This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.
Ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, its governments have proudly adopted the self-characterisation as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Israel’s close relationship with the United States leverages this presumption. Even Israel’s decades-long occupation of almost 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not erased its image as the international community’s strongest ally in a dangerous region. Israel is considered closer to meeting the criteria of liberal democracy than either Turkey or India. Yet, its democratic institutions confront an intensifying onslaught by BenjaminNetanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister for over a decade. In this commentary we explore the economic, nationalist and media dimensions of Netanyahu’s right-wing populist strategy and explain what makes it different – but also similar to – the one used by his populist counterparts.
Netanyahu, famous for his fierce advocacy of a “free market”, shares Erdogan and Modi’s neoliberal agenda. Following the liberalisation of Israel’s economy during the 1980s, Netanyahu’s reforms as Minister of Treasury in the early 2000sdismantled what was once a social-democratic welfare state. Combining deregulation, tax reductions and privatisation of public services, Netanyahu – like Erdogan and Modi – undermined rights-based welfare services and took an axe to public sector pay. Netanyahu framed his neoliberal agenda as a revenge against the “elites”: Public sector employees, workers’ unions and the welfare state were portrayed as incompetent and corrupt burdens on Israel’s economy and as part of the anti-patriotic left, which favours the enemies of the state over the “people”. During the 2015 elections his Likud Party aired television ads showcasing a fictional support group meeting where unionists, broadcasters and Hamas terrorists comfort one another. When Netanyahu enters the frame, the slogan “It is Us or Them” – the prime motto of divisive populism – appears (Ynet News, 17March 2015).
Alongside the privatised economy within the borders of Israel, Netanyahu helped establish a de facto welfare state within the Jewish settlements inside the occupied West Bank. Settler organisations are generously supported by the government and integrated into the public education system as well as Israel’s Defence Forces. Netanyahu’s exceptional support for these groups nurtures a clientelist system, shielding settlers from the unpleasant consequences of his government’s economic policies. A similar compensation mechanism also protects another one of Netanyahu’s longstanding political allies – the orthodox community.
As Covid-19 poses new economic challenges for Israel, Netanyahu faced persistent and heated demonstrations across the country, which alleged corruption and criticised his handling of the health emergency. Under intense public pressure, Netanyahu has granted limited governmental support for Israeli citizens who suffer from recurring lockdowns. His worldview, however, has remained fiercely neoliberal: When asked in a televised interview why his government chose not to better compensate Israelis for their financial losses, Netanyahu proudly cited Milton Friedman to suggest that greater governmental support would endanger the economy (Davar, 22 March 2020).
Voting in Israel tends to prioritise issues of national security and identity above the economy. Like the AKP and the BJP, the Likud uses inclusion within the “people” to nurture support among disadvantaged Jewish voters. This form of symbolic representation is underpinned by resentment towards the “enemies of the people”, defined broadly to includeminorities, political opponents and democratic institutions. The language used by Netanyahu to justify his politics has both religious and nationalistic overtones, with the former often masking the latter. While Erdogan self-identifies as a leader of the Islamic world, Netanyahu presents himself as speaking on behalf of the “Jewish people” (Haaretz, 12 February 2015). This conflation of Israel’s government with Jewishness disregards that the vast majority of the Jewish people neither live nor vote in Israel and that 25 percent of Israel’s citizens are non-Jewish – mostly Israeli Arabs. Jewish citizens also risk exclusion from the “real people” – if they oppose Netanyahu’s government.
The hotly contested intersections of religion, ethnicity and nationhood in Israel and the bleeding conflict with the Palestinians enable Netanyahu to exclude Arab citizens from Israeli society, labelling them “collaborators” of the Palestinians – a “Trojan horse” with double loyalties. Netanyahu’s ethnoreligious sectarianism appeared in Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law, which formally elevates Jewish collective rights over those of Israeli Arabs. If it is not struck down by the supreme court, this Nation State Law will “legitimise the use of Jewishness as a criterion to discriminate against the Arabs and prefer Jews in labour, housing, education and culture”, thereby making religious minorities in Israel de facto second-class citizens. Netanyahu’s Likud invoked this Nation State Law to push-back against the alleged “liberal supremacy” of individual rights that are defended by an “elitist liberal minority” against the “people” (SWP Comment, October 2018).
Such discourses question the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s political opponents on the left, who – albeit Jewish – are condemned for siding with non-Jewish minorities, including Israeli Arabs and African asylum seekers. Netanyahu associates the Israeli left with hostile forces who supposedly conspire against Israel, using left-wing activists as their pawns. Thus, as Levi and Agmon note, contemporary right-wing populism in Israel does not merely exclude minorities, it uses minorities to exclude the left from the “real people.”
Netanyahu’s assault on the “enemies of the people” encompasses large swathes of Israel’s mainstream media. Like Modi, Netanyahu leverages social media to bypass journalists, blaming them for deceiving the public, siding with Israel’s enemies and plotting to take him down (The New York Times, 9 August 2017). Netanyahu’s 2019 election campaign targeted high-profile journalists, asking the public to vote against them (Haaretz, 20 January 2019). Netanyahu’s true rival and, thus, the “people’s” rival, was the press. Beyond this inciteful rhetoric, Netanyahu – like Erdogan and Modi –used executive power to intimidate journalists, capture state-owned media and weaken private news outlets.Implementing this strategy entailed a variant of Erdogan’s media-capture strategy, namely the cultivation of alternative, loyalist media outlets. Israel’s only free daily “Israel Today” is often referred to by its nickname “Bibiton” (Netanyahu’s newspaper). Netanyahu’s attempts to gain favourable media coverage have also entangled him in two corruption scandals, in which he sought to trade regulatory benefits for positive news coverage (The Times of Israel, 16 May 2019).
Yet, while Netanyahu defames broadcasters for allegedly ‘employing fans of terrorists’ and ‘persecuting Israel’s soldiers’, he has not followed Erdogan and Modi in arresting journalists or forcing television blackouts. Such acts are, as yet, considered inconceivable in the Israeli context. Earlier this year, when the Likud shared a video that called for the arrest of one of Netanyahu’s greatest critics, the investigative journalist Raviv Druker – public turmoil erupted, and Netanyahu was pressured to take down and renounce the video (The Times of Israel, 11 June 2020). This incident demonstrates that albeit weakened, certain democratic institutions – including the press – still constrain Netanyahu’s populist agenda.
Nonetheless, Israel has faced several worrying developments: First, as Netanyahu’s supporters target the supreme court as the next “enemy of the people”, the checks-and-balances that currently restrict Netanyahu may dwindle. A recent investigative report documents how Netanyahu’s supporters were encouraged to dig dirt on family members of judges in Netanyahu’s own court cases (Haaretz, 25 December 2020).
Second, Israel is heading towards its fourth national election next year. The previous three cycles ended with a tie between the pro- and anti- Netanyahu blocs. Ultimately, Netanyahu and his main centre-left contender Benny Gantz formed a joint government under the premise of delivering “unity” in face of Covid-19. Now, the main contender to Netanyahu’s rule is, for the first time, likely to be another right-wing party led by Gideon Saar – a former Likud politician. He, too, has been labelled a “lefty” by Netanyahu’s supporters, demonstrating how fluid the boundaries of “the real people” have become. Although the Israeli people have suffered greatly from Netanyahu’s neoliberal policies and his powerful incitement against “elites” and minorities, they are likely to grant Netanyahu another term in office. If Netanyahu does win the 2021 election, the coming years are likely to showcase an amplified version of his existing populist playbook. The inertia of Israel’s democratic institutions will determine whether this period will bring Israel closer to India and Turkey or spell a recovery from a decade of divisive populism and democratic backsliding.
(*)Ayala Panievsky is a Gates-Cambridge Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the ever-changing relationship between media and politics in contemporary democracies, and in particular, the encounter between mainstream media and political extremism in the age of social media and big data.
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The Proud Boys is a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group who have been known to use violence against left-wing opponents. The group describes themselves as “Western chauvinists,” by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”. The group, which is the new face of far-right extremism, one that recruits through shared precarity and male grievances promotes and engages in political violence.
During his presidential term, Donald Trump showed more sympathy for far right and extremist groups than any US president in recent memory. Prior to his term, white supremacists, white nationalists, and other far-right extremist groups operated mainly on the political margins and could expect condemnation from most mainstream politicians. However, Trump’s rhetoric has lent legitimacy to their agendas. His administration also pressured law enforcement agencies to downplay the threat posed by these extremist groups. Thus, it created a permissive atmosphere for such groups to operate in (Matanock & Staniland, 2020), and extremists have been increasingly emboldened (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019).
On January 6, 2021, a ragtag band of Trump’s extremist supporters shocked the world when they stormed the US Capitol Building, leaving a trail of destruction and violence in their wake.When all was said and done, five people, including a police officer, were dead. Though the invaders were made up of a bizarre patchwork of far-right groups, conspiracy theorists, and lone wolves, a significant proportion of those pictured at the scene affiliated themselves with the Proud Boys. In recent months the group has become synonymous with violent opposition to the Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements (Greig, 2021).It raises the question: who are the Proud Boys?
The Proud Boys are a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group who have been known to use violence against left-wing opponents (Greig, 2021). The groupdescribes themselves as “Western chauvinists,” by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”(McBain, 2020). According to Kutner, the Proud Boys are the new face of far-right extremism, one that recruits through shared precarity and male grievances (Kutner, 2020). Meanwhile, others define it as a neo-fascist and white supremacist organization that promotes and engages in political violence in a number of countries, including the US, Canada (MacFarquhar et.al., 2020), Australia (Culkin, 2017), several European countries, and even Israel (Israel Faxx, 2020). Vitolo-Haddad (2019) is right to definethe Proud Boys as “a multinational fraternal organization” that uses an aesthetic of libertarianism to advance a fascist politic.
The Proud Boys is a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group – one that loves Trump and hates Muslims, Jews, and trans people but permits non-white membership.
The Proud Boys was founded by noted racist, anti-Semite, and Islamophobe Gavin McInnes, Vice Media’s co-founder and former commentator, a “provocateur” who has described himself as “an old punk from Canada.” McInnes turned to the political right in 2008 and introduced the Proud Boys to the larger public (McInnes, 2016) on September 15, 2016. According to Coaston (2018), the group is a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group – one that loves Trump and hates Muslims, Jews, and trans people but permits non-white membership. The group took its name from the song “Proud of Your Boy” from the Disney musical Aladdin.
While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes the group as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration” (McBain, 2020), the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) designated the Proud Boys as hate group who “regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists (Mom Demand Action, 2020). “What really defines the Proud Boys is their activity on the ground, so their proclivity to violence and their consistent presence as a counter-movement to left-wing protests,” said Jacob Davey, a senior researcher focusing on the far-right. Joseph Lowndes, a political science professor, described them as an “authoritarian group focused on the glorification of male violence,” more an “overblown street gang” than a well-organised militia (McBain, 2020).
The Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they made national headlines in August 2017. The rally was advertised as a protest about the removal of confederate statues (Stolberg & Rosenthal, 2017). Later, it was proven to be a pretext for a violent show of force (Sankin & Pham, 2017). After one woman was killed and 19 others were seriously injured in a vehicular attack, McInnes “disavowed” Proud Boys who attended (Barnes, 2017).
The next year, in 2018, the group was temporarily classified as an extremist organization by the FBI (Kutner, 2020) after the group was involved in a violent clash with anarchists on the streets of Manhattan, following an event in which McInnes portrayed Otoya Yamaguchi, a young far-right extremist who assassinated the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party (Coaston, 2018). Because of this clash,McInnes stepped down from his role as the Proud Boys’ leader, stating he would no longer be involved with the group in any capacity (Wilson, 2018). In a video, McInnes said, “I am officially disassociating myself from the Proud Boys. In all capacities, forever, I quit.” He added, “I’m told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” referring to the Proud Boys who were facing legal problems (Coaston, 2018). Since early 2019, Enrique Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban American who briefly ran for Congress, has been the chairman of the Proud Boys (Sidner, 2020).
According to the group, there are four levels of Proud Boy membership. The first is to declare yourself to be a Proud Boy. “This means you make your Western chauvinism public and you don’t care who knows it” through declaring that “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” (SPLC, 2021). The second level is the swearing-off of masturbation known online as “nofap” or #NoWanks combined with a “cereal beat-in” – if you want into the group, you have to get beaten up while successfully reciting the names of five breakfast cereals, because “defending the West against the people who want to shut it down is like remembering cereals as you’re being bombarded with ten fists.” The third level is to get a specific Proud Boys tattoo. But it’s the fourth and newest level that gets the most attention: get into a physical altercation for the “cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an Antifa,” McInnes explained in 2017 (Coaston, 2018). Tarrio got involved with the Proud Boys after volunteering at an event for the far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017 and became a fourth-degree Proud Boy after punching a member of Antifa in the face in June 2018 (Coaston, 2018).
Cultural Hijacking: Repurposing Uhuru
The Proud Boys’ loose organisational structure makes it hard to estimate its overall size; most experts suggest there are several thousand members, spread across the US and a handful of international chapters (McBain, 2020). Though the total number of Proud Boys members is unknown, reports estimate membership between several hundred up to 6,000 (Greenspan, 2020). For instance, the website Rewire estimates there are roughly 6,000 members (SPLC, 2021).The leader of the group estimated that the numbers are closer to 8,000, but this number is likely inflated (Kutner, 2020).
Some members of the group are high-profile. The political operative and Trump adviser, Roger Stone – whose 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice was commuted by the president – was videoed taking the Proud Boys oath. During his trial Stone testified that some Proud Boys had helped him run his social media accounts. Jason Kessler, one of the organisers of the rally in Charlottesville, was a Proud Boy. The founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, also has links to the group (McBain, 2020).
Members are known for a provocative practice called cultural hijacking, in which the symbols and language of civil rights leaders are repurposed to advance far-right narratives. The intent is not to appropriate civil rights symbolism, but to weaken the communicative power of groups from which the symbols originated. After hijacking these terms, they ascribe new labels to the groups they have hijacked them from. Civil rights activists become social justice warriors, snowflakes, or the intolerant left. Of the culturally hijacked terms, the most commonly used is Uhuru – Swahili for African solidarity. Proud Boys have repurposed Uhuru as a rallying cry, in a manner similar to the military use of Oohrah used in the US Navy (Kutner, 2020).
The Proud Boys have emerged by rejecting mainstream conservatism, which they often view as a failure (DeCook, 2018).The group is distinct from other neo-conservative movements because of their heavy and strategic use of social media, and although other factions of the alt-right are known for their digital media savvy, the Proud Boys have specifically harnessed the power of digital technologies and have used Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms for recruitment, identity reinforcement, and to highlight the visibility of members in the world (DeCook, 2018).Social media serves a function of not only organizing and recruitment, but also serves as an educational and socialization space (Jacoby & Ochs, 1995). The group uses memes specifically as a means of spreading propaganda. These memes are bite sized nuggets of political ideology and culture that are easily digestible and spread by netizens (DeCook, 2018).Thus, memes themselves are a form of political participation within larger social movements and are an important facet of identity and community building (Mina, 2018; Nagle, 2017; Shifman, 2014) and as a vehicle to express either an individual or a collective voice (Freund, 2013; Nagle, 2017; Paddock, 2015).Memes are an extension of spoken utterances through visual and digital means (DeCook, 2018).
Further, the use of the cartoon character Pepe (the frog) – which was co-opted by the larger alt-right as a symbol – has been used to build group identity as well (ADL, 2016). The Proud Boys depict Pepe wearing the Proud Boys’ uniform and flashing the “OK” hand symbol used by white supremacists. As with other fascist aesthetics, the Proud Boys use clothing and branding in order to cement their group membership and to make their political and ideological affiliation visible. Their group mantra of ‘West is the Best’ is often used in their memes, their posts, and symbols of American masculinity are used in recruitment memes. The aestheticization of their political ideology goes a step further through the usage of tattoos. These tattoos symbolize not only a progression in rank into the organization and the members’ allegiance to the Proud Boys, but also function as an aesthetic quality along with the uniforms, the hashtags used to gain visibility online, and other symbols (DeCook, 2018).
However, the Proud Boys have seen their digital reach limited; the group has been banned by social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube (Wendling, 2020; Murphy, 2020). In August 2018, Twitter terminated the official account for the group, along with McInnes’ account, under its policy prohibiting violent extremist groups (Roettgers, 2018). Facebook and Instagram also banned the group and McInnes in October 2018 (CBC, 2018). That same year, in December, YouTube banned the Proud Boys founder for copyright violation (Solsman, 2018). In February 2019, Slate magazine reported that Square, Chase Paymentech, and PayPal had pulled their payment processing services from 1776.shop, an online far-right merchandise site associated with the Proud Boys (Glaser, 2019).
In light of mass deplatforming, as well as the right-wing social network Parler going dark, everyone from casual Trump supporters to far-right militants have been flocking to alternative social networks such as the encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Signal. In particular, the Proud Boys is making a substantive play at organizing on Telegram. Two major Proud Boys channels on Telegram have exploded in use by at least 69 percent and 83 percent since January 5, 2021(Dickson, 2021).
A Supremacist Alt-Right Organisation Pretending to be Alt-Lite
The Proud Boys emerged as part of the alt-right. However, its founder McInnes distanced himself from this movement in early 2017, saying the Proud Boys was “alt-light” (Marantz, 2017) despite his and the group’s overt xenophobia and racism. McInnes told the New York Times in 2003 that “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life” (Widdicombe, 2013; Grigoriadis, 2003).Nevertheless, McInnes alleged that “they (alt-right) care about the white race. We care about Western values.” This is a view that has come to be known as “civic nationalism,” as opposed to white nationalism – or “alt-light,” as opposed to alt-right (Marantz, 2017).The ADL also defines the group as part of the alt-lite (ADL, 2021), although they are routinely associated with the “alt-right.”
McInnes’s insistence that the Proud Boys have nothing to do with the “alt-right” grew even more adamant after the violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. In a blog post titled “We are not alt-right” in August 2017, he alerted his group that “alt-right” members planned to “infiltrate” Proud Boys meetings and “sabotage” them (Woodhouse, 2017). The article stated that the Proud Boys did not concur with the alt-right regarding the Jewish Question and racial identity politics (Kutner, 2020). The violence in Charlottesville sharpened the divide between the “alt-right” and the “alt-light,” but it may be a distinction without a difference (Woodhouse, 2017).
Despite also denying the group’s racism, McInnes himself has ties to the racist right. He has contributed to hate sites like VDare.com and American Renaissance, both of which publish the work of white supremacists and so-called “race realists.” He even used Taki’s Magazine – a far-right publication whose contributors include Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor – to announce the founding of the Proud Boys (SPLC, 2021). The ADL says McInnes has previously posted videos of himself giving the Nazi salute, saying, “Heil Hitler,” defending Holocaust deniers, and repeatedly using racial and antisemitic slurs (Murphy, 2020).
Obviously, McInnes plays a duplicitous rhetorical game: rejecting white nationalism and the term “alt-right” while espousing some of its central tenets.In the spring of 2015, he formed a partnership with the Canadian far-right Rebel Media and launched “The Gavin McInnes Show” with Compound Media. On both platforms, he regularly chatted with right-wing guests and carved out an ideological space for frustrated young men to rally around: western culture is superior to all others, racism is a myth created by guilty white liberals, Islam is a culture of violence, and feminism “is about de-masculinizing men,” he told his audience (SPLC, 2021).
Despite leaders claiming they disavow racism, the Proud Boys have ties to white supremacists and sometimes use nationalist rhetoric common among hate groups (Hawkins, 2021).The attempt to distance their organization from the alt-right may be an intentional, image-saving move in order to remain appealing to the larger public and to attract more members. These strategies are a way for the Proud Boys to adapt to their wider audience’s views of the organization (Bourdieu 1991). Pragmatically sidestepping the question of race, the Proud Boys make their protofascist appeal in the language of patriotic individualism: pro-America, pro-capitalism, and pro-Trump. This strategy has allowed them to gain entry into the Republican mainstream. They’re also shifting from ethnically defined nationalism to a version that purports to target outsiders based on their legal status, not the colour of their skin. O’Connor hints (2021) that the Proud Boys is dangerous because it functions as a “pipeline” to even more violent ideologies. In a 2018 survey conducted by the SPLC of users on the Right Stuff forums, 15 percent of respondents mentioned McInnes as either an important influence on their political development or as useful in converting others (Miller, 2018).
Functioning similarly to a religious group, McInnes acted as the leader of the movement and a prophet of sorts for years. The members operate the organization under the belief that “The West is the Best,” but welcome non-white members as long as these members acknowledge that Western civilization is superior to all others (Sommer, 2017). Furthermore, their views have elements of the white genocide conspiracy theory (Walters, 2017), and some members espouse white supremacist and antisemitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups (ADL, 2021). What the Proud Boys promise is a space for “pro-Western Chauvin[ist]” men to have their views and beliefs supported, to mingle with like-minded others, and to hopefully shift the world back towards their favoured ideology (DeCook, 2018).
A Libertarian-Fascist Movement That Venerates Housewives
The Proud Boys lists among its central tenets a belief in “closed borders” and the aim of “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism” (Murphy, 2020). An introductory article in Proud Boy Magazine professes thirteen core tenets, which combine patriarchal and patriotic ideals with libertarian, anti-government rhetoric: minimal government, maximum freedom, anti-political correctness, anti-drug war, anti-masturbation, closed borders, anti-racial guilt, anti-racism, pro-free speech, pro-gun rights, glorifying the entrepreneur, venerating the housewife, and reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism (Elders, 2018).
The combination of militaristic rhetoric, violence on behalf of sovereign authority, radically traditional gender roles, glorification of entrepreneurship, and closed-border policies situate the group within a growing libertarian-fascist movement. Despite purporting to oppose government tyranny, the Proud Boys’ values exemplify the slippage between right-libertarianism and fascism (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019), working toward what Michael Orth (1990) described as a “libertarian Utopia which combines violence, repression of women, and a dictatorial state into an all-American Utopia which emits strong fascist resonances.” Similarly, political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. (2013) argues that this contradiction is inevitable in right-wing libertarianism, and the Proud Boys adopt a libertarian “aesthetic” of freedom to promote a politics that is often authoritarian.
Moreover, negative precarity and the need to fight to prevent the perceived extinction of western culture has been a central factor in the Proud Boys’ recruitment (Kutner, 2020). Paul Elliott Johnson (2017) states thatallusions to the concept of negative precarity are found in repeated images Proud Boys disseminate in their groups. “These images construct a new perception of reality based on precarity as a white, working-class American male at risk of losing his place in society amidst changing demographics and issues surrounding immigration,” according to Johnson. Members are motivated by attempts “to establish political, social, or cultural superiority as a springboard for action on behalf of social change” (Goldzwig, 1989: 208). The belief that Western culture is superior begets a belief that members of other cultures should have less freedom, power, and opportunity, which is seen simply as the natural outcome of not being part of the Western in-group. Proud Boys believe that they have entered a “soft civil war” with battle lines drawn not by ideology, but by association and identity(Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
The Proud Boys’ beliefs vary from the call to “give everyone a gun” and “end welfare” to a return to traditional gender roles (Greig, 2021).They represent an unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism (ADL, 2021). Therefore,repeated warnings about the Proud Boys as a dangerous white supremacist group were issued by counterterrorist centres. In a 22-page, 2019 document published by the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC), various incidents of violence involving the Proud Boys are discussed under the heading of “White Supremacist Extremism.” CIAC described how “the Proud Boys has been active in spreading conspiracy theories regarding Covid-19 on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram,” suggesting that “a faction of elites are weaponizing the virus, and a vaccine would likely be a tool for population control and mind control” (Wilson, 2020).The FBI also lists the Proud Boys as an extremist group while Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled them a hate group (Greig, 2021).
Like other white supremacist networks, the Proud Boys believes that whites have their own culture that is superior to other cultures, are genetically superior to other peoples, and should exert dominance over others. They also adhere to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy. This conspiracy claims that whites are being eradicated by ethnic and racial minorities, including Jews and immigrants (McAleenan, 2019). Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, and Patrick Crusius, the El Paso Walmart shooter, espoused the most radical view of the Great Replacement conspiracy, known as Accelerationism (Jones et al, 2020).
Although not outwardly a religious organization, one of the key factors of the Proud Boys’ ideology is embracing Christianity because of its association with Western civilization. The Proud Boys magazine had an article denouncing atheists, stating that “Christianity is the Western Religion.” The ideology and the use of phrases like “Deus Vult” point to the group’s religious element, as well as the fraternity-esque concepts of brotherhood. The Proud Boys is not necessarily a religious movement that is acting as a social movement, but rather one that is harnessing religion to invoke nostalgia for the past and as an element of their larger desire to impose a specific moral order (DeCook, 2018). Postings on GiveSendGo, a niche Christian fundraising website, show that at least $247,000 has been raised for at least eight members of the Proud Boys (Brittain & David, 2021).
Meanwhile, calls to “murder Antifa” and memes jokingly posting “Antifa hunting permits,” are further examples of the call for violent acts to eradicate what the group views as their political opponents. For Proud Boys and other organizations in the alt-right sphere, Antifa is the true enemy of the Christian, white ethnonationalist west because of their embrace of socialism and multiculturalism (DeCook, 2018). By positioning Antifa as the enemy, the solidification of an “out-group” strengthens the “in-group” identity (Tajfel 1978). But members’ skill at wielding irreverence, mocking political correctness, and hewing close to views espoused by mainstream conservatives has allowed the Proud Boys to camouflage their most dangerous ideologies and flourish where other groups have withered (Hawkins, 2021). The group has historically attempted to market itself towards the Republican mainstream on platforms such as Facebook by deliberately avoiding the use of overtly racist symbols (Crawford, 2020).
The Proud Boys Found A Soulmate In Donald Trump
On the night of the US presidential election on November 3, 2016, the Proud Boys gathered to await the possibility of “a cultural change” in the country. Proud Boys’ founder McInnes announced, “Tonight, we either take the country or we lose the country to the establishment” (Bazile, 2017). Attendees of the Proud Boys’ election night party repeated their mantra: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world” (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
Two months later, in his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump contrasted the “forgotten people” with a corrupt elite. Trump’s “American people,” like the Proud Boys, were the people who “do not believe the corrupt fake news anymore.” As used by Trump, “the people” is both a rhetorical construction and an embodied metaphor found in phrasing like “the incredible patriots here today” and “the magnitude of the crowd” stretching “all the way to the monument in Washington.” For the president, size is a sign of moral virtue: “As this enormous crowd shows,” he said, “we have truth and justice on our side” (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).
The demagogue atop the Proud Boys’ political reality, their “God Emperor,” Trump utilizes a rhetoric of victimization to call on the impatient masses to reclaim their power and agency. Johnson (2017: 230) describes Trump’s demagoguery as “a toxic, paradoxically abject masculine style whose incoherence is opaque to his critics but meaningful to his adherents, for it helps them imagine themselves as victims of a political tragedy centred around the displacement of ‘real America’ from the political centre by a feminized political establishment.” Fortunately, for the “real Americans” in this political tragedy, Trump provides a solution: fight for the West (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).In his remarks in Poland, in 2017, Trump reminded the patriots “that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life”(YouTube, 2017).
The Proud Boys find symbolic identification with the West as articulated by President Trump, figured as the leader of a fight that is inevitably victorious because of the inherent superiority of the Western warrior caste. So long as patriots continue in the ritualistic sacrifice of themselves, history is converted into a promise: “The West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.” America must be made great again, and again, and again, so “that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defence.” Trump’s promise was predictably appealing to rural voters, but that the Proud Boys were catalysed by his victory to operate in the mainly metropolitan areas where they live, reflecting how truly mainstream the Proud Boys’ beliefs are. In other words, Trump did not enchant new believers in an ideology that they had never heard, but rather coherently pieced back together an identity that reproduces itself through masculine violence (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
As political parties have been overtaken by political tribes (Fukuyama, 2021), the Proud Boys viewed Trump’s election as a reclamation of their sovereign authority to govern by force, particularly in defence of “the West” – that spatial organization of whiteness described by Trump in Poland as “worth defending with your life” (Trump, 2017). Spellbound by demagogic rhetoric and the mythos of “the West,” the Proud Boys interpreted Trump’s election as tacit authorization to follow a pathway to self-empowerment achieved through violence (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). As Perry stated, the seeds sowed by Trumpism have begun to bear fruit and the harvest is rather rotten. Trump openly pandered to white racial resentment in the 2016 election and was awarded the most important job in the world (Perry, 2018).
A study by Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago found that Trumpism hasn’t bred more racists in the US – but it has emboldened people with xenophobic views to feel more comfortable expressing them in public. It’s impossible to separate the growing visibility of white supremacists under the guise of the alt-right without associating it with Trumpism. Now, more candidates with white supremacist ties are emerging from the shadows to run for public office. Spencer Sunshine, who follows white nationalist movements, explained that the “ideas of the alt-right are now part of the GOP” (Strickland, 2018). In Trump, they have found empowerment, a call to mass, warlike action aimed at reinforcing a universalized white, male, heterosexual, and entrepreneurial political subject. While right-wing, “patriot” militias are not new in the US, they have primarily mobilized in rural areas and have often fixated on liberatory militancy (Durham, 1996).
America’s white supremacists, who were explicit in saying they felt emboldened by President Trump, have held rallies across the country. The Proud Boys have been filmed marching through the streets, chanting, “Pinochet did nothing wrong!” (The phrase is a reference to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s penchant for murdering leftists by throwing them out of helicopters into the ocean (Mathias, 2020)). Early in Trump’s presidency, emboldened neo-Nazi and fascist groups came out into the open but were met with widespread revulsion. Thus, the tactics of the far-right changed, becoming more insidious – and much more successful (O’Connor, 2021).
John Cohen, a former counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security and now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said white supremacists have become more sophisticated in their communication. “In the past they were viewed as racist individuals who were on the fringe or outside of mainstream society. Now their thoughts and ideas and messaging have been incorporated into the mainstream political discourse by a growing number of elected officials,’’ said Cohen (Ortiz, 2020).Media Matters, a not-for-profit progressive research centre which monitors misinformation, has counted 97 right-wing congressional candidates who have embraced QAnon, a conspiracy theory based in antisemitic tropes which has incited supporters to violence and is popular among Trump supporters (Kaplan, 2020).
In October 2019, Donald Trump, Jr. posed for a photo with Proud Boy member Luke Rohlfing. The photo is part of the Proud Boys’ strategy: posing alongside high-level Republicans to gain legitimacy. Both US Sen. Ted Cruz and then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott have been photographed alongside Proud Boys, as have US Reps Mario Diaz-Balart and Devin Nunes. Cruz took his support a step farther, backing a non-binding resolution that would have defined anti-fascist activists as domestic terrorists after Enrique Tarrio launched a petition in favour of the bill (ADL, 2021).Tarrio would later be named Florida state director of Latinos for Trump. As one Republican operative later said, “The Trump campaign is well aware of the organised participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events. They don’t care,” (O’Connor, 2021).
Despite the fact that white supremacists and far-right extremists have killed more people in the US in the last decade than adherents of any other ideology have, the Trump administration did little to address the threat. Instead, it reduced the federal oversight of white supremacist groups.
The Proud Boys began to grow into something very few had expected: a hegemonic force on the far-right able to appeal to mainstream conservatives, carving out a space for white nationalists and fascists. Theyobserved Richard Spencer and Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) chair Matthew Heimbach’s mistakes. Their more moderate strategies have won them greater appeal by foregrounding ultranationalism and a vicious opposition to left-wing politics. Getting closer to the mainstream of American conservatism has made the Proud Boys even more dangerous. They have received sympathetic media coverage from Fox News, while actively recruiting new members not only from the far right but from racist skinhead groups across the country. It’s no accident that the Proud Boys chosen uniform features black and yellow shirts by Fred Perry – a favoured skinhead brand (O’Connor, 2021).
The Proud Boys and the far-right – once fringe white nationalist groups – have increasingly infiltrated the mainstream of American political and cultural discussion, with poisonous results. One must look no further than President Trump’s senior adviser for policy and chief speechwriter, Stephen Miller, to see this deleterious effect. In December 2019, the SPLC’s Hatewatch published a cache of more than 900 e-mails Miller wrote to his contacts at Breitbart News before the 2016 presidential election. In the emails, Miller, an adviser to the Trump campaign at the time, advocated many of the most extreme white supremacist concepts. These included the “great replacement” theory, fears of “white genocide” through immigration, race science, and eugenics; he also linked immigrants with crime, glorified the Confederacy, and promoted the genocidal book, The Camp of the Saints, as a roadmap for US policy (Clark, 2020).
Yet thankfully, public attitudes have generally changed for the better. A public survey shows American attitudes toward racial integration and immigration have become more open among liberals and conservatives alike, with two-thirds of Americans in a recent Pew Research Center survey saying that “openness to people from all over the world is essential to who America is as a nation” (Pew, 2019). In such a changing landscape, old-fashioned racist and xenophobic appeals are unlikely to be politically successful beyond a small fringe, so the propagandists of racism have had to develop subtler approaches to stoking fear and hatred for political ends (Clark, 2020).
Trump opened his 2016 presidential campaign by claiming Mexico was sending drug dealers and rapists to the US. Once in office, he followed those proclamations by implementing a travel ban on majority Muslim countries and later refused to condemn white supremacists (Gabbatt, 2020). His rhetoric surrounding immigration is where he appears to most closely align with white supremacist concepts. Stopping immigration is the central aim of white nationalism, as white nationalists see this as the only way of stopping immigrants from taking power away from a white majority. To achieve their goal, white nationalists have typically tied the diversification of America to a Jewish plot (Clark, 2020).
Equating immigration with an “invasion” was a common tactic of Trump’s campaign. According to research by Media Matters, in January and February 2019 alone, Trump’s Facebook page ran more than 2,000 ads using that term. The former president is far from the only elected leader to make that analogy, but his voice carries the farthest. “When you have the person with the biggest bullhorn not only in the country but in the world using this language, doesn’t that give cover to other people to use it?’’ said Colin P. Clarke, who is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center (Ortiz, 2020).
Proud Boy Derek Wray identified the radical traditionalism within the pro-Trump movement and “a new wave of nationalist populism” that “swept America … under the premise of putting America First” (Wray, 2017). These views are what undergirded the chant, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us,” (Gabbatt, 2017) at the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist murdered a woman and injured 35 others. President Trump’s response to the riot – saying that there were “very fine people, on both sides” (Holan, 2019) – provided implicit support for these positions. Notably, the former president did not oppose all immigration; for example, he has said that immigrants from Norway would be welcome in the US (Kirby, 2018).
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, in which 600 far-right supporters clashed with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, was a “wake-up call” that white supremacist groups were resurgent. But despite the fact that white supremacists and far-right extremists have killed more people in the US in the last decade than adherents of any other ideology have, the Trump administration did little to address the threat. Instead, it reduced the federal oversight of white supremacist groups. Soon after taking office, Trump cut the Department of Homeland Security’s budget for terrorism prevention (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019).
In 2018, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, who once joked that he thought KKK members “were OK until I learned they smoked pot,” signed a memorandum that restricted the Justice Department’s ability to oversee troubled police departments, including the 14 that had agreed to be monitored under the Obama administration because of their records of racial discrimination and police abuse. In early 2019, the FBI revealed that it had changed its classification system for terrorism cases. While there were once 11 categories, including a specific one for white supremacy, the new list featured just four, including the catch-all “racially motivated violent extremism.” This change means it’s now harder to narrow down exactly what resources the FBI is putting toward the specific threat of white supremacy (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019).
Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of counterterrorism at the Department of Homeland Security, had a front-row view of the surge of right-wing extremist activity in the Trump era. She said that in her position, she tried to get Trump to take this sort of right-wing extremism far more seriously yet was unable to do so. “He was given the opportunity to condemn White Supremacy,” Neumann said, “He refused.” When Trump declines to offer unequivocal condemnation of them, they understand this as tacit support (Sargent, 2020).
Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists during a bellicose first presidential debate in 2020, during which racism emerged as one of the most contentious issues.
Trump also refused to condemn white supremacists during a bellicose first presidential debate in 2020, during which racism emerged as one of the most contentious issues. The exchange came almost an hour into the debate, with moderator Chris Wallace asking Trump to directly address his supporters and urge calm. “Are you willing to condemn white supremacists, and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities?” Wallace said. After initially saying “sure,” Trump said, “I’m prepared to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing”(Olorunnipa & Wootson, 2020).
Pressed by Biden to directly rein in his supporters, Trump said, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name . . .who would you like me to condemn?” When Biden said, “Proud Boys,” Trump responded by telling the group to “stand back and stand by,” terminology that was seized by both Trump’s detractors and members of the group. “This is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem,” Trump said (Olorunnipa & Wootson, 2020). The moment echoed his statement that there were “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville.
Trump’s rhetorical embrace of right-wing fringe groups came just days after large numbers of Proud Boys massed in Portland, Ore., where ongoing racial justice protests have repeatedly descended into violence. Some in the group took to social media to welcome Trump’s comments as a call to arms. On Parler, the platform and social network where numerous extremist groups have moved following crackdowns on Facebook on Twitter, the chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, responded to Trump’s remarks by posting, “That’s my president!” Numerous effusive posts followed. “Standing by sir,” he wrote. Another message soon followed: “So Proud of my guys right now.” Members of the group used Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comments to create a fresh logo on social media.In an interview, Tarrio said he supported Trump’s commentary, a sign that the group’s attempts to achieve legitimacy and recognition got a boost during the debate. (Olorunnipa & Wootson, 2020).
The New York Times reported that within minutes of this statement, the Proud Boys’ chairman Tarrio called the T-shirt business he owns in Miami to order shirts emblazoned with the logo “Proud Boys standing by.” Google searches for the group spiked, and hundreds joined Proud Boys groups on the instant messaging platform Telegram. “I think he was saying I appreciate you and I appreciate your support,” said the group’s founder, McInnes (McBain, 2020).Tarrio also said he interpreted “stand back and stand by” as meaning they should just keep doing what they’re doing (Murphy, 2020). Tarrio stated in a tweet that he was “extremely proud” of Trump, and that “stand back and stand by” is what the Proud Boys have “always” done (Coaston, 2018).
By telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” and refusing to uniformly denounce the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Trump has cultivated a favourable ambiguity around the status of militant far-right groups in the political arena (Matanock & Staniland, 2020). Experts in extremism agreed that Trump’s comments amounted to an unprecedented shout-out to a group that has a demonstrated history of fomenting violence in America. “You’re essentially telling a paramilitary force to ‘stand by’,” said Heidi Beirich, an expert on far-right politics who co-founded the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (Hawkins, 2021).
Therefore, the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol was a fitting end to Trump’s presidency. It was the logical culmination of four years of violently partisan rhetoric. Trump is less the cause but rather the natural expression of far-right populism run amok. Still, he is an impressive expression of American populism. As the only representative elected by all Americans, the US president has both institutional and rhetorical power given his unique media exposure. The “commander-in-chief” is also the “storyteller-in-chief.” His January 6 “Save America” speech is a perfect illustration of the way a populist narrative can sway the masses (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).
After the presidential election in 2020, the Proud Boys had declared its undying loyalty to President Trump. In a November 8, 2020 post in a private channel of the messaging app Telegram, the group urged its followers to attend protests against an election that it said had been fraudulently stolen from Trump. “Hail Emperor Trump,” the Proud Boys wrote.
However, as Trump departed the White House, the Proud Boys have also started abandoning his side. In dozens of conversations on social media sites like Gab and Telegram, members of the group have begun calling Trump a “shill” and “extraordinarily weak.” They have also urged supporters to stop attending rallies and protests held for Trump or the Republican Party.The discontent with Trump, who condemned the violence, has boiled over. On social media, Proud Boys participants have complained about his willingness to leave office and said his disavowal of the Capitol rampage was an act of betrayal. And Trump, cut off on Facebook and Twitter, has been unable to talk directly to them to soothe their concerns or issue new rallying cries (Frenkel, 2021).
The change in support happened slowly. After the election, the Proud Boys urged their members to attend “Stop the Steal” rallies. One Nov. 23 message on a Proud Boys Telegram page read, “No Trump, no peace.” But when Trump’s legal efforts failed, the Proud Boys called for him to use his presidential powers to stay in office. In the last two weeks of December, they pushed Trump in their protests and on social media to “Cross the Rubicon.” The group expected Trump to champion the mob; instead, Trump released a video on Jan. 8 denouncing the violence. The disappointment was immediately palpable.Since then, at least five men who identified as members of the Proud Boys have been arrested in connection to the Capitol riots. Some Proud Boys became furious that Trump did not appear interested in issuing presidential pardons for their members who were arrested. They accused Trump of “instigating” the events at the Capitol, then “wash[ing] his hands of it” (Frenkel, 2021).
Violence as a Founding Ideology
As like all other far-right populist groups, the Proud Boys strengthen members’ commitment to their perceived in-group, a phenomenon fundamental to demagoguery’s “us” versus “them” logic (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Furthermore, theyadhere to an ideology that consists of both symbolic and physical violence (DeCook, 2018).The Proud Boys’violent characteristics come from their founding mentality. In April 2016, McInnes, who believes violence is “a really effective way to solve problems,” said: “I want violence, I want punching in the face. I’m disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough,” (WNYC-The Takeaway, 2018; Marantz, 2017a). In August 2017, he further stated that “[w]e don’t start fights […] but we will finish them,” (Moser, 2017).
Violence is not confined to official Proud Boys’ events; rather, it is a core organizational principle. In a June 2016 episode of The Gavin McInnes Show, McInnes declared, “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. … We will assassinate you”. McInnes offers the assertion that political problems, which take on feminine embodiments, are best solved by violence: “Fighting solves everything. We need more violence from the Trump people. Trump supporters: choke a motherfucker. Choke a bitch. Choke a tranny. Get your fingers around the windpipe. If they spit on you, that’s assault” (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). McInnes even made a video praising the use of violence, saying, “What’s the matter with fighting? Fighting solves everything. The war on fighting is the same as the war on masculinity.” Since the Proud Boys glorifies violence, the SPLC has called the group an “alt-right fight club” (Morlin, 2017).
McInnes believes the violence is a logical response to how the “left” has responded to right-wing speaking events, writing in June 2017: “The right isn’t violent. The left is. By allowing these sociopaths to shut down free speech with violence you are all but demanding a war. Okay, fine, you got it. It’s official. This is a war,” (Coaston, 2018). Violence is firmly entrenched in the Proud Boys dogma and venerated within the organization. In early 2017, the group added a new degree to their membership hierarchy: in order to enter the 4th level, a member needs to “get involved in a major fight for the cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an Antifa,” McInnes explained (Metro US, 2017.)
McInnes has also claimed in a video message hosted by Rebel Media that Proud Boys “are the only ones fighting” the anti-fascist collective Antifa. “I want you to fight them too,” he continued. “It’s fun. When they go low, go lower. Mace them back, throw bricks at their head. Destroy them. We’ve been doing it a while now and I’ve got to say, it’s really invigorating,”(McBain, 2020). McInnes was filmed punching a counter-protestor outside of the DeploraBall, an unofficial inaugural ball, in Washington DC, in January 2017. Moreover, after a speaking engagement at New York University turned violent, he wryly declared: “I cannot recommend violence enough. It’s a really effective way to solve problems.” Though he claimed in the interview he was ready to “get violent and beat the f–k out of everybody,” he later backtracked in a Proud Boys Magazine piece, assuring the public the fraternal group was opposed to “senseless violence.” “We don’t start fights, we finish them,” McInnes wrote (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021).
According to Kurtner (2020), the Proud Boys justify violence behind this outwardly apolitical motto, “We don’t start fights, but we finish them.” The Proud Boys’ violence is a manifestation of the group’s underlying political motivations. To explain why some Proud Boys increase their commitment to violence, it is important to understand the grievances that make involvement appealing to new recruits (Kutner, 2020). For all the digital chaos wrought by the so-called “alt-right,” open-air political violence remains the most immediate way to radicalise and recruit young men into far-right movements. Videos and gifs of Proud Boys beating up Antifa, in turn, become digital propaganda (O’Connor, 2021).
In a May 2018 episode of Get Off My Lawn, entitled “Fighting Solves Everything,” McInnes explains, “You’re not a man until you’ve had the crap beaten out of you, beaten the crap out of someone, had your heart broken, and broken a heart.” Under this cultural mode of masculine reproduction, violence is a rule of manhood. Violence becomes not only a condition of manhood but also a conflict resolution strategy and method for survival in a competitive economic system (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). “Being bullied is just as important as bullying because they teach you the inevitable truth that we live in a kill or be killed society,” McInnes once said (McInnes, 2013).
Proud Boys leadership released a “clarified” set of bylaws that seemed to contradict their prior, violent rhetoric: “Any requirement that a brother commit a violent or illegal act as a condition precedent to receiving a fourth degree is, by this bylaw, abolished” (ADL, 2021).Despite this change,and despiteMcInnes leaving the group, his inspiration remains visible, particularly in the violence the Proud Boys still embrace. The Proud Boys often rely on the actions of their opposition to draw attention to themselves and their cause (Coaston, 2018). They are motivated by their shared identification in a symbolic struggle against an imagined “other.” In the Proud Boys’ case, a rearticulation of the epic struggle between East and West is a fight between good and evil that spilled first blood in the Crusades. Through this mythos, members find redemptive joy through the glorified violence of an illusory war that has become increasingly materialized as reality (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
Their organizing is underwritten by a clear sense of urgency, a self-described militant desperation heard in their assertion, “We have one last chance to make the West great again” (Proud Boy Magazine, 2018). Making the most of this “last chance,” the Proud Boys unveiled their “official military arm,” the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK), in April 2017. The announcement formalized the paramilitary structure the fraternity had been using, organizing “watchdogs into a force to protect and serve when the police are told to stand down” (Bazile, 2017). The Alt- Knights were quickly folded back into the main organization, such that any Proud Boy may perceive their actions as extensions of state authority to maintain order when the police are restrained by civil rights ordinances or First Amendment protections (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
FOAK was established by Kyle Chapman (a.k.a. Based Stickman) who is a violent felon and who has repeatedly encouraged violence against anti-fascist activists. His persona stems from his history of threatening counter-protestors with a heavy iron stick (ADL, 2021), reportedly with McInnes’s backing. Chapman openly encourages fellow Proud Boys and others on the far right to “sacrifice” for their beliefs. “You are also going to have to come to the realization that you may have to bleed to keep this going,” he told a crowd in Sacramento. “You’re maybe going to have to do some time in jail and you very may well have to die… I’m willing to die. Are you guys willing to die?” he asked, and was met with cheers (SPLC, 2021).
The Proud Boys see themselves as essential to restoring “law and order” to US cities. Therefore, there is a blurred line between actual federal forces and armed vigilante groups. Thus, they could act in a sense of impunity thanks to the tolerance of police.
Similar calls have come from Augustus Invictus (Austin Gillespie), a former Florida attorney and Senate candidate. Chapman named him second-in-command of FOAK. Invictus’ ideology is a bizarre mix: he holds many mainstream libertarian beliefs but also claims Nazi and antisemitic thinkers as his chief intellectual influencers and paganism as his faith. During his Senate run in 2016, journalists discovered that Invictus had slaughtered a goat and drank its blood as part of a pagan ritual. In campaign material, he criticized the federal government for abandoning eugenics programs. He’s also an admitted Holocaust denier (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021).
The Proud Boys see themselves as essential to restoring “law and order” to US cities. “There’s now a blurred line between actual federal forces and armed vigilante groups,” said Joseph Lowndes (McBain, 2020), apolitical scientist at the University of Oregon. Therefore, they could act in a sense of impunity thanks to the tolerance of police. On Aug. 22, 2020, during a Proud Boys march in Portland, members of the organization clashed with Antifa supporters and other counter protesters in front of police headquarters (Hawkins, 2021). This clash between right-wing and left-wing activists was one of many in Portland and other American cities throughout the summer. This is part of a trend of far-right vigilantism, where Proud Boys self-deputize in order to “assist” law enforcement. This logic, however, elides the fact that many members of the group have criminal records for violent behaviour and the organization actively pursues violence against its perceived enemies (ADL, 2021).
Homegrown far-right extremism poses a persistent and lethal threat to the lives and well-being of Americans. This risk is often underestimated because of the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Excluding 9/11, between 1990 and 2019, the ECDB identified 47 events in the US motivated by Islamist extremism that killed 154 people. When you include 9/11 as a singular event, those numbers jump dramatically to 48 homicide events and 3,150 people killed. The database also identified 217 homicide events motivated by far-right extremism, with 345 killed. And when you include the Oklahoma City bombing, it rises to 218 homicide events and 513 killed. To focus solely on Islamist extremism is to ignore the number of murders perpetrated by the extreme far-right. Evidence shows far-right violent extremism poses a particular threat to law enforcement and racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities (Gruenewald et al., 2020).
The Proud Boys’ commitment ranges from passive online consumption to overt offline action. A 2017 incident in Islamberg – a small Muslim town in upstate New York – provides insight into how some Proud Boys moved from passive consumers of in-group content to active, operational agents (Kutner, 2020). Two years prior, Islamberg had been targeted when former congressional candidate Robert Doggart was arrested by the FBI for a plot to bomb the same community. In a statement later released, Doggart said, “I don’t want to have to kill children, but there’s always collateral damage” (Ghianni, 2017).
In their online statements, Proud Boys have claimed they have only used violence in self-defence: “If our mere presence causes people to want to commit acts of violence, we’re not afraid to defend ourselves,” Tarrio said. But members are often seen carrying firearms and bats and donning protective gear, and some have been convicted of crimes against anti-fascist protesters (Murphy, 2020). Members have supported the Proud Boys’ agenda by attending and organizing right-wing events (Kramer,2017). Many regularly appear in their half-serious “uniform”: black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts branded with the Proud Boys logo, khaki pants, and red Make America Great Again hats (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
Meanwhile, Canada has formally labeled the Proud Boys as a terrorist group. The Proud Boys were recognised as a “terrorist entity,” meaning the government may seize property and other belongings connected to the group and financial institutions “are subject to reporting requirements” with respect to the group’s property under Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act (Li, 2021). “The Proud Boys consists of semi-autonomous chapters located in the US, Canada, and internationally,” Public Safety Canada said in a statement. “The group and its members have openly encouraged, planned, and conducted violent activities against those they perceive to be opposed to their ideology and political beliefs,” (Public Safety Canada, 2021).
The Proud Boys has become a fixture at political demonstrations around the country (Hawkins, 2021). Especially in densely populated cities, the Proud Boys exemplify how demagoguery motivates individuals to engage in warlike militancy. This militancy operates under a political framework obfuscated by the smoke and mirrors of capitalism, wherein demagoguery weaponizes feelings of precarity against scapegoated out-groups (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said the Proud Boys hold events purely to attract counter protesters, with the understanding that provoking any counter protesters can feed a “victimization narrative.” “So when Antifa throw stuff at them … Proud Boys are able to say, ‘See, they are trying to silence us and stop our freedom of speech,’” he said (Coaston, 2018).
Longing For the Days When Girls Were Girls and Men Were Men
Members of the Proud Boys are opposed to feminism and promote traditional gender stereotypes in which women are subservient to men (Carter, 2017; WNYC-The Takeaway, 2018). According to the ADL, the Proud Boys is misogynistic, and the group calls women “lazy” and “less ambitious” than men while “venerat[ing] the housewife” (Wilson, 2018). The group’s founder, McInnes, wrote: “Though sexual intercourse is encouraged, Proud Boys have an endgame, and it is to settle down and have kids. They have absolutely no respect for feminists but venerate the housewife so much, they are actually becoming quite popular with women” (McInnes, 2016). He has also called for “enforced monogamy” and criticized feminism as “a cancer” (Wilson, 2018) that “makes women ugly” (ADL, 2021).
The Proud Boys targets men who feel that the modern world is lacking a space for them. The group equates itself with previous “men’s” organizations like the Elks Lodge, which were established in a similar response to growing progressive trends in society like voting rights being granted to women (Kimmel 2013). In essence, the religious aspect of the movement is merely a call back to a time when white, Christian men were in power – and that position wasn’t questioned (DeCook, 2018). Therefore, women are not permitted to be Proud Boys. The group longs for the days when “girls were girls and men were men,” (Coaston, 2018;Hawkins, 2021). For Proud Boys, the West is unable to protect the masses, which have been made feminine in their defencelessness and thus desire “to be led by a dominating male.” They often assert that only men can understand the struggle of being men and support each other emotionally through the stressors of protecting and defending civilization (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).
The religious aspect of the Proud Boys is merely a call back to a time when white, Christian men were in power – and that position wasn’t questioned. Therefore, women are not permitted to be Proud Boys. The group longs for the days when “girls were girls and men were men”.
The Proud Boys exist at the intersection of libertarianism, anti-feminism, and misogyny. They obscure their core fascist values by appropriating libertarian philosophy, belying their members’ misogyny and desire to control women (Kutner, 2020). Instead of examining neoliberal policies, Proud Boys attribute the changing role of men in the world to women, women who have defied what they believe to be the natural order of things (Michael DeLuca & Peeples 2002). This desire to return to the “natural” order of things and re-exert control is referred to by members as “radical traditionalism” (Meisenzahl, 2019). McInnes says the “victim mentality” of women and other historically oppressed groups is unhealthy, arguing that “there is an incentive to be a victim. It is cool to be a victim.” He sees white men and Western culture as “under siege” and described criticism of his ideas as “victim blaming” (Houpt, 2017). The Proud Boys’ activism is largely concerned with decreases in “the life span of white males,” men’s economic power, and cultural appreciation for “radically traditional men” (Wray, 2017).
The Proud Boys use their anti-masturbation policies to encourage members to seek out women and procreate, hoping to reverse demographic and cultural changes by placing “men and women back in their rightful place, together in a home with children” (Wray, 2017). In the academic space, this is classified more generally as a component of fundamentalism, in which traditional gender roles are enforced (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). The Proud Boys venerate traditional gender norms and firmly patriarchal social structures; however, the women who become their partners also support and buy-into the ideology (Kelly, 2018). Therefore, the organization has a female-member-only auxiliary wing named “Proud Boys’ Girls” that supports the same ideology (Feuer, 2018). One of the key tenets of the Proud Boys is to ultimately settle down and have a family, thus continuing Western civilization; children can be indoctrinated into the ideology (DeCook, 2018).
Within the Proud Boys’ Girls – notably, the apostrophe denoting ownership – (Bourdieu, 1991) many of the women are the romantic partners of male group members. “I was shocked when I first got the analytics back,” says Jack Buckby*, the former member of Proud Boys in the UK: “They call themselves Proud Boys’ Girls and they are our second-biggest demographic.” According to McInnes (2016), it may seem counterintuitive that a male-only group would have such a big female following, but nobody wants men to be men more than the women who depend on them. However, the exclusion of women from the group’s meetings is telling of the larger extremist movement that contends that feminism has “infected” Western society. Establishing a separate group for women is are similar to how the Ku Klux Klan had a women’s group to support the larger organization (Blee, 2008). These intersections privilege whiteness above all else, as well as men over women, and help to situate the practices of the group, positioning women as mere extensions of men via their role as traditional wives (Kelly, 2018). Thus, the Proud Boys upholds hegemonic patriarchal notions of masculinity and gender roles (DeCook, 2018).
For Proud Boys, the state of the family – as a reproductive mechanism and unit of economic power – is presumed to be reflective of the state of the West (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Those who have abdicated their roles as “radically traditional men” are made responsible for declines in nuclear families and economic security, resulting in the inheritance of an “entire pussified, weak, immoral culture of feminized failure” (Wray, 2017). Proud Boy Andrew Bell Ramos explained, “Most of the problems we have in the country are because men aren’t stepping up and doing the things they’ve done forever, being providers, being strong, being manly” (SBS Dateline, 2018). To remedy these masculine failings, Proud Boys call for men to “retake their manhood” and “become a man that great women can love, and great companies can hire” (Wray, 2017).
According to McInnes, who no longer supports marriage equality because he believes it’s part of a secret plan to destroy Christianity (Coaston, 2018), many Proud Boys were raised by single moms and needed a male figure in their lives (Metro US, 2017). For them, entertaining content acted as the gateway to a new reality constructed of race preservation, conspiracy theories, and male self-awareness through victimhood. These grievances are found in a manosphere, which McInnes defines as an ecosystem of disparate male grievance groups that emerged as a reaction to feminism. The manosphere may contain entertaining content, but this content may not always act as a pull factor (Kutner, 2020). Referencing Neo’s journey in The Matrix, “taking the red pill” or “getting redpilled” is used to describe an awakening. Getting redpilled refers to the antifeminist ideology within the manosphere. The term taking the red pill refers to men opening their eyes to the reality of male subjugation by women. As a perceived antidote to being seen as effeminate, members maintain their redpilled status through aggressively over-performing masculinity and adopting rigid gender roles (Kutner, 2020).
This fear of being seen as effeminate makes men susceptible to messaging that relies on negative precarity, i.e. Trump evoking the image of America as “weak, vulnerable and effeminate” (Johnson, 2017). Proud Boys don’t want freedom in the libertarian sense they have co-opted; they want the freedom to subjugate women in order to invert the redpill paradigm. This makes the Proud Boys authoritarian at their core (Kutner, 2020). The general appeal of groups like the Proud Boys is the retaliation for a perceived loss of white male supremacy and the erosion of privileges that were exclusively for white men (McSwiney, 2021).Trump’s hypermasculinity is contrasted to the Democrats’ enlightened masculinity, portrayed as weak and feminine. An extreme incarnation of this hypermasculinity is the Proud Boys (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).
Proud To Be Islamophobic
Within the Proud Boys creed “The West is the Best” lies an implicit anti-Eastern bias common among right-wing extremists and white supremacists (ADL, 2021). According to the SPLC, the group maintains affiliations with extremists and is known for anti-Muslim rhetoric. The group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, told NBC News (2017), “I’m not a fan of Islam. I think it’s fair to call me Islamophobic” (Hawkins, 2021). His Rebel Media videos feature titles like “Donald Trump’s Muslim ban is exactly what we need right now,” “10 examples of the Koran being violent,” and “Islam isn’t ‘dope.’ It’s sexist,” (SPLC, 2021). McInnes’ shift to the far-right after he left Vice Media in 2008 also included espousing anti-Muslim sentiments: “the Muslim world is filled with shoeless, toothless, inbred, hill-dwelling, rifle-toting, sodomy-prone men” (Coaston, 2018).
He hosted Pamela Geller, among the most prominent figures in the anti-Muslim movement, on his show “Get Off My Lawn,” on the conservative online outlet CRTV. “People in America say ‘Muslims are what? One or two percent of the population? There’s never going to be sharia law here,’” he said during the interview before assuring viewers that Britain, where Muslims are “raping children regularly” and where “women are raped several times in one night,” is the “canary in the coalmine,” (SPLC, 2021).McInnes has called the idea of a Muslim-American president “insane” and compared it to electing “a German president in 1942 in America.” In a talk show on Fox News, he said there was a “huge problem with inbreeding within the Muslim community,” and alleged that “they [Muslims] hate all non-Muslims,” (ADL, 2021).
A Proud Boys’ meme implies that Muslims have been eliminated from the world, thus why there are none in Star Trek, which further implies part of the far-right’s goals in participating in ethnic and religious genocide.
According to an SPLC compilation (2021), McInnes has repeatedly used anti-Muslim rhetoric – and has himself said it is fair to call him Islamophobic. “It’s such a rape culture with these immigrants, I don’t even think these women see it as rape. They see it as just like having teeth pulled,” (McInnes, Get Off My Lawn, June 19, 2018). “Muslims have a problem with inbreeding. They tend to marry their first cousins… and that is a major problem here because when you have mentally damaged inbreds – which not all Muslims are, but a disproportionate number are – and you have a hate book called the Koran…you end up with a perfect recipe for mass murder,” (McInnes, Get Off My Lawn, April 24, 2018).“Muslims are stupid. And the only thing they really respect is violence and being tough” (McInnes, The Gavin McInnes Show, March 8, 2017).
A Proud Boys’ meme implies that Muslims have been eliminated from the world, thus why there are none in Star Trek, which further implies part of the far-right’s goals in participating in ethnic and religious genocide (DeCook, 2018).This subtlety, the implying rather than outright saying, is typical of dog-whistle politics and rhetoric used by the far-right and other previous fascist governments (Caffier 2017). Moreover,the hashtags used for the images can often be more telling of the ideology than the visual elements of the meme or photograph. For instance, the “#DeusVult” hashtag comes from a war cry from the Crusades and is invoked to imply that there needs to be another holy war to fight against Islam. (The hashtag may have emerged due to the popularity of a game called Crusader Kings (DeCook, 2018).) Using it symbolically establishes a divide between the “Christian” West and the “Muslim” East, making it a signifier of virulent Islamophobia and modern-day Orientalism (Said, 1979; Ulaby 2017). The members speak of a white, Christian West that they feel has been invaded by immigrants, and echo extremist beliefs that have led to mass killings, such as in the cases of Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof (Teitelbaum, 2015). Remember that new members of the Proud Boys must refuse to apologize for “creating the Western World.”
Antisemitism and the Proud Boys
Despite the Proud Boys having a chapter in Israel, they are associated with anti-Semites (Israel Faxx, 2020). For instance, Facebook pages for Proud Boys chapters in Florida featured Holocaust denials (like a meme implying the number of those who died during the Holocaust was simply invented) and virulently racist rhetoric (Coaston, 2018). Although McInnes has decried antisemitism, his past statements tell a different story. Evidence shows McInnes has embraced antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments, including a video he made for the far-right Canadian outlet Rebel Media initially called “10 Things I Hate about Jews,” which was later retitled “Ten Things I Hate About Israel.” He has also argued that historically, perhaps Jews “were ostracized for a good reason” (Coaston, 2018).He has also posted videos of himself giving the Nazi salute and repeatedly saying “Heil Hitler” (ADL, 2021).
It was during his trip to Israel in 2017 that McInnes appears to have had somewhat of an antisemitic awakening. On his show on March 8, 2017, McInnes muses that Jews were somehow responsible for World War II because “the Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t that disproportionately influenced by Jewish intellectuals?” He also defended Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, saying, “Like at one point, the tour guide goes, ‘You know, and there are people who think that this didn’t happen.’ And I felt myself defending the super-far-right Nazis, just because I was sick of so much brainwashing. And I felt like going, ‘Well, they never said it didn’t happen. What they’re saying is that it was much less than six million and that they starved to death and they weren’t gassed.’” Then he finished his train of thought with some thoughts about Jews’ “obsession” with the Holocaust. “God, they’re so obsessed with the Holocaust. I don’t know if it’s healthy to dwell.” At another point McInnes said: “Jews: If you don’t want to get people mad, don’t be annoying,” (ADL, 2021).
Ron Coleman, who is a Jewish lawyer representing McInnes in a defamation lawsuit against the SPLC, said Israelis could be attracted to the Proud Boys because of the value placed on masculinity in Israel. Israeli men, as well as American Jews, may be “nauseated” by what Coleman called “the enforced cultural feminization” of men and boys in the US. Coleman also said Jews who feel left out by the mainstream Jewish political alignment with the left – about 70 percent of Jews vote Democratic – may be attracted to the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys have seized upon the presence of an Israeli chapter as evidence that the group is not antisemitic (Israel Faxx, 2020).
Numerous journalists and experts on far-right extremism have raised the alarm about the Proud Boys and similar racist organisations. However, it wasn’t until after the 2020 presidential election – and especially January 6, 2021 extremist insurrection – that the mainstream recognised the threat posed by the far right.Because of this indifference, which led to a deliberate amount of tolerance,white supremacists have accumulated sufficient power to trigger political chaos – chaos that they hope will lead to a race war and the creation of their own white nation (Smith, 2021).Rightfully, many people associate far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. It’s true that hate crimes, antisemitism, and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since his campaign began in 2015. But far-right extremists existed long before Trump. While adapting to the times, far-right extremism has continued into the present. It’s not dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence (Hinton, 2020).
As O’Connor (2021) highlighted, in the face of a belated federal crackdown, the experienced exponents of extremist violence are likely to beat a tactical retreat before making their next push. The movement they fight for now finds itself on new terrain: more organisationally developed than ever before, even with Trump out of office; a fracturing and reforming Republican party creating new alliances and coalitions to leverage and exploit; and the multiplying pressures of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the climate continuing to build.Trump’s inflammatory influence may be long-lasting and yet may yet take a greater toll on American society – after all, the Proud Boys had hoped to assassinate former Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during their violent storming of the US Capitol (Slisco, 2021). Reports since the insurrection suggest they were closer to their goal than many would like to consider.
(*) Correction by Jack Buckby: “My name is Jack Buckby. I am a counter-extremism researcher and a former far-right activist.
I am contacting you about an inaccuracy in Dr. Bulent Kenes’ paper on the Proud Boys. In one section of the piece, Kenes refers to me as the head of Proud Boys UK. This is false, and whatever Gavin McInnes described me as on his show at any point, it was never the case.
I have had zero involvement with anybody in the Proud Boys since late 2016 and I did not organise any Proud Boys events or gatherings in the UK or US. In the interest of transparency and fairness, it’s important to note that my connection with the Proud Boys was at a time when the group was very different, too. The group started as a men’s club, and I cut all ties as soon as the group began endorsing fighting radical leftists. Even when I was involved in radical politics, that was too far for me – and this marked my journey to who I am today, some seven years later.
I now research far-right extremism and write on the matter. My latest book explores my involvement in the far-right going back to my teens, and my latest paper explores extremism in the COVID economy. Jack Buckby”
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This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In the next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with the processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the author(s) in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.
Compared to the other statesmen in this series, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is a relative newcomer to national politics. The former chief minister of Gujarat secured an absolute majority in India’s 2014 general election and has since solidified his premiership with a landslide election win in 2019 (The Guardian, May 16, 2014; BBC News, May 23, 2019). Despite this democratic show of force, Modi – like Erdogan and Netanyahu – built a resonant brand of right-wing populism that severely imperils the world’s largest democracy. I argue that this political strategy resembles Erdogan’s populist playbook in a number of important respects. Let us distinguish between three constitutive parts: Neoliberal economic policy, religious polarisation and media-capture.
India’s economy successfully opened to the world in 1991, under the auspices of the social-democratic Congress Party. Despite the Congress Party’s liberal record, Modi used his own reputation for reforms in Gujarat to undermine the Congress Party and to present himself as India’s ‘development man’. His Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) positioned itself as the country’s ‘most reform-minded party’.[i] In line with Erdogan’s neoliberal playbook, Modi weakened labour unions[ii] and endorsed public-private-partnerships[iii]. Following the mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, the BJP substituted formal welfare services with new insurance schemes and digitally-enabled cash transfers that play into the development narrative. Modi frames poor, newly urbanized and middle-class Hindus as the pure, deserving “people”, threatened by a secular, anti-national elite. This liberal elite is deemed corrupt for monopolising power and preventing development while pandering to minority groups.[iv] The promise of development of the “people” also allows Modi to challenge institutional and civil society initiatives that oppose his deregulatory agenda.
In addition to Modi’s neoliberal development vision, the BJP embodies Hindutva, a belief system that deems Hinduism superior to the culture and beliefs of India’s minority groups. Hindutva manifests in animosity towards Muslims[v] and was used by Modi’s supporters to justify attacks on Muslim places of worship, delegitimize inter-faith marriages and endorse campaigns to convert Muslim and Christian families “back” to Hinduism”.[vi]
Deep divisions between Muslims and Hindus trace back to India and Pakistan’s partition in 1947 and continue to manifest – amongst other things – in struggles over the slaughter of cows[vii] (a holy animal in Hinduism) and control over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. In light of such deep social divisions, the ethnoreligious homogeneity propagated by Modi threatens to undermine the delicate accommodation between casts, ethnicities and religious groups that sits at the heart of India’s democratic compromise culture. When Modi demands that opposition politicians “stop writing ‘love letters to Pakistan’”[viii], these assertions nurture a majoritarian conception of the “people”. Funding cuts for minority development programs further alienate religious minority groups[ix]. Similarly, a civil society campaign titled “Love Jihad” – tacitly endorsed by BJP grandees – manufactured a resonant imagination of ‘sexually rapacious Muslim youth converting Hindu women to Islam’.[x]
At this stage, it is worth clarifying that the blanket securitization of Indian Muslims and Modi’s tacit endorsement of vigilante violence against them is more sweeping than Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents and political opponents. For Erdogan, religious rhetoric is primarily a source of legitimation through the definition of an AKP-supporting “people”. The “enemy of the people” is defined in socio-political, not explicitly religious terms. Modi, in turn, deems both Muslim minorities and their elite backers external to the “people”.[xi] Confrontations between the government and India’s minority populations reached new heights in 2019, when Modi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, detained thousands of Muslim Kashmiris and imposed a strict curfew (The Telegraph, October 31, 2019). In a region already prone to sectarian violence, Modi’s inclusion of vulnerable religious minorities within the “enemies of the people” imperils both liberal democracy and human wellbeing.
Modi’s populist infusion of patriotism and nationalism with religion offers his supporters a meta-morality and a source of identity, from which the “enemies of the people” can be distinguished based on their minority status and their willingness to accommodate religious minorities.[xii] A similar unwillingness to tolerate difference or criticism emerges from Modi’s relationship with the fourth estate.
At first sight, Modi’s relationship with the Indian media landscape diverges from Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists and online media. In ham-fisted attempts to control the information flow, Erdogan sought to remove internet and cellular access for Gezi protesters in 2013, cut access to Twitter and YouTube in 2014 – after corruption allegations surfaced against him – and blocked Wikipedia following charges of voter fraud in Turkey’s 2017 referendum. In stark contrast to this censorship spree, Modi’s 2014 election campaign was marked by an unprecedented level of digital competence: Modi’s campaign included a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, profiles on Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram, a mobile phone app as well as 3D holograms that appeared simultaneously across different locations.[xiii] This digital strategy culminated in Modi becoming the ‘world’s most-followed leader on social media’ in 2017.
Beyond these differences in digital competence, Modi shares Erdogan’s scorn for impartial media outlets, as fora for democratic mediation and accountability. Following criticism of Modi for ‘inaction, complicity, and even giving direction to’ large-scale violence and the killing of over 3000 Muslims in Gujarat, Modi began attacking elite media figures and traditional media outlets as corrupt ‘paid news’, one BJP minister denouncing these English-language media outlets as ‘presstitutes’.[xiv] In manner characteristic for populist leaders across the globe, the BJP asserted that the “people” would recognise their own truths against those of the secular elite.[xv] Adding deeds to discourse, Modi implemented a 24-hour blackout of NDTV – a news channel that had frequently criticised his administration – in 2016.[xvi] Journalists now face growing intimidation, repression and arrest for reporting in Kashmir or on the spread of Covid-19 in India (The Wire, June 16, 2020; Al Jazeera, March 18, 2020; Democracy Now! , October 1, 2020).
Despite being in power for only a fraction of Erdogan’s tenure, Modi’s attack on accountability institutions is catching up to Erdogan’s monopolisation of political power in Turkey. The combination of neoliberal developmentalism, religious sectarianism and media capture allowed Modi to pair-back central pillars of India’s democracy – including its accommodation between ethnicities and religions and the fourth estate. By contrasting a pure Hindu “people” with a “corrupt elite” and its unpatriotic Muslim allies,[xvii] Modi created an uneven political playing field that severely disadvantages political opponents: Within a single five-year term, his BJP undermined state institutions including the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Electoral Commission.[xviii] In his current, second term Modi continues to entrench his position as a national “saviour”.[xix] If Hindutva and Modi-like developmentalism remain hegemonic, India risks becoming an authoritarian one-party state.
[i] Kaur, Ravinder. “Good Times, Brought to You by Brand Modi.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 323–330. doi:10.1177/1527476415575492.
[ii] Harriss, John. “Hindu Nationalism in Action: The Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian Politics.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4. (2016). doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089826
[iii] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication. 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.
[v] Palshikar, Suhas. “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4 (2015): 719–735. doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089460.
[xi] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220.
[xii] Kinnvall, Catarina. “Populism, Ontological Insecurity and Hindutva: Modi and the Masculinization of Indian Politics.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 32, no. 3 (2019): 283-302.
[xiv] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.
[xv] Ohm, Britta. “Organizing Popular Discourse with and Against the Media: Notes on the Making of Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Leaders-without-Alternative.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 370–377. doi:10.1177/1527476415575906.
[xvi] Govil, Nitin , and Anirban KapilBaishya . “The Bully in the Pulpit: Autocracy, Digital Social Media, and Right-Wing Populist Technoculture.” Communication, Culture and Critique. 11, no. 1 (2018): 67–84. doi:10.1093/ccc/tcx001.
[xvii] Chacko, Priya. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism and Neoliberalisation.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48, no. 4 (2018): 541–565. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546.
[xviii] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220.
This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.
Turkey suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the global democratic imagination. Once celebrated as a ‘model for political learning’ and the Middle East’s ‘only Muslim Democracy’, Turkey has become a ‘U.S.-style executive presidency – minus the Supreme Court and Congress’ (ECFR, April 8, 2017) and ‘the biggest jailer of journalists in the world’ (Amnesty International, 2017). Of course, Turkey is not the only country to have recently experienced democratic backsliding. Yet, the Turkish case differs from the more familiar instances of populism witnessed in Europe and the Americas. The populist playbook employed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offers a partial blueprint for the antidemocratic populist strategies employed by other right-wing populists. This populist strategy combines neoliberal economic policies, religious polarisation and media capture. Let us begin with a glance at the country’s democratic legacy.
Even before Erdogan’s tenure at the helm of Turkish politics, democracy in Turkey was plagued by top-down, autocratic tendencies, manifest in four military coups between 1960 and 2000. Elected in 2002, Erdogan’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented itself as a moderately Islamist alternative to the secular Kemalism of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Invoking alignment with the European Union (EU) and the prospect of eventual accession, the AKP promised to improve individual freedoms, reduce the military’s role in government and better recognise Kurdish language and culture. These noble ambitions notwithstanding, the AKP repeatedly clashed with secularist political establishment, committed to upholding Mustafa Kemal’s prohibition on virtually all public manifestations of religion.
Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’.
For instance, the AKP’s 2007 appointment of President Abdullah Gul, whose wife publicly wears hijab, triggered a constitutional crisis and an investigation of the AKP for violating the principle of laicism. From 2008, the Ergenekon trials sought to combat the role of the deep state (the military, bureaucracy and secret service) in government affairs. At the same time, lawsuits against bureaucrats, NGOs, civil society and journalists evidenced the AKP’s willingness to rescind civil liberties to reaffirm its own power. Following a series of resonant electoral victories, the AKP increasingly weakened national institutions staffed overwhelmingly by Kemalist rivals. Erdogan’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2013 showcased this distaste for all political opposition to a global audience.
A Populist Strategy to Monopolise Political Power
Less than three years after the Gezi protests, the failed coup attempt of July 2016 ushered in a fundamental change for democracy in Turkey. Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. The measures enacted after the 2016 coup attempt are part of a multi-pronged populist strategy to monopolise political power in Turkey. Its antidemocratic effect is compounded by harsh repression of elected Kurdish politicians, civil society groups and minority populations. While highly significant, the Kurdish issue is too large and complex to be satisfactorily analysed in this series.
In the economic realm, Erdogan employs a variant of neoliberal clientelism. Despite promoting a series of business-friendly policies – such as the privatisation of public land, and the weakening of labour unions – the AKP receives the majority of its votes from economically disadvantaged sections of society. These voters are kept onside using Islamic charity networks who distribute benefits and services in the AKP’s name. At the same time, clientelism reached new levels under Erdogan. Kickbacks from AKP-friendly enterprises constitute a major source of donations for party affiliated organisations. The same enterprises benefited from lucrative public-private partnership construction contracts with AKP controlled municipalities. The catastrophic tenure of Berat Albayrak (Erdogan’s son-in-law) as Minister of Finance and Treasury (July 2018 until November 2020) and the military drone contracts awarded to Selcuk Bayraktar (his other son-in-law) exemplify a political system that places loyalty above competence (Al Monitor, September 11, 2019).
In this economic order, citizen loyalty for democratic institutions is undermined as jobs and benefits cease to be a matter of rights or merit but are tied to membership of an AKP supporting “people”. Thus,after the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan used the state of emergency to disown the “enemies of the people”. His government appropriated over one thousand schools, companies and hospitals owned by members of the Fethullah Gulen-affiliated Hizmet Movement allegedly behind the attempted coup. It also sold seized businesses, such as the Koza-Ipek Conglomerate, to AKP loyalists. Thus, by combining business friendly liberalisation, clientelism and expropriation the AKP increasingly monopolises the Turkish economy.
Diyanet Used to Supress Dissent
From 2011 onwards, Erdogan increasingly used the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, to entrench AKP narratives in mosques, religious and educational institutions. In addition to imposing its own religious interpretations and mobilising religious segments of society in support of Erdogan, the AKP used Diyanet to supress dissent against the regime. This conscious politicization of an avowedly non-partisan state body entrenched distinctions drawn by Erdogan and the AKP between the religious “people” and their secular “enemies”. The exclusive definition of the “people” around Islamic institutions and AKP support allowed Erdogan to privilege conservative values and traditional family structures. Women contemplating abortion, single mothers and other “non-traditional” family units face discrimination and are labelled unpatriotic.
The July 2016 coup attempt inspired a new level of religious polarisation, in which the “enemies of the people” were extended to include Muslims supportive of- or allegedly affiliated with Fethullah Gulen. Ten-thousands of, so called, “Gulenists”, were dismissed from their jobs, arrested and/or detained as alleged ‘terrorists’ and members of a criminal ‘cult’ (The New Yorker, October 10, 2016). Erdogan’s self-characterisation as the leader of the faithful disavows large swathes of Turkish society, who are either secular, non-Muslim or critical of Erdogan’s regime.
Beyond this highly instrumental approach to religion, the AKP’s relationship with Turkey’s mass media is characterised by its willingness to arrest journalists for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda. From early into his tenure, then-Prime Minister Erdogan painted mainstream media moguls like Aydin Dogan as the tools of “deep-state”, an elitist faction scheming to undermine the “people’s will”. More recently, Dogan Media Company – once the owner of major newspapers and television channels – was left no option but to sell its media outlets to Demiroren Holding a conglomerate with close ties to the President Erdodan (New York Times, 21 March 2018). Olay TV, another independent news channel, was forced to close due to government pressure (Ahval, December 26, 2020).
Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy.
Fourth Pillar of Democracy Was Undermined
In addition to undermining mainstream and critical media outlets, the AKP now controls the messaging of the public broadcaster TRT and the state-run Anadolu news agency, thereby further side-lining critical and opposition voices. Pro-Erdogan businesspeople are encouraged to fund media outlets, publishing houses and creative agencies filled with uncritical government supporters. Invasive laws and media blackouts nurture a culture of overt- and self-censorship among journalists. During the state of emergency declared in 2016, this fourth pillar of democracy was comprehensively undermined. Large-scale media censorship, widespread arrests of journalists and the closure of additional media outlets sparked an exodus of critical journalists out of the country. Independent voices were framed as illegitimate plotters against the “people”. This latest stage of Erdogan’s populist media-capture strategy undermines the principle of accountability of the ruler to the ruled, as to have any practical significance voters need accurate, verifiable information about the government.
Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy. Key figures in Turkey’s democratic opposition – including Selahattin Demirtas the Kurdish leader of the progressive pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – are imprisoned and defamed as terrorists.
As the next part of this series will suggest, Turkey’s democratic decay is emblematic of a wider trend affecting democracies across different religions, cultures and geographies. Despite its severe democratic decay, Turkey is still deemed an indispensable partner by many within the EU and a key NATO ally. This picture is complicated by military escalations with its long-term rival Greece (ECFR, March 13, 2020), its meddling in the Libyan civil war, its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and Erdogan’s continued assault on international institutions – including the European Court of Human Rights (Al Monitor, December 23, 2020; Politico, December 10, 2020).
The collapse of the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement on migration in March 2020 exposes another key vulnerability for Turkey’s democratic partners. Having effectively abandoned Turkey’s prospects for EU accession in 2005, Europeans have surrendered a key means of encouraging Turkey’s democratisation. The failure of democracy in Turkey does not bode well for a world in which democratic values are increasingly questioned.
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 Bozkurt, Umut. “Neoliberalism with a Human Face: Making Sense of the Justice and Development Party’s Neoliberal Populism in Turkey.” Science & Society. 77, no. 3 (2013): 372–396. Crossref.
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 Özdemir, Yonca. “Turkey’s Justice and Development Party: An Utmost Case of Neoliberal Populism.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Consortium for Political Research, Montreal, August 26–29, 2015.
 Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.
 Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi. “Turkey’s Diyanet Under AKP Rule: From Protector to Imposer of State Ideology?” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16, no. 4 (2016): 619–635. Crossref.
Right-wing extremism increased in Germany in 2019, the country’s domestic intelligence agency has reported, with over 32,000 extremists identified. The report also found that more suspects are prepared to use violence.
According to a news article published by Deutsche Welle (DW) on July 9, 2020, in Berlin, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and the head of Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) Thomas Haldenwang presented the organization’s most recent findings, which showed that right-wing extremism in Germany sharply increased last year. “Right-wing extremism poses the biggest threat to security in Germany,” the country’s interior minister said at the presentation of the 2019 report by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
The report underlined that the BfV identified 32,080 right-wing extremists in Germany in 2019, up from 24,100 the year before. The BfV classified 13,000 of these cases as prepared to use violence, 300 more than in 2018. Right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism continue to increase in Germany, Seehofer said. “These areas are the biggest threat to security in Germany,” he added. Seehofer also pointed to government action in 2019, saying no other government in Germany had done so much to fight far-right extremism.
Several extreme far-right organizations were banned in 2020 for views or activities deemed anti-constitutional. For the first time last year, the BfV report also reviewed the activities and member of the radical “Flügel”, or Wing, faction of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The controversial faction officially disbanded earlier this year after the BfV put the group under surveillance. But the agency estimates there remains a membership of around 7,000 individuals, some 20 percent of the AfD. This accounts for a significant share of the increase in right-wing extremists recorded by the BfV in 2019.
“Racism and anti-Semitism emerge to a very considerable degree out of right-wing extremism,” Seehofer said. “Over 90percent of anti-Semitic incidents can be traced back to right-wing extremism. And therefore it is not an exaggeration to say this is the biggest security policy concern in our country.” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said a rise in criminal offences by far-right oriented individuals against foreigners and Muslims had also risen. “We have to remain vigilant and ready to act,” said Seehofer.
Individuals with far-right world views committed more than 22,300 offences in 2019, the interior ministry figures showed, including two murders, five attempted murders and almost 800 bodily injuries, a rise of almost 10 percent.
Thomas Haldenwang, head of the BfV domestic security agency, said antisemitic crime rose by 17 percent and 94percent of the offences raging from bodily harm to verbal abuse and antisemitic propaganda were carried out by far-right sympathisers. The report also found that criminal offences committed by far-left sympathisers had risen to 6,400, an increase of 40 percent. This included two attempted murders and 355 bodily harm offences.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was forced to act in 2019 on right-wing political violence after the killing of a pro-immigration politician and an attack on a synagogue and a kebab shop by an antisemitic gunman, which left two dead. The government imposed tougher rules on gun ownership and stricter monitoring of hate speech online, responding to a rise in hate crime.
Germany was also shaken by the killing in February 2020 of eight women and a man with foreign background in a shooting spree at Shisha bars in the western city of Hanau by a gunman espousing conspiracy theories and deeply racist views. The killings will appear in 2020’s report.
Germany’s populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party fired an official on September 28, 2020 who had been caught on a hidden camera discussing gassing refugees.
According to a news article by Reuters’ Thomas Escritt, in footage, recorded secretly by ProSieben television in February2020, Christian Lueth, then a party spokesman, was filmed in a Berlin cafe talking to someone he believed to be a sympathiser about the challenges the AfD faced.
Asked if the AfD wanted to see more immigrants, he replied: “Yes.” “Because then things go better for the AfD. We can still shoot them all afterwards,” he said. “Or gas them, whichever you like. I don’t care either way!”
Die Zeit newspaper said it was shown the footage, which it said was filmed by Lisa Licentia, a right-wing YouTube personality who had decided to leave the far-right scene. Die Zeit said nothing indicated Lueth was joking.
German media reported that Lueth was dismissed as an employee of the party’s parliamentary group. Lueth was already suspended from his position as party spokesman in April, over an email in which he wrote that the word “fascist” was overused.
The AfD entered Germany’s parliament in an election in 2017 and is now the largest party opposing Angela Merkel’s government, a right-left grand coalition. The far right party has been monitored by the security services, and other parties consider it beyond the pale. AfD officials strongly deny that it has links to neo-Nazi groups.
Concern is growing in Germany that potentially violent anti-immigrant nationalists may be gaining footholds in the uniformed services – a matter of huge sensitivity in a country still acutely aware of the World War Two genocide of millions of Jews and others by Hitler’s Nazis.
German prosecutors investigated in July 2020 a retired police officer suspected of sending threatening emails, signed with the name of a gang of neo-Nazi killers, to prominent figures of immigrant background. The man and his wife were detained but then released while police searched seized computer storage devices.
The emails, including some sent to legislators of Turkish background, were signed “NSU 2.0”, a reference to the “National Socialist Underground” neo-Nazi gang, which murdered 10 people, mainly immigrants, between 2000 and 2007.
“The suspects, a former Bavarian police officer, 63, and his wife, 55, had previously come to the attention of police in connection with racially motivated crimes,” prosecutors in the city of Frankfurt said. “They are suspected of having sent emails with offensive, inflammatory and threatening contents to legislators and others.”
The interior minister of the state of Hesse said in early July 2020 he was aware of 69 such emails. One of the recipients was Aiman Mazyek, chair of the Central Council of Muslims, who published the text on Twitter: “Heil Hitler. Yours, NSU 2.0”.
Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted by an appeals court on September 4, 2020 of discrimination, in a partial legal victory for the far-right populist who leads the opposition in parliament and who is known for his anti-Islam rhetoric.
According to a news article written by Reuters’ Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch, the panel agreed with a lower court ruling from 2016 that dismissed the separate offense of inciting hatred and rejected a prosecution request that Wilders pay a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,900). However, it upheld his conviction for intentionally insulting Moroccans as a group.
Wilders is one of Europe’s most prominent far-right leaders and is polling in second place ahead of March elections. He has been a key figure in shaping the immigration debate in the Netherlands over the past decade, although he has never been in government.
“The court considers it proven that Wilders is guilty of group insult on March 19, 2014. The court will not impose any punishment or measure on him for this,” presiding judge J.M. Reinking said. “He is acquitted of the other facts.”
Moreover, in 2016 he was convicted of insulting a group and inciting discrimination. But the 56-year-old anti-Islam politician called the case a political show-trial and challenged the verdicts. He argued his comments should be protected by his right to freedom of speech.
Wilders, who has lived under constant police protection for more than a decade due to death threats, has “already paid a high price for years for expressing his opinion”, the presiding judge said. “The court cleared Wilders of ‘incitement to hatred or discrimination’ because Wilders’ intent was not aimed at encouraging his audience to do so,” the judges found.
Wilders, 56, said he would appeal the charge of ‘insulting a group’ for which he was convicted. “Of course we will appeal and we will go to the Supreme Court because the verdict and the guilty sentence are ridiculous.” “I’m very happy on the other hand that I was found innocent when it comes to charges of incitement of discrimination and hatred,“ he told journalists at the court.
Wilders, whose Freedom Party has at times topped national opinion polls, had argued he did nothing wrong, and merely expressed openly what many Dutch people think. He was convicted in 2016 of inciting discrimination at a campaign rally two years earlier, when he led supporters in asking whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the country. “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” his supporters chanted. “We’re going to take care of that,” Wilders said, smiling.
The judges in both the first trial and the appeal said Wilders had planned the remarks ahead of time, knowing they would be inflammatory and insulting to the 400,000 people of Moroccan heritage in the Netherlands. At the original trial in 2016, prosecutors took testimony from Dutch-Moroccans who said Wilders’ comments made them feel like “third-rate citizens”.
Wilders said on Twitter ahead of the verdict that his appeals trial would decide if the Netherlands had “become a corrupt banana republic where the leader of the opposition is sentenced in a political trial.” He said the judgment was being handed down at a heavily secured court near Schiphol airport “while Moroccans who set our cities on fire usually get away with it and never see the inside of a court.”
Wilders was previously prosecuted in 2011, over anti-Islam comments such as comparing the religion to Nazism and calling for a ban on the Koran. He was acquitted and the case was widely seen as giving the populist leader a publicity boost.
“Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populism’s inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise.”
In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Dogu Ergil argues that conditions are ripe for the emergence of populist leaders. Such figures take centre-stage if popular hopes are shattered and institutional fatigue weakens governmental systems. Populism may surface even in the most developed democracies when systemic fatigue takes hold and populist leaders start exploiting people’s fears, pessimism, and hopes. In general, these leaders idealize the glorious past but seldom have a solid projection of the future. Populist leaders will persist as long as the conditions require their existence, but populism has a deadline; the deadline is reality.
Scholars argue that there has been a worldwide rise in populist movements over the last decades. Some of these populist movements are defined as inclusionary, but most of them are exclusionary; all of them are fed by various ideologies and sentiments like racism, nationalism, xenophobia, souverainism, homophobia, polarization, dividing society into “us” vs “them,” creating internal and external enemies, aggravating anti-immigration sentiments, antisemitism, islamophobia, Euroscepticism, and anti-globalism, etc. Do you also see a rise in populist movements and, if so, what are the main reasons driving this phenomenon?
Populism is a political approach adopted by politicians that do not trust the “people” and popular government. They claim to be the true representatives of the people. Hence, there is no need for the involvement of the people in the political process. Instead, they can do a better job of representing the people and deciding on their behalf.
“The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them.”
Given this definition, populism and popular government are quite different in nature. Populist leaders dislike organized society. They shy away from popular participation in politics (participatory politics) that can hold them responsible for their deeds and decisions. In fact, the politics of populism is an indirect process; it may be called “proxy politics”: for the people, by the leader!
In the politics of populism, institutions, societal organizations (civil society), and organized labour (trade unions) are probable sources of opposition to and conspiracies against the populist leader, who knows and does the best for the people.
The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them. As Eric Fromm coined, this is a sort of “flight from freedom.” Masses do not feel capable enough to decide on complex issues that involve serious risks and require a certain level of expertise like economic management, security, or international affairs. This void allows populist leaders to exploit people’s trust.
Wherever you see an increase in populism, you see people who feel insecure and threatened by existing conditions. By and large, people feel excluded – like they’re on the losing side or their living standards are deteriorating. They gasp for help and hope from a source that is more powerful than themselves. At that moment, the populist leader appears at their doorstep to restore their hope and self-esteem. The slogans of populist leaders are almost identical:
“Let’s make our country great again,” or “Our strength is in our blood, history, and unique qualities,” etc.
Populist leader generally attribute greatness to the past, which has been usurped by sinister imperialist forces and their villainous internal counterparts. Reclaiming the might and glory of the past is the most attractive promise of populist leaders. For instance, in Turkey, the reconstruction of the idealized Ottoman period is almost necrophiliac; it’s as if the Empire didn’t disintegrate a century ago.
Populists seem to promise an idealized past instead of a betterfuture, which they fail to deliver. That is why the past is always gilded and more glorious in populist discourse. The masses do not question this regressive image as long as it satisfies their need for pride and hunger for self-respect.
“Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.”
Reality Overwhelms Hope
Is it correct to demonize populism in general? Isn’t there any valid pretext for emergence of populist movements when conditions avail? Furthermore, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of “the people” rather than “ruling elites” and “imposing bureaucrats.” This rhetoric intrigues people. And the record of the ruling elites so far is not so promising, all over the world.
Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.
We need to remember that “populism” is just the opposite of “popular rule.” Popular rule, in other words, “popular government,” enables people to exercise their will and be involved in the governance of daily life in a less indirect way. This may be approximately called democracy. Democracy is the best way of governance that human beings have so far invented; it’s certainly better than any other existing system.
Populist leaders propose simple answers to complicated questions. For instance, imagine a country where there is a badly run economy, an unproductive system, huge debts, rampant unemployment, dysfunctional education, negative balance of payments, and so forth: all these issues require sophisticated expertise to solve them. People do not understand or do not bother to understand the root causes and remedies of such complex issues. This is the opportune moment when a group of opportunistic politicians may emerge and propose simple answers like deporting immigrants or denying minorities basic human rights.
These simplistic answers or remedies garner support from fragile groups who feel threatened. The promise of “making things better” resonates with social classes who feel their expectations of a secure present and better future has been lost. They increasingly feel that the ailing system is inefficient, corrupt, and heartless. Populists exploit these negative feelings. Their rhetoric – to make up for past losses and to build a better future – wins the hearts and minds of the expectant people. Unfortunately, they offer no solid foundation for problem solving, instead offering only pejorative remedies.
Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populism’s inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise. The power of mobilization does not match with the success of realized hopes. Populist leaders either do not make comprehensive structural changes or fail while trying. Reality overwhelms hope and excitement. The balloon inflated by the populist leaders bursts on the surface of the sharp realities of the day.
The people are left with two choices: either to organize and be a part of the efforts to build a popular governance or join the trail of another populist leader and continue to be duped. The second way is much easier, although it does not lead to anywhere. Populist politicians sway people but do not lead them to “El Dorado.”
Well, do you see any correlation between Wallerstein’s anti-capitalist views, like the world system theory, and the rise of populist movements in Latin America?
Capitalism is prone to crisis but also has the potential to correct and upgrade itself until the next crisis. Marx predicted that the capitalist system will collapse one day, a prophecy that is not yet realized. However, Marx was right in pointing out that capitalism has innate flaws: exploitation and inequality, hence injustice. As long as there’s inequality and injustice within a system, it will sooner or later collapse or undergo dramatic changes.
Indeed, capitalism has proved resilient and undergone serious changes. It led to social democracy, a more egalitarian form of governance. With technological changes, working patterns changed along with class structure. You no longer have two antagonistic classes but many layers of the workforce that are complimentary. Tensions between them can be institutionally reconciled. These changes mitigated class struggle in industrialized countries. However, the fierceness of competition between antagonistic classes still rages in non-industrialized countries. Having said this, let me remind you that exploitation, inequality, and injustice remain unchanged in the capitalist system and these systematically hurt people. Dissatisfaction and suffering worsen at times of crisis, and [this is when] populist politicians take centre-stage.
The struggle for equality will go on forever, further improving the system and ensuring the struggle for justice will not end. Although it isn’t the collapse of the capitalist system and the realization of the ensuring revolution, as Marx predicted, multiple revolutions have occurred in science and technology. These changes altered the modes of production and politics. Rather than a big, sweeping revolution, there have been multiple revolutions, which have changed life as we know it. However, in societies which have benefitted little from improving conditions, or where existing systems experienced entropy, we have witnessed the emergence of populist movements and leaders.
How exactly do you define the interplay of populism and authoritarianism? Is it just a matter of strongman politics, or are there some other social, economic, and/or political factors?
Populist leaders can emerge anywhere, even in the most economically and/or politically developed countries. Populism raises its head when democracy and affluence decline, and pessimism is on the rise. By definition, populism is a by-product of a degenerate democracy or popular government that has enjoyed elections and elected governments.
There are also traditional autocracies, kingdoms, and emirates where democratic culture or popular government have not been developed. Political development is gradual and slow in such societies. Democratic culture doesn’t flourish where there are no individual freedoms and basic rights. We cannot talk about populism in such societies. However, we can talk about forced mobilization and ruler domination. Populism exists where individuals give up their free will for a “superior” person who they expect to be their “saviour.”
Respect for freedoms – like freedom of expression or freedom of association – are key to forming a democratic culture. It’s hard to form popular governments where democratic ideals are not institutionalized. For instance, after the Ottoman Empire, the sultanate was replaced by an authoritarian bureaucratic government that claimed to directly represent the people. In fact, “populism” was among the basic [constitutional] principles of the Turkish republic.
The leaders during the first decades of the republic were not coming from liberal backgrounds. They all relied on the unrivalled power of the state rather than rallying popular support. Only after multi-party politics was instituted (1950), did we witness the emergence of populist leaders.
“There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents.”
Populism Is Based On Conspiracies
How do you interpret the relationship between conspiracy theories and rising populism?
There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents. With regards to Turkey, economic problems are the result of a so-called “interest lobby” that manipulates Turkey’s monetary system and undermines its monetary system. There are always sinister foreign forces that want Turkey to fail and to disintegrate. Conspiracy is a substitute for failure. Populist leaders do not say that they have failed but attribute their failure to conspiracies where the culprits are external agents. Populist leaders need conspiracies; they are an integral part of their discourse.
Do you see any correlation between pessimism about the future of the world (or country or self) and the rise of populism? Do they affect each other?
Pessimism, fear, feeling of loss, but with the hope of regaining what’s lost – these are the psychological foundations of populism.
Do you think this widespread rise in populism is a permanent situation or a conjunctural phenomenon triggered by socio-political and economic problems?
Well, there are developed and undeveloped economies. There are also developed and undeveloped democracies, or put in different words, developed and undeveloped political institutional edifices. But all of these can be shattered by an economic (market collapse) or political crisis (i.e. war). Affluent economies can disintegrate, and people may fall into poverty. Germany for instance, at the end of the World War I, was destabilized and this industrial power had become a poor country. Or on the other hand, an exemplary political system, such as the United States, fell into such political disenchantment that Mr. Trump emerged triumphant from the 2016 elections. Many commentators have stipulated that the “American Dream” has come to an end, and people were reacting by supporting a populist politician, namely Mr. Trump. Trump called for the rejection of the established system and proposed his own “wisdom” as its replacement.
The U.S. example suggests that a rich and productive economy and an established constitutional democracy may fall into entropy, allowing the emergence of populist leaders.
Do you think populism is related to political culture? Is it possible that it wins general approval in some societies and is refused in others?
Not really. A particular political culture may resist the lure of populism, if its politico-economic system works smoothly, meaning if it sustains a satisfying living standard, political representation, and responsive government. However, a systemic crisis in the institutional structure may lead to the attrition of hopes and confidence. Then, the rise of populist movements cannot be prevented. Just look at post WWI Germany, which once produced the greatest philosophers, scientists, and artists that the world had ever seen; it turned into a country where racism, chauvinism, and expansionism prevailed. When the good declines, the bad emerges. Opportunistic leaders feed on dead hopes, fears, and self-humiliation.
“People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities.”
Does provoking fear among the masses – or in other terms, a politics of fear / a politics of (in)security – pave the way for populist movements?
People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities. Every single populist leader in Turkey played on these fears rather than finding solutions that could eradicate them.
Another fear common among Turks is being denigrated and losing respect in the international arena. When somebody – be it a political leader or a nongovernmental organization or a think tank – says something critical about Turkey, then the Turkish people feel offended. They demonstrate on the streets for days. This is a result of a lack of confidence. Just remember the Russian plane incident: when a Turkish Air Force F16 fighter jet shot down a Russian attack aircraft near the Turkish-Syria border on 24 November 2015, Turkish leaders boldly said that “we did it.” But later, when they began to experience the brunt of Russian retaliation against Turkey, they back tracked. They went to Moscow and almost begged for reconciliation.
Their first reaction was for internal consumption. Their second reaction was an act of repairing the damage done in the international arena; it was far from boasting. In this case, populism is sort of an internal propaganda process to polish up the image of the regime and the leadership.
“Kurdishness As An anomaly”
Considering the political Islamist hegemony and the prevalence of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, how do you see the relationship between “religion and populism” as well as “religion and nationalism” in terms of the authoritarian populist discourse?
Turkish nationalism is an ethnic ideology that excludes all other nationalities other than Turks. It is a reductionist political ideology, which does not incorporate all the citizens of Turkey.
As for the religious perceptions of Turkish society, we could state that the political Islamist ideology looks at society as an ummah (a union of believers) and refers to all existing congregations as the nuances of the whole. Political Islam expects people to behave as part of the larger ummah. When one emphasizes his/her ethnic identity and exacerbates it, nationalism and religious identity exhibit an uncomfortable co-existence, each identity claiming the upper hand. However, when it comes to the Kurdish “question,” nationalism and religion concur on the suspicion and exclusion of the Kurds.
The nationalists and the political Islamists leave aside their differences and agree that Kurdishness is an anomaly. Kurds are excluded from every single equation at the national political level.
In both the nationalist and religious rhetoric, Kurds are either “our brothers and sisters,” not a distinct identity group, or an alien existence that should be kept under control. This is an enormous contradiction in terms of the “national solidarity” that is so exalted.
There’s no problem in nature; there are facts and realities. Kurds are a fact. Just as any fact that is not perceived and managed properly, they have turned into a problem. Turkey has created a “Kurdish problem,” which it does not know how to handle.
Who is Dogu Ergil?
Dogu Ergil has served as a professor of political sociology at various universities in Turkey and in the US. He has been a visiting scholar in various universities in the US, Britain and Sweden. Mr. Ergil was chairman of the Department of Political Behaviour at the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University until late-2000s.
Ergil has earned his BA degree in Turkey; MA and Ph.D. degrees in the US. He worked on political inclinations, ethnic relations, political parties and political violence. He accomplished the first research on political violence in Turkey, which was consummated in a book called ‘Social and Cultural Roots of Political Violence in Turkey’ in 1980, based on interviews in the prison system, on right-wing and left-wing militants. He completed his seminal research ‘The Eastern Question’ in 1995, offering peaceful social conflict resolution methods rather than ongoing violent police and military tactics.
Ergil has worked with various NGOs on developing more effective leadership, conflict management, and creative problem-solving. He has won awards for his work in international organizations promoting peace and democracy. He has authored 28 books, published a sheer number of academic articles and book chapters.
Kenes, Bulent. (2020). “Rupert Murdoch: A Populist Emperor of the Fourth Estate.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 22, 2020. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0004
Rupert Murdoch is probably the most controversial media figure in the world. His career, journalism, and political involvements have been a frequent source of controversy. There are a number of book-length biographies about Murdoch and his role as the world’s most influential and populist media mogul.
Both his enemies and friends paint him as an almost supernatural figure. In their eyes, he is “the Supreme Satan” or “Dracula” or the “Prince of Darkness” (Cooke, 2018); others call him the “media’s demon king” (Arsenault & Castells, 2008) or “a Sun King” (Neil, 1996); to some he is simply “an arrogant cancer” (Kwai, 2020). Rupert Murdoch stands out as the archetypal media mogul. He has been heralded as the living embodiment of Charles Foster Kane and “the global village’s de facto communications minister”(Farhi, 1997; Low, 1998).
Political pundits, politicians, and anti-conglomeration activists present Murdoch’s Goliath-like status as paradigmatic (Arsenault & Castells, 2008). Characterized as a relentless and formidable businessman by many of his biographers (Chenoweth, 2001; Dover, 2008; Page, 2003; Shawcross, 1993), Murdoch is probably the most controversial media proprietor in the world. His career, journalism, and political involvements have been a frequent source of controversy. There are a number of book-length biographies about Murdoch as the world’s most influential and populist media mogul. He is also the central figure in several other books concentrated on his business dealings, his politics, or his involvement in scandals.
Murdoch has instituted what The Nation dubbed the “four S” model of journalism – “scare headlines, sex, scandal, and sensation” – across nearly every major acquisition that he has made over his career (Pasadeos and Renfro, 1997: 33). The Economist labels Murdoch the “inventor of the modern tabloid” (The Economist, 2011), and it’s true he developed and followed a pattern for his newspapers – namely by increasing the coverage of sports, sex, and scandal, leading to sensationalist, eye-catching headlines. For many, Murdoch’s success has resulted in the dumbing-down of the media, with quality entertainment and journalism replaced by mindless vulgarity (Walker, 2002).Murdoch’s tenure has been marked by an exception disregard for social graces. “I’m quite ashamed,” he said. “I enjoy popular journalism. I must say I enjoy it more than what you would call quality journalism.” But he was never really ashamed at all(Cooke, 2018).
As a controversial figure, Murdoch’s initial success was built on his achievements as a newspaper publisher. His newspapers have also been among the most controversial. The controversies initially arose when his tabloid papers pushed the boundaries of public and professional acceptability; soon, the controversies surrounded his papers becoming vehicles for promoting his favoured political candidates – specifically, right-wing populists (McKnight, 2010).
Rupert Murdoch was born on March 11, 1931, the second of four children and the only son of Keith (b. 1885) and Elisabeth (b. 1909). While Keith died at sixty-seven, Elisabeth lived to be 103, dying in 2012. Keith gained fame by evading military censors to report on the slaughter of his countrymen during the British-led Gallipoli campaign of World War I. He leveraged that fame to become a powerful executive at the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times news company, a position that he in turn used to punish his enemies and reward his allies (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).Soon he built up a network of Australian media holdings, acquiring several existing tabloids publications in take-over bids (Serle, 1986). Over the next two decades he bought shares in existing media operations and was chair and manager of the Telegraph and Herald (Moores, 2005, p57).
Keith Murdoch amalgamated many existing media companies to form publications such as the Courier-Mail and subsequently monopolised the local press in several regions (Scottney-Turbill, 2012). But henever built a true media empire. Keith did own two regional newspapers, one of which had to be sold to pay off his death duties when he died suddenly in 1952. That left only the 75,000-circulation News of Adelaide for his 21-year-old son. But Rupert Murdoch had already received something much more “valuable” from his father: an extended tutorial in how to use media holdings to extract favours from politicians(Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Rupert studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Worcester College, Oxford, in England. He kept a bust of Lenin in his rooms and came to be known as “Red Rupe.” Such tales are supposed to show the extremity of his evolution: from undergraduate Marxist in the Labour Club to a union-breaker and Thatcherite-in-chief (Cooke, 2018). Although he never seemed to hold a coherent set of political beliefs in his worldview, Murdoch’s early inclinations were to identify with the underdog and to be anti-establishment.
Rupert’s first order of business after he gained control of his father’s media operations was to establish a proper Murdoch-owned empire in Australia. After buying additional local papers, he founded the country’s first national general-interest newspaper, The Australian, which gave him a powerful platform that he used to help elect governments that eased national regulations designed to limit the size of media companies. He would eventually take control of nearly two-thirds of the national newspaper market (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Murdoch has built his empire in many stages. He became a national figure in Australian newspapers in the 1960s. During the 1970s, his News Limited grew to encompass many international holdings. In the early 70s, he published sensation London tabloids; in 1973 Murdoch made a successful bid to purchase three Texas publications (Funding Universe, 2011, p1). This was followed by the acquisition of The New YorkPost three years later (Marijorbanks, 2000, p3). This not only marked News Limited’s entry into the American market, but also highlighted Murdoch’s growing interest in the US and in international expansion. Murdoch had his sights set on the creation of a global empire (Winseck, 2008, p1-5).
News Corporation (NewsCorp), the organisation at the head of the Murdoch Empire, was established in 1979 as holding company for the investments of News Limited and its international subsidiaries (Funding Universe, 2006, p1). Through News Limited, News Corporation, and other holdings, Murdoch has taken his cross-media ventures into commercial and pay-tv markets, also acquiring a long list of commercial business enterprises (Harding-Smith, 2011, p1-14; Funding Universe, 2006, p2). His purchase of the Times and Sunday Times in the UK happened in the early 1980s. His entry into US television and film also took place in the 1980s, and his solidified his unprecedented dominance of Australian newspapers in the late 80s. In the 1990s, he expanded to satellite TV, especially in Asia and Britain.
In 1993, he purchased Star TV, a pan-Asian television service based in Hong Kong, as part of his plan to build a global television network (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020). Thussu (2007) argues that Star’s entry into the Indian television market engendered a “Murdochization” of news that transformed the country’s media industry (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).The network has steadily grown in terms of viewing numbers. Its success, based on brazen right-wing propaganda, may encourage Star News to pursue an even more pronounced populist news agenda in the future (Thussu, 2007).
Murdoch developed ties to politicians across the globe so that they would support him, even as he supported them. Elected officials have known that their rise or fall is in part dependent on him. Efforts to understand Murdoch’s media universe are often compared to Kremlinology.
Murdoch founded Fox News in 1996, and he acquired Dow Jones and Company (The Wall Street Journal) in 2010. Each of these developments was attended by controversy and conflict. His cross-media ownership has extended into numerous geographical areas, including the aforementioned India and numerous South Pacific regions (Winseck, 2008, p1-5). This has placed Murdoch and his media in a position of great influence and control. The three main countries he plays a significant role in are Australia, the UK, and the US. In these democracies, presidents and prime ministers come and go, but Murdoch remains (Grynbaum, 2020). His power has been more lasting than any political power: during his career, he has enjoyed access to nine US presidents, nine British prime ministers, and nine Australian prime ministers (Cooke, 2018).
Murdoch’s pan-Asian network Star (Satellite Television Asian Region) has transformed TV news and entertainment in India, as elsewhere in Asia.By 2005, Star was broadcasting “over 50 television services in seven languages to more than 300 million viewers across 53 Asian countries” and claimed a daily viewership of some 100 million (Thussu, 2007).
Murdoch developed ties to politicians across the globe so that they would support him, even as he supported them. Elected officials from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, from Tony Blair to David Cameron, have known that their rise or fall is in part dependent on him (Galloway, 2018: 103). People not only respect Murdoch but are also afraid of him. Therefore, efforts to understand Murdoch’s media universe are often compared to Kremlinology (Grynbaum, 2020).
The biographers and critics of Murdoch have generally emphasised his business activity as his overriding and even sole motivation (McKnight, 2010). To them, Murdoch is a businessman who is ultimately more interested in profit than politics (Fallows, 2003) and his interest in politics is to a large extent directly related to his ability to conduct business (Gershon, 1997). Accordingly, Murdoch’s political affiliations move swiftly in accordance, not with political ideology but with NewsCorp’s bottom line (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).The bigger Murdoch’s empire became, the more power he consolidated to clear away obstacles to its further expansion (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who in 2011 broke the New International phone hacking scandal – wherein it was revealed Murdoch employees hacked the phones of British celebrities, politicians, and royalty – wrote in his book Hack Attack that Murdoch’s use of power is far subtler than outsiders imagine. “He may be a highly political animal, they say – obsessed with the details of life in the corridors of power and personally possessed of some extremely right-wing opinions – but what he most wants from politicians is favours for his business. He’ll betray his own principles, he’ll embrace politicians for whom he has very little respect, just as long as they have the power to help the company get bigger” (Davies, 2018c).Surprisingly,Murdoch has endorsed such a view of his own devotion to profits before politics (Shawcross, 1992:302).
In practice, Murdoch and NewsCorp have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades in advancing political goals by propping up newspapers that are financial losers, inter aliaThe New YorkPost (Auletta, 1995:86) and The LondonTimes. The Times runs at a great annual loss, which is subsidised by its profitable sister paper the Sunday Times. The national daily in his country of birth, The Australian, also lost money for its first 20 years and even today does not always make a profit (Stecklow et al, 2007).
Murdoch argues that the reason for these subsidies is because he supports competition and choice for readers. But it is widely believed that the real reason lies in Murdoch’s desire for political influence (McKnight, 2010). He sees the news media as being more than merely a commercial enterprise (Chenoweth, 2001; Neil, 1996; Page, 2003; Shawcross, 1993; Wolff, 2008). He recognises their significance as cultural engines capable of both interpreting and shaping reality. To date, Murdoch has shown no trepidation in the use of this power (Hobbs, 2010). McKnight’s (2010) historical analysis argues that NewsCorp is unique among media conglomerates in its commitment to Murdoch’s ideological beliefs, providing evidence that Murdoch is willing to let some of his newspapers lose great sums of money in the service of the promotion of his beliefs(Wagner, 2014).
It is no doubt that Murdoch is not merely a businessman who happens to court politicians for regulatory quid pro quo; rather, Murdoch is, in the words of a former executive of News Corporation, “a frustrated politician … [who] can’t leave politics alone” (McKnight, 2003: 348). This is not to claim, however, that Murdoch’s politics are always clear or that his behaviour is dogmatically determined by his ideological proclivities. He has learnt when to restrain his natural right-wing political leanings in order to safeguard his financial interests, as evidenced by his endorsement of Tony Blair’s New Labour (Street, 2001: 133-139) along with his wooing of China’s communist party (Curtin, 2005).
The most frequently cited evidence that Murdoch puts profit before political beliefs was his newspapers’ support in 1997 of the election of Blair. This move is offered as proof of his political pragmatism and preparedness to discard his previous support for the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. Against such views, it is equally arguable that Murdoch’s support for Blair simply recognised that the political centre in Britain had moved towards a new Thatcherite consensus, which Labour Party shared. Namely, rather than Murdoch shifting to support Labour, Labour had shifted to win his (and others) support. Indeed, it could be argued that Murdoch’s news media helped create the shift to the new consensus and hence assisted the convergence of political parties (McKnight, 2010). Despite Murdoch occasionally shifting his allegiances between politicians and parties, he has shown remarkable consistency regarding his support for right-wing ideologies.
As Castells (2007) argues, power relationships are largely defined within the space of communication in a network society. This means that global media groups are key social actors because they help to shape the social world by exerting control over issue-framing and information gatekeeping (Bagdikian, 2004). These organizations play dual roles. They are not only corporate and media actors in their own right, but they control a disproportionate number of communication delivery platforms that constitute the space in which power – whether it is political, economic or social – is articulated (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Murdoch’s power is augmented by his ability to act as what Castells (2004)conceptualized as a ‘switcher’, or a connection point between political, economic and media networks that facilitates their cooperation by programming common goals and resources. To paraphrase Lord Palmerston’s description of 19th-century Britain, Murdoch’s empire has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only permanent interests (Cassidy, 2006).
In this framework, the Murdoch/NewsCorp business model is founded on three broad strategies: (1) vertical control and horizontal networking, (2) ruthless pursuit of market expansion, and (3) the leveraging of public and political-elite opinion. These components are interrelated, mutually constitutive, and predicated on the ability of Murdoch via NewsCorp to serve as a switching point, connecting media, political, and economic networks in the shared project of the company’s financial expansion (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).Thus,“Murdoch has become a cancer – an arrogant cancer on democracy” in the words of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, by monopolizing or affecting the characteristics of media power in many parts of the world (Cottle, 2003, p21).
A Keen Supporter of Right-Wing Ideologies and Populism
According to McKnight & Hobbs (2011),Murdoch’s international media empire has an historical tendency to support right-wing ideologies and to promote some radically conservative ideas, with key executive staff and occasional editorial interventions used to create a partisan pattern of media content. Significant parts of his international media conglomerate constitute what might be labelled a “multi-state ideological apparatus” (Althusser, 1971). In this sense, what distinguishes NewsCorp from its rivals is the fact that it is the only media conglomerate created, built, and dominated by the vision and tenacity of one individual (Page, 2003). As Robert McChesney has noted: “More than any other figure, Murdoch has been the visionary of a global corporate media empire” (McChesney, 1999: 96). When Murdoch took control of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in 2007, Bill Moyers writing on AlterNet.org that he “is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity. When it comes to money and power, he’s carnivorous: all appetite and no taste. He’ll eat anything in his path” (Wagner, 2014).
Murdoch’s vertical control allows NewsCorp to function as a more targeted political weapon in comparison to its peers. This political leverage facilitates NewsCorp’s ability to expand its holdings through the granting of regulatory favours, leading to larger audience shares, which in turn expands its political clout, creating a cycle of influence.
Over the decades, Murdoch’s NewsCorp became the world’s largest media conglomerate, with its diverse cultural products consumed in over 100 countries across six continents (News Corporation, 2008:1-11). NewsCorp has enfolded within its operations film production and distribution, television production and broadcasting, advertising, newspaper and magazine publishing, book publishing, football teams and other sports teams, multimedia, information technology, and music publishing. Among NewsCorp’s assets were the US Fox Broadcasting network, the Twentieth Century Fox film studio, the book publisher HarperCollins, the online social network MySpace, over 175 newspaper titles in the UK, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the US, and satellite television networks in Italy, Asia, and Britain (Finkelstein, 2007).As of October 2007, NewsCorp also owned more than 1,445 subsidiaries in over 50 countries (NewsCorp, 2007).This complex ownership structure, even when compared to other multimedia corporations, has been another one of NewsCorp’s key strengths (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).
Murdoch and NewsCorp use key operational strategies such as political brokering, leveraging public opinion, sensationalist news headlines, customizing media content, and diversifying and adapting media holdings in the face of technological and regulatory changes to penetrate new markets and expand audience share (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).Murdoch’s strategy of global expansion is also premised on the creation of mutually advantageous synergies between different media sectors (Flew & Gilmour, 2003). He reportedly seeks to exploit “vertical integration” to control the various links in the media supply chain, from production to distribution, while expanding “horizontally” across different media formats and sectors, thereby creating cross-promotional opportunities and “spin-off” products (Flew & Gilmour, 2003; Hobbs, 2009).
Of course, Murdoch does not directly control every editorial aspect of his vast network of news media (Neil, 1996:164). According to Andrew Neil, whom Murdoch appointed to edit one of his newspapers in 1983, Murdoch’s editorial power is generally more subtle, in that he: (1) employs editors who broadly agree with his political beliefs; (2) favours staff, or “courtiers,” who reaffirm his social and economic views; and (3) makes his political values regularly known to editorial and managerial staff (Shawcross, 1993; Page, 2003). Murdoch’s corporate control facilitates and is facilitated by his ability to intervene in the editorial policies of his vast holdings (Barr, 2000). A February 2003 Guardian survey found that all 175 NewsCorp-controlled newspapers mimicked Murdoch’s support for the invasion of Iraq, George Bush, and Tony Blair – and were equally derisive of anti-war protestors (Greenslade, 2003).
Meanwhile, Murdoch’s vertical control allows NewsCorp to function as a more targeted political weapon in comparison to its peers. This political leverage facilitates NewsCorp’s ability to expand its holdings through the granting of regulatory favours, leading to larger audience shares, which in turn expands its political clout, creating a cycle of influence (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).Despite business and economics – not ideology and partisanship – providing the central unifying theme of Murdoch’s political agenda (Baker, 1998; Fallows, 2003), the perception that Murdoch, via his editorial control over his properties, wields disproportionate control over public opinion provides him with considerable political leverage(Arsenault & Castells, 2008).
It was Neil (1996) who first gave Murdoch one of his most durable nicknames – the Sun King. It remains one of the most indelible descriptions of Murdoch. In his book Full Disclosure, he wrote: “When you work for Rupert Murdoch you do not work for a company chairman or chief executive: you work for a Sun King. You are not a director or a manager or an editor: you are a courtier at the court of the Sun King … All life revolves around the Sun King: all authority comes from him. He is the only one to whom allegiance must be owed and he expects his remit to run everywhere, his word to be final. There are no other references but him. He is the only benchmark and anybody of importance reports direct to him. Normal management structures – all the traditional lines of authority, communication and decision-taking in the modern business corporation – do not matter. The Sun King is all that matters,”(Cooke, 2018).
Rupert Murdoch has been married four times and has six children. His first wife was Patricia Booker, and they had one daughter, Prudence (b. 1958), before they divorced in the mid-1960s. Murdoch married Anna Torv in 1968, and they had three children (Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James). They were divorced in 1999. Murdoch then married Wendi Deng, and they had two children, Grace and Chloe, before the couple divorced. Finally, in 2016, he married Jerry Hall, actress and model, and former partner of Mick Jagger.
Murdoch’s Long Trajectory From Leftism to Right-Wing Populism
A widely accepted view of Murdoch’s political evolution is one beginning with youthful leftism and eventually moving across the spectrum to the conservative right. However, it would be more correct to say that the trajectory followed by Murdoch started with an Australian nationalist position, often expressed as opposition to the “British Establishment” (Shawcross, 1992: 66-7; Regan, 1976: 98-9). This was combined with a degree of social libertarianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But from the late 1970s on, Murdoch has endorsed more conservative causes, just as conservative political thought was poised to shift toward economic libertarianism (McKnight, 2003).
Murdoch’s political worldview became more stable, internally consistent, and far more to the right over time. He became much more hawkish on defence issues. Save defence, though, he has favoured smaller government and reduced taxes. Over the long course of his career, he moved from being an enthusiast for political involvement and a supplicant to politicians, to becoming an established source of patronage who expected politicians to court him (McKnight, 2010).
This “courting” has led to questions about the independence of his media outlets. But asking whether Fox News is an arm of the Trump White House risks missing the larger picture. It may be more accurate to say that the White House — just like the prime ministers’ offices in Britain and Australia — is just one tool among many that Murdoch uses to exert influence over world events. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said in an interview with “Nightline.” “And now we’re discovering we work for Fox” (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
McKnight argues that Murdoch led the way in establishing a transatlantic “bridge” or platform for ideas to be exchanged between Britain and the US during the Reagan-Thatcher years. The flow of traffic across the bridge was largely one-way, with the Sunday Times importing into the UK a “local variant” of Reagan’s “conservative populism” in the form of “market populism.” This approach “championed a view of economic markets which saw them as the friend of the ordinary people and which damned critics of markets as ‘establishments’ and ‘elites’” (Daddow, 2012).
The populism articulated by Murdoch’s media outlets has a distinctive quality thanks to its belief in the virtues of free markets, deregulation, and privatisation. When combined, these elements form what has been called “market populism” (McKnight, 2010). This amounts to a view that economic markets “expressed the popular will more articulately and more meaningfully than did mere elections” (Frank, 2002: XIV). It has been argued the decline of the working class-based Left has been matched by the rise of the rhetorical stance of market populism and anti-elitism on the Right – essentially to garner the support of blue collar workers for conservatism (Frank, 2004).
Just two years after Murdoch bought the Sunday Times it had become “a hard line paper of the Right” on foreign policy and industrial relations, according to Young (1984). Murdoch’s influence in promoting the Thatcherite stance of the Sunday Times was confirmed by Neil. According to him, “Rupert expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain … the resulting potage is a radical-right dose of free market economics, the social agenda of the Christian Moral Majority and hard-line conservative views on subjects like drugs, abortion, law and order and defence” (Neil, 1996: 165).
The Murdoch empire did not cause the right-wing populist wave, but it enabled it, promoted it, and profited from it. His media has helped elevate marginal demagogues and mainstream ethno-nationalism and politicized the very notion of truth. It may not have been Murdoch’s mission to destabilize democracies, but that has been his most consequential legacy.
“I don’t know that my views are as right wing as they’re painted to be,” Murdoch once said, but Neil countered that his former boss is much more right wing than he first appears. Perhaps what Murdoch means is that he is a social moderate: years ago, he dabbled with the candidacy of the televangelist Pat Robertson, but now cultivates only a garden-variety homophobia, which he has the sense to keep quiet about. “I’m considered homophobic and crazy about these things and old-fashioned” was his take on same-sex marriage. When Watergate happened, Murdoch’s response – pumping ideological fear – broke with the rest of the journalistic class. “The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon,” he said, “but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West” (Cooke, 2018).
An Immigrant Nationalist And Multi-Billionaire Outsider
As an immigrant stoking nationalism, a billionaire championing populism (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019) – Murdoch and his global media empire have promoted right-wing politics, stoked reactionary populism (Stack, 2019), andhelped reshape democratic governments (Kwai, 2020) across the globe. The “Murdochization” of media (and even politics) characterizes a “process which involves the shift of media power from the public to privately owned transnational multimedia corporations controlling both delivery systems and the content of global information networks” (Thussu, 1998: 7).
Of course,the Murdoch empire did not cause the right-wing populist wave – but it enabled it, promoted it, and profited from it. Murdoch’s media outlets have helped elevate marginal demagogues and mainstream ethno-nationalism, while also politicizing the very notion of truth. It may not have been Murdoch’s mission to destabilize democracies, but that has been his most consequential legacy (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Murdoch’s populism distinguished itself not so much by the way it encouraged his readers and viewers to kick down against immigrants, homosexuals, and minorities, but by how it encouraged them to kick up. It drew upon the New Class concept developed by conservative intellectuals such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, etc in response to the emergence of a white-collar elite, identifiable by its cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and liberalism – all notions that are antithetical to nationalists (Sparrow, 2011).
Although Murdoch, his immediate family, and his executives are elite by any measure of the word, his targets both nationally and internationally are the nefarious, cosmopolitan, and multicultural “elites.” Anyway, it makes sense, according to Cooke, when one takes the weird Murdochian understanding into consideration: “A wealthy lawyer would never be described as elitist unless they work in human rights. Fighting racism is the real racism. Fighting sexism is the real sexism. Fighting elitism is the real elitism. A multinational media company is not globalist though, because Murdoch believes in sovereignty. Particularly his own” (Cooke, 2018).
On the other hand, Hendrikse and Fernandez argue that the rise of right-wing populism is closely linked to the growth of offshore finance and global oligarchs like Murdoch. These oligarchs are driving populist agitation despite right-wing populists around the world claiming that they must protect their nation from exploitative global elites (Hendrikse & Fernandez, 2019). According to the authors, right-wing populists are actually serving the interests of oligarchic billionaires. Right-wing populists tend to say “yes” to free finance and free trade, but “no” to free migration, democracy, multilateralism, and human equality – a worldview that almost perfectly aligns with the political goals of oligarchs like Murdoch. The super-rich are indeed using populist forces and deliberately manipulating nationalist sentiments. In the meantime, global media barons, of whom Murdoch is probably the most prominent, have supplemented “neoliberal narratives with nativist venom, selling the virtues of patriotism while themselves living as true ‘citizens of nowhere’” (Dembowski, 2019).
Akey to understanding the worldview that distinguishes Murdoch and NewsCorp is the recurring notion that a powerful elite promotes left-wing ideas and liberalism. Most commonly, this is expressed through the phase “the liberal elite” and references to an “intellectual establishment.” In this worldview, the elites are a group of people whose ideas are so powerful that they oppress the rest of society. More specifically, liberal elites are politically correct, and they have captured government, mass media, and higher education. Their ideas on culture and politics dominate society at large. In this discursive framework, the attacks on the elite by editorials and columnists in Murdoch’s newspapers are seen as legitimate protests from an oppressed and marginalised group struggling against this domination (McKnight, 2010).
With this understanding, Murdoch seeks to portray himself as an “outsider and friend of the ordinary, of the people, continually battling away against the vested interests” (Du Gay, 2008: 83). This stance is evident especially in Murdoch’s newspapers in both Britain and Australia. This was the case with the Sunday Times in the 1980s and early 1990s, which articulated an “anti-establishment” view combined with a free market orthodoxy (McKnight, 2009). In a study of Murdoch’s newspapers in Australia, a consistent anti-elite market populism appeared among editorials and leading columnists. Murdoch’s easy transition to the side of capital, shedding his undergraduate state socialism in the process, glosses over something more fundamental. According to Cooke (2018), he has never stopped being a Leninist, at least in the sense of wanting to destroy the contemporary establishment.
Cooke explains the psychological explanation for this is rooted in “Murdoch’s status as a perpetual outsider.” At Geelong Grammar, he was the son of a press baron, not the offspring of landed gentry, and was bullied accordingly. He was a colonial in Great Britain, and a man of initiative in the stuffy languor of Menzies’ Australia. In the US, he was a foreigner trying to do business in New York City with no connections and a newspaper proprietor who did not share America’s sacral view of the press. He hated all of these incumbent attitudes and not only sought revenge on them but also saw them as opportunities for arbitrage (Cooke, 2018).
The ur-establishment Murdoch set himself against, the template for all the others, was Establishment Britain after the Second World War. He encountered it twice, first in 1950 as a student at Oxford, then again when he started his British newspaper empire, beginning with the purchase of the News of the World in 1969 (Cooke, 2018). When Murdoch entered the British newspaper market, London society shunned him and his vulgar tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World, which he used to wound his enemies and advance his political interests. (Chozick, 2017). In Australia, the Murdochs were unusual among establishment families for their Anglophobia, and Rupert reserved special hostility for English snobbery. The hostility was reciprocated – at Oxford, a magazine described him as a “brilliant betting man with the individual Billingsgate touch,” a reference to the coarse, working-class fish market known for its foul language (Cooke, 2018).
An Anti-Elitist Elite
Due to his outsider status, Murdoch and his media empire can take an anti-elitist stance despite Murdoch himself being an elite. It is no problem that anti-elitism is historically associated with the poor and the trade unions, which have long railed against the power of money and privilege. In terms of political theory, the name for this resistance to the domination of elites is populism (Canovan, 1981). Once a progressive force associated with the Left until the middle of the 20th century, populism has more recently been identified as part of a conservative resurgence that connected Republican politicians such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to working class voters (Perlstein, 2008: 277). The identification of populism as a key part of the successful coalition behind Reagan was made by several commentators who articulated its characteristic elements as framing opponents as “elites” and advocating for small government (Federici, 1991: 61-71).
Murdoch and his media empire are fiercely dedicated to a political project that will eliminate trade unions, abolish and/or commercialize public education, increase economic inequality and the power of billionaires and big business, ignore and aggravate the environmental crisis, promote endless wars and militarism, corrupt the judicial system…
Murdoch and his media empire are fiercely dedicated to a political project that will eliminate trade unions, abolish and/or commercialize public education, increase economic inequality and the power of billionaires and big business, ignore and aggravate the environmental crisis that threatens human existence, promote endless wars and militarism, advocate for governance by and for the rich, corrupt the judicial system, and protect elections that go to the highest (anonymous) bidders. Above all, Murdoch champions the elimination of independent journalism. All the institutions that make for a credible modern democracy are in his crosshairs (McChesney, 2014).
In terms of Murdoch’s media background, populist anti-elitism is a natural fit for the segment of his tabloid formula claiming to protect the interests of ordinary people. In 1977, after his takeover of The New YorkPost and New YorkMagazine, he railed against elitist journalism (McKnight, 2010): “A press that fails to interest the whole community is one that will ultimately become the house organ of the elite” (Shawcross, 1991:186). Twenty-seven years later, in defence of Fox News and The New YorkPost, Murdoch repeated this rationale: “The traditional media in this country is in tune with the elite, not the people … That is why we’re not liked by the traditional media. That’s not us” (Strupp, 2004).
Similarly, “The Sun has no party politics,” ran a front-page manifesto in its first week proper under Murdoch management: “The Sun is a radical newspaper. We are not going to bow to the establishment in any of its privileged enclaves. Ever.” Funny, hypocritical, racist, jingoist, homophobic, and leering, and with a new disdain for the royal family generally and their privacy in particular, together The Sun and the News of the World transformed the UK – and in the process degraded it. It was the ultimate form of colonial revenge. Britain, not Australia, Murdoch seemed to say, was the crass and ugly place, with the coarse and common people with the insatiably lurid tastes. Just look at its press. Christopher Hitchens called the process “the replacement of gutter journalism by sewer journalism.” Cooke says instead of repudiating this sort of charge, Murdoch and his employees revelled in it (Cooke, 2018).
In addition, criticisms of the “liberal media” motivate Murdoch’s media entities. It was this motivation that drove him to establish Fox News. Murdoch had long accused CNN of being “too liberal,” and the future head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, promised to “restore objectivity [to news media]” (Collins, 2004: 24). Criticism of the liberal media has been a regular feature in comments by Fox News hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Moreover, Fox News carries a regular program, Fox News Watch, which criticises media coverage. Such criticisms are weighted towards discovering “liberal bias” in what it refers to as “the mainstream media” (McKnight, 2010).
Further, Murdoch personally criticised The New YorkTimes for its liberal agenda: “I think that Arthur Sulzberger, over the years, has made it very clear that he wants a very liberal paper, and that he wants a staff that reflects that community. For five years, he didn’t want any white heterosexual men hired” (Esquire, 2008). According to the accounts of former employees, Murdoch’s NewsCorp has a distinctive culture that totally fits with right-wing populism’s tenets: tribal, aggressive, and centred around powerful editors. A former NewsCorp insider described it as an aggressive, masculine culture – although there are also women in NewsCorp’s executive and editorial ranks. The culture of NewsCorp has also been described by some past executives and former staff as “bullying” and “vindictive” (Davies, 2018b).
According to McKnight (2010), remarks targeting the liberal media elite not only reveal Murdoch’s long-standing political views; they also constitute a business model. They resonate with the latent and widespread public scepticism toward “the media,” and thus distinguish NewsCorp from its commercial competitors. In Australia and Britain, attacks on the “liberal media” take the form of attacks on the public broadcasters, the BBC which Murdoch blamed on “the narrow elite [who] controls it” and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) (Evans, 1989). When Murdoch launched Sky Television, his barely hid his intent to compete with the BBC, which stood in the way of a privatised broadcasting system, part of which Murdoch wanted to own. Columnists in The Sun and The Times attacked the BBC for its perceived “left wing” bias and elitism. The news programs of the ABC are also “guilty of a consistent left-liberal slant,” according to Murdoch’s Australian newspaper (McKnight, 2003).
Another distinctive feature of Murdoch’s media is that his entities hold long-standing policies towards major matters (e.g. the Iraq war and global warming) of public interest and campaign for these policies (McKnight, 2010). The sole instance of a dissident view on Iraq within the editorials of a News Corporation newspaper occurred in the Mercury, a newspaper on the island state of Tasmania, in Australia. In September 2002, an editorial argued that it “would be wrong for the US to pre-emptively attack Iraq. It would be wrong for Australia to ride shotgun to any unilateral US assault on the hated regime of Saddam Hussein” (Hobart Mercury, 2002). After a written directive from company headquarters, the newspaper’s stance changed dramatically (Manne, 2005:76). By early 2003, its editorials spoke in terms of Saddam’s “barbarism” and argued that Australia was compelled to contribute troops to an attack (Hobart Mercury, 2003). Meanwhile, when Murdoch announced a change in News Corporation’s policy on climate change in May 2007 and warned that it posed “clear catastrophic threats” to the world (Nason, 2007), The Sun immediately announced that “[t]oo many of us have spent too long in denial over the threat from global warming” (The Sun, 2006).
Murdoch’s biggest publishing house, HarperCollins, has functioned in parallel with his media outlets.McKnight & Hobbs (2011) suggest four elements of taxonomy of conservative books published by HarperCollins. First, the nurturing of the conservative and Republican political culture, especially its history and heroes; second, books arising from specific ideological campaigns fostered by the conservative movement in the US over the last 20 years; third, books institutionally linked to other conservative NewsCorp media outlets such as the journal the Weekly Standard and the cable TV channel, Fox News; and, fourth, a number of books reflecting the ideological enthusiasms of Murdoch himself (McKnight & Hobbs, 2011). Despite his guarantees of editorial independence, HarperCollins, much like the other assets of NewsCorp, operates in accordance with the wishes of Murdoch, and appears to reflect his beliefs and political values (Belfield et al., 1991:242).
Another concrete expression of Murdoch’s exercise of influence on right-wing politics has been the systematic links between himself, his media outlets, and several conservative think tanks in the US, Britain, and Australia. Murdoch has been on the board of three conservative think tanks (McKnight, 2010). The first was the Hoover Institution, in 1987-88, during the high tide of Reaganism. In Australia, Murdoch joined the advisory council of the conservative Institute for Public Affairs, and he was also a generous donor to the same body (Burton, 2007:107). In 1997, he joined the board of the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, set up by the owner of the largest private oil company in the US. At the time, the Cato Institute was running an active campaign of climate change denial. No think tank from the left or centre has any kind of relationship with either Murdoch or his news media (McKnight, 2010).
Murdoch has also supported small activist intellectual groups (McKnight, 2003).In 1989, he personally authorized financial support for a friend and adviser of Margaret Thatcher, David Hart, who published a confidential newsletter smearing Labour and other public figures for alleged links with communism (Rose, 1990b). In 1988, Murdoch had thanked Hart for sending him a copy of the newsletter, World Briefing, and asked “Are you sending it to any of our other editors—or should I circulate it?” The following year he authorized “£40,000 per year for three years, in addition to the £150,000 previously agreed” (Rose, 1990a). A similar connection was Murdoch’s financial support for the US neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz and his influential magazine Commentary (Alterman, 1997: 8).
Australia or Murdochland
There is nothing new about claims that Murdoch’s newspapers in Australia are not just right-wing, but distort and manufacture news, campaigning for favoured political parties without the obligation of fairness. There is also nothing new about concern over the impact the company, which controls 70 percent of Australia’s newspaper circulation, might have on democratic debate (Alcorn, 2019, Hobbs, 2010, Tiffin, 2010).Former Prime MinisterRudd’s campaign manager, Bruce Hawker, wrote that NewsCorp is “easily the most powerful political force in Australia, bigger than the major parties or the combined weight of the unions” (Cooke, 2018).
The Murdoch family changed Australian politics in 2016 when it took control of Sky News Australia and imported the Fox News model. They quickly introduced a slate of right-wing opinion shows that often focused on race, immigration, and climate change denial; recently, Murdoch’s media empire has called for the lifting of all coronavirus-related restrictions (Simons, 2020). The program known as Sky After Dark (Stack, 2019), features its hosts and their guests stirring up anger over the perceived liberal bias of the media, the “suicidal self-hatred” of Western civilization, and the Australian equivalent of the Central American “caravans” to the US – emigres coming to the country by boat from Indonesia and Malaysia (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b). Murdoch’s outlets also led an effort to repeal the country’s carbon tax and pushed out a series of prime ministers whose agendas didn’t comport with his own (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Underlining the fact that today’s Australia feels more insular, völkisch, and hostile in character than its near neighbour New Zealand, Cooke (2018) asks: Is this just an accident of history or the end product of strong Murdoch influence in one place and weak Murdoch influence in the other?
Murdoch’s elder son Lachlan built alliances in the country, drawing close to Tony Abbott, a right-wing member of Parliament with a confrontational style (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate and long-time nemesis of Abbott, was replaced by the right-wing nationalist Scott Morrison(Stack, 2019) through a definitive intraparty vote.The small number of Australian media outlets that the Murdochs did not own portrayed Turnbull’s ouster as a Murdoch-led “coup.”In his farewell speech in August 2018, Turnbull pointed to “outside forces in the media” as the architects of his demise. Morrison quickly aligned himself with US President Trump (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019b).
Murdoch and his ubiquitous NewsCorp empire played a major role in orchestrating the removal from office of not just Turnbull but also Labour’s Prime Minister Rudd. Rudd also believes NewsCorp undermined his first prime ministership, as well as that of successor Julia Gillard. He has called for a “full-throated inquiry” into NewsCorp and branded the company “a cancer on democracy.” Rudd is one of the few politicians who has dared to speak out about News Corp (Davies, 2018a). A petition posted in October 2020 by Rudd asks the government to establish a Royal Commission into the dominance over Australian media by Murdoch’s NewsCorp and its impact on the country’s political landscape. The petition has been signed by over 280,000 people (Simons, 2020).
Critics say Murdoch’s media outlets have undermined efforts to fight climate change, pushed governments into hard-line policies on issues like migration, and employed language and images widely seen as racist (Kwai, 2020). Underlining the fact that today’s Australia feels more insular, völkisch, and hostile in character than its near neighbour New Zealand, Cooke (2018) asks: Is this just an accident of history or the end product of strong Murdoch influence in one place and weak Murdoch influence in the other? However, the consequence of the ethno-nationalist fervour that the Murdoch media has amplified in Australia has impacted New Zealand, where an Australian white nationalist, Brenton Tarrant, stood accused of killing 50 worshipers at two Christchurch mosques on March 14, 2019. Tarrant was a fan of the white nationalist Blair Cottrell, whose deferential treatment by Sky caused a national outcry (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b).
The UK: Under the Siege of Murdoch’s Media Octopus
It was Murdoch’s belief in the commercial potential of satellite broadcasting that prompted his relentless efforts to privatize satellite broadcasting in Britain. In the late 1980s, after he lost his bid for the British government’s sole satellite broadcasting license (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a), he risked millions of pounds to invest in the Luxemburg-based Astra satellite. It was through Astra that Murdoch’s Sky network was able to beam across the UK and, within a decade, change the broadcasting ecology of Britain (Thussu, 2007).
Murdoch’s British tabloids helped advance the agendas of British leaders. Lance Price, a former Blair spokesman, referred to Murdoch as “effectively a member of Blair’s cabinet.” In turn, Murdoch faced little government scrutiny as he expanded his media empire to reach 40 percent of British newspaper readers and millions of television viewers (Chozick, 2017).Blair learned, however, that even a special relationship with the media baron can sour quickly. He and Murdoch – once so close that Blair was the godfather to Grace Murdoch – are no longer on speaking terms. During the British government’s 2012 inquiry into the mogul’s political influence, Blair described what it was like when a subject falls out of favour with a Murdoch-controlled tabloid. “Once they’re against you, that’s it,” Blair said. “It’s full on, full frontal, day in, day out, basically a lifetime commitment” (Chozick, 2017).
As mentioned before, Murdoch’s whole career has been marked by controversy. But the phone hacking scandal in the UK, which came to light in July 2011, dwarfed all the previous scandals. The extensive investigative journalism of Nick Davies revealed that Murdoch’s Sunday paper, the News of the World, had hacked into the phone of teenage murder victim Millie Dowler. Mounting evidence indicated that newspaper staffers had engaged in illegal and unethical behaviour, notably the hacking of mobile phone mailboxes belonging to celebrities, murder victims, and British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Murdoch shuttered the newspaper, but the scandal continued to grow. He subsequently testified on several occasions before British MPs, claiming that he had been unaware of the hacking (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).
Building Euroscepticism to Pave the Way for Brexit
Murdoch’s newspapers and television networks have been instrumental in amplifying nativist revolt around the globe (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a), and including in the UK. The Sun spent years demonizing the European Union (EU) to its British readers (Stack, 2019). Daddow has examined the impact of changing media coverage of European integration in Britain since accession to the European Economic Community (ECC) in 1973, specifically through a consideration of the causes behind the collapse of the “permissive consensus” on European affairs. Since the 1975 referendum, this consensus has given way to a form of “destructive dissent” across vast swaths of media, particularly UK tabloids. The collapse in media support for the EU project has been expressed in a number of ways, some of them bordering on the nationalist and/or xenophobic, and opportunities for the expression of such views have merely been increased by the EU’s own efforts to deepen integration in the face of widespread popular distrust of both national politicians and supranational constitution-building (Daddow, 2012).
Daddow alights on the “Murdoch effect” as a core explanation for this general shift in attitudes. Murdoch was the market leader on Euroscepticism, as expressed in agenda-setting outlets such as The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. Daddow suggests that Murdoch led the way in creating a climate of fear around European matters that severely tested the leadership qualities of even notionally pro-European prime ministers on this vexed question in British politics (Daddow, 2012).
Opposing touchstone EEC policies using the “straight-talking” language of the “common man” became the characteristic Murdoch position. The Sunday Times and its Murdoch tabloid stablemates have crafted a workable, socially conservative, populist line on European matters for years.
The Murdoch empire has not been the only repository of hard and/or xenophobic Euroscepticism in Britain, but it has been the pace-setter. The intensification of anti-European activity in Britain around the time of the Maastricht Treaty goes some way to showing the synergy between the Thatcher foreign policy agenda and Murdoch-inspired Euroscepticism. This scepticism became more bombastic, injected a greater sense of urgency into the debates by presenting treaty reforms as existential threats to British sovereignty and identity, became less deferential to politicians and “elites,” and was deeply critical of “foreign” machinations that threatened supposedly objective British interests (Daddow, 2012).
Murdoch’s News International, with willing support from ideological Eurosceptics across the top-selling UK tabloid and broadsheets, has proved effective at keeping the British public in a permanent state of “war” with the EU since the 1980s and paved the way for Brexit.
A former Downing Street insider has ventured to suggest that European affairs were part of a Faustian pact between Blair and the Murdoch machine. Price was informed: “We’ve promised (Murdoch’s) News International we won’t make any changes to our Europe policy without informing them” (Daddow, 2012). When Blair refused to call a referendum on the proposed EU Constitutional Treaty in 2004, he was attacked vehemently by Murdoch, who personally insisted on the News of the World labelling Blair a “traitor” in its headline attacking the decision (Seldon et al., 2007: 266). New Labour was also told that it would not receive the backing of News International titles in the 2005 general election unless Blair did a U-turn. “He did, and within days The Sun secured the scoop” (Daddow, 2012).Backed by evidence of Murdoch’s deal-making style and abhorrence of the European project, many observers in policy and academic circles have embraced the view that Blair’s European policies were indeed the result of a “Faustian pact” with Murdoch (Wallace, 2006: 63).
Murdoch’s News International, with willing support from ideological Eurosceptics across the top-selling UK tabloid and broadsheets, has proved effective at keeping the British public in a permanent state of “war” with the EU since the 1980s (Daddow, 2012).Prime Minister John Major told a judicial inquiry in 1997 that Murdoch said that he could not support him if he didn’t change his stance toward Europe, which Major took as a demand for an EU referendum (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Murdoch had a hand in the British right threatening to drive Britain out of the EU, too. The Sun had long been advocating for an exit from the EU, and so had Murdoch himself, distilling his opposition to the EU into a single quote attributed to Anthony Hilton, a columnist at The Evening Standard: “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice” (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
Murdoch’s media, especially The Sun, cast Brexit as a choice between the “arrogant Europhiles” and the country’s working class, while railing against “mass immigration which keeps wages low and puts catastrophic pressure on our schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock” (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). It helped lead the Brexit campaign that persuaded a slim majority of voters in a 2016 referendum to endorse pulling out of the bloc (Stack, 2019). The Sun’s cover on the day of the Brexit referendum was a picture of corporate synergy: “Independence Day: Britain’s Resurgence,” it read, over a mock version of the poster for the 21st Century Fox movie “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which opened in Britain that day. Murdoch likened the country’s decision to leave the EU to “a prison break” and celebrated the vote with Nigel Farage, a leading architect of Brexit, at a garden party at the London mansion of the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev.
The referendum represented the realization of a long-deferred dream for Murdoch. But it also returned him to a position of influence in British politics. Not only had The Sun played a critical role in delivering the Brexit vote, but in the ensuing political upheaval, it had swung behind Theresa May. Once in office, she found time for a private meeting with Murdoch on one of her first foreign trips: a less-than-36-hour visit to New York to address the United Nations (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).In sum, the Murdoch effect on media coverage of the EU in Britain has been dramatic.
Murdoch and the “FOX Effect” on American Politics
In 1973, Murdoch entered the American newspaper business. In the 1980s and ’90s, Murdoch bought a number of American publications and amassed major holdings in other communications ventures, including radio and television stations and video, film, and record companies, as well as book publishing. In 1985, Murdoch took the step of becoming a naturalised US citizen in order to facilitate a move into the US television market (Finkelstein, 2007). The same yearhe acquired the Twentieth Century–Fox Film Corporation and bought several independent American television stations from Metromedia, Inc., and then consolidated both these ventures into a new company, Fox, Inc. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).
In 1995, NewsCorp entered into a partnership with MCI Communications Corporation, a major provider of long-distance telecommunications services in the US. The following year, Murdoch sought to expand his presence in American television with the launch of Fox News, a news and political commentary channel that has become enormously influential. In 2007, he made news with the announcement that NewsCorp was acquiring Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, for $5 billion. In 2017, he agreed to sell most of the holdings of 21st Century Fox to the Disney Company. Two years later, the deal closed and was valued at about $71 billion (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).
In the US, Murdoch has played a central role in the evolution of both journalism and politics. His Fox News Channel has become a powerful force within Republican Party politics – and therefore all of American politics. The station has a dubious record for fairness, accuracy, and integrity, but it has proven to be a supremely powerful megaphone for Republican talking points (McChesney, 2014).When Murdoch agreed to sell 21st Century Fox, Trump called him to get his assurance that the Fox News Channel would not be affected (Chozick, 2017).Thus, hugely profitable Fox News and various other TV channels were excluded from the sale, and they became part of the newly formed Fox Corporation.
Fox News has had a profound effect on broadcast journalism in the US, thanks to the traditional Murdoch formula of sensationalism and entertainment employed in the pursuit of ratings and revenue (Brock, 2004; Greenwald, 2004).Presenters on Fox News abandoned journalistic traditions of objectivity and political neutrality (belied by the network’s Orwellian slogan, “fair and balanced”), employing instead a combative interview style (Halper and Clarke, 2004: 185).Andrew Calabrese (2005) argues: “Murdoch’s Fox News set the standard for patriotic television with an editorial policy that echoed the Bush administration’s official stance, making any challenge to the White House’s plans for war seem tantamount to treason… While chasing after FOX in the ratings war, the other networks also shifted more closely towards FOX’s ideological terrain” (Hobbs, 2010).
Labelled the “FOX effect’ by Iskandar (2005), Schechter (2003), Collins (2004) and Greenwald (2004), the editorial policies and journalistic formula at FOX have had a detrimental impact on America’s public sphere and media. Indeed, the “FOX effect” highlights quite well the potential problems posed by “infotainment,” with a number of studies showing the disproportionate level of misconceptions held by viewers of Fox News (Brock 2004; Halper and Clarke, 2004:193).Even in the post-invasion phase of the Iraq War, long after US forces failed to locate Saddam Hussein’s alleged hordes of biological and chemical weapons, 80 percent of FOX viewers held several misconceptions of the war and its justifications, including that the coalition found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the September 11 terrorist attacks (Calabrese, 2005; Kull et al., 2003).
Murdoch has been an integral force in reprogramming the media network, making the ability to mobilize public opinion a fundamental measure of power within the media environment. As Iskandar notes, “the arrival of Fox News Channel (FNC) has reinvented and reinvigorated partisanship in the press…”
Murdoch has been an integral force in reprogramming the media network, making the ability to mobilize public opinion a fundamental measure of power within the media environment. As Iskandar notes, “the arrival of Fox News Channel (FNC) has reinvented and reinvigorated partisanship in the press, thereby creating a model for its application in the broadcast realm” (Iskandar, 2005: 164). By lambasting other networks as too liberal and presenting itself as “fair and balanced,” FNC encouraged other networks to replicate its formula in order to remain competitive and to stave off criticisms of a liberal bias. Thus, by influencing public opinion in favour of the Iraq War, FNC not only strengthened its ties to the Bush administration, but it influenced the journalistic norms of rival outlets in support of a similar agenda – reprogramming the television media landscape as a whole (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).
Empirical evidence indicate that FNC played a critical role in mobilizing and sustaining public opinion in favour of the Iraq War and the Bush administration (Arsenault & Castells, 2006; Iskandar, 2005). This support benefited the administration, but it also benefited NewsCorp. Nielsen data documented a 288 percent increase in FNC audience share during the initial stages of the Iraq War (Ayeni, 2004:8). However, Fox News’ claims to be “fair and balanced” and to offer “real journalism” that lets the viewers decide (“we report, you decide”) are totally groundless. On the contrary, Fox News is a very conservative, pro-Republican network that does not separate commentary and news and that supports conservative politicians and policies far more openly than any other television network supports any politicians, liberal or conservative (Weaver, 2005).
Michael Wolff characterizes Fox News as “the ultimate Murdoch product,” because it brought tabloid journalism to American television (Wolff, 2008: 282). What has been missed in the equation is the business model of tabloid journalism: it means dispensing with actual reporting, which costs a lot of money to do well, and replacing it with far less expensive pontificating that will attract audiences. For a tabloid news channel, that means the value-added is by providing a colourful, partisan take on the news (McChesney, 2014).
Research demonstrates that the more conservative media one consumes, the more likely they are to dismiss as liberal propaganda or lies, news or arguments that contradict the conservative position (Jamieson & Cappella, 2008: X, 240). Conservative media, led significantly by Fox News, marches in lock-step with the same talking points, the same issues, and even the same terminology deployed by the Republican party. They apply the core principles of advertising and propaganda. This has helped to galvanize and solidify the American right, making it more powerful than it would be otherwise (McChesney, 2014).
FOX and the conservative media can aggressively push stories, have Republican politicians echo them, and then badger the traditional media for having a “liberal bias” if they do not cover the stories as well. Because it believes it is fighting an uphill battle with liberal propagandists, Fox News can have an unabashed and breath-taking double standard, where they have very different evidentiary standards for stories that serve them versus stories that damage their politics. If facts prove inconvenient for the preferred narrative, ignore them (McChesney, 2014).
Between the cocoon effect and the shameless disregard for consistency and intellectual honesty, it is not surprising that professional surveys tend to find regular viewers of Fox News to be more ignorant about what is actually happening in the world compared to those who watch other networks.
In recent years, some Fox News hosts and guests have been moving ever closer to openly embracing the most bigoted sentiments of the white-nationalist movement. A few days before the antisemitic attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 Jewish worshipers on October 27, 2018, a guest on Lou Dobbs’s show said that a migrant caravan headed to the US border from Honduras was being funded by the “Soros-occupied State Department.” The shooter, according to a post he made on social media, had come to believe that Jews were transporting members of the migrant caravans. When Tucker Carlson came under fire for his increasingly pointed attacks on immigration – “We have a moral obligation to admit the world’s poor, they tell us, even if it makes our country poorer and dirtier and more divided” – he received personal text messages of support from Lachlan Murdoch (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b).
Between the cocoon effect and the shameless disregard for consistency and intellectual honesty, it is not surprising that professional surveys tend to find regular viewers of Fox News to be more ignorant about what is actually happening in the world compared to those who watch other networks (PublicMind Poll, 2011). A 2007 study found that the introduction of the network on a particular cable system pushed local voters to the right: the Fox News Effect, as it became known. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, a majority of self-described conservatives said it was the only news network they trusted (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland conducted a survey of American voters in 2010 that shows that Fox News viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of news from other sources (Howard, 2010).
For decades, Murdoch has used his media properties to establish a direct line to Australian and British leaders. But in the 44 years since he bought his first newspaper in the US, he had largely failed to cultivate close ties to an American president until Donald Trump’s presidency. Murdoch and Trump – both forged in New York’s tabloid culture, one as the owner of TheNew York Post, the other as its perfect subject – have travelled in the same circles since the 1970s. Although both men parlayed their inheritances into global power, they have stubbornly viewed themselves as outsiders at odds with the establishment (Chozick, 2017).
Prime ministers have danced to Murdoch’s tune (Luce, 2018), but Trump is the first US president on whom he has personal influence (though Murdoch initially urged Mike Bloomberg to run for president against Trump) (Forbes, 2020). Having once dismissed Trump’s candidacy, Murdoch later threw himself wholly behind it. During the final stretch of the campaign, Fox News cut back appearances by anti-Trump analysts and contributors and added pro-Trump ones, while also ramping up its attacks on Hillary Clinton. One anti-Clinton segment was built around an appearance by Jeff Rovin, who had for years been the editor in chief of TheWeekly World News, the supermarket tabloid best known for claiming that Hillary Clinton was possessed by Satan and had carried on an affair with a space alien named P’Lod. Other Murdoch outlets were swinging behind Trump, too (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
After the election, Murdoch moved even more forcefully to support Trump(Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). They talk weekly and sometimes daily. Trump takes his cues from Fox & Friends, the morning show that plays the same role in Trump’s day as the presidential intelligence briefing did for his predecessors. Sometimes, Trump phones the show live (Luce, 2018). Trump enjoys getting Murdoch’s calls. As someone who prizes wealth and power, Trump had long admired Murdoch; for decades, it had invariably been Trump who called Murdoch, asking for help. Now, it was Murdoch reaching out to Trump on a regular basis (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c).
A Gallup–Knight Foundation survey (2018) found that 69 percent of Americans had lost trust in the news media over the previous decade. For Republicans, the figure was 94 percent. In the two decades since the networks founding, the Fox News Effect has never been more pronounced. A March study by Navigation Research, a Democratic firm, found that 12 percent of Fox News viewers believe that climate change is mostly caused by humans, compared with 62 percent of all other Americans. At the same time, 78 percent of FOX viewers believe that Trump has accomplished more than any president in American history, compared with 17 percent of other Americans (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b).In return,the Murdoch approach to empire building has reached its apotheosis in the Trump era (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
During his six decades in media, Rupert Murdoch has carefully built an image as a pragmatist who will support liberal governments when it suits him. Yet his various news outlets have inexorably pushed the flow of history to the right across the Anglosphere, whether they were advocating for the US and its allies to go to war in Iraq in 2003, undermining global efforts to combat climate change, or vilifying people of colour (at home or abroad) as dangerous threats to a white majority. The Murdoch dynasty draws no lines between politics, money, and power; they all work together seamlessly in service of the overarching goal of imperial expansion (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
A six-month investigation by TheNew York Times covering three continents and including more than 150 interviews has described how the Murdoch family turned their media outlets into right-wing political influence machines that have destabilized democracy in North America, Europe, and Australia (Stack, 2019). Media power has historically accrued slowly, over the course of generations, which is one reason it tends to be concentrated in dynastic families. The Murdoch empire is a relatively young one, but it would be hard to argue that there is a more powerful media family on earth (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). However, the Murdoch familyis not immune from internal conflicts and tensions, which reflect themselves in questions around succession. Succession has been a source of tension in the Murdoch family for years, particularly between Murdoch’s sons Lachlan and James (Stack, 2019).
James and Lachlan are very different people, with very different politics, and they are pushing the company toward very different futures: James toward a globalized, multiplatform news-and-entertainment brand that would seem sensible to any attendee of Davos or reader of The Economist; Lachlan toward something at once out of the past and increasingly of the moment – an unabashedly nationalist, far-right, and hugely profitable political propaganda machine (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).
The Trump presidency also exposed a deeper divide between the brothers. James was becoming increasingly troubled by Fox News. He didn’t object to the idea of a conservative news network, but he did object to what he felt it had evolved into at certain hours: a political weapon with no editorial standards or concern for the value of truth and a knee-jerk defender of the president’s rhetoric and policies (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c).
After Trump issued his executive order banning immigration from some Muslim-majority countries in early 2017, James pushed his father and Lachlan to agree to write a companywide memo reassuring its Muslim employees in the United States and abroad. James wanted the note to forcefully and unequivocally establish their opposition to the policy and to tell employees who felt threatened by it that the company would do everything in its power to protect them. Lachlan wanted it to be less confrontational and to not specifically mention Trump or the Muslim ban, which Fox News’s opinion hosts were defending night after night (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c).
Months later, when Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., saying that there were some “very fine people” among the white supremacists, James’ wife Kathryn insisted that they write their own open letter of opposition, without consulting with his brother or father first (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). James and Kathryn were planning to devote some of their fortune to trying to neutralize James’ fathers’ media weapon. In early 2019, their foundation, Quadrivium, announced initiatives to defend democratic nations against what they saw as the rising threat of illiberal populism and to bolster voting rights (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019b).
However, Murdoch’s choice for succession has made it clear that he doesn’t want his global media empire to change its right-wing populist route.Since Murdoch’s accident on Lachlan’s yacht in January 2018, the power structure inside NewsCorp has tilted toward Lachlan. According to TheAustralian’s former editor, Chris Mitchell, Lachlan is politically further to the right than his father. Lachlan is said to be a climate-change sceptic. This stands in sharp contrast to his brother, James, and Kathryn, who promote action on climate change. Lachlan also shares NewsCorp’s distaste for the elites, even though he belongs to the most rarefied of elites: the billionaire’s club in both Australia and the US (Davies, 2018d).It seems likely that the Murdoch Empire will continue to be a vehicle for promoting right-wing populism across the globe for the foreseeable future.
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Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues.
The idea and practice of neutrality – that is, not expressing views or avoiding political discussions – in the Western education system is seen as self-evident and rarely questioned. However, education has always been shaped by the socio-cultural realities and political ideologies of the day. Political ideas about how a society should be organized have informed school textbooks, educational policies, and teacher trainings, affecting not only what is taught but also what is not taught in schools.
Following the post 1980’s resurgence of far-right parties and populism in European politics, a right-wing ethnocentric worldview has gained prominence in political and administrative institutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such political growth has also led to populist views gaining ground in European educational systems, too. Despite this, there has been little research into the potential effects of the far right’s effect on education in Europe, although recent research has identified how the far right aims to impact educational policy and acts as an educational actor.
In Italy, this is exemplified by the far-right League Party’s plan to diminish university attendance rates among high-schoolers, limiting their exposure to leftist views at universities. League also demanded an academic book be removedfrom the reading list of a course at the University of Bologna. Similar actions have been observed across Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is asking for the re-design of history subjects, simultaneously advocating for teaching students about their German roots while engaging in acts that downplay the history of the Holocaust. In France, educational policy is not one of the main populist strategies of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party National Rally, although the party supports patriotic moral education and teaching national history as a defence against multiculturalism. The populist discourse and practices employed by National Rally impact the strategies and policies of centre-right parties in councils and in the parliament. The councils run by Le Pen’s party ban school canteens from serving pork-free menus, discriminating against Muslim and Jewish students. On French university campuses, Collectif Marianne, Assas Patriote, and Action française étudiante work to advance the cause of far-right ideologies, primarily through university councils.
The increasing political influence of the European far-right also impacts the discourses and actions of parties in power. In northern Belgium, Flanders, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (NVA) party has pressed a proposal to establish a Flemish Canon, which will be taught to pupils at schools, as well as newcomers. The canon is described as follows: “In order to promote the sense of identity of the younger generation, we are following the example of the Netherlands in drawing up a Flemish canon, a list of anchor points from our Flemish culture and history, which characterize Flanders as a European nation.” Turkey is another example of how populists in power impact the educational agenda. In Turkey, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been removed from the biology textbooks used in high schools. This decision was based on the argument that the theory is controversial and difficult to comprehend.
The aforementioned far-right strategies focus on a monolithic understanding of society, showcasing the far right’s refusal to accept multicultural identities and cosmopolitanism. The strategy of imposing a national identity and moral code through the education system is crystalized in the debate over students from immigrant backgrounds. The far right views these students as the main problem in schools. They are emblematic of decadence, illiteracy, and violence. Given the power of education in reaching and influencing large groups and shaping society, it’s not surprising that different political actors and forces, including the contemporary far right, aim to instil their social and political values into educational institutions. At a time when teachers and students are displaying authoritarian tendencies, how best to push against the harmful far-right narratives seeking to shatter the values of democracy in European education? There is undoubtedly more than one answer to this question. We will, however, focus on one pedagogical approach that could be adopted in schools to curb the harmful effects of populist rhetoric. That approach is culturally relevant pedagogy.
Gloria Ladson-Billings is an American pedagogical theorist who, after a decade teaching in American public schools, wondered why Black students were less successful than their white peers. While getting her Ph.D. in curriculum and teacher education, her research revealed how Black students were viewed as deficient and deviant by teachers, administrators, and students and treated as problematic. In order to challenge this “deficiency” narrative, she began to ask questions about teachers and their classrooms, which eventually led to the development of culturally relevant pedagogy in the 1990s.
Based on her research with successful teachers of African American students, Ladson-Billings advocates a focus on students’ academic success, cultural competence, and socio-political or critical consciousness. The first component might seem obvious for educational institutions typically characterized by their commitment to ensuring the academic success of their students. However, Ladson-Billings centralizes student learning and stresses the role of teachers in engaging students to develop tools for critical thinking. As part of this process, teachers must have high expectations for their students. It is only when students are learning that they can have the desired academic outcomes and succeed on examinations.
The second tenet, cultural competence, refers to the recognition that students show up in school with their own culture, language, norms, and ideas, all of which can impact a student’s learning experiences. Given the increasingly diversifying cultural make-up of many industrialized societies, schools are increasingly populated by more multiracial and multi-ethnic students. However, the far right’s emphasis on the distinctive culture, values, and identity of the national group risks marginalizing students from minority backgrounds while prioritizing the culture and interests of the majority group. Moreover, exclusionary national identities are often reinforced by polarizing narratives that frame immigrants – especially those from Africa and the Middle East – as a threat to the Western way of life.
In response to these populist discourses, teachers need to work on empowering all students, offering them the tools to examine critically their own position in society. Recognizing and valuing the knowledge and experiences of students of different genders, faiths, cultures, languages, socioeconomic statuses, and abilities is critical to support positive identity development and facilitating access to different cultures. By being mindful of who they are teaching and what the students’ specific needs are, teachers can help all students to cultivate multicultural competencies. In other words, teachers should utilize students’ cultural backgrounds as a critical learning resource that can help them make sense of an increasingly globalized world.
The third and perhaps most important component of culturally relevant pedagogy is the development of students’ socio-political or critical consciousness in this hyper-polarized political climate. The goal of this tenet is to help students to develop the necessary skills to question social inequities in society and to not just consume knowledge, but to be critical of it. This approach has certain similarities with citizenship education, which stresses helping youth develop the tools to recognize and solve problems in society and promotes the democratic values of freedom and non-discrimination. While this aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is vital to the development of students’ skills as democratic citizens, it is often ignored in schools due to the “neutrality” narrative that dismisses discussions about political issues in classrooms.
This aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is not about teachers pushing their own political agendas in the classroom. If they’re not able to ask complex questions about societal issues, students are denied the space to expose anti-democratic and populist narratives and form their own counter-narratives informed by critical reasoning. Avoiding or suppressing conversations about controversial topics could actually create more room for authoritarian views to gain popularity among students. Alternatively, encouraging students to elaborate on ideas and issues that they find meaningful or that affect their everyday realities could support their understanding and critical awareness of their social context and position within it.
Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues. This can be achieved by the transformation of teacher training programs. In fact, teachers should be taught that “one of the most effective ways to affect democracy is through the classroom.” By teaching their students the tools to think critically, teachers prepare them to understand their role and position in multicultural societies and to assess the implications of the far right’s growing influence on democratic values, such as equity, freedom, and justice.