Supporters of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wave party flags during an election rally in Istanbul on June 3, 2015.

The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). “The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 5, 2021.


The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “New Turkey” is now a reality. The AKP has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

The Survival of Islamic Parties in Turkey

The Republic of Turkey was born in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a symbol of power in the Muslim world for over six centuries. The decay and eventual collapse of the Ottomans following the First World War left the former Ottoman populace facing an identity crisis. With the monarchy disbanded, Turkey embarked on a transformative journey –a new republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is credited with moulding the country in his image. The “Kemalist” ideology hinges on six pillars: republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, laicism, and reformism, all standing in sharp contrast with traditional Ottoman Muslim culture (Los Angeles Times, 1991)

For approximately eight decades, Kemalism prevailed as the state’s main narrative, with its intense focus on a homogeneous nation rooted in Turkish identity and disassociated from its Ottoman past. However, since the core of Ottoman rule was religion – the Ottoman Empire was the last remnant of the “caliphate” – the new Republic isolated a large number of conservative citizens. The focus on nationalism also isolated a significant number of non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-Turks. 

The leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially positioned itself as a populist party that voiced the anxieties and grievances of the populace by not only representing the conservative factions but also a number of individuals/groups who felt rejected by Kemalist principles.

Yet, during its two decades in power, the AKP has increasingly identified with the “black Turks,” those who felt excluded by the politics of the “white Turks.” However, this has merely isolated the “white Turks.” Power, in contemporary Turkey, now rests with religiously “pure” Sunni-Turks predominantly from Anatolia. This populace embraces their “glorious” Ottoman past and seeks vengeance for decades of being wronged by Western powers and the “white Turks,” who are held up as representatives of Western ideals.  These “black Turks” – deeply religious, predominantly Anatolian Sunni Muslims – are “the people.”   

The AKP has been successful at manoeuvring its way into power by tapping into the population’s latent anxiety, paranoia, resentment, a sense of victimhood. The party has further divided Turkey between “the people” and “the other.” Increasingly, it uses the same tactics to defend its autocratic tendencies (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP’s populism has gradually eroded Kemalist nationalism, birthing a new institutionalized narrative for Turkish citizenry – a “New Turkey” (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). The AKP has constructed this counter ideology using autocratic populism legitimized by Islamist nationalism (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

The AKP is the first successful modern Islamist party to complete its term in power, in Turkey. Formed in 2001, the party comes from a line of members who have either been directly involved with or influenced by a series of right-wing ideologies, primarily from Necmettin Erbakan and his political parties. Erbakan’s Milli Gorus (National View) had, since the 1970s, given a generation of Turkish politicians a right-wing, pan-Islamic inspiration and direction. Milli Gorus focused on calling Muslims to save Islam from becoming lost in Western values, thus calling Muslim “brothers” to unite in their efforts against the quote “Zionist” lobby. Erbakan, throughout his life, was a vocal critic of the West and “Zionists.” He was known for his anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic statements: 

All Infidel nations are one Zionist entity”; “Jews want to rule from Morocco to Indonesia”; “The Zionists worked for 5,767 years to build a world order in which all money and power depend on Jews”; “The US dollar is Zionist money”; “The Jewish ‘bacteria’ must be diagnosed for a cure to be found”; “Zionists initiated the Crusades”; “Jews founded Protestantism and the Capitalist order”; “Bush attacked Iraq to build Greater Israel, so Jesus can return” (Vielhaber, 2012).

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. 

Founding members of the AKP, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, were raised on such rhetoric. They would eventually belong to the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP). The FP was banned for violations against the constitution, which protected the Kemalist ideology. The disbanded members of the FP formed two separate parties – the AKP and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP) (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015)

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. Not only did Sunni Muslim factions feel marginalized, but so too did Kurds (15-20 percent of the country’s population) and Alevi (10-15 percent of the population). These groups were institutionally discriminated against or denied recognition, all in an effort to form a singular Turkish identity. This would be an ideal citizen, the secularized Sunni Turk (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017)

Widespread discrimination created resentment against the Kemalist governments. The AKP found an opportunity in this growing discontentment. It emerged as a “Muslim Democrat” party that would represent the discontented Sunni conservatives and historically marginalized ethnic and religious factions. In 2001, the AKP broke away from the Milli Gorus doctrine and positioned itself as a centre-right party. It was for the people and an answer to the rifts within society. 

While the AKP took a more reformist agenda with younger leaders from the former party, SP was led by Erbakan and a group of older Sunni Muslim men who stood by their hard-line views rooted in Milli Gorus. The AKP craftily separated itself as a reformed religiously “moderate” democratic party that offered an alternative to the status quo – the promise of liberalized Islamic democracy. One of Erdogan’s statement shows how he viewed the new party: “We don’t need bearded men who are good Koran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019).

The February 28, 1997, came down hard on Islamists and other non-Kemalist parties. The AKP’s earliest version used this oppression to position itself as a better alterative compared to the “secular elite” led by the military establishment. It became the voice of “the people”: Erdogan promised the party was dedicated to the welfare of the people rather than any ideology or personal agendas. “A cadre will run the party,” he said, “and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” 

His role was that of an “orchestra chief,” in his own words. The “age of me-centred politics is over,” he insisted (Genc, 2019). The AKP cautiously stepped into the corridors of power in 2002, winning 34.28 percent of the vote and defeating the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP). The military took a “wait and see” approach to the AKP; as a Turkish diplomat in 2002 said: “Erdogan knows what will happen if he oversteps a line.” 

Tip of the Iceberg: Two Sides of the AKP  

The performance of the AKP during its initial years hinged on making Turkey a prosperous nation – it was what their reformist agenda promised. They needed to make the economy strong, improve public welfare, and make Turkey a “bridge” between East and West. However, over the years this promise disintegrated and the AKP evolved into a populist authoritarian party. 

In 2007, to secure a second term in office, the AKP showed an early sign of its populism. Under Kemalist principles, to modernize and secularize society, women were barred from wearing a headscarf in public offices and educational institutions. The AKP predominantly represented Muslims; the potential first lady wore a headscarf. This was a point of contention –a clash of two ideologies, between the Kemalists and the AKP. As the AKP sought to reverse this ban, they were met by harsh criticism from the military, a digital campaign called “a digital coup”, and massive “Republican Rallies” in major cities calling out the increasing role of Islam in the supposedly secular fabric of Turkish society. 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process.

The ceremony of Third Bosphorus bridge was attended by then Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. Photo: Sadik Gulec


In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process. It very successfully played to the victimhood and fear of its conservative voter base, which had felt always coerced by the “westernized” military trying to impose “un-Islamic” principles on them. It also played the “humanitarian” card, where it defended freedom to practice one’s religion. As Hayrünnisa Gül explained, “There are not more headscarves than before; the headscarf-clad women have begun to be more active and as a result of this, more visible in social life” (Elver, 2014). The AKP won a second term with even more votes than in 2002. 

The AKP’s second term saw the infamous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. These were the AKP’s first moves to ensure that the Kemalist institutions could no longer threaten the party. The trials targeted Kemalist military generals and their accomplices, who were accused of plotting a coup against “the people.” During these trials, the AKP successfully used anti-Kemalist media propaganda and the anxieties of the Turkish people who had been denied freedoms by the “elite and military.” They needed the judiciary to “set an example” of those who tried to interfere with democracy. 

The trials were the preamble to the AKP’s 2010 Constitutional Referendum, which proposed a number of amendments to the Turkish constitution. In the build-up to the vote, the AKP increasingly positioned Kemalist institutions, like the military and judiciary, as the “enemy of the people” through Sledgehammer and Ergenekon. The 2010 referendum limited the military’s power and also paved way for more political control over the judiciary. It also financially benefitted the pseudo-capitalist AKP by allowing businesspeople with tax debts to go overseas (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Şahin & Hayirali, 2010). Essentiality, “the others” were defeated in favour of “the people.” The vote, to conservatives, represented that the “White Turks” had been dealt with – a reward for the former’s decades of suffering and humiliation during the Kemalist era. 

There was a marked change in the AKP’s posture following 2010. In early 2013, the Gezi Park protesters were brutally dealt with, and, to deflect criticism, the AKP painted them as “enemies” of the people. After this point, any opposition directed towards the AKP was “otherized” through a host of conspiracy theories playing on fear and paranoia. The Gezi Park protests, which began as a movement against the government’s plans to convert the public park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square into real-estate development, were peaceful – until riot police arrived and brutalized the protestors (Julia, 2018).

Civilians were visiting the Gezi Park and Taksim Square during Gezi Park protests at night. Photo: Ipek Morel


These peaceful protests were a symbol of resistance against the AKP’s clientelism, Islamism, and increasing autocratic tendencies. The riot police’s intervention led to many arrests and the deaths of 11 individuals. In the party’s defence, Erdogan emphasized that the protestors were Western sponsored liberal “terrorists,” who opposed development. He said, “we need to be courageous,” in defence of the riot police’s actions. Thus, civil society was deemed pro-Western, foreign-sponsored “terrorism” – in stark opposition to the “black Turks,” who were pious, pure, and dedicated to the party and state. The two – party and state – had become entwined, as the AKP was the flagship of faith and hope for security and prosperity (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017).                

The AKP’s first two terms were marked by several welfare-centric policies and public works that were promoted by the government, which helped it maintain the people’s confidence. This period saw a huge flux of neo-liberal reforms – including privatizing the public sector, which promised improved service delivery, and infrastructure development. These reforms drastically improved the country’s socio-economic standing in less than a decade. 

While these measures temporally improved conditions, in reality, they were – and are – being used as means to an end by the AKP. The party has currently plunged the country into an economic crisis, with inflation rates touching 12 percent and the Turkish lira drastically reduced against the US dollar. The crisis has only been made worse by the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown (BBC, 2020).      

Crony capitalism obscured by welfare-ism and neo-liberal reforms has placed AKP loyalists in various businesses, reinforcing a strong support (and donor) base for the party. The AKP uses state institutions as revenue collection bodies. Privatization and public procurement offices reward loyalists and punish opposition-owned or aligned businesses (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Recklessly seeking financing for mega infrastructure projects has increased the public debt, yet the showcase projects have appealed to the general public. AKP supporters often espouse the view, “Sure, he may be stealing, but look at the new airports, hospitals, roads and bridges!” (Bilici, 2020). In other words, through such public investments, corruption is made socially acceptable. Thus, the AKP has successfully made visible changes to show that it has been doing something for the people, all while rewarding its loyalists and punishing opposition groups within the business and media communities. 

The AKP’s corruption was widely exposed for the first time in the December 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. In a leaked phone call between Erdogan and his son Bilal, they discussed how the father was not pleased with a bribe of USD 10 million being offered by Sıtkı Ayan, a fossil fuel company owner. Erdogan, who was then Prime Minister, urged his son, “Others can bring it, so why can’t he, huh? Who do they think is? But they are falling now, they’ll fall on our laps, don’t worry!” (Bilici, 2020). This bribe won Ayan and his petro-company a bid to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Iran and Turkmenistan to Europe; in addition to winning the contract, the company was granted a huge state subsidy excepting it from various taxes (Bilici, 2020). A clear pattern is visible where the Treasury guarantees various loyal businesspersons when they try to access European banks for growth and investment (Bilici, 2020).  

A few months earlier, the AKP launched an attack on another civil society group: it labelled a pluralistic Islamic organization, known internationally as the Gulen Movement, as an enemy of the people. This attack was done to deflect attention from the government’s corruption, shifting the public’s attention. It was an autocratic move disguised as populism. Those who took up further investigations were soon purged by the AKP government. As the AKP gained more power, the identity of the “other” was constantly shifting – from Kemalists and “White Turks” to Gulenists, all of whom were used as scapegoats to divert attention from AKP corruption and to eliminate future opposition. 

Following the corruption probe, thousands of police officers, judges, and prosecutors were purged from their jobs – allegedly for “spying” on the government. Gulenists were accused of having erected a parallel structure within the state, undermining the AKP’s “pure” efforts. The government claimed members of this parallel structure had fabricated the corruption scandal. A potential critic was once more silenced through autocratic means. 

Another example of the AKP using populism to further its position in power revolves around its shattered hopes to join the European Union (EU). During its first two terms, the AKP faced pressure to meet EU membership requirements. To do so, the AKP not only needed to show that Turkey was financially prosperous – at that time, the country was on the road to achieving it – but it also had to comply with liberal democratic values. Its “Muslim Democrat” image was useful – it potentially offered a successful hybrid of Islam and liberal democratic values (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017). However, post-2013, the AKP’s increasing autocratic tendencies and the EU’s disinterest in Turkish accession have ensured that the AKP is not shy about its Islamist autocratic behaviours.  

Alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The AKP government appointed trustees to Zaman Media Group in Istanbul on March 4, 2016.


To hide its crony capitalism, the AKP has not only targeted civil society but also punished several media entities who have proved critical of the government. A prominent example is the Ipek Media Group, a media house which was even charged in court for “causing terrorism.” The media house was brutally raided, with police breaking windows and firing tear gas. The result of the charges led to a trial and subsequently the company was stripped of a significant number of subsidiaries that were given to public officials and its operation was handed out to designated “loyal” AKP trustees. The 2016 coup attempt led to the total shutdown of Ipek Media Group and forced the family to flee overseas, as members of the family were sentenced to as many as 79 years in prison for allegedly being members of a “terrorist group” (Bilici, 2020)

Thus, alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The autocratic tendencies have spread to the international sphere, too. In the spirit of liberal democracy, the AKP during its first term offered to launch a joint investigation with Armenia, a “fact finding” regarding the genocide which Turkey has denied for decades. The Ottoman genocide of the Armenian population has always been a controversial topic in Turkey; the previous Kemalist regimes and governments refused to recognize it. Armenia refused the AKP’s offer and demanded outright recognition (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Over the next decade, as Turkey’s EU hopes faded, the AKP used the Turkey-Armenia rivalry to gather populist support at home.

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.”

The party has also practiced “trans-populism.” In 2020, the AKP involved itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia (BBC, 2020). In a proxy-war facilitated by Azerbaijan, Turkey emerged as a “strong” Muslim nation, militarily boosting its neo-Ottoman claims at home and allowing the AKP to distract the Turkish people from the country’s dire economic situation. By claiming a victory for “the pure people” and the “ummah,” the AKP bolstered its Islamist image and justified its foreign interventions.  

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.” For example, in 2015, the AKP strained relations with the Kurds by dismantling a truce with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); the party needed a new antagonist to divert attention for the party’s own failures (Karadeniz, 2015; Smith, 2005). Erdogan justified his government’s actions by positioning pro-Kurdish factions in the society as a threat: “It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood” (Karadeniz, 2015). The end of the truce meant that domestic terrorism rose in the country, creating the need for a party that was “tough.” Of course, the AKP fit the bill. 

The Kurds – specifically the PKK – had already been side-lined under previous Kemalist governments. Even speaking Kurdish can land a person in jail in Turkey. But the AKP drummed up a security conflict to make the populace feel threatened and insecure, ensuring that people desired a “strongman” party to once again lead them out of this “crisis” (Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP’s use of penal populism is not limited to Kurdish separatist groups. To curb opposition political parties, the AKP has craftily extended this “threat” to encompass not just “terrorist” Kurdish separatists but also any party that is sympathetic to the ethnic group. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) routinely secured a significant number of votes in local elections, helped mediate the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, and, in the 2015 parliamentary elections, briefly became the third largest party in the country. Following the 2016 coup attempt, the HDP has been widely persecuted by the AKP based on allegations of “ties” to the PKK (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP has successfully used security crises as a pretext to use state institutions of law and order to persecute potential political opposition. After the HDP’s decision to defy Erdogan and enter the next election, Erdogan started the re-certification of the HDP, saying, “I visited 5 cities, the mayors of which were members of HDP. None of those mayors came to welcome me. Because they had orders from the mountains. They are commanded by the mountains. They have no will of their own.”[1]

Here he is referring to the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK’s headquarters are, implying that the HDP mayors – who underwent security checks and clearances by Turkish judicial institutions and intelligence agencies before the elections and were democratically elected – were terrorists. 

The AKP’s shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Hagia Sophia was converted into the mosque by the Erdogan regime in Turkey on July 10, 2020. After that, several groups have celebrated the decision in front of Hagia Sophia. Photo: Ugur Ferhat Baloglu


In a similar vein, the AKP had promised to return properties seized from various minority groups, including the Holy Cross Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Isle in Van Lake and the re-opening of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. These promises became a token of good faith. Erdogan even said, “The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin, or different way of life are over” (Sheklian, 2018; Arsu, 2011). However, when faced with a severe economic crisis and other policy failures, the AKP instead chose to rely on Islamic populism to solidify its support. In 2020, the two iconic Istanbul churches were converted from museums to mosques, the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Serhan, 2020). 

Hagia Sophia’s first congregational prayers after its reconversion were led by Erdogan himself and Ali Erbas, the head of Diyanet (the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs). Erbas said, “The reopening of Hagia Sophia… is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function.” This conveniently denied the church’s rich past tracing back to Byzantium (Dawn, 2020).

This shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire. In this instance, the AKP promises retributive justice for the wronged “Black Turks” by restoring what is rightfully theirs.     

After more than a decade in power, the AKP lost its Parliamentary majority in 2015. However, it maintained significant control through the presidential office, which Erdogan had assumed. To undo the effects of the 2015 elections, a number of “disasters” took place, always orchestrated by the “enemies” of the Turkish people. Erdogan called an early election due to PKK terrorism and the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists (Cornell, et al, 2015). Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the AKP was able to consolidate nearly all political and legal power in its hands. 

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy and other policy failures. Fethullah Gulen, once viewed as an AKP ally, had been public enemy number one since the fallout after the 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. The AKP accused Gulen and his followers of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country (BBC, 2020)

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country. Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through a constitutional referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one.

A military coup attempt plunged Turkey into a long night of violence and intrigue on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.


Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This change gave Erdogan – now president – the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). The AKP had successfully used populism to prey on the populace’s fears and insecurities. The party had also succeeded at labelling all opposition – Kemalists, Gulenists, civil society, political parties, and the media – as threats to the country. Thus, the government justified the highly inhumane and undemocratic arrests carried out following the failed coup. 

As part of this purge, the AKP seized media companies and educational centres. The party understood these institutions posed a threat to its populism. The organizations were shuttered or became AKP mouth pieces. Post-July 2016, the AKP took over or closed down all educational institutions associated with the Gulen Movement. The institutes taken over have been given to pro-AKP NGOs or the Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP government also used it ties with certain countries to extradite Gulen employees living abroad, close foreign Gulen-affiliated school, and re-open the schools under control of loyal NGOs or other organizations (Aljazeera, 2016).

The AKP has effectively used terror to sow multiple conspiracy theories to delegitimize the “others.” Not only has the government accused Gulen of masterminding the coup attempt, but it also claims the Gulen Movement is funded by the United States and bent on destroying Turkey. 

Excuses like this create an external enemy while also covering up AKP failures. For instance, the former Finance Minister explained why the Turkish currency was so devalued by blaming, without any evidence, foreign conspirators: “Some countries are in [on] this scheme, as well as financial institutions and the interest rate lobby. These include some Muslim countries, too. I will not name names here, I am only drawing the framework” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2018). Thus, America and the “Jewish lobby,” along with its Gulf allies and Saudi Arabia, are the biggest “enemies.” 

This myth is further legitimized in the public view when it is linked to the Treaty of Sèvres, which partitioned Ottoman territories among European powers (this was followed three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne, which created the Republic of Turkey, but also disconnected it from its Muslim past). Thus, capitalizing on this past trauma, the AKP has incited fear of “outside conspiracies” that seek to destabilize the country. The country hides behind these conspiracies while also using them to solidify its base. 

According to the AKP’s narrative, reinforced through its nearly total control of the media and the Diyanet, “New Turkey” is destined for greatness. Erdogan, in recent years, has vowed “not to make the same mistakes again” in reference to facing “defeat” at the hands of the Western-Jewish lobby. In one of his speeches, he made this explicit: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share in Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream of doing the same about the Republic of Turkey… We tear up the scenarios of those who want to besiege our country politically, economically, and militarily … To those who are surprised by Turkey’s rising again, like a giant who woke up from its century-old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!” (Global Village Space, 2020).

The AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims. As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage.

A Supporter of ruling AKP holds party flags during an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey on June 3, 2015. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

The AKP and its ‘New Turkey’ 

The AKP has always been the party of Erdogan. The pre-2017 Turkish constitution highlighted that anyone selected as President must abandon his/her affiliation with any political parties and remain impartial. However, when Erdogan was elected president, in 2014, he ignored this. Even after his election as president, he did not fully separate himself from the AKP. He wanted to rule over the party through proxies. For example, fearing of losing his influence on the party, Erdogan did not let the AKP, then under Ahmet Davutoglu, form a coalition government after it lost its majority in June 2015 and instead pushed for a snap election in November of the same year. He also forced Davutoglu to resign/abdicate party leadership in favour of an Erdogan loyalist, Binali Yildirim.  Those posing a threat to Erdogan’s control of the party – including founding members – were gradually eliminated (Pitel, 2020). Having changed the constitution and introduced a sui generis presidential system in April 2017, Erdogan “legalized” his connection with the AKP and he resumed his role as party leader. This phenomenon is named the “President with a party system (Partili Cumhurbaşkanlığı sistemi) (Gözler, 2017).

Following the 2017 referendum, Erdogan now has the ability to choose his own officials for the highest offices in the country, ranging from the judiciary to vice chancellors of universities. This foundational change to Turkey’s democratic structure was made possible by the AKP’s populism. The party used the anxiety over “the other” to justify its desire for a more centralized government. The formation of the “President with a party” system was the final step in the AKP’s authoritarian transformation. The AKP can use force entirely at its discretion, as a large portion of the population trusts the party to keep them safe. 

Thus, the AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims (Yilmaz, 2021). As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage. That same citizen fully believes that Turkey is ready to avenge its historical loss – the destruction of the Ottoman Empire – and dominate the world once again. All the while, the AKP ensures that any threats to this new utopia are dealt with swiftly and strictly; no one can “mess” with Turkey like they once did.  

Erdogan and his party have emphasized their position as “authentic Turks.” For instance, Erdogan famously said, “In this country there are White Turks, as well as Black Turks. Your Brother Tayyip is from the Black Turks” (Ferguson, 2013). At this point, any dissenting voices are either jailed or driven out of the country, as they are not truly representatives of “the people’s” views and are deemed foreign propaganda (Göknar, 2019)

To religiously legitimize its authoritarian turn, the AKP has relied on fatwas and support from religious institutes to provide it validity. For example, Diyanet’s head, Mehmet Gormez, issued a statement after the 2016 failed coup attempt. It read: “Praise to Allah for granting the calls to prayer that silenced the coup, after the [past] coups that have silenced calls to prayer” (Fabbe & Guiler, 2016). Adding more divine legitimacy to the issue, Erdogan added that the coup attempt was as “a gift from God” that has “fortunately” unmasked the “parallel” structures within the state, thus saving the people, their party, and the leader (Fabbe & Guiler, 2016). 

The AKP is now extending its populism to other countries. It has been busy generating a neo-Ottoman narrative rooted in a blend of civilizationalism and pan-Islamism. Turkey is increasingly involved in Africa and Asia’s Muslim-majority countries. This takes the form of joint military exercises, trade agreements, welfare programs, cultural exchanges, lending diplomatic support, and at times aiding in conflicts. Recent examples include support given by Ankara to Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir territory. Erdogan also boosted Turkey’s role in Libya, saying, “The road to peace in Libya goes through Turkey” (Maziad and Sotiriadis, 2020).

To consolidate support ahead of the next election in 2023, the AKP is floating an expanded neo-Ottoman fantasy – that Turkey has the “right” to demand the return of its lost Ottoman territories in Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran. According to Erdogan, after 100 years, the Lausanne Treaty will have come to an end; then, Turkey will wield its “real” influence – influence that has been kept in check by Western power and financial lobbies (Elitas & Serpil, 2019)

Increasingly, the AKP and Erdogan have positioned themselves as the rightful heir of the Sunni Muslim world, referencing their Ottoman past and Muslim Democrat image. This posturing hasn’t always taken the form of overt political manoeuvring: the famous AKP-supported TV serial, “Dirilis: Ertugrul,” has taken by storm a number of countries where “New Turkey” looks to deepen its influence. The story narrates the fictional, humble-yet-courageous beginning of the Ottoman Empire at a time when disunited Muslim tribes were victims of the Crusaders and “pagan” Mongols. Thus, according to the story, the Muslim’s plight was answered by Ertugrul, who eventually established the Ottoman Empire (Maziad and Sotiriadis, 2020). This show is spreading Turkey’s neo-Ottoman narrative – that Turkey has the solutions to problems facing the (Sunni) Muslim world.  

The AKP-led “New Turkey” has been built around nepotism, clientelism, authoritarianism, conspiracy theories, populism, and an Islamism closely mirrors the Milli Gorus ideology that, at one point, the party was eager to distance itself from. Yet today, the AKP proudly espouses these values, working them deep into the socio-political fabric of Turkish society (Cornell, at all 2015).

Whatever happens in 2023, it is undeniable that the AKP has transformed Turkey from a Kemalist state to a more right-wing Islamist populist state that seeks to export its ideas and influence on other Muslim majority countries. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

The AKP’s Future  

Turkey’s 2019 local elections showed that the AKP has fallen in popularity – at least in cities, where the CHP remains the main opposition force (Gill, 2020). Although the AKP won a plurality of votes, the CHP won the mayoral elections in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, Turkey’s three biggest cities.  

In the past, the AKP has shown tendency to successfully either engulf parties within the AKP or shut them down. However, it is still unclear what the AKP will do about the CHP as the critical 2023 general elections draw closer. It must not be forgotten that the AKP draws most of its support from rural areas; thus, its defeat in secularized cities cannot be a clear indication of its nationwide defeat. The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the Turkish economy, and the financial situation may only get more precarious as the Turkish lira sinks even lower against the dollar. Erdogan has fired a number of officials that have been used as scapegoats, including his very own son-in-law, the now former finance minister, Berat Albayrak (Gill, 2020).

Whatever happens in 2023, it is undeniable that the AKP has transformed Turkey from a Kemalist state to a more right-wing Islamist populist state that seeks to export its ideas and influence on other Muslim majority countries. 


The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The AKP’s success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP and Erdogan are like conjoined twins. During his one interregnum as leader, during his first presidential term, he ruled the party through his proxies and then changed the Constitution to “legalize” his control over the party and the parliament. 

Although the AKP once campaigned as a Muslim Democrat party, it has over the years turned to Islamist authoritarianism and populism to hide its failures and transgressions, exploiting Turkey’s existing anxieties and religions and ethnic divides to survive. It has gradually expanded the definition of “the other,” starting with the Kemalist elite before demonizing civil society, “foreign-sponsored” Gulenists, and non-Turkish groups such as Kurds. All of these “others” have been used as scapegoats, creating an atmosphere of terror that the AKP has used to curb any political opposition. All critical media and educational institutions have been subdued into silence. Almost no critical voices remain in Turkey. Those who might speak out risk being labelled a traitor. By creating a state of constant threat, the AKP can resort to calls for “law and order” – something that only the strongman AKP can deliver. Thus, the party can justify “going tough” on the various “terrorists” who are trying to undermine the nation’s wellbeing, further eliminating any opposition.            

The party uses three gambits to support itself. First, successive changes to state institutions have led to displacement of the former Kemalist regime and strong institutional checks and balances. Second, the presidential system increasingly allows the AKP to legitimately practice its authoritarian actions and policies. It uses the same power to crush any political, civil, or media opposition. At the same time, it has used educational institutes and the Diyanet to spread its narrative, producing a generation of AKP loyalists who are susceptible to the anxieties that the party has used to amass power and secure its future. Lastly, the AKP has been able to use its position in power to create a new bourgeoisie, one whose business deals are facilitated by public officials; in return, a patronage-based relationship is established, to ensure the AKP has powerful friends and allies in the private sector. 

“New Turkey” is now a reality. After twenty years of AKP rule, the party has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights. Yet the AKP’s ideology is a dangerous entanglement of religion and nostalgic pride in Ottoman culture, giving it unparalleled legitimacy in the eyes of its Turkish supporters and also in the eyes of Muslims around the world, where the AKP seeks to export its specific variant of populism.  


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Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 3, 2021.


Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) used to be an activist party at a time when civil society was highly subdued under a military regime. Through modest civil disobedience, it has graduated to the status of a formidable opposition party. It has used populist rhetoric and tactics to delegitimize and “otherize” the conventional parties and position itself as the ideal voice and hope for “the people.” It has used a wide array of ideologies to support its populism, which tapped into deep-rooted anxieties in the public’s psyche.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Since its inception, Pakistan has faced several crises of governance. As a young state, it lost its founding father in 1948, hardly a year after its birth, leaving the country in the hands of relatively inexperienced politicians who mainly came from the landed elite. Poverty, ethno-linguistic rifts, civil war, a lack of economic output, and refugee crises – along with internal and external security issues – all challenged the country, which oscillated between military dictatorships and brief periods of populist democratic-turned-autocratic governments.

The late 1980s and 1990s brought a window of opportunity for political parties; however, during government instability coupled with corruption and resource mismanagement led to the general public seeing their needs unmet. Through consecutive failed democratic governments led by the two main parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), corruption, rampart poverty, insecurity, and growing external debt were core issues. Amidst this backdrop of crumbling institutional capacity emerged a small party called the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).[1]

PTI was founded by the iconic Pakistani sportsman, Imran Khan, in 1996. Khan was a national hero: under his captaincy, Pakistan’s national cricket team has won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992, after a hotly contested match against England. He was a well-respected public figure who had spent a considerable amount of time in philanthropy, establishing the first cancer hospital in Pakistan. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre was established in Lahore on 29 December 1994. In 1985, Khan’s mother had scumbled to cancer, inspiring him to build a hospital for the poor who had no access to cancer treatment. There are now branches of the hospital in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (the latter under construction), and they provide world-class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford the treatments. 

Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish the not-for-profit tertiary educational institute, Namal. Khan had spread his campaigns across every section of society, making him a beloved figure. His fundraisers were high profile – Princess Diana was even present at one – while at the grassroots level, children called the “Tigers” collected funds for his causes. Thus, when Imran Khan launched PTI in 1996, he was seen as an honest and dedicated figure, despite speculation about his ability to survive the Pakistani political arena. He had no history of corruption and, most importantly, was a man who felt dard (pain) for the common people. 

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf are holding protest demonstration against detention of social media activists by law enforcers on May 22, 2017 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

From an Infant Party to Activist Party 

PTI in its early years struggled to gain a mass following. With no experience in politics, surviving in a country like Pakistan was difficult. Most mainstream parties have dynastic, feudalistic, and baradari (caste-based) voter banks and roots. In the first elections that it contested, in 1997, the party was unable to win a single seat in the national or provincial assemblies. In this period, it didn’t accept offers by PML-N to join their party, as PTI believed the status quo to be corrupt. 

Throughout the latter part of the 1990s, PTI’s membership was restricted to a group of reformist elite who were seeking to address Pakistan’s core issues, such as poverty, health inequality, out-of-school children, and other human development issues. A group of Western-educated members under the leadership of Khan, himself an Oxford graduate, sought to bring change to the people. 

Following the Kargil disaster, where Pakistan was defeated by India in the disputed territory of Kashmir, a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government. In 2001, Musharraf instituted the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, installing himself as President and calling for fresh elections in 2002. Post 9/11, PTI remained a one-man party, and it supported Musharraf’s reformist agenda of eradicating terrorism and other core issues. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PML-Q) won the most votes in 2002, and PTI, in its second election, won one seat in the National Assembly, from Mianwali Khan’s hometown; it formed a coalition with minority parties jointly called the National Alliance (NA). 

PTI refused invitations from Musharraf to join the ruling coalition, remaining true to NA coalition, one that included prominent figures such as the former President Farooq Ahmad Lagari and religious cleric turned politician Tahir-ul-Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT). Winning a seat in the National Assembly gave PTI a platform to voice its agenda. The head of the party made proactive use of Pakistan’s newly privatized media landscape. During the Musharraf regime, censorship was a huge issue, yet the media market was also highly liberalized; as a result, several private news channels emerged (Hasan, 2017).

It was during primetime talk shows that PTI gained a market for its populist ideals. Imran Khan became a fixture on media shows and spread, in the early days, an “activist” populism. By this point, Khan opposed the authoritarian Musharraf Presidency and his supposed “US backing.” For the second time in two decades, America had involved Pakistan in its affairs with Afghanistan. The “war on terror” led to a number of Taliban crossing the porous Pakistan-Afghan border and to seek refuge in the tribal Western regions of the country. The “Talibanization” of these remote areas led the US to attack many hotspots in Pakistan via drone strikes – strikes that killed a large number of innocent civilians as well as militants. 

Pakistan was caught in the crosshairs. On the one hand, US drone strikes; on the other, the Taliban frequently targeted schools, public offices, places of worship, and markets. These attacks killed thousands of Pakistani civilians. This gave PTI the perfect opportunity to adapt itself to the new political realities and use populist anti-US sentiment to gain a foothold in the political debates on primetime shows and in other news media.

This was a shift. In the 1990s, its concerns were more humanitarian; now, it addressed divisive issues that were highly charged, such as the US’s involvement in Pakistan, the drone strikes in tribal areas, the future of democracy in the country, and the worsening security situation for the average Pakistani. PTI spent this time carrying out modest rallies and protests as well. For instance, Imran Khan staged a hunger strike in 2007 when Musharraf unconstitutionally dismissed the country’s Chief Justice (Walsh, 2007). PTI went on national TV and talked about the taboo topic of “missing persons,” such as Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and those “disappeared” in Balochistan (Mir, 2018). Touching the “forbidden” issues gave PTI the image of a party that was brave and not afraid of the military government or the US. The anti-US rhetoric was hugely popular, growing PTI’s popularity in a society where anti-West feelings run deep.

During this period, Imran Khan publicly called out Musharraf, exclaiming at one public protest, “your General Musharraf will not survive nor shall the money you looted be safe”. It was during this period that PTI aired its concerns over “foreign” involvement in the country; Khan, the only elected member from his party, was very vocal about America and the colonial attitudes of Western powers. In an interview, he aired his views by saying: “Across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go …. The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country” (Inskeep, 2008). For his outspoken stance and part in the Lawyers Movement, the PTI leader was jailed in 2007. 

PTI was an activist party at a time when civil society groups were curbed. It gained public notoriety through its populist anti-West and pro-democracy rhetoric, holding itself in opposition to Pakistan’s fourth military dictatorship and the second American-led Afghan war (Montagne & Reeves, 2007).

Rise to Opposition 

In 2008, PTI took its activism against the regime very seriously. Unlike the mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) and PML-N, it was not an established part of the political landscape. As such, it decided to not partake in the 2008 general elections, once again positioning itself as the “outsider” who refused to play by the “dirty” and “corrupt” rules. The party firmly believed that the Musharraf regime was still in control and would skew the election results. In an interview Khan said: “Sooner or later, we will have to have free and fair elections…… Any government coming out of these fraudulent elections is not going to last long” (Inskeep, 2008).

As Khan was out of parliament between 2008-2013, his party now focused on using media and mass campaigns to position itself as an “external” opposition. The PPP-led Zardari government saw a rise in inflation, corruption, and external debt, and by 2013, the people were tired of the PPP government and the passive opposition of the PML-N. The presence of PTI as a party with a “non-corrupt” leader greatly appealed to the people; during this period, PTI increased its presence on social media and attended many marches and gatherings called jalsas before the 2013 elections. PTI was becoming an immensely popular personality party, a fact that was evident in October 2011, when masses of people flooded the PTI jalsa in Lahore’s Minto Park (Dawn, 2011).

These gatherings were new in the sense that they featured women, children and young people in unprecedented numbers. The jalsas featured musical concerts by famous singers/bands such as Ibrar ul Haque, Shehzad Roy, the Strings band, and Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi. They also featured fiery speeches opposing the corrupt Zaradari oligarchy delivered by Chairman Khan. Khan used his crude and witty remarks to speak the mind of “the people.” These gatherings were a sharp contrast to other political rallies, which rarely used music in the way PTI did and were not “family friendly”; few political rallies allowed women, children, and youth to participate (Mullah, 2017).

PTI’s support increased as it increasingly positioned itself as the party for insaf (justice); thus, the supporters were commonly referred to as insafians (justice-seekers) and at times as youthias (the youth), given its immense popularity amongst younger Pakistanis.

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf and PTI members of Provincial Assembly are holding anti corruption rally passing through the road, on May 06, 2016 in Peshawar. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

PTI’s support increased as it increasingly positioned itself as the party for insaf (justice); thus, the supporters were commonly referred to as insafians (justice-seekers) and at times as youthias (the youth), given its immense popularity amongst younger Pakistanis. In a society where police and the courts, the pinnacles of justice, take bribes to do their jobs, the call for “justice” was a chord that struck deep. This was especially true for youth who’d grown up hearing about corruption, terrorism, inflation, and unemployment. In the early 2010s, urban areas and in particular the middle class gravitated towards PTI’s anti-status quo stance, attracted by its lack of corruption and the fact it was a new party, free of the usual hereditary politics. And unlike the PPP and PML-N, PTI didn’t have a history of broken electoral promises (Warraich, 2018).

In 2012, in response to continued drone killings, PTI took the courageous decision to launch a motorcade “march” in the drone-impacted areas on Pakistan’s western frontier. Its presence in South Waziristan brought the party great acclaim at home, as no other party had dared to venture into the troubled region, again assuring its supporters that PTI was unlike others and possessed the courage to make the right decisions (BBC, 2012). The party and its chairman became the voice of dissent on the issue of the Taliban. While terrorism claimed lives in Pakistan on an almost daily basis, PTI argued that military intervention was not the solution. This solidified its support amongst the predominantly foreign-educated and upper middle-class elites (Mullah, 2017).

At the same time, PTI voiced its sympathy for the Taliban, who they believed had been “used” by the US during the Soviet era and were now being hunted.  Khan believed there were “good” and “bad” Taliban, a common conservative position at the time (Mullah, 2017). The party talked of mediation, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation. Thus, PTI was seen as a rational and pro-peace building party that believed in reforming and integrating the “good” Taliban back into society (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017; Dawn, 2011). Again, PTI had struck a populist chord and appeased two polar opposite sides of society.

The anti-US rhetoric and a narrative of change, anti-corruption, and peace, coupled with the jalsas and the chairman’s past charity, all buoyed PTI before the 2013 general elections. The hopes for a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) throughtabdeli (change) embedded in justice led to a boost in support for PTI. This tsunami would bring change to society. For over 60 years, the country had seen the deterioration a promise of change and worsening social and economic conditions. The media and social media coverage helped position PTI as the “outsider” led by the kaptan (captain). The charisma of the kaptan was the core of PTI. 


Ascent to Power and ‘Container’ Politics 

Until 2011, PTI opposed aligning itself with “politically electable” candidates, but as the 2013 elections neared, a number of prominent figures such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi (current Foreign Minister) from the PPP and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi and his brother from the PML-N joined the party (Rao, 2018). A small number of ex-PML-Q members also joined the party, such as sugar tycoon Jahangir Tareen. In addition, many notable elites joined the party. These included s Dr Arif Alvi (the current President) and Dr Shireen Mazari (the current Federal Minister for Human Rights) (Dawn, 2011). PTI gradually gained momentum by not only amassing a cult of insafians but also key political players. It made a comprise which it justified as means to an end. That end? Secure power to usher in meaningful change for the people. 

In its third general elections, PTI fared well. It was not able to secure a majority of the votes nationally, but it won a majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) by securing 19 percent of the votes and winning 48 seats (Election Commission of Pakistan, 2013). PTI formed its first coalition government with the far-right Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), left-leaning Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), and a host of independent candidates. This odd coalition (when PTI already had a comfortable majority) was led by Pervez Khattak, a reformist ex-PPP supporter. 

PTI also secured seats in Punjab, where it positioned itself as the opposition. 

In KPK, a war-torn region severally impacted by the war on terror, PTI launched a number of reformist programs that focused on technocratic solutions pertaining to good governance, e-governance, public-private partnerships, accountability, and anti-corruption. It established several commissions to promote businesses, provided infrastructure for commerce in the region, and make it smoother to deal with street-level bureaucracy (Daudzai, 2018).

These policies and measures failed to alleviate the widespread problems, especially as PTI failed to implement the 18thConstitutional Amendment, which gave provinces the autonomy to establish local governments that support the implementation of policies (Daudzai, 2018). To appease its partner JI, school curriculums were “Islam-ized” and Quran classes became compulsory – this despite PTI campaigning on de-radicalizing youth (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014). During its first term, PTI acted as a populist party in two ways. It compromised by Islamizing school curriculum, appeasing its right-wing partner, and it was unable to effectively translate its populist ideals into realities that benefited the people.

Inayatullah Khan, the local Governance Minister, pointed out, “There are errors in current textbooks which go against our values.” He explained, “We live in an Islamic society, women don’t wear skirts here.” The Minister further showed his contempt for the previous government, which removed the religious chapter and replaced it with “chapters on Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama and Neil Armstrong” (Dawn, 2014).

Unable to live up to its promises, the party frequently hid its failures behind increasingly dense and intensifying populist rhetoric focusing on vindictive character assassinations of political opponents, specifically through the use of crude and foul language.

PTI frequently shied away from the realities on the ground and blamed the federal government (under control of the PML-N) for not providing funds to fully achieve its goals. For instance, a senior PTI party member conceded that the party had failed to bring about transparency and accountability in the province but asserted that, “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he was the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis”(Sadaqat, 2017).

Unable to live up to its promises, the party frequently hid its failures behind increasingly dense and intensifying populist rhetoric focusing on vindictive character assassinations of political opponents, specifically through the use of crude and foul language. It also petitioned the courts, alleging “rigged” election results. In its quest to drag down Nawaz Sharif, PTI framed him as the “enemy” of the people, not merely a political rival. The call for Naya Pakistan was contrasted to the corrupt and dismal current Pakistan. 

Together, these steps were enough to distract people from the party’s own poor performance. The jalsas from the pre-election days gave PTI the street power to galvanize supporters. Post-2013, the mass turned into dharna (container) politics, in which Imran Khan roused huge mobs while he sat inside a shipping container, only to emerge to deliver his fiery speeches – thus earning the name “container politics” (BBC, 2014).

The speeches talked about bringing dignity to the wronged people by kicking out the “corrupt” and making the country “great” for the ordinary masses. PTI was certainly not the first or last to use this style of container politics; however, its populist message was so well received that it staged one of the longest dharnas in the country’s modern history (Khan, 2019).

Soon after the 2013 election results, PTI launched a court case against the ruling PML-N government, accusing them of vote-rigging (Lashari & Mirza, 2013). PTI’s populist drive for “justice” was buoyed by young people and the party’s social media “army,” which took the internet by storm, demanding change and spreading the party’s populist narrative (Jahangir, 2020). 

In 2014, PTI collaborated with right-wing religious scholar Tahir ul Qadri and his PAT; together, they launched mass civil disobedience campaigns that started on 14 August 2014 and were called off on 17 December of the same year (Express Tribune, 2014). In 2013, Qadri and his disciples had blocked the main intersection in Islamabad, protesting against the “corrupt government.” This came to be known as the “Long March” (2013). Qadri had amassed support on the promise that, “tomorrow, the injustices will end, and these corrupt people will no longer run the government” (Rodriguez, 2013).

After the protests and elections in June 2014, several of Qadri’s disciples from his religious NGO Minhaj-ul-Quran were killed in Model Town, Lahore, by Punjab Police. The killings led PAT to join PTI’s Azadi March (Freedom March) or the Tsunami March with new zeal as they sought to avenge the blood of the “martyrs of the Model Town Massacre” (Imran, 2014). PTI strategically used a national tragedy to join forces with the religious right-wing populist party in an effort to pressure the government into resigning and calling new elections. It was deeply cynical, but PTI convinced its supporters that this was a necessary part of ridding Pakistan of “the corrupt politicians” (Mullah, 2017).

For 126 days, PTI and its partner organized marches across Pakistan and sit-ins, mainly in Islamabad and other key cities. They demanded tribunals to investigate alleged election fraud. These protests were given 24/7 live coverage on numerous media channels; primetime “analytical gurus” buzzed about the future of Pakistani politics and the rise of a highly popular Khan. PTI was now a serious political contender. PTI trended across all media platforms. The party’s anti-corruption call, and their insistence that foreign involvement end, became household discussions around the country. 

PTI was the perfect messenger. It was a relatively new party, with no substantial corruption allegations against it and a charismatic leader who communicated with the masses in plain and frank language about their core issues and gave them hope for a better, fairer society – a utopian, Naya Pakistan (Mullah, 2017)

By the end of the protests, PTI was increasingly seen as a “silver bullet” for the country’s problems: its anti-corruption message was the answer to it all. It was simple logic, according to the PTI: Pakistan was a poor country with no money because the corrupt had looted it; thus, once the corrupt elite – including the politicians – were brought to justice, the money would return, and the country would be prosperous (Mullah, 2017).

This “common-sense” populist logic helped the party connect to people all rungs of society. “Go Nawaz Go” became a national slogan, which PTI supporters chanted at rallies and hash-tagged across social media (Dawn, 2014).

PTI dominated the politics of the period, despite being in the opposition. It also triggered a second court case against PML-N and its core members such as Nawaz Sharif and his family – this time, for an alleged money laundering scheme. PTI vowed to bring justice by prosecuting the corrupt Nawaz oligarchy. This movement gained credibility after Nawaz family members were linked to the leak of the Panama Papers (Cheema, 2017). During the year-long trial, PTI was again all over the media in an effort to gather public support and call out the sitting government. They also organized a series of sit-in, dharnas, and protests in front of key government buildings, as well as the Sharif’s residence itself in Riwind, Lahore (Cheema, 2017; Specia, 2017)

PTI’s was increasingly exerting pressure on state intuitions, such as the judiciary, to follow their directives, a highly undemocratic use of public protests. When PTI was called out for using its protests to pressure the judiciary, Khan lashed out, saying, “Is seeking justice from the courts the equivalent of pressure?” He went on to say, “They (PML-N) are the ones pressuring us!” He also warned Nawaz Sharif, “Hear me loud and clear, Nawaz Sharif: whatever you are doing here, now you shall see that the Pakistani nation will no longer silently tolerate all this!” (Cheema, 2017). Any state institution or media group that sided with the Sharifs was deemed corrupt or serving the oligarchy. In extreme cases they were “the other,” who were working against the interests of the people for selfish motives – or even carrying out foreign objectives. 

PTI increasingly positioned any opposition from the government to curb it or counter it as “schemes” by the ruling parties to deny justice to the people. Thus, any attack directed at PTI was an attack on “the people,” a populist manoeuvre to gain immunity from criticism by being one with the people. 

PTI Chairman Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

At the concurrent PTI gatherings, the same rhetoric was used to reassure the people that they were a “great nation,” and only the corrupt, status quo politicians stood in the way of achieving their destiny. Imran Khan and other PTI members repeatedly called the Nawaz brothers by various nicknames, including “blood sucking cowards,” Gidd-Sharif (vultures), Mian-Panama Sharif (mocking Nawaz for his involvement in the Panama leaks), circus-Sharifs, Drama-Sharif, and Show-baz Sharif (an actor). Following the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, PTI celebrated with a “thanksgiving” gathering. Within 24 hours of the ruling, thousands rallied to Islamabad to attend the event. This was portrayed as a victory of the people – not the party. PTI increasingly positioned any opposition from the government to curb it or counter it as “schemes” by the ruling parties to deny justice to the people. Thus, any attack directed at PTI was an attack on “the people,” a populist manoeuvre to gain immunity from criticism by being one with the people. 

Imran Khan increasingly focused on the narrative of an azad qoum – a nation free from the tyranny of the oppressive political elite and the Western agendas that had led to Pakistan’s external debt. 

Between 2013-2018, PTI came into direct confrontation with police, in particular the Punjab police, during its mass protests. The party argued that the policemen were their “brothers” or countrymen who were being used by the sitting government to create “division within the country,” serving the self-interests of the political elite. 

The sitting government was repeatedly warned that they would be held accountable for the sins they had commented against the people, and that once those who were “robbing the country in the name of democracy” were thrown behind bars and the Swiss bank accounts emptied, then, “god willing, this great country and a great nation” would have justice achieve its “true” greatness. PTI’s populist rhetoric meant that, as the voice of the people, it was always pure in its actions and intentions. The same rhetoric deflected all blame to the “status quo.”

PTI’s agenda for the 2018 elections centred around a welfare state modelled on the first Islamic state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina). It would be dedicated to serving the people, and this would be made possible by PTI ensuring that “the 5 to 10 thousand people that are sucking the blood of this country” would be weeded out and the money returned to the people. The party’s simple, populist logic for highly complex problems was accepted by the public in a country where belief in miracles is common and education is a rare commodity. 

By the end of PML-N’s term, the party had lost its main leadership, as various members of the Sharif family and fraternity were under investigation in a multitude of money laundering and tax-evasion cases, a great win for the PTI which had legitimized itself by leading the charge for these investigations. 

PTI was able to muster support that went beyond religious-cultural divides. Its promise of a welfare state based on Medina’s were accepted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives who saw this vague promise through the lens of their own interpretations. The calls of the anti-establishment parties had resonated with all sectors of the populace.

With PML-N and PPP leadership engulfed in corruption scandals, the PTI had an opportunity. Unlike other opposition parties – for example, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) that relied on ethnicity alone religious parties like JI – PTI was able to muster support that went beyond religious-cultural divides. Its promise of a welfare state based on Medina’s were accepted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives who saw this vague promise through the lens of their own interpretations. The calls of the anti-establishment parties had resonated with all sectors of the populace (Ahmed, 2018; Judah 2018). Its smear campaign to delegitimize the “corrupt” political parties left PTI as the only legitimate choice. 

PTI’s victory was secured when it welcomed several defectors from the PPP and PML-N along with former PML-Q members. It had promised various incentives to these factions, securing their loyalty – for example, the South Punjab parties were promised a separate province,[2] and after the election many key posts from Punjab and the Federal Government were handed to these factions (Adnan, 2018). PTI was politically shrewd and welcomed the likes of Shaikh Rahseed, who was a former political rival known for mocking PTI and Imran Khan. PTI welcomed and later gave ministries to the likes of Fawad Chaudhry, who previously worked with the Musharraf regime and PPP governments. In defence of the party’s sudden open-arms policy, Khan argued: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians”(Rehman 2018). Given Khan’s clean history, disillusionment with the current political parties and PTI’s simple promises to complex solutions, supporters dismissed this cynical manoeuvring as a necessary evil.

Breaking Promises — The Ass in Lion’s Skin

In the 2018 general elections, PTI won the most votes, securing 31% of the popular vote and  winning 149 seats in the national assembly (Election Commission of Pakistan, 2018). 

PTI’s leaders had pledged to its supporters that if elected to office, they would end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days. A key feature of both promises hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The Express Tribune, 2018; The News, 2018). The party had an overly ambitious 100-day agenda which outlined all the problems in the country and PTI’s promises to solve them (Dawn, 2018). However, all that glitters is not gold: PTI struggled to meet its pledges. 

On the economic front, PTI has failed to live up to its ambitions for employment, small business-led growth, and support for export driven sectors; even before the pandemic, Pakistan’s debt and liabilities surged by Rs11 trillion (more than $70 billion) within one year. During the same period, the Pakistan Stock Exchange, the KSE-100 index, saw a sharp slump coupled with one of the worst devaluations of the Pakistan Rupee against the US Dollar. Matters were made worse by the inflation rate at 7 percent, unemployment at 9 percent – it was worse among youth – and the rising prices of petrol and utilities (Eusufzye, 2018; Jamal, 2018). Thus, like any other populist party once in power, PTI found it hard to achieve its promises through its “simple” populist solutions.

Apart from the economic disaster, PTI also failed to live up to its most basic promises. None of the socialist programs inspired by Islamism panned out. The Naya Pakistan Housing, youth programs, SMEs Loans, Ehsan welfare programs, the Sehat Insaf Cards, even Tree Tsunami … all are under investigation for corruption charges (Qayyum, 2020; Khan, 2020; Mehmood, 2019). In the past, the party had said it would not “take the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in search of a bailout, yet after a year of delaying, PTI eventually opted for an IMF package (Farmer, 2020). When faced with the realities of a large population and nearly empty state coffers, the party has had to backtrack. Populist rhetoric is difficult to translate into actual socio-economic change. 

The party had to rely on the US, China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries at various points for loans, a practise which PTI had previously condemned. Since assuming office, the government has not been able to solve the Kashmir dispute with India, despite their promises for a “quick fix” to the prolonged regional conflict. In fact, matters have only been made worse post-August 2019, when India scrapped the region’s autonomous status by dismissing Article 370 and 35A. In the international arena, Pakistan has found no ally other than China and Turkey to support its claims about the disputed territory (Janjua, 2020). To mask its diplomatic embarrassment, PTI leadership in the foreigner ministry has repeatedly externalized blame to the Indian and Israeli “lobbies” working to destabilize Pakistan. 

On its accountability and institutional reformist agendas, the party has also failed to meet its promises. PTI sought an end to “VIP culture,”[4] yet as the party eased into power, its ministers frequently and lavishly went on foreign tours and maintained full escorts and private facilities (Pakistan Today, 2018). In addition, PTI has failed its liberal supporters, too. Dr. Atif Mian was dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC)[5] based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school, a blow to minority rights (Dawn, 2020).

Moreover, while the PTI government flaunts its peace initiative of welcoming Sikh pilgrims to sacred landmarks such as Kartarpur, the country sees regular forced conversions, abductions, target killing, and murders of Shia Muslims and non-Muslims. PTI remains silent on most of these issues. A number of PTI members are former JI members or from JI’s student wing; thus, it did not come as a surprise when Ali Muhammad Khan, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, claimed on Twitter that beheading is the fit punishment for those who mock Prophet Mohammad (Inayat, 2020). PTI had specifically distinguished itself as having a higher moral ground on humanitarian issues, yet it has failed to deliver here, too, as it has either maintained silence on such issues or deflected the blame to India for sponsoring “terrorism” – using another layer of populism to cover its failed populist agenda.

Over the past two-and-a-half years PTI has taken an apologist approach, conceding that not all of its ministers have performed and that governing is “complex.” However, Khan has said, “The people have to decide whether we have improved their lives or not.” The fault now lies with “the others” – including people those who refused to pay taxes – and not the government. (While in the opposition, PTI blamed the previous governments for not collecting the revenue.) 

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are holding protest demonstration against rape and murder of minor Rabia, on April 22, 2018 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

PTI rose to power on the back of an unregulated media, but is now heavily reliant on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor any content it deems unfit, may it be biscuit advertisements that are “not in line with cultural values” to banning the speeches of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on charges of sedition.

In a recent interview, Khan was asked why Pakistan has a high rate of child and sexual abuse, rather than talking about the need for the government to start dialogues around sex education and abuse, he blamed the “Western porn sites” and “influences” as the cause of the horrific crimes, again shunning responsibility, shifting the blame and making use of the popular anti-West sentiments (Hum News, 2020). 

Amidst COVID-19, the government initially did little more than tell people, “Aap ne ghabrana nahi hai” (you must not panic), while the responsibility for the ravaging pandemic was blamed on the provinces, if PTI was not the majority party, or chalked up to the public’s non-cooperation (John, 2020; Dawn, 2020). When populists fail to deliver, they deflect blame and portray themselves as victims. 

PTI has also directly targeted the opposition. To ensure its survival, the party is not shy about undermining the institutional integrity of other state pillars, proof of its populist, as opposed to democratic, values. From its inception, PTI has given support to the army, and this was visible when the judiciary was targeted by PTI members after the courts handed out a death sentence to President General Pervez Musharraf. In contrast to their pervious stance on Musharraf in the 2000s, after assuming power, PTI supports the institution. Fawad Chaudhry, a Federal Minister said: “You pushed the institution [army] against the wall. It is an honour-based institution. If you keep doing this, won’t they react?” He also directly threatened the judiciary (Qayum & Haider, 2019; Gulf News, 2019).

PTI has dragged Justice Isa Qazi and his wife to court after the judge made an anti-establishment comment (Global Village Space, 2019). Imran Khan has challenged the writ of the court by objecting to the Supreme Court blocking the extension of the current army chief (Farmer, 2019). The PM stated, “The people’s confidence in country’s judicial system has been shaken and now they are looking towards the PTI government for improvement in the system” (Dawn, 2020). PTI has used pressure and mudslinging when the judiciary has not sided with them or helped them with “pro-public” decisions to maintain its grasp on power. 

PTI rose to power on the back of an unregulated media, but is now heavily reliant on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor any content it deems unfit, may it be biscuit advertisements that are “not in line with cultural values” to banning the speeches of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on charges of sedition. The government has also targeted the head of Jang Group, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, who was arrested on corruption charges in March 2020; journalists within the group had dared to publish content critical of the government. Rehman’s defenders have also faced backlash. 

The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) is another tool PTI’s used to control all forms of media, along with the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules of 2020, which aims to regulate social media (Mahbubani, 2020). The ambiguous language of the bill allows for it to ban content on charges of “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violent and national security” (Rehman, 2020).

Moreover, civil society’s dissenting voices have been squashed. Several humanitarian NGOs and INGOs have been sent packing for their “anti-state” agendas (Sayeed, 2018). While PTI once showed its support to the plight of the Pashtun victims of the “war on terror,” it is currently targeting members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) – a civil society movement that seeks peaceful conflict resolutions in the aftermath of several military operations in the region (The News, 2019).


PTI has evolved through three stages of development. It was an activist party at a time when civil society was highly subdued under a military regime. Through modest civil disobedience, it graduated to the status of a formidable opposition party. It used populist rhetoric and tactics to delegitimize and “otherize” the conventional parties and position itself as the ideal voice and hope for “the people.” It used a wide array of ideologies to support its populism, which tapped into deep-rooted anxieties in the public’s psyche.

In a country where politicians are conventionally corrupt, relations with neighbouring countries are strained, social welfare is absent, Islamism is rampant, and economic decline is a constant, PTI has successfully positioned itself as the voice of the people. It promised to drive out the corrupt elite and alleged “foreign” interventions and influences. It invited people with open arms to lively rallies where the leader spoke the language of the people, voicing their concerns and worries and presenting simplistic solutions they understood. It clearly identified the enemy and positioned itself as the solution to all problems. PTI has used religion, anti-West sentiments, its outsider status, support for welfare, and a host of social issues to craft a populist narrative that appealed to the people.

Its third evolution – becoming the government – has been a turbulent process. PTI has broken several of its promises. To deflect blame, it has used oppressive tactics, blanketing and muffling the media, charactering COVID-19 as the cause of its failures, and externalizing blame. It has blamed Western and foreign influences and called opposition parties anti-state and anti-democratic. 

Freudian displacement, projection, and rationalization have become the hallmarks of PTI’s first tenure in office. Its populist rhetoric has only intensified as the party increasingly hounds the opposition as “seditious.” Increasingly, PTI gravitates towards homegrown Islamism and pan-Islamism, all in the bid to consolidate its power while trying to appease the masses it has long placated with its populist rhetoric – a public hungry for help after prolonged socio-economic deprivation.              


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[1] The party name translates to Pakistan Justice Movement 

[2] For some time now South Punjabis have demanded a separate province based on ethno-lingual distinctions and a history of low development, which they have felt is hijacked by politics form Eastern or Central Punjab. 

[3] Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme promised subsidized housing to the working and lower middle classes to address the housing shortage. SMEs and Youth Loans have been initiated to promote small businesses and to offer job placements or internships to fresh graduates. The Tree Tsunami is an afforestation campaign. Insaf Sehat Cards and Ehsa welfare programs are aimed to provide social protections such as healthcare and cash handouts. 

[4] Where special treatment is given to elected officials or members of the government out of public funding 

[5] A Prime Minister led group of handpicked leading Pakistani economists.

A concert of Norwegian band Wardruna at Cathedral Cave, Kirkehelleren on Sanna Island during Traenafestival that is a music festival taking place on the small island of Traena in Norway on July 8, 2017. Photo: Melanie Lemahieu

Music and the Far-Right Trance

By Heidi Hart

On a cold-soaked January night in Berlin, less than a week after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, I stood with several thousand counter-protesters on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side, a smaller group of PEGIDA demonstrators had gathered with German flags and nationalist signs. Armed police held a line under the iconic pillars. Anger at the rise of xenophobic populism, which in turn had been fueled by the Paris attack, was palpable in all the bodies around me. The crowd chanted, “Nationalismus ‘raus aus den Köpfen,” a plea to unplug internalized nationalism. Loudspeakers pounded Turkish rap from a nearby truck. As the chant grew more synchronized and the crowd pressed closer to the barricade, I understood in a kinetic way what I had been researching in my doctoral work, on the power of rhythm to entrain the body politic, synching heart and breath rate to a march beat. 

In a famous scene in Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, the main character disrupts the rhythm of a Nazi march by beating a waltz on his drum, and then breaking into a syncopated foxtrot.[i] The spell of crowd manipulation breaks, if only for a short, chaotic time. Likewise, as the chanting fell off kilter in Berlin that January night, our voices syncopated by the nearby rap, I was relieved. Though my hopes for an inclusive Germany lined up with the beliefs of others around me, we could easily be swept into a pulsing trance state and lose our criticality. This embodied experience comes to mind as I track the ongoing use of music in far-right recruitment in Europe, where rapid-fire rhythms and pagan fascinations have proven dangerously effective in giving young people a sense of atavistic destiny and rhythmic accord with groups that operate as much on fear as they proclaim faux-tribal grit.

By summer 2016, nearly a hundred far-right musical events had taken place in Germany in that year alone (Staudenmaier, 2016), and have continued, most notably in the former East. Though some of these events take the form of festivals attracting large numbers of neo-Nazis, also from the U.S. (Engel & Denne, 2020) many do not come off as stadium-style rock concerts but appropriate the “high-culture” term Liederabend (Staudenmaier, 2016), traditionally a classical recital with voice and piano. Now in popular singer-songwriter format, these intimate settings allow young people who might not identify as hard-line racists to become convinced of the dangers of migration and “Islamification” in their local towns. Associating the tradition of Schubert songs with notions of nationalist superiority also echoes the Nazi co-opting of German classical music, which Thomas Mann diagnosed as collective sickness in his 1947 novel Doktor Faustus. This all-too-familiar melding of musical intimacy with far-right ideology sounds alarms for a generation raised after decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany. “Never forget” risks becoming, as some of my Trump-supporting students in the U.S. have glibly put it, “Hitler wasn’t so bad.”

The German Linke (Left) party has described fascist-flavored music as a “gateway drug,” (Staudenmaier, 2016) recalling the words of Hanns Eisler, one of Brecht’s musical collaborators during the Nazi era, who warned of music’s capacity to serve as a socio-political “narcotic” (Shams, 2019). As neo-Nazis jolt their bodies in time with hate-rock’s machine-gun beat, they are not operating in the rebel-against-everything world of punk’s rapid rhythms, but rather training their senses in rage against particular, marginalized groups. Heavy metal and its many subgenres have sometimes aligned with racist ideology over the past forty years, encouraging kinetic immersion in violent theatrics, though bands such as Rammstein have denied the white-supremacist leanings some of their fans espouse (Braun, 2019). As musicologist Lawrence Kramer has pointed out, ideology is “sticky” and can adhere to many kinds of music, because musical “meaning” is mainly associative and sound is experienced in a directly physical way[ii] (Reybrouck & Eerola, 2017).

Some bands do not attract right-wing fans just through guttural singing or harsh, precise rhythms that some might consider “Teutonic” (Herbst, 2019). Sturmwehr and Unbeliebte Jungs take pride in their overtly racist lyrics (Shams, 2019); the far-right AfD party in Germany has used such bands to recruit like-minded adherents (Corte & Edwards, 2008) and though the party has found such efforts more difficult in the past several years (Mischke, 2019) “community spread” continues to occur in gaming communities and on dark web platforms as well (Kamenetz, 2019). In 2019 police shut down several white-power concerts in Thuringia due to banned songs being performed (Shams, 2019), but “hatecore” continues to draw young people, some of whom do commit hate crimes as their commitment to white supremacy grows.  

More recently, neofolk and “Vikingarock” bands have gained large followings in Scandinavia and beyond, thanks in part to the Netflix series Vikings and The Last Kingdom. Because of the unavoidable history of Nazism’s Norse fascinations, these bands tend to disavow the fascist ideology their music tends to attract, but that disavowal can be fuzzy. Ultima Thule in Sweden, active since the 1980s, cannot avoid associations with the Nazi use of the same name for an imaginary Aryan homeland (Crane, 2019). They have brought their Viking-inflected mashup of folk, punk, and rock to numerous skinhead concerts, and, with a focus on national pride in their lyrics, are commonly known as a “white power” band.[iii]In a country where the now-defunct New Democracy party (like the AfD in Germany) included white power music in its youth recruitment (Corte & Edwards, 2008), and where the equally xenophobic Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson has been known to party with Ultima Thule (Radio Sweden, 2015), the band’s statements denying a racist agenda while valorizing national “roots” (Ultima Thule, 2007) remain problematic.

On the other hand, the Norwegian neofolk band Wardruna has set out to take back Viking-era instruments and imagery from the far right. Known in the blogosphere as “antifascist neofolk,” (ANZUS, 2018) Wardruna’s music (part of the soundtrack for Vikings) includes not only hard-driving hits like “Helvegen,” about the journey to the Norse land of the dead, but also unplugged “skald” or bard songs with simple string instruments, and songs using Celtic musical modes. Still, the lines can blur when calling up pagan mysteries once celebrated in Nazi torch parades and propaganda films. One of Wardruna’s members, who has since left the group, did have far-right leanings in his former black-metal days (ANZUS, 2018), and like the current Netflix nature-cult trend (the Danish series Equinox as an example of mood-TV that makes pagan rites seem equally dangerous and attractive), Viking-associated music can still draw fans who want to picture themselves like the costumed “shaman” who joined the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Some antidotes to far-right “stickiness” include satire, however brutal, as in the Swedish film Midsommar (as critical of American tourism as it is of neo-pagan pretensions), and even farcical humor, as in the Monty Python-style series Norsemen. In Germany, music counters music, often in the form of rap, as in songs by Japanese-German Blumio (Kuniyoshi Fumio), whose “Hey Mr. Nazi” is too catchy to sound pedantic about racist stereotyping. The pop group Misuk takes up antifascist texts by Bertolt Brecht and reimagines them for the 21st century, giving them a playful ease that appeals to younger listeners. The German Netflix series Dark draws on pagan tropes, but with a philosophical grain and chilling soundtrack that show the danger of immersion in primordial caves. 

In the literary world, Sarah Moss’ 2019 novel Ghost Wall shows where uncritical neo-paganism can lead: an anthropologist involves his family in a Stone Age role-play fantasy that becomes all too real when his daughter discovers she is meant to be a human sacrifice. Though the book begins with what some reviewers have called an “incantatory” prologue (Hagy, 2019) the story itself works against this trance-inducing language, to show what can happen when human bodies get caught up in drumming, chanting, and torch-bearing. Luckily in this case, the spell breaks as the narrator refuses to join in the chant, “no longer afraid or ashamed.”[iv]

Note: This commentary draws on my previous research on antifascist music in Germany and the narcotic effects it works to interrupt, as well as on my recent work on music in dark- ecological art and film. 



[i] Grass, Günter. (1997). Die Blechtrommel (1959), Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. 151-156

[ii] Kramer, Lawrence. (2018). The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening. University of California Press. 115-116.

[iii] Pred, Allan. (2019). Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination. University of California Press. 219. See also Teitelbaum, Benjamin R. (2017). Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism. Oxford University Press. 

[iv] Moss, Sarah. (2019). Ghost Wall. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 124. 

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro speaks in an act to support to Assembly Constituent in Caracas, Venezuela on May 23, 2017.

Nicolas Maduro: A populist without popularity

Oner, Imdat. (2021). “Nicolas Maduro: A populist without popularity.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 2, 2021.


Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Nicolas Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable.

By Imdat Oner*

Latin America has long been a fertile political landscape for populist leaders. Argentina’s Eva Peron, Peru’s Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Brazil’s Getulio Vargas, and Ecuador’s José María Velasco Ibarra are all well-known populist leaders. For these politicians, populism was a viable political strategy, one they used to mobilize people against the “elites” on their way to obtaining and retaining power. Claiming to be the embodiment of the “pure” people, Latin American populists have rejected checks and balances that would limit their power, which they view as derived from the people’s will.

A second wave of populism has taken root throughout Latin America with the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Kirshner in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. They mainly rose to power amid the rising sentiment against neoliberal policies. Adopting an anti-American discourse and anti-neoliberal approach, these pink-tide leaders have continued the region’s populist tradition. Like their predecessors, these new populist leaders appeal to the excluded masses by mobilizing against the establishment and promising better lives for their supporters. 

The rise of Chávez in Venezuela has especially inspired academic studies of populism, which is known as one of Latin America’s most enduring political traditions. Elected on the promise of ending neoliberal economic policies and corrupt politicians, the late President Chávez ruled Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. His movement, Chavismo, drew heavily on the charismatic populist connection between his leadership and the people. While he was planning to remain in power until 2021 (La Tercera, 2008), he passed away at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer. Following his death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro – in full, Nicolás Maduro Moros – came to power as Chávez’s handpicked successor. Maduro, Vice President under Chávez, was sworn-in in April 2013 as Venezuela’s interim President until new elections could be held. He inherited the leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; PSUV) and announced he would be the party’s candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. 

Designated by Chávez as his political heir, Maduro narrowly won the election. Despite a less favourable international situation and complex domestic socio-economic conditions, Maduro committed himself and his regime to further authoritarianism, to solidify his hold on power. Under his administration, Venezuela has been an emblematic case of severe democratic erosion while suffering a major economic and humanitarian crisis. This paper will seek to introduce a detailed profile of Maduro and his place within the region’s populist politics.

Maduro’s Background

Born in 1962 into a family that had heavily engaged in leftist politics and labour movements, Maduro followed his parents’ footsteps and began his political life in the student union during his high school years (The Guardian, 2013). His educational career is murky. Several records indicate that he could not finish high school (Cola, 2018). The most well-known fact about Maduro’s early age is that he worked as a bus driver. In those years, Maduro was actively attending labour union activities. He got involved in politics through leftist groups such as Rupture and the Socialist League (Dobson, 2018). At 24, Maduro moved to Cuba and attended a one-year course at the Escuela Nacional de Cuadros Julio Antonio Mella, a political training centre run by the Union of Young Communists (Oropeza, 2013). He trained to become a professional revolutionary (Naim and Toro, 2018). His connection with Cuba at this young age would later play a critical role in his regime’s survival.

Maduro was long part of Chávez’s inner circle. His first connection with Chávez dates to the early 1990s. Maduro participated in the 1992 military coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, which was led by Chávez (Oropeza, 2013).After the failed attempt, Chávez was sent to a military prison; Maduro campaigned for his release (The Guardian, 2013).Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, led the legal team that worked to get Chávez freed. Since the beginning, Maduro and his family were among Chávez’s most faithful supporters. 

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder.

The former presidents of Cuba, Raul Castro (L) and of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez (c) and Nicolas Maduro (R) in Cumana, Venezuela on April 17, 2009.

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder. First, he took an active role in founding the Fifth Republic Movement, initiated by Chávez ahead of the 1998 elections. After Chávez’s successful rise to power in 1998, Maduro became part of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the new Venezuelan constitution. Then, he served a long string as a deputy at Parliament. He was re-elected in the 2005 parliamentary elections and became the President of the National Assembly. One year later, Chávez appointed him Minister of Foreign Affairs. The former bus driver was the longest-serving minister at this post during Chávez’s reign (Alarcon Deza, 2014). In 2012, shortly after Chávez’s victory in the presidential election, Maduro became Vice President. Before leaving for surgery in Cuba in December 2012, Chávez picked his long-time loyal confidant as his successor. In his last public appearance, President Chávez described Maduro as “a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations” (Chuck, 2017).

Is Maduro A Populist Leader?

Jan-Verner Mueller (2013) has raised a critical question: “Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular and charismatic leader?” It is generally accepted that populist leaders derive their legitimacy and authority from the people and their popular support. Claiming to have the people’s support, populists believe in popular sovereignty as manifested by regular elections and referenda representing the people’s will. Put simply, this has never been the case for Maduro. First of all, Maduro was appointed by Chávez as his successor. While carrying out his role as interim president, he ran for office in special elections convened in April 2013, in the wake of Chávez’s death. Maduro had neither Chávez’s charisma nor his support. Calling himself “the son of Chávez,” Maduro narrowly won the election against opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a mere 1.5 percent. Compared to other populist leaders, he has grown deeply unpopular since his election. 

Lacking Chávez’s charisma, Maduro has been unable to enjoy the level of popular support Chávez did. Shortly after he assumed office, his job approval suffered amid rising economic problems, including hyperinflation, devaluation, and rampant poverty. Among the populace, there was a growing distrust of the Maduro government. According to Corrales and Bergen (2016), there was no single indicator of governance that improved under Maduro, and he was perceived as the weakest president in Venezuelan history. The existing problems pointed to significant losses for Maduro and his party in upcoming elections. Reliable polling indicated that Maduro’s approval rating stood below 25 percent before the end of 2014, and around two-thirds of the country believed that he would not be able to complete his first presidential term (Reuters, 2014). These numbers make more sense when put in context and compared to his predecessor’s approval ratings. Since Chávez first came to power in 1999, his party, The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), has dominated Venezuelan politics. During the Chávez era, PSUV won every election, both presidential and parliamentary. And remarkably, Chávez won his last election, in 2012, by 11 points and enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating just before he died (Corrales and Bergen, 2016). 

Maduro’s low approval rating suggests he lacks a unique feature of populist leaders: charismatic appeal. As Carlos de la Torre has written, in hyper-personalistic regimes, charisma cannot be transferred to a handpicked successor (De la Torre, 2017). As Maduro lacks personal charisma, he constantly invokes Chávez’s memory and legacy to capitalize on the latter’s genuine popularity among the people. Before he was elected in 2013, Maduro overwhelmingly relied on his predecessor’s political capital and legitimacy to gain the people’s support. Maduro and party followers strongly endorsed the slogan of “Chávez lives! The struggle continues! Always fighting for victory, Comandante!” (Angosto-Ferrández, 2016). Although Maduro sought to emulate Chávez’s tactics and style, his fierce rhetoric without strong charisma failed to galvanize Chávez’s electoral base.

Maduro’s low approval rating became more evident in the 2015 parliamentary elections. The electoral coalition of the opposition parties, called Mesa de Unidad Democrática, (Democratic Unity Table – MUD), won a landslide victory against the ruling party PSUV. The result was a record 74 percent turnout, with 58 percent of voters supporting the opposition and only 42 percent supporting the government (Neuman, 2015). PSUV lost control of the assembly for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999. The opposition achieved a three-fifths majority, which enabled them to pass laws, censure, and remove government ministers and the executive vice president.

Despite lacking charisma, Maduro has displayed one classic trait of populism, by framing Venezuela’s struggle as the “pure” people against the oligarchs. A recent study from the Global Populism Discourse, which identifies populist discourse in the speeches of world leaders, labels Maduro as “very populist” on the basis of speech analysis (Lewis et al., 2019). Like his predecessor Chávez, Maduro’s discourse permanently seeks to divide society into two separate groups and explicitly articulates an existential struggle between them. The discourse mostly revolves around confrontational rhetoric, framing politics as a zero-sum game between the people and the conspiring elite. Similar to other populist leaders, Maduro treats his political opponents not as competitors but “enemies of the homeland” to be defeated (Rodriguez-Garavito and Gomez 2018). Rhetorically, he portrays himself as a victim, even at the height of his power, blaming domestic or foreign elites. Ultimately, the populist discourse aims at legitimizing the use of any means to stay in power.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country, Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. 

The members of the Venezuelan resistance protested against the Maduro government in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

New Authoritarianism Under an Unpopular Populist Leader

Even though Maduro differs from other populist leaders in terms of lower popular support, he shares another commonality with them: posing a danger to liberal democracy (Hawkins and Ruth, 2016; Weyland, 2013). After inheriting a hybrid regime, Maduro followed a playbook left in place by his predecessor. The deepening socio-economic crisis and increasing domestic instability have increased pressure on Maduro. To maintain his power, he has become more radical, adopting authoritarian tactics on several fronts, including weakening state institutions, undermining checks and balances, polarizing society into two camps, and stacking the playing field against his opponents.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. During the Chávez era, Venezuela was governed by a semi-authoritarian regime, with extremely weak democratic institutions and skewed checks and balances. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country (Corrales and Penfold, 2011; Levitsky and Loxton, 2012), Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. As a Freedom House (2017) report indicated, under the Maduro administration, Venezuela gradually transitioned from a “partly free” democracy into a “not free” authoritarian regime. As Maduro’s support has waned at home, the executive branch increasingly engages in traditional authoritarian practices to consolidate political power and eliminate any efforts that would threaten its survival. Facing internal and external crises, the Maduro administration has adopted all sorts of repressive measures, including undermining state institutions, arresting opposition leaders, and suppressing the press (Corrales, 2015: 44).

In this respect, the parliamentary elections in 2015 became a litmus test of whether the regime would accept losing any power through elections (Marsteintredet, 2020). Faced with a sweeping opposition victory, Maduro initially acknowledged the results by saying, “The bad guys won, like the bad guys always do, through lies and fraud” (The Guardian, 2015). But before long, the government implied that it had no intention of sharing its power with an opposition-led parliament. Within two years, the parliament was weakened, first by the electoral council’s denial of the seats necessary for a supermajority, next by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the authority of the legislative body, and finally by a constituent assembly that rules in the place of the National Assembly. 

In the years following the 2015 elections, the country was riven by deep polarization and faced a political impasse, as Maduro felt more insecure about holding power. By early May 2016, the opposition had submitted petitions with some 1.8 million signatures to call for a referendum that would remove Maduro from power. Nevertheless, with the help of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which the government has filled with Maduro loyalists, the referendum was blocked. This manipulation was simply another confirmation that the ruling party would not accept the results of an election that it might lose. 

Similarly, the Supreme Court repeatedly undermined the opposition-dominated National Assembly’s authority as an equal branch of power, routinely overturning the laws that it enacted. The Court has been turned into a political weapon of the Maduro administration. Shortly after the opposition gained control of parliament in 2015, Maduro repacked the Court with unconditional loyalists by circumventing the judicial appointment procedures outlined in the constitution (Freeman, 2020). The Supreme Court nullified nearly all legislation that the National Assembly passed in 2016 and stripped it of its budgetary powers. Moreover, Maduro asked the Court for extraordinary powers to govern by decree, bypassing the legislative body’s checks and balances.

Political interference in the judiciary is not new in Venezuela. This “judicial shield” was also used by Chávez, who packed the Court with his loyalists (Correa and Recinos 2016). Yet, the Supreme Court during the Maduro administration has become an arm of an authoritarian executive (IJC, 2017). A report by the International Commission of Jurists’s (IJC) indicates that the executive has decisively co-opted the Court, whose members mainly consist of members of the ruling party and ex-government officials. For example, last year, the Supreme Court unilaterally appointed a new electoral commission, which was supposed to be appointed by parliament. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court argued that the opposition-run legislature was in “unconstitutional omission.” The Court suspended the leadership of the two leading opposition parties (Primero Justicia and Acción Democrática) and appointed Maduro supporters to lead both parties instead. Finally, the Court increased the number of seats in the National Assembly from 166 to 277, a means of packing the legislature (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

While the CNE and the Supreme Court significantly curtailed the National Assembly’s authority and ability to legislate, Maduro aimed to fully dissolve it in 2017. The government controversially created a new Constituent Assembly to supersede parliament’s authority and bypass its legislation. Its alleged purpose was to draft a new constitution, yet it never happened. The Constituent Assembly assumed de facto power and made all the country’s important political decisions, giving Maduro full control of the process. This explicitly marked Venezuela’s exit from democracy. 

Under the Maduro administration, electoral irregularities have also become more common (Corrales, 2016). The regime understands that it cannot survive a free and fair election, especially after the resounding defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Although the remine has inherited several “legacy” irregularities from Chávez, Maduro has also introduced new, election-specific irregularities of his own (Corrales, 2016). It is widely accepted that electoral conditions under Chávez were never free and fair, and the incumbent party enjoyed an uneven playing field, but the elections were more competitive and happened mostly on schedule (Corrales, 2016). During the Maduro administration, Venezuela has experienced significant electoral irregularities, including the abuse of state power to the incumbent’s advantage, gerrymandered electoral districts, and public media access for opposition candidates (Alarcón, Álvarez, & Hidalgo, 2016).The government’s electoral strategy is designed to turn out its core supporters while discouraging its opponents from voting. Maduro has created an environment that enables the ruling party to hold elections without any risk of losing. 

Meanwhile, the number of political prisoners has significantly increased under the authoritarian Maduro administration. Like other populist autocrats, Maduro has labelled the opposition leaders “traitors” serving as allies of foreign countries. Popular opposition members have been mostly side-lined from the political process, either through being jailed or forced to live in exile; some have been disqualified from holding office (Singer, 2019). The leader of the Popular Will Party, Leopoldo López, was one of the most popular opposition leaders; he was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison for a series of alleged crimes related to his participation in the protests of early 2014. Another popular opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who has run twice as a presidential candidate, was barred by Maduro’s government from running for office. The Supreme Court also lifted parliamentary immunity for Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s vice president, who the government accused of crimes for his involvement in street protests (Semple, 2017)

As part of a larger authoritarian playbook, the political prisoners have also been used as a bargaining chip by the Maduro administration. For instance, in August 2020, the Venezuelan government pardoned more than 100 opposition politicians, including more than 20 legislators who had been accused of conspiring against the government (Reuters, 2010). Maduro attempted to use these prisoners as part of an ongoing negotiation ahead of parliamentary elections.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival.

Nicolás Maduro with First Lady Cilia Flores and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López are seen as watching a military parade in Caracas on February 1, 2017.

The Alliance with the Military 

Chávez’s main strategy was to use plebiscitarian mass support to transform established institutions and concentrate power in the hands of the President (Weyland, 2013). However, Maduro, unlike other populist leaders, lacks the charisma to appeal to popular support. Instead, he consolidated support among the Chavista’s inner forces and the military (Romero and Mijares, 2016). Lopez Maya (2018) describes Maduro’s government as a “neopatrimonial rule”; it is not a simple populist regime. According to her, Chávez’s close circle coalesced around Maduro, letting him rule along with his family, friends, and the military. Maduro originally derived his legitimacy from those implicit domestic coalitions rather than the people’s vote.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival. Maduro and his allies understood that the military would be a decisive player in the political game. The lack of charismatic leadership and popular support has made a power-sharing arrangement with the military necessary.

It is important to note here that the high “militarization” of Venezuelan politics dates back to Chávez, who espoused a narrative of the “civil-military alliance” even in the early years of his administration (Strønen, 2016). A significant number of military officers entered into the traditionally civilian space of public offices, effectively militarizing the political system. While many military officers were purged during the Chávez era, some loyal officers were promoted to critical civilian posts.

With Maduro, the Venezuelan military has become even more involved in politics through a series of rewards granted by the government in accordance with implicit power-sharing arrangements. Maduro sought to shore up his support in the armed forces after the defeat in the parliamentary elections (Smilde, 2015). Losing a critical branch of power, Maduro rewarded “profit-seeking soldiers” with access to cabinet posts and the control of banks and other financial institutions (Correa, 2020). High-level bureaucratic cadres and political posts have been staffed with military officers. The officers have a massive presence in the presidential office, vice-ministries, and among governors, mostly without giving up their military offices. As of 2020, eight members of Maduro’s 33-member cabinet – and seven of the nineteen governors who belong to the ruling party – are active or retired military members (Correa, 2020). Several key sectors now rest in the hands of military officers, including the distribution of food and basic products. Maduro appointed Defence Minister General Vladimir Padrino López as head of the “Grand Supply Mission” in 2016, handing him control of Venezuela’s entire food supply system. Since then, the Venezuelan army has become the main authority regulating food and medicine distribution across the country

Maduro has surrounded himself with a group that faces high exit costs if the ruling party loses power, thereby ensuring their support for his survival in office (Cannon and Brown, 2017). For example, David Smilde (2016) argues that Maduro has picked generals for his inner circle who are on the US blacklist for drug trafficking or human rights violations. Theseindividuals have much to lose in any political transition favouring democracy and the rule of law. Any transition to democracy could lead to prosecution and long-term imprisonment. High ranking military officials are expected to remain loyal to their commander-in-chief, since their ability to avoid justice depends on Maduro’s survival.

Maduro has needed to consolidate support amongst the military: since he came to power, the likelihood of a coup has increased. Fed up with rampant corruption, rapid democratic backsliding, and the dire economic situation, some factions of the opposition considered the possibility of a military intervention. Maduro, in fact, claims there have been several attempted coups against his government (Lansberg-Rodríguez, 2015). Some Venezuelan opposition members and generals were arrested by intelligence agents and indicted on charges of conspiracy against the government. According to Corrales (2020), by mid-2019, the Maduro administration held 217 active and retired military officers in prison, many of them without trial. While the Venezuelan government fingered opposition members, generals, and businesspeople as plotting a “coup” against Maduro, he also accused the United States of masterminding an attempt to overthrow him.

The army has played a significant role in supporting Maduro’s legitimacy and power, especially at critical turning points. The military’s support of Maduro smoothed the way for his consolidation of power. That support has not been uniform, however. In 2019, dozens of military members joined Juan Guaido’s uprising attempt. However, none of them were upper-level military members, and the attempt failed. 

Oil pump jack and oil barrels with Venezuelan flag.

Fall of the Petro-state Under the Maduro Administration

Maduro also lacks another significant asset that Chávez enjoyed: booming oil prices. Oil accounts for around 90 percent of petro-state Venezuela’s exports (OPEC, 2016). Instead of saving the oil revenue for the future, Chávez just funnelled booming oil revenue into social programs targeting the poor, including subsidized food, free healthcare, and education. Even though Chávez was a highly charismatic leader, his popularity also heavily depended on his government’s economic performance and generous social programs funded by oil money, which in turn spurred the voters’ support for him.

Maduro was elected president amid an unfavourable economic environment and would soon feel the long-term economic pain that Chávez wrought for the sake of short-term gain. Shortly after Maduro took office, the global price of petroleum crashed, triggering Venezuela’s most serious economic and social crisis in recent history. Since 2013, the country has lost 62 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Bull and Rosales, 2020). The economic crisis has rapidly spiralled into a serious humanitarian crisis marked by worsening public services, malnutrition, and shortages, including for food and medicine. 

Venezuelan oil production has also declined because of international sanctions and a lack of maintenance in the oil sector. Instead of market-friendly economic reforms and relaxing price controls, Maduro chose to continue with his predecessor’s populist economic policies, including nationalizations, tight state control of the economy, and uncontrolled printing of money. Some short-term relief did not solve the complicated problems. Losing his popular support, Maduro was, indeed, not in a position to deviate from Chávez’s socialist policies mainly due to a fear of losing his base (Smilde, 2015). Maduro’s economic management was also marred by a series of incompetent appointments. At a critical time when the economic crisis deepened, Maduro appointed a professor who believed inflation does not really exist (Ellsworth, 2016).

The decline in state revenue due to the sharp fall in oil prices also resulted in reduced social welfare programs. As social programs benefiting the poor, the clientelist social networks providing services in exchange for political support has significantly expanded under Maduro’s rule. Even though food distribution and other social programs have long been in place, at least since Chávez was in power, the massive misuse of state resources became more frequent through solid patronage and clientelist politics under the Maduro administration (Buxton, 2017). Maduro explicitly used government resources to guarantee his re-election for another term. For example, before the presidential elections in 2018, Maduro expanded food subsidies nationally to assure a high electoral turnout (Penfold, 2018). Under military control, food was used as a political tool to reward and mobilize supporters and punish opponents. The voters who were not ideologically aligned with Maduro were excluded from food distributions and other social programs (García-Guadilla and Mallen, 2019)

The neo-patrimonial rule under Maduro also allowed corruption and illicit businesses to flourish across the country. According to Transparency International (2019), Venezuela is among the most corrupt countries in the world (of a total of 180 countries included in the Corruption Perception Index, Venezuela ranks 169). A recent example of the complex corruption schemes initiated under Maduro’s rule is the “Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP) program.” Initially created to provide subsidized food to poor citizens, the program has turned into a complex corruption network that made money from overvalued contracts, which eventually enriched high-level officials (Reuters, 2019). While corruption has proliferated under Maduro’s rule, other illicit businesses, including drug trafficking, have emerged as a key source of profits for the ruling elite (Naim and Toro, 2018).

Opposition protested against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

Anti-Maduro Protests 

This difficult economic situation has been accompanied by a pronounced deterioration in social issues and, consequently, an increase in the levels of political conflict. Deteriorating economic conditions, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption have undermined Maduro’s unravelling support over the years, leading to widespread discontent among broad sectors of the population, even including some faction of Chávez supporters. Inevitably, the worsening situation triggered several massive protests across the country against rising repression, the high cost of living, and misgovernance.

Amid growing frustration, in 2014, the government faced the first massive demonstrations. Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, led national street protests in opposition to Maduro as part of a strategy known as “La Salida” (The Way Out). Hard-line members of the opposition and students took part. The demonstrations were severely repressed by Venezuelan security forces, resulting in the deaths of 43 people. 

The country witnessed another set of widespread protests in 2017, when the Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led parliament’s legislative powers. This decision prompted widespread outrage in the country. A month of huge protests against Maduro’s rule involved instances of looting and violence. Maduro reacted to these protesters by referring to them as “vandals and terrorists” and called his supporters to the streets (Romo and Marilia, 2017). Similarly, he ramped up his fierce rhetoric against the right-wing opposition and external powers.

Maduro violently cracked down on the protests and imprisoned his major political rivals. Security forces repeatedly used excessive force to repress anti-government demonstrations, resulting in dozens of deaths. Several international institutions documented human rights violations committed by state authorities. Recently, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission identified findings about extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture committed in the country since 2014 (UN Human Rights Council, 2020). Similarly, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor reported that there is a “reasonable basis” to believe Venezuelan civilian authorities, members of the armed forces, and pro-government individuals had committed crimes against humanity (Reuters, 2020).

Maduro’s Presidency Facing Questions of Legitimacy 

Under conditions significantly favouring the incumbent party – including voting irregularities – the main opposition parties decided to boycott the next presidential (2018) and parliamentary elections (2020), saying the electoral system was rigged in favour of Maduro and his party.

In May 2018, the presidential elections took place amid criticism of domestic and international actors. Maduro was re-elected with 67 percent of the vote, although only 46 percent of eligible voters participated. The high abstention rate was due to the opposition’s boycott.The election was rejected and labelled illegitimate by several countries and international organizations, including the United States, the Lima Group (12 of 13 Latin American member countries and Canada), and the European Union. 

In January 2019, Maduro was sworn in for his second term as president amid questions about his legitimacy. Only two weeks after Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony, the President of the National Assembly and the opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s acting President. His claim rested on a provision in the 1999 constitution that allows the president of parliament to assume power temporarily in the absence of a president-elect. The opposition argued that Maduro had not been elected legally, and, therefore, the country was without a president. Since 2019, Venezuela has been caught in a political conflict between the two men who claim to be its rightful president.

President of Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaido talks to the people during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela on January 23, 2019.

Even though Guaido was recognized as President by more than 50 countries, he has remained powerless and struggled to gain control. Most critically, he did not succeed in persuading the upper echelons of the military – the most critical power player in Maduro’s survival – to turn against the regime. With Maduro firmly entrenched in power, Guaido-led efforts have failed to change the political dynamic on the ground. In June 2020, ruling-party lawmakers elected one of the opposition members backed by Maduro to lead the parliament, depriving Guaidó of his position (Krygier and Faiola, 2020). While the opposition declared this move a “parliamentary coup,” Guaido’s popularity significantly declined only one year after he promised to remove Maduro from power. 

Seeking to bolster his legitimacy, Maduro continues to hold elections significantly stripped of their democratic requirements. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Guaidó-led faction of the opposition refused to participate due to serious electoral irregularities. The electoral system has been re-designed in favour of the government. In June 2020, the Supreme Court stripped three of the four main opposition parties of their leadership, allowing the parties to be co-opted by pro-government politicians. Along with an expanding of the National Assembly, from 167 to 277 seats, this severely weakened the opposition. The Maduro administration also refused to allow international electoral observers.

With low voter participation, the president and his left-wing allies won 257 of the 277 seats in the assembly, taking 67.7 percent of the vote. Regardless of civilian disenchantment with politics, solidified his grip on the last democratically elected institution in Venezuela. 

Another Populist Playbook: Foreign Plots

Maduro has another similarity with other populist leaders: he feeds fears of external plots to distract the public’s attention from daily problems inside the country. From the outset of his reign, conspiracy theories have been central to Maduro’s discourse (Carey, 2019). Shortly after he took office, Maduro accused foes of plotting to assassinate him and claimed that “imperialist” enemies infected Chávez with cancer (Reuters, 2013). The Venezuelan government has trumpeted the conspiracies as a way of rallying its supporters around a shared, unsubstantiated enemy. Both Chávez and Maduro used conspiracies as a weapon to discredit or demonize adversaries and to generate a fortress mentality among supporters (Piñeiro, Rhodes-Purdy and Rosenblatt, 2016).

Unable to control the collapse of the economy and chronic issues inside the country, Maduro sustained typical Chávez-style conspiracy theories and claimed foreign states were the main culprit of the country’s problems.In 2016, Maduro announced a plot orchestrated by the US and its alleged domestic conspirators to sabotage the Venezuelan economy. Two weeks later, he announced that the US Embassy, with the participation of opposition leaders, carried out a cyberattack against the banking system (Telesur English, 2016).He also explicitly attributed the country’s socio-economic misery to “external dynamics” by constantly invoking the “economic war” waged against his government by internal and external enemies (Reuters, 2018). Maduro has also constantly characterized the widespread protests and rallies as attempted coups fostered by the United States against his government. For Maduro, there was an international right-wing conspiracy working with the radical opposition inside the country to oust him.

Meanwhile, the US’s increasingly aggressive policy towards Venezuela helped Maduro paint himself as the victim of a foreign plot by the US in an effort to gain favour at home and abroad. First, the Obama administration declared Venezuela as an “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” and imposed sanctions on a few high-ranking government officials in 2015 (Neuman, 2015). Then, the Trump administration further increased the pressure by adopting a “maximum pressure” policy to topple Maduro and pave the way for a democratic transition inside the country.Washington imposed another set of sanctions against Venezuela in 2019 in a bid to oust Maduro. The PDVSA state-led oil company was barred from accessing US financial markets as of 2017 and from selling oil to any US-related individual or corporation as of 2019. 

These sanctions disrupted he flow of petrodollars. But the aggressive policies also provided Maduro with a tailor-made excuse: he could blame the crisis on external powers and establish more sweeping government control over key government institutions (Dempsey, 2018). Similarly, Maduro used the sanctions to shore up his domestic supporters and loyalists. Maduro shouted to a large crowd: “I invite the entire Venezuelan people, in all the states and regions of the country, to join in. No one messes with our country. The Yankee boot will never touch it,” (New York Times, 2015).

Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the opening ceremony of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Porlamar, Venezuela on September 17, 2016.

An Authoritarian Coalition with Like-minded Regimes

Maduro’s less favourable conditions after Chávez were not limited to domestic dynamics. Venezuela’s position has significantly changed in the regional and international context since Maduro assumed the presidency. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latin America experienced a “Pink Tide,” as a wave of leftist governments took power in the region. While this surge, which began with Chávez’s election in Venezuela in 1998, created a favourable environment for Chávez, it had begun – and continues – to recede as right-wing parties once again gained power in the region.

With the demise of potential left-wing allies, Maduro’s government has become increasingly isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Rising repression, human rights violations, economic crisis, and widespread corruption cases have all accelerated the regime’s regional isolation. 

The changing price of raw materials has also altered regional dynamics (Romero and Mijares, 2016). In 2005, Chávez launched PetroCaribe, which provided a stable oil flow to many Caribbean and Central American nations on preferential payment terms. When Venezuela’s oil production plunged and the US sanctions ramped up, the Maduro administration scaled back the program. In return, Venezuela lost the diplomatic support of those small countries, which had until then that blocked nearly every resolution put forward by other member states condemning or pressuring the Maduro government.

Venezuela’s isolation in the regional context has become more visible in the initiatives led by the Organization of American States (OAS), which is an influential regional organization that includes 35 independent countries in the Western Hemisphere. The OAS has become the principal body through which the countries in Latin America have exerted pressure on the Maduro administration as instability intensified in the country. The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, called the Inter-American Democratic Charter in May 2016, a process that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organization. The Maduro government formally withdrew from the regional body in April 2019 (Gallón, 2019)

More external pressure and increased isolation in the region further destabilized the economy and the state’s income. Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors. Strong ties with China and Russia have strengthened the resilience of the Maduro administration. During the Chávez era, these bilateral relations blossomed due in large part to the close personal relations between presidents. These two revisionist powers have been eager to trade their financial and diplomatic support to Venezuela as part of their geopolitical intentions in America’s backyard. With that intention, Moscow and Beijing have played a crucial role in keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat, primarily through loans and other contributions (Rouvinski, 2019)

Several other countries also appeared eager to cooperate with the Venezuelan government despite the risk of more sanctions. These countries have become vital partners, filling the void at a time when many Western companies express reluctance to engage in business with Venezuela for fear of incurring US sanctions. A widening array of friendly countries seemed to expect preferential access to Venezuela’s market and to cultivate lucrative commercial relationships. Erdogan’s Turkey is one of the opportunistic new “allies” that has extended a lifeline to Maduro (Oner, 2020).

Meanwhile, Cuba still remains an influential actor in Venezuela. Cuban security officials are reportedly involved in various key areas of the administration, including intelligence services. Maduro’s connection to Cuba, cultivated when he was a young man, has made Havana more pervasive during his rule (Naim and Toro, 2018). It is believed that Cuban security training and technical assistance has significantly helped the Maduro government to establish a firewall against internal and external threats (Fonseca and Polga-Hecimovich, 2020). In return for this aid, the Maduro administration provided significant oil support to Cuba. While Cuban military and intelligence personnel help Maduro stay in power, the oil provided by Venezuela continues to provide much-needed support to the Cuban economy.


The last seven years under Maduro have been marked by rising polarization, election irregularities, looming economic crisis, and massive protests. Maduro’s incompetent policies have further propelled the country into a downward spiral, which eventually forced more than five million people to leave the country. The same political, economic, and social shocks contributed to the regime’s rising authoritarianism. As the opposition gained popular support through the elections and external pressure on Maduro grew, the resorted to anti-democratic means to maintain his grip on power.

There is a widespread consensus that Maduro is an unpopular leader. Despite his lack of popular support, Maduro still shares particular features with other populist leaders. His discourse and political style – framing politics as constant battle between the good and corrupt – is notably populist in nature. Similarly, his struggle for power at the expense of rising repression and restrictions is in line with the autocratic practices of other populist leaders. As several scholars argue, Maduro has transformed an inherited, semi-authoritarian regime into a full-blown authoritarian one (Corrales 2020; Marsteintredet, 2020).

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable. In the face of the greatest threat to its survival both at home and abroad, Maduro and his allies eliminated Venezuela’s remaining democratic institutions. 

The Maduro administration remains reluctant to make any concessions that might erode its power. With implicit and explicit power-sharing arrangements with key actors at the domestic level, Maduro has been able to cling to power. Currently, the military still supports Maduro; there are no signs this will change anytime soon. As the recent political events suggest, and barring free and fair elections, unpopular populist Maduro will remain in power. 

(*) IMDAT ONER is a Senior Policy Analyst at Jack D. Gordon Institute. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Florida International University. He holds a M.A. degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the same university. He specializes in International Relations with major focuses on foreign policy in Latin American. Oner has extensively published on Venezuelan politics, Venezuelan foreign policy, and Turkey-Venezuela relations. His articles published in War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, Ahval and Miami Herald.


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Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, August 20, 2019.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud and the uncertain fate of Israel’s democracy

Right-wing populism beyond the West

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

By Ayala Panievsky* & Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

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 Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister for over a decade.[1] 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.[2] 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, 17 March 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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[6] 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,[7] 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”,[8] 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.”[9]

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.[10]Implementing this strategy entailed a variant of Erdogan’s media-capture strategy, namely the cultivation of alternative, loyalist media outlets.[11] 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.


[1] Mordechay, Nadiv, and Yaniv Roznai. (2017). “A Jewish and (Declining) Democratic State? Constitutional Retrogression in Israel.” Maryland Law Review. 77, no. 1: 244–270.

[2] Filc, Dani. (2010). The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 7. New York: Routledge.

[3] Gutwein, Daniel. (2017). “The Settlements and the Relationship Between Privatization and the Occupation Normalizing Occupation.” In: Normalizing Occupation: The Politics of Everyday Life in the West Bank Settlements. Edited by Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, 21–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[4] Filc, Dani. (2010). The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 7. New York: Routledge.

[5] Talshir, Gayil. (2018). “Populist Rightwing Ideological Exposition: Netanyahu’s Regime as a Case in Point.” Advances in Applied Sociology. 8, no. 04: 329–349.

[6] Wallach, Yair. (2016). “Jewish Nationalism: On the (Im)Possibility of Muslim Jews.” In: The Routledge Handbook of Muslim-Jewish Relations. Edited by Josef Meri. Routledge.

[7] — (2018). Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People

[8] Gutwien, Daniel. (2017). “The Settlements and the Relationship Between Privatization and the Occupation Normalizing Occupation.” In: Normalizing Occupation: The Politics of Everyday Life in the West Bank Settlements. Edited by Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, 21–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[9] Levi, Yonatan and Shai Agmon. (2020). “Beyond Culture and Economy: Israel’s Security-Driven Populism, Contemporary Politics.” Contemporary Politics. DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2020.1864163 

[10] Peri, Yoram. (2004). Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[11] Pfeffer, Anshel. (2018). Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. London: Hurst & Company.

The Proud Boys participated in Million Maga March in Washington DC on December 12, 2020.

The Proud Boys: Chauvinist poster child of far-right extremism

Kenes, Bulent. (2021). “The Proud Boys: Chauvinist poster child of far-right extremism.” ECPS Organisation Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 1, 2021.


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.

By Bulent Kenes

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 group describes 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, 2020), Australia (Culkin, 2017), several European countries, and even Israel (Israel Faxx, 2020). Vitolo-Haddad (2019) is right to define the 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.

Gavin McInnes

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).

Enrique Tarrio.

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).

Pepe the Frog in Proud Boys’ uniform.

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 visibleTheir 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, 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 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 skinO’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 yearsThe 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 that allusions 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).

US President Donald Trump gave a speech to the People of Poland at Krasinski Square in Warsaw on July 6, 2017.

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). 

Gavin McInnes march together with his Proud Boys in Washington DC on December 13, 2020.

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. They observed 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).

US President Donald J. Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the first presidential election debate at Samson Pavilion in Cleveland, Ohio, US, 29 September 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).

Members of the Proud Boys used Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comments to create a fresh logo

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, they adhere 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).

A fourth level member of the Proud Boys during Million Maga March in Washington DC on December 12, 2020.

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 despite McInnes 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).

Proud Boys are seen during the Million Maga March in Washington DC on Dec 12, 2020.

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), a political 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).

Many of the women who call themselves Proud Boys’ Girls are the romantic partners of male group members.

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 themHowever, 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.”  

Thee Proud Boys’ “The West is The Best” logo.

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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Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi addressing the 25th Foundation Day of the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences at Bengaluru via video conferencing in New Delhi on June 01, 2020.

How Hindutva threatens the world’s largest democracy

Right-wing populism beyond the West

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

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

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.

[iv] Ibid. 

[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

[vi] Ibid., 728-729.

[vii] 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

[viii] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication. 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[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.

[xiii] Pal, Joyojeet. “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 378-387.

[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

[xix] Ibid.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey, a perfect storm of anti-democratic​ populism?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

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

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Turkey suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the global democratic imagination. Once celebrated as a ‘model for political learning’[1] and the Middle East’s ‘only Muslim Democracy’[2], 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’.

Civilians demonstrated near the Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) building during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey on June 08, 2013.

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[3]. 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[4]. These voters are kept onside using Islamic charity networks who distribute benefits and services in the AKP’s name[5]. 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[6]. 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”[7]. 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. 

Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan follow his speech during an election campaign rally of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul on June 17, 2018.

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[8]. 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[9]. 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[10]. 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[11]. 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.

Turkish riot police bloc protesters as they surround the headquarters of a Ipek Media Group linked to a Erdogan regime critic, enforcing a court order to seize the media outlets, in Istanbul October 28, 2015.

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[12]. 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[13]. 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[14]. 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. 


1) Çavdar, Gamze. “Islamist New Thinking in Turkey: A Model for Political Learning?” Political Science Quaterly. 121, no. 3 (2006): 477-497. Crossref.

[2] Lewis, Bernard. “Why Turkey Is the Only Muslim Democracy.” Middle East Quarterly. March 1, 1994. .

[3] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[4] 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.

[5] Cosar, Simten and Metin Yegenoglu, “The Neoliberal Restructuring of Turkey’s Social Security System.” Monthly Review. April 1, 2009.

[6] 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.

[7] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[8] 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.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Yilmaz, Zafer. “Strengthening the Family Policies in Turkey: Managing the Social Question and Armoring Conservative–Neoliberal Populism.” Turkish Studies. 16, no. 3 (2015): 371–390. Crossref.

[11] Yilmaz, Gözde. “Europeanisation or De-Europeanisation? Media Freedom in Turkey (1999–2015).” South European Society and Politics. 21, no. 1 (2016): 147–161. Crossref.

[12] Esen, Berk , and Sebnem Gumuscu . “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581–1606. Crossref.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

Flowers and Candles at the Hanau shooting site as a remembrance to the victims of right extremist terror attack in Germany on February 20, 2020.

Extremist criminal offenses rise in Germany, intelligence report suggests

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.

AfD demonstrated with slogan "Stop Islamization" in Rostock on May 14, 2018. AfD, Alternative for Germany, is a right wing political party in Germany.

Germany’s far-right AfD fires official over a ​racist migrant comment

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”.