent that snaked online toward the center of American power par excellence, in a plastic and material representation of the contrast between the people and the elite.

After all, Nietzsche was clear about it: every sufferer looks for the cause of his affliction, convinced that there must be someone responsible for his suffering. The problem is not the pain itself but the origin of the pain. If you suffer, then someone must be the cause. In On the Genealogy of Morality, the ascetic priest cares for and ministers to the sick flock. Similarly, today, the politician must heal the resentment of citizens. As Nietzsche (1994: 93) wrote, “the priest is the direction-changer of ressentiment.” Today the populist leader does the same, directing the resentment of the “pure people” against “the corrupt elite.”

References

Timbro (2019). “Authoritarian Populism Index.” https://populismindex.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/TAP2019C.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Banning, M. E. (2006). “The Politics of Resentment.” JAC. 26(1/2): 67–101

Foa, Roberto Stefan & Wilmot, Jonathan. (2019). “The West Has a Resentment Epidemic.” Foreign Policy. September 18, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/18/the-west-has-a-resentment-epidemic-populism/ (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Frazer, James George. (1890). The Golden Bough.

Girard, R. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

Nietzsche, Fredrick. (1994), On the Genealogy of Morality [1887]. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4): 541–563

Scheler, Max (1912). Ressentimenthttps://hscif.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Max-Scheler-Ressentiment.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Taggart, Paul. (2004). “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3): 269–288

Tonello, F. & Morini, M. (2016). “Alternanze di governo e grandi coalizioni nell’Unione europea. 2008–2015.” In: Urbinati, N. (edited by). Democrazie in transizione. Milan, Feltrinelli

EmekaThadduesNjoku

The Closing of Civic Spaces in the Time of Terrorism in Nigeria

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.

CarlosDeLaTorre

Professor Carlos de la Torre: Populism is here to stay

“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).

Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King in Chinese mythology warrior tale.

From Populism to Racism: The Chinese American Trickster Tradition from Sun Wu Kong to Wittman Ah Sing

Sener, Omer & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “From Populism to Racism: The Chinese American Trickster Tradition from Sun Wu Kong to Wittman Ah Sing.” ECPS Working Papers. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) July 1, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/wp0002

 

Abstract

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 ([1967] 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 Chinese character, Chinese Monkey God Sun Wu Kong in the novel Journey to the West. Photo: Bundit Yuwannasiri.

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).[1] 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.

Monkey King esport and sport mascot logo design. By FNR Graphics.

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).[2]

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 ([1965] 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.

Conclusion

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.

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(*) 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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References

— (1996). Mona in the Promised Land. London: Granta Books.

— (2004). The Opposite of Fate. London: Harper Collins.

Kingston, M. H. ([1987] 1990). Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. London: Vintage.

Tan, A. (1991). The Kitchen God’s Wife. London:  Harper Collins.

Wiget, A. (1994). Dictionary of Native American Literature. New York: Garland.

Tan, A. (1995). The Hundred Secret Senses. London: Harper Collins. 

Shang, W. (2014). “Havoc in Mao’s Heaven.” Harvard Press. June 2014. https://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2014/06/shan-wang-on-yiching-wu-cultural-revolution-at-the-margins.html (accessed on April 14, 2021).

Bakhtin, M. & Holquist, M. (1981, 1998). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Barr, Robert R. (2009). “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics. 15(1), 29–48. 

Cheung, K. (1992). Words matter. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press in association with UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Los Angeles.

Gates, H. L. Jr. (1989). The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, J. L. ([1967] 2005). Thresholds of Initiation. Illinois: Chiron Publications.

Hynes, W. & Doty, W. (1997). Mythical Trickster Figures. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Hyde, L. ([1998] 2008). Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books.

Jagers, J., & Walgrave, S. (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium.” European Journal of Political Research. Vol. 46 (3), pp. 319–345.

Jen, G. ([1991] 1992). Typical American. London: Plume.

Jung, C. ([1953] 2003). Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. Oxon: Routledge.  

Kingston, M. H. (1976). The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. London: Knopf.

Skenazy, P. & Martin, T. (1998). Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Lauter, E. (1984). Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-century Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McGuigan, J. (1992). Cultural Populism. Routledge: London and New York.

Moffit, Benjamin. (2017). “Transnational Populism? Representative Claims, Media and The Difficulty of Constructing A Transnational ‘People’.” Javnost: The Public. 24(4), 409–425. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2017.1330086

Mudde, C. & Rovira Kaltwasser C. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nachbar, J. & Lause, K. (1992). Popular Culture. Bowling Green: University Popular Press.

Stookey, L. L. (2005). Thematic Guide to World Mythology. Westport, SC: Greenwood Press

Taggart, P. 2000. Populism. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Tan, A. (1989). The Joy Luck Club. London and Auckland: Minerva.

Turner, V. W. ([1965] 2008). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vizenor, G. R. ([1989] 1993). Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wiget, A. (1990). “His Life in His Tail: The Native American Trickster and the Literature of Possibility.” Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America.


[1] 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. 

[2] 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. 

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy.

Professor Ben-Ghiat: Any society can be susceptible to strongman figures if it’s the right time

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

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister arrives for a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

 

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

Autocrats like Erdogan and Orban who use pseudo democratic institutions are not necessarily less repressive than their institution-free counterparts. Armenian people protested Erdogan in New York City on October 10, 2020. Sign reads “Erdogan is Hitler, Stop Genocide”.

 

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 Spencer, Nathan Damigo, Tim Gionet & entourage arrives during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA that turned violent resulting in one death and multiple injuries on August 12, 2017. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner

Richard B. Spencer: The founder of alt-right presents racism in a chic new outfit

Kenes, Bulent (2021). “Richard B. Spencer: The founder of alt-right presents racism in a chic new outfit.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 28, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0010

 

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). 

White nationalists and counter protesters clash in during a rally that turned violent resulting in the death of one and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

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).

A protestor holds sign at a Patriot Prayer rally in Portland Oregon, USA on August 4, 2018. Photo: Eric Crudup.

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 IslamophobicAccording 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). FurthermoreSpencer 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). 

GAB social media seen on the smartphone screen.

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). 

Conclusion

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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Demonstration of Uighurs against China politics of repression in Brussels, Belgium on July 26, 2020. Photo: Arnaud Brian.

The Silence of the Khans: The pragmatism of Islamist populist Imran Khan and his mentor Erdogan in persecuting Muslim minorities

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.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

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).

Erdogan and Khan Have Instrumentalized Religion

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.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan.

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

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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