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

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

Abstract

This article discusses the Chinese American trickster tradition focusing specifically on archetypes and several key themes, such as racism, populism, and essentialism. We argue that the figure of the Monkey King is central to Chinese American literature, particularly in Chinese American women’s writing, and the concepts of populism and racism are made relevant through the cultural appropriation of this folk figure in the writings of Chinese American authors. Furthermore, the article discusses tricksterism in relation to politics and cultural production, particularly the Monkey King. In this regard, the article makes an original contribution to the literature on tricksterism and cultural populism by analyzing the Chinese American trickster tradition from these fresh perspectives.

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

There is a thriving Chinese American trickster tradition with distinctive characteristics peculiar to Chinese American literature, specifically Chinese American women’s writing. Producing some of the earliest examples of Chinese American women’s writing, the Eaton sisters—Edith Eaton (also known as Sui Sin Far) and Winnifred Eaton—used trickster techniques in their writings, although they did not create a trickster tradition based on one protagonist, like Sun Wu Kong. On the other hand, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen, all established Chinese American authors, have developed a Chinese American trickster tradition with trickster characters. The primary source and inspiration for these characters is the Chinese trickster tradition with hints of the African American Signifying Monkey (Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land comes to mind). It is fair to say that Kingston’s trickster character Wittman Ah Sing became the basis of the Chinese American variety, while Tan and Jen further shaped this evolving tradition with new tricksters, such as Mona, Lanlan, and Kwan Li.

When we talk about the Chinese American trickster tradition, the monkey as an archetype emerges as a prominent motif. This can take the form of an actual monkey-like character in the narrative, or like the Signifying Monkey, through narrative elements and language use. However, the use of the monkey trickster as an archetype is ever-changing and open to new interpretations, as each author brings something new to the table, with new characters as well as new trickster narratives and traits. Writing about the dynamic nature of myths and tricksters, Estella Lauter holds that “myths are part of the dynamic of history instead of being one of its reservoirs”—as such, myths are not “records of a completed process” (1984: 3). set Never set in stone, tricksters as archetypes adapt, change, and transform as time goes on through new narratives and via cultural adaptation. Thus, they are dynamic and fluid rather than static.

Kingston, Tan, and Jen have all contributed to the development of a Chinese American trickster tradition which, as mentioned, draws extensively on the Chinese trickster tradition. However, it is distinguished from the classic approach by its distinctive trickster types and styles, its own arguments, and a “communal signification” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). It is therefore focused on the concerns of the Chinese American community and its ethnic heritage.

The main aims of the Chinese American trickster tradition can be summarized as follows: Re-establishing bonds with one’s ethnic community, reclaiming one’s heritage, and reinterpreting the same ethnic heritage and traditions. “Ethnic” here signifies the broadest range of cultural and racial elements, concerns, and issues. As such, while gender plays an important role, the connecting tissue of the Chinese American trickster tradition is ethnic belonging as well as inter-ethnic relations and tensions.

Maxine Hong Kingston bases her trickster character—Wittman Ah Sing, an assertive and popular trickster—on the Monkey King. The Sing (星) in Wittman’s name means “star” in Cantonese). Kingston’s primary concerns in writing The Woman Warrior, published in 1989, were gender inequality, patriarchy, and oppression. However, her central theme and driving point in creating Wittman Ah Sing and writing Tripmaster Monkey, published some years late, was to create a popular Chinese American trickster who is concerned for the wellbeing of his community and fights racial stereotypes of the Chinese.

Shades of Populism in Culture

According to Jagers and Walgrave, populism is a type of discursive practice and is essentially a form of rhetoric (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). For others, populism is a well-devised strategy (Barr, 2009) formulated with the intention of transforming the existing system of governance or taking over the state apparatus. For others still, it is essentially a political style or performance (Moffit, 2016).

Although there are many different approaches to populism—focusing variously on ideology, strategy, style, or discourse (Mudde 2004; Bar 2009; Moffit 2017)—there is a scholarly consensus that it is a social plague creating antagonistic us versus “the enemy” other binaries. Furthermore, populist figures see such divisions as an opportunity and try to capitalize on them by further dwelling on the sociological faultiness to portray themselves as the savior of the “real people” of the country from the exploitation of the enemy “Other.” Thus, exaggerating divisions and threats, the populist aims to deconstruct society’s social fabric in a way that defines the interests of “the people” (i.e., the populist’s followers) versus those opposed (“the Other”). Therefore, “notwithstanding its competing definitions, leaving its ontological nature to the discussion in the extant literature, … populism is about constructions (construction, de-construction, and re-construction) of ‘the people(s),’ and mobilization in an antagonistic fashion by the populists. This is because construction of ‘the people’ is ‘the main task of populists’.” (Yilmaz et al. 2021: 3).

Populist divisions and binaries are created at different levels or in different dimensions such as “vertical” and “horizontal” (Taguieff, 1995: 32–35) or in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Concerning this civilizational aspect of populism, Taggart (2000) explains how populists construct “heartlands” and appeal to the people, stirring a feeling of nostalgia in them. Thus, populists invite the people—“the rightful owners” of the native land to reconstruct and live in these “heartlands.” In the construction of these heartlands, the primary reference is to history. However, more than history, it is the culture that keeps those emotions alive in mind and practice. Therefore, we argue that it is culture that allows for the conversion of certain periods of history into emotional spaces— namely, “heartlands” that people yearn to reconstruct and live. In this regard, we can view certain aspects of the trickster, as in the example of the Monkey King, appropriated for the purposes of patriotism, nationalism, and populism, as the tools of culture used to carve out history for “heartlands.”

Populism in Literature

Populism as a concept is more discussed in the realm of politics than culture. However, culture and populism are related concepts that need to be scrutinized in relation to one another. Hence, the merging of the two concepts as “cultural populism” is understood to mean “primary cultural production” or “aesthetic populism” also denotes the “study of popular cultural texts” (McGuigan, 1992: 2). As such, cultural populism can be understood as the infusion of “popular cultural elements” into “‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). Thus, at the intersection of populism and culture, we see that populism lacks the default negative connotation it has vis-à-vis politics. Rather, at least in one of its meanings, it is understood simply as the popularization of art and cultural production among the masses.

On the other hand, populism, in its negative connotation, is also present in the cultural domain. Hence, cultural populism is criticized for trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (TV films versus cinema, popular bestsellers versus literary books). This kind of populism does not mobilize the masses; rather, it affects the consumers in ways more subtle, which are criticized (creating less complex, watered-down versions of literary characters or stories, with the assumption that the masses cannot comprehend more complex forms of storytelling or art).

Finally, concerning cultural populism and mass media, the criticism that populism creates “lowbrow” (cf “highbrow”) culture is worthy of discussion and analysis (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 108). As can be observed in our paper, the difficulties involved in popularizing classical literature (in the form of the Chinese classic Journey to the West) and creating popular forms of culture in the form of animation films and TV cartoons while appropriating the themes as characters to popular political leaders (as in the case of Mao Zedong), are all the more apparent here, and worth discussing in relation to populism and tricksterism.

Wittman Ah Sing

This article attempts to identify and analyze the different trickster types in the Chinese American tradition. Each of thesehas specific functions and attributes (ranging from countertypes to mediators), in line with specific themes (such as populism, essentialism, and racism). Hynes and Doty have previously categorized tricksters and identified their attributes, such as trickster as “shape-shifter,” “deceiver/trick player,” and trickster as “situation-inverter” (1997: 34). We argue that such categories are necessary to comprehend the functions of tricksters in the Chinese American trickster tradition.

There are different dimensions of the trickster created by Kingston. In Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Kingston creates a new trickster archetype with Wittman Ah Sing. On the second level, she creates a “trickster countertype” in the person of Wittman, countering the culture and dominant worldviews that produce stereotypes of Chinese Americans. Wittman Ah Sing set an example in Chinese American literature as a new archetype by being the first fully-fledged trickster protagonist written by a Chinese American author. The concept of archetype was initially used to mean a “symbolic figure” in tribal lore (Jung, 2003: 4).

According to Jung, while it can be “disseminated … by tradition, language, migration,” an archetype can also “rearise spontaneously” with no apparent influence from outside factors, and at any given time or location (Jung, 2003: 13). Joseph Henderson also talks about “trickster archetypes,” but unlike Jung, whose definition is based on parapsychology, he bases his definition on the study of tricksters in oral literature. Henderson gives the example of the Coyote in the Native American oral tradition as a trickster archetype ([1967] 2005: 28). Henderson holds that a “trickster archetype” can assist people in “mediat[ing] between the powers of good and evil” (2005: 28).

So, a trickster archetype is not an archetypal figure with a purely evil or purely good presence but is marked as a go-between with the abilities of “creative experimentalism” (Henderson, 2005: 28). In parallel to these definitions, by “trickster archetype,” we mean a model that sets precedence in creating trickster characters in a literary tradition. A trickster archetype contains the basic attributes of all other tricksters within the same trickster tradition, as it represents the trickster tradition as a whole.

On the other hand, tricksters that follow the archetypal example take a specific attribute of that archetype and embellish it, developing in this way new types. In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the trickster archetype of Chinese American women writers’ fiction (and Chinese American literature in general) and was followed by other trickster characters with different traits.

Referring to her study of myths in the work of women artists and poets of the twentieth century, Lauter explains her stance regarding the uncovering of myths and archetypes. She remarks that “[t]hese women have not discovered truths that are outside history; they have simply responded to the imperatives of their own history in ways that may disclose the imperatives of ours” (Lauter, 1984: x). Thus, while these writers write and rewrite traditional trickster figures, and in some cases, create a new trickster archetype, they also write to respond to their own past and present in a dynamic understanding of meaning production through tricksters.

Wittman Ah Sing parallels other trickster archetypes, such as the trickster archetype of the Coyote, but especially the Monkey King of classical Chinese literature. In line with Henderson’s description of a trickster archetype, Wittman’s actions and character are ambiguous. His transgressive and disruptive behavior can be considered harmful, but his intentions and the results of his actions can be considered positive and constructive. Like other trickster archetypes from various traditions, Wittman Ah Sing also stands out with his creativity, experimenting with new trickster strategies, and becoming the prime example of the trickster in Chinese American literature.

With this said, let us now look at the attributes of tricksters in the Chinese American tradition and the general discourses and themes that they are associated with in Chinese American women’s fiction.

The Chinese character, Chinese Monkey God Sun Wu Kong in the novel Journey to the West. Photo: Bundit Yuwannasiri.

The “Awkward Dinner Guest:” Populism and the Chinese Trickster

One of the themes and discourses that is relevant to Chinese American tricksters is populism. We argue that one of the trickster archetypes is the trickster in the guise of an “awkward dinner guest,” who—after getting himself drunk—challenges the hosts by asking difficult and bizarre questions. Nevertheless, such questions can lay bare underlying problems, however discourteous it may be of the guest to raise them (Moffitt, 2010). In fact, according to Moffitt, the “awkward dinner guest” is the very personification of populism in relation to liberal democracy (2010).

In this trickster guise, the awkward dinner guest can be a positive force, laying bare the shortcomings of the system and challenging the status quo. However, the guest can also be a hindrance in a democratic context. The functioning of democracy is undermined if the guest challenges democratic practices. However, the trickster can also be a force for good if it can “identify otherwise overlooked political problems” and become the voice of minorities and “marginalised groups” (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the perfect example of a popular and populist trickster who becomes the voice of marginalized Chinese Americans. The discursive challenge to populism is highlighted in Wittman’s tricksterism through the example of Wittman’s unsuccessful efforts to find work at an employment office. Here, unemployment as a recurring issue in American society is laid bare and implicitly critiqued via the narrative.

Furthermore, in line with the Monkey King archetype, Wittman Ah Sing creates chaos, disrupts authority, and challenges stereotypes about Chinese people created by the majority culture (Kingston, 1998: 78–79). Similarly, Wittman’s final aim is to create his own one-man show through which he plans to share his populist discourse about tackling stereotypes. Through the show, he aims to unite the Chinese community, echoing in a way the discursive goals of a populist “leader of the people.”

However, it is more noteworthy that the very archetype of Chinese tricksterism, Sun Wu Kong, on which Wittman Ah Sing was based, was also utilized as a banner holder of populist political discourse. Thus, in the context of this trickster archetype, the trickster is not only the awkward dinner guest but a cultural hero of populism itself. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the archetypal Chinese cultural hero and trickster, Sun Wu Kong, was used by the Chinese Communist Party as a symbol of communism, appropriating the figure of the trickster to fit the party’s populist discourse. It is no coincidence that a cartoon version of Sun Wu Kong, the Chinese trickster, was shown on Chinese national television for decades.

What is more, books and films were published in China where Sun Wu Kong was identified with none other than Mao Zedong through political undertones and allusions. In Havoc in Heaven, a Chinese animation film from 1965, the Monkey King challenges the authority of the Jade Emperor in line with the Journey to the West narrative. The difference here is that, unlike the classic novel, the animation has a “political backdrop” that became apparent to viewers and film critics in China, who noticed the political undertones with its revolutionary themes (Harvard Press, 2014).[1] In light of the film, Mao was “compared … to the mischievous Monkey King,” and Heaven, where the Jade Emperor resided, was compared to the Chinese bourgeoisie, which Mao was fighting against.

Thus, Monkey King became a populist trickster who challenged the despotic ruler in the form of the Jade Emperor. This strife between Monkey King and the Jade Emperor was appropriated to fit the populist discourse of China’s communist government. However, even before the new political and populist signifiers attached to Monkey King, it can be said that the original Chinese trickster archetype had populism as a central theme, as he went on to challenge all the gods stuck in their old ways, as a way of challenging authority and mobilizing the masses, in the form of his monkey followers (Harvard Press, 2014).

The Trickster Countertype

A countertype is created in the face of a stereotype about a certain group or ethnicity. Thus, countertypes are positive portrayals that show how wrong the stereotypes are concerning the targeted group, as they demonstrate the positive traits of that group or show the opposite of the stereotype. In this way, a countertype operates as a “positive stereotype” (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238).

Two important cultural examples that showcase countertypes about African Americans are The Cosby Show and the American film Shaft. Nachbar argues that The Cosby Show presented an African American family with none of the stereotypes associated with African Americans, while Shaft presented the viewers with an African American private detective protagonist who was assertive, courageous, and clever (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238). However, The Cosby Show’s presentation of Black people can be criticized. The countertypes in the show do not represent the conditions of the majority of African Americans. Rather, the show presents a middle-class version that ignores the poor living conditions and economic inequalities true for many Black people in American society even today.

Similarly, Shaft’s creation of a countertype for Blacks is not entirely benign, as the film lauds gangster culture and presents Black men as dangerous and prone to violence. These examples presented as countertypes were, in fact, criticized for showcasing a selective and sometimes misleading and harmful version of the ethnic group they were thought to represent. Another criticism against countertypes in general is that they fail to meaningfully change or transform the stereotypes they confront. Countertypes on their own are not politically effective in overcoming stereotypical depictions. The main criticism of countertypes is that despite their utilization in media and literature, the stereotypes associated with ethnic groups persist in other domains of popular culture and popular imagery.

The trickster countertype functions similarly to the cultural countertype, with a few significant differences. While the countertype directly aims to replace existing stereotypes, the trickster countertype does not necessarily aim to take the place of a stereotype. Rather, a trickster countertype, such as found in Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, functions to challenge and dispel the essentialism, inequalities, and cultural reductionism that create stereotypes. Another significant difference of the trickster countertype is its ability to utilize some of the traits of the stereotypes about a particular ethnic group to mock and disrupt the dominant discourses that made these stereotypes possible.

Rather than countering stereotypes headlong, the trickster countertypes often point at the problems and inequalities. The trickster countertype does this effectively by utilizing the trickster’s characteristics of transgression and transformation. The trickster countertype depends largely on the existing trickster narratives, and ethnic-minority writers such as Gish Jen create trickster countertypes as protagonists.

Jen transforms Sun Wu Kong into a trickster countertype in her novel. While in Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston creates a Chinese American trickster archetype and countertype in the person of Wittman Ah Sing, in Mona in the Promised Land,it is Mona who follows in the footsteps of the trickster archetype, disrupts inequalities, racism, and essentialism in the American society, while at the same time providing a utopian alternative with her trickster powers.

The Trickster Mediator

Tricksters have always been noted for their role as mediators between the known world and the supernatural world and as interpreters of the gods, as they communicate with the unseen world and channel their knowledge to the world of humans.

When discussing aspects of tricksters from Afro-Caribbean folklore, Gates emphasizes the role of Afro-Caribbean tricksters as mediators (1989: 6). Esu, a trickster in the Yoruba oral tradition and other African cultures, is mainly known for his function as the “messenger of the gods,” as he makes sense of the messages of the gods, and brings those messages to men, and carries the wishes of men to the gods in turn (Gates, 1989: 6). Given the tricksters’ ability to cross boundaries, they can also take on the role of a messenger between the world of the gods and the mortal world (Stookey, 2004: 129). Hermes, a mythical figure from Greek mythology who is characterized as the messenger of gods, also performs the role of the trickster: as a trickster, he is not bound by any restrictions and can also communicate “lies and deceits” (Stookey, 2004: 130). As a trickster, Esu is, like Hermes, a “shifty mediator” whose mediation can be disruptive and full of tricks (Hyde, 2008: 125).

For Gates, the tricksters’ tricks are themselves his “mediation” (1989: 6). Although most tricksters have some attributes of mediation, not all tricksters are messengers of the gods and communicators of gods’ wishes to humanity. The trickster as mediator is a specific type whose relationship with the supernatural is his primary attribute and specialty. Like the two classic trickster mediators, Hermes from Greek mythology, and Legba from African folklore, all trickster mediators are scarcely “rule-governed;” therefore, they can both make sense of the gods’ messages and leverage them for their trickster ends (Stookey, 2004: 130). Another attribute of the trickster mediator is his role in making sure that human beings offer sacrifices to the gods; otherwise, he brings them suffering and afflictions (Hyde, 2008: 125).

Like the trickster mediators Hermes, Legba and Esu, the Monkey King has also mediated between deities and mortals. The Monkey King is constantly in touch with the supernatural world, always summoning spirits, gods, and demons, either to his aid or to question them for a wrongdoing. Like the trickster mediator, he can also be mischievous in his communication and tricks humans and deities into believing in him, twisting and distorting facts for his benefit.

When the Monkey King visits the Underworld, he communicates with Yama, the King of the Dead, and then erases his records from the archive of the dead to become immortal. When he is appointed to a position to take care of the horses in the palace of the Jade Emperor, he ditches work to trick the gods and eats the pills of immortality. As part of his penance for wrongdoing in a past life, Monkey King is also punished for his trickery in his mediation with the gods: he promises Kwan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, that he will join a Buddhist monk on his journey to India and abide by his rules. But after a while, he relapses into his old violent ways, fighting and killing many of those who cross his and the monk’s path on the journey to India. Because of his mischief, Kwan Yin metes out another punishment, forcing the Monkey King to wear a magical iron helmet that causes him severe headaches whenever he descends into mischief.

As a trickster mediator, Kwan Li in The Hundred Secret Senses also communicates with the supernatural world, which she calls the World of Yin. In line with her attributes, she is also a trickster mediator, as she has a close affinity with the Monkey King trickster of the Chinese tradition. While Kwan follows the patterns of a trickster mediator, she is a reinvention of the Monkey King character, emphasizing his attributes of mediation. Like traditional trickster mediators such as Hermes and Esu, Kwan Li interprets the messages she receives from spirits residing in the World of Yin and conveys them to her sister Olivia and anyone who comes to her to seek help from the World of Yin.

Unlike traditional tricksters, Kwan Li has an altruistic nature, always wanting to help her sister Olivia and her friends. However, it is striking to observe that as a trickster mediator, Kwan Li is also not a stranger to the idea of sacrifice. While traditional trickster mediators like Esu request that humanity makes sacrifices to the gods, Kwan Li gives up her own lifeto save a precious friend from death.

The Trickster Disruptor

One of the key characteristics of tricksters in various oral traditions is disruption. The trickster’s attribute of disruption creates chaos, unsettling the balance and breaking the “order of things” (Wiget, 1994: 95). The Monkey King often disrupts the schemes of the authorities to achieve his aim of immortal life. He tricks the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the universe, and disrupts the Heavenly Peach Banquet, wreaking havoc there after realizing that the authorities have not invited him. Following the example of the Monkey King, Wittman Ah Sing also creates chaos, disrupting parties and challenging accepted stereotypes about Chinese people (Kingston, 1998: 78–79).

The trickster disruptor is different from Wittman Ah Sing and the traditional Chinese trickster Monkey King in one important aspect: The Monkey King and Wittman break the order of things with a particular aim and with positive results in the end. While the Monkey King destroys opponents and the many bandits who cross his path on the way to India, his ultimate aim is to safely take delivery of and bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China for the good of the community. Similarly, despite Wittman’s transgressive behavior, his particular aim is to found his own one-man show and, through his show, bring together his disparate community.

The trickster disruptor breaks the balance and makes life difficult for others, creating disorder and chaos without any particular aim, acting as a negative force. Even if the results of her actions may have some relatively positive outcomes, this is not deliberate and conscious, as the trickster disruptor disturbs the balance without such goals. However, despite the trickster disruptor’s primary role as a troublemaker, she shares one significant trait with the trickster mediator—namely, the source of inspiration. This source is the Chinese oral tradition, through which proverbs, stories, sayings of Chinese scholars are incorporated into the trickster discourse. Despite this positive aspect, the trickster disruptor’s role is often not welcomed by society. Finally, like the trickster mediator, the trickster disruptor also feels she belongs nowhere. Since she leads a liminal life, even if she may feel some connection to particular individuals and places, she is not ultimately bound to any one place or person.

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

Trickster Techniques in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s Work

In this final part of the article, we would like to look at some of the trickster techniques that refer to a specific use of language, characters, and style in a given text, which gives the text its trickster qualities, which in return has ideological functions and implications for the writer and readers. According to Gerald Vizenor, the “trickster is a liberator and healer in a narrative, a comic sign, communal signification and a discourse with imagination” (1993: 187). By identifying the trickster both as a sign and a discourse, Vizenor emphasizes that the trickster does not necessarily always appear in a given text but can also manifest itself as a discourse and style.

A trickster language and style are not necessarily only apparent in texts with trickster figures, given that the trickster can also manifest itself as a “language game in a comic narrative” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes the trickster’s use of formal language, particularly in the context of the Afro–American trickster figure of the “Signifying Monkey” (Gates, 1989: xxi). The Signifying Monkey becomes relevant in analyzing the narrative style and language of the trickster, given that it is more a rhetorical device or a “rhetorical principle” than an actual figure (Gates, 1989: 44), and it has significant functions in the production of meaning alongside the trickster’s actions in the text. The Signifying Monkey, as the “‘ironic reversal’ of the insulting stereotype of the Black as monkey-like, uses language to break away with stereotypes, using different language tropes such as puns, metaphors, repetition, irony, and hyperbole, all of which constitute his trickster ability of ‘Signifying’” (Gates, 1989: 52).

The most important aspects of a trickster tradition in the context of Chinese American literature in general and Chinese American women writers’ fiction, in particular, are their stance against essentialism and stereotypes and their close-knit connections with different forms of storytelling. The trickster technique of Kingston, Tan, and Jen foregrounds storytelling as a significant part of the construction of identity and community. By telling their stories from multiple perspectives, the tricksters in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s novels create narratives that do not have one central “authorial” perspective that dominates their trickster novels. Their challenging essentialist constructions of Chinese identity is another significant and definitive aspect of the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition. This technique is apparent in Kingston’s characterization of Wittman Ah Sing, who invokes the trickster Monkey King. He also culturally dismantles reductionist depictions of the Chinese through his trickster ability of transgression. Kingston’s trickster strategy, which challenges essentialist discourses about Chinese Americans, is shared with Jen, who also challenges Chinese stereotypes in the trickster character of Mona.

A significant technique in the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition is building a trickster identity that is fluid and subject to change. It has been noted by critics such as Hynes that essentialist conceptions of identity are rigid, static, limited, and limiting and that the trickster figure provides a significant challenge to this static view of identity, intersecting with the postmodern conception of identity. Hynes remarks, pointing to the divergent character of the trickster, that “the logic of order and convergence, … is challenged by another path, the random and divergent trail taken by that profane metaplayer, the trickster” (1997: 216).

Another trickster technique utilized by the authors is the use of laughter and parody to dismantle dominant ideologies and hegemonic constructions. The novel is “a fundamental liberation of cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language” (Bakhtin, 1998: 366). According to Bakhtin, “the rogue, the clown and the fool” represent the negative side of the Rabelaisian novel (1998: 406), as symbols of what Bakhtin calls “Rabelaisian laughter” and as figures that clearly have trickster qualities. In Bakhtin’s view, Rabelaisian laughter signifies a quality in the novel that operates to bring out “the crude, unmediated connections between things that people otherwise seek to keep separate” and to “destroy … traditional connections and abolish … idealized strata” (1998: 170). On the other hand, for Bakhtin, the positive side in Rabelais’ conception of the novel form relies “upon folklore and antiquity” (1998: 169–170). Thus, Kingston, Jen, and Tan use laughter and criticism to expose ethnic stereotypes and essentialist constructions of ethnic identity on the one hand while maintaining their connection to their cultural narratives and myths through trickster strategies and figures in their novels on the other.

Another central aspect of a trickster technique in the fiction of Chinese American women writers is “liminal cultural position,” characterized by the transgression of existing boundaries, whether they are cultural, ethnic, or ideological boundaries. Liminality as a concept was first coined and discussed in the context of anthropology as a phase in the rites of passage of tribal peoples. Arnold Van Gennep, who coined the term “rites of passage,” uses the term “liminal” while discussing initiation and transition rites of tribal societies (1960: 11, 21, 53).[2]

Van Gennep also associates rites that involve passing through a door or a portal with the liminal, calling them “liminal/threshold rites” (1960: 21–22). As part of the rites of passage of a tribe, the liminal phase represented a threshold in the ritual, which was preceded by the separation of the individual from the society. The trickster’s apparent autonomy from society’s norms and restrictions is a metaphor that stems from the actual condition of the liminal phase in the rites of passage of a tribal society. As Turner observes, the person who goes through the “liminal period” in the rites of passage gains an ambiguity and enters a “cultural realm” that is unstable, and completely separate from and dissimilar to the past and coming phases of the ritual ([1965] 2008: 94–95).

At the same time, the attributes of liminality as a condition are, also, the attributes of the person who dwells in the liminal space, what Turner calls the “liminal personae” or the “threshold people” and what we call the trickster embodying a “liminal position,” echoing Smith’s argument that the trickster has a “liminal cultural position” that allows him to move beyond the confines of the world (1997: 12). Hence, the main characteristic of liminality is ambiguity and the condition of eluding any fixed definitions or classification. Therefore, “liminal entities” “are neither here nor there” and are “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial” (Turner, 2008: 95).

Tricksters are relatively free from society’s laws and restrictions, which allows them to expose these same restrictions and create new spaces of meaning production on a textual level. Despite liminal space being confined to the homogenous and monolithic character of the tribal society, the liminality utilized in the fiction of the trickster writer functions as a bridge between different cultural influences, genders, and ethnic groups in a society while also evading monolithic definitions of culture and ethnicity, reflecting Van Gennep’s association of threshold rites with liminality (1960: 21).

Paralleling the liminal space of threshold rites, which allows the initiated individual to travel between the world of immortals and the world of gods or from the world of the dead to the world of the living (Van Gennep, 1960: 53), the trickster in the liminal space of the novel can cross ethnic boundaries and challenge existing worldviews. In this way, Wittman Ah Sing can defy Frank Chin’s claims to a belligerent and patriarchal Chinese tradition and reject being enlisted in the Vietnam War. Mona Chang of Mona in the Promised Land can go beyond ethnic boundaries and freely exchange cultural traditions with Sherman Matsumoto of Japan and Seth Mandel, a Jewish American. A “liminal position” informs and empowers the fiction of trickster writers such as Kingston, Tan, and Jen. What we call the “liminal space” of the trickster text allows for questioning ethnic stereotypes and becomes useful for women and people of color in the face of racism in a patriarchal society.

Conclusion

In this article, we have analyzed the different aspects of the trickster in Chinese American literature and attempted to provide an overview of the different trickster types and discourses found in the Chinese American trickster tradition, from populism to countertypes, with particular attention paid to the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Gish Jen, whose writings, we argue, have had an enormous impact on the way the Chinese American trickster tradition found its unique identity within American literature.

Finally, we discussed the Chinese American trickster tradition through the lens of the techniques utilized by Chinese American authors in shaping and influencing the literary tradition in question. During our research, we have found that while Tan and Jen’s trickster characters are female, they are still based on the male trickster Monkey King, and their primary concern is to challenge ethnic stereotypes, create inter-ethnic and inter-communal harmony, and challenge racist ideologies.

To conclude, the Chinese American trickster tradition evolves with each new novel and short story that utilizes trickster techniques and characters. While each is worthy of study in its own right, we can nevertheless trace common origins in classical Chinese literature and in the figure of Sun Wu Kong.

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] The title of the article in question, “Havoc in Mao’s Heaven,” is a reference to the animated film, Havoc in Heaven, and could also be a reference to a quote attributed to Mao Zedong: “There is great chaos under Heaven; the situation is excellent” (“天下大乱,形势大好”). Understood to refer to the Cultural Revolution, as a way of creating order through chaos, the attribution of the quote to Mao is nevertheless questionable. 

[2] We use “liminal space” to denote the complete narrative space of a trickster text that accomodates the trickster, while using “liminal position” to denote the liminal attributes of the trickster in literature. Thus the trickster has relative freedom in the liminal space of trickster fiction, which allows him or her to cross the “limen” of societal restrictions and hierarchies. 

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

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

Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat: “The most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that ‘we.’ And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”

Interview by Merve Reyhan Kayikci

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a commentator on fascism, authoritarian leaders and propaganda and the threats they pose to democracies, said that any society can be susceptible to an authoritarian strongman figure if it’s the right time. “It’s very important to see the warning signs in the beginning and stop these people in their tracks,” she warned.

Giving an interview to Sweden-based Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), Prof. Ben-Ghiat talked about her latest book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” the rising authoritarianism around the world, the link between masculinity and authoritarianism and how to stop the “strongmen.”Stating that the most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we” Ben-Ghiat said that “they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

In the book you begin by describing how there is a strong link between masculinity and authoritarianism. What are some aspects of masculinity that make an authoritarian leader and draw the support of people?

There are many types of masculinity in the world, but the strongman is an authoritarian leader who not only damages or destroys democracy but uses this kind of toxic, arrogant masculinity as a tool of rule. So some of them, like Mussolini and Putin, will use their bodies, they strip their shirts off, and so they let their bodies become kind of emblems of national strength. And they also use threats. Their strength is also threatening. This is a kind of masculinity that’s about domination, possession of others, and it connects to a worldview where these leaders have a proprietary conception of power and the state so that they seize businesses, as Erdgan does in Turkey and Putin in Russia. So this is a kind of masculinity, and the reason I use arrogance is that there is nothing that shouldn’t be theirs.

Ultimately, Authoritarian Governments Are Very Destructive and Unstable

Do you think in some societies people are more drawn to a father figure, a savior, than in other societies?

One of the ways these leaders find popular appeal is that they correspond to ancient archetypes of male figures, such as the protector or the father figure and also the savior. One common theme is that they all say they are going to save the nation. Only they have unique qualities, and this is where their charisma can come in or their personality cult. Only they can save the nation. On the one hand, they project themselves forward in time, where they say, “I’m going to make things great in the future.” They often pose as modernizers where they’re building highways and airports. But they also channel nostalgia, where they say, so it’s not “Make the nation great again,” as Donald Trump would say, it’s not “Make the nation great,” it’s “Make it great again.” So the nostalgia for a world that used to be better, for a lost empire, is very important. Mussolini had the Roman Empire, Erdogan has his fantasy of reviving the Ottoman Empire. … They attract people by playing into fantasies of grandeur and power.

One of the things my research taught me is that any society can be susceptible to this strongman figure if it’s the right time. The right time is sometimes after a defeat … or a time where there has been a lot of social change that includes gender emancipation or racial equity, and white males in the European and American context often feel threatened.

In the book you mention that most strongmen have anger issues. Could you elaborate on that? 

Historically people have seen authoritarians as crazy, starting with Hitler. People said he was a ranting fool and crazy. I was astounded doing my research at how similar the personalities of authoritarian leaders were. They each have their own quirks and not exactly the same, but they all have paranoia, narcissism, they all are very aggressive, and they like to humiliate others. This leads to certain styles of governance that are very dysfunctional and full of turmoil. So they create inner sanctums around themselves with family members — like Erdogan — because they’re corrupt and need people to keep their secrets. But everybody else is humiliated and fired and re-hired. So their governments are not stable at all. Their personalities are impulsive and they think they are God sometimes and that they’re infallible. They make snap decisions which are not good for policy making. Ultimately, their governments are very destructive and unstable, even though the myth of authoritarians is that these are take-charge men who will bring peace and stability.

Their personalities are full of turmoil, but dismissing them as crazy is shortsighted because they’re opportunists who are extremely skilled at managing people. They know how to connect with people. Erdogan cries a lot and shows a lot of emotion. Not only are they highly aggressive, they have got this politics of emotion that makes people feel included. So all of this does not add up to somebody who’s crazy. It adds up to somebody who’s very skilled and very savvy, actually.

Authoritarian States Need Intellectual Legitimacy

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

When the political situation in Turkey turned for the worse, one of the first groups to be targeted were academics who were critical of the government. What is the fixation with academia and academics for authoritarians and populists? 

Authoritarian states need intellectual legitimacy because they are thug states, mafia states. Violence is their everyday behavior. On the one hand they need intellectuals to write their propaganda, to be their spokespeople, to do nationalist research. They need intellectuals to rewrite the schoolbooks to support their nationalist historiography. On the other hand strongmen disappear people, but they also disappear fields of knowledge that conflict with their goals. While they promote certain things, they also ban other things and threaten people to not work on those topics.

In Hungary Orbán banned gender studies overnight. That was a prelude to his anti-trans policies. So sometimes universities are the first place where the recasting of knowledge and propaganda shows itself. … In authoritarian regimes academics become political people, the government sees them as political people, and then sometimes they become enemies of the state. Erdogan has jailed and detained so many academics, and he is threatened by certain kinds of research.

At a broader level, authoritarians are always threatened by fact-based knowledge. The facts are their enemy. Propaganda means that you have to create an alternate reality that your believers will follow, and research based on science and scientific method becomes the enemy.

What about international support? Did the EU support the stability of Erdogan’s regime for the sake of the migration deal? 

Erdogan is a good example of benefitting, that the EU has not been standing up for democracy. They shouldn’t be funding Erdogan, who has locked so many people up and is so corrupt. So what is the EU standing up for? There are groups of foreign enablers because authoritarians, in all areas of their policies, depend on foreign capital and goodwill. Erdogan is just the latest who is doing all these infrastructure improvements with foreign money and foreign debt. If financial institutions were guided more by morality, they could easily retract these foreign lending practices and make them dependent on democratic actions.

These are leaders who care only about money and power, so the West not only does not use its power to change the behavior of autocrats, they help them. The same could be said for international financial institutions and law firms that help autocrats store their money in offshore tax havens.

The anti-globalism of authoritarians is fake because they are the biggest globalists of all. They are dependent on international infrastructure coming from democracies and also foreign autocracies to keep in power. A few years ago Erdogan had five different American PR firms working for him to support his interests in Washington. He and Trump were quite close.

What do you think Western democracies could have done differently to prevent what is happening in Turkey today?

It is very important to see the warning signs at the beginning and stop these people in their tracks at the start and let them know that the EU is not going to fund them anymore or make treaties for migration, and really flex the muscle of democracy and open society and use that. These are men who see any weakness or gentility towards themselves as weakness. They’re always testing the boundaries. … Violations of international law are a test, so the first time there’s a violation, we need to strike very hard. All of these guys in power now have been there for a long time, so it’s too late to retrain them, but we don’t do what we could do. These men only listen to force, and if the EU and democracies don’t show that, then we’re not going to get results.

Authoritarians Like to Believe They Have Divine Guidance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

 

Can we say that authoritarianism is in part the result of democracy failing to fulfil its promises?

To some extent, absolutely. Authoritarians have managed to make people feel included and give them a sense of community. They have been better at that with rallies and chants which may seem superficial but are part of a political culture. Liberal democracy has never been as skilled at that. Authoritarian leaders are able to make an emotional connection. Liberal democracy has been about reason and not raw emotion. This goes back to the figure of the leader who cries in public like Erdogan and who has this charisma that’s constructed. 

Once they’re in power, there are huge resources devoted to their personality cults. But people connect with them, and one of the reasons I want to concentrate on leaders is because they are so important for the success of these dynamics. For example, on the personality cult it’s fascinating that the rules of personality cults actually haven’t changed for a hundred years, even though today we have social media and back then there were news reels. So the leader needs to be an everyman who can connect with anyone. At the same time they have to be superman, they have to be men above all other men. They need to be someone who’s all powerful and can get away with things. They like to believe they have divine guidance. It’s the same all over the world and says something about human psychology that we seem to need this in our leaders.

In recent years gender-based violence has increased and even become more visible in Turkey. Would it be right to assume that there is a correlation between rising authoritarianism and the vulnerability of women?

Women have been the targets of authoritarians as much as lawyers, judges, journalists and the critical opposition. They have traditionally been an enemy, even in situations where the state ideology preaches equality, like in communism, you know, Joseph Stalin took away abortion rights. Most authoritarians have ambitions to re-found the family. And this is where the father figure comes in. Authoritarians fear demographic change, so women become pawns and tools of larger social demographic political schemes. If authoritarians are expansionists like the former fascists, then women have to produce babies. Women’s bodies and rights become legislated.

When you have a leader who models through his person disrespect for women or even hatred for women and a kind of violent aggressive personality, then this is reflected throughout society, and it’s often backed up with policies. It’s a little-known fact that Trump, who is a serial sexual assaulter who became president, partly decriminalized domestic violence in the US in 2018. Physical violence was still domestic violence, but all other kinds of abuse — emotional, psychological — were no longer considered domestic violence so women couldn’t get help from the authorities. This leaves them more vulnerable.

Gaddafi was a real revolutionary in the beginning and believed in women’s rights. He hugely bettered the legal status and the employment status of women in Libyan society. Women had the right to work and own their own property. But he fostered a culture of sexual assault and violence as his hold over the country strengthened.

Accountability Is Key

Do you think it is possible to recover from an authoritarian period? After countries are ruled by authoritarianism, is it possible for them to return to liberal democracy, or will they always have some sort of political instability?

If you don’t hold people accountable and you don’t have a mechanism for testimonials to come out for people, like in the former East Germany, when they made public the Stasi files and people could go and see their own file on themselves. This was very empowering to people and created for many decades a lot of stability in Germany. But Germany versus Italy is an interesting case because Italy did not go through an aggressive de-fascism. So the fascists went underground, but it was not rooted out. It was not made to be as taboo in the culture as in Germany. After Franco in Spain you were not allowed to talk about it, so there was democracy but no accountability. There’s always a lot of fear around revenge, retribution, vendetta, and so sometimes in transitional eras sometimes even the people who are on the side of the victims can be afraid to let the energies of the victimized find the full expression. Accountability is key.

What do you think of the use of the “us” and “them” dichotomy? Such as the use of anti-Semitic, anti-migrant and anti-West narratives.

Authoritarians create a community of the included through excluding others. All the community building rituals like rallies, are built on the active exclusion of some so that others feel included. There can be various enemies who are demonized. Sometimes these are Jews, other times these are illegal immigrants, or George Soros, who kind of is everything. He’s a very convenient symbol of many things. But this is the essential dynamic that appeals to very primitive and powerful feelings in people, to feel one with a community and to feel superior. Nazism and fascism because it was so racially oriented made a woman who was deemed an Aryan superior to a man who was not Aryan. So when people ask why women so often support these leaders, it’s because they have status if they are in the included community over men. 

In the US, for example, a white woman who loves Trump felt superior to a non-white man. So it plays with gender hierarchies and is a very powerful thing. The most successful of these rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we.” And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that “we.” Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits. That is very interesting to me as a clue to this very insecure and prideful personality who gets pleasure out of humiliating and ruining others. 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people. They make it too tiring so you can’t survive and you’re harassed. So you self-censor, and that’s their ultimate goal.

Authoritarians Need to Be Shamed and Outed

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

 

In Turkey people like to say geography is one’s fate. Is authoritarianism a “fate” for some countries?

I find this fatalistic. Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up. … In fact the suffering of the past can make people much more determined to have freedom. The opposite being a place like the United States, which has never had a national dictatorship or foreign occupation, and so people did not see the warning signs of what Trump represented. … They don’t have the history at all and can be complacent, and this is also a problem.

What can we do to safeguard our democracies? Especially, people who are still living in free democratic countries, what can they do for its continuity and also to protect those in vulnerable and dangerous situations?

I think going back to pressuring the EU, pressuring financial and legal institutions and all the enablers of authoritarianism. We don’t have enough journalism articles devoted to them. They need to be shamed and outed, and that is one thing that would have a practical effect, making these authoritarians pariahs, so that US law firms and PR firms won’t take their cases on, so that Erdogan won’t have five different companies to convey his propaganda to US politicians.

The kind of work the SCF does in defense of human rights is important because a lot of that means publicizing the stories of the victims. This is why I included a lot of unpleasant material in the book because today we have the far-right all over the world who openly say, for example, “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” This erases the history of what he did do, so that’s why although it’s not nice to write about the torture, it’s very important. So in real time when Erdogan is beating up people and they come out of prison and they have the marks of what they have suffered, it’s important to show that because this is the kind of evidence they try to cover up.

Who is Ruth Ben-Ghiat?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy. She writes frequently for CNN and other media outlets on threats to democracy around the world. As author or editor of six books, she brings historical perspective to her analyses of current events. Her insight into the authoritarian playbook has made her an expert source for television, radio, podcasts, and online events around the globe. She is also a historical consultant for film and television productions. 

Ben-Ghiat’s work has been supported by Fulbright, Guggenheim, and other fellowships. Her books Fascist Modernities and Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema detail what happens to societies when authoritarian governments take hold, and explore the appeal of strongmen to collaborators and followers. Growing up in Pacific Palisades, California, where many intellectuals who fled Nazism resettled, sparked her interest in the subject. Her latest book, the #1 Amazon bestseller Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020), examines how illiberal leaders use corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power, and how resistance to them has unfolded over a century. She also publishes Lucid, a newsletter about abuses of power and how to counter them.

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). 

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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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.

RuthWodak

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

In this session, one of the leading scholars on populismProf. Ruth Wodak, answers questions by Selcuk Gultasli on politics of fear, welfare chauvinism, the role of socio-political context and media, the normalization of the far-right agenda, and the future of Europe. Wodak said she was very worried about the future of Europe and stressed that the EU is endangered as a member of the transnational club. Stating that 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. 

 

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. 

SaraKamali

Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War Against the US

Author Dr. Sara Kamali discusses her book Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War Against the United States (University of California Press, 2021) with Dr. Todd Green, associate professor of religion at Luther College. Based on over a decade of research, Homegrown Hate is a groundbreaking work that directly compares White nationalists and militant Islamists. In this timely book, Dr. Kamali examines their self-described beliefs, grievances, and rationales for violence, and details their organizational structures within a transnational context. She presents compelling insight into the most pressing threat to homeland security not only in the United States, but in nations across the globe: citizens who are targeting their homeland according to their respective narratives of victimhood. She also explains the hate behind the headlines and provides the tools to counter this hate from within, cogently offering hope in uncertain and divisive times.