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

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

Richard Bertrand Spencer is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America for a “dispossessed white race.” He has also called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of what he describes as “white culture” and to achieve a “white homeland.” Spencer has become the most recognizable public face of the white supremacist and nationalist movements. As an ardent white supremacist and ethnonationalist, Spencer says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanics and African Americans, and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime. In Spencer’s “America,” Asians, Muslims, and Jews don’t qualify as “white” either.

By Bulent Kenes

White supremacy and white nationalism are real threats to democratic societies across the globe, as evidenced by the presidency of Donald Trump and the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As more people embrace a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-multiculturalist worldview, this has fuelled hostility and violence toward those deemed “others” or “outsiders” because of their religion, skin colour, or national origin (Jipson & Becker, 2019).

Driven by fear over the loss of white primacy and white privilege, white nationalists believe that white identity should be the organizing principle of Western society (Jipson & Becker, 2019). The United States is a hub of white supremacy, whose adherents fear that demographic changes will lead to the extermination of the white race and white culture—even though the US remains 77 percent white (Jipson & Becker, 2019). Eight years of Republican demagoguery against the US’ first black president, Barack Obama, made it easier for some whites to be persuaded that the system is rigged against them (Harkinson, 2016).

As a natural result of this process, hate crimes against Muslims, immigrants, and people of colour have been on the rise in the US since 2014. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented 892 hate crimes. The next year, it counted 917 hate crimes. In 2017—the year Trump took office, stoking nationalist sentiments with promises to build walls, deport Mexicans, and ban Muslims—the US saw 954 white supremacist attacks. In 2018, white nationalists killed at least 50 people in the US. Every perpetrator of deadly extremist violence in the US in 2018 had links to white nationalist groups (Jipson & Becker, 2019).

Richard Bertrand Spence is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America (Beckett, 2017) for a “dispossessed white race.” Spencer has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of what he describes as “white culture” (Lombroso & Appelbaum, 2016; SPLC, n.d.; Graham, 2016 & Kirchick, 2014) and to “reconstitute the Roman Empire” (Scott, 2014). Spencer has become the most recognizable public face of the white supremacist white nationalist movements. In 2008, in an article in Taki’s Magazine, a far-right publication, Spencer coined the term “alternative right,” from which “alt right” is derived as a sanitised word for the extreme right (Younge, 2017) (ADL, 2018). (Paul Gottfried, a Jewish paleo-conservative also employed the term “alternative right” when he gave a speech entitled, “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” at the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting in November 2008. For this reason, some sources credit Gottfried with birthing the term.) Spencer further popularized the term when he chose “Alternative Right” as the name for an online publication that debuted in 2010 (ADL, n.d.).

Spencer rejects the label “white supremacist” in favour of the more opaque “alt-right” and prefers to describe himself as an “identitarian” (Cox, 2016); however, the SPLC has described him as a leading “academic racist,” who “takes a quasi-intellectual approach to white separatism” and as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.” The ADL says Spencer us a “leader in white supremacist circles that envision a ‘new’ right that will openly embrace ‘white racial consciousness’” (Cox, 2016).

As an umbrella term “alt-right” is used to describe a movement that is a mix of populism and white nationalism and was birthed predominantly online (Helsel, 2016). The alt-right portrays refugees, Muslims, and progressives as a threat to white culture (Jipson & Becker, 2019). As a loose network of people who promote white identity and reject mainstream conservatism (Beckett, 2017, alt-right has been used by Spencer to refer to people who oppose, among other things, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and open immigration (ADL, 2018).

Spencer has beguiled the American media. Profiles of Spencer have been accompanied by brooding portraits: the racist, looking serious in a blazer; the racist, slouching picturesquely against a wall. Spencer, who has basked in the media attention, was not shy about telling reporters that image is everything; that he and other young racists are the hipster whisperers, ready to bring a new generation into the white nationalist fold (Beckett, 2017). “We have to look good,” he said, because no one is going to want to join a movement that is “crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid” (Fox, 2013).

Growing up in a wealthy part of Dallas in the 1990s, Spencer attended St. Mark’s School of Texas, an elite, all-boys prep school long associated with blue-blooded conservatism. Spencer’s father, an ophthalmologist, did not care much about politics but voted Republican out of habit. Spencer was friend with the only African American student in his class, John Lewis. Lewis says he never thought of Spencer as racist, but another classmate who asked not to be identified recalls Spencer making “a bunch of conservative, racially laced comments” that were objectionable even in high school. However, Spencer says he did not think much about race back then. After graduating high school in 1997, Spencer went to the University of Virginia, where he double majored in music and English and became deeply involved in avant-garde theatre, trying out and discarding various radical ideologies like costume changes (Harkinson, 2016). Eventually, Spencer came to embrace his ideology—and then continued further out on the ideological spectrum (Fox, 2013). 

Red Pilled: Waking Up to Reality

After entering the humanities master’s program at the University of Chicago, Spencer discovered Jared Taylor, a self-proclaimed “race realist” who argues that blacks and Hispanics are a genetic drag on Western society. By the time Spencer entered Duke as a Ph.D. student in European intellectual history, in 2005, his views were on his sleeve. Fellow students recall Spencer openly sharing his opinions on biological differences between races and endorsing books such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, which argues that Hispanic immigrants are less suited than Europeans for assimilation. Yet Spencer was charming enough to maintain collegial relations with his peers. “Not many of us had ever come across an out-and-out fascist,” says a college professor who studied in the same history Ph.D. program as Spencer. “We didn’t know how serious he was” (Harkinson, 2016). 

Spencer uses a metaphor to explain the jarring experience of waking up to a different worldview. In the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” the character of Morpheus offers Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, a choice between taking a blue pill—“the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”—or a red pill, which shows “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” In the alt-right’s telling, the so-called “normies” swallow the blue pill, digesting the fiction of racial equality, while those who get “red pilled” are stripped of the virtual-reality cloak that blinds them, waking up to the shattering realization that liberalism is just a mirage designed to obscure the hard, ugly truths of a world programmed by genetics. “You’re destroyed by it,” Spencer says, “and put back together again.” After getting red pilled, Spencer began quietly pursuing related ideas through his academic work (Harkinson, 2016).

After dropping out of Duke, Spencer remained preoccupied with race while at The American Conservative, where he became an editor in 2007. Spencer was fired, because he was “a bit extreme for us,” recalls TAC editor Scott McConnell. Then, Spencer moved to a new job as the sole editor of Taki’s Magazine, the online vanity publication of Taki Theodoracopulos, who was notorious for his racist remarks. Spencer steadily evolved Taki’s into a magazine aimed at white nationalists. By 2009, he’d published essays by Jared Taylor and was regularly using the term “alternative right” to describe his youthful brand of anti-war, anti-immigration, pro-white conservatism (Harkinson, 2016). In December 2009, Spencer left Taki’s Magazine

In 2010, he founded AlternativeRight.com, a white supremacy-themed webzine aimed at the “intellectual right-wing,” (SPLC, n.d.). The site caught the attention of the conservative publisher William Regnery II, who had tried to start a whites-only online dating service and funded the white nationalist National Policy Institute (NPI). With Regnery’s backing (Harkinson, 2016), Spencer became president of NPI in 2011, following the death of its chairman. Concurrently, he also oversaw NPI’s publishing division, Washington Summit Publishers, home of such scientifically bogus works as a 2015 reissue of Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence and screeds by other white nationalists, including Jared Taylor, editor of the racist American Renaissance journal, and Sam Francis, the late editor of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens’ newsletter (SPLC, n.d.).

According to NPI’s mission statement, it aims “to elevate the consciousness of whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights. The institute…will study the consequences of the ongoing influx that non-Western populations pose to our national identity” (SPLC, n.d.). Under the auspices of NPI, Spencer has worked to create an intellectual class of white separatists. The group rejects the calls for violence which appear in Internet chat rooms and public campaigns of hate. Spencer prefers a more professorial approach of publishing books and organizing conferences. 

“Our goal is to form an intellectual community around European nationalism,” he said (Mangan, 2016). The “lesbians” and “Latinos” have advocates working for them, so why shouldn’t whites, Spencer asks in a video (Fox, 2013). 

NPI seeks to preserve the “heritage, identity and future of European people in the US and around the world” (Mangan, 2016). In 2012, Spencer launched an offshoot of Washington Summit Publishers that he called Radix Journal, a website and biannual publication (SPLC, n.d.), and he also started to host a weekly podcast, “Vanguard Radio” (Bar-On, 2019).No longer confined to the dark corners of social media, Spencer tried to bring a scholarly air of respectability to a movement commonly associated with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (Mangan, 2016), and he managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic (Harkinson, 2016). He envisions a world in which his ideals are embraced by the mainstream, and he has vowed to keep pushing until that happens (Cox, 2016). 

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

However, Spencer has failed to conceal his movement’s darker side. While being interviewed by David Pakman, he was asked if he would condemn the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler; he refused, saying, “I’m not going to play this game,” while stating that Hitler had “done things that I think are despicable,” without elaborating on which things he was referencing (Pakman, n.d.). In early 2016, Spencer was filmed giving the Nazi salute in a karaoke bar, and leaked footage also depicts Spencer giving the Sieg Heil salute to his supporters during the August 2017 Charlottesville rally (Bernstein, 2017). After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Spencer urged his supporters to “party like it’s 1933,” the year Hitler came to power in Germany (Cox, 2016).  In the weeks following, Spencer quoted Nazi propaganda and denounced Jews (Goldstein, 2016). At a conference Spencer held celebrating the election, he cried, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” (Bradner, 2016). In early-to-mid 2017, when Spencer’s following was at its height, his supporters would reportedly give him the Sieg Heil salute when he entered a room (Marantz, 2019).

Spencer emerged as one of the most visible white separatist agitators during the Trump campaign (Mangan, 2016). After Trump’s election, Spencer was the focus of a lot of media attention. He never denied that his objective is white supremacy. “I’m trying to normalize ‘racism,’ as you call it,” he told ABC (Ali, 2016). His far-right ideas had travelled quite rapidly from the margins to the mainstream and were infecting the US body politic at the highest level (Younge, 2017a).

In some ways, Spencer resembles an older generation of “academic racists”—or “racialists,” as he prefers to put it (Harkinson, 2016). In his writing, speeches, and interviews, he has given an intellectualized explanation for how he came to advocate for a whites-only “ethno state.” While in graduate school, he has said, he was compelled by critiques of multiculturalism and political correctness and by demographic data indicating that whites are en route to minority status in the US (Williams, 2017).

One of Spencer’s first acts after taking over NPI was to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Whitefish, Montana, where his family has a home (SPLC, n.d.). Whitefish, where Spencer lived after 2014, was not particularly thrilled with his presence. Several local restaurants have refused to serve him. He was compelled to resign his membership from the exclusive Big Mountain Ski Club after he got into a chairlift argument about the Iraq War with the neocon Randy Scheunemann, a former adviser to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and to John McCain during the 2008 election. In 2014, a local human rights group known as Love Lives Here urged the city to bar Spencer from conducting NPI business in town but settled for a resolution condemning hate groups (Harkinson, 2016). 

It’s possible to connect the Spencer family’s business interests and geographic history with Richard Spencer’s racist politics. The family’s farm holdings are a legacy of its ties to the Jim Crow South, passed down by Spencer’s grandfather, who built the business during the turbulent civil rights era. Generations of Spencer’s family lived in the South (Williams, 2017). There is a long history of white supremacy in the American South, which has also contributed to the attitudes and, especially, symbolism used by the modern alt-right (Bezio, 2018). Records Show Spencer’s mother attended segregated schools as a girl in the small north-eastern Louisiana city of Monroe. Later, she other inherited farms in northeast Louisiana from her late father. The region has a history of slavery and racism. Throughout the civil rights era, the Ku Klux Klan targeted black residents in northeast Louisiana (and elsewhere) with lynchings, cross burnings, and other violence. In Tensas Parish, where the Spencers own 3,000 acres of farmland, blacks didn’t win the right to vote until 1964. However, in an open letter sent to their local newspaper, Spencer’s parents, Sherry and Rand, said that while they love their son, “we are not racists. We have never been racists. We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism” (Williams, 2017). 

“You Will Not Replace Us!”

Spencer abdicated his position as editor of Radix Journal in January 2017 to serve as the American editor of his new site, AltRight.com. Launched on January 16, 2017, AltRight.com brings together several well-known white nationalist personalities (SPLC, n.d.). According to Spencer, however, the site is populist and a big tent for members of the alt-right (Wilson, 2017). Swedish publisher Daniel Friberg of Arktos Media is co-founder and European editor of the site (Porter, 2017). The SPLC describes the common thread among contributors as antisemitism, rather than white nationalism or white supremacy in general (Solomon, 2017). In the same year, Spencer rented space in Alexandria, Virginia, to serve as a hub for the alt-right movement. Some local residents were—and are—not pleased. The city has received at least 25 complaints about Spencer’s rental (Anand, 2017).

On May 13, 2017, he led a torch-lit protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, against a vote by the city council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (CBS News, 2017). Spencer led the crowd in chants of “You will not replace us!”; “Blood and soil”; and “Russia is our friend” (Hayden, 2017; Laughland, 2017). 

“You will not replace us” refers to the idea that white Americans are being “replaced” by non-white people through “demographic replacement,” while “blood and soil” is perhaps better known in its original German, “Blut und boden.” The concepts “blood” (meaning racial identity) and “soil” (referencing the land) are inextricably linked in the expression, which meant that peasants and farmers were the most racially “German,” while urban dwellers were racially suspicious. In 1933, “blood and soil” even became an official Nazi policy, requiring that farmers were certifiably “Aryan” in order to receive certain benefits from the state (Coaston, 2019). Local police reported minor verbal confrontations between two opposing groups but confirmed no arrests had been made(Laughland, 2017). 

Things didn’t go as quietly at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on August 12 of the same year. Spencer was one of the promoters and scheduled speakers at Unite the Right, which was ostensibly organized to oppose the removal of Confederate monuments. The rally attracted more than 500 white supremacists and many hundreds of counter-protesters, and confrontations between the two groups sparked violent clashes. A white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 30 (ADL, 2018). James Alex Fields Jr., a 22-year-old neo-Nazi from Ohio, would later plead guilty to killing 32-year-old Heyer. Fields and eight other people who attended the rally are in state or federal prison after being convicted of a variety of crimes. Spencer wasn’t accused of any criminal wrongdoing related to Charlottesville. But he and more than two dozen others are defendants in a civil lawsuit brought by people injured during the rally (Barrouquere, 2020). This lawsuit has accused 25 far-right individuals and groups of conspiring to commit violence. At a federal courthouse in Charlottesville, attorney Karen Dunn told the court that, following the march, Spencer declared to a crowd: “We own these streets. We occupy these grounds” (Smith, 2018).

The repercussions for the alt-right and the larger white supremacist community were immediate. Scores of them were “doxxed”—their real identities exposed—and as a result, some were fired from their jobs, had to leave their universities, or were rejected by their families or romantic partners. Many white supremacists’ social media accounts and websites were taken offline, and some were kicked off popular crowdfunding websites, eliminating a key income source. Meanwhile, Spencer, who helped spearhead the events in Charlottesville, has become increasingly unpopular in the alt-right due in part to the perception that he failed to capitalize on the energy generated by Unite the Right (ADL, n.d.). 

Since that weekend in Charlottesville, dissension and infighting has overtaken the alt-right movement. On one side are the American Nationalists who believe white supremacists should appeal to whites by using innocuous symbols like the American flag and avoid openly white supremacist symbols like swastikas. On the other side are the National Socialists and other hard-right groups whose members display white supremacist symbols at rallies and don’t care about “optics” or appealing to the white middle class. Spencer, who walks the line between the two groups, appears to be testing out new ways of attracting attention (ADL, 2018). 

In October 2017, two months after the rally, he returned to Charlottesville to lead 35-40 people in an unannounced “flash mob.” Afterwards, Spencer called it a “great success” and a “model” for future events. This kind of small event with no advance warning hugely diminishes inherently risky interactions with law enforcement or counter-protesters. Spencer only employed the “flash mob” model a couple of times before turning his attention to scheduled public events like campus speeches (ADL, 2018 & Hawley, 2017). 

In December 2017, Spencer announced that he had formed a new organization with other alt-right leaders. “Operation Homeland” was unveiled as a core group of alt-right leaders and activists poised to lead the movement as a whole. The group held a demonstration in December 2017 in Washington DC, to protest the acquittal of an undocumented immigrant in the 2015 murder of a young woman in San Francisco (ADL, 2018).

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

If You Aren’t a White American, That’s Fine—But You Should Leave

Spencer’s clean-cut appearance aims at concealing his radical white separatism and his goal of establishing a white ethno-state in North America. His writings and speeches portray this as a reasonable defence of Caucasians and Eurocentric culture. In Spencer’s worldview, white people have been “dispossessed” by a combination of rising minority birth rates, immigration, and establishment politics and policies (SPLC, n.d.). “We are undergoing a sad process of degeneration,” he said about minority births in the US. “We will need to reverse it using the state and the government. You incentivize people with higher intelligence, you incentivize people who are healthy to have children. And it sounds terrible and nasty, but there would be a great use of contraception.” He didn’t mean the government should encourage people to use birth control pills and condoms (Fox, 2013); he was advocating for eugenicist forced sterilisation (Stokes, 2017).

As an ardent white supremacist and ethnonationalist, Spencer also openly advocates for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to achieve a “white homeland.” He says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanics and African Americans and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime (Stokes, 2017). Asians, Muslims, and Jews do not qualify as “white” either. Spencer knows that a white ethno-state is at most a distant dream, but he hopes America’s non-whites can be made to agree that returning to the lands of their ancestors would be best for everyone: “It’s like presenting to an African that this hasn’t worked out…We haven’t made each other happier. We are going to have to take part in this paradigmatic shift together” (Harkinson, 2016). 

Despite often saying, “you have to look at culture and not just race,” lighter skin colour apparently matters more to Spencer than acculturation when it comes to Hispanics. When pressed about what really sets whites apart, he waxes decidedly unscientific: “I think there is something within the European soul that we haven’t been able to measure yet and maybe we never will… and that is a Faustian drive or spirit—a drive to explore, a drive to dominate, a drive to live one’s life dangerously…a drive to explore outer space and the universe. I think there is something within us that we possess and that only we possess” (Harkinson, 2016). In line with Spencer, NPI is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the US, and around the world” (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer claims, among other things, that Africans have benefited from white supremacy and that Europe would always be more his home than it would be for Blacks (Younge, 2017).

Moreover, he said in an interview that, “The American nation is defined by the fact that it is derived from Europe…white Americans, European-Americans, in particular Anglo-Saxon Americans, Anglo-Saxon Protestants…defined it in a way that no other people did. So, of course, African Americans have influenced American culture and American identity. Of course, Asians have and so on. But it really was Anglo-Saxons who truly defined it. Who made America what it is. Who were indispensable…” (Letson, 2016).

Spencer is also known for his public advocacy of violence against non-whites. He has advocated for the enslavement of Haitians by whites, the ethnic cleansing of racial minorities from the US, and even the ethnic cleansing of Turks from Anatolia (Holt, 2018). He claimed, “Today, in the public imagination, ‘ethnic-cleansing’ has been associated with civil war and mass murder. But this need not be the case. 1919 is a real example of successful ethnic redistribution—done by fiat, we should remember, but done peacefully” (Fox, 2013 & SPLC, n.d.). 

On the subject of neo-Nazism, Spencer has expressed admiration for the political tactics of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell for using “shock as a positive means to an end” (Miller, 2018). Therefore, the SPLC has classified Spencer as a leading academic racist, but he rejects the notion that he is driven by hatred and considers “racist” a “slur word” (Fox, 2013). Spencer believes that if you aren’t a white American, that’s fine—but you should leave (Harkinson, 2016). 

Despite having no visible tattoos advertising white pride or hate against non-whites, Spencer is a racist (Wertheimer, 2017). His stances conflict with common mores in American society (Wertheimer, 2017. Spencer supports nations segregated by race and called the idea that America is based on rights “silliness” (Helsel, 2016). SPLC (2016) underlines Spencer’s alt-right claims depart from traditional, establishment conservatism and embrace more identity-based politics, such as American Identitarianism. The alt-right proclaims to have move passed the right–left divide, towards a politics that promotes racial homogeneity and to challenge and dismantle mainstream conservatism (Gray, 2015).

“Even if all immigration was stopped tomorrow, there is still going to be a massive minority population,” argues Spencer. “All I know is that in order for white people to survive, we’ll need consciousness of ourselves, or we really will reach a state of humiliation, if not extinction. White people are going to enter a new world where we are a hated minority, where it is seen as a good thing that we have less power. We must fight against that” (Mangan, 2016). He even claims that “The alt-right would not exist if it weren’t for terrible immigration policies and social justice warriors and liberalism and maybe the Barack Obama presidency.” He says, “they made us” (Harkinson, 2016). According to Spencer, immigration “is a kind of proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile” (NPI, February 2014).

In a promo for NPI’s 2013 Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., Spencer opined that both Europe and America are experiencing economic, moral, and cultural bankruptcy under the pressure of “mass immigration, multiculturalism, and the natural expression of religious and ethnic identities by non-Europeans” (SPLC, n.d.). He said on another occasion that, “I believe that selective deportations could set a new tone and that millions would self-deport. It does not matter to me whose ‘fault’ it was that they are here, or if that’s even the right way to look at it. The survival of my people takes precedence” (Mangan, 2016). However, Spencer has said he would gladly accept Germans, Latins, and Slavic immigrants in his proposed ethno-state — ironically, groups that faced severe discrimination in late 19th-century America (SPLC, n.d.).

Spencer and his group claim that their history and identity as white people is being erased by “political correctness.” Specifically, they see the identity and history of whiteness in the US as antithetical to those of people of colour. They claim to be marginalised and oppressed by policies of inclusion and diversity; thus, they reject multiculturalism and diversity (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer subscribes zealously to the idea that America’s white population is endangered, thanks to multiculturalism and lax immigration policies that have gone unchallenged by mainstream conservatives. He envisions a future for the US along the lines of “a renewed Roman Empire,” a dictatorship where the main criteria for citizenship would be whiteness (Harkinson, 2016).

According to Spencer, it falls to people like him to be engaged and savvy if America is going to combat the growing threat of diversity. In particular, he’s irritated by the rise of minority births, which outnumbered white births for the first time in 2011. “Even if we shut off all immigration, the country is going to demographically undergo a tremendous transformation,” Spencer said. White people “need to start thinking about a new ethno-state that we would want to be a part of. This is not going to happen in the next election or in the next 10 years probably, but something in the future that would be for our great grandchildren” (Fox, 2013). Spencer justifies his claim by saying that, “By 2042…white people will become a minority… In 2042 are we going to all decide oh well you know race doesn’t mean anything anymore. Identity is meaningless… No. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think whites are going to be, they’re going to have a[n] amplification of their consciousness of being white” (Letson, 2016).

During the American Renaissance conference, in April 2013, Spencer suggested his solution: “The ideal I advocate is the creation of a White Ethno-State on the North American continent…so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family and feel safe and secure.” 

How, he was asked, in a nation with more than 100 million blacks, Asians, and Latinos, could a whites-only territory be created without overwhelming violence? He offered an answer: “Look, maybe it will be horribly bloody and terrible” (Cox, 2016). 

During his speech, he quoted Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and termed his mission a “sort of white Zionism” that would inspire whites with the dream of such a homeland just as Zionism helped spur the establishment of Israel. A white ethno-state would be an Altneuland—an old, new country—he said (SPLC, n.d.). “So that we would always have a safe space,” he said. “We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to…how Jews conceive of Israel” (Letson, 2016). 

“We want our identity, too,” Spencer argues. “Blacks are quite good at identity politics. They know who they are. We want that, too…When they talk about ‘white privilege,’ they’re making us feel guilty about the fact that we are awesome. I’m not trying to justify slavery or say we weren’t terrible to other people. We definitely were. But I am proud of the fact that we changed the world and dominated the world. We should be trying to expand white privilege, not feel guilty about it” (Mangan, 2016). Stressing that they live in a world of a “white guilt complex,” Spencer said, “Yes, white people are generally better off than many other people…(But) all of these institutions are not acting on behalf of white people. They are acting on behalf of non-white people. And you can talk about this being fair” (Letson, 2016). Typically, white supremacist discourse includes notions of a “racist double standard” that affords Blacks preferential treatment from social institutions. They use metonymical concepts such as “black assault[s]” discussing the way Blacks “burden” the state to show that a zero-sum game exists wherein “black gains equate to white losses.” This discourse presupposes that Black survival and success has become the white person’s burden (Brown, 2009). 

According to Spencer, even Martin Luther King Jr. “is a fraud and degenerate in his life, has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of Occidental civilization. We must overcome!” (NPI, column, January 2014). As Villet (2017) notes, white victimhood is a generic right-wing tactic that inverts the left’s narratives of minority discrimination and neo-colonialism. This tactic denies that there is such a thing as white privilege and attempts to camouflage white domination. Whites can surely be victims of crime or discrimination as individuals, but white victimhood goes much further. It implies that whites as a demographic group are victims of discrimination, oppression, or even persecution. The most extreme version of this victimhood is “white genocide” (Villet, 2017). The perceptions of “reverse” discrimination have a significant influence on whites’ decisions to join the alt-right (Adams & Roscigno, 2005).

Spencer claims that the alt-right seeks to “restore” the US as a white, European country, instead eliminating racial others.He denies that his organisation is dedicated to the eradication or marginalisation of minorities but rather seeks to promote white racial pride (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). However, he was caught on tape using racist slurs against African Americans and Jewish people. The expletive-laden audio recording was released by former Breitbart writer, Milo Yiannopoulos. The 54-second long audio, supposedly recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, appears to feature an angry Spencer ranting against Charlottesville citizens. On the recording, Spencer says, “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octaroons. My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit.” Later, he continued, “Those pieces of shit get ruled by people like me…That’s how the fucking world works…” (Coaston, 2019). He declined to deny that the voice in the video was his. Spencer also later tweeted a link to a right-wing video titled: “Never Apologise” (Wilson, 2019). His radical ideas have been cited as a source of concern by the SPLC and ADL (Los Angeles Times, 2017).

The Alt-right: An Ideology Around Identity

Spencer believes the alt-right is “deeply connected” with his work. “I would say that what I’m doing is we’re really trying to build a philosophy, an ideology around identity, European identity,” he said (Gray, 2015). Unlike old-school white supremacism, the “alt-right” incubated online, fed by memes and inside jokes and vicious battles over feminism and videogame culture. The Associated Press’ standards guide defines “alt-right” as “as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.” “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist,” the standards guide noted (Beckett, 2017).

Therefore, some have argued that the alt-right is simply the latest iteration of an old, racist strain of US politics. And indeed, the alt-right’s ultimate vision—a racially homogeneous white ethnostate—is similar to that of earlier groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, and the National Alliance. Yet, according to Hawley (2017), the alt-right considers itself new and distinct, in terms of both style and intellectual substance. Stylistically, it has attempted to distance itself from the ineffectual violence and pageantry of what it derisively calls “white nationalism 1.0,” instead preferring a modern aesthetic that targets cynical millennials on social media and online message boards. Ideologically, the movement represents a break from American racist movements of the past, looking not to US history but to the European far-right for ideas and strategies. Spencer is often inspired by ideas that are alien to most Americans—especially those of the European New Right. The European far-right has in turn adopted tactics pioneered in the US, such as online trolling(Hawley, 2017).

Alt-righters reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centred on ideas of white nationalism. The alt-right is a loosely connected far-right, white nationalist movement (ECPS, n.d.). Dylan Matthews defines Spencer’s alt-right as a label that blends together straight-up white supremacists, nationalists who think conservatives have sold out to globalization, and nativists who fear immigration will spur civil disarray. People who identify with the alt-right regard mainstream or traditional conservatives as weak and impotent, largely because they do not adequately support white racial interests or are not adequately racist or antisemitic. Some alt-right adherents prefer other labels, such as the “New Right” and the “Dissident Right.” They identify with a range of different ideologies, all of which centre on white identity (ADL, n.d.)

One body of adherents is the ostensibly “intellectual” racists who create many of the doctrines and principles of the white supremacist movement. They seek to attract young, educated whites to the movement by highlighting the achievements and alleged intellectual and cultural superiority of whites. Alt-righters use terms like “culture” as substitutes for more divisive terms such as “race,” and promote “Western Civilization” as a code word for white culture or identity (ADL, n.d.).  According to Bar-On, Spencer defends “racialist and antisemitic agendas” of the Old Right under a new metapolitical guise, acting as a cultural influencer rather than a direct political actor, and using various media outlets to “disseminate his views to ordinary people in an accessible manner” (Bar-On, 2019).

White Supremacy to Reinstate White Power and Domination

However, many newspapers have given instructions to their reporters to use the term “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi” rather than “alt-righters” while referring to people like Spencer (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). White supremacists drew on discontent rooted in political fundamentalism and the fear of abdication of power to non-Whites (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile, 1997). Early forms of white supremacy relied on anti-Black social rituals and actions such as burning a cross on a Black person’s property, spewing racial epithets such as “nigger,” denying Black people social opportunities, and committing to Jim Crow segregation. These violent and coercive actions defied US reconstruction efforts and alienated Blacks from mainstream society (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile, 1997)—an alienation that persisted until the civil rights movement began in the 1960s (and persists in some ways today) (Feagin & Vera, 1995). Thus, extremists had to search for new ways and strategies to spread their message of hate in the midst of an increasingly racially tolerant society (Brown, 2009).

White supremacists often combine derogatory notions based on physical appearance with cultural attributes such as language, geography, character traits, and customs. White supremacist metaphors not only highlight unwarranted physical inadequacies, but they also position Black people in an inferior social and cultural position. White supremacists use metaphors such as “lower evolutionary plane” and “jungle dweller,” and spatial concepts such as “pull it down” and “lowest scale,” and “total bastardization,” to support the racist notion that “Negroes” cannot live in a civilized environment among human beings. The positioning of whites (presumably men) as warriors and civilization builders reinforces a broad racist ideology that buttresses the belief that the nation is synonymous with “Whiteness” (Brown, 2009). 

Accordingly, “race is something between a breed and an actual species,” Spencer says, likening the differences between whites and people of colour to those between golden retrievers and basset hounds. “It’s that powerful” (Harkinson, 2016).The specific types of messages that are propagated by Spencer and other white supremacists are about reinstating white power and domination. Spencer said, “… I am proud of the fact that we changed the world and dominated the world. We should be trying to expand white privilege, not feel guilty about it,” (Mangan, 2016). Spencer has also said, “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us” (Seipp, 2016: 1). In a speech at Texas A&M University, he repeatedly stated that the US “belonged to white men,” and that he is “European.” He conflates European identity with whiteness and presents race as a rigid notion (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer also claimed that “We don’t gain anything from other racial groups’ presence. They need us and not the other way around,” (Jackson & Stelloh, 2016). 

Antisemitism & Islamophobia 

In Spencer’s “ethno-state,” whites should live separately not only from non-whites but also from Jews. While Spencer generally shies away from blatant displays of antisemitism, he began expressing antisemitic views more openly in 2014, when he wrote that Jews have an identity apart from Europeans. At a press conference two years later, he announced that he did not consider Jews to be European. 

Spencer has been influenced by a number of white supremacists, including the late Sam Francis, Jared Taylor, and retired professor Kevin MacDonald, who wrote a series of antisemitic books. At the 2016 conference, a number of people in the audience threw Nazi salutes after Spencer “hailed” Trump’s victory in the presidential election. Spencer, who refused to condemn the salutes, has aligned himself with groups and individuals who openly express virulent antisemitism, including TWP and Patriot Front. Spencer has also shown a willingness to work with antisemitic leaders such as Matthew Heimbach, the former head of TWP, and Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, who runs The Right Stuff website (ADL, 2018).

As an atheist (Spencer, 2017), Spencer believes that the Christian church held some pragmatic value, because it helped unify the white population of Europe. But he opposes traditional Christian values as a moral code, due to the fact that Christianity is a universalizing religion, rather than an ethnic religion. Spencer’s Radix Journal has promoted paganism, running articles such as “Why I am a pagan” (Beinart, 2017). He is also blatantly IslamophobicAccording to Spencer, Islam, “at its full flourishing … isn’t some peaceful denomination like Methodism or religion like Buddhism; Islam is a black flag. It is an expansive, domineering ideology, and one that is directed against Europe. In this way, Islam give[s] non-Europeans a fighting spirit and integrates them into something much greater than themselves” (Interview with Europa Maxima, February 2017). Therefore, Spencer aggressively supported Trump’s “Muslim ban” (Buchanan, 2017). 

A “Psychic Connection” With Donald Trump

During the 2016 presidential race, the alt-right, which was a tiny, marginal, and almost exclusively Internet-based phenomenon, achieved mainstream attention (Wertheimer, 2017) thanks in part to its connection with the presidential campaign, and then administration of, Donald Trump. For years, Spencer’s “identitarian” movement barely flickered in the dark corners of the internet  (Cox, 2016) on sites such as Reddit and 4chan. But Trump’s ascendancy was like kerosene dumped on a brushfire (Harkinson, 2016). Then the term “alt-right” was often applied to a much broader group than it is today; at times, it seemed to refer to the entirety of Trump’s right-wing populist base (Hawley, 2017). Spencer argued that “If Trump wins we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the ‘R(acist)’ word, all sorts of things. People will have to recognize us” (Harkinson, 2016).

Throughout the presidential campaign, Spencer was a vocal advocate for Trump due to his signature proposal to build a wall along the US border with Mexico and his racist statements referring to Mexicans as criminals and rapists (SPLC, n.d.; Barrouquere, 2020). Spencer believed the alt-right had a “psychic connection” with Trump in a way they did not with other Republicans. He said the alt-right had, before the election, been like a “head without a body…The Trump movement was a kind of body without a head…I think moving forward the alt-right as an intellectual vanguard can complete Trump” (Gray, 2016).

On election night, Spencer exulted in Trump’s victory. “The alt-right has been declared the winner. The alt-right is more deeply connected to Trumpian populism than the ‘conservative movement’,” Spencer tweeted. “We’re the establishment now” (ADL, 2018). An extremist website associated with Spencer also wrote: “It was a time when more people joined our movement than ever before and when our ideas began invading the mainstream” (Ali, 2016). For Spencer, Trump is not the logical outcome of a radicalized Republican Party, but an entirely new phenomenon born of the alt-right’s growing prominence and mainstream conservatism’s collapse (Posner & Neiwert, 2016).

Trump’s victory emboldened the bigots and channelled their thinking in a fashion not seen in modern times. A president who draws a moral equivalent between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters, who baits black athletes and black journalists, and brands Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists. “Trump wouldn’t have run the campaign that he ran if he didn’t feel some sense of loss, that America has lost something,” Spencer argued (Younge, 2017). In an interview, Spencer also stated that he didn’t think it was just an unusual election with an unusual candidate: “I think this really was a paradigmatic shift. The new paradigm that Donald Trump brought into the world was identity politics and in particular white identity politics” (Letson, 2016). 

Only days after Trump’s surprising victory, the NPI held its fall conference on November 19, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Spencer, flush with victory, offered the toast, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” to the nearly 200 attendees. He was met with a handful of stiff-armed salutes from the crowd. At other points in his speech, like Trump’s assaults on the media, Spencer used a term employed by Nazis to attack the media—“Lügenpresse,” German for lying press. “It’s not just that many are genuinely stupid,” he said of reporters. “Indeed, one wonders if these people are people at all.” One tactic of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was to declare enemies inhuman. Spencer speculated that the media may be “soulless golem,” a reference to magically animated beings from Jewish folklore (Lombroso & Appelbaum, 2016; Jackson & Stelloh, 2016; Mangan, 2016). The gesture electrified the more radical sectors of the white supremacy movement. He later stated that it was done in a spirit of “irony and exuberance” (Stokes, 2017, Jackson & Stelloh, 2016; Helsel, 2016).

Nevertheless, Spencer gained international notoriety after this speech (Helsel, 2016). Though the ties between Trump and him have not been officially recognised by the former president, the connections between Trump and white nationalist movements have been a lingering question in light of the alt-right’s support and Trump’s refusal to condemn the racially motivated violence in Charleston in August 2017 (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). FurthermoreSpencer was among the most optimistic about Trump’s presidency. “With Donald Trump, we feel like we have a dog in the fight for the first time,” Spencer told the Guardian. “And with him there’s a real chance we could start influencing policy and culture.” His hope was that “alt-right” ideas could enter the mainstream (Gabbatt, 2016). According to him, the Trump phenomenon was about identity at some deep level: “He’s not a mainstream conservative…It’s important for young people to listen to a speaker articulate what this means on a metapolitical and philosophical level” (Mangan, 2016). Spencer expressed his hope, saying, “I don’t think Donald Trump is alt-right. I don’t think Donald Trump is an identitarian as I would use that term. I think Donald Trump is a kind of first step towards this. He’s the first time that we’ve seen a genuinely if, you could say incomplete, politician who’s fighting for European identity politics in North America…” (Letson, 2016).

The intense media coverage of the Nazi salutes, while further raising Spencer’s profile, also splintered the alt-right, with some leading right-wing figures denouncing Spencer and his antisemitic beliefs. The outrage over the Nazi salutes even led to Trump explicitly disavowing and condemning Spencer’s group. When Trump appointed Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s executive chairman, as his chief strategist, the move prompted widespread alarm and protest—and seemed to cement the “alt-right’s” rise. Bannon had once described Breitbart, a popular right-wing site, as “the platform for the alt-right.” At his inauguration, Trump, an unabashed populist, made a clear effort to separate the “white” from the “nationalism” (Beckett, 2017).

In November 2018, an openly frustrated Spencer declared, “The Trump moment is over, and it’s time for us to move on.” The SPLC reported that the white nationalist movement was dissatisfied with Trump’s presidency (SPLC, 2018). Spencer believed Trump was practicing a “con game” and not clearly developing a white nationalist agenda as Trump “gives us nothing outside of racist tweets, and by racist tweets, I mean tweets that are meaningless and cheap” (Yee, 2019). In 2020, following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Spencer even said that he regretted voting for Trump (Palmer, 2020). In August of that year, Spencer announced that he planned to vote for Joe Biden. “The MAGA/Alt-Right moment is over. I made mistakes; Trump is an obvious disaster, but mainly the paradigm contained flaws that we now are able to perceive. And it needs to end…It’s not based on ‘accelerationism’ or anything like that; the liberals are clearly more competent people.” Shortly after, Biden’s campaign forcefully disavowed Spencer’s endorsement. Andrew Bates, the rapid-response director for the Biden campaign tweeted that, “What you stand for is absolutely repugnant. Your support is 10,000 percent unwelcome here” (Sheth, 2020).

Conference Series and Abusing The First Amendment

Strong free speech protections in the US enable Spencer to hold conferences (SPLC, n.d.). Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment of the US Constitution follow such a logic: The right to free speech must be universal, with no exceptions. Thus, Nazis and white supremacists must be allowed to speak freely, even at a university campus where no one seems to want them, and even when their speech openly rejects other core values, such as the dignity of all persons. The US permits limits on free speech rights only in rare cases of “fighting words” that pose an imminent threat of violence. No one has yet used the “fighting words” argument against Spencer, despite Charlottesville (Peterson, 2017).

By exploiting the First Amendment, Spencer has focused on getting college students to attend his annual events, including the NPI conference, and he’s had some success (ADL, 2018). NPI’s first conference, held in DC in 2011, drew about 85 people. Its second, in 2013, attracted a little over 100 (Harkinson, 2016). In Spencer’s view, his resentments have cropped up among younger, college-educated whites for whom “enforced multiculturalism” on college campuses is giving shape to a new kind of white identity politics (Harkinson, 2016). Spencer has influenced a younger generation of college-age racists. In 2010 and 2011, leaders of the now defunct racist student group, Youth for Western Civilization, invited Spencer to speak at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Providence College in Rhode Island. In both speeches, Spencer attacked affirmative action (ADL, 2013).

The white-nationalist groups seem to believe that teens and 20-somethings are particularly susceptible to their messaging, said Oren Segal, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. Segal noted that the groups are aiming for a younger demographic by reaching out through social media and trying to set up talks on college campuses or disseminating fliers there. Spencer also made a highly publicized visit to Texas A&M University in December 2016, further fuelling concerns about the alt-right on campus (Wertheimer, 2017). Although over 10,000 people signed an online petition to ask university officials to ban Spencer from speaking on campus, the university and student representatives simultaneously condemned and supported Spencer’s presence on campus. They claimed that while they disagreed with his message and ideology, they supported his right to appear and speak, per the First Amendment (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).

In 2016 and 2017, Spencer launched a college tour to bring his white nationalist message to campuses nationwide (Mangan, 2016). After Texas A&M University, he spoke at Auburn University in April 2017. In October 2017, he spoke to a small, mostly hostile audience at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In March 2018, he spoke to a small group of supporters at Michigan State University, while members of TWP fought with antifa activists outside, leading to a number of arrests. After the MSU speech, Spencer decided to cancel his college tour, saying he would try to find other methods of reaching the public (ADL, 2018).

Across the whole tour, Spencer’s visit to Texas A&M University was unique for several reasons. In addition to being his first visit and speaking engagement on a university campus, it is Texas A&M University’s military and racialised history that made Spencer’s presence so provoking. Spencer gave his speech at the Memorial Student Center (MSC), which is a student union dedicated to the memory of Texas A&M University students who lost their lives in war, specifically World War II. Though Texas A&M University officials and students lambasted the event as insulting to the legacy of the university students who fought Nazi Germany, as a historically white institution, the university has had a highly contentious and problematic history (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Its first president (and 19th governor of Texas), Lawrence Ross Sullivan, was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan (Slattery, 2006). At A&M, Spencer spoke to a ballroom of nearly 400 individuals. “America, at the end of the day,” Spencer told his audience, “belongs to white men. Our bones are in the ground. We own it. At the end of the day America can’t exist without us. We defined it. This country does belong to white people, culturally, politically, socially, everything” (SPLC, n.d.).

Spencer’s Efforts to Spread His Ideas Internationally

Spencer and his alt-right movement has exploited all possibilities to build bridges with their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. However, his efforts to reach out to European nationalists have not gone well. In October 2014, he attempted to hold an NPI conference in Budapest, Hungary, as part of an effort to reach out to “European traditionalists” all over the world (Gray, 2014). On paper, Budapest seemed the ideal venue for the NPI, which thinks rising discontent with EU migration policy has created an opening for it. Economic stagnation and political sclerosis in the European Union have given fodder to anti-immigrant parties across the continent, and Hungary is home to Jobbik, one of Europe’s largest far-right parties, which won 20 percent of the seats in parliament (Seddon, 2014a). Dubbed the 2014 European Congress, the conference featured an array of white nationalists from both Europe and America. Among the scheduled speakers were Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, Philippe Vardon from the far-right French Bloc Identitaire movement, Russian ultranationalist Alexander Dugin, and right-wing Hungarian extremist MP Márton Gyöngyösi (SPLC, n.d.), who once called on the government to draw up lists of Jews who pose a “national security risk” (Seddon, 2014). 

Hungary’s populist strongman Viktor Orbán ordered the country’s interior ministry to ban the conference after several parties and ministries complained about it. Interior Minister Sándor Pintér said in a statement that the conference was against Hungarian law protecting “the human dignity of others, of the Hungarian nation or of national, ethnic, racial of religious communities” and vowed to bar the conference speakers from entering the country (Seddon, 2014). Before the conference even started, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a statement condemning “all xenophobic and exclusionary organizations that discriminate based on religion or ethnicity.” Planned reservations at the venue, the Larus Center, were cancelled. On Oct. 3, Spencer was arrested while meeting informally with other participants at a cafe that was to have been an alternate venue. He was jailed for three days, deported, and banned for three years from entering all 26 European countries (SPLC, n.d.). He was declared a “national security threat” (Harkinson, 2016). 

In 2016, the Home Office of the British government also banned Spencer from visiting Great Britain, citing his white supremacist views. In November 2017, Poland’s state-run news agency PAP reported that Polish authorities had extended Spencer’s ban from the Schengen area for another five years (ADL, 2018) citing Spencer’s Nazi rhetoric and the Nazis’ genocide of Slavic people during World War II (The Guardian, 2017). Spencer had to cancel his plans to travel to Poland fora far-right conference in Warsaw after seeing reports the government was threatening to keep him out of the country. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski described Spencer as someone “who defames what happened during World War II, defames the Holocaust” (Haaretz, 2017). In July 2018, Spencer was detained at Keflavík Airport in Reykjavík, Iceland, en route to Sweden and was ordered by Polish officials to return to the US (Michel, 2018).

Despite these efforts to keep Spencer at bay, the idea of white victimhood has crossed international borders and the idea of white people falling victim to an “onslaught” of refugees and immigrants has become a major factor in elections across Europe (Villet, 2017). Spencer has partnered with two Swedish outfits to create a media company and keep race at the centre of the new right wing. Called the Alt-Right Corporation, it links Spencer with Arktos Media, a publishing house begun in Sweden to print English-language editions of esoteric nationalist books from many countries. The other Swedish partner is Red Ice, a video and podcast platform featuring white nationalists from around the globe. It was natural for Spencer to turn to Swedes as partners in the new enterprise, given the country’s history as an exporter of white nationalist ideas. But forging formal bonds between nationalists across the Atlantic makes even more sense as the politics of Northern Europe is heavily driving the politics of immigration and Islam in the US (Feder & Mannheimer, 2017). Spencer believes in white pride and the unification of a pan-European “white race” in a “potential racial empire” (Harkinson, 2016)

Spencer has also advocated for the US pulling out of NATO and called Russia the “sole white power in the world.” His former partner, Nina Koupriianova, under her penname Nina Byzantina, referred to herself as a “Kremlin troll leader” and regularly aligned with Kremlin talking points. She also had ties to Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right ultranationalist Russian leader in the Eurasianism movement (Bertrand, 2016).  Koupriianova has translated several books written by Dugin (Gessen, 2017; Porter, 2017a). The books were later published by Spencer’s publishing house, Washington Summit Publishers (Shekhovtsov, 2017). “I think the fact that we’re inviting Dugin is expressive of the fact that we want to have a real healthy dialogue with the major currents of Russian conservatism,” Spencer said (Gray, 2014). Spencer also explained the chants in support of Russia during the Charlottesville rally: “There is a common brotherhood that stretches from Portugal to Siberia and includes North America. Even though we’re very different, we obviously have common ancestry and there’s that tie of blood” (Laughland, 2017). 

His wife and Spencer have each appeared on Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language news and propaganda network. Spencer admires Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, and he would gladly admit most Russians into his ideal ethnostate (Harkinson, 2016). His thoughts on the Ukraine crisis hew closely to Moscow’s: “…I am more sympathetic towards Russia as a major power entering the world stage. Russia has the opportunity, to put it bluntly, to make the world a better place.” He also said, “I’m sympathetic toward Putin in many ways” (Gray, 2014). 

Spencer and the alt-right have also lifted up Bashar al-Assad as a hero. Support for the Syrian president means they can further tangle internet conspiracy theories, tap into a deep vein of antisemitism, anti-interventionism, and anti-globalism, and wind up their biggest enemy: liberals. Spencer is able to aggressively support Trump’s “Muslim ban,” while also getting behind the Syrian dictator just because Assad was “educated in the West and offer[ed] a civilized variant of Islam.” Spencer said he’d been “aware” of Assad since the early 2000s. The core of it for Spencer was that Assad, in addition to being the “rightful, legitimate ruler of Syria,” was fighting ISIS (Buchanan, 2017). After the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Trump’s decision to strike Syria caused a rift between the then-president and his alt-right supporters. Spencer led a protest against Trump’s decision, leading to a handful of skirmishes with counter-protesters in front of the White House. “We want walls, not war!” chanted some of the protesters accompanying Spencer (Hernandez, 2017). 

He also criticized the Trump administration following the targeted killing of Iranian General Soleimani for escalating tensions between the US and Iran. In January 2020, Spencer tweeted: “To the people of Iran, there are millions of Americans who do not want war, who do not hate you, and who respect your nation and its history. After our traitorous elite is brought to justice, we hope to achieve peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness” (Palmer, 2020).

Spencer and His Movements Are Hypermasculine, Misogynist and Anti-feminist

While the group led by Richard Spencer is typically defined by its racist views, sexism is also central to its ideology (Paquette, 2016). The alt-right is hypermasculine, misogynist, and anti-feminist. The alt-right women claim feminism has failed white women, robbing them of the opportunity to have a male provider, a happy family, and a nice home. According to this narrative, the #MeToo movement only confirms the dangerous world feminism has created for women, a world where men no longer respect them for their femininity and fertility and, hence, feel free to assault, harass, and rape them (Love, 2020). An aspect of their subculture is its connection to the online world of misogyny, known broadly as the “manosphere.” Men in this movement believe they are being stripped of power by women and pro-feminist social structures. They are hostile to women on a personal level, with some believing that women are objects to be possessed and used for sexual gratification, while others resent women for their own inability to attract them or to form meaningful relationships with them (ADL, n.d.).

The alt right opposes “women’s liberation” because it gives women choices that make it less likely that they will “get married, have children, and perpetuate the white race” (Center on Extremism Report, 2018: 7). Its members call liberated women “thots,” which means “that ho over there,” and celebrate the femininity and fertility of women who accept their traditional sex/gender roles, calling them as “tradhots” (Center on Extremism Report, 2018: 6–7). In short, the alt-right would return white women to their biological roles as wives and mothers for the white race (Love, 2020).

The predominant demographic of the alt-right is white men aged 18 to 35. Alt-right populism is the product of people for whom whiteness and masculinity have been their primary form of social capital. The suggestion that whiteness and maleness are no longer a form of political or social currency means that there is now room for forms of citizenship and leadership that do not belong to the proverbial “old white men” (Bezio, 2018). 

The Guardian reporter Adam Gabbat’s (2016) observations at one of Spencer’s meeting also confirmed these descriptions: 

“When the time came for questions, I pointed out that there were very few women at the event. It prompted a surreal discussion between six white men about the sexual preferences of women. The almost entirely male audience cheered when Spencer made his statement about women’s desire for a ‘strong man.’ ‘I’ve looked at a lot of romance novels that women read and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern,’ Spencer said. ‘Romance novels about cubicle-dwelling boring computer programmers don’t sell very well. Romance novels about cowboys and Vikings seem to be very popular. We might want to look at something like that and see if that tells us something about human nature” (Gabbatt, 2016).

During the 2016 US presidential election, Spencer tweeted that women should not be allowed to make foreign policy (Bowman, 2017, Hayden, 2017a). His views about women—that their role in politics minimal—would be unrecognizable to almost anyone in modern America. “I don’t necessarily think that that’s a great thing,” Spencer said of women voting in US elections. Spencer has also suggested that the US should be protected from what he views to be the danger of having a female commander-in-chief (Hayden, 2017a). He also stated in an interview that his vision of America as a white ethnostate includes women returning to traditional roles as child bearers and homemakers (Cox, 2016; Paquette, 2016).

Although the alt-right movement appears to be composed primarily of white men in their “manosphere,” similar to other far-right movements that emphasize hypermasculinity and patriarchy (Kimmel, 2017; Lyons, 2017; Tien, 2017), white women continue to participate actively in white supremacist movements. The presence of women as “shield maidens,” “fashy femmes,” and “trad wives” serves to soften and normalize white supremacy. Women in the alt-right serve as auxiliaries rather than leaders. This partly explains why women’s participation receives less media and scholarly attention. However, white women shield white supremacy in less subtle and more traditional ways, representing their roles as community service and social welfare. Women in white supremacist groups have organized church socials, Klan picnics, charity fundraisers, and white nationalist online dating sites (Love, 2020). These white men and women provide fertile ground for an anti-modern populist mobilization (Kelly, 2018). The internalization of traditional patriarchal gender normative beliefs influence affiliation with the alt-right movement (Boehme, & Isom Scott, 2020).

According to some sources, in late 2007, Spencer dated a woman who is Asian American. The two met when she was working for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. “I am not the only Asian girl he has dated,” says Spencer’s ex (Harkinson, 2016). Spencer acknowledged that some of his comrades would probably find that “terrible.” Later, he said that he would not date a non-white woman again and that he still wants interracial relationships barred. That belief is core to the alt-right’s most radical goal: an all-white country (Cox, 2016). Spencer also opposes same-sex marriage, which he has described as “unnatural” and a “non-issue.” Despite his opposition to same-sex marriage, Spencer barred people with anti-gay views from the NPI’s annual conference in 2015 (Falvey, 2016).

In October 2018, Koupriianova accused Spencer, in divorce documents, of multiple forms of abuse. She provided hours of recordings and text messages to the press in order to substantiate her allegations. Court documents detailed emotional abuse, financial abuse, and violent physical abuse, frequently in front of their children. She has accused him of choking her, dragging her by her hair, and attempting to punch her while she was pregnant, according to divorce filings. “One of [Spencer’s] favourite statements to me is, ‘The only language women understand is violence,’” Spencer’s wife alleged. She claimed he called her “genetically defective” and a “parasite”, and that he verbally abused her in front of their young daughter. “I’m famous and you are not! I’m important and you are not!” Spencer would sometimes tell her when he was angry, she claimed (Beckett, 2018). A caregiver to the children testified in court about Spencer’s abuses towards both her and Koupriianova. She also suggested that Spencer had sometimes failed to provide for his family and care for her and their children (Beckett, 2018). Spencer denied all allegations made against him and was not charged with a crime. 

Moreover, the documents said that Spencer’s “controversial public life” led “his entire family to be targets of violence.” “Despite the risk to his family,” Koupriianova argued in the court, “[Spencer] continues to engage in extremely polarizing public speech advocating ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ and a white-only ‘ethno-state’ which tends to invite passions and violence.” “Most, if not all, of his public speaking events result in violence,” the affidavit stated. The documents also claimed that Spencer was verbally abusive to their children’s babysitter, including in front of their children, where he allegedly called the babysitter a “fucking sub-mediocre human being” and a “fucking moron” (Ansari, 2018). 

GAB social media seen on the smartphone screen.

Spencer, the Alt-Right, and Social Media

The alt-right has flourished online (Guynn, 2016) and its expansion can largely be attributed to the internet (Love, 2017)—and especially social media, thanks to the anonymity these platforms provide users of extreme ideologies (Lyons, 2017).Swastikas and Hitler references have long punctuated the irreverent banter on the message boards of Reddit and 4chan, but they are no longer just jokes as they’re swept up in a tide of the alt-right’s memes such as Pepe the Frog and Napoleon Trump (Harkinson, 2016). Cyber-bigots, including Spencer’s followers, who maintain First Amendment protection, anonymously and blatantly promote racism, and propagate a separatist ideology (Brown, 2009). 

The alt-right is generally hostile towards the conventional media, including by using the term “lügenpresse,” a term used by the Nazis and meaning “lying press. Alt-right Twitter trolls have aggressively attacked journalists (Gray, 2016).Spencer has also embraced the young internet activists who create the racist, antisemitic and misogynistic memes, symbols and slogans that characterize much of the alt-right’s online presence (ADL, 2018). Their rhetoric in cyberspace shows that right-wing images of Black identity haven’t much changed since the time of slavery. The key elements of White supremacy are reinforced by their representation of Black men as hypersexual, aggressive, and violent, which define their physical bodies as inferior to white men.These groups no longer have to communicate in isolation. The Internet provides them immediate access to their followers and makes it easier to spread messages of hate (Brown, 2009). 

Facebook banned two pages associated with Spencer, just days after Congress grilled the social network’s CEO about its influence on the public (Dalrymple, 2018). Spencer has also faced crackdowns from other tech companies. In 2016, Twitter suspended both the NPI’s account and the account of Spencer himself, though his personal page was eventually reinstated. A year later, after Charlottesville, Twitter yanked Spencer’s verification badge but allowed him to continue using the platform. Web-hosting company Squarespace has also booted the NPI (Dalrymple, 2018).

After Twitter suspended the NPI’s official account (@npiamerica) and its online magazine (@RadixJournal), in addition to a separate book publishing company run by Spencer called Washington Summit Publishers (@washsummit), Spencer told The Daily Caller, “This is corporate Stalinism.” He said, “Twitter is trying to airbrush the alt-right out of existence. They’re clearly afraid. They will fail!” In a YouTube video, entitled “Knight of the Long Knives,” an apparent reference to the purge of Nazi leaders in 1934 to consolidate Adolf Hitler’s power, Spencer said Twitter had engaged in a coordinated effort to wipe out alt-right Twitter (Bennett, 2016). 

Spencer also said, “I am alive physically, but digitally speaking, there has been execution…across the alt-right.” He said, “This is a clear sign that we have power. Even if it’s in our own little small way…we have power, and we’re changing the world” (Andrews, 2016). In response to the purges, many alt-right users transferred to Gab, a Twitter substitute platform with a much more aggressive free speech policy (Bennett, 2016). However, Spencer’s ability to raise funds has been hampered since he was kicked off Facebook and other major fundraising sites (Barrouquere, 2020). 

Conclusion

Following the Charlottesville rally, as the alt-right’s views became better known, many people who had flirted with the movement broke ranks, leaving it smaller but more ideologically cohesive (Hawley, 2017). Spencer’s NPI has mysteriously gone quiet and appears to be in disarray (Barrouquere, 2020). The most recent article on the NPI website was posted Dec. 15, 2019, three months after Hatewatch began asking questions about the non-profit’s status. The previous post was from Nov. 6, 2018. The website still says Spencer is “President and Creative Director” but lists no other officers (Barrouquere, 2020). Despite its diminishing power, the members of Spencer’s alt-right movement still tend to demonstrate in-group love and outgroup hate of “others.” Therefore, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) listed white supremacy of the sort practiced by Spencer and the alt-right as America’s largest domestic terrorist threat.

 


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

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

Erdogan and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of the “Muslim Other” within their own countries and silence over the Uighur genocide in China earn them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

When pressed on why he is outspoken against Islamophobia in the West but silent about the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the Islamist populist prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, responded: “I concentrate on what is happening on my border.”

Following in the footsteps of Turkey’s authoritarian (Islamist) populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Imran Khan has emerged as among the most prominent faces of religious populism in the (Sunni) Muslim-majority world. “There is so much debate about moderate and radical Islam, but there is only one Islam,” declared Imran Khan in 2019. This echoed the tone adopted several years earlier (in 2017) by Erdogan, who asserted “there is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” The idea of “one Islam” or “Islam is Islam” is part of a populist process of “Islamizing Islam.” This comes in the wake of the leadership gap that opened up with the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia as the Sunni Muslim hegemon. Thus, in neo-Ottoman fashion, Turkey seeks to fill this gap, with Pakistan acting as its aide to address its “ontological insecurities” (Yilmaz, 2021). In highlighting Islam in this way, both Erdogan and Khan define “the people” or “the pious” against an antagonistic “Other,” which includes the West, non-Muslims, liberals, and usually non-Sunni groups (Gursoy, 2019; Yilmaz, 2018; Mudde, 2017; Moffit, 2016; White, 2013).

Erdogan and Khan Have Instrumentalized Religion

Other than their political instrumentalization, the sheer size of these two countries’ populations makes this phenomenon a concern worth exploring. Turkey’s population is 82 million, while Pakistan’s is even greater at 217 million people. Moreover, over the last decade, both Erdogan and Khan have increasingly instrumentalized religion to galvanize electoral support and gain diplomatic sway with (Sunni) Muslim-majority countries under this populist framework. 

While Turkey and Pakistan are two very culturally and ethnically different societies, they share a long historical political affiliation that dates back well into the late medieval period. South Asia was ruled by the Mamluk (slave) rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, who were ethnically Turkic (Eaton, 2019). After the Ottomans achieved the status of the Muslim Caliphate, all leaders in South Asia —from emperors to princely state rajas —sought royal endorsement from Constantinople, which usually came in the form of an adorned robe from the Caliph himself (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). This political link built a healthy network of trade between the regions that also led to the exchange of soldiers, resources, literature, art, and other labor that infused the Ottoman Turkish elements in the Mughal court and smaller sultanates in united India (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). Despite being over 3,000 kilometers away, the profound connection between the two regions was felt when the Khilafat Movement in British India, initially led by both Muslims and Hindus, tried to oppose the Treaty of Sèvres to preserve the Ottoman caliphate (Niemeijer, 1972). This centuries-old pan-Islamic connection is now undergoing an Islamist populist transformation that seeks to redefine Islam under Turkish and Pakistani leadership.

We argue that this “reengineering” is, in fact, a pragmatic political maneuver of both leaders to consolidate their power within their respective countries and overseas. It is a convenient tool that is used when needed and shelved when it is politically expedient. Thus, both leaders have used (or expediently avoided) Islamist populist rhetoric, policy, and programmatic interventions depending on the context and the audience. 

Once the definitional boundaries are constructed, anti-Western and liberal rhetoric is put into place to create a “crises” situation in which Muslims are presented as being under attack from “moral” degradation or simply victims of Western imperialism and Islamophobia. This “crisis” is portrayed as a transnational issue when it extends to Muslim victimhood, especially on the issue of Islamophobia. Both leaders have highlighted their concern over discrimination, killings, and terrorist attacks targeting Muslims in Western countries and the plight of Muslims in conflicts that target them, such as the Gaza conflict, the Kashmir dispute, and Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan.

In June 2021, when a Canadian white supremacist killed a family of four Pakistani Canadians in a racially motivated Islamophobic attack, Prime Minister Khan termed it a “terror” attack. In 2020, following the gruesome killing of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth in France, the state introduced harsh measures to regulate and monitor Muslims. Khan’s furious reaction on this occasion targeted the state and not the victim of the attack, while Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods even as he publicly insulted the French head of state, saying, “What is the problem that the individual called Macron has with Islam and with Muslims? […] Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” 

In addition to creating a sense of moral panic, both these Islamist populists have blamed “outside forces” or “dark forces” for supposedly carrying out attacks on the respective countries to undermine and destabilize them. This extends “the Muslim victimhood narrative” (Yilmaz, 2021) further and accentuates the economic and security failures of “hypocrites” within and “enemies” outside as well.

When the Shia Hazara community in Pakistan was targeted as part of sectarian terrorism, the blame for orchestrating the attacks was shifted to India, which was accused of seeking to undermine Pakistan’s stability. While visiting the victims’ family, Khan said, “no doubt what happened was part of a bigger game” and showed his determination to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap. He continued, “my mission is not only to unite the whole country but the entire Muslim ummah. To end this divide, we have tried to remove differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” In a similar manner, President Erdogan has also warned the Turkish nation of the “the sneaky plans of the dark forces” who are blamed for a wide variety of issues such as the devaluation of the currency, organizing anti-AKP protests, the 2016 failed coup attempt, and the like (Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021; Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). 

With crises both tangible and intangible in place, Khan and Erdogan have not shied away from presenting themselves as the “strongmen” that their nations and the ummah need. In an unapologetic manner, both have justified various undemocratic measures as necessary to confront the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Khan reminded the nation to vote for him because “visionary leaders do not make popular decisions; they make the right decisions” — his way of justifying his anti-Western stance along with anti-corruption policies. Erdogan has also felt the need to remind the citizens that “every country needs a strong leader in order to progress.”

On various occasions, both leaders have called for cooperation among the ummah to counter Islamophobia and other pressing issues. In 2020, Erdogan called on the Muslim world to undertake joint action to defend the interests of the ummah: “As Muslims, we should exchange our views more frequently […] many areas of our geography of fraternity are subject to blood, tears and instability […] We will never harm our brothers […] those, who become troubled with the rise of Islam, attack our religion.” on multiple occasions since his 2018 electoral victory, Khan has advocated for Muslim brotherhood in international forums. In an open letter to leaders of Muslim-majority countries in late 2020, he expressed his concerns and urged Muslim leaders to “act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states.

To put words into action, both leaders have taken specific measures at home and overseas to mobilize “the pious ummah.” Given Turkey’s better governance structures and institutional capacity and nearly two decades of AKP rule, the country has taken more concrete measures. Specifically, a network of state organizations, such as the “Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its European extension DITIB, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and humanitarian NGOs with close ties to AKP officials” Erdogan has been able to transmit this narrative of Islamist populism among the Turkish diaspora and other Muslim communities. In a sense, the Turkish state has created through these organizations a support network endorsed by disenfranchised Muslim communities in the West while university exchange programs, mosque sermons, knowledge-production, and media (both entertainment and news) have highlighted Islamophobia and discussed anti-Western and anti-imperialism.

While Khan has not funded programs of such scale, he has used his speeches at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the United Nations (UN) to address the Pakistani diaspora in America and other Muslim communities. For example, during COVID-19, when Khan visited Sri Lanka, he helped local Muslims by negotiating with the government to ensure they would receive ground burials (as is the Islamic tradition) rather than being cremated like the rest of the Sri Lankan population. For this, he was hailed a hero by the Sri Lankan Muslim community. At the same time, Khan has imported Turkish entertainment media to Pakistan with shows such as Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), Kurulus: Osman (Establishment: Osman), Payitaht: Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor), and Yunus Emre: Aşkın Yolculuğu (Yunus Emre: The Journey of Love) which have neo-Ottoman and anti-Western themes and subtexts and call for unification of the ummah.

Their Call For Action Not Based On Human Rights

Cooperation also extends beyond these soft power links to the realm of hard power, with distinctive jihadist undertones. The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. Not only did neighboring Turkey lend support to “fellow Muslim” Azerbaijan but also Pakistan. Moreover, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has also seen these two partners within the ummah take a leading role in negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government. “Efforts” like this taken on behalf of the Muslim ummah are no doubt why Erdogan and Khan are consistently found to be among the most influential Muslim leaders in the world in various rankings.

Despite the global recognition among many Muslim circles worldwide, the use of Islamist populism by both Khan and Erdogan is selective, making it pragmatic. Two distinct features of both populist governments show that the call for action is not based on human rights; rather, it is a convenient instrumentalization of religion for political gain.

Firstly, Turkey and Pakistan both have ethnic and sectarian rifts. Under the AKP leadership, since the fallout of the Kurdish opening, not only has the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) been vilified as a terrorist group but the AKP’s political opposition has faced increasing harassment and charges of aiding and abetting “terrorism” (Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Yilmaz et al., 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another community, the Alevis, has also been increasingly targeted on sectarian lines. Even though most Kurds and Alevis are Muslims, these minorities in a Sunni-majority country are often persecuted on ethnic and sectarian lines.

In Pakistan as well, the sectarian rifts between Shias and Sunnis are deepening, and other than condemning targeted attacks on Shia minorities in Pakistan, the PTI government has done little to uproot the anti-Shia sentiments of variousclerics in the country. Moreover, ethnic tensions between the state and the Pashtun and Baloch communities have seen little effort at conflict resolution. Instead, the state chooses to ignore the rifts and at times sanctions police- or military-led action against Pashtun or Baloch rights activities (Yousaf, 2019).

It is clear that both Pakistan and Turkey have constructed a particular ideology that casts the ummah as majority Sunni and favors the major ethnic group in power. Thus, despite their repeated call for “social justice” and “equity” for victimized Muslims abroad, they have been persecuting Muslims within their own borders.

Secondly, both leaders have been highly selective in their cherry-picking of “Muslim causes.” Thus, they often speak about the conflict in Palestine, the Rohingya genocide, and the Indian government’s restrictions in Kashmir while avoiding discussion of the Uighurs (or Uyghurs), a Muslim population in China, who are subjected to genocide by the Chinese government. Given the deep investment and strategic ties between China, Turkey, and Pakistan, both leaders have chosen to remain silent about this “Muslim” issue. When confronted about this selective silence, the PTI government and Imran Khan have called the issue “an internal matter” and a “non-issue” or simply dismissed it and called China “a great friend of Pakistan.”

Erdogan’s and Khan’s Use of Islamist Populism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

Ankara has also maintained a similarly muted approach towards the issue by preventing the opposition from bringing the issue up and ignoring international efforts to impose sanctions or even condemn the Chinese suppression of the Uighurs (Erdemir & Kowalski, 2020; Shams, 2020). The Uighur majority of Xinjiang is connected with Pakistan through the territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). In addition, Turkey shares a cultural bond with the Uighurs through their common Turkic roots. Yet, both leaders continue their silence over the issue. While Erdogan and Khan have both condemned France, America, and other Western and non-Muslim countries for discriminating against Muslims or attacking them, this deafening silence by these two “most influential” leaders of the ummah reveals their selective approach and use of populist Islamism. 

Erdogan’s and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of “the Muslim Other” within their countries and silence over the Uighur genocide earns them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders. Moreover, both Erdogan and Khan are co-opting and pursuing a pan-Islamist brotherhood for the Sunni Muslim world. This synchronized populist agenda risks further deepening political divides — not to mention sectarian and ethnic conflict — within both countries.

At the same time, by positioning themselves as the leaders of the ummah, Khan and Erdogan risk homogenizing the Muslim faith under the Sunni archetype, which would repudiate the plurality of the faith and its various schools of thought. Moreover, isolating the Uighurs in exchange for “hush money” from China is a dangerous precedent being set by Turkey and Pakistan. Moreover, it goes to show how readily economic interests trump morality even for those who traditionally claim to “stand up” for the marginalized and disadvantaged. Finally, the transnational nature of the selective Islamism of these allied populist leaders means their project will have a broader impact that transcends Turkish and Pakistani geographical borders with as yet unknown consequences.


References

Avari, B. (2016). Islamic Civilization in South Asia: A History of Muslim Power and Presence. New York: Routledge.

Eaton, M. Richard. (1992). India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765. Allen Lane: Penguin History. 

Gürsoy, Yaprak. (2019). “Moving Beyond European and Latin American Typologies: The Peculiarities of AKP’s Populism in Turkey.” Journal of Contemporary Asia

Khan, Imran. (2020). “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Interview with Hamza Ali Abbasi.” Hum News. December 5, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2gFbFH0IdA

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.  

Mudde, Cas. (2017). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 2004, 541– 563. 

Niemeijer, A. (1972). The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924. The Hague: Brill.

White, Jenny. (2013). Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the desired citizens: State, Islam and ideology in Turkey. Cambridge University Press.

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion and Emotions.” Religions. 12 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, Faruk. (2021). “Populism, violence and authoritarian stability: necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965 

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Bashirov, Galib. (2018). “The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey.”  Third World Quarterly. 39(9), 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic Populism and Creating Desirable Citizens in Erdogan’s New Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29:4, 52-76.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Caman, Mehmet Efe & Bashirov, Galib. (2020). “How an Islamist Party Managed to Legitimate Its Authoritarianisation in the Eyes of the Secularist Opposition: The Case of Turkey.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1679772.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shipoli, Erdoan & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of a Secularist Far-Right Party.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1891412 

Yousaf, F. (2019). “Pakistan’s ‘Tribal’ Pashtuns, Their ‘Violent’ Representation, and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.” SAGE Open. doi:10.1177/2158244019829546

Utoya Island, Norway, April, 2012. Photo: Alya Sneep.

Prof. Anne Gjelsvik: One topic that’s really important to someone can lead to extremism

“I think the words that we use are very important. Quite a lot of studies on the Capitol [attack], on 9/11, and on July 22 [in Norway] really illustrate that. I know that people have been working on how violence in the US tends to be described; you don’t have school shooters, for example, described as terrorists, as long as they are white. If something is done by a Muslim person, the word ‘terrorism’ is far more easily used, as we can see in media studies.” 

Interview by Heidi Hart

July 22, 2011 is a date Norwegians and many others around the world will not forget. Right-wing adherent Anders Behring Breivik carried out two politically motivated attacks, a bombing near the government centre in Oslo and a mass shooting of participants in a Workers Youth League (AUF) summer camp, located on a lake island northwest of the city. These two acts of violence killed 77 people and injured over 300. Professor Anne Gjelsvik’s new book, Bearbeidelser. 22.juli i ord og bilder (Adaptations: 22 July in Words and Images, Universitetsforlaget, 2020, available in Norwegian), gathers and reflects on a variety of responses to the attacks, from music and poems to portrayals in visual art, film, and theatre. In this interview with ECPS, Prof. Gjelsvik describes some of these memorial adaptations and discusses ongoing controversies around far-right ideology, cultural populism, and terrorism. 

Arguing that one topic that’s really, really important to someone can lead to extremism, Professor Gjelsvik said that actual violent attacks have been fewer, so [right-wing groups] tend to do other things. “They tend to infiltrate public debate; they try, or instance, to get left-wing politicians to silence them, by threatening them online and so on. And so, it’s moved from the explicit violence, but it’s evident that there are a lot of right-wing extremists out there doing what they can do to threaten the democracy in Norway,” she said. 

The following are excerpts from the interview lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Can I ask you first of all to introduce yourself and say a little bit about your work and how you started working with film, violence, and political movements around the world?

Yes, my name is Anne Gjelsvik, and I am a Professor of Film Studies at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. I’ve done quite a lot of work on violence and issues related to violence, particularly in cinema but also in media in a broader sense. This was actually triggered by one question, in the 1990s, the question of what violence in cinema meant. 

In Norway this peaked, with quite a big debate, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers came to the cinema. I became interested in film reviewing and noticed that reviewers tended to be very positive toward Tarantino’s film, whereas in relation to Stone’s film, they were much more reluctant to say that this was a good movie … The first thing I decided to do was a study of film reviewers and how they responded to violence in film, when they thought it was a problem, when they thought it was valuable in a film. Sometimes they do; for example, in relation to David Lynch’s films, they would say, “It’s art, it’s valuable.” 

So, this is how my interest was triggered, that sometimes we think about [violence] as a problem, and sometimes we think about it as something that needs to be there. This led to my Ph.D., which was on popular American cinema containing violence. My research from then on has been about the relationship between film and society, I would say, and the issue of violence has been a recurring topic in different ways. 

“We’re Not As United As People Thought in the Beginning”

Monument Iron Roses in Oslo dedicated to the victims of the July 22, 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utoya island, Norway.

Thank you. That helps me with a little background. So, this is the 10-year anniversary of the massacre in and around Oslo, Norway, perpetrated by a right-wing adherent. You’ve just edited a book on artistic and literary responses to the 2011 attacks. Can you talk about the different modes of responding and how effective they’ve been in helping the country to heal?

The book project is the direct result of a big research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council. It started out by looking at media responses, and it became quite evident to me that the terror attacks had been treated in many different ways throughout these ten years, or the nine years when we were working on the book. These [responses] served very different purposes, and they also have been treated very differently. That was what we wanted to find out by collaborating between fields within the humanities, from literature to art and music and theatre studies, as well as film and media studies, which is what my group is working on. And what we see is that at the beginning, Norway [focused on] memorial events or gatherings, where music was particularly important. 

We saw that from the beginning, music was used as a way of comforting, an artistic means to bring people together. We also saw that writers were very early in addressing this trauma, [as] they reached out to write mostly poems and short stories that were trying to grasp what happened. Later on, we have had other art forms such as film, which have been way more controversial. 

In order to bridge the whole period, I would say that in the beginning, art was seen as something that could bring all of Norway together, and process the event, whereas today it’s a bit more complicated and a bit more controversial, because there are different pulls in different directions, and it’s more evident that we’re not as united as people thought in the beginning. It’s very notable in Norway … that we would have what we call rose parades, in the first week after the attacks, where people came together, bringing roses, marching in the streets, and then gathering with music being performed. Nowadays, people would say, “What about all those people who didn’t show up for those events?”

That’s a good question, always the question of who’s excluded, or who chooses not to participate. Can you discuss the more controversial memorials and other responses to the massacre? There’s a “Memory Wound” project that I think has been suspended, if that’s correct – an environmental intervention, and then some theatrical portrayals of the perpetrator that have also been controversial.

I would say that these are two instances where the art, or artistic treatments of the terror attacks, becomes controversial. One issue is art that is in the public square … a memorial, or artwork that you can’t choose to ignore, because it’s in your working place, for instance. The question about the public memorials has been controversial, and then when it comes to topics, it’s the question about the perpetrator, or the terrorist. 

To take the first [question], the Norwegian government decided that they wanted a national memorial, early on, only a few months after the attacks. They put up a competition, and the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg won the competition with his work “Memorial Wound.” There were two attacks, one in Oslo, at the government headquarters, and one at Utøya, which is an island in a lake. This memorial was planned to be on the land side, not on the island, and what happened was that some of the neighbors were very reluctant to have this kind of memorial in their neighborhood, in part because they didn’t want the visitors, and in part because they thought that the art that they chose was so brutal. It is a wound in the landscape, as you say, it’s a cut. Some wanted something else, and some wanted it away from where they live. In the end [the government] chose to not only postpone it but terminate the contract with the artist. 

Now they have started working on a more comforting, more traditional memorial, which is still in the making because of the controversies with the neighbors. It was put on hold, and they won’t make it to the tenth anniversary as they’d planned to, but it will be there. This really illuminates that it’s not everyone who wants to remember; it could be because they have this as a traumatic experience themselves, it could be political issues, but it could be related to what art can do in a public environment. 

So, that has been very controversial and disturbing in many ways, and then we have the issue of how to portray the perpetrator, which has also been very challenging. We’ve had a couple of theatre performances where this was really, really controversial. We have that issue in the depiction of him in the newspapers, and we have that as a challenge when it comes to the films that have been made. None of the Norwegian films have actually portrayed him at all. The only cinematic representation of July 22 in which he is actually portrayed is the Paul Greengrass Netflix production, whereas the Norwegian productions emphasize the victims and the survivors. This is really hard to handle, still, after ten years: how to deal with him, how to think about his background, his reasons for doing this. Was he insane, was it political … all of this is very controversial.

A billboard from the movie Utoya in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 2018.

Because you’ve written quite a bit about this, what about films that portray violent events?  It’s a very difficult thing to do. Erik Poppe’s July 22 film uses one long take to portray the [Utøya] massacre, in contrast to the Netflix version, which has very quick edits, is very fast moving. How do these films work? I’m wondering, is it possible for these films to work in a critical way, without just providing entertainment? 

That’s a good question, and it’s actually difficult to say something that [applies] as a general rule. Erik Poppe’s film is only situated at Utøya, at the youth camp, where as many as 69 people were shot and killed during that attack. A lot of people in Norway were very worried about what kind of movie could this turn out to be – it would brutal and horrible to watch. But in the end, when the film premiered in Norway, it got really good reviews, and it’s been very well received in Norway. What I think Poppe did, which is good, is that he doesn’t really exploit the violence. The violence is there, but a lot of it takes place outside the camera, offscreen. What he’s trying to portray is the experience of being there. The young people who were there, many of them didn’t actually see that much violence, they were hiding, they tried to escape. So, it’s that kind of experience that he tries to portray. And he wanted to do this, because he felt that too little attention was given to the victims and the survivors. 

You really have to have a lot of courage and good preparation to be able to pull that off, and I think he does it in an ethical, satisfactory way. It doesn’t feel exploitative to me. But then I also know that if you don’t really know the event, you don’t have all the information about what happened, and the trial afterwards, and the political debate, and so on, then it feels more exploitative. I’ve looked into the German reception, for instance, and for them it was more of an experience of the violence, and too little of the context, which is what Paul Greengrass tries to add, by getting the terrorist to talk about his idea, and so on. So, it is a tricky field. I think Erik Poppe’s film works in Norway, because Norwegians know the context, but it doesn’t necessarily travel that well, in order to tell the context and the reasons why this happened. It was a political attack, and that doesn’t really show in the film. 

“Today, There Are More Instances of Right-wing Opinions and Propaganda in the Public Square”

Thank you, that’s what I wondered about, reception in different places and audience reactions. To broaden our questions a little bit here, in the past ten years since this event, what changes have you observed in far-right populist movements in Scandinavia?

As a matter of fact, I was actually at a seminar, my first in-person seminar during the pandemic, in Oslo last week. It was hosted by a center that does research on right-wing extremism, called C-REX [Center for Research on Extremism] at University of Oslo. [Based on] the research they presented, I think it’s fair to say that in the public debate in Norway, we can see that today there are more instances of right-wing opinions and propaganda in the public square, more than we were used to. A lot of people would say that things that Anders Behring Breivik put in his manifest ten years ago, which were then seen as really extreme, you can now find in debates on Facebook, etc. So, the [dark] web is not the only place where you find it. 

When it comes to the climate of debates and opinions, Norway has turned more toward right-wing development than before. But when it comes to the more explicit extremist behavior, that is less of an issue. For instance, the group SIAN [Stop the Islamization of Norway], which is really right-wing, is coming to Trondheim next week, actually, to have a demonstration. They are allowed to do that, because freedom of speech makes it possible for them to demonstrate. But, these kind of events don’t gather a large group. So, if we talk about that kind of development, it hasn’t increased, but the mainstreaming of extreme attitudes, that has developed toward a worse situation. 

That’s helpful, and it’s similar to what’s been happening in the US, where things like nooses left in trees in public places, and swastikas left on synagogues, that’s become more common, unfortunately, as well as Facebook debates and all the things you’re describing.

I can also add that what the C-Rex research showed is that actual violent attacks have been fewer, so [right-wing groups] tend to do other things. They tend to infiltrate public debate; they try, or instance, to get left-wing politicians to silence them, by threatening them online and so on. And so, it’s moved from the explicit violence, but it’s evident that there are a lot of right-wing extremists out there doing what they can do to threaten the democracy in Norway. 

Viking blonde with war shield, sword and a black crow as a battle animal. Photo: Fernando Cortes.

That makes sense, thank you. I’m going to move into the topic of ecofascism, which has been the subject of some of our commentaries here. The “deep ecology” movement has roots in Norway – I’m thinking of the writings of Arne Næss and similar thinkers – and now has problematic links to ecofascism [and also “ecoterrorism” from either side of the political spectrum]. What is your sense of how violence “for” nature plays out in popular culture?

I know that you have also been intrigued by the Icelandic film Woman at War. I’ve been teaching that film, and when I describe for the students that Halla, an activist in Iceland, is portrayed as a terrorist, the students say, “No, no no,” they don’t see her that way. They don’t make that connection, which I find very interesting. It’s not a big topic in Norwegian popular culture, at least, but we can see that this influences the public debate to some extent. Recently, we had activists who forced themselves into pig farms and took pictures that they have been sharing to the news media. This has really generated a big debate about how animals are treated in Norwegian farming, whereas Norwegian farming has sold itself as something other than the animal industry that we know from abroad. “Buy Norwegian food,” you know, “it’s safe.” And then you’ve got these pictures from these farms showing that the pigs didn’t have an ethical environment to live in at all. 

Another interesting thing is Viking re-enactment culture. We’ve been writing here about cultural populism, and this valorization of nature, getting back to the earth through Stone Age and Viking traditions. You mentioned to me a few months ago a young blogger who has been involved in the Viking re-enactment culture and has started to question it. Could you say something about that?

There have been a lot of Norwegians who have been intrigued by their heritage from the Viking era. That could be crafts, that could be costumes, that could be re-enactments, and so on. But what we have seen is that this has become way more offensive for some people, and we also see that those who are interested in Viking traditions sort of take over what has been an interest for people who don’t have the right-wing attitude that goes with some of these groups. So, there was this Norwegian [blogger], now she’s working in film, but she used to do LARPs [Live Action Role Play], talks, walks, and workshops with the Viking tradition. She got more and more online harassment from these groups, so she actually decided to step down from sharing the traditional work that she had been doing, because of this harassment, by groups that have sort of taken over the Viking tradition.

Outside of Europe, too, deep ecology and close-to-nature sentiment has traction on the right and on the left, for example the YPJ militia group fighting against the Syrian government. How do you see this playing out beyond Europe?

This is out of my territory in a way, but we can see that these groups and this way of thinking encourages people who are opposed to government and opposed to authority. You see how these ideas can travel from right-wing to left-wing. You can be on one side then change in ways that don’t really make sense, in terms of the topics or the issues, because the same elements get triggered. One topic that’s really, really important to someone can lead to extremism. 

“School Shooters Are Not Described As Terrorists, As Long As They Are White”

We see this crossover in the US, too, for example in organic food culture. I think of this as a sort of purity culture, too, that can cross those political lines. I want to come back to the word “terrorism,” though, because after the January 6 insurrection in the US, there was a debate on the left about how to use that word. Some people were saying, “We need to call this what it is, and call it domestic terrorism,” and others were saying, “No, that word has racist implications after 9/11, in the way Muslims were demonized.” So, I wonder if you’ve found any challenges in using the word “terrorism,” in the Scandinavian context.

I think the words that we use are very important. Quite a lot of studies on the Capitol [attack], on 9/11, and on July 22 [in Norway] really illustrate that. I know that people have been working on how violence in the US tends to be described; you don’t have school shooters, for example, described as terrorists, as long as they are white. If something is done by a Muslim person, the word “terrorism” is far more easily used, as we can see in media studies. We’ve also seen this in Norway, in relation to July 22, in the question of whether this was something done for political reasons. If the shooter in these attacks is, for instance, in a shopping mall, if you determine it to be due to illness, then you would describe it as something else … In Norway, the issue of whether this is a political attack, which is what terrorism is, has been downplayed in some environments. 

Today the AUF [youth wing of the Labour Party] has really put on the agenda that we need to describe what happened on July 22 as terrorism, and the perpetrator as a terrorist, and don’t describe it as an “event” or just as a “shooting.” They really stress the importance of using that word today. I think in Norway most people today would agree that we describe this as terrorism. A lot of people would also be eager to say that this is what happened in January in the US, seen from our perspective with our experience here, that it’s clearly political violence with the clear intention to get a lot of attention. From my perspective, I wouldn’t be reluctant to call that terrorism at all.

Thank you, that’s very clear. Now to move to a topic related to terrorism, especially with regard to the right-wing attacks we see in the US, you’ve also co-written a book on gender in Game of Thrones. In light of growing concerns about violence against women, especially since domestic violence is an indicator in those who commit mass shootings, how do you see the intense onscreen portrayals in this series?  I’ve just read a think piece on this that takes the “blame the media” route, but that may be a bit too easy. What are your thoughts on that?

We also saw this with Anders Behring Breivik, that this is clearly an issue of what he thinks about gender as well, and it’s something we see with a lot of violent attacks. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an attack on women but [could result from] an influence on the whole attitude. The book that I co-edited with Rikke Schubart, Women of Ice and Fire [Bloomsbury, 2016], had a starting point exactly because Game of Thrones was mostly seen as a feminist show, with strong women, and that this was really popular culture at its best, where you see women having different roles than we are used to: they could be the queen, or a knight, with different ways of portraying all types of gender roles. But in my work, I was particularly concerned with the actual violence that I saw onscreen, where rape scenes and violence against women changed from book to screen. 

It is difficult to say how this influences the audience, and it’s really complicated to find causal connections. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying, “This one show creates violence against women.” But I think if you broaden the perspective, you can actually say something about how HBO portrays violence, how they tend to have violence towards women, and how crime fiction tends to have a lot of dead young women. It’s hard for me, who has put so much time into researching film and television and media, to think that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t have a role. I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing, that you see a film and then get violent, but it does influence how we think about violence, and how we think about gender roles, for sure. I think it is a complicated mix, and it does play a part. 

Thank you, this is helpful. One final question: I know you’ve also worked with environmental media, for example climate-crisis films. Where is your work going in that direction now and in the next few years?

As we’re wrapping up the project on terrorism, I’m thinking about what’s next. I’m part of an environmental humanities group at NTNU, and one thing that we see is that Norwegian popular culture has been a bit slow. We don’t have a lot of Norwegian films on climate change, for instance. But we have noticed that there are quite a lot of films about oil [coming out] in the next couple of years, a big disaster movie about the oil platforms in the North Sea, for instance, so I’m looking into that as a possible topic for research. 

As you know, Norway is very dependent on the oil industry, so “the green shift,” as we call it, or “grønne skiftet,” is really, really challenging in terms of politics now: when should we stop making oil, how can we make a transition, and what should Norway live on in the future?  So, it’s a big topic, and it’s very interesting to see so many films and television series coming up in the next few years. 

Another thing I’ve seen, in Norwegian documentaries, is related to one of the issues that you brought up earlier, the more nostalgic [approach], with a lot of documentaries looking into the traditional ways of living, particularly in the western part of Norway. This also intrigues me, to think about what kind of portrayals of Norway are happening now, and what kind of “man and nature” relationship these documentaries are showing. 

Thank you so much, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in that direction. 

Who is Anne Gjelsvik?

Anne Gjelsvik, Professor of film studies at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway. She has published on different topics within film studies and is currently working on media and terrorism and cinematic representations of the Anthropocene. She is currently the project leader for “Face of Terror. Understanding Terrorism from the Perspective of Critical Media Aesthetics.” (2016-2021), funded by the Research Council of Norway. She is member of Environmental Humanities research group at NTNU.

She has published several books both in English and Norwegian, as well as a large number of articles in journals and anthologies. Her latest book is Bearbeidelser. 22.juli i ord og bilder (in Norwegian. Universitetsforlaget, 2020) which features art and articles about the artistic treatments of the Norwegian terror attacks in 2011. 

Among her publications are Cinema Between Media (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) Co-written with Jørgen Bruhn, Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones and Multiple Media Engagements (co-edited with Rikke Schubart, forthcoming on Bloomsbury 2016), Hva er film (What is Cinema) (Universitetsforlaget, 2013), and the co-edited anthologies Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. An Critical Engagement With Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima(Columbia University Press, 2013) and Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions (Bloomsbury, 2013). 

Photo: casapounditalia.org

CasaPound Italy: The Sui Generis Fascists of the New Millennium

CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups emerged in Europe. Its supporters say they are not ‘racist’ but are against immigration because of its impact on wages and houses; not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the ‘traditional family’. Never before there was in Italy an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying the strategic viability and the marge of political manoeuvre that was secured today by the CasaPound. Although CasaPound remains substantially marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their communication campaigns. 

By Bulent Kenes

The last two decades have seen the rise of populist right-wing extremism characterized by political campaigning targeting immigration, European integration, and globalization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014) and a growth in nationalist, radical populist parties and movements in Western Europe. In the contemporary European Fascist “black galaxy,” Italy has been an important incubator and generator of ideas. Italian post-war Fascism “may be seen as the vanguard of right-wing extremism for roughly 40 years.” (Mammone, 2015: XIV) CasaPound, as Mammone (2015: 213) describes it, is “the most interesting, and atypical in some ways, right-wing enterprise of these recent years” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

The majority of these populist, right-wing extremist organisations have been defined by their opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, the effects of international capitalism on workers’ rights, and their concern for protecting national and European culture. This is combined with “anti-establishment” rhetoric used to appeal to those who are disillusioned with mainstream political parties, the media, and government. As members of an anti-establishment movement, CasaPound supporters have very low levels of trust in the government, the EU, political parties, trade unions and the press (Bartlett et al., 2012). However, according to Bartlett et al. (2012), these organisations do not fit easily into the traditional political divides; one of the most difficult to classify is CasaPound, which was originally founded in Italy in 2003 but was formalised in 2008 under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI) (Jones, 2018). A “populist” rubric is a staple of new-Fascist politics and CasaPound is no exception: theirs is translated through the rhetoric and material enactment of an “exclusionary welfarism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). 

Today, CPI is the most visible neo-fascist organization in Italy—and probably one of the most visible extreme right movements in Western Europe (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). CasaPound’s emphasis on nationalism, its welfare chauvinism that privileges ethnic Italians for the receipt of welfare services, and its direct take-to-the-streets approach have made it a member of the “new right” European street-based movements (Bartlett et al., 2012). CPI has also been central to again normalising fascism in the country of its birth (Jones, 2018). Thanks to CPI, similar extremist organisations and far-right populist parties’ extremist violence, harassment, and xenophobia re-emerged in Italy. Italy’s intelligence services have warned about the growing appeal of radical right groups, especially among young people (Povoledo, 2018).

As with other far-right groups, the economic crisis in Europe in the early 2010s provided CasaPound with fertile ground for spreading its ideas. The crisis allowed the CPI to strengthen its criticisms of international capitalism as well as eurozone fiscal policy. It has also argued against the weakening of the nation state and the increasing power of unelected technocrats (Bartlett et al., 2012). CasaPound was born as a single-issue movement as a result of the social problem associated with the lack of housing spaces for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Since its origins, CasaPound has stood out for its attention to the issue of affordable housing, engaging primarily in struggles on the social and cultural right to adequate shelter for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Ezra Pound.

The group’s name is composed of two elements: i) “Casa,” the Italian Word for “house.” The largest number of eviction orders in 2008 were issued in Rome (7,574), among which almost five thousand were for arrearage. During the following five years, the evictions numbered over 31,000, of which 19,273 were for arrearage. In Rome, the evictions numbered 11,612 (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). ii) “Pound,” referencing the 20th-century American poet Ezra Pound, who supported Mussolini’s dictatorship (Redman, 1991), adhered to the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), and was an antisemite (Kington, 2011; 2012). The organization’s name explicitly connects it with one of the pillars of the group’s ideology, Ezra Pound’s theory of housing rent as “usury” (Pound, 1985), and the poet’s views expressed in his poem Canto XLV opposing rent and rapacious landlords. For the poet, everything that is not used by its owner becomes capital, which is then brought in the market obliging others to pay a monthly tangent: the rent (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). 

Since its birth, CasaPound has conceptually associated its political engagement to Ezra Pound’s conception of “holiness” of the “house.” The groups’ opposition to market capitalism has to do with this, since the house is given a symbolic value that goes beyond its material price (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

The name CasaPound also has a great symbolic meaning, since Ezra Pound was the incarnation of the ideal fascist revolution, meaning the struggle against plutocracy (Redman, 1991; Feldman, 2013). Despite many scholars having demonstrated the influence of the poet’s anti-capitalist and anti-communist discourse on CasaPound (Rinaldi & Feldman, 2015; Lidell, 2012) Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary De Rachewiltz, has repeatedly gone to court to stop CasaPound from using her father’s name (Kington, 2011, 2012). “This organisation is hiding behind Pound’s name for intellectual cover,” De Rachewiltz said and added: “He made mistakes and we have to take the good part of him, just as he did with others. He fell into certain antisemitic clichés that were rampant in Europe and the US at the time.” Pound later told the American poet Allen Ginsberg that his worst mistake in life was his “stupid suburban antisemitic prejudice” (Kington, 2012).

A Brief History

CasaPound was born as a youth organization on December 26, 2003, in Rome, during the occupation of a building in the Esquilino district, a multiethnic neighbourhood populated mostly by Chinese and Bengali people (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). On that night, five men broke into a huge, state-owned, empty office complex. According to the story of the seizure of the building, which is now part of the group’s origin myth (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), a few days earlier, the men had put up fake fliers, appealing to the public for help to find a lost black cat called “Ezra.” It was a way to avoid suspicion as they surveyed the building before breaking in. Nothing was left to chance: the date, between Christmas and New Year, was chosen because there wouldn’t be many people around. Even the name and colour of the cat wasn’t casual: “Ezra” was a nod to the American poet; black was the colour associated with their hero, Benito Mussolini (Jones, 2018). While the details may differ, the repetition of this narrative very usefully serves the purpose of mythmaking. Multiplied by the attention of media, CasaPound has been able to frame a Fascist archetype, creating an at once folkloric and banal construction of “the neo-Fascist” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). 

CasaPound was founded as a branch of the Fiamma Tricolore (FT) party of Pino Rauti, making specific reference to the history of the post-war neo-fascist party Movimento sociale italiano (MSI, Italian Social Movement, which was founded on December 26, 1946) and Mussolini’s legacy. The occupation on the same day was not accidental, since it furnished an explicit initial link between the CasaPound movement and the fascist era and its legacy (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Gianluca Iannone.

The man giving orders that night was Gianluca Iannone (1974-), who came from a more “old style” Fascist activism (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). Then 30, Iannone had “me ne frego” (“I don’t care” – the slogan used by Mussolini’s troops) tattooed diagonally across the left side of his neck (Jones, 2018). At the beginning of the third millennium, Iannone already had an interesting career behind him as member of a minor extremist extra-parliamentary right-wing group which was dissolved by law in the 1990s for hate-speech and racism. In 1995, he had been one of the founders of the Rupe Tarpea Produzioni, an independent record company that produced, and still produces, Nazi rock groups such as Hobbit, Intolerance, etc (Jones, 2018). 

In 1997, Iannone founded the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which gave voice to concerns that had been disregarded by established parties of the radical right: housing, globalization, and the need to revolt against the establishment (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). ZZA became an evangelising force for fascism. Touring all over Italy, the band sang raucous punk-rock songs with lyrics such as, “I love this proud people / that doesn’t know peace.” However, the song that became a crowd favourite was Cinghiamattanza, meaning “death by belt”: at all the gigs, it became a ritual for fans to take off their belts and lash each other (Jones, 2018).

Iannone was also one of the leaders of the Romanist hooligans, the animator of the fascist pub Cutty Sark which was a meeting point for Rome’s extreme right, and the owner of the “non-conventional” bookshop Testa di Ferro in Rome, which disseminated nostalgic fascist literature. Armed with charisma and a strong reputation, Iannone became the leader of the “right-wing” house occupations in Rome (Wolff, 2019; Jones, 2018).

The men gathered together and hugged, feeling that they had planted a flag in the centre of the Italian capital—in a gritty neighbourhood which was home to many African and Asian immigrants. Iannone dubbed their building “the Italian embassy.” The building became the headquarters of the movement called CasaPound (Jones, 2018). In this building, which is still occupied by activists, there are three apartments per floor that host the activists and 23 families. The police did not intervene at the time of the occupation, nor did they act in the following months or years. Successive mayors of Rome have treated the fascist occupation with a degree of tolerance (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Actually, it was not the first building that was occupied by the group. In 2002, CasaPound occupied a state-owned building in Rome and established the so-called “Casa Montag.” The name came from Guy Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Indeed, Bradbury’s critique of a totalitarian state was transformed into Casa Pound’s intolerance against anti-fascism in Italian politics. CasaMontag became the first example of right-wing Occupazioni Non Conformi (ONC, or Non-Conventional Occupation), which aimed to use musical events to get young people to discuss politics in a non-structured way (Wolff, 2019). 

CasaPound Has Already Fulfilled Its Mission by Normalising Fascism

Initially, Casa Montag did not have a real political and communitarian aim but was a centre for people to meet, socialise, play music, and discuss political and social issues. The squatting inside Casa Montag and subsequent building occupations had the primary goal of housing Italian families that lost their houses and protesting against the rising rents in Rome and related real estate speculations: the group’s slogan was “rent is usury: stop the increasing costs of living” (Bartlett et al., 2012). Iannone has called usury “the worst thing… the head of the octopus… which creates unemployment, debt and threatens the future of our children” (Lidell, 2012). CasaPound argues for a form of “social mortgage” (mutuo sociale)—a housing policy that would guarantee all Italian workers the right to own a property; the right of home ownership is crucial to the movement’s message (Bartlett et al., 2012).  

Only one year later, in 2003, Iannone led the expedition that occupied the building in via Napoleone: CasaPound. That squat occurred under the slogan “Occupazioni a Scopo Abitativo” (OSA: Occupations for Housing Purposes). Several others followed. Many make a clear distinction between ONC and OSA, arguing that the former has a metapolitical nature while the latter has a social purpose (Wolff, 2019). The concern for housing is the core of CasaPound’s ideology and policy and is reflected in the group’s name as well as its use of the turtle as its main logo: “The turtle is one of the few living beings which is fortunate enough to have with them the house” (Bartlett et al., 2012). The stylized turtle symbol also refers to the Roman formation called Testudo, the army of Rome that showed the greatness and force of the Empire and which emerged “from a vertical order and from a hierarchical principle.” Contextually, the octagonal shape is reminiscent of the historical monument Castel del Monte, built by the “last Cesare” in Italy. The arrow is the same as that in the flags of other far-right movements across Europe (Wolff, 2019). 

From 2006–2008, Iannone was active as leader of a youth group in the FT trying to conquer the party’s leadership—without success (Wolff, 2019). In 2008, CasaPound, whose activists define themselves as “third millennium fascists”(Gretel Cammelli, 2018; Bulli, 2019), broke off from the FT to become an officially registered association with offices in all major Italian cities under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI). As a legally recognized association, CasaPound was eligible to receive voluntary pre-tax donations (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI openly rejects left-wing and right-wing labels, and distances itself from traditional parties and has instead rooted itself in the tradition of Italian Fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

Starting from 2011, however, CPI regularly took part in local and national elections, and progressively expanded its programmatic agenda on socioeconomic affairs. At first, its candidates ran as independents within centre-right coalitions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2013, it developed a new strategy as an independent political party and participated in local elections in February (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI’s evolution is also reflected in changing electoral slogans between 2013 and 2018: from “Direction Revolution” to “Direction Parliament” (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).

Matteo Salvini, Head of the Lega Nord (Northern League) party and former Interior Minister. Photo: Pierre Teyssot.

While the results at the national level have been poor (0.14 percent in 2013), CPI won 0.69 percent of votes in Lazio, comprising 8,734 votes in the city of Rome. In 2014, it struck up informal relations with the Lega Nord (LN) and contributed to the election of an LN candidate to the European Parliament (EP). In 2015, a new political formation called Sovranità established an alliance between the two parties supporting the LN’s leader Matteo Salvini and secured the election of its own officials to local councils. In 2016, CasaPound participated in the elections as an independent party, winning 1.14 percent of the vote in Rome, equivalent to around 14,000 votes. In the 2017 local elections, CPI scored results above five percent and elected council members in different municipalities within Central Italy. Moreover, a former member has been elected mayor of L’Aquila as part of a right-wing list (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018; Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Italy’s political panorama is defined not just by radical right-wing parties, which received considerable support by voters during elections in March 2018, but also by the presence of extra-parliamentary organizations that increasingly engage in the public debate by presenting radical arguments and propositions. One of these is CasaPound Italia (Wolff, 2019). CPI ran with an independent list in the local and national elections. On this occasion, CPI failed to elect any candidates to parliament (winning a meager 0.9 percent of votes), yet doubled its electoral support compared to the previous national elections—from 50,000 to about 130,000 votes (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018; Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The results of the 2018 elections were a shock to the Italian political establishment, delivering a historical blow to the parties of the centre-left; the feared entry of the neo-Fascists into Parliament did not materialize, however (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

Nevertheless, CasaPound has already fulfilled its mission by normalising fascism in Italy. At the end of 2017, Il Temponewspaper announced Benito Mussolini as its “person of the year.” It wasn’t being facetious: Il Duce barged into the news agenda every week of the year. Even a left-wing politician in Florence said that “nobody in this country has done more than Mussolini.” More than 75 years after his death, he is more admired than traditional Italian heroes such as Giuseppes Garibaldi and Mazzini. Moreover, in just 15 years, CasaPound has grown so large that its initial ambition—to be accepted into the theatre of “open debate”—is now obsolete. Instead, its leaders now talk of eradicating anti-fascism entirely. Fascism, Iannone enthuses, was “the greatest revolution in the world, the completion of the Risorgimento [Italian unification].” Mussolini’s regime was “the most beautiful moment of this nation” (Jones, 2018).

Meanwhile, an Italian judge ordered police on June 4, 2020, to seize CasaPound’s headquarters in a move hailed as a victory by the city’s mayor Virgina Raggi from the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (M5S). The order to seize the building, issued on the 76th anniversary of Rome’s liberation from Nazi occupation by US troops in World War Two, has not yet been carried out (Reuters, 2020), because the government has temporarily halted evictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (Roberts, 2020).

“Hybridization” As an Ideological Choice and Recruitment Strategy

At the beginning of the 1990s, a new phase in the Italian party system was ushered in with the inclusion of a post-Fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale (AN, National Alliance), in centre-right coalitions. This normalization at the party level did not occur in the same way at the subcultural or grassroots level (Bulli, 2019). Though “apologizing for fascism” was still a crime in Italy (Wolff, 2019), for Italy’s modern neo-fascist groups like CasaPound, Il Duce was—and is—very much about ideology. According to CPI’s vice-president, Simone di Stefano, CPI’s youngsters already see Mussolini as the country’s father (Kington, 2013). In addition, the rise of populism, and CPI’s explicit rejection of traditional right and left categories, has changed the landscape of party politics and affected political movements, especially those of the far right. During this period, a symbolic hybridization between the far-right and the far-left (Miller-Idriss, 2018) and nostalgia defined CPI’s recruitment strategy (Bulli, 2019).

This hybridization manifests itself even in the entrance hall of CPI’s headquarters. CasaPounders painted a hundred or so men’s names, suggesting their ideological lineage. Many were obvious—Mussolini, Oswald Mosley, Nietzsche, war criminals like Hamsun, Degrelle, the writer and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola—but many more were bizarre or delusional: Homer, Plato, Dante, Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, as well as Ahmed Shah Massoud (the Afghan jihadi leader), and even cartoon characters such as Captain Harlock and Corto Maltese. “Delusional” because most of these characters are more frequently seen as representing liberal and progressive values, and “bizarre” because CasaPound mobilizes the “other” as representative of Fascist thought (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020; Jones, 2018).

Drawing on populism, expressionism, and pluralism, as a fascists movement CPI creates political orientations that defy easy placement along a right-left axis (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). By adopting symbols, dress codes, and participation models typical of the extreme left, CPI shows its indifference to the codification of rituals according to a left–right understanding of politics. From this perspective, the group tries to differentiate itself from the “neither right nor left” rhetoric of the New Right and from the “aesthetics of the ‘Third Way’ of Italian Fascism” (Ben-Ghiat, 1996). Despite CPI being commonly placed in the category of the Italian radical right, at the rhetorical level the group asserts differences from traditional radical-right parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

However, all the elements that make up the multifaceted cultural imaginary of CasaPound originate from the ideology of Fascism, including its cultural manifestations, its exaltation of the masculine body, virility, and speed of action, and its concept of “lifestyle” (Bulli, 2019). In this context, CPI refers mostly to the social and labour legislation during the Fascist regime: the Labour Charter from 1927, the Verona Manifesto from 1943, and in general all documents that testify to the fascists’ engagement in social policy, corporatism, and socialization (Wolff, 2019). The party strategically downplays the most stigmatized aspects of Fascism, such as antisemitism and racism (Castelli Gattinara et al. 2013; Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

CasaPound accepted that the racial laws of 1938, which introduced antisemitism and deportation, were “errors.” The movement claimed to be “opposed to any form of discrimination based on racial or religious criteria, or on sexual inclination” (Jones, 2018). Despite its realignment with the xenophobic, law-and-order and nationalist agendas of most radical-right populist parties since 2014, CPI tends to distinguish itself from Italian parties of the extreme right by underlining its anti-establishment character (Gattinara, Froio, & Albanese, 2013) in an effort to create a political traditionalism that coexists with an open challenge to all forms of pre-defined belonging (Bulli, 2019). Even if CPI claims its origins in Italian Fascism, it builds its political message on the framework of “metapolitics”—a Gramscian approach to politics, in which cultural change and hegemony precedes political change (Wolff, 2019). Namely, unlike other radical-right organizations in Western Europe, the bulk of CasaPound’s policy positions, ideas, and practices revolve around economic and social areas (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013) and are directly inspired by the leftist current that has always existed in Italian Fascism and neo-fascism. In particular, three major concepts that connect CasaPound to three different tendencies of neo-fascism should be highlighted: the Destra Sociale (Social Right), the spiritualism of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), and the tradition of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013),

The Destra Sociale was a group internal to the MSI and connected directly with the experience of the Italian Social Republic. Partisans of this political trend stressed the “socialist” aspects of the fascist doctrine, clamouring for a strong state able to take care of its citizens from the cradle to the grave. Similarly, CasaPound calls for a stronger state to protect citizens from the “dictatorship” of the banks and the international financial system (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).CasaPound also takes direct inspiration from Italian Fascism in its restless fight against international capitalism. The reference here is to Mussolini’s attacks against the international plutocracies which were held responsible for the destruction of national economies (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). CPI has also opposed Italy’s austerity programme, most notably in the campaign “Ferma Equitalia” (“Stop Equitalia”). Equitalia is the public company in charge of the collection of taxes and the Italian symbol of the austerity movement. Since the beginning of 2012, different bases of Equitalia have been the target of several bomb attacks (Bartlett et al., 2012). 

Among the 18 points of CPI’s political programme, the first calls for the “public control of banks.” The nationalism and autarchy of CPI is characterized by an aversion to all multinational corporations and European institutions (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The state is also supposed to be “ethical, organic and inclusive” and “something spiritual and moral” aimed at ensuring that the nation remains independent of private and international interests. Society was seen as an “organism” in which individuals were merely tools for pursuing the interests of society as a whole (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Ordine Nuovo was founded in 1956 by Pino Rauti and other militants of the MSI. They disagreed with the party on a number of grounds, including the recognition of NATO. The group developed a strong cultural commitment but also a sense of militancy where particular importance was given to violent actions against opponents. Numbers of its militants have been accused of terrorist activities (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Finally, CasaPound inspires parts of its ideology from the experience and practice of the Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. 

Together with the Nuova Destra, these were among the most interesting political experiments of the 1970s. Following the protest movements begun in May 1968 in Paris, intellectuals tried to renovate the right wing, emphasizing or adding issues such as federalism and ecology, but also an ethnic-identarian vision, communitarism, anti-imperialism and Europeanism (Mammone, 2008).  

In line with the aforementioned ideological debate, CPI’s self-styled revolutionary fascist members have declared themselves to be “the fascists of the new millennium” (Wolff, 2019). The group has voluntarily embraced this label as effectively portraying the mixture of Fascist traditionalism with the promise of the future and a contemporary ethos. As Mammone (2009: 187) observes, CPI exemplifies “a modern blackshirt Janus with one face looking backward and the other forward towards the future.” The label also emphasizes the adaptation of a classic extreme-right movement to a fast-changing environment in which language, communication, and behaviour play a role comparable to values and ideology, thus creating a cultural imaginary suitable for the political mobilization of new members (Forchtner & Kølvraa, 2017).

“Fascism à la Carte”

The CPI’s success at recruiting new members derives from: i) Its variable approach to a new form of political identification. This consists of both a “strong” approach, allowing for a conceivable return to codified traditions and symbols of Fascism, and a “soft” attitude towards the strategic selection of symbols, metaphors, topoi, and fallacies from a wide repertoire (Reisigl, 2008). ii) Its professionalized use of political language to encourage both the embrace and rejection of an ideological understanding of politics. iii) Its mixed use of symbols and the connected cultural imaginary (Bulli, 2019).

CPI’s ideology has been described as “fascism à la carte” or “à la carte Fascism” (Albanese et al., 2014), indicating the movement’s adoption of only certain elements of Fascist ideology and making use of them to recruit members. CPI selects those elements of the Fascist tradition it finds useful for the clear definition of its own political raison d’être in ideological and social terms. However, quite often CPI ends up taking contradictory positions in order to accommodate the needs of different audiences. “Fascism” remains the backbone by which the group substantiates its criticism of supranational institutions, globalization, and the establishment; yet, CasaPound approaches it by making a strategic mix of different elements depending on the issues that are debated, selectively emphasizing some relevant aspects, and omitting others (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Meanwhile, contextualizing its increasing popularity following the 2008 financial crisis, CPI’s position has been outlined as the typical third-wayism: “The refusal of neoliberal economic theories and the neo-nationalist defence of workers’ rights.” However, less attention has been paid to CPI’s Euroscepticism, anti-globalism/mondialism, anti-Zionism, and racism. These have manifested as cultural racism; nationalism based on identarian discourse (ethno-nationalism); “welfare chauvinism;” exclusionary nationalism,; rejecting a multi-racial society; the defence of ethnic identities; opposition to immigration; a desire to exit from NATO and to remove Italy from the US sphere of influence; a quest to nationalize strategic economic sectors; and a fight against “usury” and for the cancellation of public debt (Wolff, 2019).

CPI’s political discourse reproduces the nationalist and anti-imperialist features of Italian Fascism. In this sense, the financial crisis directly originates from the contradictions of capitalism and its “wild” economic regime, which CasaPound would instead control by means of a strong state capable of avoiding the inequalities of the market economy. The strong state would also regain the national sovereignty that has been given up in favour of transnational organizations, in particular the EU, the IMF, and the ECB (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).

Despite these stances, the group is keen to use symbols and practices that are generally considered distant from the culture of the extreme right culture. This appropriation is also applied to figures and practices traditionally associated with left-wing culture (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

The ideological pillars of CasaPound’s view of the economy are also reminiscent of the Weimar’s campaigns of economic supremacy and Italian ambitions for food production self-sufficiency in the 1930s. Economic self-sufficiency is a way to reconnect with nature, and this bucolic image of naturalism is not new to radical-right organizations. In this sense, CPI builds a discourse around natural order which affects the environment but also the economy and society at large: a societal ecology (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Thus, CPI emphasizes its organic understanding of national identity and state sovereignty and legitimacy, conceived as natural expressions of the Italian nation: “The Italian nation needs to become once again a national organism with powerful and long-lasting life, aims and means of action, which are well above those of its single or grouped individuals” (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

The CPI, which adopts “welfare chauvinism” and “welfare populism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), also uses the concept of ethnopluralism to attain ideological coherence. Ethnopluralism offers a consistent framing of core themes—like social welfare and globalization—as well as issues considered of secondary importance, like gender and the environment. Hybridization thus allows CPI to emphasize its ideological roots in the tradition of the extreme right, while avoiding stigmatization as being outdated or openly racist (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). Unlike other far-right movements and parties in Europe for which immigration is the key issue, CasaPound’s policy positions cover a range of economic and social areas (Bartlett et al., 2012).

Election posters on billboard ahead of Italian General Election on March 4, 2018. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

A Political Party That Functions to Trivialize Concerns About Fascism 

The social movement rhetoric and engagement in disruptive forms of protest did not prevent CasaPound engaging in institutional politics. Starting with the 2011 elections, CasaPound presented their candidates in local elections in civic lists or on the centre-right and succeeded in electing its representatives (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). The CPI leadership also announced in October 2012 that it would participate in the local elections in Rome and Lazio, and subsequently in the national elections with an autonomous list of candidates. This came as a surprise to many observers who had underlined the non-electoral nature of CasaPound’s activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Since 2013, CPI has regularly taken part in elections with its own electoral lists (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, the choice did not prove particularly successful in the first elections, when CPI won only 0.14 percent of the vote for the Italian House and Senate, and less than one percent in the municipal and regional elections in Rome. However, the success of extreme right actors is not exclusively related to their immediate results. According to the “contagion effect” literature, contemporary extreme right activism strives for the radicalization of mainstream values and political agendas more than for an immediate transformation of the status quo (Lubbers, 2001; Minkenberg, 2001).

CasaPound’s electoral participation contributed to further increasing the visibility of the group as well as its reputation as the main non-partisan actor mobilizing on the issue of national sovereignty, as well as its opposition to austerity and the EU. As a consequence, the subsequent months saw an unprecedented electoral alliance between CasaPound and the regionalist populist party Lega Nord (Albertazzi & McDonnell 2005). This unofficial electoral cartel was first tested in European Parliament (EP) elections in May 2014, when CasaPound explicitly supported one of Lega’s candidates (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015)

In November 2018, the election in the Roman suburb of Ostia was considered by the Italian media as “a test” for the affirmation of CPI in Italian political life. CPI got 9 percent of the votes and obtained one seat in the local municipal council (Torrisi, 2018). In the March 2018 national elections, the CPI obtained 0.94 percent of the vote (310,793 votes) but it couldn’t enter parliament. CPI’s electoral support of the euro-sceptical and xenophobic Lega under the leadership of Matteo Salvini in 2018 influenced public discourse to such a degree that its slogan “Prima gli italiani!” (Italians first!) became the slogan for Salvini’s party (Wolff, 2019).

In order to participate in the 2019 EP election, an electoral list was formed by CasaPound and United Right. CasaPound leader Simone Di Stefano topped the list; however, the coalition was unable to win any seats in the EP. 

CPI has never won a seat in the national parliament or the EP, but the group has successfully made extreme-right themes more routine in the public sphere, trivializing concerns about historical fascism and racial discrimination (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Nevertheless, on June 26, 2019, CasaPound’s leader Iannone announced CasaPound was no longer a political party; instead, the group would return back its original status as a social movement. 

A Hierarchic and Meritocratic Organisation

Although the Italian Constitution bans “the reorganization in any form of the dissolved Fascist Party,” CasaPound, like other neo-fascist movements, has skirted the law by identifying as the descendants of Mussolini (Horowitz, 2017). In terms of its organisational structure, CasaPound opted for a strategy of differentiation in order to carve out a space for itself within the extreme right milieu. In this sense, the main goal of CasaPound has not been the development of a concrete organizational alternative for extreme-right activism, but rather the promotion of a claim of generic “otherness” from all existing political organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

The organization of CasaPound is hierarchic and meritocratic. Those who work the most, who are most capable to commit, are recognized as leaders—and followed. The leadership is officially embodied by Iannone, who is a widely recognized figure in the subcultural milieu of the Italian extreme right. His involvement in the everyday politics of CPI has, however, decreased over time; most of the ordinary business is delegated to the vice-president, who acts as spokesperson and runs as candidate in national and local elections (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). On November 13, 2017, Simone Di Stefano was elected secretary and nominal prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 general election.

The internal structure, decision-making, and recruitment does not fully conform to either the model usually followed by electoral actors or that of grassroots organizations. Rather, it combines formal and informal features, hierarchical procedures, and spaces of socialization, merging the organizational practices of social movements with those of formal political parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). All strategies and policy proposals are decided upon by the inner leadership in Rome and communicated to members, militants, and local branches. Decentralized grassroots initiatives are also possible and welcome but have to be ratified by the offices in Rome. Political activities are further differentiated through separate organizations with thematic responsibilities. There are groups in charge of social voluntary work (e.g., health, workers’ rights, the environment), ideology and propaganda (including a daily paper, web radio, and web TV), and specific campaigns (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).  The leader creates or displaces social movement practices and accompanies virtually all actions that can be associated with CasaPound. In addition, personalization takes place through the systematic exhibition of symbols that can be immediately associated with the group (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

CPI has its headquarters in Rome and branches in other northern and southern cities (Bulli, 2019). The building, which sits incongruously in the heart of an immigrant neighbourhood, has served as CasaPound’s home since it was occupied (Horowitz, 2017). In 2006, the movement that arose around the first community centre gained with its student organization, the “Students’ Block” (“Blocco Studentesco”). Blocco Studentesco is a mainstay in Rome youth politics, winning 11,000 votes in school council elections in 2009 (Kington, 2013). A fascist women’s movement, Tempo di Essere Madri (“time to be a mother”), was founded by Iannone’s wife. A pseudo-environmental group, La Foresta Che Avanza, began to put “the regime into nature” (Jones, 2018). Among the many groups directly linked to CPI is the “Circolo Futurista” (“Futurist Circle”), an association devoted to the organization of cultural events (Bulli, 2019).

As of December 2017, CPI had 106 headquarters/local offices across Italy (Wolff, 2019) and Iannone described each new centre as a “territorial reconquest.” Because every centre was self-financing, and because they claimed to “serve the people,” those new centres in turn opened gyms, pubs, bookshops, parachute clubs, diving clubs, motorbike clubs, football teams, restaurants, nightclubs, tattoo parlours, and barbershops. CasaPound suddenly seemed everywhere, echoing the influential fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who wrote in 1925 that fascism was “before all else a total conception of life” (Jones, 2018). Today, CasaPound is present in virtually all Italian regions. It owns fifteen bookshops, twenty pubs, a web radio station (Black Flag Radio) and a web TV channel (TortugaTV). CasaPound also produces publications such as the monthly journal L’Occidentale and the quarterly Fare Quadrato (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).  

Members: Fascists of the Third Millennium

CPI has made enormous improvements in terms of recruitment during the last years (Wolff, 2019). CPI members, who define themselves as “Fascists of the Third Millennium” (Bulli, 2019)complete with black boots, tattooed necks, and shorn hair—guard floors decorated with pictures of Fascist-era marches and banners reading “Arm Your Soul.” The members exhibit fondness for Roman salutes and mythic glory days (Horowitz, 2017). Members are referred to as a “camerata” (the fascist version of “comrade”) and exchange the old-fashioned “legionary” handshake, grasping each other’s forearm rather than the hand (Jones, 2018). Members of CPI’s grassroots associations do not always declare their political allegiance, thus facilitating the recruitment of new members. Often, in fact, their first contact with the movement is not an ideological one (Bulli, 2019).

It is important to underline that CPI does not envisage membership without active militancy; becoming a member entails active participation in the events and activities promoted by the group. The selection of members follows very strict, yet informal, criteria, and generally occurs by co-optation. After being introduced to the group by other militants, prospective members are invited to public events and activities organized by CPI, “as a way to test their motivation, before introducing them to the circuit of real militancy.” Sympathizers unable to become active militants can be appointed as “web supporters” in charge of promoting CPI’s messages, images, and activities online. CPI does not have staff or employees on its payroll, and elected officials are required to devote most of their emoluments to the organization (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).

Although membership in CPI is considered on the rise, it is difficult to rely on declared figures. While the founding group included a few dozen individuals, data from CPI’s official website claimed over 2,000 members in 2008 (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2011, it was estimated that CPI had 5,000 members, while in 2017, the group reached 6,000. As of January 2018, the Facebook account CasaPound Italia had 230,000 followers (Wolff, 2019). CasaPound Facebook supporters were slightly more likely to be unemployed than the average Italian citizen (11 percent vs 7.9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012).  

CPI’s Women: Deconstructing the Theory of Fascist Misogyny

The common assumption that fascism is a misogynist ideology which has tended to exclude women, has been contrasted with cases of women’s active participation in fascist politics in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK (Durham, 1998).Women “shockingly” participating in far-right politics has received much media attention despite fascist movements being known for stressing women’s responsibilities at home. Conservative ideals of good fascist mothers and wives have also been prominent in CPI’s propaganda (Provost & Whyte, 2018). According to Gretel Cammelli, “since the foundation of CasaPound, women’s presence was overexposed, but in reality, there was a small number of them.” Cammelli observed that back in 2010, in CPI “women’s roles were extremely marginal, they were basically absent from all the high hierarchies,” and that the movement is very “macho.” The researcher recalls that she went to a CPI event in 2010 and “the number of women was quite embarrassing: they were about 20 out of 500 people. Almost all of them were in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches for the men” (Torrisi, 2018).

All of this makes the movement edgy and decidedly masculine—87 percent of the CPI’s Facebook supporters are male (Jones, 2018; Bartlett et al., 2012). According to the CPI’s ideology, today as in the fascist era, the role of women is to procreate for the wealth and prosperity of the Italian nation. Women have a duty to ensure that the history of Italy is kept alive into the future, and CasaPound perpetuates a normative vision of female gendered identity (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Caterina Froio notes that the far right has struggled with the so-called “gender gap” among members, voters, and political personnel because women represent a large potential reservoir of support electorally for the far right (Torrisi, 2018).

In 2017, CasaPound expressed support for same-sex marriage and supported abortion rights. Even if it is not officially homophobic, CasaPound believes in the “traditional family” as the basic unit of the nation. One example of this was the “Tempo di essere madri” (“It’s time to be mothers”) campaign, which advocated lowering the amount of working hours for mothers without affecting their pay (Bartlett et al., 2012).

In November 2017, the Italian edition of the women’s magazine Marie Claire published an article entitled “Do you know who CasaPound’s women are?” It profiled female militants of CPI, giving readers a glimpse into their private lives, sharing fashion tips, what they like to wear, and how they juggle their family and social lives with the demands of being part of a violently fascist movement (Torrisi, 2018). Like Marie Claire, the Italian media in general have helped CasaPound to “glamourise” fascism. Torrisi shows how media coverage focused on the movement’s female members has fawned over their beauty and their dedication to their children and husbands, while glossing over the violence and danger of this increasingly visible fascist group (Provost & Whyte, 2018). For instance, Italian media christened local spokeswoman Carlotta Chiaraluce in Ostia “Lady CasaPound” and called her a “beautiful, fascist… vote-catcher” and the “queen of the far-right movement.” Interviewed by one right-wing newspaper, Chiaraluce said that there are a lot of women in the movement, and they are all happy with what they are doing. She said: “Even if there is not a lot of media attention on this aspect, we are deconstructing the theory of the misogyny of fascists” (Torrisi, 2018).

Hybrid Ideology Facilitates Diversified Activities

CPI emphasises direct activism, and its strategy is based on the synergic union of ideas and actions. In CPI’s view, ideas cannot be separated from political participation (Bulli, 2019) and it has successfully managed to construct its own self-styled activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Thus, CPI enjoys important visibility in Italy and in the European extreme-right subcultural milieu despite its limited number of supporters (Bartlett et al., 2012).

Until the late 2000s, CasaPound was mainly engaged in expressive activities aimed at developing its network of associations. It was also protagonist of a series of demonstrations, which included the occupation of a state-owned building in Rome in 2002 (CasaMontag) and developing a number of “non-conventional” squats, the attack against the emission “Big Brother,” and numerous violent riots involving Blocco Stundentesco (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Meanwhile, CPI’s political campaigns have aimed to implement laws, promote referenda, and directly influence the national political debate over different topics related to housing, Italian workers, the public austerity programme, and the importance of the traditional family (Bartlett et al., 2012). In its early years, it stood out for its unconventional actions, most notably highly demonstrative protests, occupations of state-owned buildings for housing purposes, and squatting for political and cultural activities. Even during electoral campaigns, CPI combined conventional party activities such as handing out leaflets, collecting signatures, and promoting fundraising events with contentious politics, including the storming of rival candidates’ offices, clashes with anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations, and direct actions and interventions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). 

As mentioned previously, CPI builds its political narrative upon the framework of the “metapolitics”: a counter-cultural power for which cultural change is expected to precede political change. This is also confirmed by the groups’ preferred modes of activism; it engages in a number of different arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). The hybrid nature of CPI has shaped its actions, which consists of both unconventional and conventional activities (Bulli, 2019).

From its very beginnings, CPI insisted on the creation of an image that diverged from the institutional character of the Italian far right of the late 1990s (Bulli, 2019). It has adapted a “new political style.” Instead of parades, memorial rituals, or celebrations, they organize rock concerts where people can meet up and “community” can form and, through chorus and dance, celebrate itself. Music has especially played a crucial role in this strategy. Producing music and live performances has been seen as one of the principal ways of creating the desired distinction between the traditional far right and the new model proposed by CPI (Bulli, 2019).  

The emblem of ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA).

This is possible thanks to CPI’s leader Gianluca Iannone, who is also the front man of the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which lies at the origins of the entire movement. Iannone is an actor capable of updating the new political style, making the CasaPound community feel a desire to take part in the leader’s power. When Iannone sings and stands at the centre of the stage, everyone flocks to be near him. As one activist stated, ZZA is not a single artist; rather, “if you listen to Zeta Zero Alfa, you understand that they are like the tip of the iceberg, that there is a whole community behind them.” ZZA’s concerts are an important tool for communication. One of ZZA’s most well-known songs is called “Cinghiamattanza.” When “Cinghiamattanza” is performed, the activists take off their belts and begin to beat each other with them, often until bleeding, as the lyrics themselves encourage them to do (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CasaPound defines “cinghiamattanza” or “massacre belt” as a “sport” (Lidell, 2012).

Another distinguishing feature of CasaPound is its explicit emphasis on physical activity and confrontation. The function and importance of sports and physical confrontation is more broadly conceived as a “cult of the body.” CasaPound offers a range of sporting activities to its core members and sympathisers, including trekking, speleology, rugby, combat sports and martial arts, karate, boxing, wrestling, parachuting, water polo, diving, horse-riding, motor-riding, and hockey (Kington, 2011a). These activities allow those who practise them to show courage and masculinity. CPI is also engaged with a number of youth clubs dedicated to sports, as well as with art galleries and theatre schools. Similarly, sports and leisure activities play a fundamental role in developing a sense of shared community (Bulli, 2019; Wolff, 2019).

Since camaraderie is represented as the highest form of political and social commitment for its members, CPI adopts a particular style of communication intended to present the group as a valid alternative to the traditional politics (Bulli, 2019). Thus, CPI organizes solidarity actions so as to reinforce its close connection to the social legislation of the Fascist regime. CPI’s grassroots associations play a crucial role in these activities, in which there is direct contact with those being helped and CPI promotes a series of “para-welfare activities” addressed to Italian families facing difficult times (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Unlike conventional forms of activism, they do not seek the mediation of representative authorities to solve public problems, but seek to directly redress a problem (Bosi & Zamponi, 2015: 371). These actions were at the core of campaigns on housing rights and extended to other issues over time. CPI then mobilized on environmental requalification and voluntary work to help disabled, unemployed, and elderly people (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). CPI’s engagement in society covers a wide range of different activities, from house-occupation and street protest to social welfare and housing programmes, from vigilante excursions against illegal migrants in the peripheries of Italian cities or against illegal street sellers on Italian beaches to pro-bono health and legal counselling, first aid teams, fundraising activities for foreign populations, and aid to orphans and single-mothers (Wolff, 2019).

CasaPound has especially used food drives to bolster its bonafides in the community and to point to the absence of the Italian state. Photo: http://www.casapounditalia.org

 

CasaPound has especially used food drives to bolster its bonafides in the community and to point to the absence of the Italian state “that should take care of its own before it takes care of others.” Through such actions, CasaPound spectacularizes Italy’s social precarity, while less-than-obliquely hinting at a logic of crisis induced by the non-Italian “other” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). CPI has especially worked for the working class and peasantry and set up its own workers’ union. In 2006, CPI members hung 400 mannequins all over Rome protesting the city’s housing crisis; and in 2012, they occupied the EU’s office in Rome and dumped sacks of coal outside to protest on behalf of Italian miners (Jones, 2018).

As mentioned above, CasaPound combines traditional right- and left-wing concerns, approaches, and symbols. For example, despite an open devotion to Mussolini, it regularly organises events to celebrate famous left-wingers such as Che Guevara or Peppino Impastato (a militant communist who died fighting against the mafia in Sicily). These ambiguities are also reflected in the group’s culture and music: its official radio station, Radio Bandiera Nera, broadcasts traditional right-wing music as well as the anarchist songs of Fabrizio De Andrè. The images used by the group include the so-called fascio littorio (the symbol of Mussolini’s ideology and regime), as well as posters of Corto Maltese or the leftist singer Rino Gaetano. These ambiguities account for CasaPound’s appeal, particularly among young people, as they strive to appear as non-conformist as possible. The anti-conformism is a strong pillar in the language of the organisation(Bartlett et al., 2012).

According to Castelli Gattinara, CasaPound aims at constructing a sense of comradeship by diversifying its political supply across numerous issues, inspired by a philosophy of life built on fascist myths and aesthetics, and on a mix neo-romanticism, irrationalism, spiritualism, and volunteerism. It is in this framework that CasaPound has developed its environmental project La Foresta che avanza (The forest that advances), which takes inspiration from the fascist’s “Mystic of the Earth.” CasaPound’s volunteerism is also mirrored by its social and civic engagement (such as La Salamandra, which operates in territories tormented by natural and/or humanitarian disasters) (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).

Iannone has stressed the logic behind the CPI’s activism and said that CasaPound works on dozens of projects and with various methods: “It is fundamental to create a web of supporters rather than focusing on elections. For elections, you are in competition with heavily financed groups and with only one or two persons elected, you can’t change anything. Politics for us is a community. That is why we are in the streets, on computers, in bookshops, in schools, in universities, in gyms, at the top of mountains or at the news stands. That is why we are in culture, social work, and sport” (Liddell, 2012). More than four in ten (44 percent) of CPI’s Facebook supporters reported participating in a street demonstration or protest. However, only one in five reported being a formal member of CasaPound. This might reflect the wider appeal that CasaPound cultural activities hold for people (Bartlett et al., 2012). 

Violence as a Method of Demonstration and Expressive Action

The main traits of Italian Fascism and the mythology of violence are inseparable (Lupo, 2005). The widespread use of violence and violent vocabulary by CPI has also to be understood as an explicit reference to Italian Fascism, which was strongly characterized by a martial rhetoric and by the glorification of violence (Blinkhorn, 2000: 69). In Mussolini’s system of values, violence represented the most just and moral, as well as the most practical way to defend one’s ideas. In a similar way, CasaPound’s militants glorify their political activism in terms of battlefield values and concepts (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Violence is actually a basis for the “militia” identity (Payne, 1999). Research (Bjorgo & Witte, 1993; Bjorgo, 1995) has shown that militants, supporters, and sympathizers are incentivized to violent action by the organization, which offers rationales for mobilization and synthesizes grievances in political and ideological discourses based on race, religion, and gender superiority. Similarly, justifications may be based on symbolized concepts such as the homeland, blood, and honour (O’Boyle, 2002; Taggart, 2000)

Despite acts of violence being rejected in official CPI policy, the group declares itself ready to defend itself in case of challenges to its survival (Bulli, 2019). CasaPound’s most explicit position with respect to violence can be found on its official website’s FAQ section: “CasaPound Italia does politics, not hooliganism. CasaPound is not interested in showing its muscles. CasaPound calls for quiet force. At the same time, however, CasaPound does not allow others to challenge its legitimate right to exist and act. We are open to dialogue, but we don’t reject confrontation when this is imposed on us and when our political and physical survival is at stake.” CasaPound militants also claim that they’re constantly under attack from anti-fascists. “We’re not a violent organisation,” one militant said, “but we’re not non-violent either.” CasaPound has sometimes relished its violent reputation, and has sometimes been angered by it (Jones, 2018). Violence is not officially endorsed, yet neither is it fully rejected; it remains an important corollary to political activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). 

CasaPound’s position on violence, therefore, has to come to terms with two opposing forces: i) The necessity of protecting the movement’s external credibility, which would require a full rejection of violence; and ii) The ideas and rhetoric of Italian Fascism were built upon a number of inherently violent elements, such as the cult of bravery and squadrismo. Squadrism expresses the image and memory of fascist violence, a specific kind of political violence committed in particular against political opponents with the purpose of gaining power (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Since Italian Fascism justified the use of violence against its opponents on the basis of the alleged superiority of its political ethics (Gentile, 1934) and also as a tool to safeguard the group’s right to expression against coercion and repression, it is impossible for CasaPound to completely disregard violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). In this sense, violence represents the noblest form of resistance against a hostile, repressive external world and becomes a means not only of survival but also of self-determination (Scianca 2011: 362). 

CasaPound cadres often underline how physical training is fundamental for CasaPound militants, as they should always be ready and “physically trained for any threat.” Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2014: 158) note that there is a threefold function of violence within CasaPound’s identity, discourse, and practices. In the first place, violence should be understood in terms of a discursive dimension (Koopmans & Olzak, 2004). It rejects political violence as a means to achieve policy success in its external rhetoric. Yet, given its need to reconnect with its fascist past, violence cannot be fully erased from the CPI’s political platform. The result is the development of a specific narrative in which violence is framed as a defensive tool used to respond to forms of repression. Secondly, violence emerges within an aesthetic dimension, by which CasaPound romanticizes and reproduces the myth and symbolic violence of Fascist Italy. Lastly, violence plays a fundamental role in CasaPound within an identity-building dimension (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

Anti-fascist protest against the candidate of the fascist political party Casapound. Clashes between antagonists and police in Turin, Italy on February 22, 2018. Photo: Stefano Guidi.

The use of violence has been mythologized in CPI’s images and practices. A good example is cinghiamattanza (belt-fighting) in which violence is directed not against out-groups but within the in-group (Castriota & Feldman, 2014: 231-232). The practices of physical violence are used to build feelings of comradeship. The medium through which networks of solidarity are built within the community is the (male) body, through practices of physical contact where the body of the militant is symbolically blended with the collective body of the community. The most widespread of these practices is collective training in combat sports. Common participation in combat sports is a fundamental moment where the militant joins in spirit and body with the collective entity. 

Besides its instrumental use as a form of action, violence also plays a fundamental role in the group’s narrative and political discourse. Violence, in other words, is rationalized as a form of resistance against an oppressive and “intolerant” anti-fascist society. Yet, when approaching internal audiences, violence emerges as a fundamental tool to strengthen solidarity and camaraderie among group members (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015) and plays a role as a constitutive element of the group’s collective identity and collective socialization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

In the public domain, CasaPound shifts the attention away from its own use of political violence, focusing instead on repression it suffers. This strategy allows the group to avoid the stigmatization often suffered by extreme right organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Authors increasingly recognize the importance of collective narratives, rituals, and symbolic repertoires in the development of protest events and violence and within processes of exclusive identity building (della Porta, 2013; Goodwin, 2004). In this understanding, the symbolic, cultural, and emotional aspects of political violence are often more significant than its material and strategic consequences. Recent research has in fact rediscovered the role of emotions in the construction and structuring of collective identities (Aminzade & McAdam 2001; Goodwin et al., 2001). Apart from physical violence, CPI makes strategic use of the mythology around a readiness to fight, verbal and physical confrontation, and speed of response in case of attack (Bulli, 2019).

As Castelli Gattinara and Froio (2014) have suggested, violence in CasaPound is linked to the history and rhetoric of fascism “justifying the use of any kind of violence against its opponents.” Violent activities have accompanied CasaPound since its birth. Reports on CasaPound in the newspaper La Repubblica between 2004 and 2012 show that about 15 percent of reported CasaPound actions were confrontational, while an additional 35 percent of events involved some form of violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Moreover, about a third of press releases issued by CPI involve physical or symbolic violence (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). Another analysis of CasaPound’s activism between 1995 and 2013 reveals that 51.5 percent of activities have been confrontational and violent (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Music is another fundamental element for understanding CasaPound’s semiotic of violence (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991). Although extreme right musical culture has generally been associated with the skinhead scene, similar tendencies have recently permeated other subcultures (O’Connell & Castelo-Branco, 2010). In the music of ZZA, violence is associated with a set of different meanings. First of all, it represents a revolutionary tool to fight the habits of consumerism and cultural homologation, and to oppose the rulers of the country and the economic system (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

On December 13, 2011, Gianluca Casseri, a CasaPound sympathiser in Tuscany, left home with a Magnum 357 in his bag. On that morning, 50-year-old Casseri had a plan to shoot as many immigrants as possible. He went to a square in Florence and, at 12:30 pm, killed two Senegalese men. He shot another man in the back and throat and then got in his car and drove off. Just over two hours later, Casseri was at the city’s central market, where he shot two more men, who survived the attack. He then turned his gun on himself in the market’s underground carpark (Jones, 2018). These murders suggest that a mythological narration of the past does not prevent it from being reproduced in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Neo-Fascism as Show Business

The relationship between extreme right-wing organizations and the media is far from straightforward. The far right is, on the one hand, traditionally suspicious of the media which it blames for promoting liberal values and sustaining the status quo (Mudde, 2007); media attention, on the other hand, allows dissemination of far-right messages (Ellinas, 2010). In such a context, Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2015) underline that newsworthiness is the primary motivation for CPI’s choice of showcase activism and the group is primarily involved in the organization of highly media-friendly events and actions, specifically by tackling ongoing problems and public concerns, using new vocabularies, innovative symbols, and unconventional forms of protest. 

CPI has also been well aware that their visibility depends on the capacity to offer the media a product that is at the same time personalized, spectacularized, and creating controversy and debate (Esser, 2013). The media interest in CPI can, thus, be explained by their fascination with the imaginary of violence, marked by the group’s simultaneous use of conventional and unconventional forms of activism mostly centred on its idealization of a myth of action, courage, and predominantly masculine bravery (Bulli, 2019). Images traditionally associated with Italian Fascism, such as warriors, soldiers, etc., are also part of CasaPound’s visual communication (Mosse, 1996) which aims at increasing the visibility of CasaPound in the media—which may represent a fundamental tool for CPI’s survival (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

What makes CasaPound unique is its game of smoke-and-mirrors with fascinated Italian media. The media—whether intrigued, anxious, or excited—has reported on every initiative: as Di Stefano said, “everything CasaPound did became news” (Jones, 2018). There is a convergence between CPI’s activism and its communicative strategies. In this sense, the framing, and actions of CasaPound are first based on an accurate study of the mechanisms of news production and subsequently justified ideologicallyIn so doing, CasaPound is more than simply recognizable; it is a “trademark” that can be identified well beyond the traditional audiences of neo-fascism. Today, vast shares of Italian public opinion are very familiar with CasaPound thanks to CPI’s performances and ability to attract media attention (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Moreover, CPI pays particular attention to the promotion of its events on its online platforms, so that journalists often find all the information, photos, and material they need directly from the sources of the relevant group, thus allowing CPI to exert control over its own imagery and narratives. Accordingly, demonstrations and public events are organized and planned with extreme caution to produce “iconographic” results. CPI has thus demonstrated a considerable knowledge of developing a form of storytelling based on dramatization of narratives, visual staging of protest, and the construction of controversy by means of symbolic innovation and discursive hybridization (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

Thank to hybridization strategies—i.e. the strategic combination of organizational features and activities inspired by different political cultures, institutional party politics, and non-institutional contentious actions—five features of CPI’s politics are blurred: ideology, internal structure, activism, mobilization, and communication. Hybridization in these five main aspects of extreme right politics allows CPI to attract quality media attention while also validating extremist views in the public sphere (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020) via agitprop (agitation propaganda) actions—propaganda and demonstrations aimed at mobilizing public support. CPI benefits from this strategy of hybridization, which taps into commercial media demand for entertaining stories and simplified messages. Its unconventional mix of extreme right, pop-culture, and left-progressive styles helps ensure media coverage in both the protest and electoral arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).

In terms of political symbols, CPI also offers a hybrid media product associating pop and left-wing icons with extreme right codes. The goal is not only to empty established symbols of their meaning, but also to present an innovative and unusual narrative for responding to the commercial needs of the mass media (Castelli Gattinara, 2017). Through hybridization and media-savviness, CasaPound increasingly meet the commercial media appetite for sensational, entertaining stories and polarizing news. Ultimately, CPI has realized that complying with the logistics of news production helps ensure that fringe or extreme ideas drift into the mainstream (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).

CasaPound have reconstructed fascism as what Castelli Gattinara and Froio have characterized as a “hybrid communication style.” Images of Mussolini and fascist iconography mingle with references to cultural figures sympathetic to fascist ideas, or those who might be termed proto-fascist—Ezra Pound, obviously, but also Marinetti, D’Annunzio, Sorel, Knut Hamsun, Yeats, and Nietzsche. The effect is a strange collage of nostalgic nods to the years of the fascist ventennio and to “pop culture” (Barnes, 2019). CPI’s visual propaganda also features Che Guevara and Karl Marx alongside popular pirate cartoon characters Corto Maltese and Captain Harlock, and music by anarchist songwriter Fabrizio De André (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). This strategy has gained CasaPound a significant degree of media attention. News agencies seem to be interested in the phenomenon of “acquisition” of left-wing issues and repertoires of action by extreme-right organizations: CasaPound’s squats, concerts, and “showpiece” protests, as well as the attention it gives to issues such as homosexual rights and the environment (Castelli Gattinara et al, 2013).

Moreover, CPI activists favour hip symbols and neutral clothing—jeans and T-shirts—rather than stereotyped extreme-right styles, such as shaved heads and combat boots. This improbable mix of aesthetic influences has fascinated the Italian media, building the notion that CPI promotes a new, glamorous approach to extreme-right politics (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Meanwhile, to maximize the visual impact of CPI’s demonstrations, participants form ranks of seven or eight persons and then march in orderly lines separated from one another by a maximum of two meters. Ideologically, these practices clearly reflect the idea of order and unity—strategically, they help the group to exert control over its own image when it interacts with the mass media during public events and enable it to extend its visibility well beyond the extreme-right milieu (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).

Competing in elections also increased CPI’s presence in the mainstream media. To enhance its political newsworthiness, CPI developed professionalized media management techniques designed to locate the party on the “friend” side of the “friend-foe” relationship between the media and the radical right. To do this, CPI specifically satiated the media’s desire for the spectacular and theatricality (Bulli, 2019). CPI made use of theatricality in all its political demonstrations, from traditional rallies to symbolic performances. By employing shocking tactics—like hanging dummies from town bridges in order to denounce rising prices, unemployment, and the pressures of immigration, or dyeing the water in the Senigallia fountain red in memory of the blood of Italians who committed suicide due to the pressures of debt—the movement achieved extensive media coverage. CPI used the term “squadrismo mediatico” (media squadrism) to describe this strategy (Bulli, 2019).

Gretel Cammelli (2018) lists some of CPI’s actions that have been defined as “mediatic squadrism”: a 2012 demonstration inside a high school in Rome that involved setting off smoke bombs and shouting for the Duce (Mussolini) to return; an incursion into the public television studio (Rai Tre) in 2009 to express disapproval of a programme (Chi l’ha visto), in which militants ran into the studio and warned the Italian public and politicians “not to play with their lives.” They had several t-shirts printed bearing the text “perfect squadrist style: dress up as a rockstar.” The media helps CPI gain visibility by providing attention to issues on which they enjoy enhanced public credibility, notably immigration and security (Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007).

When CPI has sought to clean up its image in order to penetrate mainstream Italian political debate, the media have again played a starring role in the project, helping to normalise and even glamourise the far-right movement (Torrisi, 2018). 

While CPI’s outward-oriented media practices have shaped public policy and state action, and/or set the terms of public debates and agendas, it also displays an internal media politics focused primarily on reinforcing ideological consistency and subcultural identification and constructing a brand identity that ensures internal cohesion and external distinctiveness. Hence, inward-oriented activism stands out for its function in structuring collective identities and ideological coherence (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020) associated with an alternative culture and community (Atkinson & Berg, 2016).Rather than being solely an instrument of internal propaganda and control, inward-oriented media practices serve the purpose of building the collective identity of the groups, binding militants within a common culture and ensuring their coherent representation towards the outside world (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).

CPI is also expert in the use of social media. It uses social media to garner support and help appeal to a young demographic. The language they use tends to be based on slogans, incitements, and abstract concepts, rather than articulated ideological positions. 

In addition, they use self-produced media innovatively (Bartlett et al., 2012). It now counts on one Internet television channel (Tortuga TV) and a monthly newspaper (Occidentale). The radio channel Radio Bandiera Nera (RBN, Black Flag Radio) was created in 2007. Initially hosted on the online forum Vivamafarka, RBN is now carried on fifteen radio stations in Italy and three abroad. It puts out political and cultural news and interviews, but its main content is far-right music. In 2013, the newspaper Il Primato Nazionale was created as an online newspaper covering CPI’s internal and external activities. Since its founding, it has become the press organ of CPI and hosts articles by its most prominent political and cultural figures (Bulli, 2019).

Indeed, there is a considerable symmetry between CPI’s internal structure and its media apparatus. The group can count not only on official social media profiles (Facebook, 240,000 likes; Twitter, 18,000 followers), and on a website summarizing its basic values, activities and proposals, but also on dedicated pages for each territorial branch, and individual pages for national leaders and candidates. 

Despite this fragmentation, these online platforms are very coherent in aesthetic choices and in the diffusion of messages. The graphic design and format of all websites and platforms are intended to provide a sense of ideological purity and belonging, not only through the selection of symbols, but also through the homogeneity of colours and fonts, creating a continuity between the main portal and the pages of its peripheral organizations and increasing the distinctiveness of the network. At the same time, these choices closely correspond to those observed in CPI’s offline communication and activities (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).

The coherence of CPI’s network is ensured by online activists and “web-supporters.” Web supporters are “CPI’s online task force” and are as important as other members and activists. In this respect, CPI’s media practices also produce innovative and more flexible forms of participation beyond traditional party membership (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, Facebook and Instagram closed CPI’s official accounts in 2019. A Facebook spokesman told the Italian news agency Ansa: “Persons or organisations that spread hatred or attack others on the basis of who they are will not have a place on Facebook and Instagram” (Tondo, 2019). However, a civil court in Rome has ruled that Facebook must immediately reactivate CPI’s account and pay the group €800 for each day the account has been closed (Giuffrida, 2019; Global Freedom of Expression, 2020).

Photo: http://www.casapounditalia.org

Anti-Immigration & Antisemitism

While CPI supporters oppose immigration and multiculturalism, their arguments against immigration are unconventional and on “progressive” grounds (Jones, 2018) compared with other far-right-wing organisations and is an example of “care racism.” CPI argues that immigration is bad for the immigrants themselves, as it is a form of “modern slavery” (Bartlett et al., 2012). 

“We want to stop immigration,” says Di Stefano. “Low-cost immigrant workers mean Italians are unable to negotiate wages, while the immigrants are exploited” (Kington, 2011a). Though Italy has fewer migrants than many other Western European countries (Eurostat, 2019), conservative lawmakers have painted an alarming picture of an invasion that has plunged the country into an unmanageable emergency (Povoledo, 2018). According to Bartlett et al. (2012), CasaPound’s arguments against immigration are mainly economic in nature. CasaPound argues that it is not against immigrants per se, but rather criticise immigration as a forced result of globalisation. They claim that globalisation creates a “multirazzista” (multiracist) society, where the rising number of immigrants prevents the state from protecting its own citizens.

In the political programme of CasaPound, migration constitutes the third priority, and the movement states its clear opposition to the “migration mechanism.” The programme proposes “blocking all migration inflows, sending back all irregular migrants, and sustaining any identity-based movement active in other countries capable of promoting the re-settlement of people in their own countries.” CasaPound declares its desire for “a world where the differences are protected and promoted… in order to prevent the confusion and spoiling of each identity.” Succinctly, it is stated in the programme: “Stop invasion; Italians first!” (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The “real human values” are expressed through a racially exclusionary, moralized claim on social housing. Leading up to the 2018 elections, the movement recalibrated their discursive and material focus on the housing issue in more directly xenophobic terms, with the slogan “Italians should come first and then, maybe, foreigners” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

The “manifesto della razza” published in Italy in 1938 affirmed the existence of hierarchically positioned races and the importance of preserving the “Italian race” before all others. CPI has edited its programme to eliminate any explicit references to the racist policies of the fascist epoch; nevertheless, many CasaPound statements reveal an updated version of this tendency to consider human beings different from one another (Castelli Gattinara, Froio & Albanese, 2013: 250). These statements provide an example of what in the social sciences is known as “differential racism” (Wieviorka, 1998).CasaPound does not grant any value to race as a genetic attribute, but identity is promoted as a feature deriving from the person’s culture and linked to a specific national territory. In this discourse, such identities are naturally linked to national borders and history, elements which determine the specific culture of the area in question. This specific culture in turn produces the identity of individuals, and CasaPound has declared itself ready to defend these specific cultures and traditions against the supposed risk of contamination entailed in encountering and living with different cultures. According to this logic, migrants should be sent back to their own countries because different cultures cannot live together. This example of cultural fundamentalism (Stolcke, 1995) claims different access to citizenship and civil rights depending on the origins of the individual in question (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

CasaPound’s actions often target centres hosting migrants and asylum seekers through outright attacks (Selmini, 2016) or symbolic demonstrations. Throughout 2014 and 2015, CasaPound’s leaders organised rallies against asylum centres that were due to open. All over Italy, every time a vacant building was converted into an asylum centre, CasaPound members contacted local citizens opposing the centres, offering strategic advice (Jones, 2018). This occurred, for instance, in Goro Gorino in the autumn of 2016, when CasaPound and Lega Nord activists coordinated with local resident to put together a committee to prevent asylum seekers from settling in the town, erecting a barricade across the street at night. CPI members also invaded the emergency area of a hospital in Bolzano in 2018 to protest homeless people who took refuge there overnight (Povoledo, 2018). 

Furthermore, in May 2019, angry protesters and members of the CPI tried to block a Roma family from accessing its assigned council apartment in the Casal Bruciato district of Rome. When riot police escorted a woman and her child back to the apartment, some protesters raised their arms in a fascist salute; others shouted racial insults and rape threats (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Some female residents in the district said, “we want to see them all hanged, burned.” “Shall we call Mussolini back from the dead?” asked another woman ironically. “I wish,” replied the others (ANSA, 2019). 

Eventually, CasaPound militants went on to actually kill migrants. The first incident took place in Florence in 2011, when a CasaPound militant with a gun shot and killed two workers from Senegal; another occurred in Fermo in the summer of 2016, when a CasaPound sympathizer beat an asylum seeker to death. CasaPound’s rhetoric of opposition to migrants and different cultures open the way for violent actions and shows how the fascist past can find space for its mythological narration and thereby legitimize a specific identity in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Meanwhile, despite CPI’s Di Stefano stating that Mussolini’s racial laws were “a mistake… We believe in the national community and the Jews in Italy are part of that,” (Kington, 2011a) CPI is antisemitic. It cooperated with Lebanese radical Islamist group Hezbollah in 2015. While CasaPound borrows a significant amount of its ideology from Italian Fascism, it attempts to disassociate itself officially from antisemitism (Staff, 2012).

CasaPound has condemned Mussolini’s racial laws as a mistake—while also adding that they have to be understood in a context in which antisemitism was a worldwide phenomenon and not specifical to Italy (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Di Stefano said, “We are not racists, we are not antisemitic, we do not have problems with Israel,” when CPI’s political ally Matteo Salvini was denied entry into Israel on the purported basis of his CasaPound connection. In 2018, Di Stefano defended then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies regarding repatriation of illegal immigrants to Africa as “undoubtedly excellent,” and criticised humanitarian organisations and the United Nations for intervening to prevent them.

Simone Di Stefano. Photo: @distefanoTW

CasaPound’s Transnational Connections and Impact

Despite being a small group, CPI has been able to set an example for extreme-right social movements (Koch, 2013).Indeed, CasaPound has become a reference point at the European level, attracting the attention not only of the observers of political extremism, but also of the media and the public (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Over the years, CPI’s leaders have been invited to explain its “political model” in many major European capitals (Paris, Madrid, London, Lisbon, Brussels, Warsaw). In 2011, the Finnish Resistance Movement invited members of CasaPound to a seminar in Helsinki (YLE, 2011). Other extreme-right organizations in Europe are also increasingly studying CasaPound’s experience: in November 2014, the leader of CPI was invited to the international conference, “The Awakening of Nations,” organized by the French Groupe Union Défense, along with other extremist groups such as the Greek Golden Dawn (and its Cypriote branch ELAM), the Belgian Nation, the Spanish Movimiento Sociale Republicano and Liga Joven, the French Mouvement d’Action Sociale, and some representatives from the online platform Synthèse Nationale (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

Moreover, CasaPound has always voraciously consumed foreign trends and repackaged them for an Italian audience: it absorbed the anti-capitalist ideas of France’s Nouvelle Droite movement and built friendships with members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (Jones, 2018). CasaPound has also promoted initiatives outside Italy through its non-profit organization Solidarité Identités. Through the Sol.Id network, CasaPound activists have engaged in projects in Burma, Crimea, Kosovo, Palestine, and Syria. Ten percent of CasaPound’s income is dedicated to the efforts of Sol.Id. Despite the group’s engagement in Syria, in support of the Assad government’s “struggle to defend its people” CasaPound activists saw no contradiction between supporting the Syrian people in their homeland and being opposed to granting asylum to Syrians fleeing to Europe (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

On foreign policy, CPI’s core beliefs include fondness for Russia and sharp opposition to the EU, globalization, and immigration (Horowitz, 2017), and supporting a communitarian-nationalist Europe. CasaPound Facebook supporters have very negative attitudes towards the EU. CasaPound supporters were significantly more likely to cite the following when asked about their views about the EU: loss of cultural and national identity (63 percent vs only 12 percent of the Italian general public); waste of money (48 percent vs 16 percent); bureaucracy (33 percent vs 7 percent); and not enough control at external borders (46 percent vs 9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012). Nevertheless, CPI defines itself as a pro-European organization, unlike many contemporary radical-right movements. Once more, this element connects them to the tradition of the neo-fascist right dating back to the early 1950s, when fascist groups were transnational actors proposing an ideal European nation-state based on shared traditions and homogeneous cultures and values. To these ideals, CasaPound adds the proposal of a protectionist Europe, with the goal of achieving a European-wide area of economic and welfare self-sufficiency (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).

Conclusion

CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups to emerge in Europe in recent decades (Bartlett et al., 2012). Its supporters say they are not racist—but they oppose immigration because of its impact on wages and housing; claim they are not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the “traditional family” (Lidell, 2012). Never before has Italy seen an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying strategic viability that CasaPound today enjoys. Although CasaPound remains marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their policies (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Like other extremist movements, CasaPound is an example of the tendency in contemporary Europe to play on fears and social crisis in order to advance a right-wing ideology (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Despite its grassroots nature and extreme ideology, CPI has acquired national relevance and gained international media exposure. In recent years alone, the group opened 94 new local chapters, successfully penetrating mainstream public debates and receiving disproportionate attention by national media. The visibility of CPI’s symbols, campaigns, and brand among mainstream audiences is unprecedented for a fringe group so openly inspired by historical fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). CPI has also exploited COVID-19, calling the Italian response to the pandemic, “amateurish and partisan” (Willson, 2020). 

In the closing sentences of his essay titled “Ur-Fascism” published in the New York Review of Books, Umberto Eco (1995) warned that “it would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying: ‘I want to re-open Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares. Life is not that simple’.” The spectre of a new fascism currently haunts Italy—and Europe—but is not readily identifiable in the black-shirted urban and rural spectacles of CasaPound. It is alarming to see that a survey by Censis research institute showed 48.2 percent of Italians are in favour of having a “strongman” in power who does not care about parliament and elections, while a poll by Demos in November 2017 revealed that almost 60 percent of Italians were “very worried about the rise of fascism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). 

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Photo: Matej Kastelic

Civic Leadership Program: Understanding and Responding to Global Challenges in an Age of Populism (July 5-9, 2021)

Overview 

A new wave of populist politics defined by anti-establishment, nationalist and anti-minority agendas is gaining power around the world. Understanding the drivers and the impact of populist politics on democracy is key to tackling the most critical challenges facing our world today. The ECPS Academy Civic Leadership Program supports the empowerment of future generations by deepening their understanding of global challenges, helping participants to develop constructive and effective responses. The five-day Civic Leadership Program offers young people a dynamic and engaging learning environment with an intellectually challenging program, allowing them to grow as future academic, intellectual, activist and public leaders.

Each day offers interactive lectures, led by world-leading practitioners and experts from varied disciplinary backgrounds. The lectures are complemented by discussions, group interactions, and assignments on selected key issues to upgrade participant knowledge, qualifications and skills. Participants have the opportunity to collaborate with those from different socio-political contexts, developing invaluable cross-cultural skills and a truly global knowledge of our times. This program seeks to contribute to the personal and academic development of each participant and foster social responsibility and awareness among future leaders from all around the world. 

Who should apply?

This unique course is addressed to outstanding candidates interested in gaining a more comprehensive and critical understanding of how current global issues are linked to the rise of populism. A select group of participants will be chosen based on merit, with applications welcomed from students pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees of any discipline, and early career professionals between the ages of 18 and 30. Participants are selected on the basis of a letter of motivation, a CV and a research proposal of between 250 and 500 words. We value the high level of diversity on our courses, welcoming applications from people of all backgrounds. The deadline for submitting applications is June 20, 2021.

Topics covered

Projects

Individual project: Participants write an article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to plan and produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. They will be mentored by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program, and selected papers will be considered for publication on ECPS Youth blog.  

Group project: Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Participants are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need. The projects need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program.

Participant Reflections

To consolidate their intellectual and personal growth, we ask that each participant share their personal reflections on their development, as well as the design and content of the program.

Evaluation Criteria

Meeting the assessment criteria below is required from all participants aiming to successfully complete the program and receive a certificate of attendance in the end. These three evaluation criteria include full attendance, active participation in lectures, successful completion of individual paper assignment and successful completion of group project assignments.

  1. Full attendance and active participation in lectures 

Participants are expected to show up in all the lectures and actively participate in the discussions to meet the minimum assessment requirements. In case of failure to attend a lecture without a valid reason, participants will not be considered for assessment. Acceptable reasons for not attending a lecture include 1) serious illness at the time of the lecture (i.e., illness sufficiently serious to warrant a visit to a health professional); 2) grave family or personal emergency.

2. Successful completion of individual paper assignment 

Participants are to write a blogpost article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. Participants can request mentorship by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. This will be arranged based on the availability of our experts when the request is made.

The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program. Please make sure that the facts you mention are supported by research and include a primary reference in the form of a hyperlink. You can also use footnotes to provide context and explanation for your article. Selected articles can be published on ECPS website or submitted elsewhere for publication. Each completed article is assigned to one of our in-house experts to be evaluated based on the following criteria: clarity, depth, originality, and relevance.

3. Successful completion of group project assignments 

Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Each group will be informed by the coordinators about who they will work with after the end of the program. Groups are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, artistic or literary projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing project, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need.

For any selected project, two reports are required. One is a project proposal of between (300-500) words specifying the goals and objectives of the project and secondly a final report (1,000-2,000) describing the results and outcomes of the project. The project proposals will be submitted before the project initiation. The completed projects and the final reports need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program. They will be evaluated by a committee made up of three ECPS experts based on the project’s societal impact, relevance, innovation, and content quality.

Learning Outcomes

Educational outcomes of this program for participants’ intellectual, professional and personal development include:

Knowledge: Participants deeply engage with multi-disciplinary issues surrounding populism with a range of experts to build critical knowledge and understanding. They are able to identify populist rhetoric and its impact on democracy, human rights, and values and draw advanced connections between how populism operates in different parts of the world.

Skills: Participants attending this program develop a comprehensive set of skills that are highly valuable to their intellectual and personal growth and empowerment. The training will cultivate participants’ use of basic methodological skills and tools needed for academic research and learning. In addition, working together on a group project will advance their collaborative skills and creativity.

Cross-cultural Competence: Participants develop their cross-cultural competencies, meeting with like-minded individuals from around the world to develop a higher understanding of current world problems. They learn to speak confidently and respectfully on complex and controversial issues, and value contrasting perspectives. As they engage in academic exchange and share their ideas and experiences with others, participants develop empathy, tolerance, curiosity and understanding for each other’s views.

Social/Civic Responsibility: Participants build a sense of civic responsibility and awareness of global challenges as they are taught concrete strategies to deal with the impact of populist politics. They apply critical thinking and media literacy in countering misinformation and learn about how they can foster community engagement and solidarity in fighting against critical global challenges.

Credit

This course is worth 5 ECTS in the European system. If you intend to transfer credit to your home institution, please check the requirements with them before you apply. We will be happy to assist you in any way we can, however please be aware that the decision to transfer credit rests with your home institution.

Certificate of Attendance

Awarded after program to all participants based on the satisfactory participation in, and completion of, the course assignments. Certificates are sent to students only by email.

Fee

ECPS believes that this world-class opportunity should be open to all, regardless of financial background. Therefore, this five-day program is available for just €20.

Program Flow

The program will take place online via Zoom between July 5-9, 2021. There will be two sessions on each day. Please note that this schedule is tentative and may be subject to change depending on the circumstances. 

July 5, 2021 

  • Populism: An introduction(13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Anthoula Malkopoulou
  • Varieties of populism (18:30-20:30 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Steven M. Van Hauwaert

July 6, 2021

  • Populism, democracy, and authoritarianism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Tsveta Petrova
  • Populism, nationalism and identity (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou

July 7, 2021

  • Populism and religions (14:00-16:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Jocelyne Cesari
  • Populist discourse and digital technology (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Majid Khosravinik

July 8, 2021

  • Gender, race and populism (13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Haley McEwen
  • Digital populism: internet and far-right (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Eviane Leidig 

July 9, 2021

  • Environment and populism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Kai Bosworth
  • Radicalization and violent extremism (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daniela Pisoiu

Program Coordinators

This program is coordinated by Dr. F. Zehra Colak in collaboration with ECPS Youth Program members. Submit your application: [email protected]

Opposition party deputies, members and the members of civil society organisations had to guard the ballots for days to prevent stealing by the people organized by Erdogan regime in Turkey. The photo was shared by opposition deputy Mahmut Tanal's Twitter account @MTanal during the Turkish local elections on March 31, 2019.

Prof. Kurt Weyland: Elections in Turkey are held but manipulated

The Turkish regime is competitive-authoritarian a la Levitsky and Way (2010, Cambridge UP). Elections are held but manipulated, with massive government overspending and a great deal of pressure on the opposition (e.g., the Kurdish party, the HDP). So, the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed. Nevertheless, opposition forces do have a chance to win, as in 2019 in Istanbul.

By Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Kurt Weyland from the University of Texas at Austin argues that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has destroyed democracy in Turkey and adds that although elections in Turkey are held, they are manipulated to a large extent. He argues that Turkey is now a “competitive-authoritarian” regime. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Prof. Weyland says the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed but draws attention to the opposition’s electoral victory in Istanbul at the 2019 local elections. 

Prof. Weyland argues that the idea that advanced democracies are vulnerable to populism is exaggerated, stressing that advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation. “Advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation, with firm institutions, independent judiciaries, reasonably strong party systems, a vigilant press, a vibrant civil society, and an energetic and resourceful citizenry,” he says. 

The following are excerpts from the interview lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Trump Did Not Have Much of a Chance for His Undemocratic Efforts

You think former US President Donald Trump’s threat to American democracy is overestimated. Can you explain why?

Trump certainly intended to concentrate power, weaken checks and balances, disadvantage the opposition, and so on. So, he did pose a threat. But as my 2020 article in Perspectives on Politics explains, US democracy is highly resilient, institutions are very firmly rooted, a constitutional transformation was out of the question, and checks and balances (including the federal division of power) “held” to quite some extent, as evident in the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, the US has a strong, vibrant civil society and an independent press, good parts of which constantly monitored and strongly opposed Trump. Therefore, he did not have much of a chance to succeed in his undemocratic efforts.

Trump could not impose his populist system but has democracy in the United States emerged intact from the challenge of Trump’s populism? Has Trump left lasting scars on US democracy?

Trump has exacerbated the partisan polarization that has plagued US democracy for many years and has further deepened the hostility between different political forces, especially Democrats vs. Republicans. Moreover, Trump has sown doubt about “the truth” in many Republicans’ minds and thus helped to weaken the public sphere, civic debate, and political pluralism. So, Trump has done some damage to US democracy.

But institutionally speaking, US democracy remains almost entirely intact. Trump has not managed to undermine or weaken the institutional framework of US democracy. There has been no constitutional transformation, no major change in institutional checks and balances, in election laws, and so on. So, US democracy is largely intact.

Why do you think the argument that advanced democracies are vulnerable to populism is exaggerated?

Advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation, with firm institutions, independent judiciaries, reasonably strong party systems, a vigilant press, a vibrant civil society, and an energetic and resourceful citizenry. Populist efforts to concentrate power and undermine liberal democracy, therefore, face very substantial obstacles.

Note that populist leaders who have governed in advanced democracies (e.g., Berlusconi and Trump) have done no significant damage to democracy. Note also that even during the turbulent, crisis-wracked interwar years, democracy in advanced countries (Northwestern Europe) survived, as Cornell, Moller, and Skaaning highlight in their 2020 Oxford University Press book.    

For democracies to succumb to populism, you argue that a second precondition is necessary, which is either to experience some kind of acute crisis or be blessed by huge hydrocarbon windfalls. However, in Turkey, the second precondition has not been met. How do you explain that Erdogan’s populism has been so successful?

Sure, there was – the fallout of the 2001 economic collapse, which significantly weakened the opposition and helped Erdogan win a clear election victory in 2002.

Trump Has Inadvertently Re-energized US Democracy

“Trump, you’re fired!” poster was held during a demonstration in Orlando, FL, USA on June 19, 2020.

You argue that President Trump’s populism could inadvertently spark a revival of American democracy. Could you expand on this a little?

I cover much of this in the last part of my 2020 article. Precisely due to the partisan polarization in the US, Trump’s problematic machinations prompted a strong reaction—a lot of anti-populist, anti-Trump energy—from many sectors of civil society and, of course, the Democratic Party. And because of the institutional strength of US democracy, this energy did not lead to contentious protests, which can be problematic for democracy and can fuel populism by playing into populist leaders’ penchant for confrontation. Instead, this energy was channeled into conventional channels, especially elections. So, in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections, voter turnout was significantly higher than in the recent past—and the anti-Trump forces won! Thus, Trump has inadvertently re-energized US democracy and counteracted the tendency toward low electoral participation (in comparison to Europe).

You argue that Erdogan destroyed democracy in Turkey. How do you define Turkey’s political system today?

Competitive-authoritarian a la Levitsky and Way (2010, Cambridge UP). Elections are held but manipulated, with massive government overspending and a great deal of pressure on the opposition (e.g., the Kurdish party, the HDP). So, the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed. Nevertheless, opposition forces do have a chance to win, as in 2019 in Istanbul.

Unlike many colleagues of yours who deal with populism, you started writing on populism in the 1990s. How do you explain this?

The root cause is my old age! At the tail end of my dissertation research in Brazil, I witnessed the electoral campaign and early government of Fernando Collor de Mello (1990–92), who was a right-winger but used a typically populist political strategy to win and exercise power. As a charismatic leader, he appealed directly (without any organized party) to the heterogeneous masses — “the people.” His base came disproportionately from the politically unorganized people in the urban informal sector and the rural poor. Then in government, he constantly invoked his 35 million votes and tried to bypass established parties and civil-society groupings, willfully imposing his projects from the top down.

I then “saw” a similar strategy in Argentina under Carlos Menem (1989–99) and especially Peru under Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000), whose government I followed closely, starting my field research in Peru with a brief visit in 1995 and then an extended stay in 1996. Together with the borderline case of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico (1988–94), those three leaders inspired my analysis of neopopulism. These were also foreshadowed by Alan Garcia of Peru (1985–90), as analyzed by Cynthia Sanborn in her 1991 Harvard dissertation.

My early writings on neopopulism then gave rise to my conceptual article (2001) on populism as a political strategy. Due to my interest in populism, I also followed the rise of “Bolivarian” populism a la Hugo Chavez. And then, finally, Trump.

Overall, populism has had a long tradition in Latin America that I have followed since taking a graduate seminar on Argentina’s history in the 19th and 20th century in 1984 (!) as an MA student at the University of Texas at Austin. The military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s failed in their efforts to extirpate populism, which made a comeback in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in the 1980s. Thus, for almost a century now, populism has played a very important role in several Latin American countries, which any student of these countries must recognize.  

Political Developments Often Do Not Advance in Linear Trajectories

If populist waves continue, what sort of a US and Europe will we witness in 20–30 years?

That is very difficult to predict! One usually thinks in terms of continuities and ongoing trends, such that things would get worse and worse. There certainly are factors that would point in that direction, such as the continued weakening of “established” party systems, which creates political space for populist leaders. There is also the growing complexity of modern politics, which leaves citizens at a loss and makes them susceptible to the simplistic slogans and appeals of populists. Finally, there are specific issues that populist leaders take advantage of, such as the seemingly growing pressures of international mass migration.

But then, political developments often do not actually advance in linear trajectories. Instead, there can be surprising turnarounds, driven, for example, by processes of learning or other counteracting tendencies. I hope that over time, citizens will learn to “see through” the simplistic slogans, the unproductive resentments, and the facile promises made by populist leaders and won’t “fall for” these kinds of politicians anymore. 

Fukuyama predicted the victory of liberal democracy after the Cold War. Instead, we now witness the rise of populism. What went wrong?

First, with his specific claim, namely that all ideological alternatives to liberal democracy had collapsed, Fukuyama was essentially correct. Populism constitutes, in Juan Linz’s term, a vague “mentality,” not a real ideology. And it has no real institutional alternative to democracy, as Marxist communism and fascism did. All that populism proposes is to add a few plebiscitary mechanisms, and of course, to concentrate power in the presidency and to soften or limit institutional checks and balances. At the same time, populists, as we know, sneakily distort that whole framework through overbearing personalistic leadership. But that’s a surreptitious effort, not an institutional project. 

Consequently, there is no ideological and institutional alternative to liberal democracy, just as Fukuyama argued. Nobody has come up with another project, vision, or utopia – neither the right nor the left.

But for sure, liberal democracy hasn’t remained as triumphant as it was circa 1990, nor has it flourished, as Fukuyama had hoped. Instead, a deep malaise has set in – not unlike the malaise affecting earlier hopes of liberal progress in the late 19thcentury. This is partly a product of the fact that the ideological alternative to liberal democracy has folded. Ideological projects often look better, find more support, and are more vibrant when they confront dangerous adversaries. Note that in the struggle against an authoritarian regime, liberal democracy looks great. But as soon as the battle is won—authoritarianism is defeated, and democracy established—disenchantment (desencanto in Spanish) usually sets in. This is because democracy is not wonderful, because it involves compromise rather than heroic struggle, and because politicians often pursue particularistic deals rather than programmatic projects.

But there are also deeper, serious structural problems. I believe that one of the most important difficulties arises from the incredible (and growing) complexity of modern politics, which citizens have increasing difficulty grasping. Moreover, all governments have felt compelled to enlist more and more technocrats, who tell citizens and especially their governments what they “can” and “cannot” do. Therefore, governments often diverge from their campaign promises to citizens who want more social benefits and more police in the street, yet lower taxes. How can this circle be squared? 

These gaps diminish citizens’ trust in politicians and governments and create space for populists, who irresponsibly promise even more than establishment politicians. And nowadays, can citizens still have the civic competence that democracy presupposes? Do they know how best to advance their own interests, who it is in their best interests to vote for, and which party or leader represents them best? 

I think these fundamental structural problems, examined, for example, in Yasha Mounk’s 2018 book, are among the root causes of democracy’s contemporary problems.

Who Is Kurt Weyland?

Kurt Weyland is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Austin. Weyland’s research interests focus on democratization and authoritarian rule, social policy and policy diffusion, and on populism in Latin America and Europe. He has drawn on a range of theoretical and methodological approaches, including insights from cognitive psychology. He has done extensive field research in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, and Venezuela. After receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1991, he taught for ten years at Vanderbilt University and joined UT in 2001. From 2001 to 2004, he served as Associate Editor of the Latin American Research Review.

Weyland is the author of several books and many articles in journals such as World PoliticsComparative Politics,Comparative Political StudiesLatin American Research ReviewInternational Studies QuarterlyJournal of DemocracyForeign Affairs, and Political Research Quarterly. He has also (co-)edited two volumes—namely Learning from Foreign Models in Latin American Policy Reform (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004) and, together with Wendy Hunter and Raul Madrid, Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings (Cambridge University Press, 2010). His latest book, Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.

Photo: ubisoft.com

Eivor the Trickster: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the popularization of tricksters, anti-fascist neo-paganism, and Scandinavian mythology

ABSTRACT: In the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, developer Ubisoft brings its acclaimed series to Viking-era England and casts Eivor as the protagonist. She is a fierce Viking whose saga is shaped by the player’s choices throughout the game. In this commentary, we argue that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

How do we define a trickster, let alone a popular one? We know tricksters are found across cultures and traditions: Myrddin the Wizard, Nasreddin the Scholar, and Sun Wu Kong, the wise and victorious Stone Monkey. All of these figures have shared characteristics, such as being able to transform both their identities, whether understood as metaphorical or physical, and “the society’s norms” (Wiget, 1990: 86). In addition, they are “timeless, universal,” and “disrupt all orders of things, including the analytic categories of academics” (Wiget, 1994: 95).

In the latest update to its beloved series, entitled “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” we find Ubisoft placing tricksters at the forefront of the game’s narrative. By taking its latest game to Viking-era England, it also benefits from the richness of Scandinavian mythology and its trickster characters. While AC Valhalla is not the first game to take advantage of Scandinavian folklore (Skyrim also comes to mind), it could be the first such game to make the trickster the central character of the game.

In AC Valhalla, the player shapes the story of Eivor, a fierce Viking warrior with a warm heart, throughout the game. As the game uses Scandinavian lore as a backdrop, Odin (known in Scandinavian mythology as the All-Father) and Loki (a trickster and companion of Odin, known for his cunning mind and transformations), also make an appearance. The game, as a whole, emphasizes the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki. Perhaps most importantly, the game gives Eivor similar trickster qualities, such as a cunning mind, ambiguity in terms of gender and loyalty, and the ability to communicate with the divine. Furthermore, by casting none other than Einar Selvik—the famous Norwegian musician—as Bragi (the game’s bard and companion of Eivor) and having him sing most of the songs heard in the game, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism. At the same time, it popularizes traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a ‘trickster spirit’ in one of the game’s arcs.

In the Glowecestrescire arc of the game, Eivor finds herself participating in a Gaelic festival called Samhain. During the festival, Eivor puts on an animal skull (symbolically representing her transformation into animal form) and goes from door to door, telling riddles, and receiving gifts from the hosts. While the Samhain festival later transformed into Halloween (Simpson & Weiner, 1989), what is important for us here is that Eivor is called a “trickster spirit” in this part of the game.

While this is undoubtedly the highlight of Eivor’s tricksterism in the game in the literal sense, many allusions are scattered throughout this latest installment in the franchise. First of all, the player is given the option of choosing Eivor’s gender, as we are told that we cannot ascertain the character’s gender from historical records. In this sense, Eivor is similar to Loki, the Nordic trickster, who ‘has the ability to change his shape and sex’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, Loki). Similarly, while we have observed the aforementioned metaphorical transformation of Eivor (by donning the Samhain mask) during the Glowecestrescire arc, we find out that Basim, a legendary assassin in the game, is an incarnation of Loki.

Thor fighting Loki on a beach in Anyer, Banten, Indonesia. Photo: Ari Wid

There are other similarities that connect Eivor to Loki, the traditional trickster of Norse sagas. Loki is a ‘companion of [the] great gods Odin and Thor’ (Britannica), and Odin is always seen at the side of Eivor throughout the game, giving her advice or commenting on her actions. At the same time, Loki is also “the enemy of the gods,” causing “difficulty for them and himself” (Britannica). Not surprisingly, Eivor also eventually challenges the Norse god Odin, even fighting him as part of a boss fight toward the end of the game. This contradictory character of Loki is also reflected in other aspects of Eivor in the game, based on player choice and game design. While Eivor can choose to spare or slay her enemies throughout the game, she regularly finds herself in the position to raid monasteries and settlements, which is a central mechanism in the game that allows players to develop their own settlements with the materials gained through raiding.

Through these intentional similarities, Ubisoft popularizes Norse mythology, and the traditional trickster character Loki, as part of Scandinavian and Germanic culture, through the game’s protagonist Eivor. This process of popularizing traditional cultural elements is called “cultural populism” (or one aspect of it) in Cultural Studies. Jagers and Walgrave (2007) hold that populism is a discursive practice. For Barr (2009), populism is a well-devised strategy. For yet others, it is a kind of performance, and within the realm of International Relations, it is a type of political strategy (Moffit, 2017). On the other hand, cultural populism, as mentioned above, is the “infusion of popular cultural elements into ‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). In our case, cultural populism can be understood as the popularization of traditional cultural and mythological elements through the popular medium of gaming.

Cultural populism also has a negative connotation, as it can be criticized as a means of trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (e.g., TV films versus arthouse cinema, airport paperbacks versus “serious” literature). While this kind of populism does not mobilize the masses, it can still affect the consumer in more subtle ways. For example, it can trivialize the complexity of characters, turning them into caricatures, or water down traditional stories with shallow characterizations, under the assumption that consumers cannot handle the complexity of the original material.

By featuring Einar Selvik, the Norwegian musician known for his anti-fascist stance and neo-pagan music, Ubisoft’s latest game also popularizes neo-paganism. This is underscored by the inclusion of many other pagan elements throughout the game, such as the pagan festivals of Ostara, Samhain, and the Yule Festival, among others. This links with other cultural elements of the game. Norse cultural elements are also utilized extensively by proponents of neo-paganism, with Thor, Odin, and other Norse deities of particular importance. Although the game does not explicitly promote neo-paganism, it features pagan elements heavily, thus popularizing the pagan aspects of Norse mythology and culture.

Thus, through Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft takes us back to Viking-era England. Players are able to control Eivor as a trickster character, a Viking leader, and a problem solver, whose actions depend on each player’s choices. In this commentary, we have argued that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft contributes to the rising popularity of a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism, while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

As explicated above, in the virtual space of gaming, participants not only observe and are exposed to stories but also are given opportunities to live in and be part of the cultural elements and narratives in a fashion that is remarkably close to real-life experience, if not more. This encourages participants to engage emotionally with the epic elements of said culture. Thus, in general, the realm of gaming and interactive entertainment is open to the soft power, even sharp power, activities of third parties. This certainly is not a new thing, as the prominent example of the US army sponsoring video games for new recruits shows (Jacques, 2009).

Whether video games such as the Call of Duty series have been used to securitize certain groups or communities is an open question, which can be investigated as the topic of another commentary. For now, we can at least rest assured that Ubisoft is aware of this phenomenon, as they include a disclaimer at the start of each entry in their franchise: “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” As Burns rightly points out, this is necessary given the sensitivity of the topics that the series has been exploring from the beginning (Burns, 2012).

(*) OMER SENER holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters, cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.

References

— (n.d.). “Loki.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loki

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

Burns, Matthew Seiji. (2002). ‘Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things.” https://matthewseiji.com/notes/2012/8/17/assassins-creed-multiculturalism-and-how-to-talk-about-thing.html (accessed on June 4, 2012). 

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

Jacques, John. (2009). “US Army has Spent $32.8m on America’s Army.” Game Rant. December 10, 2009. https://gamerant.com/army-spent-328m-americas-army-game/ (accessed on June 4, 2012).

McGuigan, J., & Mcguigan, D.J. (1992). Cultural Populism (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203413609

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

Simpson, John & Weiner, Edmund. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (second ed.). London: Oxford University Press

Wiget, Andrew. (1994). Dictionary of Native American literature. Garland.


[1] This commentary includes spoilers about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, particularly regarding the identity of the protagonist and the ending of the game.

Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Institutionalized Populism: The “Strange Case” of the Italian Five Star Movement

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

By Amedeo Varriale*

Italy’s Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) has long been considered a left-wing populist formation. This is mainly because its original agenda was dedicated to addressing five themes (the so-called “five stars”) that were the preserve of the 20th century’s post-materialist left-wing parties and movements—public watersustainable transport,sustainable developmenttechnology, and environmentalism. They are typical issues of the post-1968 New Left (Tarchi, 2015: 337).

The New Left encompassed various European parties that gradually abandoned their original radically authoritarian, Marxist, statist positions to embrace contemporary issues such as environmentalism, feminism, and globalization (Damiani, 2016: 13). We know that these left-wing establishment parties[1] adopt a more liberal and libertarian outlook than the anti-systemic extreme left.[2] Today, the Dutch Socialist Party, the M5S, La France Insoumise, SYRIZA, and PODEMOS flirt with populism rather than with Marxist–Leninism and are no longer necessarily inspired by the old Soviet (or even Chinese) model (Moffit, 2020: 55–70). Today, some contemporary left-wing parties may very well be fully populist, given they adopt a particularistic form of politics that involves people-centric appeals and unmediated forms of communication. In this way, they go beyond the clientelist, formalist, and territorial politics of the traditional social-democratic mass parties.

The Five Star Movement, one of the youngest children of the reformist and progressive New Left (which some scholars like Luke March associate with the “radical left”[3]), is a perfect example. It gained serious popularity, not by using outdated Marxist tropes but by embracing left-wing populism[4] and mobilizing disenchanted voters in a period of widespread social malaise. This form of populism, quite different from the significantly more anti-migrant and socially conservative right-wing variant, is an ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the establishment, and speaking for the “common people” (Ibid). While themes like anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism, and anti-globalization are very much relevant to these populists, class struggle and class society, as well as socialist theory, are not as important as they are to traditional left-wing parties (Ibid). The case of the Five Star Movement, which will be analyzed in the following paragraphs, is very much a demonstration of this.

Suppose we follow Cas Mudde’s (2004: 543) lead and treat populism as an ideology that considers society as two homogeneous and antagonistic groups (“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”) and holds that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. In that case, the Five Star Movement is a left-populist party. The raison d’être of the party ever since its first protests (the V’Day protests in 2007) has been to pressure professional political elites to step down in order to take politics back to the people (Tarchi, 2015). Their first offensives were against the Italian establishment, which they saw as untrustworthy and detrimental to the commonwealth (Tarchi, 2015).

Populists of the left purport to give a voice to the silent majority—the ordinary men and women who (according to the populists) are being let down by career politicians, bureaucrats, corporate bankers, the media, and the European techno-managerial establishment in Brussels and Strasbourg that has usurped governing power. Unlike the populist right, the grillini (a term used by Italian pundits to refer to supporters of the M5S’s “guarantor” Beppe Grillo) do not openly argue that Italian ethnic and cultural identity is under threat by a wave of immigration perpetrated by financial corporations (or “liberal elites” conspiring to create a new order based on multiculturalism and cheap labor). Instead, the grillini propagate the left-wing populist narrative that social democracy has failed—in no longer representing its old electoral base and betraying its egalitarian principles (Gandesha, 2018).

Moreover, Grillo has openly called for the left to abandon the concept of class struggle in favor of a so-called caste struggle (Tarchi, 2015: 351; Zazzara, 2019: 110). To some degree, this is a defensible approach, at least according to proponents of left–populism like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Moffit, 2020: 65). For some time, high-ranking M5S members like Alessandro Di Battista and Grillo himself have justified their attacks on elites by arguing that “the caste” has steadily impoverished Italians (Ci hanno impoveriti). The leadership argues that only the M5S (the so-called “true democrats”) can “open up parliament like a can of tuna” to restore to power everyday citizens with ordinary qualities such as common sense (Tarchi, 2015). This is in line with their call for direct democracy, a feature that, alongside anti-elitism, is central to understanding the true ethos of the party.

Beppe Grillo speaks during a public meeting of the 5 Star Movement in Florence, Italy on March 8, 2009. Photo: Giacomo Morini.

Ideology and Discourse

The French political scientist Guy Hermet (2000: 80) long ago observed that populism’s capacity to capitalize electorally on cultural, financial, and political crises and its futurist, quasi-utopian, and millenarian features make it palatable to left- as well as right-wing forms (Tarchi, 2015: 374). Hermet’s vision has been borne out by the Five Star Movement, which has deftly navigated Italy’s post-2009 recession and post-2015 refugee crises in recent years. Beyond established thinkers like Hermet, newer commentators like Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008) advance the idea that populism can indeed be left-oriented.[5] In fact, popular sovereignty in the past has very much been a theme of focus adaptable to the republicanism and commitment to democratic principles of the center-left (Tarchi, 2015: 373).

Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement cannot be treated as a classic left-wing party and has never been particularly committed to liberal republicanism. Yet its overt focus on the majoritarian aspects of democracy (linked to what Peter Mair defined as the popular pillar of democracy[6]) and commitment to the nation’s sovereignty and the volonté générale of Italian citizens falls in line with the definition of left-wing populism provided above. For example, expanding the welfare state—a typical left-wing policy—and the so-called Reddito di Cittadinanza (a kind of universal basic income scheme) were “signature policies” that the M5S took to the 2018 elections (Mancini, 2020).

The overt hostility toward elites embedded within the M5S ideology saw Grillo and his circle try (and fail) to introduce a “recall” procedure[7] and referendums without a quorum (i.e., against privatization of water, nuclear energy, and the Euro) into the Italian system (Tarchi, 2015: 341; Adnkronos, 2014). However, they were successful in reducing parliamentary salaries and the number of MPs (Brunetti, 2019). Another great success was blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has intervened militarily in Yemen and thus been party to severe breaches of international human rights laws (according to the United Nations, a child under the age of five dies every ten minutes in Yemen). Such policies reflect a blending of the polymorphous ideology of populism and the zealously egalitarian and pacifist values of the New Left.

In order to understand the discourse and ideology of the “strange political animal”[8] that is the M5S, we must first look at the background of its founders—Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio.[9] Grillo, an ex-comedian, is well-known for his passionate tirades against the establishment (i.e., the leftist Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or Forward Italy). Casaleggio was a wealthy entrepreneur from the technology sector who invested in the revolutionary “Gaia project”—inspired by the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” written by the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron—that seeks to dismantle parliamentary, representative systems to bring democratic processes online (Musso and Maccaferri, 2018). It is for this reason (among others) that Chris Bickerton (2018) has spoken about the Five Star Movement as a “techno–populist” party. Grillo has never hidden his admiration for the internet and has gone so far as to point out that the web is a collective good and a necessary one since “even prostitutes do their business online, without the inefficient and unfair mediation of pimps (Tempi, 2013). In addition, both founders expressed convictions that the web reflects the values of the egalitarian left (it is apparently “Franciscan, anti-capitalist”) and that “online, ideas and sharing ideas are worth more than money” (Natale and Ballatore, 2014: 10; Grillo and Casaleggio, 2011: 9).

The M5S web portal “Rousseau” (directly inspired by the French thinker’s ideas of the volonté générale, civic nationalism, and direct democracy) is central to party organization. Through the portal, party members (not just MPs) choose what candidates to field for important local, municipal, regional, and national elections (Stockman and Scalia, 2019). Time and time again, the press and committed constitutionalists have criticized the party’s “digital primary” process for its lack of transparency, as explained in the book by a veteran of Italian journalism Bruno Vespa (2018). In conversation with someone intricately linked to the movement, Vespa underlines how—contrary to the conventional wisdom—decision-making within the movement is not at all bottom-up but is instead quite top-down. Ideas other than those of Grillo and Casaleggio are readily dismissed (Vespa, 2018). This has sometimes resulted in members being expelled, including Federico Pizzarotti, the former mayor of Parma, and Giovanni Favia, an M5S politician from the Emilia-Romagna region (who revealed to journalists that there is no democracy in the M5S as Casaleggio manages every single programmatical aspect), and many others.[10]

Grillo’s agenda, especially on immigration, has often conflicted with that of the activists who are in theory able to use “Rousseau” to advance proposals and policy ideas. For instance, when two Five Star MPs (Maurizio Buccarella and Andrea Cioffi) proposed decriminalizing illegal immigration, Grillo reprimanded them, saying that it was not in the electoral program, although the majority of the members had voted in favor. Rather than implement the members’ decision, Grillo has since ignored or avoided discussing it in public (Parodi, 2019). Nonetheless, the M5S cannot exactly be considered pro-immigrant either. Grillo has always been skeptical of multiculturalism, as numerous posts on his blog make clear: “Citizenship for those born in Italy to parents born elsewhere makes no sense” (Grillo, 2012). It is clear given their positioning in parliament—abstaining on votes that would make access to Italian citizenship easier for immigrants—that Grillo’s party supports ius sanguinis (citizenship inherited through parents) to the current policy of iusoli(citizenship by birth) (Tarchi, 2015: 344).

It is also true that Grillo’s partisan leanings are ambiguous—he has never declared himself right-wing and did once attempt to become a candidate for the center-left (but in practice neoliberal) Democratic Party. Moreover, he often reiterates his passion for leftist egalitarian principles. He once stated that “Everyone counts, regardless of their social position. I want a single mother with four children to be able to become mayor of a city…” (Tarchi, 2015: 342). Interestingly, this ambiguity has led pundits to question whether the Five Star’s success among older, disenchanted center-right voters is merely a direct result of his and Luigi Di Maio’s (former M5S leader, deputy prime minister, and current Italian foreign minister) rants against pro-immigrant NGOs (rather than migrants themselves). Both Grillo and Di Maio have been given to localist, folkloristic, identitarian discursive–performative devices that sometimes resonate well with the populist right (Damilano, 2020).

Grillo is known to begin some of his semi-ironic public addresses by pointing to the audience and shouting “Italians!” Here, perhaps, observers have drawn a false equivalence with Mussolini’s nationalistic populism (Scanzi, 2013). Nonetheless, Di Maio has accused Grillo of being too centrist and has openly expressed his sympathy for national–conservative values of economicterritorial, and popular sovereignty. Di Maio has said that “the term sovereignty is found in the very first article of the Italian Constitution… Sovereignty means… defending the interests of Italians. If this is a crime, then arrest us all [the M5S] because this is what we have started doing.”[11]

Commentators like Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini (2019: 167) are perhaps correct in defining these left-wing populists as “multi-ideological” (rather than “post-ideological”). Grillo (2013) has stated in his blog that he is “proudly populist” and has always wanted the M5S—which is supposed to be an “idea, not an ideology”—to function as a big-tent party (Tarchi, 2015: 339). For Grillo, the M5S is a political force to mobilize the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, and both private and public sector workers. The big-tent approach comes from the goal of fundamentally destabilizing representative democracy by forcing it to abandon programmatic parties in favor of partyless democracy,which all forms of populism promote to some degree (Mair, 2002). Grillo insists on “a state without parties governed by citizens directly, for a limited amount of time and as a civic service” (Tarchi, 2015: 339).

Setting aside the fact that the M5S is polymorphous and is understood to have many currents within it, we can argue (taking Grillo’s words at face value) that his organization is “neither left-wing nor right-wing—it is a movement of Italians” (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2013). In any case, a close look inspection of the M5S shows it seeks to mobilize the angry, the frustrated, and the disenchanted—those Italians who nurture a profound distrust for mainstream politics. Nevertheless, the core message of the party hues close to the ethos of the left—namely, foregrounding environmental issues and harshly criticizing the economic and political power of the big industrial groups (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2013: 432).

Supporters of Five Stars Movement in Naples rally with Italian flag and political symbol of the movement in Napoli, Campania, Italy on May 30, 2018. Photo: Antonio Balasco.

Organizational Structure

The Five Star Movement has not been a fully institutionalized party for long (the party first entered parliament in 2013 and was in opposition before June 2018). For this reason, the organizational structure is skeletal and deliberately so (Sun, 2019: 33). At the top, of course, we find the “Guarantor” of the party, Beppe Grillo, known to have strong links with the Casaleggio family and its company, Casaleggio Associati. His role is to set the tone and preserve the dynamic, protest-movement-like nature of the organization (as dictated in its party manifesto[12]) as well as to decide “who’s in and who’s out” (Tarchi, 2015: 359). In other words, Grillo—alongside Casaleggio, the movement’s chief ideologue, and his apprentice Di Maio (who quit as leader in early 2020[13]), both technically below Grillo in the M5S hierarchy—have set the political agenda.

Yet, it is inaccurate to view the M5S strictly as a hierarchical, top-down, leaderist party. Indeed, Bordignon and Ceccarini (2013: 438) have referred to it as a stratarchical organization because power is effectively dispersed through the ranks. Since those ranks are often in open disagreement with each other, there is a tendency toward internecine conflict. It is unclear whether the Members’ Assembly (“Assemblea Degli Iscritti”)—an advisory board of mostly parliamentary members that meets annually—is below Grillo and the party head (who is a political and legal frontman) vis-à-vis administrative decision-making and policy proposals (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163).

What is certain is that the Committee of Trustees (“Comitato di Garanzia”) has the power to supervise applications for membership and policy proposals. In 2018, the committee comprised Vito Crimi (who replaced Di Maio as “political head” in 2020), Roberta Lombardi, and Giovanni Cancellieri. It shares some power on important decisions with the Board of Arbitrators (“Collegio dei Probiviri”) (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). The board’s task to monitor members’ compliance with party rules and take disciplinary action if needed (as when two MP’s were expelled for giving unapproved interviews on state television while under the M5S banner) (Tgcom24, 2021). The role of treasurer is essential, as it oversees internal and external financial resources (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). Di Maio has held the role previously, but somewhere in the summer of 2020, the position went to the MP Sergio Battelli, who took on the delicate task of managing the EU’s Recovery Fund in Italy (Zapperi, 2020).

To be clear, the majority of these roles have been assigned to party members through internal (albeit relatively non-transparent) procedures of direct democracy. While direct democracy is essentially unconstitutional in Italy, the fact that Grillo himself owns the party logo and that the “Rousseau” platform (used for political purposes even as the party has access to public funds) is entirely in the hands of a private commercial firm like Casaleggio Associati casts some doubt on the bottom-up, spontaneous, protest-like image of the party that Five Star politicians like to portray (Biondo, 2019).

Five Star activists and grassroots members do not really appear to be entitled to all this liberty of self-expression (as much as Grillo claims) because if ever activists cease to “toe the party line,” they risk expulsion (or worse). More than once, Casaleggio’s son Davide—who inherited all the property of the Rousseau Association after his father’s death—has threatened to sue his own MPs and take complete charge of the platform if they fail to pay their membership dues on time (Lombardo, 2020).

A large demonstration was held by the 5 Star Movement against the privileges of politics in Rome, Italy on February 15, 2020. Photo: Gennaro Leonardi.

Domestic Policy

The domestic policy of the Five Star Movement has been relatively straightforward. It advances partially redistributive and quasi-socialist economic policy to reduce socioeconomic inequality in Italy. Recent studies conducted by Ruth-Lovell (2019), Doyle (2019), and Hawkins (2019) show that governing populists of both the left and the right have committed to reducing the gap between the very rich and the poor and are more likely to do this with a welfarist approach rather than via tax relief (Moffit, 2020: 52–54). The aforementioned Reddito di Cittadinanzareally a policy of welfare chauvinism(in both its positive and negative aspects)—has been the M5S’s way of presenting itself as a pro-social and pro-working-class party committed to an essentially leftist agenda (Brancaccio and Fruncillo, 2019: 129–158).

Political opponents from both the left and the right have attacked these welfarist policies as too costly and poorly implemented. Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement has continued to operate as a populist force in government. Certainly, the party has steadily institutionalized itself and has had to back away from some “binding” commitments (e.g., holding a referendum on the Euro, opposition to the single market, and the promise not to ally with old rivals, like the national populist[14] Lega party and the Democrats). Still, the party has managed to implement a series of its 2018 election pledges to spec (Di Maio, 2020). For example, M5S MPs successfully maneuvered to rescind the dysfunctional Fornero Law (a labor-market reform from 2011 aimed at reducing youth unemployment), scrapped the “golden pensions scheme” for MPs, and introduced harsh measures to combat public corruption (known as the spazzacorotti or “bribe destroyer” law) and a new decree to combat climate change. The M5S has worked hard to reduce the cost of the Italian state and limit the privileges of the political class (Di Maio, 2020). A referendum pushed forward by the Five Star Movement in conjunction with some other parties legislated a drastic reduction in the number of Italian MPs in September 2020. The move has been viewed favorably across the political spectrum and by most voters in Italy. In sum, the M5S has managed to shift the parliamentary demographic of the country. The arrival of grillini MPs into both of Italy’s chambers (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) after 2013 has produced a significant increase in the degree to which ordinary Italians feel involved and engaged in official political processes (Rapisarda, 2018).

Citizens who had never considered a political career nor had any involvement whatsoever with public administration—including former doctors and surgeons, tradesmen, volunteers from the private sector, primary sector workers, and teachers (among others)—have nonetheless begun to work in state institutions for the very first time (Agenzia Italia, 2019). The new civic consciousness and engagement of the “ordinary Italian” have been viewed as part of a great season of change in the history of Italian democracy (Ibid). Moreover, the number of young women in parliament has increased markedly, and commentators on the progressive left and more liberal right consider this a significant step forward for the country (Ibid).

The coalitions that the M5S has joined have also produced a marked turn in Italian policy toward the EU, often in a positive direction. To begin, the M5S—and its coalition partner and fellow populist outfit Lega—were the first parties in many years to openly confront Brussels over its uncompromising and often hostile approach to budgetary matters (Moschella and Rhodes, 2020: 4–5). Thus, the Troika had a hard-time taming Italy’s populists, in contrast with the position it had in conflicts with the Greek state in the past. Indeed, the Italian populists have aggressively defended a spending program that included both an expansion of welfare and a generalized cut of taxation—against the much-defended austerity approach of the European Commission (Politi2018). Of course, an expansive budgetary approach is what led Italians to vote for radically populist and Euroskeptic parties in the first place.

Most pundits will argue that the most controversial aspect of the Five Star Movement’s domestic policy has been its tough line on immigration and security (the latter actually unrelated to migrants). Most M5S MPs voted to save Matteo Salvini (the deputy prime minister and off-and-on ally of the movement) from prosecution after he repeatedly refused to allow a rescue ship full of migrants to enter Italian ports in breach of international humanitarian laws (Reuters, 2021). Another controversy arose around a publicity stunt led by Salvini and the justice minister (from the M5S). In a classic example of “penal populism” (a term coined to describe the use of crime in populist propaganda[15]) the two were in attendance for the cameras when the narco-terrorist Cesare Battisti—who had just been extradited from Brazil—landed back on Italian territory.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio attended a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium on September 21, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Foreign Policy

The Five Star Movement’s foreign policy has always been somewhat contentious. From the outset, the grillini have rhetorically advocated for a re-alignment—or at least a reconsideration of aspects of Italy’s classic foreign policy orientation. Thus, the party has challenged Atlanticism, Europhilia/Europeanism, military interventionism—including peace-keeping operations —as well as large-scale multi-national capitalist projects (such as the EU-funded Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline or TAP)—in favor of a politically different direction. A big part of the Five Star Movement’s agenda has involved tilting Italy’s foreign policy axis toward China and, to a lesser degree Russia (Coratella, 2020). This “Euro-critical” approach—usually accompanied by mild anti-Americanism—comes directly from within the more socialist currents of the M5S, especially those led by the rabble-rouser Di Battista and the more institutionalist but no less ideologically driven Roberto Fico, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Long before their first experience in government (which continues to this day), the Five Star had always exhibited a thinly veiled hostility toward neoliberal Western powers. This has included the German and French governments (in the latter case, by sending party representatives to meet the leaders of the insurrectionist “Gilet Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests” to express their sympathy), but also the United States before Trump. Grillo, Di Battista, and other leading figures in the organization have never really hidden their affinity for the developing world and certain “rogue states” (Tarchi, 2015: 352). So much so that in government, the Five Star Movement refused to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as president (Binelli, 2019). The party’s support for withdrawing Italian troops from Afghanistan is another example of a deep skepticism toward globalism and a quasi-isolationist weltanschauung typical of populists of both the left and the right (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 12).

The Five Star Movement’s uncompromising opposition to Italy’s adoption of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM), its constant critiques of NATO’s defensive strategy (an approach reminiscent of the old Italian communist left of Enrico Berlinguer), its position against EU sanctions on Russia, and its desire to reform the statute of the European Central Bank (ECB) all align neatly with the party’s populist ideology. The more ideological populists are usually highly critical of the mainstream media and high finance “castes” (Panebianco, 2020).

The early Five Star Movement in opposition (2009–2018) was undoubtedly a lot more Euroskeptic than the current one, which had to evolve politically once confronted with real institutional power. Governing the third-largest EU member state has inevitably meant making compromises with other parties once demonized (especially the Democratic Party) and shelving some of their more bizarre and radical policies. These include initiatives such as ceasing negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), MP selection by lottery, and scrapping Article 67 of the Italian Constitution, which exempts MPs from any “vincolo di mandato”—the obligation to act strictly according to the voters’ mandate.

Five Star MPs (with some exceptions) are now more cautious in pointing the finger at the EU as the perpetrator of Italy’s evils (namely, low growth and high unemployment). Still, they remain critical of most of their old enemies and have continued to antagonize them subtly. For example, the agreements of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—known in Italy as “the people’s lawyer”—with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were frowned upon in Washington (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 10).

Furthermore, allegations have surfaced that Five Star’s political operations have been financed by Venezuela’s authoritarian government, which has worried the other parties they worked with in parliament to get bills passed (Bozza, 2020). Rhetoric and bizarre proposals aside, in its three years as part of governing coalitions, the Five Star Movement has never entirely severed ties with Italy’s foreign allies nor seriously damaged or impeded progress in diplomatic and economic relations. In fact, in commenting on the foreign policy of the populist coalition (of which the M5S was supposedly a senior partner), the former Italian diplomat Ferdinando Nelli Feroci (2019: 11) has pointed out that “despite uncertainty and ambiguity,” the populists have “pursued a line of relative, albeit often hesitant continuity.”

Five Star Movement office in the downtown in Ginosa, Italy on July 19, 2019. Photo: Diego Fiore.

Transnational Alliances

Even if there are ideological similarities that can be drawn with other movements or anti-establishment parties like the Pirate Party in Germany or the Gilet Jaunes, there has been no substantial political agreement between the Five Star and such political forces apart from limited political flirtation and informal communication (during the early days). The Five Star Movement (along with UKIP) formed the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in 2014 after a vote on the “Rousseau” platform (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). Unsurprisingly, because Grillo initially wanted to present the party in international as well as national politics as anti-establishment and radically reformist, he pointedly excluded the option of joining the somewhat ideologically similar but more moderate Greens/EFA (Ibid).

Once the M5S joined the EFDD, it was clear that Grillo’s political marriage to Nigel Farage and like-minded people was one of convenience (Ibid). Belonging to one group or another in the European Parliament usually signifies something deeper than just ideological affinity and is always somewhat functional to long-term strategic objectives at the domestic level. At least, this appeared to be the case for the Five Star Movement. It and UKIP were distant on the environment, domestic economic policy, and many aspects of foreign policy. However, they surely agreed on the fact that elites have abandoned the “losers of globalization” and that Brussels is a bully that prevents nation-states from making their own monetary decisions and controlling their own borders (Ibid). Both parties saw themselves as representing the “Europe of the people” rather than of the big banks (Michieli and Luxardo, 2016: 1–14).

Either way, the Five Star Movement (and apparently UKIP as well) treated EU alliances as secondary to what occurred in the national arena (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). By 2020, M5S had already broken away from EFDD and was left with just 14 MEPs[16] (Bresolin, 2020). Other members of EFDD relied on the movement because even if they voted differently on certain motions regarding the environment and relations with foreign superpowers (albeit similarly on EU integration issues), they still needed a big party from a large member state like Italy to avoid problems related to funding and finances, and voting rights in executive positions.[17]

Bressanelli and De Candia (2018) report on recent research that the Five Star Movement is only moderately Euroskeptic. This soft Euroscepticism results in the Five Star voting like the European left-wing GUE/NGL and G/EFA on issues that do not explicitly involve more EU integration or direct democracy. At the end of the day, the movement did not really fit the EFDD due to its staunch anti-globalism, anti-immigration policy, and skepticism toward issues related to the environment or state intervention. A keen eye would notice that M5S and UKIP voted the same way less than half the time and are on different ends of the spectrum despite a shared populist style of communication (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48).

The “Rousseau” base voted overwhelmingly in favor in another vote on whether to join Guy Verhofstadt’s center-left ALDE. However, the existing ALDE membership decided it was a dangerous move that would risk a split by those group members more hostile and skeptical toward the Five Star Movement (Ibid). Verhofstadt himself feared the alliance might damage his image.

By 2017, many realized that Grillo’s strategy of moving away from the UKIP hardliners and the rest of the EFDD had some political logic. With the 2018 general elections approaching and a very weakened center-left after Matteo Renzi’s departure, the M5S wanted to project itself as an institutionally responsible party ready to lead the nation and to capture the majority of moderates and center-left voters disenchanted with the Italian Democratic Party (Ibid). If the M5S wanted to have a shot at becoming Italy’s leading party following Renzi’s exit from politics, it had no choice but to assure wealthy Italian families, national corporate and political elites, and international financial markets that it was not an “extremist” group and did not intend to leave the Eurozone. To some extent, this strategy paid off —M5S took 32 percent of the vote and emerged as the leading Italian party in competition with the center-right, although it had to ally with Lega to form a government.

From Opposition to Power: A Five-Starred Future?

In mid-2021, the Five Star Movement was polling between 16–17 percent and was lagging behind the right-wing parties (Lega and Brothers of Italy) and the center-left Democratic Party (Termometro Politico, 2021). This is undoubtedly disappointing for a party that saw significant electoral gains off the back of the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the refugee/immigration crisis of 2015 to become the leading party by 2018 (Bulli and Soare, 2018).

Having spent the last few months of 2020 in the lost cause of saving Conte (who used to present himself as a Eurosceptic populist before his purported switch to being a staunch Europhile anti-populist), the grillini are really struggling with their political identity (Di Niro, 2021; The Submarine, 2020). Defending Conte until the end and then supporting the candidacy of former ECB head Mario Draghi as prime minister cost Grillo, Crimi, and Di Maio their parliamentary majority, with many MPs fleeing the party (Cuzzocrea, 2021). Also, the “pure heart” populist Di Battista publicly distanced himself from the party that he had helped build, showcasing his disdain for what is largely seen as a technocratic executive serving with the support of a center-right–center-left political coalition (Pucciarelli, 2021). This “grand coalition” was created to help Italy overcome the Covid–19 crisis and includes characters as distinct from each other as Enrico Letta and Matteo Salvini.

The Five Star’s identity had almost always been taboo for its semi-centralized leadership, which must constantly appease the infighting among distinct ideological currents and personalities within. Recently this ideological divide had become too obvious to deny. In December last year, 22 EU-critical Five Star representatives from the Chamber of Deputies voted against a motion on the new ESM or abstained (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2020). Even more M5S Senators appeared happy to take the political risks of pitting themselves against party chair Di Maio by voting in favor (Ibid).

The party is highly factionalized. The first is the institutionalist faction (or centrist faction) made up of MPs who follow Di Maio and Fico — the former more centrist and moderate, the latter openly progressive–leftist —in strategy. Both cabinet ministers want M5S to remain a party open to almost any kind of alliance to stay in power. The second is the “rebel hearts” who prefer to follow Di Battista’s guidance on policy and approach. This radical-left-wing populist faction has always been committed to anti-capitalism and hardline, anti-political (sometimes Manichean) principles. Di Battista and his followers are obviously less keen on broad alliances. Then there is the futuristic techno–populist factioncomprised of traditional M5S activists who rally behind Casaleggio and Grillo on the party’s blog to bring about a digital revolution that involves direct democracy at the national level. One of the oldest factions, its members maintain a cordial yet ambiguous relation with Di Maio’s wing mainly because they know they are forced to work within institutions if they want to change them. The fourth grouping is the environmentalist faction which does not have a true reference point or political figure within the party but oscillates between Grillo’s futuristic techno-populists and Di Battista’s populist-left.

Alessandro Di Battista conference with his supporters during M5S event in Imola, Italy on October 17, 2015. Photo: Benny Marty.

Last, but not least, there is a minority that feels better represented by Conte and went out of its way to convince moderates from other opposition parties to vote to save his second prime ministership. We would possibly call this the loyalist faction as it comprises all those who believe Conte is the only one that can lead the movement in a fully Europeanist and responsible direction. These loyalists believe Conte did his best in administrating Italy during the Covid era by cooperating with European allies like the Germans and the French. This faction is careful to behave institutionally (probably even more so than Di Maio and Fico’s) and follow the Italian constitution to the letter. In fact, after some experience in government (initially alongside Lega), Conte’s men evolved away from the anti-politics approach of the past and came around to the idea that it is impossible to rid Italy of the establishment altogether. They now realize that the vast array of checks and balances introduced into the Italian political system after the Second World War mean that political actors are inexorably drawn into the establishment.

It bears noting that the institutionalization of the M5S has meant it has shed many of those right-wing, anti-establishment voters that contributed to its success in the highly volatile general election of 2013. Back then, Grillo’s team could rely on its anti-establishment appeal, which later manifested in Gianluigi Paragone’s[18] now-defunct Italexit–No Europe for Italy party that gave a direction and meaning to the M5S’s more nationalist proposals. Even if Paragone claims to lean socialist,[19] in and out of parliament, he has focused a lot on issues concerning territorial (e.g., anti-immigration) and economic (e.g., Italy’s disputes with the European Commission on the budget) sovereignty that are seen as the preserve of the political right.

For a party that has worked very hard to appear honest, hard-working, law-abiding, and a vehicle for reform to bring ordinary people into the political sphere, the M5S has had to make painful choices. The party was famously committed to eschewing all political alliances with other forces, refused to participate in mainstream media or television talk shows (as they feared being scapegoated), declined to recognize the legitimacy and importance of parliament, failed to address the inefficiency of the horizontal and decentralized[20] online platforms (occasionally mediated in a more authoritative, top-down manner by Grillo), and refused to admit that even an anti-establishment populist party can be susceptible to corruption and mismanagement (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171).

All these aspects are manifest in the problems faced by Five Star mayors and local councils in Rome and Turin[21](Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171). Above all, the backtracking on commitments and promises has seen the M5S become a party of government and a quasi-institutionalized organization. The political understanding that led to coalitions with Lega and the Democratic Party and ongoing parliamentary representation since 2013 has eroded the rebellious “anti-politics” quality of the early Five Star Movement. The result has been electoral poison in a country where elections have become highly volatile and with an electorate increasingly populated by non-voters who no longer identify with mainstream politics (Corbetta and Gualmini, 2013).

With Conte gone and following its many ideological and programmatic about-faces, the left-wing populists of the Five Star Movement are now on the verge of collapse. After changing course vis-à-vis sanctions on Russia, failing to deliver an EU referendum, changing its position on mandatory vaccines (this was one of Grillo’s favorite rallying cries), and completely abandoning its opposition to the TAP, there is a sense voter do not trust the party. The party’s fate appears to dovetail with that of populists in government (of both the left and right) in many parts of the world, thanks to the challenges associated with managing the Covid-19 crisis (Zangana, 2020).

On the right, Donald Trump lost the pivotal 2020 election, and Salvini — while back in government —is hamstrung in pushing his Eurosceptic agenda with Draghi in charge. On the other side of the Alps, Marine Le Pen (although ahead in polls) will struggle against Emmanuel Macron, who has reinvented himself as a civic nationalist who is “tough” on Islamists. Across the Atlantic, Jair Bolsonaro’s “machismo” stance on the virus has radicalized his own supporters and damaged his credibility with moderate conservative voters. He is now viewed as a full-blown authoritarian abroad and is widely blamed for more than 300,000 Covid-19 related deaths in Brazil.

On the left, the picture is not looking so bright either. The Five Star Movement, which was actually one of the most popular left-leaning populist forces worldwide (perhaps even more than Pablo Iglesias’s PODEMOS in Spain), has now become a pale imitation of the neoliberal Democratic Party and has lost more of its support in less than two years as a result. SYRIZA, the original and arguably most successful left-populist government in resisting EU edicts, are now out of government in Greece and have lost most of their “propulsive force” (a term used by Enrico Berlinguer to describe the Soviet Union’s downward spiral). Notwithstanding the effects of the pandemic, left-wing populists will most likely try to revive themselves as early as 2022, given the European Commission’s poor handling of the vaccine rollout offers a political lifeline that can be capitalized on at the ballot box.

Attacks on Big Pharma—at which the Five Star Movement excelled in the early days—are as effective when launched from the radical left as from the right. The European populist-left, unlike the center-left, is starting to understand that progressivism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights are not the only issues to be taken into consideration during agenda-setting. The public zeitgeist teaches us that much ground is being cleared for the right on socioeconomic issues, which is disadvantaging the left. Suppose the Five Star Movement were to return to being the unrelentless force that undermined the very legitimacy of the Italian neoliberal status quo. In that case, it will be because it will have returned to its roots as a credible big-tent party for the working classes, as the electorally more successful populists on the right (e.g., Chega!, Vox, Rassemblement National, and Fidesz) are. The “losers of globalization” are today no less disenchanted with mainstream politics than they were after the infamous collapse of Lehman Brothers, which for some remains an open wound (Stephens, 2018).

Conclusion

The M5S is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

Some accuse the movement of pandering to the anti-immigrant “far-right” due to its short-lived coalition experiment with Salvini. Others like Bickerton focus too much on its “techno–populist” media-savvy, treating it primarily as a vehicle for a digital revolution. Instead, one must attempt to understand the Five Star Movement in its entirety and for what it really is—namely, a legacy of the New Left and an institutionalized populist-left party. The Greek intellectual Takis S. Pappas reminds us that populists tend to march toward institutions and can remain entrenched inside for extended periods as they seek to remake them (Pappas, 2019: 74).

Grillo has managed to bring an initially disorganized mass of his followers (who all held differing beliefs yet with a common anti-establishment denominator) together by mobilizing them online and giving a political flavor to anti-political protest. This protest was against pro-austerity center-right and center-left forces that dominated Italy’s bipolar system. However, there is no doubt that the majority of Five Star Movement activists, supporters, and parliamentarians—even when identifying as “post-ideological”—have views that fit much more readily with the left than the right. Their commitment to expanding welfare, technological innovation, migrant integration, environmental protection, civil liberties, and half-hearted (but still crucial) anti-capitalist crusades are certainly not those of the populist right. National populists of the right are instead mainly concerned with defending a nation’s borders, the traditional family, and ethno-cultural identity and tend to favor Atlanticism. For this reason, in assessing the ideology, discourse, and policies of the Five Star Movement, we must treat it as a case of left-wing populism or “social-populism.”

Even today, while being an active part of liberal Italian institutions, most of the policies they push forward are considered too radical and too leftist by neoliberal actors on the right and left (such as Forza Italia and the Democratic Party). The M5S clearly opted for a strategy of political compromise to retain its grip on power and maintain its parliamentary majority so as to ensure its influence over domestic policy (especially when it comes to the handling of EU funds). Yet, there is reason to believe that the scholar Marco Tarchi was right about the movement. Grillo’s creation is potentially a case of the purest forms of populism in Europe (Tarchi 2015: 333).

Not only have they upended Italy’s bipolar party system, but they have shepherded scores of ordinary people with no prior political experience into parliament and other state institutions. Their populist style and communication (always present to some degree since Benito Mussolini and Guglielmo Giannini) are now embedded within the democratic system and process. Evidence of this can be found in many anti-political television programs like “Piazzapulita” (“clean slate”), “Dritto e Rovescio” (“obverse and reverse”), and the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (“the daily fact”). The latter is openly sympathetic to the Five Star cause. In addition, examples of systemic populism manifest in the series of organized rhetorical attacks, threats, and brawls in parliament launched by Grillo’s MPs.

Only time will tell whether the Five Star Movement will disappear from the political scene (after Casaleggio’s death, Di Battista’s departure, and the betrayal of some of their core principles and constituencies, things are looking difficult for Grillo’s people). However, what is certain is that the legacy endures. The M5S has demonstrated the kind of impact that populists who institutionalize themselves can have. The Five Star’s presence in institutions has culminated in a drastic cut in the number of MPs (as well as their salaries), something virtually unprecedented in a large Western democracy. This sets a precedent that some may see as a curtailing of democracy. Instead, it should be understood part and parcel of Italy’s apparently functional “populist democracy.”


(*) AMEDEO VARRIALE is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, UK. He earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Politics and International Relations from Kingston University in 2016 and has a Master of Arts from the University of Westminster. His research interests include contemporary populism and nationalism. He is currently participating in a ‘go-to textbook’ project funded by the University of Toronto, where his next publication, “English Nationalism: An Anatomy,” will be available shortly. Varriale has a keen interest in public policy and has been an active voice—through scholarship and journalism—in British public debates over freedom of speech, individual rights, and national identity.


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Sun, C. (2019). Populist Parties in Italy – comparing and contrasting the Five Star Movement and the Northern League. LUISS — Department of Political Science.

Tarchi, M. (2015). Italia Populista: Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo. 2nd ed. Bologna, Italia: Il Mulino.

Vespa, B. (2018). Rivoluzione. Milano, Italia: Mondadori.

Zangana, Azad. (2020). “Has Covid-19 killed off populism in Europe?” Schroders. September 28, 2020. https://www.schroders.com/en/insights/economics/has-covid-19-killed-off-populism-in-europe/ (accessed on May 28, 2021).

Zapperi, C. (2020). “Sergio Battelli, il rocker M5S con la terza media che vigilerà sul Recovery Fund.” Corriere Della Sera. August 8, 2020. https://www.corriere.it/politica/20_agosto_08/battelli-rocker-m5s-la-terza-media-che-gestira-recovery-fund-34b98078-d949-11ea-89ec-853d2bb5ced9.shtml (accessed on May 27, 2021).

Zazzara, G. (2018). “’Italians First’: Workers on the Right Amidst Old and New Populisms.” International Labor and Working-Class History. Spring 2018. Volume 93: Workers and Right-Wing Politics. 93, pp.101-112. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-labor-and-working-class-history/article/abs/italians-first-workers-on-the-right-amidst-old-and-new-populisms/0B401DEA261699C4DD0864AE1CA08935 (accessed on May 25, 2021).

Footnotes


[1] Those are usually populist parties that oppose neoliberal mainstream mass parties and some of the institutions those actors operate in but are not against democratic principles and necessarily opposed to checks and balances. See Damiani (2016: 13) and works by Schedler (1996) and Abedi (2004).

[2] According to Damiani (2016: 13, 15) radical left parties are somewhat more moderate than extreme left parties given the former (unlike the latter) do not explicitly want to dismantle the democracy per se and have decided to abandon authoritarian and totalitarian objectives. The extreme left is revolutionary not reformist and wishes to overcome the bourgeoise, capitalistic and liberal-democratic system altogether.

[3] See March’s paper “Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?” published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Institute in November 2008.

[4] A complete definition can be found on the website of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). See https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/left-wing-populism/.

[5] See the introduction to Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008) by Albertazzi and McDonnell.

[6] In his chapter in Democracies and the Populist Challenge (2008), co-edited by Mény and Surel, Mair explains that liberal democracy is composed of “two pillars” (the constitutional and the popular), which he juxtaposes in his analysis.

[7] A “recall” is a procedure by which voters from a constituency can legally remove an elected official before her term comes to an end. A small number of countries including the United States have adopted this system. In Italy, it remains unconstitutional. 

[8] Chiara Corbetta and Elisabetta Gualmini used this phrase in their 2013 book on Grillo’s politics to describe the Five Star Movement.

[9] Gianroberto Casaleggio, the movement’s leading idealogue, passed away in 2016. The digital war machine of the movement (not just the blog but the “Rousseau” platform) then passed to his son, Davide Casaleggio.

[10] Favia admitted as much in an interview broadcast on the TV program “Piazzapulita” in September 2012. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oah6vq4QHPY (in Italian). 

[11] Di Maio made this statement on 30 July 2018 whilst commenting on the proposal by the governing coalition to appoint Marcello Foa as president of RAI (the Italian state broadcaster). For the full statement, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ug2FjaPNJ0 (in Italian).

[12] This agreement, among other things, asserts that the Five Star Movement is not a party and not meant to function as one.

[13] Di Maio resigned as political head on 22 January 2020 but remains one of the movement’s leading cabinet ministers.

[14] Eatwell and Goodwin deploy the term in their 2018 book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy to define parties opposed to mass immigration, globalised capitalism, and supra-national institutions like the European Union. Lega is certainly a right-wing party. However—as Mudde (2007) and others have noted—it is hard to label it as “radical/extreme right” (in Elisabeth Carter’s sense of the word) because of its relatively liberal positions on the role of the state, the individual, society, the market economy and commitments to anti-fascism, regionalism and localism. This locates Lega in contradistinction to the “palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” (Griffin, 1995) of the neo-fascists located further on the right.

[15] See, for example, Pratt’s Penal Populism (2006) and Anastasia and Anselmi’s chapter “Penal populism in the multi-populist context of Italy” in Multiple Populisms: Italy as Democracy’s Mirror (2020) edited by Paul Blokker and Manuel Anselmi.

[16] By 2021, the number of MEPs had fallen to ten after some defections to the Greens.

[17] Parties that are not able to form a large EU party grouping end up as non-attached members and have no voting rights in the Conference of Presidents, a key executive organ in the European Parliament.

[18] Paragone was expelled from the party in December 2019 due to his arguments with the leadership and other MPs over their increasingly Europhile turn. He accused the party of having abandoned its manifesto commitments.

[19] In November 2019, Paragone said as much on the TV program “Piazzapulita” while still an M5S MP. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iqx7ijLo2A (in Italian).

[20] Bordignon (2013) and Ceccarini (2013) have adopted this terminology in relation to M5S’s online platform and party activities.

[21] Five Star mayors Chiara Appendino (Turin) and Virginia Raggi (Rome) have been investigated for alleged misconduct in office.

EU flags in EU Council building during an EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Ruth Wodak: I am very worried about the future of Europe

“Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call ‘post shame’. You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable.”

By Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading scholars on populism, Prof. Ruth Wodak, said she was very worried about the future of Europe. Prof. Wodak, who is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated with the University of Vienna stressed that the EU is endangered as a member of the transnational club. Some EU countries abide by the EU conventions, but others do not, risking the EU’s unity. She underlined that some EU member countries like Hungary and Poland behave as if nothing has been learned from history. 

Prof. Wodak believes we are now living in a “post shame” age where all norms have been attacked by the populist and far-right parties. Lying for politicians has become so normal that nobody cares anymore whether they tell the truth or simply lie. “This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump ‘finally said what everybody was thinking’,” Wodak said. Despite many negative developments, Wodak thinks populist parties can be defeated at the ballot box. The latest example is the elections in the US where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. 

The following are excerpts from the interview. 

How does the “politics of fear” work for populist parties? How do they instrumentalize fear?

This is, of course, always context dependent. Far-right populist parties thrive whenever there is a crisis. They either construct or exaggerate a crisis or instrumentalize existing crises. They create unreal scenarios of threat and danger, and then they position themselves as the only party and the only politicians who can save “us” from this crisis and danger. In this way, they first create fear and then hope. This is an interdependent pattern. Which is, of course, not new, which has existed for many, many centuries; but they are very clever at employing this pattern.

Your book “The Politics of Fear” was published before Donald Trump and Brexit, before the surge of populist leaders, and it is very to the point. How do you explain this?

In the meantime, there is the second edition. It just came out in 2021. It’s updated: I also write about Trump and Brexit and the many new socio-political developments which occurred since the first edition. As for the first edition, it was obvious to look at the Austrian, Italian and Hungarian examples. “The politics of fear” was very successful in the far-right.

The oldest European far-right populist parties, like the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party, became much stronger, especially after 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain. (Jörg) Haider’s party, the Freedom Party, for example, gained many votes because they instrumentalized xenophobic rhetoric against migrants from the former Eastern bloc countries. Interestingly, in 2015, in the refugee movement, we experienced a very similar xenophobic pattern in far-right discourse. The only salient difference was that now refugees  were coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Africa, Somalia, Sudan, etc. But basically, the exclusionary rhetoric is very similar.

There Is No “One Size Fits All”

As you have stated in your lectures: almost all populist parties in Europe are successful. Why is this the case?

This is an interesting question. Again, it’s context specific because it’s very different in the south, where there exists bigger polarization. Moreover, left-wing and centre-left parties have been quite successful in Spain, Portugal, and Italy; right now, we have a technocratic government in Italy. The Lega (a populist right-wing party), which was initially very successful, had to leave the government in Italy. In Greece, there exists huge polarization. But it’s different in the rich countries—and I am now speaking of Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and Norway, probably the richest countries in Europe. The fear was created that the people would lose out; thus, they haven’t lost yet, but they [were made to fear that they] would lose all the social benefits etc., because refugees were and are arriving. Such fear was mobilized and instrumentalized. We label this phenomenon “welfare chauvinism.” 

Then there are countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, etc., which are poorer countries; [in these countries], the far-right creates fear that people might lose their “true” national identity and their national language and maintain that Christianity (i.e. the Christian Occident) is threatened. People were mobilized through such fears. For example, look at Hungary: many Hungarians had emigrated to Western countries, so huge fear was created that the “true” Hungarians would die out. This is a trope that Viktor Orbán frequently uses. In sum, there exist very different reasons for the success of the far right. There is no “one size fits all.” One must really look at the context, the history, at the socio-political and economic developments, to understand cultural developments and explain how these parties work.

When and how do populist parties become unsuccessful? Is there a way to defeat them at the ballot box?

Obviously, examples exist. In some countries that has already happened. Sometimes they even “shoot themselves in their own foot.” Like in Austria: The Coalition-Government from 2018-2019 (with the far-right Freedom Party as coalition partner) failed because of big scandals, and they lost a lot of votes. But they seem to have found a new agenda, new “enemy images,” new niches, a new way of mobilizing voters. In other cases, it really depends on other factors: if there is a good opposition, if there’s an alternative program, you might have a chance [to defeat far-right populism]. If there is no alternative program, other parties will not defeat them; one has to provide alternatives, provide more participation so that citizens feel that they are acknowledged and that their worries are being taken seriously. A third possibility is that the party vanishes but then, the conservative parties usually take on their agenda. That’s what I call, now in my second edition, “normalization.” In this way, the far-right agenda becomes normalized, and the mainstream conservatives implement the programs of the far right. Indeed, the parties might vanish or become smaller, but the agenda survives.

There Are Many Politicians Who Lie a Lot

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA – August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin

What do you mean by “post shame” age?

I think this is important. There’s a lot of talk about a “post truth era.” Indeed, there are many politicians who lie a lot. Of course, the example of Donald Trump is obvious, but lying is not new in the far right. Or in politics tout court. As Hannah Arendt and other theorists have shown, they (the liars) were sanctioned, they had to apologize, or they would lose votes; they even resigned. Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call “post shame.” You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable. This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump “finally said what everybody was thinking.” The appeals to the people, to this alleged homogeneous people, is a very important strategy. These politicians construct themselves as those actors who can not only save the people from alleged dangers but who “dare say what everybody thinks.”

One of the terms you use is “shameless normalization.” What is so shamelessly normalized in recent years?

It is exactly what I have just mentioned. The shamelessness is making it acceptable to lie, to violate conventions of dialogue and negotiation, to denounce and defame your enemies in ways which violate many taboos. We were used to politeness conventions, to values which support and maintain interaction, and negotiations, i.e. arrive at compromises. Currently, it seems to be the case that we live in parallel worlds. We now seem to live in parallel discourse worlds, and those worlds cannot interact with each other anymore. Let’s take the example of Victor Orbán of Hungary again: The European Commission and many heads of state have criticized Fidesz’ and Orbán’s policies. Article Seven has been invoked against Hungary but it seems not to matter. Orbán will say, “okay there’s some little formal things which we can change to abide by the rules,” but basically the content of the undemocratic policies doesn’t change. The EU seems quite helpless and doesn’t really have the resources to implement the sanctions, mostly also due to the rule that all heads of European member states have to vote unanimously in such cases. In this way, Orbán has implemented some really authoritarian measures—for example, restricting press freedom, the freedom of universities and science, and so forth. 

You argue that instrumentalizing the media, both traditional and new, is part and parcel of the immediate success of populist movements. What should media do to escape the trap of the “mainstreaming” of populist parties?

That’s also a good question. If possible, media should, on the one hand, comment and explain what is happening, not just print what was said but frame it in a different way. They also don’t always have to print every provocation and scandal on page one. On the other hand, scandals sell well, so there is an important economic side, which has to be acknowledged. Right now, in Austria we are experiencing what is called “message control.” Media who are not reporting and printing what the government handouts every week in press conferences receive less subsidies, they receive fewer official advertisements—they’re basically starved by the government. It’s very difficult for them to survive as independent media; the pressure is huge. It’s not like in Turkey where journalists are being put into jail, but there exist subtle ways of disciplining the media and journalism. On top of that, there exists the option that every politician creates his/her own media. Trump tweeted; he didn’t need the media. He delegitimized the quality media as “fake news.” He legitimized what he called the alternative facts. He could do that via his own propaganda tool—tweets. He didn’t need the quality and mainstream serious media. Politicians can remain in their own bubbles, in their “parallel worlds.” That is a very dangerous development, and we observe the delegitimization of serious quality media in all the far-right parties.

US President Joe Biden defeated one of the strongest populist leaders in the world, Mr. Trump. Are there any lessons for Europe to take as it deals with its own populist leaders?

Yes, absolutely. The victory of Joe Biden has many reasons of course but one really big factor was that Trump failed in the Covid crisis. He spent a lot of money to start producing the vaccines, but he relativized the danger of the Covid crisis and, of course, the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans could not be dismissed. Covid created more dead Americans than both World Wars. Probably, without the Covid-crisis, Trump would have won. 

Secondly, Biden, only won by a small margin. All in all, he had millions of more votes, but if you look at the specific states, his victory was very small. Thus, it was important to have democratic institutions which didn’t fail. Justice was maintained. Indeed, some Republican senators abided by the rules and not to Trump’s big lies. 

Thirdly, Biden had an alternative program. Biden promised not only to fight the crisis and to provide vaccines, but he also promised better health services, higher minimum wages, to fight against poverty, tax the very rich, etc. 

Another example: There exists by Leonie de Jonge a very interesting study illustrating how such shifts happen. De Jonge works in the Netherlands. She did a study on the far-right parties in Belgium, where there are two far-right parties: one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. And there exist two social democratic parties, one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. In the Flemish part, the Social Democratic Party tried to overtake the far-right by proposing ever stricter anti-immigration measures and adopted xenophobic rhetoric. They lost heavily and the far right won. Xenophobia is the brand of the far-right. You shouldn’t compete with their brand. In the French part, the Social Democrats won. Why? Because they aligned with the media, they created a “cordonne sanitaire.” The media didn’t publish every provocation and scandal. They also proposed a left-wing program against poverty, for human rights and gender equality and anti-discrimination. The Social Democrats won; the far-right lost. This is truly like an experiment, where you can observe how different programs and alternative strategies might work.

EU: Nation States Remain More Powerful Than Transnational Entity

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

After the Cold War, it was believed by many academicians that liberal democracy had won, and all the countries would reform themselves to attain the standards of liberal democracy. Right now, we witness just the opposite. What went wrong?

This is a question we could write many books about. I think that there are many factors. One factor is, of course, neoliberal economic policies which cut through the social welfare systems. The huge rise of inequality is obvious. Look at the United Kingdom, for example but also what happened in the European south. The second important factor is the fear “of losing out.” In the financial crisis of 2008, one could say simplistically the banks were saved but not the people; the fact that our generation cannot provide a better life for the next generation is a huge problem. The third factor is global inequality and continuous uncertainty. We all live on one planet, and we all face problems like climate crisis and migration. Countries have changed, they have become much more diverse; and such phenomena have triggered fears with respect to national identity issues, which we already talked about. And there are many other factors… 

If the trend continues i.e., the surge and the success of populist parties, what sort of a Europe shall we have in 20-30 years?

I am not a prophet, and I am also not a political scientist. I believe that the EU is endangered as a transnational entity. If the EU cannot guarantee human rights anymore, which are part and parcel of the Treaties, if it cannot guarantee the convention of child rights, it might fall apart into countries which abide by the conventions and countries which go a very different way, like Hungary, Poland, and so forth. Then, the EU might remain an economic area, but it would not guarantee what the EU, actually, stands for. 

I personally am very worried about this because we can observe such developments. For example, we have witnessed that heads of state cannot find a compromise on how to save hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children stranded on Greek islands. As if nobody has learnt from history! Strong reforms are necessary. The EU members and the EU Commission will have to consider reforms. Hopefully the citizens can participate through referenda, [determining] which direction the reforms should take. There’s an inherent contradiction in the structure of EU that, on the one hand, there exists the European Parliament. We all vote for the MEPs [member of European Parliament]. On the other hand, the heads of state are the most powerful actors. The nation states remain more powerful than the transnational entity. I think this contradiction has to be solved in some way. Otherwise, I don’t see how the EU will be able to continue in a positive, peaceful way.

Who is Ruth Wodak?

Ruth Wodak is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated to the University of Vienna. Besides various other prizes, she was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize for Elite Researchers in 1996, an Honorary Doctorate from University of Örebro in Sweden in 2010, and an Honorary Doctorate from Warwick University in 2020. She is past-President of the Societas Linguistica Europaea. 2011, she was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria, and 2018, the Lebenswerk Preis for her lifetime achievements, from the Austrian Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She is member of the British Academy of Social Sciences and member of the Academia Europaea. In March 2020, she became Honorary Member of the Senate of the University of Vienna. She is member of the editorial board of a range of linguistic journals and co-editor of the journals Discourse and SocietyCritical Discourse Studies, and Language and Politics

She has held visiting professorships in University of Uppsala, Stanford University, University Minnesota, University of East Anglia, and Georgetown University. 2008, she was awarded the Kerstin Hesselgren Chair of the Swedish Parliament (at Örebrö University). In the spring 2014, Ruth Wodak held the Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In the spring 2016, Wodak was Distinguished Schuman Fellow at the Schuman Centre, EUI, Florence. 2017, she held the Willi Brandt Chair at the University of Malmö, Sweden. Currently, she is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (IWM). 

Her research interests focus on discourse studies; gender studies; identity politics and the politics of the past; political communication and populism; prejudice and discrimination; and on ethnographic methods of linguistic field work. 

Professor Wodak has published 10 monographs, 29 co-authored monographs, over 60 edited volumes and special issues of journals, and ca 420 peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters. Her work has been translated into English, Italian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, Czech, Bosnian, Greek, Slovenian, and Serbian. 

Recent book publications include The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourses (Sage 2021, 2nd revised and extended edition); Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control (Multilingual Matters 2020; with M. Rheindorf); Identitäten im Wandel. (Springer 2020; with R. de Cillia, M. Rheindorf, S. Lehner); Europe at the Crossroads (Nordicum 2019; with P. Bevelander); The Routledge Handbook of Language and Politics (Routledge 2018, with B. Forchtner); Kinder der Rückkehr (Springer 2018, with E. Berger); The Politics of Fear. What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage, 2015; translated into the German, Russian, Bosnian, and Japanese); The discourse of politics in action: Politics as Usual’ (Palgrave, revised 2nd edition 2011; translated into the Chinese); Methods of CDS (Sage 2016, with M. Meyer; 3rd revised edition, translated into the Korean, Spanish, and Arabic); Migration, Identity and Belonging (LUP 2011, with G. Delanty, P. Jones); The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the German Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation (Palgrave 2008; with H. Heer, W. Manoschek, A. Pollak); The Politics of Exclusion. Debating Migration in Austria (Transaction Press 2009; with M. Krzyżanowski); The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (Sage 2010; with B. Johnstone, P. Kerswill); Analyzing Fascist Discourse. Fascism in Talk and Text (Routledge 2013; with J E Richardson), and Rightwing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse (Bloomsbury 2013; with M. KhosraviNik, B. Mral). See http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/profiles/Ruth-Wodak for more information. 

White Mushroom. Photo: Stephan Morris

Witnessing Beyond the Human*

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

By Heidi Hart

“The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world.

Each family of trees, animals, winds, stones needed a poet.”

  • Joy Harjo

As populist movements gain traction, their environmental rhetoric tends to fall into two camps: unchecked extractivism for human use and distrust of scientific expertise on the one hand (McCarthy, 2019), and ecofascist fantasies of a “pristine” world without humans (particularly immigrants) on the other (Lubarda, 2020). What links these seemingly contradictory positions is a focus on people, the key element in the term “populism.” 

In academic and artistic circles, meanwhile, efforts to de-center the human, in terms of entanglement with other species, build on older models of witnessing to create a sense of truthfulness. Whether these efforts can actually prove persuasive remains an open question, but the work of imagining non-human subjectivities may leak far enough into popular media to reach even those who distrust climate science. This paper describes projects building on the “poetry of witness” tradition and their related popular manifestations, to argue that multispecies thinking can be adapted into mainstream media and cross ideological divides. 

The wax figure of Bertolt Brecht – opening of the waxworks “Madame Tussauds”, Unter den Linden, Berlin on July 10, 2008.

Background: Human Witnessing in Words

During Nazi-era exile in Denmark, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht responded to his times with sharp-witted ballads and elegies that mixed reportage with biblical rhythms of mourning (Greenstein, 2010: 70). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan bore witness to the reverberations of genocide by re-enacting folksong rhythms in his poetry – and at the same time breaking down the German language that had been used in the service of unspeakable brutality (Franklin, 2020).

From the Spanish Civil War through the Vietnam era, American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote what is now called “documentary poetry” to collect and distill traces of “the first century of world wars” (Huber, 2018). In our own time, Terrance Hayes and others have borne witness to the grief, anger, and activism rising from the death of George Floyd (Hayes, 2020). Though the “poetry of witness” tradition has suffered from white privilege and over-personalization in the US, shifting attention from “atrocities at home and abroad” (Hernández, 2021), it has been a key measure of literary trustworthiness, especially in the “post-truth” Trump era. 

Why poetry? As environmental writer Andri Snær Magnason points out, poetry allows humans to “scale up” language to meet a crisis, since we cannot amplify it the way we can numbers (Magnason, 2021). How can poetry, then, best rise to meet our present crisis on a planetary scale? How to address wildfire, mass extinction, monster hurricanes, ice loss, floods, and ocean acidification, to name just a few of the threats that seem overwhelming today? 

A more pressing question might be, how trustworthy is a human poet anyway, when humans – though with varying privileges and complicities in the carbon-industrial complex – have been the agents of a once healthy planet’s demise? Poetic efforts toward de-centering the human “I” to make room for other species’ presences, can foster complex and generous truth-telling. When spread into popular (if not populist) media, they can do at least some of the work of “transcending human-centered exceptionalism” (Demos, 2016: 19).

Build A Bear Lion King display in Arrowhead mall in Glendale, Arizona, USA on July 29, 2019. Photo: E. Murphy.

Making Room for Other Species

In his book The Media Ecosystem, Antonio López describes a process of decolonizing what he calls media “monoculture,” in which Disney monopolizes “magic” (López, 2012: 9) and TV “teaches us what is normal by showing us that common people are middle class, white suburbanites” (57). Metaphorically applying principles of regenerative agriculture and even Bill McKibben’s “media equivalent of the farmer’s market” (143) can aid in disrupting a hegemonic media landscape, as can learning about Indigenous practices of community ritual and collaboration. 

Likewise, a literary geography of well-educated humans writing testimonials of their time on Earth can be a form of “monocropping,” too, not only in shutting out less privileged voices but also in assuming that only human perspectives count. Looking to older sources than Disneyfied talking animals, López points out that “[t]races of our ancient past can be found in how children are allowed to play as if animals, plants, or spirits can talk to them” (9). He cites Hayao Miyazaki’s films as a strong example of “respectful tales of nature spirits” and “ecological allegories of connection” (9). He also describes do-it-yourself, collage-like punk aesthetics as ways of being “more than a witness” in making “something participatory and real” (29)

Even for environmentally engaged writers and artists, stepping aside to listen to other species does require some DIY resourcefulness – and most of all humility, as humans are just beginning to understand how an octopus, a fungus, or a forest experiences the world. Philosopher Vinciane Despret’s attempts to understand animal subjectivity often take the form of questions, as in her alphabet-structured book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (2016), because the answers are still piecemeal and contingent. 

Donna Haraway, known for her influential thinking on multispecies entanglements, cautions against essentializing groups of animals, humans included. This point is a helpful antidote to right-wing, populist thinking that privileges humans over all other species, either by promoting unchecked growth or by wishing humankind away from an imagined, pristine “Nature.” “Individual critters matter,” Haraway writes; “they are mortal and fleshly knottings, not ultimate units of being” (Haraway, 2008: 88)

Because human understanding of nonhuman subjectivity is so difficult, “stories built through layered and disparate practices of being and knowing” (Tsing, 2015: 159) may be the best approach. This can take time and many false starts. Even clumsy reckoning with other species’ perspectives can yield a strange, new insight: “[t]he way selves relate is not necessarily akin to the ways in which words relate to each other in that system we call language” (Kohn, 2013: 100)

Photo: Dora Zett

Risking Interspecies Poetics

For all the difficulty and even impossibility of meeting other species in words, poets have tried for centuries to do exactly this. Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century meditation on his cat, “Jubilate Agno,” written at great length while in a London asylum, is equal parts biblical cadence and playful invention. The descriptive poem, in which an animal or plant is treated from a distance (and often given quasi-totemic power in a moment of personal realization), has continued to be the most accessible mode of human-nonhuman literary encounter. 

In the time of mass extinction combined with pandemic lockdown, the elegiac mode for mourning lost species has taken on new digital dimensions. The Vigil for the Smooth Handfish project, presented by the Parallel Effect for Lost Species Day in November 2020, was a scheduled online event that featured an animated image of a now-extinct fish that did appear to have hands, along with original poems and songs. The overall goal was to encourage participants to slow down, take time for a contemplative experience amid the confusions of the COVID year, and allow grief even for a small fish most people had never heard of to open a “space for a digital congregation, to contemplate loss, grief, the parameters of care, the interconnectedness of conservation and radical hope, and ‘collaborative survival’” (Parallel Effect, 2020). 

Another literary mode of approaching other species is the persona poem, in which the speaker takes on the “voice” of another creature or entity. Not surprisingly, this style of poetry is popular for schoolchildren, as in an Arizona writing program that includes “Poems by Pets” (Grunberger, n.d.), though the fictional mode of “zoopoetics” can be traced through the works of Kafka and into science fiction such as Octavia Butler’s Clay Ark (Magnone, 2016). Contemporary poets seeking contact with other species’ subjectivities tend to avoid speaking directly in nonhuman voices, knowing the ethical problems of presuming that “speech” (see Appadurai, 1988: 17, 20).

American Navajo (Diné) poet Tacy Atsitty’s speaker-persona slips obliquely in and out of nonhuman attributes, imagining what a cow needs, licking salt, and needing to be reminded “how I am human” (Atsitty, 2018: 25, 71). Turkish poet Ece Temelkuran takes another sidelong approach, in a collection titled “Meadow: The Explorer Encounters the Virtues in the Shapes of Animals” (2010). The poet’s impulse is to wriggle as closely as possible to her mysterious subjects (“I removed/ my eyes, thrust them under the earth,” 32) but she realizes that, in the case of a black swan, “She is none of the stories made up about her” (37).

Some poets test these limits, taking multispecies witnessing as a challenge. On one end of the risk spectrum, Brazilian poet Sérgio Madeiros keeps his words on the page but saturates them “in animist epistemologies that disperse divinity and personhood across a broad spectrum of beings,” such as a soldier in dialogue with a tapir “also identified as an old woman and a cannibal soul,” creating a “pluriverse” informed by Indigenous storytelling, Zen poetry, and avant-garde aesthetics, in an effort to resist human exceptionalism (McNee, 2017)

On the other end of the risk spectrum, multispecies researcher Eben Kirksey has experimented with biopoetic storytelling, in collaboration with chytrid fungi that reproduce with zoospores. Offering “death back to life, by offering bits of stuff to them – bait, like baby hair, pollen, or hemp,” this “composition without a composer or conductor” allows for decentralized creativity in a “cascade of reactions” (Kirksey, 2019). If this approach seems too lab-intensive, too biologically invasive, or too problematic in light of chytrids’ role in Central and South American frog extinctions (Platt, 2021) to work as trustworthy witnessing, there is a middle ground, a poetics of voice that allows nonhuman voices to be heard as well.

Two hooded crows are fighting on the summer lawn. Photo: Oleg Elkov.

US Poet Laureate and jazz musician Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation) writes in playful relationship with other species, notably the crow. In an intertitle section of her 2015 book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she writes, “Humans in this world fall too easily to war, are quick to take offense, and claim ownership. ‘What drama,’ said crow, dodging traffic as he wrestled a piece of road kill,” (Harjo, 2015: 24)

In her 2010 album Red Dream, Trail Beyond Tears, Harjo sings with a crow. The song “Urban Crow Dance” emerged after “a crow followed me to the studio the first session,” the poet recalls (Harjo, 2010). With an underlying drone, syncopated percussion, flute, and the crow’s own voice, Harjo speak-sings, “C’mon, crow!  Dance!” She counts out the dance beat, lets her voice recede, and banters with the bird “(“Be that way, then!”), imitating his call as the song ends. Somehow this interaction sounds as respectful as it is awkward, with two voices meeting in equal, playful author-ity. Harjo’s Native heritage, with generations of human-animal storytelling, gives her the credibility to take this risk. 

Recording and interacting with animal voices (as in the many jazz responses to whale song [e.g. Rothenberg and Saarimaki, 2015]) is of course nothing new. Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra project has led not only to the pleasures of multispecies listening but also to groundbreaking research on biophony, leading to the “acoustic niche hypothesis” (Krause, 2016) in which different creatures adjust their frequencies to create individual sonic territories and adapt to other species’ soundworlds. Moths jam bats’ echolocation signals, for example, and in return bats “have managed to figure out what the moths are doing and have adjusted their echoing signal from a loud ping to a soft whisper” in order to “creep up on their prey, drawing to within a wing’s length without being detected” (Krause, 2012: 97).

Scientific discoveries aside, though, the widespread practice of field recording risks artistic extractivism or what Dylan Robinson has called “hungry listening” (Robinson, 2020). From Indigenous perspectives, sound collection can be a form of consumption, of wanting to claim and fix sensory material in place. Likewise, relying only on human emotions as a channel for understanding non-human experience can risk shallow empathy rather than real engagement, as in the controversial work of Peter Wolhlleben, whose Secret Life of Trees has reached a wide audience by describing botanical “emotions” while sidestepping scientific forestry research and practice (Kingsland, 2018).

Poetry and other art forms that include nonhuman voices are most generous when they allow for the unexpected, for the awkward pause or caw, for a moment of being “beside ourselves” as humans (Kirksey, 2019). An attitude of “guest listening” and of witnessing through conversation rather than monologue (Robinson, 2020: 53, 70-71) can open a space for other species to be at once surprising and less “other” – simply themselves. 

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Photo: Vladimir Wrangel.

More-than-human Witnessing in Popular Media

While poets, artists, and environmental humanities scholars have been finding ways to imagine nonhuman subjectivities, scientific researchers with communicative gifts have entered this stream, too. Suzanne Simard, a silviculturalist or forest scientist, has succeeded where Wohlleben’s project, however popular, has fallen short. Her new book Finding the Mother Tree draws on decades of research into ectomycorrhizal fungi that form communicative networks under the visible forest, an idea that has gone viral in human parlance as the “wood wide web.” Though Simard still uses anthropomorphic terms like “matriarch,” her clear and compelling writing helps general readers understand how trees pass information from generation to generation, adapting “energy flow” to changing conditions (Simard, 2021; Slaght, 2021).

In a similar, reciprocal flow between research and art, Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest uses visual poetry to reach a wide human audience in New York’s Madison Square Park. A grove of giant, leafless Atlantic white cedar trees, earlier slated for clearing in New Jersey, has taken up residence in a public space. The towering, lifeless trees speak for themselves witnesses to ecological vulnerability, as actual “ghost forests” appear more and more frequently in US coastal areas (Smith, 2021)

Less charismatic species, such as kelp or mushrooms, have also gained in mainstream awareness – and not only because of their nutritional or psychedelic potential. The 2019 Kelp Congress in northern Norway attracted not only artists and researchers but practically the whole town of Svolvær as well, as citizens marched in a ceremony honoring the kelp that had saved several villagers from a Nazi assault on their town – by providing smelly but effective cover for several days (Johannessen, 2019). Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s scholarly book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) may have a daunting title, but it laid the groundwork for such popular projects as Louie Schwartzberg’s 2019 film Fantastic Fungi and widespread at-home mushroom cultivation as a “new pandemic hobby” (Matei, 2021)

As for the charismatic whales, elephants, and household pets treated as subjects of popular books and TV shows on “how animals think” or “how animals communicate,” this is nothing new; nature documentaries have been reaching mainstream audiences for decades. What climate crisis and the looming sixth mass extinction have added to the picture is a dual sense of urgency and intimacy. 

The 2020 Oscar-winning film My Octopus Teacher is a human act of witnessing, but one that shows new possibilities of interspecies connection in a rapidly warming ocean environment. Though filmmaker Craig Foster edited the project heavily to create a narrative arc about his own healing from depression through a “love story” with another creature (Thiyagarajan, 2020), the film has reached a far wider audience than scholarly or poetic efforts to come close to a nonhuman “other.” Perhaps such projects can shift even a populist imagination away from either a “people only” or a “world without people” ideology.  

Conclusion

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

Works that include other species’ sounds are difficult to present without coming across as precious or extractivist. Still, this can be done with playfulness and openness to chance, as in Joy Harjo’s jazz-inflected “Urban Crow Dance.” As artist and activist Olafur Eliasson has put it, “The fastest way to make a populist into a humanist is to listen,” in an artistic experience that encourages openness and empathy (Lauter, 2021). This applies to more-than-human empathy as well. 

As I have considered a range of works that de-center human author-ity to make room for other species, I am well aware of the imaginative leap such works require. To return to the Kelp Congress in Norway in 2019, one helpful guide for researchers and artists was a speculative philosophy text by Emanuele Coccia, “The Cosmic Garden”:

“Imagine you have no eyes. There are no colors in front of you. No forms. No patterns. No outlines. The world is not a variety of bodies and intensities of light. It is a unique body with different degrees of penetrability.

Imagine you have no ears. There are no noises, no music, no calls, no language you can understand. Everything is but a silent excitement of matter,” (Coccia, 2019: 17).

The text goes on to ask the reader to imagine having no legs, no arms, no hands, no “movement organs” (Coccia, 2019: 18), only a penetrable and penetrating presence in a fluid world. These words, which do not pretend to “be” an entity like giant kelp but rather press toward imagining its experience, allow the gap between us to remain. This humility in witness, knowing how far the writer is from really knowing how it is to be a plant, is what makes the text trustworthy.

The distance between humans and nonhumans, however inspiring moments of unexpected connection (the crow following Joy Harjo to the recording studio, for example), is no reason for despair. As climate-aware writers and artists test the limits of interspecies poetics, it is helpful to remember “the animal dimension in my own speaking” and even writing (Abram, 2010: 168) as the body leans forward to think through a phrase, and as the voice grows quieter or louder to make an urgent point. 

A beyond-human poem, or a book or film or even viral video, can be a kind of kin, too (Robinson, 2020: 95), expanding beyond what populist rhetoric (either human-focused or anti-human) counts as valuable. These varied forms of witnessing in human language, even in the effort to move beyond it, create a system of reaching relations, like tentacles spreading to touch, if not completely comprehend, the pluriverse in which we live. 

(*) This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2021 conference Trust Me! Truthfulness and Truth Claims Across Media, Linnaeus University, Sweden. 


References

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