Geert Wilders’ populism is based on Islamophobia. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda.
Looking through the lens of global populism, the relationship between the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders and like-minded political figures in the Western world is striking. Wilders’ efforts to reach out to like-minded groups and leaders go beyond courtesy visits. Through such efforts, Wilders attempts to construct an international front built on the common ground of anti-Islamic ‘concerns’. These ‘concerns’ are overhyped, with the aim of constructing an international, if not a transnational, front to challenge the Western world’s long-standing liberal norms of:
“Wake up, Christians of Tennessee! Islam is at your gate! Do not make the mistake which Europe made. Do not allow Islam to gain a foothold here… My friends, fortunately, not all politicians are irresponsible. Here, in Tennessee, brave politicians want to pass legislation which gives the state the power to declare organizations as terrorist groups and allowing material supporters of terrorism to be prosecuted. I applaud them for that. They are true heroes.”
This is how the Netherlands’ right-wing populist Geert Wilders addressed a crowd gathered in Cornerstone Church in Tennessee in May 2011. If, as Arditi (2007) suggests, populism is ‘the awkward dinner guest’ who, after drinking far too much, asks ‘inappropriate questions’, then Wilders’ populist dinner table discourse has been all about hype, defamation, and demonization.
Five years later, in July 2016, Wilders was in the US again, this time having been invited to Cleveland by US Senator Bill Ketron to attend the Republican National Convention. Wilders was in a state about Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, expressing his excitement with the following words: “I wish we had political leaders like this in the Netherlands who defend their own country… and forget the rest.”
In another gathering, Wilders addressed the crowd as follows: “In America you see the same happening as in the Netherlands. The hard-working people, what they call the blue-collar workers here, no longer feel represented by the political elite. That people no longer want the policy of open borders, immigration and Islamization.”
On the other hand, his host, Senator Ketron, responded to Wilders’ critics and ‘justified’ extending an invitation to Wilders by saying: “He just wants to take his country back like Mr. Trump and supporters want to take our country back. If you wanna come here and assimilate and live by our laws is his position as well as mine.”
Wilders’ populist outreach is not limited to the US. In 2013, the Q Society of Australia, a far-right anti-Islamic organization, organized a speaking tour with Wilders. In Melbourne, amid protests, Wilders spoke to the rally, warning Australians about Islam as follows: “I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology…If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties…Yes, my friends, there is hope. But only if we outgrow our fears and dare speak the truth… The future freedom of Australia, the liberties of your children – they depend on you. The ANZAC spirit helped keep Europe free in the past; the ANZAC spirit will keep you free in the future. Be as brave as your fathers, and you will survive.”
This very same society organized a conference titled “Islam and Liberty” in Melbourne in 2014. The purpose of the conference, according to the Q Society’s spokesperson, was to bring “together many people who are concerned about the march of Islam into many western democracies, and how it changes the laws and values of western democracies… You get segregation when you get Muslims coming in, because their core belief is that Muslims are better people than non-Muslims… We’re keen to have integrated societies, but we think it’s important to have integration, not segregation.”
On the first day of the conference, Wilders was welcomed in a pre-recorded message in which he cheered a new anti-Islam party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. He spoke as follows: “Like you, good people in Europe, America and Canada have had enough of politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare that all cultures are equal and who lack courage to speak the truth and say that Islam is the biggest threat to freedom today. You too will soon have the opportunity to turn the tide in Australia.”
In 2015, Wilders visited Australia again to launch the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), a new anti-Islamic right-wing populist party led by Debbie Robinson, former president of the Q Society in Australia. Speaking to the media in Perth, he urged Australians to be vigilant about migration from Muslim countries with the following words: “You will have millions of people coming to Australia, like we do in Europe, and you will not be able to handle it…You should be a sovereign country that closes your borders to those kinds of immigrants.”
Praising the ALA and the potential ‘protector role’ it will play for Australia, Wilders told the media: “If you read their manifesto it is clear that they are the freedom fighters of Australia… They have none of the political correctness that so many of the leaders in the world have today… and [they want] Australia to stand firm and stay Australian without the appeasement and giving in to multiculturalism, I think it will have a lot of support.”
Deciphering Wilders’ points made during the press conference, Calla Wahlquist of The Guardiannewspaper explains that: “‘Those kinds of immigrants’ are Muslims. Opposing Islam is the central tenet of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has been leading the polls in the Netherlands since August. It is also the key policy of the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), the new party that Wilders flew to Australia to launch.”
Wilders’ populist appeal is, of course, not limited to Australia. He is actively engaged in the politics of European countries and has been forging closer ties with like-minded populists across the globe. He does not shy away from showing up at right-wing populist rallies all over the Western world. In March 2015, Wilders was invited to a gathering of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) organized by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and addressed the rally with similar anti-Islamic rhetoric.
To recap, Wilders’ populism is based on an Islamophobic worldview. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. Returning to our earlier discussion of populism as ‘the awkward dinner guest’, despite the discomfort, this gauche visitor can, in fact, help uncover underlying problems in society (Moffitt, 2010).
Populism can be a positive force, one that demonstrates the shortcomings of the system and challenges the status quo. However, it can also hinder the proper functioning of the democratic system if it violates the principles of democracy and human rights. In the same way, populism can also be a force for good if it can ‘identify otherwise overlooked political problems’ and become the voice of minorities and ‘marginalized groups’ (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). However, as discussed above, Wilders’ rhetoric does the opposite: it turns minorities and marginalized groups into scapegoats.
Arditi, Benjamin. (2007). Politics on the Edge of Liberalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Gidron, Noam & Bonikowski, Bart. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. Working Paper Series, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Moffitt, Benjamin. (2010). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Populism as the Awkward Dinner Guest of Democracy.” Connected Globe, Conflicting Worlds: Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Melbourne.
Millas, Hercules. (2021). “Anatomy of a Populist Speech.” Populism & Politics. March 8, 2021. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0004
In January 2021, two party leaders in the Greek parliament debated the government’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic. This made possible a detailed analysis of the populist argumentations of one of the speakers. His basic method was the repeated use of arguments that were “true” but irrelevant to the matter at hand. Other “methods” were accusations made out of context, mixing up issues, deriving generalities based on singular cases, ignoring certain aspects, and making unfounded insinuations. Analysis of these discursive aspects contributes to our understanding of populist discourses.
Usually, one feels that one is confronting populism when one hears a particular kind of discourse. There is a palpable sense of deceit and demagoguery. In this article, I will try to show that populist argumentation is basically composed of a “plethora of irrelevant true arguments,” even though it may or may not include other methods such as lying, silencing, and the like.
The opportunity to study a populist speech in detail was given to me when I listened to a debate in the Greek parliament between Prime Minister Kostas Mitsotakis and the leader of the main opposition party, Alexis Tsipras. Mitsotakis leads the New Democracy Party, and Tsipras heads Syriza (united left and environmentalists). The debate took place on 15 January 2021 and on the topic of the Greek government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and its performance in addressing the crisis. My study focuses just on the debate between the two leaders, excluding the arguments advanced by other political parties in the Greek parliament.
Mitsotakis presented graphs and statistics showing Greece’s performance in handling the Covid crisis relative to other European countries. The comparative approach demonstrated that Greece had been relatively successful in coping with the pandemic, at least until the day of the debate. I was curious to hear the opposition’s counter-arguments. I tried to put myself in Tsipras’ shoes. It occurred to me that the opposition leader had two alternatives, either to acknowledge the government’s positive performance or to claim the opposite. Tsipras had little choice but to pursue the latter, given any opposition leader is “compelled” to hold the government to account. Thus, Tsipras’ only option seemed to be a refutation of the argument of Mitsotakis by all means.
I foresaw a populist counterattack and decided to take notes of the arguments. Later, I found the complete debate on the parliamentary website, and I transcribed it. I had ample time to carefully examine the arguments and the counter-arguments and decipher Mitsotakis’ and Tsipras’ “methods.” The leaders spoke five times in total. After an initial speech from the prime minister, all the other party leaders presented their views; a second round followed, with Mitsotakis assuming the final right of reply. Mitsotakis spoke for a total of 89 minutes and Tsipras a total of 94 minutes.
I summarize Tsipras’ argumentation—which I will discuss in further detail below—as follows:
He mentioned many “truths”—that is to say, situations and evaluations that nobody can deny or oppose. Usually, this kind of argument is known as “truism.”
He shrewdly used his body language (and style of address) to support his arguments.
He repeated the same accusative and pejorative characterizations against Mitsotakis.
He “returned serve” to accusations launched at him to get even.
He condemned successful government initiatives as failures on the ground that they could have been “even better.”
He used the technique of irony, insinuation, silencing, and arbitrary, debatable views as valid assumptions.
He asserted general conclusions based on isolated singular events.
He associated unrelated situations to reach conclusions.
1 – Mentioning various self-evident “truths”
This tactic composed the basis of Tsipras’ argumentation. The truisms had nothing to do with the agenda of the debate — namely, the policies vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic that were followed (or ought to have been followed) by the government and their consequences. The first big part of his speech included the following: “We experience a pandemic… the Greeks are facing problems … we should be showing solidarity… the politicians are usually hypocritical and express extreme views … citizens lives should be the main concern of everybody … we should help those who are fighting on the front-line of the epidemic … one should learn from one’s mistakes… we should face reality … tomorrow looks problematic … all of us should do something about the situation… ideological prejudices may result in death …”
Tsipras elaborated at length each of these logical, self-evident, and widely-accepted arguments, but they were not supported by corresponding examples of government action (or inaction). These truisms could have been voiced by any politician, in any country, and under any circumstances. Nobody could object to these comments. Why then did Tsipras voice them?
The answer is that they proved useful since populism is addressed to the sentiments of the listeners. The citizens who follow a debate pursued in this manner and are short of critical thinking see and listen to a person who is clearly espousing some basic, sound principles; they feel that they share the same principles with him. They see somebody who thinks like them and who has the same sensitivities. He is for the needy; he sees the same social problems, and so on.
That the other side does not speak in the same way or repeat the self-understood realities is usually interpreted as indicating a lack of “sensitivity” and an inability to act accordingly. In this sense, populist argumentation is very effective. Probably, the strongest point of this discourse is that its refutation is impossible simply because all arguments are true—they are, in fact, truisms.
During the rest of his speech, Tsipras adopted this approach many times, re-iterating a similar set of “arguments,” “proposals,” “warnings,” and “advice”: “One should accept and learn from one’s mistakes … due to the lockdown, retailers are facing problems … the timing of an action is important … delays have a price … many of our compatriots are dying … vaccines should belong to the people … we should face reality … one should not be pedantic … one should take the initiative… we should discuss the issues between us … vaccines save lives … the economy faces problems … people are losing their jobs.”
2 – Body language and style of address
The shrewd use of body language while speaking is not unique to populism and is, in fact, a common feature of all rhetorical debate. Yet, since populist conclusions are not related to inductive reasoning but to emotional insinuations, the body language and the style of the orator are of particular importance. All politicians have this in mind, and they pay attention, not so much to the consistency and sense of their arguments, but to the appearance of the speaker—his posture, his self-confident style vis-à-vis his opponent, and so on.
Tsipras often appeared as being ready to compromise and to come to terms with Mitsotakis for the sake of the common good while simultaneously accusing Mitsotakis of ill-will to the point of insult, as I show below. Tsipras also often appeared shocked and exasperated with Mitsotakis’ policies and actions. A couple of times, when Tsipras referred to well-known numbers, facts, and examples, he declared, “these are not my numbers, not my sayings, but yours; they are numbers from independent agencies… This is not something that I say; scientists all around the world are saying it … It is not us who say that, but the media worldwide.” This is all redundant as it could hardly be otherwise. Facts, data, and statistics cannot be “somebody’s” —they have to be from a reliable source. It suffices to mention the source. Utterances of the kind “these are not my numbers but of the X source” is an unnecessary, excessive emphasis that seeks to create a favorable impression on the unsophisticated listener.
3 – Repeated pejorative characterizations
Many derogatory accusations against Mitsotakis accompanied Tsipras’ speech. The following phrases were used as general characterizations: that Mitsotakis has ideological prejudices, believes himself to be omniscient, has no sense of responsibility, is detached from reality, lacks awareness of reality, is in favor of the elite, and is in favor of exploiters. In addition, words or their derivatives directed against Mitsotakis by Tsipras included arrogance, hypocrisy, complacency, indifference, unclear mind, carelessness (2 times), negligent, obsessive, slanderous, unserious, divisive (2 times), incompetent (3 times), irresponsible, vulgar (returning the same expression used earlier by Mitsotakis), without dignity, and liar. All these were heard in a speech that lasted 90 minutes.
This tactic serves a purpose. The listener watches a speaker who is against all these vices, which means—logically—that he is exempt from these. Since Tsipras is so much against ideological prejudices, arrogance, and the like, this should mean that they do not apply to him.
This approach is the other side of the “repeating of irrelevant truths” mentioned above. The mentioning of many “truths” works in favor of the speaker’s image, which is enhanced. Derogatory characterizations work against the image of the Other; the opponent’s image depreciates.
4 – “Returning serve” against accusations
Anyone familiar with Greek political life over the last decade will notice that the above-mentioned negative characterizations present a peculiarity. Some of them are new utterances in Greek political life, having been first used against Tsipras and his political party. A closer look at the above accusations recalls that there is a process of “returning serve” against adjectives that have been used lately against “us” (in this case, Tsipras and Syriza). Some of these are the following:
“Having ideological prejudices” — this was originally used against Tsipras for his leftist ideological vision. “Arrogance” was once used to characterize Tsipras’s harsh accusations against the Right. Tsipras’s wish to change the “right-wing” policies of the European Union was cast as a “lack of awareness of reality.” His anti-liberal stand has been called “obsessive,” and his policies in dealing with the EU were labeled “incompetent.” Finally, Tsipras has been called a “liar” for going back on promises that he would not follow the EU’s instructions and “memorandums.”
The use of such language is a strategic choice. By “returning” the accusations with the same wording, the “charges” are neutralized, and Tsipras gets even. As mentioned, many of these characterizations were used in the past against Tsipras and regarding some of his actions and policy decisions. Now, they are “returned,” mostly out of context. This is a way to counter-balance attacks. Probably it is reckoned that this kind of a symmetrical counterattack will cancel out and nullify the accusations recently addressed toward “us,” thus cleansing the record of them. The repeated use of some accusative adjectives also nullifies their worth through superfluous repetition. All in all, the method can be seen as a psychological and political defense mechanism.
5 – Things could have been “even better”
This is another “true” argument that cannot be contradicted. The best performance could have been better. An Olympic champion can be criticized for failing to run a little faster and break a record. Mitsotakis demonstrated by graphs and statistical analyses that Greece had a much lower death rate per 1 million people relative to other European countries. He said that it is a macabre and sad endeavor to talk about people who have lost their lives, but that still, in general, Greeks have followed the rules and done fairly well, comparatively speaking. Mitsotakis showed a map of Europe with the national death rates indicated by different color codes; Greece and Finland were colored the same, sharing the lowest death rate in Europe at the time of the parliamentary debate.
Tsipras resorted to comparing Greece to the unreasonable benchmarks, not comparable cases. In fact, he compared Greece’s record to that of other countries only once — when he noted that Greece had experienced the worse economic recession in Europe due to Covid-19. He said: “Greece in this field is the last in Europe. You may say that this is due to the epidemic. All countries are experiencing an epidemic but not the same impacts. These are the comparisons that one has to take into consideration.” In all the other cases, he was adamantly against any “comparative” approach, unless it was to compare Greece to “the hypothetical condition.”
In all the other cases, he used the conjunction “if” as a conditional. “If you had taken some more precautions… if you had made more tests… if you had put more busses into circulation… wouldn’t we have fewer deaths?” At some point, Tsipras said: “If, if, if, if, I can use many ifs of this kind.” And, actually, he did. This is a common trend of populist argumentation: good outcomes could always have been better.
6 – The use of irony, insinuation, silencing, and debatable views as valid assumptions
Defense mechanisms operate rather unconsciously and as automatic reflexes in all debates, not just in populist discourse. For example, some facts are “forgotten,” and others are unduly emphasized according to the purposes of the speaker. These tactics operate to complement the populist approach.
Irony involves humor or sarcasm. It is an indirect way of expressing criticism. It is also an accusation that is difficult to respond to since it is not openly stated. Usually, it is a sneaky way of voicing an attack that would not be possible to bring to the fore otherwise, either because it cannot be documented or it is ethically not permissible. In sum, it is difficult to answer an ironic statement for two reasons. First, the criticism is not openly stated, and any effort to counter it implies that one accepts the accusations —namely, that “what is insinuated concerns oneself.” Secondly, the accuser may hide himself behind the pretext that he is simply “making a joke” and that his opponent lacks a sense of humor.
Tsipras, for example, was ironical and “humorous” when he attributed the sentence “coronavirus is not contagious in the buses” to his opponent. Meanwhile, he overlooked or obscured what Mitsotakis had really said —namely, that the government had increased the number of buses to control congestion. Tsipras jokingly said that somebody living on the island of Lesbos had been required to go to the island of Limnos to be vaccinated. In contrast, it was in fact claimed by others that the person concerned had given Limnos as his home address. He was also sarcastic when he asked rhetorically, “how many deaths do you need to accept that you have been unsuccessful?” A probable answer of the kind “how many deaths do you think would make me successful” would sound macabre and counterproductive for Mitsotakis. So, the sarcasm was ignored.
An example of assuming characteristics—the validity of which first needs to be proven—is when Mitsotakis is presented as the proponent of the “elite,” of the privileged classes, and of his immediate environment. This was repeated quite often by Tsipras, placing himself “on the side of the needy.” This supposedly diametrically opposite social status of the two leaders is presented as self-evident. That there is no need to prove the accusation makes it even more persuasive: it does not need to be proved because “everybody knows it.” This is the vicious circle of truth.
It was insinuated (because it could not be demonstrated) that Mitsotakis has said that “the pandemic cannot be managed” or “God will help us in that.” In both cases, it was not made clear precisely who had said these things or when and where they had been said. For these accusations, one may use the term “lies.”
There were various cases of arbitrary characterizations: “You are working in favor of certain social groups … you are in favor of the elite … you are against the social security system (and in favor of a privatized one) … you have not recruited new personnel into the hospitals (that Mitsotakis had, in fact, announced the opposite was ignored) … you only support private interests … some of us cannot pay the €500 fines handed out for violating the restrictions you impose while others go to Dubai to celebrate Christmas (inferring that those heading abroad are in the same camp as Mitsotakis—the “elite,” and the “neoliberals”).
Naturally, the political programs of the socialist Tsipras and center-right Mitsotakis differ. Moreover, each part has its self-evident facts and truths, which form its respective ideological framework. The “truths” of each are valid within each group, and the supporters of each group perceive the arguments of their leader as rational and understandable. Each argument, however, needs to be documented and proved when presented to the other side, as it was in the case in the parliamentary debate. Therefore the “numbers” that Mitsotakis presented were more persuasive to the third-party listeners, whereas the “arguments” of Tsipras were persuasive only to his in-group. Actually, no single personality can be the conclusive judge of a reality for everyone.
7 – Conclusions based on isolated events
The method of reaching conclusions based on an isolated case of secondary importance is an everyday phenomenon. It usually starts with a saying of the kind, “let me give you an example…” That is to say, a single example is considered enough to prove a case. If there is some bad guy in the village (in a family, a city, a nation, etc.), the whole community can be blamed. This is the way stereotypes and prejudices operate.
Tsipras said, “you vaccinated your own families, and if we had not made it an issue, you would have continued doing that.” But how many families were they? Were they really going to continue with the vaccination?
On the other hand, Mitsotakis presented numbers, statistical analyses, and graphic presentations. Tsipras demonized these because they impair the stereotype, i.e., the populist story. The listeners who are unaccustomed to numbers do not see the populist approach anyway. The single “typical” example is more persuasive to many people (How can one be sure that an example is “typical”?).
During this debate, Tsipras said: “If you feel content saying ‘the pandemic cannot be managed’ [without evidence this was ever said] and if you make macabre comparisons of the dead, as you did a while ago mentioning the percentages of the dead, then you will never learn anything from your mistakes.” And again, “4,500 deaths! The people mourn for their fathers, their grandfathers, grandmothers, for their wives. Furthermore, the government, instead of trying to limit the pandemic, tries to find refuge in the statistics.” Or, “The dead people are not statistics; they are human beings. When you say that the numbers are positive in comparison to other countries, the families that at this moment feel the pain of their losses will not feel any better.”
That many people mourn is true. It is also true that the “good numbers” are not a consolation for those who feel the pain of their losses. One may add that the people are also worried; they are concerned for the coming days, anxious about the future, etc. Naturally, the sound management of the pandemic cannot rule out the pain that comes with a single death.
Is there, however, anybody who would disagree with the above? Don’t all politicians see what is happening? Here, one sees the same tactics: various “truths” that are irrelevant to the debate are repeatedly mentioned, all addressed to the listeners’ feelings. On top of this, the populist, through rhetoric, makes an effort to demonize the numbers. And that is because numbers are difficult to cope with. They give a clear picture of the situation. Tsipras tried to “discredit” the numbers since he could not reject them.
The sentence “the dead are not statistics; they are human beings” is devoid of meaning. It is voiced either because of ignorance or as a conscious choice, as demagoguery. Statistics and human beings cannot be compared; they are heterogeneous categories. Statistics are tools that humans use and, like photographs, depict some situations. They may be about heart attacks or traffic accidents in a country. The numbers themselves are not heart attacks or accidents; they only give information about these. Similarly, the statistics about the pandemic inform us about the pandemic. I feel embarrassed to be in a position to try to demonstrate what is self-evident!
The numbers and the statistical information on 15 January, the date of the debate, showed that among the 30 countries of Europe and in the case of Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, there were only three countries that were in a better situation than Greece: Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These numbers change every week, but in general, Greece managed the pandemic reasonably well. This is not a consolation to the people who have lost loved ones, but it is a consolation to many Greeks that feel that they do not belong to the unfortunate countries that had many more losses. The demonizing of numbers is a way out for populists but does not serve self-awareness.
8 – Associating unrelated situations to reach conclusions
This method is basic for populists and is, to boot, an ancient technique. There is an ancient Greek story known as the Paradox of the Court or Protagoras’ Paradox. It is said that the famous sophist Protagoras took on a promising pupil, Euathlus, on the understanding that the student would pay Protagoras for his instruction after winning his first court case. After finishing the course, Euathlus decided not to enter the legal profession but entered politics instead, not paying Protagoras for the lessons. Protagoras decided to sue Euathlus for the amount owed.
The teacher argued that if he were to win his suit, he would be paid his money. If Euathlus were to win, Protagoras would still be paid according to the original contract because Euathlus would have won his first case. Euathlus, however, claimed that if he won, then by the court’s decision, he would not have to pay Protagoras. If, on the other hand, Protagoras won, then Euathlus would still not have won a case and would therefore not be obliged to pay. The question then is, which of the two men is right?
There are various versions of this story and many more uses of its hidden demagogy. There are actually two distinct cases that are shrewdly combined to reach the desired end. In the first case, Protagoras loses; in the second, he wins. The student simply repeats the first trial, in which he wins, avoiding mentioning the possible second suit. It seems as if history is being repeated—in the same land—in the parliamentary debate of 15 January 2021.
Tsipras said: “According to Mitsotakis, nobody asked him to take more austere measures in Thessaloniki where there were a high number of virus cases, whereas the local authorities had warned him.” Mitsotakis answered that he had said, “Nobody among the opposition in the Parliament had warned him.” At this point, Mitsotakis seems to be correct. However, Tsipras answered back, saying: “The opposition cannot tell the government what to do since the relevant information is not in its possession.” Now it seems that Tsipras is correct, and consequently Mitsotakis wrong!
The approach of Tsipras was to introduce new issues to the initial claim, which was simply “what Mitsotakis had said.” In so doing, he first stated that the opposition could not tell the government what to do since it does not control the situation, and second, he indirectly accused Mitsotakis of (naively) expecting the opposition to propose what the government should do. Tsipras is right in both these new issues. And by this approach, the initial argumentation is bypassed. The changing of the agenda is used repeatedly in populist discourse.
1 – Populist speech is characterized by arguments that are “true” (truisms) but irrelevant to what is being discussed; by the merging of various unrelated issues; by the repetition of negative characterizations against the opponent and by some other “auxiliary” techniques such as silencing, irony, insinuations, “tools” which are used in almost all debates. “Lies,” per se, are secondary. Examples of all these were presented above.
2 – The populist discourse is both difficult to notice (to recognize) at first glance and very influential. In the case of populist politicians, this technique is a powerful tool precisely because populist speech is hard to distinguish, but also because the messages are addressed to the unconscious part of the human intellect, to the feelings. This article is written hoping that it will help the receptors of the populist speeches be more ready to understand what is being done.
3 – The populist approach presented above differs from demagogy and lies due to its social dimension. Populism is a term that presupposes two components: The addressor and the addressee; the populist agent that propagates the populist views, speeches, promises, hopes etc., on the one hand, and a group of audience, followers, and believers that share the populist messages as a social group, on the other hand. In other words, for the listeners who do not believe in the populist leader, orator, etc., the populist person is only a charlatan, a demagogue, a liar. In connection with this, it is understood that the way to cope with populism is not limited to fighting the populist agent. Improving the ability of the listeners’ comprehension is also needed. The opposition should not be directed to the addressor only but to the addressee, too. Intelligent persons with critical thinking skills are the best barrier against populism.
4 – Finally, all the above are about the techniques that populists use, the tactics, and the methods. What populism actually produces is a different topic. Still, in the above example, we see some of the “essence” of the populist worldview, understanding, ideology, or whatever other names one may see fit to describe this phenomenon. We see:
A Manichean world of good (“us”) versus the negative, the dishonest, the unpatriotic “other.” This is done mainly on an ethical basis.
Socially, the supposed divide is between the “people,” the in-group, “us” versus the “elite,” the rich, the out-group. It is a quasi-class divide.
The out-group beyond the national borders are the foreigners, the leftists, the Jews, the enemies of “our” country (if the source is politically right-wing and conservative), or the imperialists, the capitalists, and the neoliberals if the accuser is a leftist.
In the last resort, the whole endeavor leads to a world of strife, nationalist stereotypes, and widespread othering.
 This article does not aspire to define populism. It is a case study of a special discourse which, as a working hypothesis, here is called populist. This discourse is characterized by a special technique which, if it is encountered repeatedly in other cases, too, it may shed light on “populist argumentation.”
By launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the French government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics.
The French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, has recently announced an investigation into so-called “Islamo-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions. She has accused scholars of colonialism and race of “looking at everything through the prism of wanting to fracture and divide.” This attempt to discredit scholars working with critical and postcolonial perspectives by targeting them with an ambiguous pseudo-concept —“Islamo-leftism” — underlies a strategy of silencing conversations about racism, white supremacy, and the impact of the colonial past to maintain an unrealistic image of France as a post-racial and egalitarian society.
The use of the term “Islamo-leftism”—islamo-gauchisme in French— has gained traction in France among some academics and right-wing politicians. It refers to an unlikely political convergence between the far-left and radical Muslim movements standing against imperialism and neoliberal globalization. Today, it is used pejoratively by the current government, the far-right, and conservative media and academics in France to accuse left-wing anti-racist intellectuals of being overtly occupied with racism and Islamophobia and of justifying Islamism and terrorism. The widespread use of this tag by government figures risks stigmatizing all Muslims and left-leaning academics by lumping them into a crude category that carries extremist undertones.
Even the National Center for Scientific Research, which Vidal assigned the task of investigating the fields of study concerned, has described “Islamo-leftism” as a poorly defined term with no relation to scientific reality. The center has also warned against “the instrumentalization of science” and infringing academic freedom in France. While the fuss over the term “Islamo-leftism” appears to be restricted to France, similar political trends are visible across Europe, where ministers often attack critical social theories depicting them as being against the “people.” Extremism experts have also attempted to link postcolonial theory with certain Muslim communities.
The long-standing and dominant conviction about continental Europe having achieved a post-racial and egalitarian status still serves as a substantial barrier to recognizing systemic racism and the ongoing impact of colonial legacy on Black and racialized minorities. While the removal of “race” from public and academic discussions in the aftermath of the Holocaust has by no means diminished systemic racism, it has made it difficult to name or redress the profound consequences of racial inequity. France is no exception as it refuses to face up to its colonial past and denies racism by reproducing the rhetoric of a universalist and color-blind Republican ideal, which prioritizes national identification over racial or religious identity.
In other words, Frenchness is seen as essential to achieving integration, whereas references to racial inequities are interpreted as identity politics endangering societal cohesion and leading to segregation. The establishment refutes references to institutional or structural bias as racism is seen as an individual moral flaw rather than being systemic. There are no race- or ethnicity-based statistics, and the term “race” was removed from the constitution in 2018. Such a race-blind ideal based on the myth of shared universal rights disguises the harmful consequences of racism by serving to sustain structures of racial inequity rather than dismantling them. This, despite the persistence of widespread discrimination targeting racialized minorities across societal institutions.
Recent global and national incidents, such as the brutal killing of George Floyd in the US and the death of a Malian French man, Adama Traoré, in 2016 while in custody in France, triggered riots and protests against police violence and brutality in France. They have fuelled heated debates about race, discrimination, and the widespread concern about the racialization of security targeting young men living in French banlieues. People are demanding justice for those exposed to racial profiling, police brutality, and the systematic discrimination entailed in targeting racialized populations.
In France, young activists particularly have been vocal in defying the national narrative of color-blindness. The protests have galvanized long-brewing grievances leading to intense discussions about white supremacy, deeply ingrained systemic racism, and demands for decolonization. While fostering broader awareness and encouraging activism among a younger generation, such nation- and European-wide debates and protests have also increased fears that racial identity politics—ridiculed as woke culture—is being imported from the US.
President Macron, who is tilting further to the right, made derogatory comments accusing academics of racializing socio-economic issues in the aftermath of anti-racist protests in France. By defying calls for racial justice as the influence of American multiculturalism and constructing demands for racial equity as a divisive threat, Macron’s government is attempting to gloss over the impact of racism on the everyday realities and experiences of France’s racialized minorities. In fact, Dan Hicks, a professor from Oxford University working on colonial violence, interprets the French government’s pushback against the progress made by anti-racist movements as the “invention of a culture war.”
Macron’s hardening rhetoric and attacks on academics and his recent campaign against the so-called “Islamist separatism” following the murder of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher, need to be understood within the context of wider socio-political circumstances in France. Macron portrayed himself as a defender of free expression after the beheading of Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free expression and censorship. The recent attacks by Macron’s government on certain fields of academic inquiry, however, suggest otherwise. Some see Macron’s pandering to the French far-right on immigration issues, Islam, and labeling academics with defamatory terms as a strategy to capture support from conservative voters against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. Such divisive and stigmatizing government narratives targeting selected groups carry the perilous risk of aggravating existing social and systemic problems and further harming the very social cohesion it purportedly seeks to protect.
Indeed, by launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics. The concern over being targeted by the French government has been expressed by some academics on social media, including Michael Stambolis, an American sociologist teaching race in France, who wrote on Twitter: “When you’re literally an American sociologist in France who studies sexuality, runs a gender studies program, and teaches race, intersectionality, etc., it’s impossible not to feel targeted. I’m most concerned for my students and colleagues of color.”
Despite the French government’s unprecedented attacks targeting academics working in postcolonial, race, and intersectionality studies, only 2 percent of publications in French academic journals since the 1960s have been dedicated to these studies, according to Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics. So, if these studies are incredibly marginal in French academia, why is there so much concern about them? This is because their findings strongly challenge the national myth of a race-blind and egalitarian French society with no issues of systemic racism or colonial abuses.
According to Macron, however, the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants “revisiting their identity through a postcolonial or anticolonial” discourse poses the risk of nurturing “self-hatred” against France. Against Macron’s claims, these fields of academic inquiry mainly offer a way of critically engaging with the colonial legacy and a racialized system drawing inspiration from minority epistemological perspectives that have long been ignored. If anything, what they offer the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants who study them is a deeper sense of knowledge, understanding, and a critical awareness about their position in a societal structure that fails to acknowledge and value their realities and experiences.
Studying these critical perspectives is particularly important for racialized students who are trying to make sense of their place and negotiate their multiple identities in higher education settings, which often function as spaces of exclusion and marginalization. Suppose Macron wants the (grand)children of immigrants to forge positive identities as multicultural French citizens. In that case, he should better encourage universities to decolonize their curriculum and more actively participate in structurally engaging with the (post) colonial past and the experiences of racialized minorities in contemporary France. Because persisting racial inequities in a society cannot be solved by pretending that race does not exist and smearing academics who are researching it.
Open lands foster a sense of community. You gather memories as you hike, hunt, climb, picnic, or drive a truck to work each day, but what happens if, all of a sudden, the federal government decides to expand or restrict the public lands where you live without asking your opinion?
For rural workers in the American West, the phrase “wilderness protection” usually means less “access” – their own key word – to trails for off-road vehicles, less freedom to graze cattle and hunt wild game, and fewer jobs in the energy industry. On the other side of the divide, environmental activists call for government protections of non-motorized trails, water and air quality, and wildlife habitats. Though people in both groups resent development in open spaces, especially as wealthy second-home owners move in (Bowlin, 2021), the fight over how public lands can be enjoyed is often bitter. As Indigenous tribes push back against oil and gas leases and over-tourism, after several centuries of profound loss, the picture becomes even more complex.
One of most pressing Western land controversies is over the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The region contains “breathtaking geological spectacle(s), knife-edged ridges, sleek white domes, lush valleys and cloud shaped rock formations” (Nordhaus, 2018). This dramatic geography is familiar to many Europeans, especially in Germany, where visits to Utah’s redrock country have been a part of popular fascination with the American West since Karl May’s adventure novels, however “unrealistic,” were “the German counterpart to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’” in the first half of the twentieth century (Spröer, 2016).
But Escalante is more than a rich space for speculation, whether in books or in mineral leases. The region contains many areas that are sacred to Native tribes, in southern Utah and beyond, with Bears Ears an important place in migration narratives of Zuni pueblo in New Mexico as well (McLeod, 2019). The area also includes many archeological sites that contain important cultural resources (Eaton, 2001) “from small lithic scatters to large highly complex village sites” (Enote, 2021). Though exploring the area’s deep sandstone canyons is popular with tourists, “the mesa tops are covered with great houses, ancient roads, underground pit houses, villages, and shrines” that may not be obvious to untrained eyes (Enote, 2021).
Bears Ears National Monument was created under the Obama administration in 2016, giving the region’s famous twin buttes (the “ears”) and surrounding Native heritage areas a new level of protection. This was the first time a coalition of tribes had been able to request and give input into a national monument. These groups have traditionally been underrepresented in decisions about the lands they have occupied for thousands of years. A Ute tribal chairman, Shaun Chapoose, told reporters at the Washington Post, “We knew exactly what was within that geographical boundary. We knew the gravesites, we knew where the artifacts were, we knew where certain plants and herbs grew” (Fox et al., 2019).
Less than a year later, Donald Trump moved to reduce the monument by 85 percent, raising the fury of wilderness advocates and Native tribes, while winning approval from local residents whose populist bent favors limited government if it interferes with hunting, grazing, and mining rights (Ban, 2017). Driving through San Juan County where Bears Ears National Monument is located, you can still see “NO MONUMENT” bumper stickers and yard signs. Although different leadership groups had been included in Obama’s decision-making process, many local residents felt that their way of life and livelihood had been ignored. Some tribal leaders opposed the monument as well, feeling that it would invite too much outdoor recreation in sacred sites (Buhay, 2017).
With Trump’s extreme reduction of Bears Ears, opening it to oil and gas leases, wilderness advocates felt that their own concerns had been completely disregarded. In December 2017, 5,000 people gathered at the Utah State Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s move (Wood, 2017). This protest included scientists, activists, families, students, community leaders, and representatives from a rare coalition of tribes, some with their own history of land disputes: the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Zuni Pueblo (McLeod, 2019). The crowd fell silent as Carl Moore, chairman of Peaceful Advocates for Native American Dialogue and Organizing Support, danced in a traditional feathered headdress and a gas mask (Leonard and Cortez, 2017).
Though the Bears Ears controversy has been particularly fraught, Utah has been the focus of “divisive unilateral national monument decisions” for the past quarter century (Nordhaus, 2021). In the US, “business and development interests are often privileged” due to a long history of “maximizing production of resources from ecosystems” (Grumbine, 1994: 11). But a new era of public lands protection, with Native voices included in policy making, is taking shape today. The Biden administration is expected to reverse the shrinking of Bear Ears and Grand Escalante national monuments. Supporters of wilderness and Indigenous land protections take particular comfort in Biden’s nomination of the first Native secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico.
Back in San Juan County, local leaders have expressed new willingness to work with the tribal coalition but are still wary of governmental “overreach” (Douglas and Brewer, 2021). As has long been the case in the American West, every community has a strong sense of belonging in the land. Descendants of the white Latter-day Saint settlers in the Utah desert, with their own migration story of fleeing persecution, often resent the “VanLife” nomads and second-home newcomers who do not understand what it cost their ancestors to survive here, or what it meant to them symbolically. “Mormons didn’t mind the desert,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “It reminded them of the Old Testament” (Solnit, 1994: 52)with its story of exodus from Egypt.
At the same time, many desert recreation enthusiasts resent those they perceive as being less respectful than they are. The Bears Ears area’s most recent claim to fame is not actually its “monumental” controversy but the strange appearance of a monolith resembling the one in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: Space Odyssey. As images of the monolith went viral in December 2020, so did COVID-frustrated tourists’ efforts to find its remote location. Within days, the Martian-looking landscape had been trashed by Instagrammers rushing to document themselves as much as the shiny object that, it turns out, had been there since 2016. Suddenly one night, the monolith disappeared. This was the act of a wilderness enthusiast who could not bear the crowds and left the words “leave no trace” – as, ironically, his own trace in the desert (Wells, 2020).
Perhaps the pain that locals or wilderness advocates feel when the federal government changes public lands policy, or when “outsiders” want to use the land, can serve as a reminder of what Native tribes have experienced for centuries. When white settlers arrived and displaced Indigenous communities, they saw the land as a thing to be owned. They did not appreciate how deeply they violated relationships with a life-giving landscape meant to be known, where, as the Zuni say, “as we live in the present ways of our people, we live also within the realm of our ancestors” (The Zuni People, 1972: 180). As one wave of newcomers disgruntles the next, perhaps some can step back and imagine what has come before and what will remain, or not, for future generations.
Grumbine, R. Edward. (1994). Editor. Environmental Policy and Biodiversity. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Miller, Daegan. (2018). This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.
The Zuni People. (1972). The Zunis: Self-Portrayals. Translated by Alvina Quam. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Kenes, Bulent. (2021). “Boogaloo Bois: Violent Anti-Establishment Extremists in Festive Hawaiian Shirts.” ECPS Organisation Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 16, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0006
As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party, typically accelerationist Boogaloo Boys use these Hawaiian shirts to hide their intention to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment in the US.
Through 2021, white supremacists and far-right extremists will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States (US), where political and ideological divisions fall cleanly along racial lines (Newkirk II, 2019) according to a document prepared by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2020. However, former US President Donald Trump regularly downplayed this threat during his term (Sands, 2020).Many experts already associate rising far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. Hate crimes, anti-Semitism, and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since Trump’s campaign began in 2015. The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) (2020) also observed that these groups have been encouraged by Trump’s tweets about “liberating” states. Despite its resurgence under Trump, the problem of far-right extremism in the US is not new, and its history dates back to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after the Civil War.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, the US experienced the greatest risk of serious civil unrest and violent revolt since 1860, when 11 states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and eventually seceded from the Union. American citizens have already been armed to the teeth, with record firearms sales during the coronavirus pandemic, especially among first-time gun buyers (Brigety II, 2020).Thousands of these gun owners showed upduring the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, that resulted in five deaths. The crowd falsely claimed the incumbent Trump had won the election and that then President-elect Joe Biden “stole” it through widespread voter fraud. Right-wing protests were also slated to occur at state capitols the weekend of January 17, and the “Boogaloo Boys” (a.k.a. Boogaloo Bois) were among those either planning the protests or planning to attend (SPLC, 2021).
The Boogaloo Boys were also among the most visible participants at state capitol protests after January 6, and specifically in Richmond, Virginia, on January 18. As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. The shirts are a reference to “big luau,” which is an adaptation of the word “boogaloo” (SPLC, 2021). Aloha philosophy is associated with the Native Hawaiian spirit of love, compassion, and mercy – ironic, considering the shirts being worn by Boogalooers at violent demonstrations (Jones, 2021) intendedto trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment (Hinton, 2021).
Despite the occasional adoption by luxury designers, the Aloha shirt is more commonly associated with midlife crises. An article in The New York Times once described the Hawaiian shirt as a “signifier of the style-challenged tourist” (Tudela, 2016). In his book “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands,” Dale Hope wrote about its “humorous, garish or tacky” associations. However, Scot Nakagawa, a senior fellow at ChangeLab, explained that lurid style is a long-held tradition of insurgent white nationalism. The KKK also made use of costumes and mythic rituals as they practiced extreme violence against African-Americans. More modern examples of clothing used by extremist subcultures include the Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts, Doc Marten boots, and suspenders worn by neo-Fascist groups from the punk era into 1990s Britain. In addition to identifying members of the groups, wearing these items served as a recruiting tool. Doing so may be an attempt to bait the less informed into assuming the group means no real harm – that they are, really, a goofy bunch of boys despite their military-grade weaponry (Pemberton, 2020).
Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party (Giglio, 2020), the Boogaloo Boys use Hawaiian shirts to hide their intentions (Delgado, 2020). The result of an analysis of over 100 million social media comments has confirmed how the “boogaloo meme,” “a joke for some, acts as a violent meme that circulates instructions for a violent, viral insurgency for others.” According to the researchers, it is like turning off the transponders on 9/11 to enable the extremists to hide in plain sight, disappearing into the clutter of innocent messages (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020).
This interpretation is shared by Patrick Blanchfield of the Brooklyn Institute. He, and other experts on white nationalist extremism in the US, have stressed that such in-jokes are a longstanding practice of extremist movements born out of online message boards like 4chan and Reddit and, in the case of the Boogaloo Bois, Facebook. Joshua Citarella, a researcher of extremist behaviours on the internet, says this kind of Boogaloo imagery appeared to be “100 percent” co-opted by, among Gen Z, white nationalist groups who wanted not just a confrontation with the establishment, but also a full-fledged race war (Beckett, 2020). However, while a number of empty symbols have been appropriated by groups defined by white nationalist and anti-government ideologies – including Pepe the Frog, the “OK” hand sign, and a purple pigeon emoji – the Aloha shirt represents the first-time extremists have laid claim to a piece of clothing with largely benign associations (Pemberton, 2020).
The term “boogaloo” once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them.
No Longer About Music And Dance, But About Menace
The story of the term “boogaloo” is also interesting. The movement was first noticed by extremism researchers in 2019, when fringe groups ranging from gun rights and militia movements to white supremacists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking (Patches, 2014) reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie (Zadrozny, 2020; SPLC, 2021) about breakdancing teens battling to save their local community centre from corrupt politicians and corporate development. Sam Firstenberg, the Israel-born movie director of the cult classic explained that the “Electric Boogaloo” began as a meme on the internet. “In the last 10 years or so, it became equal with the word ‘sequel,’” Firstenberg said, in conjunction with the second civil war the Boogaloo movement aspires to create. “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo” began popping up on message boards (Abramovitch, 2020).
According to Allam (2020), the movie, which received poorly by critics, became a cult classic. The title has evolved into a meme in a sarcastic way to describe any unwanted sequel. In 1965, the word “boogaloo” emerged as a mash-up of black and Latin American influences. Some 50 years later, the word is still part of American pop culture, but now with a very different meaning. The word once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them (Allam, 2020).
The Boogaloo Boys also use other similar-sounding derivations of the word, including “boog,” “boojahideen,” “big igloo,” “blue igloo,” and “big luau” to avoid crackdowns and automated content flags imposed by social media sites to limit or ban Boogaloo-related content (Timberg et al., 2020). Intensified efforts by social media companies to restrict Boogaloo content have caused adherents to use terms even further detached from the original word such as “spicy fiesta” to refer to the movement (Barton, 2020). The Boogaloo movement has created logos and other imagery incorporating igloo snow huts and Hawaiian prints based on these derivations (Charter, 2020; Woodward, 2020). The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo. The stripes sometimes list the names of people killed by the police, including Eric Garner, Vicki Weaver, Robert LaVoy Finicum, Breonna Taylor, and Duncan Lemp (Barton, 2020).
Boogaloo memes and ideas have been circulating since the 2010s; however, in the past couple of years, the movement’s adherents have been more visible at rallies and events (SPLC, 2021). The Boogaloo movement exploded into the mainstream after it came to light that Sgt. Steven Carrillo, who on May 29, 2020 used the cover of the George Floyd protests to gun down one federal officer and injure another in Oakland, California, claims allegiance to the group. Carrillo later scrawled the word “Boog” in his own blood on the hood of a stolen vehicle during a June 6 gun battle with police in Santa Cruz County that also claimed the life of a sheriff’s deputy (Abramovitch, 2020).
It is now obvious that the term “boogaloo” has been used to describe an uprising against a supposedly tyrannical or left-wing government, often in response to a perceived threat of widespread gun confiscation. For many, the word “boogaloo” is used jokingly or ironically, but for others, the boogaloo memes are shared alongside violent text and images, seemingly to incite an eventual confrontation. The ambiguity of the term “boogaloo” works to cloak extremist organizing in the open. “Like a virus hiding from the immune system, the use of comical-meme language permits the network to organize violence secretly behind a mirage of inside jokes and plausible deniability,” stated a report by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI (Zadrozny, 2020). Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020) say this ambiguity is a key feature of the problem. Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, says “It is very difficult to know if the ‘boogaloo boi’ you see standing in the middle of the street at a protest is there in solidarity or to incite violence” (Pineda, 2020).
While many still use the boogaloo meme jokingly, an increasing number of people employ the phrase in hopes of inciting the expected apocalyptic confrontation with law enforcement and government officials or to provoke ethnic warfare. Pemberton (2020) noted that it’s not uncommon to see heavily armed white men toting military-grade gear on American streets; however, the addition of the Hawaiian shirt is a new twist. The tactics the Boogaloo Boys have used to gain media attention have been honed over the course of decades, by extremist groups from the KKK to the “alt-right”: wear distinctive, lurid outfits; give your ideology a weird name; and use bizarre terms that journalists could reveal and decode for their readers.As an example,boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen,” a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen, who fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of their country (Beckett, 2020).
The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan where the meme was often accompanied by references to “racewar” and “dotr” (“day of the rope,” a neo-Nazi reference to a fantasy involving murdering what the posters view to be “race traitors”) (Zadrozny, 2020; ADL, 2019). By 2019, its culture had disseminated across social media into a mix of online groups and chat servers where users shared libertarian political memes. In recent times, this all began to manifest in real life, as users from the groups emerged at protests. The Boogaloo movement – which unites a wide variety of extremist and fringe movements, subcultures, andpeople (ADL, 2020a), some of whom have attempted to associate with Black Lives Matter and others with neo-Nazism (Crawford, 2020) – is the latest example of a mass of memes escaping from 4chan to become a real-life radical movement. As nationwide unrest intensified at the start of the summer of 2020, many Boogaloo adherents interpreted this as a cue to realize their main fantasy: armed revolt against the US government (Beran, 2020).
Part meme, part subculture, the Boogaloo Boys is a mash-up of anti-government apocalyptic screed, Second Amendment evangelism, and dark-humoured satire (Weiner, 2020).Relying heavily on humour makes their messaging more accessible and appealing, while also allowing them to underplay the more disturbing content as jest. This use of humour does not diminish the violence associated with Boogalooers’ expressed intent. While some Boogalooers try to frame their support for an armed rebellion only as a defensive measure against state-sponsored aggression, others embrace the notion of a full-scale civil war. To this end, members believe that civilians need to be armed with firearms and explosives to maintain the balance of power between the people and the state.As a decentralized movement that organizes largely online but whose presence has increasingly been felt in the real world, the Boogaloo Boys is a group favoured by the militia, gun rights, and anarcho-capitalist movements (ADL, 2020a).
It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans. Supremacists who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military.
Inspired By “The Turner Diaries”
The unrest related to pandemic restrictions appears to have significantly boosted the profile of the Boogaloo movement. The conspiracy theory that the US government is using the pandemic to restrict American citizens’ freedoms has been exacerbated far-right calls for a civil war. Some Boogaloo supporters also believe that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have helped raise awareness of their civil war narrative amongst wider populations(Crawford, 2020). Thus, Boogalooers have started articulating how COVID-19 could accelerate and enable the second civil war (ISD, 2020).As hardcore “accelerationists,” the Boogaloo Boys promote violence to speed up the collapse of society, and often seek to exploit moments of political or civil unrest, including widespread protests (Owen, 2020).
“Accelerationism” is mainly based on William Luther Pierce’s 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” which is known as “the bible of the racist right” and a novelized blueprint for a white revolution (ADL, 2019) that would instigate a race war and bring about the federal government’s collapse (Valasik & Reid, 2020).The novel depicts the violent overthrow of the government of the US, nuclear conflagration, race war and the ultimate extermination of non-whites and “undesirable racial elements among the remaining white population” (Sarna, 2021). The widespread and extremely violent conflagration is also often called the “boogaloo” by its adherents (Inglis, 2021).Since publication, “The Turner Diaries” has inspired numerous violent acts, including the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Three years later, one of the attackers who murdered a black man in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998, also cited “The Turner Diaries” as his inspiration (Berger, 2016).
The novel also features a secret group conspiring to create a “new world order.” This idea has taken numerous forms over the decades, from more anti-government beliefs about secret government conspiracies to race-based beliefs suggesting Jewish or minority-based cabals seeking to oppress, control, or replace the white race (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2020). These conspiracy theories are often adopted by groups with a more mainstream aesthetic and less overtly racist aims than their original creators. For instance, the term “white genocide” has given way to “the great replacement” to describe the idea that white people are being systematically replaced by non-whites in Western countries. This makes extreme ideas more palatable for a mainstream audience. Miller (2020) says the Boogaloo Boys have undergone a similar sanitation process.
On the other hand, according to Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020), memes such as the boogaloo appear as either cryptic jargon or recreational subcultures to both web users and security experts and, thus, seem an unlikely source for large-scale national security risks. “But it is precisely this unfamiliarity that should signal profound concern: Facing a similarly alien subculture of enthusiasts, national security pundits, the US Military, and intelligence and defence agencies, were entirely caught off guard at the rapid mobilization of ISIS and creation of the caliphate. Foreign fighters from all corners of the world—having little knowledge of ISIS ideologies, religion, or cause—were quickly recruited from flash to bang through savvy social media outreach,” write the authors. They add: “According to our research, boogaloo enthusiasts, who refer to themselves as the ‘Boojahideen’ may have stolen a page from the ISIS’ playbook” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020).
Moreover, Brenton Tarrant’s “The Great Replacement” manifesto is the latest in a line of theories inspiring acts of domestic terrorism. In fact, prior to Tarrant’s manifesto, French author Renaud Camus released his 2012 book “Le Grand Remplacement,” arguing that immigrants are replacing European whites (Williams, 2017). These theories share a common theme of blending anti-government sentiments with racial bias to create dystopian images designed to inspire fear and violent acts (Berger, 2016).According to Amy Cooter of Vanderbilt University, some far-right groups have adopted “accelerationism” as “the idea that inducing chaos, provoking law enforcement, and promoting political tension will hasten the collapse of Western government, making room for them to establish a whites-only country” (Valasik & Reid, 2020). Therefore, the Boogaloo Boys have made police brutality one of their central issues (Owen, 2020).
Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic, hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray.
Accelerationist Boogalooers Infiltrate Protests As A Tactic
Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic (Beeman, 2020), hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists. If violence can be increased sufficiently, the system will run out of lackeys and collapse, and the race war will commence (Byman, 2020).Accelerationists also take a nod from a Neo-Nazi, James Mason, who came into his ideas as a teenager in the 1960s and published a newsletter, Seige, from 1980 to 1986. Mason believed, “that only the full collapse of American democracy and society will bring conditions sufficient to bring order through Nazism” (Beeman, 2020).For accelerationism to succeed, traditional politics must fail. Dialogue, compromise, and steady progress are its enemies (Byman, 2020).
Despite the Boogaloo Boys creating a considerable sensation in recent times, no one has yet emerged as a “boogaloo” leader or a boogaloo spokesperson, and it’s far from clear how many people consider themselves affiliated with “boogaloo” ideology. As of April 2020, more than 100 “boogaloo” groups on Facebook had a total of more than 72,000 members, according to a report released by the Tech Transparency Project (2020). However, some of those users might be double-counted as members of multiple groups (Beckett, 2020).Nevertheless, it is a fact thatthe “boogaloo” boasts tens of thousands of social media users, exhibits a complex division of labour, evolves well-developed channels to innovate and distribute violent propaganda, deploys a complex communication network on extremist, mainstream, and dark web communities, and articulates a hybrid structure between lone-wolf and cell-like organization (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020).
On January 20, 2020, thousands descended on Richmond, Virginia, for the Virginia Citizens Defence League’s annual Lobby Day. As participants of the rally, the Boogaloo Boys donned Pepe the Frog iconography as well as patches evocative of the American flag emblazoned with an igloo in place of the 50 stars. Some Boogaloo members wore a skull balaclava, which is considered the face of 21st-century fascism. A participant boastfully declared on the Facebook page, “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). It is not a secret thatthe connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans (Beran, 2020).White nationalists – people who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military (Inglis, 2021).
Military service has, traditionally, been a vehicle for marginalized individuals to make citizenship claims as a result of their military service (Burk, 1995). Yet extremist movements that run counter to integration and inclusion have also been attracted to military service – for a different reason. The links between the US military and white nationalists date back to the 1990s, with many believers seeing military service as an opportunity to hone their fighting skills and recruit others to their movements, particularly after serving (Belew, 2014).However, most Americans don’t know much about the level of white nationalism in the military (Spindel et al., 2020), while many do not view it as a serious problem. In particular, self-identified conservatives and those who hold highly favourable views toward the military are less likely to view white nationalism in the military as a serious problem (Ralston et al., 2020).
In 2017 and 2019, two Military Times polls found that about a fifth of respondents reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces (Shane, 2017, 2019). Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members (Shane, 2017).This figure jumped significantly in a 2020 poll, when 36 percent of participants reported seeing evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military (Shane, 2020). The 2019 survey additionally found that about 35 percent saw the problem of white nationalism as a significant threat to the country (Shane, 2019).
Civilian leaders and the general public have reason to be concerned if the military becomes a fertile recruitment ground for violent and extremist groups (Holthouse, 2006; Levinson, 2019). White nationalists with military service have committed mass acts of deadly violence after leaving the military (Ralston et al., 2020). The issue of extremists in the ranks gained national attention in 2019 after the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, a former active-duty Marine and Army guardsman, who was plotting a mass murder of political and media figures (Shane, 2019).
The problem of white supremacy isn’t just limited to the military. “With their enormous power, department-issued weapons and access to sensitive information police departments have also become attractive recruiting grounds for white supremacist groups,” says Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University (Inglis, 2021).
Since 2019, at least 31 people affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have been charged with crimes, including those who killed two security and law enforcement officers in California inMay and June 2020 (Beckett, 2020a), a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Brigety II, 2020; Thompson & Fischer, 2021), incidents related to the George Floyd protests, and the storming of the US Capitol building. All of the Boogaloo Boys arrested were white (Perper & Sheth, 2020).While the number of active and former military members is believed to be small when compared to the overall size of the movement, extremism researcher Kathleen Belew has stated that their participation “is not a problem we should take lightly” due to the threat that they could “dramatically escalate the impact of fringe activism, pass on explosives expertise, [or share] urban warfare expertise” (Owen, 2020a).
There are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterised as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts.
Some Boogaloo Boys Are Explicit White Nationalists And Neo-Nazis
The Boogaloo Boys is a loosely affiliated far-right movement that includes a variety of extremist factions and political views. According to Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business, there are always racialized and eugenic sub-themes in groups like the Boogaloo Boys. “It’s about who should live,” he said (Beckett, 2020). “You have everyone from neo-Nazis and white nationalists to libertarians,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. What unites them is their interest in having complete access to firearms, the belief that the country is heading towards a civil war (Jones, 2021), and that mass civil conflict of this kind is the only way for the country to correct its path.
These anti-government beliefs have found support beyond the movement’s racist roots, making it adaptable and easily spread (SPLC, 2021). Boogaloo Boys urge people to rise up against the government, which they see as tyrannical and essentially irredeemable (Jones, 2021).TTP’s analysis also found that some members’ profiles include white supremacist content, including images of Adolf Hitler, despite other group members rejecting white supremacist ideology (Mathias, 2020). J. J. MacNab of George Washington University believes participants were radicalized elsewhere prior to donning a Hawaiian shirt. She claims the Boogaloo movement “isn’t really a movement. It’s a dress code, it’s a way of talking, it’s jargon” (MacNab, 2020).
The Boogaloo culture operates as a diffuse movement rather than a traditional group organizational structure, with a single leader presiding (SPLC, 2021).According to Alex Newhouse of Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, there are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterized as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts (Pineda, 2020; Beran, 2020). While the white supremacist side veers into overt racism and makes no secret their desire for violence (Owen, 2020) the libertarian side takes offense at the “white supremacist” label (Pineda, 2020).Pineda argues thatthe group’s original members had ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, while many newer members are libertarian.
There’s no question that some Boogaloo Boys are explicit white nationalists and neo-Nazis who use the term “boogaloo” as a synonym for the coming race war. But there’s real disagreement, even among experts, about whether the Boogaloo movement as a whole should be described as “white supremacist.” Some members of the Boogaloo Boys even denouncewhite supremacists, saying they want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter while other members make racist and anti-Semitic comments and mocked moderators for trying to be politically correct.However, numerousexperts say that lip service from some Boogaloo supporters about wanting to be a multi-racial movement should not be taken seriously(Beckett, 2020a; SPLC, 2021).
At the protests after George Floyd’s death, Boogaloo Boys were a conspicuous presence. Despite the members being overwhelmingly white, the movement has often presented itself as a race-blind. The Boogaloo meme itself emerged concurrently in white power online spaces in the early 2010s, today the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can build a new fascist state (Miller, 2020). It is true that Boogaloo Boys participated in the rallies, and a few even supposedly sported Black Lives Matter (BLM) patches and rainbow flag patches, in alleged support of the BLM movement and LGBTQ rights. However, it’s unclear how much of this support is genuine, and how much is simple political opportunism as the movement attempts to muddy ideological boundaries in order to triage their image and draw in more adherents (SPLC,2021)
Despite this ideological messiness, it is telling that most of the movement’s “martyrs” are white men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement. It was also a white man, Duncan Lemp, who first galvanized the movement – not the deaths of the thousands of Black people killed by police (SPLC, 2021). It is only white men who the Boogaloo Boys view as deserving of liberty and autonomy; their deaths at the hands of the state are evidence of tyranny and injustice, while the deaths of black people largely are not. Viewed from this perspective, the Boogaloo Bois’ effort to join the BLM protests reads as nothing more than political opportunism (Miller, 2020). The only place Boogaloo and BLM activists seem to overlap is in their anger toward law enforcement, but the source of their grievances, proposed remedies, and visions for the future are completely distinct (SPLC, 2021). One way to capture the complex dynamics of “Boogaloo” ideology is to label it as a broad anti-government movement that is full of white power activists, believes Belew. Like the militia movement of the 1990s, not everyone who participates in “Boogaloo” events or groups is necessarily a white power activist, she added. (Beckett, 2020a).
As part of a larger anti-establishment extremist movement in the US, the Boogaloo Boys includes militia and “patriot” organizations such as the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters, whose adherents have been implicated in bombings, murders and armed standoffs with federal law enforcement. Moreover,similar to other right-leaning extremist movements, the members of the movement are the product of an unhappy generation of young white men (SPLC, 2021)who compare their lot in life with that of men in previous decades and see their prospects diminishing. And with a mix of ignorance and simplicity, they view their discontent through the most distorted lens imaginable: internet memes (Beran, 2020).Therefore, like other most visible right-wing populist (RWP) social movements, the Boogaloo movement also prioritizes appealing to young male supporters (DeCook, 2018). Such appeals resonate with nationalist ideologies that emphasize traditional patriarchal gender relations and hostility to feminism and stand in opposition to the liberal, pluralist values purportedly advanced by “the elite” (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012).
Working-class And Low‐income Groups Form The Core
On the other hand, class remains one of the most striking indicators of support. Working‐class and low‐income groups have formed the core of the Boogaloo movement (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012). However, according to Beran (2020),Boogaloo Boys certainly do not face the economic disadvantages of the most marginalized groups in the US, but like the alt-right, they are unhappy enough to form their own radical identity politics of collective grievances. Lower educational achievement is also associated with an affinity for the movement (Gidron and Hall, 2017). Indeed, Boogalooers often use anti‐intellectualism as a tool, clumping elites and the educated together and encouraging a rejection of the “experts” (Merkley, 2020). What these men share is years of marginalization and a hatred of the present state of society (Beran, 2020).
It is not so abnormal for Boogaloo Boys to see the current federal government as illegitimate, while remaining deeply “patriotic.” They revere the Constitution and see themselves as the true descendants of America’s founding fathers. In their view, current US lawmakers are the equivalent of occupying British forces during the Revolutionary War. Among the “boogaloo” merchandise for sale online are images of George Washington armed with a modern, AR-15-style rifle (Beckett, 2020a). The Boogaloo Boys are entirely opposed to firearm regulations (SPLC, 2021).
“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” Trump tweeted on May 30, 2020. “Don’t lay the blame on others!” During Trump’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security claimed the Boogaloo movement was not right wing – a claim disputed by experts. Trump’s unwillingness to name and shame far-right groups publicly is not harmless (Bertnard, 2020).While some anarchists have embraced “Boogaloo” rhetoric, these are primarily “right-wing anarchists,” who believe in “unfettered capitalism” – not left-wing anarchists, says Mark Pitcavage of the ADL (Beckett, 2020a). Newhouse also says the Boogaloo movement is a far-right movement. The Guardian has reported that experts on extremism concur that the Boogaloo movement is right wing. Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst, believed the DHS’ claim that the Boogaloo movement is not right wing, was “playing politics” (Beckett, 2020).
A clear sign that the Boogaloo Boys are right wing is their decision to show up with guns to guard private businesses, first during demonstrations against public health shutdown restrictions, and later during the protests over Floyd’s killing. Showing up with guns to protect big corporations from property damage is not something that most left-wing protesters would do (Beckett, 2020a).Thus, the claim that the Boogaloo Boys is not a right-wing movement does not reflect reality.
The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application.
Social Media (Facebook): Boogalooers’ Fertile Habitat
The Boogaloo Boys, which stemmed from memes in social media pro-gun groups, have organized through Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube (Pineda, 2020). However, the true birthplace of the movement is 4chan’s /k/ section (Evans & Wilson, 2020), which is ostensibly devoted to the ownership and purchase of weapons, from knives to fighter jets. Half-serious posts about how certain weapons might be employed in “the boogaloo” evolved over time. Like many memes on 4chan, each new version was more cryptic than the last, a means to express insider knowledge and in-group status (Beran, 2020).
One example of this is how “Boogaloo,” itself a euphemism, has been further disguised with the use of soundalike terms like “big luau” and “big igloo.” The term “icehouse” is yet another synonym for the term, descended from the “Big Igloo” variation (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Even the co-option of Hawaiian imagery and igloos is inherently cynical and meaningless. There is no connection to the group’s ideology outside of the linguistic resemblance of the word “boogaloo” to “igloo” or “luau.” But this co-option fits the ethos of online spaces perfectly, with a niche group celebrating its anti-government views by draping them in colourful jokes and nonsense that can be endlessly remixed and reinterpreted (Beran, 2020).
The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application, where the #Boogaloo hashtag had over two million views as of June 2020 (Owen, 2020b).
Some of the most active Boogaloo communities were on Discord, a chat program popular among online gamers (Bertnard, 2020). However, following media coverage – which included screenshots of a Discord server where members of the military were sharing their expertise – Discord shut down the server and deleted the accounts of its members. The community created and migrated to a subreddit after their removal from Discord, but Reddit banned the subreddit shortly afterward (Rodriguez, 2020). The website Tree of Liberty, which described itself as the “press platform” for the Boogaloo movement, was also taken offline by its cloud hosting provider on January 12, 2021 (Mac & Haskins, 2020). A Twitter spokesperson said that Twitter views Boogaloo content as free expression and does not ban accounts solely for their use of the term, but that they had banned numerous accounts that used the term for violating other policies.
TheBoogaloo Boys have used social media to strategise, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass.
4chan Birthed Boogalooers, Facebook Helped To Grow
Though 4chan birthed the Boogaloo Boys, above all, it is Facebook that has helped the group grow (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Researchers have repeatedly drawn attention to Facebook’s role in radicalizing extremist actors, and the consequences of allowing extremists to organize freely on the platform, to little practical avail. Research by the TTP showed that there were at least 125 Facebook groups devoted to the Boogaloo movement on April 22, 2020. The real number has since increased significantly, although determining an exact number is all but impossible due to the rapid evolution of the subculture (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Online extremists have used Facebook to plan and organize for a militant uprising in the US as they cast coronavirus lockdowns as a sign of rising government suppression (Pineda, 2020). NCRI researchers, who analysed more than 100 million social media posts and comments, found that through the use of memes extremists have pushed anti-government and anti-law enforcement messages across social media platforms. They have also organized online communities with tens of thousands of members, some of whom have assembled at real-world events (Zadrozny, 2020). Facebook management has long understood its role in promoting extremism but have elected not to act for fear of alienating conservative sensibilities, especially in the US (Evans & Wilson, 2020).
TheBoogaloo Boys have used social media to “strategize, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass,” according to the NCRI report. The report also notes how the boogaloo concept has been monetized, through merchandise advertised through Facebook and Instagram ads, and marketed to current and former members of the military (Zadrozny, 2020). A range of boogaloo-related phrases emerged as the term became more popular in social media, including: “showing up for the boogaloo,” “when the boogaloo hits,” “being boogaloo ready” and “bring on the boogaloo.” Boogaloo-related hashtags have surfaced, including #boogaloo2020, #BigIgloo, #boojahideen, and #boogaloobois. The boogaloo meme soon spread from angry gun-rights activists to the militia movement and survivalists. The Telegram channel, “Boogaloo: How to Survive,” claims to show “how to survive in a post-society world through understanding the psychology of violence, attaining resources, and organizing to accomplish post society tasks” (ADL, 2019).
On public Facebook pages, Boogalooers circulate satirical posts about the overthrow of government, painting the Boogaloo as a viral online phenomenon rather than a real-world threat. But communications of boogaloo supporters in private Facebook groups accessed by TTP tell a different story: extremists exchanging detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities. This activity is occurring without any apparent intervention by Facebook. TTP found 125 Facebook groups devoted to the “boogaloo.” In several private boogaloo Facebook groups, members discussed tactical strategies, combat medicine, and various types of weapons, including how to develop explosives and the merits of using flame throwers (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). One group even shared a document detailing how to disrupt US government supply lines and discussing the possible need to assassinate government officials (Mathias, 2020).Some Boogalooers see the public health lockdowns and other directives by states and cities across the country as a violation of their rights, and they’re aiming to harness public frustration at such measures to rally and attract new followers to their cause (Tech Transparency Project, 2020).
A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found that “COVID-19 is being used to advance calls for the ‘boogaloo,’” and that two boogaloo-related Facebook groups have seen large spikes in engagement. One of the groups, Big Igloo Bois, saw an 88 percent jump in interactions in March 2020, according to the study (ISD, 2020). Moreover, Trump’s tweets about liberating Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota appear to have energized some elements of the Boogaloo movement. Among the most popular boogaloo-themed pages on Facebook is Thicc Boog Line, a boogaloo clothing brand that has attracted nearly 30,000 followers since its October 2019 founding (Tech Transparency Project, 2020).
Despite many warnings from reporters and civil society organizations and employing 350 people on staff devoted to stopping people and organizations from using its platform to plot or engage in violence (Mathias, 2020), Facebook failed to remove the violent content proliferating on Boogaloo-related groups for months – enough time for the disjointed movement to congeal, organize, and grow its ranks (SPLC, 2021). Eventually,on May 1, 2020, Facebook and Instagram both updated their “violence and incitement” policy to ban the use of the term Boogaloo and related words when they occur alongside images or statements depicting or urging armed violence (Evans & Wilson, 2020; Pineda, 2020) and designated a network of “Boogaloo” groups as a dangerous organization similar to the ISIS (Beckett, 2020a).
However, at the same time, research suggests that this policy has done virtually nothing to curb either the growth of the Boogaloo movement or reduce the violence of its rhetoric. Facebook remains a hospitable place for would-be insurrectionists, and it buried evidence that its platform facilitates the growth of extremism, due to a fear that combatting this would be seen as anti-conservative bias. But every day, tens of thousands of heavily armed people log on to repeat their hope for an American civil war (Evans & Wilson, 2020).
According to researchers,the Facebook groups were particularly dangerous, because they were helping to build local connections between nascent domestic extremists. The company removed 220 Facebook accounts, 95 Instagram accounts, 28 pages, and 106 groups as parts of the Boogaloo-affiliated network “after there were already bodies.” Some experts said it was too late: the scattered men drawn to the idea of being soldiers in an insurgency against the American government had already connected with each other directly (Beckett, 2021). In the wake of Facebook’s targeted takedown, Boogalooers have encouraged each other to avoid using old nicknames originally used to bypass censorship, phrases like “luau,” “igloo,” or “boog,” in favour of new ones, like “fiesta” (ADL, 2020b).
After Facebookstarted to de-platform Boogaloo adherents on June 30, 2020, amidst a boycott in which companies including Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Volkswagen announced they would no longer advertise on the platform due to “the hate speech and misinformation that persists on Facebook” (Menn, 2020; Collins & Zadrozny, 2020), many Boogalooers retreated to other social media platforms. However, some took an alternative path: rebranding their movement on Facebook using the names of prominent media companies. As part of this rebranding effort, Boogalooers on Facebook started to share memes and posts referring to the boogaloo as “NBC,” “Fox News,” and “Vice.” Yet no nickname has been adopted as widely as “CNN,” which has boogaloo supporters referring to themselves as “CNN bois” and using #CNN to refer to the Boogaloo itself (ADL, 2020b).
Boogalooers believe that emmeshing their cause with a popular brand will make it more difficult for Facebook to remove their content. While Facebook has already removed several of these pages, this latest episode illustrates how quickly the Boogaloo movement is able to adapt and demonstrates the need for continued monitoring to stem the spread of its violent message. Apparently, Boogalooers are better positioned than more formalized groups to adapt to new conditions, because the movement is focused on a concept, not a centralized organization. The name of the group is secondary (ADL, 2020b).
Violence: Boogalooers Target Police As Most Accessible Symbol Of Government
As Mudde (2021) notes, far-right extremism has generally been ignored in the US despite the DHS warning that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might be particular targets for recruitment by extremist groups (DHS, 2009). The report sparked a conservative backlash, which accused the Obama administration of unfairly targeting conservatives and veterans. The situation has gotten worse since. In their effort to create an all-white country, the far-right extremists, including the Boogaloo Boys, often instigate violent confrontations that target racial and religious minorities (Spindel et al., 2020). Especially since 2018, far-right extremists have conducted more lethal attacks than any other domestic extremist movement (DHS, 2020). A CSIS report stated that the right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the US in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020 (Bertnard, 2020; Weiner, 2020).
As was expected, the military and police departments have been infiltrated and compromised by far-right sympathizers. Nearly one in five defendants in Capitol storming cases have served in the military (Mudde,2021). In parallel, Boogalooers also generate and share memes glorifying the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, and jittery graphics that borrow from the aesthetics of Atomwaffen and other overtly white supremacist accelerationist groups (Green, 2020). The war in Ukraine has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters with ties to the far-right who use the battlefield as a networking space. That includes dozens of Americans, some of whom have come home with new contacts and fighting experience. Outside Ukraine, white supremacist training camps exist in Poland, Bulgaria, and even the UK, and many white supremacist organizations operate transnationally (Weiner, 2020).
Boogalooers consider the police, which is the most accessible symbol of the government at public gatherings (Jones, 2021), an arm of the state that is enforcing “tyrannical” laws and directives. They foment this anti-law enforcement sentiment with references to past violent incidents as evidence of the government’s willingness to kill people who oppose its laws (ADL, 2020a).They refer to police as “soup bois” because federal agencies sometimes are referred to as “alphabet soup” due to their varied acronyms (Dazio, 2020). Boogaloo Facebook groups regularly featured jokes about men filling their lawn sprinklers with gasoline to light the police on fire (Beckett, 2021).One meme, posted in April 2020, showed a person in a helicopter shooting down at feral pigs on the ground with the caption “pig hunting: now.” The next image, captioned “pig hunting: boogaloo,” showed the same person shooting at cops (Miller, 2020).“If you look at their online spaces, their rhetoric is extremely violent,” SPLC’s Miller said. “A lot of it is kind of under this veneer of irony and humour, but there’s something very real to all of it,” (Jones, 2021).
Boogalooers have used the Files function in Facebook groups to upload dozens of planning documents, including military manuals, CIA handbooks, and instructions on how to reuse N95 facemasks, among other material. The most concerning document is one entitled Yeetalonians, a reference to the Boogaloo. At over 133 pages, the document provides an in-depth look at preparing for the Boogaloo and offers advice on what weapons should be used, what propaganda to distribute, and how to psychologically win over civilians to the cause. The document mentions “target selection,” noting that assassinations of figureheads are “overrated” but “some people have to go.” It discusses how to disrupt US government supply lines, noting that “national guard depots, police stations and factories that produce munitions are all very solid targets,” (Tech Transparency Project, 2020).According to the TTP report, the group engages in national-level coordination, as state and local chapters are where users share tactical information and survival tips, ranging from topographic map access to instructions for evading authorities (Mathias, 2020).
An assessment dated June 15, 2020, predicted that “violent adherents of the boogaloo ideology likely reside in the National Capital Region, and others may be willing to travel far distances to incite civil unrest or conduct violence encouraged in online forums associated with the movement.” It also noted that “while it identifies Washington D.C. as an attractive target, the Boogaloo ideology is not restricted to a specific region and those who wish to cause division are routinely using peaceful protests as means of cover” (Bertnard, 2020).
Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance (SPLC, 2021). Police carrying out a search warrant shot and killed the 21-year-old Lemp during a SWAT raid in March 2020. Lemp’s family said he was killed while he was asleep in his bedroom. Groups honouring Lemp popped up in far-right internet spaces (Miller, 2020). In March 2020, a Missouri man (Timothy Wilson, 36) with ties to neo-Nazis was shot and killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. Wilson told an undercover FBI agent that his goal was “to kick-start a revolution” and referred to his plans as “operation boogaloo” (Pineda, 2020). In May 2020, three Boogaloo members were arrested on terrorism-related charges in what federal prosecutors say was a conspiracy to spark violence during protests in Las Vegas over reopening businesses and Floyd’s death. Authorities allege the three white men filled gas cans and made Molotov cocktails in glass bottles and were headed to a BLM protest (Komenda, 2020).
During the riots in May 2020, after Floyd’s death, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the Boogaloo Boys had armed themselves. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armoury to steal heavy weapons. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them (Rotella, 2021).These cases show that, among others, violent instigators affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, (Pineda, 2020)for their own purposes (Valasik & Reid, 2020).
Far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilised post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities.
The Boogaloo movement is part of a broader rise in far-right extremism in the US, as was predicted in the early years of the Obama presidency. US law enforcement agencies and the military have faced criticism for doing too little to monitor and prevent the radicalization of American citizens by violent white supremacists and other domestic right-wing extremists (Beckett, 2021)such as the Boogaloo Boys (or Bois).
The pandemic has also been a fertile ground for far-right messaging, opening new platforms to radical activists and extremist movements. Violent extremists across the ideological spectrum have exploited the pandemic to take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, desperate, and available—relegated to their homes with little to distract them aside from surfing the Web. The dearth of large public gatherings and crowds moved the terrorism battlefield inside and online. But with an anti-government message designed for online virality, twenty-first-century extremists and accelerationists were especially well positioned to profit from this shift (Weiner, 2020).
As Crawford (2020) underlined, while it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of this trend, it is possible to sell some elements of far-right ideology, like the Boogaloo, to more mainstream audiences. Shifting those people away from these ideas may be as difficult as tackling the virus itself (Crawford,2020).And the evidence so far suggests that the movement has succeeded in spreading its message – a message that can, as the recent arrests of Boogaloo movement adherents show, all too easily turn into real life threats (Weiner, 2020). While adapting themselves to the times, as Hinton (2021) noted, far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilized post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities.
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Jair Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. His caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Trump in his use of such platforms. He is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” — however, his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
On September 6, 2018, the then 64-year-old presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro was campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora in Brazil’s southern state of Minas Gerais, about 189 km from Rio de Janeiro. The city —a stronghold of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT)— nevertheless drew a massive crowd of supporters for the right-wing populist Congressman ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, set for October 7. According to some reports, some 30,000 supporters lined the streets (D. Phillips, 2019).
Videos—later shared widely on social media—captured the extraordinary scenes that followed. Dressed casually in his signature yellow and green t-shirt bearing the slogan “Meu Partido e Brasil” (“My party is Brazil”), the former army captain can be seen being carried aloft the shoulders of a mass of supporters moving along Juiz de Fora’s central plaza. He is smiling and waving jubilantly to crowds of well-wishers. Suddenly Bolsonaro grimaces in agony, clutching his abdomen. An assailant in the crowd has plunged a knife deep into his stomach, seriously wounding the far-right firebrand.
By all accounts, the attack nearly killed Bolsonaro, who was rushed to a local hospital having lost as much as two liters of blood. Internal injuries meant he was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was only removed well into his first month in office, in January 2019. Indeed, his injuries and hospitalization kept him largely off the trail for the duration of the campaign. Despite this, Bolsonaro came in first place in the October 7 first round, taking 46 percent in a crowded field of 13 candidates. He went on to win the second round on October 28, taking 55 percent of the votes cast against the PT candidate Fernando Haddad (Londoño & Darlington, 2018).
The stabbing “unwittingly boosted his TV exposure, just as his social media campaign took off” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95). Indeed, Bolsonaro drew adeptly on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to post images of himself in his hospital bed in surgical gowns receiving treatment to still-fresh wounds and in various stages of recovery. These bear a strong resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi’s parading of his bloody face and head wounds after being struck with a blunt instrument by a man at a campaign rally in Milan in April 2009 (Winward, 2009).
In this way, the attack formed a crucial backdrop to Bolsonaro’s campaign and eventual victory. Beyond the sympathy it garnered him, it seemed to reinforce two central aspects of his campaign. First, it made him a direct victim of the country’s disorder (thus reinforcing his claim to be one with ordinary Brazilians fed up with violent crime). Second— in surviving the attack—he bolstered his “tough guy” credentials, proving his uncompromising manhood and the “legendary” status he claims as his mantle.
Entering office as Brazil’s 38th president on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro ushered in a new era in Brazilian politics, the contours of which are still falling into place. Before Bolsonaro’s victory, “Brazilian presidential elections … [were] marked by a virtual duopoly, with the left-leaning PT and the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) as the predictable finalists” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). In presidential elections between 1994 and 2018, the two parties had consistently taken 70–90 percent of the vote between them. His victory thus marked a break in the relative stability of Brazil’s party system and the so-called “Nova República” (“New Republic”) that emerged when the army restored civilian rule in 1985 after 21 years of military rule (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93).
Hidden in Plain Sight
The thrice-married Bolsonaro was born in 1955 in Sao Paulo state to a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family. Neither strictly an insider nor a clear outsider, his rise was instead “hidden in plain sight” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 80). His backstory—a contentious but rather undistinguished military and congressional career—and controversial statements mark him out as distinctive. Yet, he is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” (Weizenmann, 2019) — or the earlier Latin American populists like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Brazil’s own Fernando Collor de Mello. There is something to these comparisons, although arguably his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).
Bolsonaro began his career as a military cadet, serving 15 years in the army, much of it as a paratrooper. His military experience and identity as a former soldier are central to his political style and his approach to government. It may be fair to say that his military identity is the most salient aspect of his political brand, the foundation on which all else is built. His authoritarian leanings were evident even during his time in the army. Toward the end of his career, at the dawn of the Nova República, he began to court controversy. In 1986, he landed his first blow against the new democratic regime, going public with a series of critiques that the new civilian leadership was undermining the military. In an article published in Veja, a popular Brazilian tabloid, he lambasted the inability of elected elites to ensure adequate pay and conditions for ordinary soldiers (Polimédio, 2018). In 1987, he was arrested and drummed out of the military when it became clear he had sketched plans to bomb military installations to bring attention to the poor pay and conditions (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 12). He was found guilty by a military tribunal but was released soon afterward on appeal.
Almost immediately after the Veja controversy, Bolsonaro entered politics. From 1989 to 1991, he was a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro. Then he entered national politics in 1991. He won a seat representing Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies, which he held for the next 27 years. During his time in Congress, he achieved little legislatively, and what moves he did make were concerned with improving the military pay and conditions (Polimédio, 2018). He was an inveterate party-switcher. Between his election to the National Congress in 1991 and his move to the presidential field in 2018, he changed parties seven times (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).
In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” was “the way out for Brazil”. Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship”
“I am in favor of dictatorship”
Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. He infamously harassed one female Congresswoman, saying she “was ‘too ugly’ to be raped, claimed some black people were not ‘even good for procreation,’ and said he would rather one of his four sons ‘die in an accident’ than be gay” (Child, 2019). He has also described the conception of his fifth child — a daughter — as “a moment of weakness” (Brum, 2018).
However, it is arguably his open support for military rule and his yearning for a return to the period of military dictatorship that have most alarmed Brazilians. In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” (using the army to prorogue Congress and the courts to rule by decree as Peru’s President Fujimori had done) was “the way out for Brazil” (Brooke, 1993). Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship” (Weizenmann, 2019). He is on record publicly stating that the military dictatorship “should have killed more people” and that “You can’t change anything in this country with voting and elections” (Polimédio, 2018). Bolsonaro has long taken the view that the 1964 coup that felled Brazil’s post-WWII democracy was righteous and that the period of military dictatorship that ensued (1964 –1985) was “a glorious era” for Brazil, one “in which law and order prevailed” (Lichterbach, 2019).
His abhorrent views were cast into sharp relief in 2016 during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (see below). A Congressman at the time, he voted to impeach Rousseff — who as a young leftist had been arrested and tortured by the military — and “dedicated his vote ‘to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra’… one of the most sadistic torturers and murderers in the military dictatorship” (Brum, 2018). Many Bolsonaro supporters — including his own children — posted on social media wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Ustra lives!” (ibid.)
“Populism as Parody”: Visual Self-Representation and Political Style
Bolsonaro’s caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Donald Trump in his use of such platforms—especially Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube—to reach the Brazilian people directly, unmediated by traditional channels (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). His campaign “relied heavily on political microtargeting via social media —and focused especially on professionalising a ‘fake news’ industry. In a country in which 70 percent of the population is functionally illiterate… the effect of fake news disseminated via WhatsApp has been perverse” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95).
As Evangelista and Bruno (2019: 17) note, this social media campaigning exacerbated “political feelings [already] present in the political debate.” Facebook/WhatsApp and YouTube especially allowed him to steadily expand his support over time as his message went viral: “Social media was essential … to generate unexpected exposure to messages through viral and targeted dissemination of contents. Memes, emojis, and images were at the center of the discursive battle to build pro-Bolsonaro interpretive frameworks” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).
Bolsonaro’s distinctive mode of visual self-representation on social media stands out even among populist leaders worldwide. Mendonça and Caetano (2020) have argued persuasively that Bolsonaro deliberately curates his image on social media—especially Instagram—to emphasize simultaneous “eccentricity and ordinariness which makes his demeanor, his body, and his appropriation of institutional power function as a series of parodies” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 3). This chimes as well with Brum’s analysis of him as an “anti-president” who uses caricature and disdainful mockery to simultaneously emulate and disarm his opposition (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).
Mendonça and Caetano (2020: 12) note that Bolsonaro’s “visual aesthetic combines a sense of being of the people while at the same time projecting an understanding of himself as a charismatic exceptionality.” In this way, the authors argue, Bolsonaro has sought to make a parody of the office to simultaneously appropriate its symbolic power while crafting an image of being an outsider and “close to the people” via ordinary—almost hokey—images, including an Instagram post of him preparing breakfast with “ordinary bread rolls with sweetened condensed milk, poured directly from the can” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 14).
Bolsonaro’s ubiquitous social media presence and campaigning proved wildly successful. He retains fanatical support across Brazil. His fan base, which refers to him as “O Mito” (“The Legend”), skews heavily male and young. Indeed, one enterprising Brazilian company sought to cash in on his notoriety and has named one of its energy drinks — “Bolsomito” —after him (D. Phillips, 2018). His largest single support base is Brazil’s rapidly growing Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal community, which makes up around a quarter of the country. The rise of Brazil’s Evangelicals has occurred against the backdrop of a much broader shift in social values over the last 30 years, especially around the question of law and order: “Today, more Brazilians are in favor of legalizing capital punishment, lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, and life without parole for individuals who commit heinous crimes” (Polimédio, 2018).
Bolsonaro was also supported during the campaign by a small — but highly vocal — coterie of popular social movements, whose demonstrations and protests were amplified by social media as well as the mainstream press. These groups include Movimento Brasil Livre (the Free Brazil Movement) and the Vem pra Rua (Come to the Street) movement (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). Eventually, Bolsonaro was able to unite the three strands of the right in Brazil — “the nostalgia right, who yearn for the security of the military dictatorship,” the religious right, primarily Brazil’s large and vocal Evangelical community, and the “liberal right [that is] always railing about the hypertrophy of the Brazilian state” (Child, 2019).
A toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system.
A Perfect Storm: The Four Winds of Crisis Ushering in Bolsonaro’s Rise
As is generally understood, populist leaders mobilize support “from the perception of crises, breakdown or threat” (Moffitt & Tormey, 2014: 391–392). Bolsonaro’s rise is no different and must be understood against the backdrop of a broad-based set of crises that began in 2013, which Uri Friedman of The Atlantic has referred to as “the slow implosion of Brazil” (Friedman, 2016). Hunter and Power (2019) describe this systemic collapse as a “perfect storm” of four distinct but overlapping crises: an economic crisis, a crisis of law and order, a corruption crisis, and a political legitimation crisis.
Brazil’s post-2013 economic woes underlie everything else. Between 2000 and 2012, Brazil was among the fastest-growing major economies on earth, growing at an average rate of 5 percent per annum. Moreover, under the government of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the PT, which came to power in 2003, growth was widely dispersed—arguably for the first time in Brazilian history. Millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty as Lula’s administration diverted swelling government coffers into cash payments for low-income households, most notably via the Bolsa Familia program, the world’s largest cash transfer program (Gazola Hellmann, 2015). But in 2014, the boom turned to bust as Brazil was plunged into the deepest recession in its history (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72)
At the same time, Brazil’s violent crime rate—always high—skyrocketed, driving citizens in the major cities to despair. Gun violence is a particular problem, and seven of the world’s top 20 most violent cities are in Brazil. With over 68,000 homicides per year, Brazil has a murder rate that is over four times the global average (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93; Child, 2019). Indeed, one public opinion study found that violence—a social problem typically seen as best-handled by right-wing parties—was the most salient concern for Brazilian voters ahead of the 2018 elections (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).
Then, shortly after the economic crisis began to bite, Brazil was consumed by a corruption scandal on a scale that dwarfed anything before. Indeed, the “Lava Jato” (“Carwash”) investigations launched by federal prosecutors in early 2014 became the most extensive (and expensive) anti-corruption drive ever seen (Child, 2019) and seemed to capture almost the entire political class in its net. As Hunter and Power (2019: 73) note, between 2014 and 2018, the Carwash investigations “produced nearly one-thousand arrest warrants and 125 … guilty verdicts falling on politicians and private businesspeople alike. Although the investigation ensnared politicians from fourteen different political parties … the most important names were linked to the PT.”
These several crises fueled a fourth strand—namely, a toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system. The partisan crisis reflected the two emerging trends in Brazilian politics—namely, rising antipathy to the PT (known as “antipetismo”)—due to its perceived culpability in the country’s many crises—and growing nostalgia for the “order” and “clean government” of the military dictatorship (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72). As president, Rousseff was caught up in the corruption scandal, and in 2016 she was impeached and removed from office. Crucially, her predecessor and PT standard-bearer Lula —who had decided to again run as the PT candidate — was also implicated; in April 2018, he was imprisoned on corruption charges, making him ineligible for president (Iglesias, 2019).
The political environment, especially after Rousseff’s impeachment, grew toxic, leading to unprecedented declines in public support, not only for the PT government but for the system as a whole. A 2017 Ipsos survey found that 94 percent of Brazilians lack faith in the political elite (cited in Polimédio, 2018). Moreover, a 2018 Latinobarometer survey found that among 18 Latin American governments in 2017–18, Brazil’s recorded the lowest levels of public trust (cited in Hunter & Power, 2019: 74).
The 2018 Elections
As Weizenmann (2019) argues, “Any one of these… crises could have produced extremist demagoguery on their own. Taken together, dire economic circumstances, rising violence, and political delegitimization” opened up the perfect opportunity for a candidate like Bolsonaro. His campaign—announced in June 2018—very skillfully navigated the collapse in the established system. In so doing, Bolsonaro pushed a message perfectly crafted for the moment—a focus on “law and order,” strong leadership,” and being an “outsider” driving a total restructuring of the system.
Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan was “Brazil first, God above all” — a clear nod to the Evangelical section of his base. He enjoyed several high-profile endorsements, including from the world-famous former Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, now retired (Savarese, 2018). It came despite his controversial campaign tactics, such as when he vowed to end the so-called “concessions” to native Brazilians and former slaves, known in Brazil as “Quilombolas” (The Independent, 2019).
A crucial turning point in the campaign came at the end of August 2018 when Lula was jailed and disqualified from the race, which essentially cleared Bolsonaro’s path. Lula had been “the front-runner in the polls until being disqualified” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). The PT hastily put Fernando Haddad up as an alternative candidate. While he remains beloved in Brazil and his personal brand went some way to overcoming the antipetismo sweeping the country after 2014, Lula’s continued sway failed to translate into support for Haddad. The October 7 first round indicated just how successful Bolsonaro would be with Lula out of the picture; he took 46 percent of the vote and moved decisively into the second round (Cowie & Child, 2018).
Simultaneously, elections were held for Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. Support for Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (SLP) surged — the party won 52 seats in the 513-seat chamber, up from just one in 2014 (Hunter & Power, 2019; Weizenmann, 2019). In a highly fragmented party system, this gave the SLP the plurality of the popular vote. Crucially, the 2018 congressional elections also saw a sharp increase in support for parties within the so-called “Bancada da bala” (“Bullet faction”), the loose congressional caucus committed to the arms industry, and a more militarist approach to law and order and public security. Their share rose from 35 to 61 seats in Brazil’s lower house, with 15 Senators in the caucus elected, including Flavio Bolsonaro from Rio de Janeiro state: “Members want to legalize the arming of citizens and make the shooting down of bandits by the military and police exempt from punishment,” (Milz, 2018).
Overall, Bolsonaro benefited from the coalescing of the so-called “triple B” coalition, made up of “bulls” (i.e., agribusiness), “bullets” (the gun lobby), and “bibles” (Pentecostals). Underpinning all was a focus on Bolsonaro’s military credentials, his willingness to “shake up the system” and his fanning of the center-right obsession with the apparent spread of “cultural Marxism”—an amorphous ideology supposedly endorsing political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism—throughout Brazilian society (Savarese, 2020).
Finally, against a backdrop of antipetismo and Bolsonaro’s promises to reform “the country’s broken pension system, reductions to the size of government, limits on social benefits, and a restructuring of the country’s taxation system” (Weizenmann, 2019), corporate Brazil came on board. In the end, “Brazil’s business community—at first dubious about the candidate’s purported free-market conversion… swung behind him when faced with the binary choice between Bolsonaro and the return of the statist PT” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 70).
The most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general.
A Government of Soldiers and Culture Warriors
Brazil’s cabinet picks reflected all the campaign themes and the “triple B” coalition that underpinned it. His ministerial appointments fall into three main categories—namely, technocrats, culture warriors, and military men (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96). On the first, Bolsonaro was compelled to overcome a sense that he was ill-prepared for office, especially to handle Brazil’s fractured economy. He had assuaged much of this on the trail by promising to appoint specialists and technocrats where needed (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96; Polimédio, 2018). His two key picks as “super ministers” — Paulo Guedes as economy minister and Sergio Moro as justice minister — reflected this drive.
Bolsonaro’s appointment of Moro—the lead judge in the Operation Carwash investigations— as his justice minister surprised many and seemed to cement the connection between Brazil’s corruption crisis and Bolsonaro’s win. However, this was shattered in mid-2019 when claims arose that Moro had shown a clear bias in the case against Lula. The investigative journalism newsmagazine, The Intercept, leaked messages purporting to show that Moro had collaborated with the prosecutors (a claim he denies) to ensure Lula’s conviction and disqualification from the 2018 campaign (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 3; Fishman et al., 2019).
Within a year, Moro had resigned his post, accusing Bolsonaro of political interference in police investigations at both federal and state levels. He left office in late April 2020 (McGeever, 2020). Moro’s allegations indicated the president had fired several police chiefs to head off investigations into his son’s alleged corruption. The Attorney-General then opened an investigation (Brito & Paraguassu, 2020). Indeed, for a politician supposedly a paragon of anti-corruption, Bolsonaro has himself become increasingly tarred with the corruption brush. His son, Flavio, has proved problematic (to say the least) dogged by allegations of misappropriating funds (and worse) from the beginning (Milz, 2019a).
Bolsonaro has also appointed prominent religious figures to his cabinet, notably Damares Alves (Women’s Affairs) and Milton Ribeiro (Education), both Evangelical pastors. Alves, who has been in the cabinet since the beginning, has courted controversy for her remarks about gender norms, women’s rights, and Brazil’s annual carnival season. On her election, she made headlines with the slogan, “it’s a new era in Brazil —boys wear blue, and girls wear pink” (Deutsche Welle, 2019a).
Ribeiro —who was appointed in July 2020 after the previous education ministers were forced to resign on account of scandal and corruption — has also caused issues with his focus on religion in schools and continuing Bolsonaro’s strategy of stripping the education system of leftists and “cultural Marxism.” Religious groups welcomed the move, saying, “the education ministry is key to boosting Christian values in Brazil,” and casting aside what they contend is leftist influence in the schools (Savarese, 2020).
Arguably most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general. By September 2019, Bolsonaro had appointed seven serving or former military officers to the government (Hunter & Power, 2019: 82), excluding Mourão. In early 2020, he capped off a cabinet of soldiers by appointing four-star army general and current army chief of staff Walter Souza Braga Netto as his presidential chief of staff. Braga’s appointment took the total number serving, including Mourão, to ten (Deutsche Welle, 2020a). While warnings of a potential coup have been repeatedly swatted back, the fact that military figures so dominate the government has alarmed many (Romero et al., 2020).
Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent.
The First Year: Protests, Paralysis, and Pensions
On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro had promised “a conservative revolution.” Central to this was his promise to liberalize gun laws, which in Brazil are quite restrictive. Despite this, the country is plagued by terrible gun violence, arguably the most visible aspect of rampant criminality. In his first week in office, Bolsonaro moved on the gun issue—a presidential decree on January 14, 2019, expanded the number of firearms Brazilians could legally own and promised to remove “open carry” restrictions further on in the term (Marcello & Stargardter, 2019). Many of his early moves had the ring of empty symbolism — for example, in the first week, the new administration purged the federal government of so-called “leftist” public servants, who were simply legitimate appointees from previous administrations (The Independent, 2019).
The president and his inner circle stand accused of playing up divisions in the government and society as a kind of “symbolic politics” to bolster their political support: “In this regard, some commentators stress that Bolsonaro and his sons have choreographed certain movements. All the political confusion portrayed since the beginning… shows a pattern of rehearsed sketches to demonstrate cohesion around the conservative values they defend” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).The purpose here is three-fold: to mobilize the base, bolster the Bolsonaro’s “anti-system and transgressive credentials,” and distract commentators from the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the government (ibid.).
Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent, with the numbers saying they distrusted him outright, rising from 30 percent to 44 percent (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 98). These numbers reflect the key points of social resistance to Bolsonaro’s new administration, which erupted in widespread protest in his first few months in office. Indeed, they began in the campaign, with the nationwide #EleNao (“Not Him”) demonstrations dogging his campaign in 2018. Protests highlighted his anti-LGBT and anti-women attacks and his treatment of indigenous people. Brazil’s April 2019 Carnival seasons saw a slew of floats and parade groups mocking and protesting the president. In particular, there was a pointed response to Alves’ gender assertions, with female carnival-goers dressed in blue and men in pink (Deutsche Welle, 2019a). In the Rio Carnival of 2020, Evangelical Christians hit back with promises to “bring Jesus” to revelers (D. Phillips, 2020).
While he had promised “a conservative revolution,” Bolsonaro’s progress was plodding. He refused to play by the traditional political rules, shunning the country’s long-standing political culture of horse-trading for policy wins. Ironically, a similar approach brought down the country’s last populist leader Fernando Collor de Mello, in the mid-1990s (Panizza, 2000). Like Trump, Bolsonaro appears to believe that he can achieve policy wins by dint of sheer personality and his diffuse and vocal support among his support base.
The 2019 Amazon wildfires drew the world’s attention and calls for concerted international action, most notably from French President Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro burned a vast swathe of his political capital attacking foreign leaders’ attempts to address the issue, with France’s president and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany coming in for intense criticism. In August 2019, after a G7 meeting that promised a “rescue fund” for the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro lashed out, asserting sovereigntist claims, accusing Macron and the G7 of neo-imperialism (T. Phillips, 2019).
Toward the end of 2019, Bolsonaro scored a victory with the passing of pension reform. Brazil’s pension system had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and without some changes, it threatened to blow up the federal deficit. Fixing the problem had been a central plank of Bolsonaro’s campaign. After much wrangling in Congress and a June 2019 general strike opposing Bolsonaro’s plans to right-size the pension system, reform passed in October 2019. The win did not appear, however, to staunch his bleeding popular support. By late 2019, his approval ratings had fallen to 31 percent—down from 49 percent when he was elected in October 2018 (Milz, 2019b).
The experience of dealing with an uncompromising Congress has clearly affected the maverick politician, by all accounts has been infuriated by the congressional argy-bargy involved in prosecuting his agenda. At the end of the year, the notorious party-switcher announced he was forming a new party, the Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil). It was also announced that his son Flavio—a senator from Rio de Janeiro who ran on the SLP ticket—would take a senior leadership role in the new party. “The party platform ‘recognizes God’s place in the life, history and soul of the Brazilian people,’ is anti-abortion, rejects ‘socialism and communism,’ and supports the right to possess firearms” (Deutsche Welle, 2019b).
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the pandemic crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll.
The Second Year: COVID-19, Policy Failure, and an Electoral Rebuke
After the October 2019 pension reform victory, Bolsonaro’s fortunes might have looked up. However, in early 2020 the COVID-19 crisis hit, dominating Bolsonaro’s second year in office. The crisis has struck Brazil particularly hard and has only been exacerbated by the Bolsonaro administration’s failure to adequately address the public health emergency and coordinate a response among Brazil’s state and municipal governments. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. He even emulated Trump’s dosing with hydroxychloroquine, which he has called “a miracle cure” (Eisele, 2020). Furthermore, just as Trump did, Bolsonaro self-represented his own infection with COVID-19—which occurred after months downplaying its virology and impact—as part of his “real man” macho image. In so doing, in March of 2019, he referenced his September 2018 stabbing, telling his large social media following that if I am “able to survive being stabbed, then a “little flu” was unlikely to kill [me]” (Eisele, 2020).
Brazil, a federation of 26 states and one federal territory, has devolved responsibility for health and public health. This has played into Bolsonaro’s hands, allowing him to play up “local elites” who stand in the way: “The 65-year-old has repeatedly and harshly criticized the virus-related restrictions to everyday life — some of which have since been relaxed — imposed by states and municipal governments… [In July 2020], he vetoed a law passed by Congress on nationwide regulations concerning the wearing of face masks in public” (Eisele, 2020).
The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll. In local elections held across the country in November 2020, Bolsonaro-backed parties lost ground, as did the main opposition PT. Moreover, in a “direct rebuke to Bolsonaro, voters in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city, re-elected mayor Alexandre Kalil, who took tough quarantine and social distancing steps that were criticized directly by the president” (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). The established center-right and conservative parties saw a return to electoral fortune after their poor showing in the 2018 congressional elections. Bolsonaro’s former party, the SLP, failed to take top place in a single election (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). His Aliança pelo Brasil did not stand candidates, as the party had formed too late to gather the necessary signatures to register as an official electoral party (Ying, 2020).
After just over two years in power, the very worst predictions about Bolsonaro’s presidency have not materialized. Certainly, the military has so far remained firmly in the barracks and has swatted back calls for intervention in politics (Romero et al., 2020). None of this should be taken as a call to celebrate. Indeed, it is really down to a fortuitous mix of incompetence on the part of the administration — most evident in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the checks and balances in Brazil’s federal system. Bolsonaro’s own stubborn refusal to play by established rules and establish a governing congressional coalition is also a key factor, meaning his agenda has largely stalled in the legislature. Thus, like Trump in his first term in office, institutional inertia has managed to blunt and slow the worst effects of Bolsonaro’s radical agenda.
Nevertheless, much damage is being done to the fabric of Brazilian society. As The New York Times recently noted: “The upheaval in Brazil is leading investors to rush for the exits. Capital flight is reaching levels unseen since the 1990s. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 8 percent this year. Car production, a once-thriving pillar of the economy, has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1950s” (Romero et al., 2020). However, Bolsonaro continues to enjoy widespread — if minority — support in the electorate, as this brief has detailed at length. Moreover, his new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, is an as-yet untested legislative vehicle and could well do very well at the next general election scheduled for October 2022. Much depends, of course, on Brazil’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the trajectory of further reform efforts.
Araújo, B., & Prior, H. (2020). “Framing Political Populism: The Role of Media in Framing the Election of Jair Bolsonaro.” Journalism Practice, 1–17.
Gazola Hellmann, A. (2015). How does Bolsa Familia work? Best practices in the implementation of conditional cash transfer programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. IDB Technical Note No. 856. Inter-American Development Bank.
Hunter, W., & Power, T. J. (2019). “Bolsonaro and Brazil’s illiberal backlash.” Journal of Democracy. 30(1), 68–82.
How Does International Cooperation Work Between Populists?
The last decade has seen a rise in cooperation between xenophobic right-wing populists, both in Europe and internationally. Elsewhere, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Western populists from majority Muslim countries and left-wing Latin American populist leaders. My hope with this commentary series is to begin a fruitful discussion about this cooperation. I will start by examining the stunning cooperation between British right-wing populist Nigel Farage and former US President Donald Trump, the populist held power in a country long viewed as the beacon of democracy.
The relationship between former US President Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and hard Eurosceptic, went beyond the limits of a mere friendship to become an international cooperation, if not a coalition. As such, it is relevant to international populism studies. The two supported the other’s political campaigns and gave statements and interviews promoting one another’s political agendas. They even physically appeared at each other’s election rallies as “guests of honour.” They readily endorsed the other as a fellow “man of the people.”
Farage routinely commented or posted on social media in support of Trump. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), Farage appeared at a Trump campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2016. He was introduced to the crowd – by Trump – as “the man behind Brexit.” Addressing the pro-Trump crow, Farage stated that, “I wouldn’t vote for Hilary Clinton if you paid me.”
He continued as follows: “[UKIP] made 23 June our Independence Day when we smashed the Establishment… If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals.”
Farage also used this opportunity to lambast Prime Minister David Cameron and former US President Barack Obama for backing the “Remain” campaign. He drew parallels between the US elections and the Brexit referendum, and he urged “the ordinary people” of the US to “stand up to the establishment and take back control with a ‘people’s army.’”
He successfully appealed to the emotions of the crowd, saying: “I come to you from the United Kingdom with a message of hope and a message of optimism. If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals – and we did it…[You, the Americans, have a] fantastic opportunity with November’s election. And you’ll do it by doing what we did for Brexit in Britain. We had our own people’s army or ordinary citizens… If you want change, you better get your walking boots on, you better get out there campaigning; and, remember, anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment.”
Daniel Bates of the Evening Standard noted that Farage’s appearance was an historical moment, in the sense that it was the “first time a British politician has ever addressed a Republican Presidential rally.”
Farage also appeared in the most recent election campaign. He appeared in Arizona in November 2020. Marina Hyde, of the Guardian, broke the news with the title “Behold Trump’s pre-election secret weapon: Nigel Farage, ‘king of Europe.’” She was quoting Trump, who welcomed Farage to the state with the moniker, “the king of Europe.” Farage responded by calling Trump, “the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life.”
Of course, this “favour” was not one sided. Trump came Farage’s aid during the Brexit campaign. When former President Obama visited London in April 2016, his comment on the upcoming Brexit referendum – and its possible negative consequences for Britain – upset Farage, who called it a “monstrous interference” in British politics. It was: “…A monstrous interference, I’d rather he stayed in Washington, frankly, if that’s what he’s going to do. You wouldn’t expect the British Prime Minister to intervene in your presidential election, you wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to endorse one candidate or another. Perhaps he’s another one of those people who doesn’t understand what [the EU] is.”
Despite this, Farage always welcomed Trump’s support for the campaign. And despite his supposed reservations about foreign interference in elections, he did not hesitate to take the stage in Jackson, where he urged the American people not to vote for Hilary Clinton. Farage reacted to the possibility of Obama’s sharing his opinion supporting the “remain” campaign and said,
After assuming power in January 2017, less than seven months after the Brexit referendum, Trump repeatedly commented on British politics. For example, he did not hesitate to criticize former PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan. In July 2018, speaking to the Sun, Trump said, “I would have done it much differently… I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”
During May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, Trump claimed Brexit was a “blessing for the world” and a “beautiful, beautiful thing.”
Trump was ecstatic about Brexit. The “Leave” campaign echoed his own populist themes and showed the sea-change that was happening in Western politics and the increasing popularity of anti-establishment candidates. Brexit was undeniably a warning sign that populism and nationalism were gaining momentum. It was not an isolated accident, but a groundswell that would redefine political paradigms.
Despite his support for Brexit, Trump has always been a highly unpopular figure in the UK. In contrast, Farage seems highly popular with Trump’s far right supporters. The US media saw Farage’s 2020 appearance in Arizona as “yesterday’s man” who was “forced to travel abroad to seek a spotlight.” Farage’s influence in the UK has waned since Brexit.
Farage has also not hesitated to join far-right, pro-Trump, conspiracy-spreading radio programmes and gave interviews supporting Trump’s narratives and policies. Among many others, some of the conspiracies he spread included the lie that Obama is a Muslim plotting against the US and that Trump’s impeachment was a “Jewish coup.” In some of these interviews, Farage repeatedly discussed a supposed plot by bankers and “globalists” to impose a world government, a conspiracy theory strongly linked to antisemitism.
Similarly, during and after the Brexit campaign, he hosted Trump on his radio show on LBC radio. LBC is a respected radio station providing platforms to different segments of society. In October 2019, Trump joined Farage’s programme and commented positively on the performance of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the process of Brexit while criticising Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although Trump has never been popular in the UK, the fact that he joined the conversation in support of his good friend Farage is worth highlighting. It should also be noted that the LBC has announced Farage stepping down “with immediate effect” in June 2020, following a radio show in which he compared Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to the Taliban.
When it comes to cooperation between these two populists, Gideon Rachman underlines the link between the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump. Rachman marks with bold letters that both these incidents “will forever be linked in history. The two events took place within a few months of each other. Both were populist revolts that appealed to similar constituencies.”
Supporting Rachman’s view, Laetitia Langlois (2018: 16) rightly argues that: “The pro-Brexit and the pro-Trump votes rest on the same dynamics: they are both angry votes against the elite, against immigration, against globalisation. It is no surprise then that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are so close: as the embodiments of the rage against the system and the two populist voices in the anglosphere, they had common ideas, common targets and common objectives.”
Trump and Farage view the concerns of their constituents as basically the same. Speaking at the Jackson rally, with Farage at his side, Trump said: “They voted to break away from rule by large corporations and media executives who believe in a world without borders…They voted to reclaim control over immigration, over their economy, over their government…. Working people and the great people of the UK took control of their destiny.”
As a final note, Trump spoke to his supporters while seeing himself out of the White House and off Florida. He said, “we will be back in some form.” After his acquittal in his 2nd impeachment trial, on 13th of February, 2021, Trump released a press statement, celebrating his acquittal. He said: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”
If he manages to make a come-back, there is no doubt that he would not leave his good friend Nigel jobless. Thus, it is not surprising to see Farage celebrating Trump’s acquittal, as evidenced by the following Tweet:
Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). “Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 14, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0007
With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a controversial figure, one who has frequently appeared in international media due to his brusque remarks and increasingly authoritarian practises, both abroad and domestically. During his premiership and subsequent presidency, he successfully changed Turkey’s political fabric and is now aiming to influence international politics in unprecedented ways. Erdogan’s journey, from mayor of Istanbul to prospective leader of the Muslim world, has been facilitated by exploiting existing power structures – or dismantling them, if they don’t serve his needs. All the while, he’s retained his charisma as an influential Islamist leader working in the best interests of “the people” and the “ummah.” By using populist strategies and manipulating democratic institutions, Erdogan is increasingly a populist authoritarian.
Since his National View (Milli Gorus) years in 1970s and 80s under the mentorship of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s worldview and narrative had always had populist elements that constructed him and practicing Muslim Turks as the real and morally superior owners of Turkey but they had been victims of the Kemalist elite that oppressed them and denied their general will. However, Erdogan’s populism has been intensified after he consolidated his power in early 2010s and its anti-Westernist conspiratorial content has increased.
A recent study (Lewis et al. 2019) published in The Guardian shows that Erdogan is the only right-wing leader labelled ‘very populist.’ Based on the extent to which their speeches have populist ideas, each populist leader under study was given an average populism score. The speeches were graded on a 0-2 scale, ranging from not populist to very populist.According to the study, the average populism score across all 40 countries has doubled from 0.2 in the early 2000s to around 0.4 in 2019. Erdogan was ‘somewhat populist’ between 2007-2014. However, between the years of 2014-2018, he was ‘very populist’ with a score of 1.5 out of 2.0. Only Hugo Chavez (1.9) and Nicolas Maduro (1.6) received higher score than Erdogan while Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi had a score of only 0.8.
The Republic of Turkey was built in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed the First World War cost Turkey an empire, a monarchy, caliphate, and the majority of its lands, save for the Anatolian heartland. This has caused immense trauma, anxiety and insecurity among the ruling elite. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dreamed of reviving a republic from the ashes of empire. Defeated at the hands of the European powers, Ataturk and several followers were convinced that “reinventing” the nation and its “ideal citizens” in the mould of the European civilisation would provide the foundation for a modern, secular republic. For 80 years, Kemalism promoted a nationalist homogenising narrative hinging on the national reconstruction of a Turkey detached from its Ottoman past and rebuilt according to a secular blueprint. However, detaching the Turkish people from their Ottoman roots has proved unsuccessful; and Kemalism succeeded only in marginalizing and victimising all ethnic, religious and political minority groups that didn’t fit the prototype of the Kemalists’ desired citizen, Homo LASTus – Laicist, Ataturkist, Sunni, and Turkish (Yilmaz, 2021).
More than eight decades of repression and denial of the Ottoman past and heterogeneous fabric of society gave room to a resentful counter narrative to rise. While Homo LASTus isolated non-Muslims and non-Turkish groups, it is the conservative Sunni majority who have given birth to an Islamist populist voice. The man voicing their anxieties, discontent, grievances, insecurities, fears and future hopes is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populism has shapeshifted – from centre-right to far-right (Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). His early coalition and representation of resentful liberals, democrats, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, ethnic minorities and civil society organizations that were marginalized and even demonised under Kemalism has gradually transformed to a narrow core of vindictive conservative Sunni, Islamist, ultra-Turkish nationalists.
Through his long political career, Erdogan has always had the benefit of positioning himself as a man of the people due his humble beginnings. This has set him apart from the political and military “elite” (Lowen, 2017; BBC, 2002). The fairy tale-esque nature of his childhood story – the upward mobility of a poor boy raised in a poor and angry urban setting at the margins of Istanbul’s more prosperous and Westernised areas becoming the leader of Turkey (Cagaptay, 2017) – inspired his voters. Some even see him as the chosen “sultan” or “caliph” for a “New” Turkey – and possibly even for the Muslim world; others rightly criticize his populist and autocratic tendencies (Lowen, 2017). Yet when closely observed, Erdogan’s political ideology is mostly that of the shape-shifter; he ensures his political survival at all costs – even if those costs are damaging the institutional fabric of the country and widening deep rifts in a multi-ethnic and religious society (Genc, 2019).
There have been many studies published on the Erdogan and AKP’s recent populism (e.g. Selçuk 2016; Yabancı 2016; Kirdiş and Drhiemur 2016; Özpek and Yaşar2018; Yilmaz 2018; Castaldo 2018; Özçetin 2019; Sawae 2020; Taş 2020; Yilmaz 2021). As such, this profile will not discuss the Erdogan’s populism in detail, leaving it to the other excellent studies to do so. Instead, this will focus on the emotional aspects of Erdogan’s populism – including Ottoman nostalgia, anxiety, hate, antagonism, victimhood, and resentment – and how they are used to mobilize voters.
During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution.
The Shape-Shifter: Islamism and Young Erdogan
To understand his politics and personality, one must start with Erdogan’s childhood. Born in the poor Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, most of his early life was spent in Rize province, in Turkey’s Black Sea region(Lowen,2017). Raised in a working-class family, Erdogan was sent to a religiously-oriented Imam Hatip school by his father, a ferry captain (Genc, 2019). It is unclear if he ever received a university degree from Marmara University due to ambiguity surrounding the issue (BBC, 2016). Nevertheless, his years at the Imam Hatip greatly impacted him. He studied the Quran, the life of the Prophet, and Muslim teachings. He also spent a considerable amount of time improving his Quran recitation, which earned the praise of his friends (Genc, 2019; BBC, 2002).
During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi – MSP), which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi – MNP) that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015). Erbakan was a prominent voice against the secular ideology of Kemalism, which had isolated many Muslim Turks. As an adolescent, Erdogan was exposed to the manifesto of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus which based its Islamist ideology around severing the Turkish nation from secularism, Westernism and Capitalism. Milli Gorus was also sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and harshly critical of Zionism. Milli Gorus’s ideology was civilizationalist and pan-Islamic and urged the nation to cut its ties with Europe and align with Muslim-majority countries (Sahin & Dogantekin, 2019).
Erdogan spent considerable time within the MSP’s youth group and gained recognition when he organized a boxing match during the visit of the Afghan mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The profound influence of religion on Erdogan’s early life was evident when he turned down a spot on an Istanbul city soccer team because the city had a ban on the Islamic beard at that time (Genc, 2019).
After a second ban, Erbakan re-founded his party yet again, this time named the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi – RP). Erdogan’s commitment to the party earned him a spot as the party’s provincial head in Istanbul. He possessed the art of amassing a huge number of volunteers to hand out flyers and hang posters, displaying his leadership and organizing skills. Most of his time was occupied in political work, and he was soon known for his great oratory skills with emotive mobilizational power. He delivered emotional and resentful speeches decrying “the evil new world order” and supporting “Muslim brothers” across borders that resonated with the victimhood mood of the conservative sections of society (Genc, 2019).
Erdogan’s earlier political affiliations helped him not only identify with Islamist populism but also see its value in Turkish society. Kemalists had for years suppressed a chain of Sunni Islamist parties as part of their secular agenda, only breeding further resentment. To attach populism with a divinely sanctioned ideology – Islam in this case – was a viable opportunity. Thus, Erdogan did not shy away from using public sentiments and emotions towards religious oppression to gain prominence for himself.
Rising to prominence in 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed down for violating the tenets of Kemalism. Erdogan became a vocal critic of the government and was arrested for reading a poem that the state claimed, “incited violence.” While the arrest was the highlight of his tenure, his agenda was public focused, including improving traffic congestion, dealing with water shortages, and controlling pollution. He remained more pragmatic than Islamist (BBC, 2002).
At the same time, there were hints of religiously motivated actions taken during this period. First, he symbolically limited the use and sale of alcohol (Ozbilgin, 2013). The step was taken under the guise of “public safety,” appealing to both religious voters and concerned citizens. He also rebelled by not asking his wife to uncover her head and instead avoided bringing her to official functions and government spaces – covered women were barred from entering public offices and educational institutes as part of the Kemalist ideology to secularize Turkey (BBC, 2002).
His blend of public works and subtle moves to please Islamist groups made him popular. When asked about why he’d developed such a good reputation, Erdogan responded, “I am Istanbul’s imam” (Genc, 2019). His statement reflected two major things about his populism. Firstly, as early as the 1990s, his confidence in himself as “the chosen one” was not rooted in democratic measures and values; rather, it was always attached to a “divine” element. The word imam gave him an air of Islamist populism. Secondly, his smirky response shows belief in the idea that Islam and liberal democracies can be merged for the welfare of “the people.” Thus, positioning himself as a “Muslim Democrat” – one who is able to tolerate non-Muslims and yet at the same time be “Muslim enough” allowed him to amass great public support.
His “imamet” of the city came to an abrupt end when his recitation of a controversial Islamo-nationalist and militarist poem landed him in jail for four months (he was sentenced to ten). The poem featured the lines, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” Due to its clear Islamist references, the poem was considered unconstitutional (Genc, 2019). His jail time added to his victimhood and populist popularity; he was viewed as “bold” in the face of the victimising evil Kemalist elite and not afraid of the Kemalist regime that had for decades muffled freedom of expression and religious affiliation. Erdogan established himself as the antithesis to the status quo, another populist hallmark.
For Erdogan, the ultimate aim has always been power, and everything could be instrumentalized to achieve this. He signalled this in the 1990s when, as mayor of Istanbul, he said, “…democracy can’t be an objective but an only an instrument… democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”
Erdogan, following his imprisonment, found himself without a party. Increasingly, the public viewed him as pious and courageous; his humble beginnings added to his credibility as a leader of the “people.” Moreover, his reformist attitude and promising improvements during his tenure as mayor of Istanbul earned him a voter base across large sections of society, especially the conservative segments across the rural landscape of Anatolia.
To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.”
Rebellious Erdogan with Moderate Views
While he had been able to connect with the discontent conservative masses, to survive the secular military and judiciary – and also to attract a large voter base of non-Sunnis, non-Muslims, and non-Turks – Erdogan rebranded himself. He moderated his views, especially on the west, to appeal to voters in national elections (Yilmaz, 2009). This was the first example of his pragmatic, populist shape-shifting. He issued statements that were more populous than religious, claiming, “We don’t need bearded men who are good Quran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019).
The prohibition of Welfare Party in 1998 paved the way for the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP), which was also banned in 2001. The dissolution of the Virtue Party led to the birth of two conservative parties. One of them was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arınc. Erdogan was also a major figure in its founding, although he was technically still banned from politics. He described his role in the party, very much the opposite of what it is today, as part of a group of leaders: “a cadre will run the party, and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” His role, in his words, was that of an “orchestra chief.” He declared, the “age of me-centred politics is over”(Genc, 2019).
The other party to rise from the Virtue Party’s ashes was the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP), which over the years, despite being a right-wing party, has taken an anti-Erdogan stance. During AKP’s first election, it was nearly banned, which resulted in Gul running as the party’s main candidate, since Erdogan was still technically banned from contesting elections because of his conviction for reciting the poem. Eventually, through a by-election and verdict from the judiciary, Gul stepped down as prime minister in 2003; Erdogan assumed office.
He was ushered in as the beginning of the era of Muslim Democrats (Yilmaz, 2009). It was a model hailed by many as a blueprint for success for the Muslim world. Its proponents claimed it brought “the best of both worlds,” combining a hint of religion with liberal democratic values.
But the party never truly embraced the image. Instead, this was a survival move for the AKP and Erdogan, who were able to win votes on a broad spectrum of anti-Kemalist sentiments and among those hoping for a truly democratic Turkey. This appeal to the latter groups was the populist side of Erdogan’s Islamist politics.
Erdogan’s first tenure as prime minister was marked by impressive economic growth for the country and a quest to bridge the gap with Europe. Erdogan boasted, “When we first came to government… our relations with some of the countries in our region were almost non-existent… [now] we have friendly relations with most of our neighbouring countries… we have relations in [the] political, economic, social, cultural, commercial, military areas with many of the countries in the region” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Playing the role of a pro-Western conservative, he insisted on Turkey’s presence in NATO and in a bid to secure membership of the European Union (EU) (Söylemez, 2012; Genc, 2011).
To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.” He launched a “democratic war” against the Kemalist elite and the country’s system of military tutelage. It is now clear that these were more of a means to an end, as most populists consolidate ideologies to gain support as a way of easing into power.
Erdogan often tried to have it both ways. The Turkish government offered to launch a joint fact-finding mission, with Armenia, into the genocide that took place at the end of World War I; however, the government refused to actually admit the genocide took place. At an intentional forum, Erdogan plainly explained, “Diasporas in some countries lobbying for resolutions in the parliaments of other countries is like an extrajudicial… it’s an extrajudicial execution because there is no fact-based process here. So, this is something that Turkey cannot accept… we told our friends, but we still do not have a response,” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007).
As Erdogan’s second national election approached, there were nationwide protests about fears that he and the AKP planned to change Turkey’s constitution (de Bendern, 2007; BBC, 2007). Erdogan’s populist theatrics garnered public political support and centred around the hope that “new Turkey” would be part of the EU and an economic power.
Populists often use the media and the political bully pulpit to become public fixtures, deepening their connection with the people. It makes them more human and relatable. In the midst of the on-going countrywide protests, Erdogan apparently “fainted” inside his car, which led to a mass panic and a dramatic rescue attempt. The episode added to Erdogan’s narrative as a “wronged man” who was being betrayed despite doing all he could for the people and the country (Genc, 2019; Dincsahin 2012).
In 2008, an attempt to close the AKP again failed, although it led to the party’s funding being limited. However, Erdogan’s relatively moderate first term had resonated with voters: in 2007, he linked his party’s win to the ethos of Turkey’s democratic and secular values. By electing him, the country had passed the test: “The Turkish Republic is a democratic, secular social state governed by the rule of law, and throughout this process this year, Turkey has gone through an important test of democracy and come out stronger than before from these elections,” Erdogan stated (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007).
By the end of his second term, it was clear that Erdogan was gifted at fully utilizing the rifts in Turkish society to gain a popular mandate. He had made “the people” those who were disenfranchised by the Kemalists, positioning himself as a humble outsider – as compared to the Kemalist elite who were the others. He would use his experience to address the country’s core issues through democratic means. Economic growth, better diplomatic ties, and a bid to join the EU established him as the “leader” of a people failed by the Kemalist Homo LASTus project.
After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology. This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the EU membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism.
Erdogan’s worldview has always contained populist elements, dating back to his National View (Milli Gorus) years in the 1970s and 80s. In the National View narratives, practicing Muslims were framed as the real owners of the homeland (“the people”) but had been victims of the pro-Western and secularist Kemalists (the “evil elite”) that oppressed them. However, with the economy slowing down in 2009, Erdogan’s populism intensified and soon became the core feature of his narrative (Dinçşahin 2012; Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology (Onbaşı 2016). This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the European Union membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020).
This also has roots in Erbakan’s National View Islamism and the totalitarian ideology of Erdogan’s more influential role model, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, which included a strong religio-moral component and claimed that “the people” they represented did not only refer to those who were exploited, excluded, oppressed, and victimised but also to practicing Muslims who were constructed as morally superior (Tugal 2002).
He is an Islamist; however, different from other Islamists. He developed an Islamist populist style to further appeal to the grievances, resentfulness and hopes of the conservative Turkish Sunni masses that were victimised by the “evil” Kemalist elite who were the pawns of the West. In this narrative, he constructed himself as the only genuine representative of the people and their general will.
After spending a considerable amount of time wearing the guise of a Muslim Democrat, Erdogan made a final shape-shift, gradually exposing his populist autocratic style of rule in the aftermath of the 2011 elections (Turkish Weekly, 2011). He used trials such as Sledgehammer (Balyoz) and Ergenekon to increasingly target the military and position himself and the AKP as the voice of democracy against the “corrupt” military. The Kemalist military was public enemy number one. Through populist “otherizing,” Erdogan continued to eliminate his greatest opponents and further polarize support in his direction. His actions were justified: they were bringing justice to the Turkish people who had, for generations, been wronged by the elite and corrupt military.
The Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations, which occurred between 2008 – 2011, gave more legitimacy to Erdogan. High-ranking military generals were put on trial and, as a consequence of the 2010 Constitutional Referendum, a number of Kemalist judiciary members were replaced. This led to a weakening of institutional checks on the AKP from the Kemalist factions.This was one of the first examples of Erdogan undermining democratic institutions by using populist divisiveness to consolidate his position. He justified it as in the best interest of the people.
Erdogan’s commitment to democracy was gradually side-lined for populism, and then Erdogan re-introduced Islamism to the picture. As part of this transformation, the “black Turks” – conservative Muslims who had been oppressed by the Kemalist “white Turks” – were position as “the people” and the Kemalists, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, and non-Turks were the “other” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Erdogan and the AKP used the classic populist card of segregating the “pure” people and the “corrupt” elite. He was the people’s man – their voice.
Islamism was at the heart of Erdogan’s populist agenda. Erdogan lifted the rules of banning women from wearing headscarves in public offices and departments. This was celebrated, as it gave women the autonomy to choose what they wanted. However, it was not done to give women democratic rights, but to consolidate Erdogan’s status as a “good Muslim” who stood up for the historically oppressed group. Increasingly, he expressed more conservative views regarding women; for instance, three years later, he publicly claimed, “no Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning… we will multiply our descendants,” (BBC, 2020).
Moreover, during his third term, Erdogan imposed hefty taxes and restrictions on alcohol sales (Ozbilgin, 2013). The tax meant that Turkish Airline stopped serving drinks on domestic flights; stores could no longer sell alcoholic beverages between 10 pm to 6 am. Lastly, stores selling alcohol had to be at least 100 meters from places of worship or educational institutes. Violators were to face mammoth fines. Brushing away criticism, Erdogan defended his actions: “There are such regulations everywhere in the world. The youth of a nation should be protected from bad habits,” (Ozbilgin, 2013). As Erdogan consolidated his power, he used Islamism to change the social fabric, divide society, and legitimize his decisions through “pure” religious motivations.
Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power.
Erdogan also gradually and successfully turned the media and civil society into “public enemy number one.” The Gezi Protests, in 2013, allowed Erdogan to “otherize” anyone who questioned the government’s policies. Of people gathered in Gezi, he said: “Are the people only those at Gezi Park? Aren’t those who came to meet us at Istanbul airport people, too? Those who are gathered now in Ankara; aren’t they people, too?” Erdogan called on the protesters to face off in local elections the next year. “Instead of [occupying] Gezi Park or Kugulu Park [in Ankara], there are seven months [until the elections]. Be patient and let’s face off at the ballot box.”
The protests allowed Erdogan to play on the existential insecurity of Turkish voters. He played up conspiracies that Western or outside powers were trying to destabilize the country. This again played on the public’s collective paranoia, which dated back to the Treaty of Sèvres, when the allied forces divided the defeated Ottoman Empire. This lingering trauma is deeply rooted within many Turkish people.
The Gezi Protests sprang up in the wake of a government plan to build a shopping mall and mosque on the site of Gezi Park, a public area in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. At issue was Erdogan’s clientelism: he was increasingly running the country by buying the patronage of various individuals. A vast majority of “welfare” projects were centred around privatizing public sectors, and this led to the rise of a new bourgeoisie who profited from the neo-liberal reforms. They were naturally loyal to Erdogan’s patronage (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Lowen, 2017).
The Gezi Protests erupted after nearly three years of “welfare” being used a guise to hand out contracts to Erdogan-friendly businessmen. The development of the park symbolized the frustrations of marginalized groups: public space was being privatized, to benefit Erdogan and his allies. The peaceful protests were met with state violence; 11 people were killed due to police brutality (Lowen, 2017). Erdogan “otherized” the protestors and their sympathizers, defining their support as “terrorism propaganda” or “insulting” the country’s leadership. He also attacked the media supporting the protestors and criticizing the government. In a statement, he said, “There is no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their pen and position to serve their aims” (Lowen, 2017).
Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power. All the while, he effectively dismissed any opposition as “propaganda.”
In December 2013, a series of police investigations revealed corruption involving high-level AKP elite, including Erdogan’s son Bilal and three cabinet ministers. The regime refused to let the investigations proceed: Erdogan characterized them as a “judicial coup” carried out by members of the Gulen Movement and initiated a comprehensive crackdown against the Movement. The police officers in charge of the investigation were arrested. The prosecutors on the case were replaced, and the cases were subsequently closed. In the following months, the regime seized Gulen Movement-affiliated media organisations, appointing trustees and turning them into pro-AKP mouthpieces. They seized other Gulen Movement organisations and businesses, effectively usurping thousands of private properties (Day, 2016).
The Gulenists became yet another “enemy.” Erdogan alleged members of the Movement were wiretapping himself and other Turkish officials, endangering the state (The Guardian, 2014). Mass arrests of police, civil servants, and members of the judiciary followed. Erdogan accused Gulen of establishing a “parallel structure” within the state. Erdogan pledged that he would “go into their lairs” and bring an end to the parallel structure (Butler, 2014).
Amidst this backdrop, in 2015, Erdogan was elected President. He presented himself as the “man who holds Turkey together” amidst constant threats and crises (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020). Many of these conflicts and crises were of Erdogan’s making.
The 2016 coup attempt was to become the magnum opus of Erdogan’s populism. He called it a “blessing in disguise.” Without evidence, Erdogan blamed the coup on Gulenists. He was targeting Gulen when he said, “I have a message for Pennsylvania (referring to Gulen)… you have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.” Following the coup attempt, any opposition to Erdogan and his party was opposition to Turkey, a country surrounded by “enemies” inside and out (Flinks, 2016).
The purge following the failed coup attempt was merciless. The remaining opposition was crushed. It is estimated that more than 150,000 public servants were deposed from their former jobs, and thousands more were arrested (BBC, 2020).
In the wake of the failed coup, a 2017 referendum abolished the office of Prime Minister, replacing it with an executive presidency. It gave President Erdogan the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). Erdogan had successfully “otherized” all potential opponents – Kemalist institutions, civil society organizations, and the media. These “others” were a threat to the very survival of Turkey – a thread made crystal clear during the failed coup attempt. Using populism rooted in anti-Western sentiment, pro-Islamist ideology, Turkish nationalism, and conspiracy theories, Erdogan suppressed dissent, broke institutional checks and balances, and established a “new elite” who were a loyal support base in the private sector for himself and his party. He was even able to co-opt the secularist and nationalist opposition parties (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020; Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). Under such circumstance, the referendum was always bound to pass.
As President, Erdogan has become more belligerent, especially towards the West. The man who wanted to build bridges between the West, Middle East, and Turkey has been in constant spats with Western countries. Erdogan has been constantly creating and managing international crises, while at the same time fighting off the “terrorist threat” facing Turkey from Kurdish militias (Tol, 2020).
No credible opposition remains. With Kemalists drawn out of power, religious propaganda in his hand, and the creation of multiple “enemies,” he has a comfortable hegemony over Turkish politics. Religion is used to run his “security state” and shore up support. Since disbanding thousands of schools and educational institutes linked to the Gulen Movement, Erdogan has turned them into Islamist schools. The Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) is also used as a tool. His handpicked Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa to support the Erdogan regime’s actions following the coup.
The views of his most adamant supporters are reflected in a comment by one supporter who expressed his feeling for President Erdogan before the 2017 referendum: “He speaks our language, gets aggressive like we do – and tells the world what we want to say” (Lowen, 2017). He has become the embodiment of “the people”: they see themselves reflected in his words and actions.
Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war.
Leader of the Ummah
Modern Turkey still basks in the glorious history of its long Ottoman past. The collapse of the Empire as a result of Treaty of Sèvres led to the formation of the modern-day republic. Erdogan has harnessed the resentment, grievances, trauma, anxieties, fears, insecurity and siege mentality that still exist over the partition of the Empire, occupation of Turkey by the Western powers, the imposition of westernising and secularising Kemalism and its victimisations.
Thus, a wave of Ottoman restorative nostalgia is visible in Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy. Within Turkey, he has used the education system, media, and scheduling of public holidays to shape the common narrative: that Turkish Sunni Muslims should take pride in their Ottoman heritage. Through these gestures, he seeks to restore the country to its former “glory,” embedding the idea of “greatness” in Turks. Organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar are collaborations with the Diyanet to facilitate the construction of this narrative (Yabanci, 2019).
Moreover, Erdogan has not only banned critical content from the media. He has successfully replaced it with more “Islamist” or pro-Ottoman oriented content, such as the global hit “Diriliş: Ertugrul,” a fictional tale inspired by the alleged founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s support is visible for such shows when he visits their sets with his family members and “gifts” the show to fellow “brother Muslims” countries for free, in good faith, so that “young minds” can be exposed to a “counter” to Western influence (Banka, 2020).
Erdogan has used religion as a cudgel, to continue dividing society and consolidating his support. His ideology is perhaps best reflected in his speech after Hagia Sophia was controversially reconverted to a mosque, in 2020: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream the same about the Republic of Turkey … We tear up those scenarios of those who want to siege our country politically, economically, militarily by realizing a much large vision … To those who are surprised by Turkey … rising again like a giant who woke up from its century old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!’” (Global Village Space, 2020).
Media and educational institutions are broadcasting Erdoganist ideology overseas. Turkey has given the broadcasting rights of Ottoman-based fiction shows to Azerbaijan and Pakistan. At the same time, the Diyanet has been active in its engagement with the Turkish diaspora as well non-Turkish Muslim minorities living in the West. Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war: “The West sided with terrorists, and all of them attacked us. These include NATO countries, as well as European Union countries. Weren’t you against terrorism? Since when you have been acting with them?” (Jones, 2019).
His rhetoric was as strong as ever when he called the French people “sponsors of terrorism” and their head of state “retarded” in the aftermath of a crackdown on radical Muslims following the murder of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth (Mishra, 2020). He strained relations with Germany after issuing highly insensitive remarks calling out the “fascists” who “will never destroy Turkey’s honour” and asking Turks to “defy the grandchildren of Nazis” (Lowen, 2017). Not shying away from championing his “Islamist cause,” he has lent his sympathies to the Egypt based pan-Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is known to showcase their four-finger salute called the “rabaa” (BBC, 2020).
In addition to lending verbal support to causes such as Palestine and Kashmir, the Turkish military has become involved in conflicts in various Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. It held joint exercises with Azerbaijan just before its conflict with Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (BBC, 2020). Turkey has sent “peacekeeping troops” to Qatar, Somalia, and Afghanistan, further expanding its role in the Muslim world (Tol, 2020). While Erdogan harbours Sunni Muslim views, he has also urged the Muslim world to unite.
At home and overseas, Islamist Erdogan is the Muslim leader who is the “real” one, representing the authentic values of “the people” or “ummah” – but mainly Sunni Muslims (Çapan & Zarakol, 2019). Erdogan’s version of Islam excludes not only non-Muslims, but also Alevis (Yilmaz and Barry, 2020). The “white Turks” at home are the domestic enemies, while externally, the Western and Zionist “lobbies” are out to cripple the Muslim world (Erdemir & Lechner, 2018; Yılmaz Z. 2017). Erdogan is the voice of the deprived “real” people, their champion against the interests of the “others.”
Ironically, his anti-Western stance and goodwill towards the ummah are circumstantial. Once, Erdogan pledged to seek justice for the Palestinians and has expressed antisemitic views; yet, the softening towards Israel by the Gulf countries has led Erdogan to also take a softer stance: he does not have a problem with the nation itself, but only “the top level.” He said, “It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable.” However, he further elaborated, “If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different … We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” (Aljazeera, 2020).
While Erdogan has been critical of Western countries, exploiting the religio-cultural divides, he has been busy cultivating closer ties to countries such as Russia and China (despite China oppressing and detaining millions of Uighurs in an obvious attempt of genocide). Russia is an Orthodox Christian majority state, and China is a hybrid-communist state without an official religion (Tol, 2020). Thus, it is evident that religion is a means to an end, an effort to gain influence at home and abroad. It has worked: Erdogan increasingly presents himself abroad as the presumptive heir of the Muslim Ummah.
He expounded on this in a speech he gave at the World Muslim Minorities summit in 2018: “Differences should not be an obstacle to love and brotherhood… Just like the direction of the Qibla — the direction that a Muslim takes when praying — is the same, the hearts of all Muslims are also same despite them being in different locations around the world … Today, attacks on Muslims and refugees have become commonplace in many states that practice democracy and law… Muslim women are being harassed on streets, at workplaces just because they wear headscarves. The Western world wants to defend its own ideology and way of life through anti-Islamism.”
While the Kemalists were embarrassed of their heritage, Erdogan has embraced Turkey’s Ottoman past. His narratives provide pride and hope to “the people.” He has promised them glory through nostalgic references and used a pan-Islamic populism that is transnational in nature to extend Turkey’s influence in Muslim countries. Erdogan has placed himself at the heart of dreams of the caliphate’s revival. He is the Islamist populist Muslim leader of an increasingly autocratic, populist and necropolitical republic that encourages its citizens to sacrifice their lives for the nation, state, religion and its leader (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021).
Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.”
The republic is facing its first reconstruction. While Ataturk was the founding father of the Republic, today Erdogan has become the father of New Turkey. Having reconstructed the republic, he now seeks to influence the broader Muslim world (Genc, 2019).
His populism can be summed up as the “Erdoganist ideology” or “Erdoganism” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) and has helped him craft a new national identity based on “Islamism, majoritarianism, Muslim nationalism, authoritarianism, patrimonialism, personalism, [the] personality cult of Erdogan, Ottomanist restorative nostalgia, Islamist myth-making, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, victimhood, Islamist populism, civilizationism, anti-Westernism, resentfulness, vindictiveness, and anti-Western conspiracy theories to support and legitimize his position in power” (Yilmaz, 2021). In other words, he constructed all the tools to craft an Islamist populist political stage on which to rise.
Beginning his journey in the midst of conservative and Islamist political parties, Erdogan understood that his early survival in politics depended on his ability to pose as a “democrat”; thus, he modelled himself and the AKP as “Muslim Democrat.” The only “others” were the corrupt, Western, and elite Kemalists. Thus, the first stage of his political life was supported by a heterogeneous “people” who were Kurds, non-Muslims, and conservatives along with those let-down by eight decades of Kemalist rule. By his third term in office, Kemalist institutions had been diminished, laying the groundwork the emergence of an autocratic leader.
The second transitional phase in Erdogan’s political career came when he was faced with increasing homegrown opposition and rejection by the EU. Feeling insufficient, exposed, vulnerable, and attacked, Erdogan was successful in launching a series of attacks on any opposition. These were supported by conspiracy theories. Erdogan made Turkey a “vulnerable state,” attacked by conspirators, parallel structures, and devious foreign influence; only he, the strongman, could “save” Turkey restore its glory, dormant for 100 years. To consolidate power, changes in the constitution were introduced in the name of “security”; those defined as the “people” narrowed, driven by ultra-nationalism and Islamism. All the while, Erdogan assumed the position of a strong leader and guide for a great nation that was under attack from all sides.
Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas, such as promises of a “great” Turkey or a “new Turkey.” Erdogan, the “leader” or “hope” of the Muslim world is the sole figure at the movement’s centre. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.” Erdogan has become once “the people” – his success is theirs, and vice versa (Yilmaz, 2021).
Erdogan’s intervention in the media and educational spheres mean Turkish youth are exposed to his narrative. Thus, not only has he been able to galvanize support from an existing voter bank; he has also been creating a “loyal army” of supporters who believe in the ideals of their leader and identify with an imagined Ottoman Islamist identity that instils in them a “duty” to spread Islam in the public sphere, establish ties with “brother” Muslim and Turkic peoples, and defend the “oppressed” Muslim world against the “anti-Muslim lobby” (namely, the West and Israel) and not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for this cause (Yilmaz, 2021).
With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled. All this has been done in the name of “the people.” After nearly two decades, Erdogan remains at the centre of it all.
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 The word imam symbioses someone as a leader or model for Muslims
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 10, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0006
Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.”
Imran Khan’s journey to the corridors of parliament is unique for a country like Pakistan. Most political personalities in Pakistan have risen from the landed elites (the jagirdars), a small group of business tycoons, or the military – the latter, dictators turned “democrats.”
Pakistan’s first democratic, pseudo-populist leader, the iconic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a member of the landed elite in Sindh; his grandfather and father were both active in the politics of British India. Following Bhutto’s execution, leaders from his party, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were family members, including his daughter Benazir Bhutto, his son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari, and currently, his grandson, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
The other major leadership during the country’s intermittent democratic periods have emerged from the Sharif family. With a background in the steel industry, the brothers Shahbaz and Nawaz Sharif rose to power in the 1980s, promoted by the dictator Zia ul Haqas as a right-wing counter to the left-leaning PPP. The Sharifs rose to power from the heartland of Punjab; today, the second generation of Sharifs is guided by Mariam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz, the faces of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N).
Amidst this backdrop, smaller parties have also horse-traded, generally relying on fraternity, kinships, wealth, and religion to amass support.
Imran Khan’s immediate family did not come from an elite business or agrarian background. Rather, he was raised in an upper-middle-class family with an engineer father and a homemaker mother. He did not pursue politics as a career until his late 40s; before politics, played international cricket. To understand Khan’s political personality, one must thoroughly understand his public image before his political career began.
The Iconic Sportsperson
It is notable that many populist leaders portray themselves as a political “outsider,” thus promising a fresh start. Khan is also considered an outsider. An iconic cricketer, Khan dominated the cricketing world in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an Oxford-educated, anglicized Pakistani sportsman who spent most of his time overseas. Even before he became a national hero in 1992, Khan was a well-liked figure in Pakistan, due to his boyish charm and sportsmanship.
He became a hero while captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team. Under his captaincy, Pakistan won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992 after a hotly contested match against England. Cricket is one of the most watched and followed sports in Pakistan and holds a deep national significance. To millions of Pakistanis, Khan was the leader who led the nation to the much-awaited victory. The victory is cemented in the collective memory of Pakistanis as a miracle made possibly by Khan’s leadership. The Prime Minster and his party members have repeatedly used the victory to reaffirm the people’s faith in the “Captain’s” capabilities.
To gain legitimacy as a political leader, Khan extensively changed his personal outlook, from that of a Westernized cricketer to an Islamized philanthropic politician. In 1988, Khan published an autobiographical account of his life in Imran Khan: An All-Rounder View. Revised in 1993, this was an account of his cricketing career. He also discussed coming to terms with his Muslim heritage and identity after spending considerable time in Western institutions. Khan put out another title in 1989, Imran Khan’s Cricket Skills. This book was meant for fans of the sport, to be used as a guide for honing their cricket skills. Using his celebrity status, Khan published a travelogue, Indus Journey: A Personal View of Pakistan in 1990. After admitting that he had come to terms with his identity, in his travelogue, Khan crossed the country and relived his memories of visiting key settlements and remains along the Indus River, showcasing Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage.
Three years later, in 1993, Khan published Warrior Race: A Journey Through the Land of the Tribal Pathans. The books dug even deeper into his heritage. The progression of his books shows that during the last years of his cricket career, he increasingly identified with his Pakistani and Muslim identity, shunning his westernized influences. His increasing interest and concern for Pakistan was visible in the considerable amount of time he began spending on philanthropy. Khan established the first cancer hospital in Pakistan, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, in 1994. There was a personal side to this act, as Khan’s mother had succumbed to cancer which inspired him build the hospital.
The hospital now has branches in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (under construction). They provide world class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford treatment. Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish a not-for-profit educational institute, Namal.
He accomplished these mega projects with tremendous support and faith from the public. He ran unparalleled cross-cultural campaigns to raise funds. The fundraisers were high-profile events; Princess Diana of Wales even attended one, while at the grassroots level, children called “Tigers” collected funds for the cause.
The “reformed” image of an anglicized schoolboy become Pakistan’s hero philanthropist helped start Khan’s political career: Khan launched his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in 1996. PTI was a small, personality-driven party, run by Khan and several of his close friends and family members. The party catered to the population with a promise of reformist ideals – to deliver “justice” to “the people.”
Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis.
The Beginning of a Political Career
In his most recent publication, Pakistan: A Personal History, published in 2011, Khan largely focused on his struggles with the PTI. He repeatedly and aggressively asserts his “Muslimness” in this book, a shift that coincides with his changing political ideology. Khan aligned himself with the populist religious sentiments of the conservative populace, a necessity for gaining political support.
Khan was married to Jemima Goldsmith from 1995 to 2004. Goldsmith comes from a well-known Jewish family from Britain; this was a huge problem for Khan’s public image in Pakistan, where anti-Semitism and Zionist conspiracy theories are common (Aafreedi, 2019). It was unclear during the period if Goldsmith accepted Islam or not, another scandalous issue for Khan. He was also frequently photographed at niche, elite parties, where alcohol was the norm.There were alleged affairs with models and socialites, further tarnishing his image. To make matters worse, Sita White, an American heiress, claimed Khan was the father of her daughter born out of wedlock (a claim disputed by Khan)(Irish Times, 1997).
Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis, who feel defying the “Western” way of life is a test of one’s Muslimness.
Khan was offered positions in the government of dictator General Zia ul Haq in 1988 and later in a caretaker government in 1993; he declined both (Mir, 2018). His decision to stay as an “outsider” further bolstered his claims as a political leader not chasing money or power but seeking to fight for the people.
Amidst this backdrop, Khan and the PTI competed in their first general elections in 1997. Their symbol was the cricket bat, despite Khan focusing more on his humanitarian work inspired by key Muslim figures such as Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Though the party lost handily, Khan stayed in the public eye. He was critical of the PML-N government and the military status quo under Pervez Musharraf. Khan’s message was simple: “end corruption, clear out the political mafias” (The Guardian, 2008). He again declined invitations and pressure to join the pro-Musharraf alliance led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-Q), once more maintaining his status as an outsider (Mir, 2018).
It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.”
The PTI won their first seat in the National Assembly in 2002. Post-9/11, Pakistan was engulfed in the war on terror. Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan made it a close ally of the US and the Bush administration. On Pakistan’s western front, a porous border, wild terrain, a lack of governance, and the presence of local radical factions allowed for fleeing Taliban members to seek shelter. Over the next decade, Pakistan was seriously impacted by the war in Afghanistan. Public and military buildings – including markets, shrines, and schools – were targeted by suicide bombers; radicalism surged, and so did the military’s involvement in various operations in an attempt to drive out the radicals. The US used drones to target various radical and Taliban leaders, killing large numbers of civilians and destroying property. The region saw an influx of refugees from Afghanistan and scores of internally displaced people, too.
It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” He railed against the government for not aiding internally displaced citizens and for becoming so dependent on the US, it wouldn’t object to the drone strikes on sovereign Pakistani soil. Educated, middle-class Pakistanis responded to his humanitarian narrative: “Are these people not humans? These humans have names. Drone attacks are a violation of human rights” (Chowdhry & Houreld, 2012).
Khan took an openly critical view of the situation, and one of his interviews sums up his stance: “We (Pakistan and the CIA and USA), created these militant groups to fight the Soviets… Jihadis were heroes then……. the US packs up and leaves Afghanistan… And we were left with these groups…. Pakistan again joins the US (post 9/11) in the war on terror and now we are required to go after these groups as terrorists… so, Pakistan took a real battering in this” (Press Trust of India, 2019).
Opposition to government and US involvement continued throughout this period. These views were in line with public sentiment, as most conservatives opposed the US and civil society felt cornered under the autocratic, military-led government. Another humanitarian issue, popular in war torn areas and amongst civil society groups, concerned missing persons. Khan also took up the mantle for this cause, specifically missing persons from Balochistan. Once more, the government was seen as negligent and too beholden to the US (Mir, 2018).
Khan was the politician who brought these issues to light while the PPP and PML-N stayed silent on matters regarding, for instance, the right to a free trial and other civil liberties and safeties. Khan was “brave” and “outspoken,” a man who spoke for “justice” by standing up to the US. After winning his first seat in the National Assembly, Khan continued his crusade against US influence and “puppet politicians” as he spent most of his time in office acting as a lone opposition voice on terrorism-related issues and civilian rights. By the end of the Musharraf regime, Khan had staged several protests – such as hunger strikes – for the restoration of unconstitutionally dismissed judges and actively took part in an alliance along with other major parties and civil society members to call for new and fair elections in 2008 (Inskeep, 2008; Walsh 2007).
Khan’s increasing anti-West rhetoric also coincided with his divorce from Goldsmith in 2004. The former cricketer, who once frequently wore Western clothes, now appeared increasingly in the Pakistani-styled kurta and shalwar and was no longer married to a “Jewish foreigner.” He increasingly raised “Muslim” issues and characterized the American war in Afghanistan and its impacts on Pakistan as a “West versus Islam” issue, a highly popular narrative with the general public. He became the face of the protests surrounding issue of desecrating the Quran at Guantanamo Bay in 2005. Khan exclaimed, “This is what the US is doing… desecrating the Quran” (Rajghatta, 2005). His comments greatly undermined Musharraf, causing mass civil unrest in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which led to 16 people killed in rioting in Afghanistan (The Week, 2020). As part of his opposition to Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, he also led protests to blockade food and army supplies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the Peshawar highway, en route to Afghanistan (Express Tribune, 2011). All of this was viewed as “heroic” in the eyes of many Pakistanis who did not approve of their country’s involvement in the American’s Afghan war.
Khan refused to partake in the 2008 elections, which he felt were not free and fair. Questioning the electoral credibility of the country’s democratic system added a new dimension to his populism. Before the elections he said, “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). He expressed deep resentment towards the regime. Soon, Musharraf resigned, and a PPP-led government came to power while Khan remained outside politics until his party participated again in the 2013 elections, where they had their most successful campaign ever, winning a majority of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.
Khan rapidly rebranded from 2008-2013. His new, populist, Islamized brand was spread on private media channels and on social media platforms such as Facebook.
He increasingly asserted that his decision to enter politics was for “the people” and not for fame, money, or power – in contrast to the “corrupt elite” politicians who were in power. Khan also asserted he felt the “pain” of the masses and sought inspiration from the work of pan-Islamist philosophers and freedom movement political leaders, to finally realize the Pakistan that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned. Since his autobiography’s publication in 2011, Khan used the examples of Prophet Mohammed and the first four Muslim Caliphs to highlight his aspirations to deliver good governance on the “Islamic model.”
By the early 2010s, Imran Khan had shunned his western ways and aligned with populist issues concerning religion and governance. He said, “I call them [‘Westernized’ Pakistanis] coconuts: brown on the outside, white on the inside, looking at Pakistan through a westernised lens” (Walsh, 2011). Before the 2013 elections, he leaned into anti-American rhetoric, anti-corruption slogans, and quick fixes to the people’s problems – and he spread this message at huge rallies called jalsas, hosted across the country.
While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses.
While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. On most issues, he remained vague – the biggest example of this being his conviction about the “good” and “bad” Taliban. Khan has repeatedly asserted that the Taliban were created by the US as a counter to the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s; abandoned by the US, these groups – originally called the Mujahideen – turned against their former allies, resulting in the 9/11 attacks (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017). Khan sought a peaceful resolution to the conflict and blamed the Pakistani and American governments for using controversial measures. To liberal factions, his call for meditation and rehabilitation was appealing, as military intervention had only made matters worse. At the same time, anti-West rhetoric was popular in conservative groups and his sympathy for the group, which Khan believed was justified by Islam, earned him the trust of extremist factions which previously saw him as part of Zionist conspiracy theories (Boone, 2012).
Khan saw cosmic justice or karma in the Taliban’s “freedom fight” against the “outsiders”; with full confidence, Khan asserted, “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad …The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad” (Boone, 2012; Dawn; 2012). Khan supported the ultra-right-wing coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and opposed operations against radical militants in the tribal areas. He also protested madrassa reforms. Together, these stances earned him the moniker, “Taliban Khan” in international media – and favourable reception at home in both conservative and liberal circles (Pataudi, 2012; Guardian, 2005).
Corruption and governance were frequent features in Khan’s vocabulary. The PPP’s leader, Asif Ali Zardari, was known for rampant corruption during his wife’s last two tenures as prime minister. This supported Khan when he called out the “corrupt elite.” The PTI leader soon attacked PML-N leaders, such as Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, questioning their development programs in Punjab – and in particularly Lahore, the province’s capital and the hometown stronghold of the Sharifs. These programs were accused of focusing on infrastructure and beautification, ignoring the rampant poverty. Khan cast himself as an outsider and promised to fix the “people’s” problems. He wouldn’t fill his pockets with “blood money.” Khan’s views can be summed up in an interview:
“I have been critical of the generals in the past. I told them they are selling our blood for dollars…But this is not martial rule. It’s up to our corrupt government to take responsibility… We [him and the PTI] would go back to the people”(Walsh, 2011).
Media and social media brought Khan unapparelled fame, as his populist rhetoric was well received by the masses who yearned for change and relief. PTI jalsas were a unique occurrence and designed to create an intimate connection between “the leader” and “the people.” PTI might have been the political party with many faces, but Imran Khan was the face of these gatherings.
Paradoxically, Khan’s image successfully attracted members of the middle class to his gatherings. These events were like much loved melas. Unlike other political rallies, they featured dancing – with women free to partake – and musical performance by leading Pakistani bands and singers. Particularly attracting urban younger and more “modern” citizens, these rallies – headlined by fiery speeches by Khan – were a mainstay of social media; tabdeli was a trending hashtag. The huge fan following that Imran Khan amassed led his followers to be called youthias (youngsters), or more commonly insafyans(justice seeks). By the early 2010s, Khan’s populism was an amalgamation of piecemeal ideologies rooted in Islamism, anti-Westernism, anti-elitism, calls for public reforms, and a desire to give “power” to the people. Together, he was seeking change – or what he called tabdeli. Thousands had gathered at the PTI’s Lahore gathering in 2011, making Khan a formidable contender by the 2013 general elections.
The PR rebranding had paid: had transformed from a Western captain to an Islamized kaptan (Urdu word for captain). These mass gathering were called tsunamis – a symbol for the revolutionary change that Imran Khan would bring; using his “bat” he would “knock out” the wicked and corrupt and lead the country to the “people’s victory” and “glory.”
This image was not accidental: it was crafted in the speeches Khan delivered. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses. He was considered bold for calling out the state’s pattern of taking a “begging bowl” to the IMF or US. At the same time, he crudely yet hysterically poked fun at Zardari and the Sharifs on the basis of their appearances or policy decisions, evoking deep emotions through his charisma combined with a “common” style (Kari, 2019).
Khan became a pop cultural icon. Clothing lines designed women’s clothing such as kurtas and scarfs with Khan’s faces on them; kids and women painted their faces with the colour of PTI flags for the rallies (Dawn 2015). Fan carried or wore pop-art posters and badges. Wearing an Imran Khan themed item was a political statement against the status quo. Khan’s online army of insafyans was busy sharing video featuring his rallies and quotes, as well as memes comparing him to the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Mufti, 2016).
Polls showed that 68 percent saw Khan as the favoured leader in the county. During this period, Khan’s “official account got around 100,000 hits daily and a Facebook account [received] 500,000 [hits]” (Mufti, 2016). The virtual space worked in his favour; given his background as a sports star, he knew how to optimize his public presence and earned the title “Facebook Khan” (Gulzar, 2018). Khan was a national populist phenomenon who captivated conventional and social media.
Social media followers still rave when Khan’s official account posts his workout pictures, which make him seem active, hard-working, and glamorous compared to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, known for his gluttonous indulgences. Khan’s social media army is highly intolerant of any opposition directed at their leader; they have been known to be abusive towards various factions of society, a sign of how deeply they believe in Khan and his message. Some call them “blind followers” (Mehdi, 2013). The supporters’ sentiments have been adopted by Khan’s increasingly autocratic populism. He has openly targeted his critics by calling them agents of “India’s fascist government”; since taking power, he has simply used regulatory authorities to muffle dissent or criticism directed towards him or the party.
From Pakistan’s Last Hope to “U-Turn” Khan
Imran Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness.
Mainstream Opposition (2013-2018)
Before 2013, Khan announced that his party would hold internal by-elections to prove they were different from the mainstream parties, which remain feudalistic and hereditary. This further strengthened his image as a populist outsider who was willing to diverge from business as usual. However, this was merely a distraction from the criticism that was mounting when PTI welcomed “electable” politicians – defectors from the mainstream political parties (Mufti, 2016).Khan’s experience made him understand the need for electable politicians. 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). In a party statement, PTI said: “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he is the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis” (Sadaqat, 2017). Thus, anyone critical of the party’s leader was a supporter of the corrupt elites – or, worse, an unpatriotic citizen who did not want to make Pakistan a better place. “True people” were those who supported PTI; the rest were naïve or traitors and following the “old ways”; they weren’t ready for the change that would build a “New Pakistan.”
Two major developments occurred when Imran Khan secured his tenure in the 2013 elections. Firstly, PTI formed a provincial government in KPK province by aligning with the ultra-right Jamaat-e-Islmai (JI). Khan pledged to reform KPK over the next five years. The party implemented new policies, include welfare reforms, a reformist agenda for public office, an effort to improve technology, and calls for justice. All of this was in line with Khan’s promises for a nayaPakistan (Daudzai, 2018).
The technocratic solutions in KPK, made to directly benefit the people, were placed in sharp contrast to the infrastructure-led developments made in Punjab, the stronghold of the Sharif brothers and the ruling party. He mocked the PML-N leaders as jangla-Sharifswith theirjangla bus project; While Khan’s policies benefitted the people, the PML-N was accused of using development projects to support their steel business by pocketing public funds (Daily Motion, 2017). PTI’s tree planting drive in KPK also earned Khan great support, as he became a rare politician who was concerned about climate change in a country where the leaders never pay attention to it (Gishkori, 2020).
Unfortunately for Khan and the PTI, it was soon clear that his populist agenda was not easily translatable into effective policies. While KPK was the model for PTI’s policies, the technocratic reforms brought little development for the common people, as governance – especially at the local level – remained incapacitated, making it impossible to implement policies (Daudzai, 2018).
Moreover, Khan had pressed for “peaceful” resolutions to the insurgent violence in the province; yet during the PTI’s tenure, two military operations were carried out – Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. Further, to appease the JI faction of their coalition, Khan turned a blind eye to the Islamization of school curriculums in the province; rather than rehabilitation and deradicalization – a PTI promise – public education was Islamized, with Quran classes made compulsory in schools (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014).
Ironically, Khan – who had opposed the Lahore transit project launched by Shahbaz Sharif – developed his very own metrobus project in Peshawar, KPK’s capital. He carefully marketed it as holistic, transparent, cost effective, and for the people; in reality, the project was behind schedule and over budget (Khan, 2019). And after having railed against corruption, Khan’s “tree tsunami” project was embroiled in a corruption scandal (Gishkori, 2020).
To divert attention from PTI’s failure to deliver on its promises, Khan used his time in office to attack PML-N’s leadership. It was an effort to gain anti-establishment support. Khan’s magnetic presence in the media allowed him to shift attention elsewhere. His crafty oratory, frank mannerisms, and fiery speeches made him the man to “save” Pakistan from the PML-N’s corrupt leadership.
Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness (Yousaf, 2015; Dailymotion, 2016).
His skills were highlighted when the 2014 “Azadi March” was launched. It featured scores of political rallies across the country, and PTI joined hands with the right-wing religious party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), which was spearheaded by Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri for a mass sit-in in Islamabad. The mission of the march was to “unmask corruption,” but Khan famously said, “This [the Azadi March] is beyond it [election rigging campaign]… the Pakistani people are not sheep that can be herded; we must empower people” (Dailymotion, 2014).
The usual jalsas were attended by thousands. They were no longer just for the middle class, but the working class, too. Khan gained support for his naya Pakistan agenda. His plan merged three key elements: Islamism, conspiracies, and a promise for welfare reforms. The country was seeing price hikes of basic commodities despite huge foreign investments being made by China. Khan merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism when he promised that naya Pakistan would be modelled on the state of Medina, from the times of Prophet Mohammad. Khan promised to end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days, and a key feature of this promise hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The News, 2020).
Khan introduced a highly ambitious 100-day agenda which promised to bring back looted wealth and to implement welfare policies and governance for the people (Pakistan Today, 2018). His party has presented him as the “struggling hero” who sleeps on the ground or in a container, in the cold, just like the ordinary people. The party has also emphasized his struggle to bring power to the Pakistani people and to guide them in the light of the Qur’an and best Islamic practices, to eliminate the injustices and corruption of the political elite and foreign powers (Dailymotion, 2014).
The release of the Panama Papers further aided Khan’s cause of driving out “corrupt politicians,” when the names of Nawaz Sharif and his family members surfaced in money embezzlement cases. Khan promised vengeance and liberation from the “blood sucking” politicians, a message that especially resonated with young voters. One of his speeches summarized his tone: “Nawaz Sharif! Nawaz Sharif you shall be held accountable! You all shall be held accountable! Nawaz Sharif you will be the first one held accountable and after that each and every one shall be accounted for!” (YouTube, 2016). The crowd chanted, “Go Nawaz Go,” in support of Khan – the chant became the number one trending hashtag in Pakistan.
In addition to the mass rallies, Khan pushed court cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family members; this led to the former being disqualified from office. During a “Thanksgiving” jalsa Khan started his speech by thanking Allah and congratulating the masses on their first “victory.” He claimed this was only the beginning of the country’s journey to greatness (Khan, 2016). Like most populists, Khan promised deliverance without clear plans, yet the pro-public sentiment of his statements earned considerable support among the disaffected populace.
By 2018, Khan had transformed into a kaptan by promising a Muslim welfare state where all the corrupt sinners would be jailed and Pakistan would no longer be a beggar or a puppet of America. Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was his trophy, which he flaunted to the public ahead of the 2018 elections.
Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled. Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has also used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government.
Since assuming office as prime minister, Khan has done something of a U-turn. Since coming to power, the PTI has been unable to deliver on any of its promises, other than building a special task force to recover looted national wealth (Dawn, 2021). Promises of shelter, social welfare, youth job creation, access to quality education, and other ideals have been left on the drawing board or halted (Dawn, 2021). For instance, the promise to end corruption in the first 100 days vanished
Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled (Qayum, 2020).
To gain clout, Khan has successfully renamed welfare programs for PR purposes; for example, the Benazir Income Support Program’s (BISP) elements have been merged and branded with the Ehsas Welfare Program; and health cards that were launched during the last government are now rebranded as the Sehat Suhalat Program (Shat Suhalat, 2021; Junaidi, 2016). Such rebranding is a common practice in Pakistan. Khan promised to end Pakistan’s “brain drain” by inviting technocrats from overseas to “fix” the country, and so far, it has ended in a disaster, as Tania Aidrus, who was leading the digital Pakistan initiative, has resigned, and Zafar Mirza, the advisor on heath, did the same. Khan’s failure to deliver has meant that his promise to attract foreign investment from expat Pakistanis has failed to materialize (Khan, 2020).
Not only has Imran Khan been unable to instil change, but under his leadership, a lot of backtracking from promises has been made. Two examples include Dr. Atif Mian being dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school of thought, and Khan taking “the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after years of severe criticism of the IMF (Farmer, 2020; Dawn, 2020).
Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. Since coming into government, he has used the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to attack opposition media such as the Jang Group and subsidiaries such as Geo Channel (Ellis-Petersen & Baloch, 2019). Under the Khan government, any anti-state or government content seen on social media is portrayed as an “outside” attack, intended to alter the perspectives of Pakistani citizens (Butt, 2021).
Moreover, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has, throughout PTI’s tenure, targeted various PML-N leaders on suspicion and accusations of corruption. While there are credible accusations of corruption, PTI has mostly escaped scrutiny despite similar allegations (Farooq, 2020; Shar; 2019, Zubair, 2019). In addition to PEMRA, Khan’s government has created tighter rules for social media regulation under the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020; these acts grant the government a permit to ask Google, YouTube, and other sites to ban or block content they consider unfit (Chabba, 2020).
Khan has also been directly confrontational towards the judiciary. In 2007, he went on a hunger strike to support the judiciary, and in 2017, he praised them for their “just” decision to dismiss Nawaz Sharif from office; during his tenure, he has pressured the judiciary on two occasions. Khan and the PTI used parliament to overrule the judiciary, extending the service tenure of the Chief of Army Staff. He also challenged the death sentence handed out to dictator Pervez Musharraf.Referencing Musharraf’s death sentence, Khan said, “People’s trust in judicial system has been shaken” (Dawn, 2020).
Khan’s tenure has seen increasing inflation and unemployment, in addition to the already dire economic conditions. The opposition parties have formed a coalition to challenge his office. Khan has called this opposition anti-state and enemies of the state; he’s called them “Indian” agents and members of foreign plots against Pakistan. This populist rhetoric resonates with Pakistanis who have been using conspiracy theories for decades to externalize the nation’s failures. Thus, it has now become a fight between the “state” and its “people.” Imran Khan has publicly called Nawaz Sharif a traitor, and Khan’s government has banned media from airing Sharif’s speeches due to “seditious” content (Dawn, 2020).
Khan and PTI have also deflected attention by externalizing blame. He uses the “honest man” strategy, positioning himself as the one humble man the people can trust. He believes that he had an “unfair” start because the system is so corrupt and damaged that he cannot deliver his promises with 100 days. He admits his failures and has pled with the people to give him time; he promises he will deliver only if they have “faith in him” (Khawar, 2020). Simultaneously, he has also externalized blamed, pointing the finger at India for allegedly sponsoring terrorism in the country and lobbying against Pakistan in the global arena. These are highly sensitive nerve endings amongst the public, who feel touched by Khan’s humbleness while also feeling sorry for his plight. All the while, they believe his claims; a majority of Pakistanis view India as a malicious actor.
Imran Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled.
Khan’s Populism and its Consequences
Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.”
An example of this is the Single National Curriculum Plan (SNCP), which aims to bring equity to the education system by having a single curriculum for public and private schools. In a country where quality education is a privilege few enjoy, SNCP is a symbol of equity and the promise of justice in naya Pakistan. At the same time, its highly Islamized aspects – including teaching Quranic verses and the life and sayings of the Prophet (from a Sunni interpretation) – appease the religious sentiments of the populace. SNCP also represents a move away from “Westernized” education to a more indigenous model. PTI advertises SNCP as true to the values and norms of Pakistani culture (in reality, Sunni Islamic culture). Thus, in one policy proposal, Khan combines anti-Western and anti-elitism with Islamism and reform.
In three years, Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled. Khan has again merged various ideologies such as anti-corruption, anti-elitism, conspiracies, and a quest to make Pakistan a “just Islamic state” modelled on Medina to justify his vindictive, autocratic behaviour.
These choices have set up a choice between the “people” – that is, those pure ones on the right (religious) side – and those who oppose the people. This latter group includes traitors and Indian spies, members of the elite, or those brainwashed by Western sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The “otherization” of critics and those who do not identify with Khan’s narrative leaves little room for pluralism.
Khan’s merged ideologies and populist rhetoric are primarily defined by Islamism as a way of viewing the world and an agent of change to answer all social issues. His supporters are overwhelmingly young (again, a majority of Pakistanis are under 30), which makes his support worrying. His tenure has promoted Quranic education, Muslim victimization, a wave of pan-Islamism, and fear of the “West” and non-Muslims. For these policies, and radicalizing the country’s youth, Khan has been named amongst “The Muslim 500” (The News, 2020). When a number of Shia and ethnically Hazara were massacred in 2021, Khan blamed India for “sponsoring terrorism,” even though his policies have done little to ensure that interfaith harmony is promoted in an already radicalized society.
Captaincy of the country has led Khan to make many compromises or U-turns; his image as a political “outsider” or miracle worker are no longer valid; he has struggled to turn populist dreams into the reality of a naya Pakistan. To cover his shortcomings, like other populist leaders, he has misused power and deflected blame to imagined external threats. He also doubled down on his populism, “otherized” internal critics, and tried to construct their criticism as illegitimate. Moreover, by codifying populism into educational policy and spreading conspiracy theories, Khan’s tenure is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan’s social fabric.
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Rehman, Atika. (2018). “You can’t win without electables and money: Imran.” Dawn. July 5, 2018. www.dawn.com/news/1418060 (accessed on December 27, 2020).
Sadaqat, Muhammad. (2017). “PTI leader admits ‘failures’ in K-P.” Express Tribune. March 13, 2017. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1353647/time-needed-pti-leader-admits-failures-k-p (accessed on December 27, 2020).
Yousaf, Salman. (2015). “Political marketing in Pakistan: exaggerated promises, delusive claims, marketable development projects and change advocacy: An evidence from May 2013 general elections.” Journal of Public Affairs. 16(2). DOI: 10.1002/pa.1562 (accessed on January 1, 2021).
 Tabdeli is an Urdu work that is used to describe reform and change. This word has become synonymous with Imran Khan.
 The Indus River is the largest river system in Pakistan. Historically, cities and settlements, from north to south, have developed along the river. Thus, it holds immense cultural significance.
 In Pakistan possessing and drinking alcohol is a punishable offense.
 In Pakistan sex outside marriage is a punishable offence. The Hudood Ordinances, at the time, consisted of Zina (extramarital) Ordinance, which before 2006, could hand jail sentences of up to 10 years along with stoning to death for the adulterer and a public whipping of 100 lashes for a fornicator.
 In Pakistan ‘missing persons’ are people who have gone missing by being abducted or killed by state intuitions. These occurrences have also been called the ‘enforced disappearances.’
 Talking about the central PPP Government and PML-N Punjab government
 Funfairs where locals celebrate with family and friends. They were once a common occurrence in Pakistan, but the wave of suicide bombings severely limited or hampered these once frequent occurrences where dance and music were common.
 It is noteworthy that Pakistan has one of the youngest populations around the world. People under the age of 30 make up over 64% of the total population.
 Jangla-Sharif refers to the Metro Bus project in Lahore. PML-N had heavily invested in infrastructure projects during their two terms in Punjab.
 After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif Khan gathered his supports in a ‘Thanksgiving’ rally as they were ridded off ‘kind of corrupt.’
 Ahmadis are a subsect of Muslims who have been declared non-Muslims in Pakistan; they are a highly persecuted group who face discrimination and even loss of life due to their religious affiliation. Extremist right-wing groups consider them wajib-ul-qatal (eligible to kill).
This commentary considers aspects of populism that Greta Thunberg’s climate movement exposes and transforms. Dr. Hart also considers Thunberg’s “spectrum superpower” and the force of activist community-building in a climate crisis that is already here.
In today’s polarizing politics, xenophobic populism is usually seen as a distant opposite of grassroots progressive movements. The reductive binary of evil twin/good twin is tempting, too, but what happens if we look at ways in which a youthful climate movement mirrors and transforms populist action? The double or Doppelgänger, when it appears in literature and film, is both familiar and other, in Freud’s sense of the uncanny (Glynn, 2016). If viewed through the mirror-lens, Thunberg’s role as an unexpectedly charismatic leader of a viral movement can seem as populist as that of autocrats who whip up nationalist feeling in their followers. What her work does, though, is to reveal the power of soulful activism to transform group dynamics for an outward cause rather than toward self-preservation. Though her position as a white female from a wealthy Nordic country has overshadowed less privileged young activists (Mernit, 2019), Thunberg’s movement is a useful case study in how populist impulses can speak truth to power, to use the old Quaker phrase, rather than sow fear and hate.
Climate populism, which “tends to take ‘the people’ to be a global subject rather than a national project” and has led to the “quick uptake” of projects like the Green New Deal, can certainly risk dilution (Bosworth, 2020) and denial of Black and Brown community concerns (Coleman, 2021). At the same time, it holds potential for what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright have called “Climate X,” a future vision that does not compromise endlessly for the sake of neoliberal planetary “management” on the one hand or surrender to autocratic oppressions on the other. This vision calls for “a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike,”[i] very much in line with Thunberg’s project. Though the authors recognize the “impractical” idealism of transnational, anti-capitalist revolution, from the neoliberal perspective, they hope for class struggles and local, Indigenous-informed efforts to “subtract” communities from damaging power systems,[ii] taking inspiration from the “palpable urgency”[iii] in mass movements like Fridays for Future.
Thunberg’s unexpected “superpower” (Rourke, 2019) in her Asperger’s has been remarkably effective in focusing the Fridays movement on specific, concrete goals rather than on feel-good platitudes. In its “ghost” role as a suppressed aspect of normative European culture,[iv]the autism spectrum exposes gifts buried under assumptions that “human” means “neurotypical” (Morris, 2004). In a recent essay by Thunberg’s mother, related to the family’s new book,[v]Malena Ernman recounts Greta’s years of facing bullying at school while refusing to eat at home. After being diagnosed with “high-functioning Asperger’s” and beginning to talk about her humiliations at school, Greta found her vocation in the very dissonance she experienced, painfully, between modern comforts and planetary disease. “She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye” (Ernman, 2020).
Having been raised in a well-educated family, with an opera singer mother with the luxury of posting “sun-drenched selfies from Japan” – and later regretting this (Ernman, 2020) – Thunberg continues to call attention to the blind privilege of travel as consumption and to corporate powers whose carbon footprints dwarf those of even the most profligate tourists.
Thunberg’s insistence on uncompromising truth about global warming, her sailing to the US for the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Brady, 2019) despite criticism for white yachting privilege (Parker, 2019), and her ability to stare down Donald Trump (Rosen, 2019) have led not only to internet fame but to an equally viral youth movement as well. Online spread via YouTube videos, memes, and tweets is common to both far-right and climate populism, but younger activists disrupting autocratic power structures bring an open, 1960s-like energy to their efforts (Ellis, 2019).
Thunberg has certainly inspired Gen-Z activists to TikTok their way to organizing Black Lives Matter events and embarrassing Donald Trump at a largely empty rally (Herrman, 2020). At the same time, she does not take credit as a sole actor, citing her own inspiration from the Parkland shooting survivors in the US and from earlier activists, many unrecognized because they did not come from the global North and “many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.”[vi] Thunberg also recognizes that although the Fridays movement may have started with her lonely, quiet presence outside Parliament with a sign, it has grown through “the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations.”[vii] The recent documentary on Thunberg has received some negative reviews, not because it adds to scoffing from the right or left, but because it valorizes her as one savior figure in a movement that needs multitudes, a critique with which she would agree (Bradshaw, 2020).
The power of the pause – refusing to attend school once a week, holding one’s ground despite the bullying Thunberg now faces on a global scale – has proven inspiring to many in its own right. In a world that runs on an assumption of “endless growth” fueled by extractivism,[viii] simply stopping normal routines can open up a space for questioning what “normal” even is. The COVID year has brought to light what privileged humans deeply fear: failure of the drive for more stuff, more speed, more work, more travel, more development, more corporate comforts. In this very stoppage, though, is hope for a planet already in crisis. In her recent video, released close to the Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary, Thunberg reflects on how little “big speeches” have done to halt carbon emissions and enact the “system change” the planet needs (Common Dreams, 2020). Her own speeches may be small in comparison, but they serve a crucial role in calling for a halt to the mythology of endless growth.
So, what comes next? A 2020 document published anonymously in France, more radically subverting individualist privilege than Thunberg’s movement does, holds that neither calling out governments on the one hand nor altering consumer habits on the other is enough to address climate crisis at its depth. This text, titled “Re-attachments” (Anonymous, 2020/2021) does call for strikes and direct action (along the lines of Mann and Wainwright’s “Climate X” and Thunberg’s stoppages) but adds another antidote: an ecology of “presence” rather than “absence.”
This means that instead of feeling helpless in the face of mass extinctions and lost habitats, we can mourn these while fostering commitment to new forms of community in an already compromised world. “In order to develop constituent forms of material and political autonomy, we need to communize spaces, land, wastelands, buildings, churches, houses, and parks” (Anonymous, 2020/2021). Learning from Indigenous practices of ecological co-regulation (in a respectful way, without cultural extractivism or appropriation) can aid in developing stronger bonds between humans and other species, too. Greta Thunberg’s model of quiet, searing clarity has been a giant step toward mobilizing climate action; the communities her work continues to form, in contrast to the chat rooms of fear-based populism, may be its greatest gift.
[i] Mann, Geoff & Wainright, Joel. (2018). Climate Leviathan. Verso Books. p. 160.