JakubJablonski 

COMTOG Interview with Jakub Jablonski on ‘My Memory of Us’

Interviewed by Iván Escobar Fernández

Jakub Jablonski is the co-owner and co-founder, art director, and creative director of Juggler Games. ‘My Memory of Us‘ is a narrative-driven puzzle-adventure video game developed by Juggler Games. The game is set in a fictional version of Poland during World War II and tells the story of a young boy and girl who must navigate through a city divided into two parts: one for Jews and one for non-Jews. The game features hand-drawn art, puzzle-solving, stealth elements, and a unique memory-manipulation mechanic that allows players to change the past to solve puzzles and progress through the story. The game received positive reviews for its story and art. Overall, My Memory of Us is a touching and emotional game about friendship, love, and survival during a war.

BuryMeMyLove1

COMTOG Report on ‘Bury Me My Love’

Galland, Martin. (2023). “COMTOG Report on ‘Bury Me My Love’.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 3, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0036

 

Bury Me My Love is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and center relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love,’ is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015.

By Martin Galland*

Introduction

Bury Me My Love is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and center relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love,’ is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015. Both the journalist who wrote the article on Dana’s story and Dana herself working as part of the game’s editorial team (Le Monde, 2015).

Developed by The Pixel Hunt in 2015, Bury Me My Love is a branching text-based narrative based around the story of people on the move during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Its main characters are Nour and Majd, a young couple from Homs, Syria. The player takes on the role of Majd, having stayed behind in Syria to take care of his mother and grandfather, while his partner, Nour, goes on to attempt the journey to Germany in order to receive refugee status there. Much of the game is based on three core mechanics which impact the outcomes of choices made throughout Nour’s journey: Time; the itinerary; and finally, Nour’s own variables of morale, budget, her relationship with Majd, and what she has or does not have on her person in key moments. With this expansive and branching narrative, there are 50 different locations to go through and nineteen possible endings for Nour’s journey, with widely divergent outcomes. 

As part of the COMTOG project’s goal to bring together different but complementary voices of the field, three individuals were interviewed about the game Bury Me My Love and its subject matter. These included Florent Maurin, President of The Pixel Hunt and one of the game’s lead developers; Dr Angus Mol, a Games Studies scholar from Leiden University; and Tigs Louis-Puttick, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator for Samos Volunteers, a non-profit organisation supporting refugees and asylum-seekers on Samos. Keeping in mind the intent of the project – which was to “showcase the educational and social potential of video games relaying the realities of conflict” – I first formalised my approach towards Bury Me My Love and the interviews I conducted around two main themes. The first and most important which informed most of my questions as the interviews were conducted was the difference between authenticity and accuracy of the experience of people on the move. The second was the necessary emphasis on empathy towards people on the move and their experiences and the engagement of players in those narratives.

The discussion around authenticity is the one that is most discussed academically and theoretically in Games Studies. In this burgeoning field, scholars note that creative designers (big studios, indie developers, social media influencers) “design their versions of the past, purely or mostly, as entertainment products, where the focus is on making money through designing fun.” This becomes a three-fold issue when such actors “(1) have not traditionally been and are frequently still not taken seriously in their role in shaping our collective understanding of the past, (2) are not primarily (or at all) concerned with teaching about the past and (3), more and more, the connection many people have with the past is partly or even primarily shaped by video games, including how they learn or teach others about it” (Boom et al., 2020: 28-29). These challenges highlight the importance of bridging the gap between stakeholders beyond those in the video game-making sphere and including activists on the ground and researchers alike.

Authenticity vs Accuracy

In the interview with Dr Mol, an important theme which emerged from the conversation was the difference between authenticity and accuracy when it comes to portraying the experience of people on the move. For Dr Mol, what really interests players is this notion of an ‘authentic past’ more so than focusing on the accuracy of the past portrayed. Bury Me My Love strongly engages with the player’s sense of empathy, providing an experience that emulates the challenges, thoughts, and problems people face on the move. Of course, this experience can only go so far in accurately visualising these very issues which thousands of people faced and still face today. Part of the game’s intention, as explained by Maurin, was to replicate this sense of anxiety and distance through the text-message thread between Nour and Majd, with the player often left with information streaming in progressively, missing context until it is later explained, and no answers from Nour until a given time when she can respond back.  

In order to best showcase the sort of journey people on the move can undertake, the game developers went through numerous documentations on the subject: including testimonies, articles, news reports, and documentaries, and themselves interviewed people in refugee camps in France. Maurin comments that the first four months of production of the game were solely dedicated to documenting, reading, and watching different sources. This was in order to get a firmer idea of the game and story they wished to tell and to account for the different paths people on the move take to get to Europe. For Dr Mol, this sort of emphasis on research and fact-checking is something that has become more prevalent and noticeable in the industry in the past ten or so years. It also reflects a shift in academia with regard to video games. As Dr Mol attests, the ways to study video games and the medium, in general, have greatly advanced and evolved in recent years, and while there is still some level of disconnect between developers and academics, there is an increasing number of projects which try to bring both sides together in the research and development of games. 

One crucially important aspect brought up by Louis-Puttick is the game’s inability to truly replicate the sense of time that people on the move go experience. It is true that comparatively speaking, Nour’s (and Dana’s) journey is very short compared to the length of time now spent by people on the move in camps – where months and years go by with little to no change in their status. While the game does include both a path which discusses this major issue in the refugee camp, and an ending which does see Nour stuck in a camp indefinitely, the player does not experience these in real-time, and so this crucial part of the experience of people on the move cannot be passed on. However, the game does not shy away from portraying some of the intense hardships faced by people on the move during their journeys. Whether it is the cold realisation that death is always a possibility, or being antagonised, chased, and beaten up by a neo-Nazi group in Greece, or the lack of care shown by European authorities as they either condemn people to a camp or deport them back to Syria. 

Ultimately, what is missing the most from this report with regard to the authenticity of Bury Me My Love is a voice from people on the move and their testimony, and whether they feel as though the game reflects enough of their experience. While the game was inspired by and involved the editorial input of a person on the move, this project would have benefited far more from involving someone with the direct experience of travelling to Europe under difficult conditions. 

Empathy and Engagement

When it comes to a subject matter such as the one on the experiences of people on the move, it is difficult to discuss Bury Me My Love in terms of ‘enjoyment’ and ‘entertainment.’ Few would describe the journey undertaken by people on the move, even vicariously, as being ‘fun,’ and it was not at all in the intention of the developers to portray it as such. For Maurin, it was difficult to balance the stark tone that the game takes with the way people would cope with this experience through levity and humour. With several thousand lines of dialogue, much of the game’s focus was on the story and the characters and the ways in which they interact with the world around them as events unfold. From personal experience with the game, both main characters were truly well-fleshed-out and felt real in their emotions, thoughts, and worries for one another. Those who meet Nour along her journey also reflect a multitude of people and how they would act towards her plight.

It is difficult to assume how different players will engage with Bury Me My Love, as the game’s several endings make it so gameplay experience can wildly vary from person to person. Criticism of the game can be found on the game’s Steam (an online game distribution platform) page, where one particular comment lists that they found the game far too upbeat and treated with too much levity with regard to the subject material. When addressing feedback of that nature, Maurin comments that, while the commenter appears to be hyperbolising, it is entirely possible that they experienced the trek replicating Dana’s journey, which was comparatively easier and with fewer issues than other possible paths – which is an outlier. Dr Mol comments on this notion of making a game engaging enough for players to want to play it while respecting the subject matter enough to consider and internalise the message. In my experience with Bury Me My Love, the game is ‘entertaining’ in the sense that it does engage you with the challenges presented in front of Nour; it is also equally heart-breaking in the lowest lows of the story and does leave one with more awareness of the life of people on the move. 

Ultimately, the game is not one meant to be entertaining in the literal sense of the term. It provides a story, a human story, one that is anchored in reality, and pushes the player to learn about the hardships faced by people on the move. News cycles and mass information have been noted to desensitise individuals of distant (and not so distant) occurrences and Bury Me My Love works to try to fight that antipathy by providing a deeply empathetic experience about the Syrian Refugee Crisis and inspiring the player to do something with the feelings they feel and receive after having played the game.

Conclusion

In closing the interview, all three interviewees were asked whether or not they felt video games could contribute to helping address common memory of certain conflict-centric events, such as the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Maurin puts it best that the game and its themes of adversity, displacement, struggle, and distance, are still very much relevant today. There are still important migrant flows of people fleeing conflict and disaster, and as such, the game Bury Me My Love remains, unfortunately, relevant and contemporary. This sentiment is echoed by Dr Mol and Louis-Puttick, who both see potential in video games, though with addendums on the intent and the goals set out by the developers in making such charged games. 

This set of COMTOG interviews was designed to bring together different stakeholders and actors who have only to gain by interacting with each other. This project also placed front and center the importance of discussing and grasping the notion of ‘authenticity’ and how games can provide empathetic perspectives on still ongoing challenges for countless people. Maurin addresses it by humorously commenting on the ‘God-complex’ of developers and that their total control over the world in which the game is placed is misleading. If there was an attempt by developers to portray a very pointed perspective (in terms of values, convictions, etc.), it would feel very forced and could be spotted immediately by players. What developers like Maurin try to do is portray a collection of stories which are sourced from documentation; they do not provide a moral or a lesson but the tools for the players to internalise the experiences they have vicariously lived through and hopefully do something about it. 


ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.


 

(*) Martin Galland is a Master’s graduate in both European Policy and History, from the University of Amsterdam and KU Leuven, after having done a Bachelor in International Studies at Leiden University. His most recent thesis analysed the presence of (banal) nationalistic discourses present in a historical theme park in France, and how a specific vision of a French identity emerges from the theme park’s various shows. His research interests lie in the banal nationalism of contemporary populist movements, and the strengthening of right-wing populist discourse in interpretations of the past and history.


 

References

— (2015). “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp.” Le Monde. December 18, 2015. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/visuel/2015/12/18/dans-le-telephone-d-une-migrante-syrienne_4834834_3210.html (accessed on March 2, 2023).

Boom, K. H. J.; Ariese, C. E.; van den Hout, B.; Mol, A. A. A. and Politopoulos, A. (2020). “Teaching through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past.” In: Hageneuer, S. (ed.) Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning in Archaeology (12–13 October 2018). Pp. 27–44. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bch.c. License: CC-BY 4.0.

Politopoulos, A.; Mol, A. A. A.; Boom, K. H. J. & Ariese, C. E. (2019). “History is our playground”: action and authenticity in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Advances In Archaeological Practice, 7(3), 317-323. doi:10.1017/aap.2019.30.  

DavidKirschner

COMTOG Interview with Dr David Kirschner on ‘My Memory of Us’

Interviewed by Iván Escobar Fernández

Dr David Kirschner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Human Services and Cultural Studies at Georgia Gwinnett College. My Memory of Us is a narrative-driven puzzle-adventure video game developed by Juggler Games. The game is set in a fictional version of Poland during World War II and tells the story of a young boy and girl who must navigate through a city divided into two parts: one for Jews and one for non-Jews. The game features hand-drawn art, puzzle-solving, stealth elements, and a unique memory-manipulation mechanic that allows players to change the past to solve puzzles and progress through the story. The game received positive reviews for its story and art. Overall, My Memory of Us is a touching and emotional game about friendship, love, and survival during a war.

FlorentMaurin

COMTOG Interview with Florent Maurin on ‘Bury Me My Love’

Interviewed by Martin Galland 

Developed by The Pixel Hunt in 2015, Bury Me My Love is a branching text-based narrative based around the story of people on the move during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Its main characters are Nour and Majd, a young couple from Homs, Syria. The player takes on the role of Majd, having stayed behind in Syria to take care of his mother and grandfather, while his partner, Nour, goes on to attempt the journey to Germany in order to receive refugee status there. Much of the game is based on three core mechanics which impact the outcomes of choices made throughout Nour’s journey: Time; the itinerary; and finally, Nour’s own variables of morale, budget, her relationship with Majd, and what she has or does not have on her person in key moments. With this expansive and branching narrative, there are 50 different locations to go through and nineteen possible endings for Nour’s journey, with widely divergent outcomes.

See the Report

African american gamer girl surprised after winning online competition on gaming pc. Photo: Shutterstock.

ECPS COMTOG Project – Interview with Moyra Turkington on gaming and women fighting on the front lines of history

Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women and these women play games as well as men do.

By Anita Tusor*

In line with this year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” our first The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) interview not only focused on youth radicalisation and its platforms, contemporary antisemitism, online hate and gaming, and historical memory of the Holocaust; but closely examined educational, roleplaying games with stories about women in WWII designed by an international team of women and non-binary writers led by Moyra Turkington.** 

The 21st century has seen an impressive and considerable evolution in the capability and popularity of gaming. With the expansion of its market, quality, and audience, COMTOG aims to uncover analog- and video games’ potential to raise historical consciousness. Nonetheless, the depiction of historical events in certain games has recognizable flaws. A common thread of criticism lies in the representation of war – most notoriously, World War Two – and how most games glorify conflict while neglecting the victims’ perspective, especially first-person shooter games (Glouftsis, 2022). Alternatively, some games avoid the mention or existence of tragedies from historical conflict. In this way, these games appear to contribute to misshaping and misconstruing the collective memory of the period.

However, it must be noted that a growing number of games published in the last decade have broached the topic of war and conflict in a far more nuanced and considerate fashion. These projects tend to stem from smaller game-publishing houses, where the artistic and creative choices undertaken by the game developers are often well-researched, portraying the historical past and conflict in such a way that does not obscure the horrible realities of war while remaining instructive but considerate to the victims’ experience. Turkington and her team’s project, War Birds, provides an anthology of games about women in World War II and a fine example of how to approach Holocaust game designing issues. 

Turkington’s latest publication (2021) addresses game-designing techniques to bypass serious issues in Holocaust-related historical role-playing games, such as the potential trivialisation of the Holocaust or players learning to blame the victims. Game design challenges are exemplified through the description of Rosenstrasse, a role-playing game in which players adopt the roles of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans in mixed marriages in Berlin between 1933 and 1943. In our conversation, Turkington mentioned Rosenstrasse as an explicitly transformational game specifically designed to be a deep emotional experience. Testplays and qualitative research study with eighteen subjects proved it to be a highly effective experience (AJS Perspectives, 2019).

Historical Game Studies and Women

Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female (Guardian, 2020), which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women (Yee, 2017) and these women play games as well as men do (Shen et al., 2016). 

Furthermore, there is an existing and serious concern about the toxicity of not only how and by whom games are developed but the player cultures as well, not to mention the marginalisation of whole groups of people (namely women, LGBTQA+, people of colour) (Wright, 2022: 177; Heron et al., 2014). Women often feel uncomfortable, maybe harassed or excluded from communal gaming spaces (Fishman, 2022). Gaming girls and women are more likely to hide their gender using voice-changing headsets than their male counterparts (Hetfeld, 2021). Abusive players face few consequences; female players are more prone to withdraw from playing certain games (Fox & Tang, 2016).

The gaming industry’s refusal and slow progress in addressing misogyny and extremism (Compton, 2019) have resulted in a dire report by the leading anti-hate organisation; ADL (2022). The latest survey shows gender was the most frequently cited reason for identity-based abuse. “In broader national movements, it is typically antisemitism that lies at the root of white supremacy movements; in games, it is misogyny” (ADL, 2022: 9). The concept of “geek masculinity and networked misogyny” (EGRN, 2021) shows similarities with populism as it is “being entrenched in heteronormative and patriarchal ideas of gender and sexuality, and is threatened by the presence of those deemed to be ‘others’” (Peckford, 2020: 67). Pöhlmann (2021) coins the term ‘ludic populism’ while investigating video games that undermine their own populist aesthetic and argues that video games can both reinforce and challenge the idea of a unified group of “the people” by using populist imagination, often through implicit or explicit essentialist means.

Live-action role-playing games (LARPs) may also utilise populist imagination, as well as perpetuate and foster misogyny and antifeminist hate speech narratives. Karner (2019) and others (Moriarity, 2019, PuzzleNation, 2018) stress that inclusiveness and acceptance of female players are gradually moving in the right direction. However, it is only possible if change begins at the game development level. Games made by women include creative, political minds who “can help break the tide of prejudicial game design and writing” as well as may enable “roleplaying to become the next stage of feminist storytelling” (Cross, 2012: 84).


 

(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.

(*) Moyra Turkington is an award-winning Canadian larpwright, game designer and theorist with a background in Cultural Studies and Theatre. She is also the founder of the indie studio Unruly Designs and the leader of the War Birds Collective — an international community designing political games about women fighting on the front lines of history. Turkington is interested in immersive, transformative and political games, particularly in creating a multiplicity of media, design, representation and play.


 

ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.

Caricature of Italian politicians Beppe Grillo, Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini in carnival parade of floats and masks, on January 2018 in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy. Photo: Kokophotos.

Prof. Pappas: We need creative leaders with realistic agendas against populism

Professor Takis Pappas: “I think that exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya   

Challenging ahistorical definitions Professor Takis Pappas, who is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement”(PACE), views modern populism as a phenomenon emerging against political liberalism in the post-war Europe and the Americas. Pappas referring to a minimalist definition of democracy takes modern populism simply as “illiberal democracy” which stands as an unstable category between liberalism and autocracy. Pappas designed a causal model based on a detailed comparative analysis of prominent cases to develop a theoretical explanation of modern populism. In his perspective, in order to counter populist politics, we need creative leaders with realistic agendas as well as the adaptation of liberal institutions to present-day political realities of the democratic world. 

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

Your research underlines the necessity of the clarification of the basic concepts and exposes the conceptual and methodological errors in populism literature. To begin with, how do you outline the common problems within the growing literature on populism?

The literature on populism has grown fast but also in a haphazard way. As a result, the concept of populism is being stretched to a breaking point. It was several decades ago that Margaret Canovan, among others, warned that, the more flexible this concept would become, the more tempted political scientists and others would be to label “populist” anything that doesn’t fit into previously established categories. This is what has actually happened. Today, “populism” is everywhere and almost everything is “populist.” 

This highly problematic situation has two main causes: On the one hand, there is in the generic literature of populism a tremendous lack of empirical knowledge about the cases classified as populist and, on the other hand, there is by now a very large number of attributes, or features, that are commonly attributed to populism while in reality they are quite common in other political phenomena, as well. 

What is, therefore, necessary in order to get out of such an impasse and be able to make useful and meaningful theoretical propositions, is to first focus on the core properties that are unique to the concept “populism” and, second, to acquire detailed historical and political knowledge of the cases that fit the definition of the concept and, therefore, ought to be classified as populist.

Populism Is Time- and Space-specific

Your argument specifies the concept of populism focusing on post-war Europe and the Americas as a spatiotemporal realm instead of searching for a timeless, one-size-fits-all definition. Can you please unpack your approach and explain the rationale behind it?

Populism, like all other political phenomena, is time- and space-specific. Think about “democracy” and how this concept applies in three different spatiotemporal settings: ancient Greece, 19th century Europe, and our own times in still early 21st century. The concept is the same but the ways it materializes across historical eras and places is entirely different. The same happens if you try to compare the populism of, say, the Gracchi brothers in the late Roman republic, the 17th century Levellers in England, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In more than one senses, all three are expressions of a generic populism. So what? To study them comparatively is as meaningless as studying together ancient Greek democracy and, say, Germany’s post-war and contemporary democracy! 

What my work brings into focus, instead, is modern-day populism. More specifically, my interest in populism stems from, and addresses, a real historical and political puzzle, namely, the transformation of post-war liberal democracies into populist ones. I ask why, and how, certain societies with a previous liberal tradition may allow into power populist leaders who subsequently establish illiberal democratic regimes. Obviously, my work finds empirical resonance precisely in those countries in which liberalism became established, however feebly, in the aftermath of World War II. With no exception, those countries are to be found either in Europe or in the Americas.

Modern Populism Is Synonymous to Illiberal Democracy

Your definition of modern populism as “illiberal democracy” and “the rejection of liberal democracy” is quite straightforward. Modern populism is still democratic and not autocratic though it is clearly against the liberal canon. But you also take populism as an unstable category in the liberalism-autocracy spectrum. When does a populist party cross the Rubicon and cease to be democratic in this spectrum? Should we then drop the title of populism for nondemocratic autocracies, such as the Orbán government in Hungary?

My theoretical work hinges on just two pairs of clearly defined opposites: democracy vs. nondemocracy and liberalism vs. illiberalism. Now, if you agree with me that modern populism is synonymous to illiberal democracy, then we end up with only three basic political systems, or regimes: liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, and autocracy. In this view, populism stands midway between democratic liberalism and the rejection of democratic pluralism. Which way it will go eventually depends on a large variety of reasons including structural and agentic factors, external crises, and other conjunctural events. 

Telling when a party passes from one type to another is easy when we have clear and easily operationalized definitions of the basic political systems. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for instance, which was conceived as a populist force under the leadership of Hugo Chávez has in more recent years transformed into an authoritarian party under its current leader Nicolás Maduro. Quite the opposite is, for instance, the case of Greece’s PASOK—a classic populist party that in more recent years (and amidst the financial crisis that befell on that country in the early 2010s) recast itself as a liberal force. There are many other similar cases.

In your recently published book, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis you argue that extraordinary or charismatic leadership plays a prominent role in the populist emergence. What does it take to be a successful populist leader in the first place?

Indeed, I know no case of successful populism that is not being led by a leader with charismatic qualities. To put it in a nutshell: No charisma, no successful populism. In contrast to ordinary, non-charismatic leaders whose rule is rather impersonal and procedural, charismatics display two different characteristics—the personal nature of their authority and the radicalism of the political goals they seek to achieve. Accordingly, I understand, and define, political charisma as a distinct type of legitimate leadership that is personal and aims at the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Under this definition, charismatic leaders are not identified as such by their electoral success, which would make for a tautological analysis, nor by any physical or personal characteristics, such as physical height, oratorial skills and the like. 

My definition of charisma requires leaders combining two characteristics: full personal authority and radical political aims. Come to think of it, this type of authority is both extraordinary and rare. For, in the reality of ordinary politics, most parliamentary democracies are ruled by collective decision-making processes in the pursuit of moderate and piecemeal reforms, not radical change. But then, when I looked at my cases of populism, I realized that, with no single exception, all had emerged out of extraordinary leadership action. Most typically, the charismatic populists have had founded their own parties (or, as in the case of Trump, taken full control over existing ones) and, by exercising full control over the party organizations, used them as their means to radically change liberal democratic systems into illiberal ones. 

Populist and Nativist Parties Constitute Different Classes

In your studies, you argue that nativism is often conflated or inaccurately identified with populism. What is the difference between nativism and populism? 

This question of yours takes us back to the quest for empirical data. Try to compare factually, for instance, Denmark’s Progress Party and Hungary’s Fidesz. Both parties are often classified as “populist.” But what makes them similar? The question is apparently rhetorical for the differences far exceed any similarities those parties may have. Simple comparison of the cases easily reveals that populist and nativist parties constitute different classes which should not be kept analytically separate. Populist parties depend on charismatic leaders, tend to develop in flawed liberal democracies and, when in office, pursue comprehensive illiberal political agendas. In contrast, nativist parties are mostly led by ordinary (non-charismatic) leaders, grow particularly strong in Europe’s most politically advanced and economically strong liberal democracies, aim at specific policies rather than entire political system overhauls, and, interestingly enough, have never won power singlehandedly. There are several other differences between populist and nativist parties, which I have presented in booksarticles but also in simple infographic form.

Your research on the theoretical and comparative study of populism fills a critical gap in the literature. What do you think is the main challenge in theorizing populism?

The real challenge is to understand what causes populism and how it then afflicts our liberal democratic systems. There are several gaps in our knowledge which my work tries to fill in logical order. You see, to establish causality, we need to do meticulous empirical research on the significant cases of populist occurrence. But to do so, we must previously have selected the cases carefully and organized them into coherent classificatory system. But this is a far from easy task, especially when our definitions are unclear and ambiguous. 

Everything Begins with a Charismatic Leader

You developed a causal model for the theoretical explanation of the populist emergence. How does your causal model work?

Yes, I have developed a model including the causal chain of populism informed by the detailed comparative analysis of significant cases over long periods of time. It is based on the interplay of three factors: political structures, individual agency, and the activation of micro- and meso-mechanisms that are absolutely necessary to produce the populist outcome. Everything begins with a charismatic leader who emerges against major crises of democratic legitimacy, often involving the collapse of entire party systems. That leader then is able to activate a chain of mechanisms including the politicization of resentment, the forging of “the people” as an inclusive social category, and active social mobilization against established constitutional legality. It is interesting to see how similarly this model works in ostensibly dissimilar countries with strong populism such as Italy and Venezuela or the United States and Hungary.

There is also the political significance element you refer to. You do not choose Japan or Australia as negative cases where populism has not turned into a major political force though these are liberal democracies. What makes Brazil and Spain negative cases and different from Japan and Australia?

Japan and Australia (which, not unimportantly, are island nations) are solid liberal democracies with no populism worthy of serious consideration. But Spain and Brazil present an altogether different but very interesting puzzle. Given the strong populism in other countries in their respective neighborhoods (Italy and Greece in Southern Europe, Argentina in Latin America) why did populism come so late in Spain and Brazil? Remember that the Spanish PODEMOS was founded as late as 2014 and had never had the success of contemporary populist parties in Greece or Italy. As of Brazil, it remained paradoxically free of populism at least until the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidency of this country. In my book, I dedicate separate chapters in each of these two countries trying to address this paradox. 

The historical phenomenon of modern populism in your perspective excludes the varieties of populism in non-Western parts of the world where liberal democracy has not turned into an overall political tradition. There are flawed but functioning democracies such as South Africa, India, Mongolia, South Korea that are outside Europe and the Americas but definitely meet Przeworski’s minimalist definition. Do you see a possibility to extend the comparative study of populism to include the non-Western cases where there is a steady progress towards liberal democracy? 

My research focus is, indeed, on western-type democracies that have already experienced modern liberalism but made a switch from liberal democracy to populism. My interest does not extend, therefore, to states which, even if they allow elections, lack any liberal tradition. Russia and Turkey are such representative cases. Also here belong the various pre-liberal faulty democracies examined by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 essay on the rise of illiberal democracies. With the exception of South Korea, the other cases that you mention would belong in this group of non-western and non-liberal countries along with the cases mentioned by Zakaria including Belarus and Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority and Haiti. 

Liberal Democracy Needs to Remodel Itself

Liberal democracy in the post-war period has spread and gained global acceptance under the US hegemony. So, in a similar way, how do you think a possible unraveling of democracy in the US would affect of the fate of liberal democracy in the Western world?

Unsurprisingly, populism tends to grow strong where liberal democracy becomes weak or inefficient. After decades of continuous self-advancement and expansion, liberal democracy has reached a point at which it needs to remodel itself. Institutions need both to be respected and become more congruous with new social realities, including identity politics; politicians must find new ways for achieving consensus on critical issues rather than serving polarized policies; and markets also have to become more controlled by benevolent states intent to fend off inequalities. Populist leaders, like Trump and his political kin, thrive precisely in environments of institutional inefficacy, political polarization, and economic inequality. In such situations, liberal democracy may indeed unravel, as it happened in the US under Trump’s presidency. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was during his presidency that some of the biggest countries in the world—including India, Brazil, Turkey—saw their electoral democracies deteriorate and even turn to authoritarianism.

And, as my last question, I am wondering how you would define the best way to counter populist politics. Do you think “liberal mind” or liberal democracy the only antidote to modern populism?

Populism is not inevitable, of course. But nor has liberal democracy been carved in history’s marble. In fact, history has never ended and is full of surprising twists. I believe that today we are living through an era in which democratic states reconsider whether they want to stay liberal or take an illiberal path without abolishing their democratic semblance. I also believe that the liberal states are reconsidering their “liberalism.” Immigration has posed to them a real challenge, which is how to stay liberal while also accommodating within their national borders (and their societies, their economies, and their politics) significant numbers of illiberal others. In short, the real question is: What are the limits of liberalism? Or, put in another way: How much of illiberalism are liberal states able to bear? In all those cases, it would be naïve to say that the “liberal mind” or some liberal ethos would be sufficient to counter the foes of liberalism. I think, instead, that, exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.

Who is Takis Pappas?

Takis Pappas is a trained political scientist with a Ph.D. from Yale University and an expert on populism, democracy, and political leadership. Currently, he is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement” (PACE). Having extensively published on populism in English and Greek, Pappas is a frequent keynote speaker at many academic and non-academic events, and a regular op-ed contributor in Kathimerini, Greece’s major newspaper.

Pappas has authored five books, the last of which is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2019) and coedited two. He has also authored Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave 2014; also translated in Greek), and co-edited European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015). 

His articles have appeared in American Behavioral Scientist, Comparative Political Studies, Constellations, Government and Opposition, Journal of Democracy, Party Politics, West European Politics, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia among others. 

CarlosDeLaTorre

Professor Carlos de la Torre: Populism is here to stay

“When populists included [others] it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained,” says Professor Carlos de la Torre.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Carlos de la Torre, who is director of Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, believes populism is here to stay. Prof. De La Torre, whose new book Global Populisms will be published soon, argues that the task of citizens, students, and scholars is to understand populism’s complexities without demonizing it. He underlines that we need to understand why these parties mobilize citizens: “Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook.” Yet he warns about the solutions populists present: “If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctioning of democracy, their solutions are problematic.”

The following are excerpts from the interview. 

Do the policy makers and intellectuals in the North have anything to learn from the experiences of Latin America? Can you please elaborate?

The surge of populism studies in English has unfortunately relegated the Global South to a few marginal footnotes. Most scholars compare Europe and the US, and do not pay attention to the rich bibliography on populism written about Latin America and other regions of the Global South and published in English. For instance, most introductory volumes do not even mention the pioneering work of Gino Germani on populism and fascism. Even when scholars compare the North and the Global South, the categories that they use are derived from European experiences that are posed as the universal norm.

For instance, Cas Mudde’s concept of populism that was developed to explain right-wing extremist parties located on the fringes of the political system is used as the matrix that supposedly allows comparisons between the West and the rest. Yet his categories do not travel well to explain cases worldwide. As an example, Mudde does not consider that the leader is central to his definition of populism. His assertion makes sense if the object of his study is small extremist right-wing European political parties. But in other regions, populism revolves around powerful leaders. In Europe, successful populist mass-based parties like the National Rally, Syriza, or Podemos are leader-centric. 

The bibliography on the Global South might give answers to what to expect from populists in power, and how to better resist them. After all, in Latin America, populists got to power before [they did] in Europe and the US. 

Populism is based on interactions between two antagonistic camps. Populist attempt to be the centre of the social order and the media tends to obsessively focus on the leader allowing him or her to dominate the news cycle. When the opposition felt that all democratic channels were closed, they called the military to solve civilian problems. These irresponsible and undemocratic acts play into the hands of the populist that presents herself as a victim and the avatar of democracy. Not all populists will have the same effects on democratic institutions. 

People as Ethnic, Political, or Social Constructions

How do you compare and contrast Latin American populism with European populism? Do we find more similarities or more differences when it comes to these forms of populism?

To distinguish types of populism, it is important to analyse how they define “the people” and its enemies. The people could be constructed with ethnic or political criteria, and as a plural population or as a unitary actor. Ethnic constructs could be exclusionary, as when the enemies of the people are minority populations such as Muslims and non-whites in Europe and the US. “The people” as constructed by Donald Trump for example faces ethnic and religious enemies such as Mexicans and Muslims. He launched his presidential candidacy from Trump Tower in New York City asserting, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some I assume, are good people.” He expanded his racist platform by calling Muslims terrorists and promising to monitor Muslims within the US and banning those who want to enter this country.

Differently from Trump’s racist view of the people as white and its enemies as cultural, religious, and ethnic “others” fundamentally different and dangerous to the true white-Christian, and heterosexual people, Evo Morales and his political party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement Toward Socialism), successfully used inclusive ethno-populist appeals. Given the fluidity of race and ethnic relations in Bolivia, they were able to create an inclusionary ethnic party grounded in indigenous organizations and social movements. The MAS and Morales were successful because they also incorporated non-indigenous organizations and candidates. The term indigenous was politicized to include all Bolivians who defended national sovereignty and natural resources from neoliberal elites. It was an embracive category that signified a claim to post-colonial justice, and for a broader political project of nationalism, self-determination, and democratization. Morales’ enemies were the neoliberal political and economic elites that served the interests of multinational corporations, supranational institutions like the IMF, and US imperialism.

Left-wing populists tend to construct the people with political and socioeconomic criteria as those excluded by neoliberal elites. Hugo Chávez framed the political arena so that he did not face political rivals, but instead an oligarchy that he defined as the political enemy of the people, “those self-serving elites who work against the homeland.” Left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe like Syriza and Podemos similarly construct the category of the people as the majorities in their nations who are excluded by neoliberal policies imposed by supranational organizations like the IMF or the Troika.

Democrats imagine the people as a plurality of actors with different views and proposals. By constructing the people as plural, democrats face rivals that have legitimate institutional and normative spaces. Populists like Donald Trump or Hugo Chávez on the contrary claim that they and only they represent the “true people.” Chávez boasted, “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a ‘people.’ I represent, plainly, the voice and the heart of millions.” On another occasion he commanded, “I demand absolute loyalty to me. I am not an individual; I am the people.” Even though Chávez’s political and socioeconomic construction of the people was inclusionary, his view of the people-as-one was anti-pluralist, and in the end, antidemocratic because he attempted to become its only voice. 

When ethnic or religious views of the people are combined with constructs of “the people” as one, populism becomes exclusionary and antidemocratic. Under these conditions, populism can be a threat to the basic values of modernity such as a pluralistic, critical, and inclusive civil society. Because ethnic and religious enemies are seen as a threat to the purity and morality of the true and rightful people, they might need to be confined or expelled. Therefore, ethnic constructions of the people in the most extreme cases could lead to ethnic cleansing. Political and socioeconomic constructions of “the people” can lead to inclusionary policies. Yet when “the people” is viewed as one, as Chávez did, his populism was inclusionary and antidemocratic because he assumed that the part of the people that he embodied was the only authentic group. 

Light Populism versus Full-blown Populism

Populist not only differ on how they construct the people and on the right and left axis: light and full-blown populism should be differentiated. By light populism, I refer to political parties and politicians that occasionally use populist tropes and discourses, but that do not aim to rupture existing institutions. Under this criterion, Bernie Sanders, who did not break with the Democratic Party creating a third party in 2016 or 2020, is a light populist. Full-blown populists aim to rupture existing institutions by polarizing society and the polity into two camps of enemies and constructing a leader as the symbol of all the demands for change and renewal. Light populists are almost indistinguishable from other politicians in contemporary democracies that appeal to trust in their personas and use the mass media to bypass traditional parties. Full-blown populists often use democratic institutional mechanisms and mass mobilization to try to bring change. When seeking power, full-blown populists appeal to constituencies that the elites despise or ignore. They use discourses and performances to shock and disturb the limits of the permissible and to confront conventions. 

Despite their different constructs of who is “the people” and dissimilar politicizations of grievances and emotions, populists do similar things when in power. Populists aim to rupture exclusionary institutional systems to give power back to the people. They face enemies, not democratic rivals. They appeal to reason and emotion to reduce the complexities of politics to the struggle between two antagonistic camps. Regardless of its potential inclusionary promise, the pars pro totodynamic of populism is inherently autocratic because a part of the population claims to be its whole and pretends to rule in the name of all. A leader is constructed as the true voice and the only representative of the “real people.” Some populist leaders are represented as the saviours of their people. Other leaders become avatars of patriotism and claim to know how to make things right for their people. 

What can we learn from Latin American populism to explain its relationship with democracy worldwide?

Populism forces scholars to define what they mean by democracy not only as an analytical term, but also as a normative ideal. Whereas critics argue that it is a danger to democracy, populists claim to embody democratic ideals. Whereas some argue that populism is an anomaly of malfunctioning institutions, for others it is a permanent possibility in democratic politics. Three approaches about the relationship between populism and democracy can be differentiated: populism is democratizing; populism leads to autocracy; and populism is a sui-generis combination of inclusion and autocracy. 

i) Populism Is Democratizing

For scholars that understand democracy as policies that mitigate structural inequalities, the record of populism for democratization is positive. The sociologist Carlos Vilas argues that from the 1930s to the 1960s, populism in Latin America led to its fundamental democratization. During the first two terms of Juan Perón [Argentina] from 1946 to 1955, the percentage of voters surged from 18 percent of the population in 1946 to 50 percent in 1955, and women voted for the first time in the 1952 elections. The share of wages in the National Gross Domestic Product increased from 37 percent in 1946 to 47 percent in 1955. Similarly, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand (2001-2006) materially improved [the lives of] the poor by creating health programs, giving debt relief to rural cultivators, and introducing a loan system for low-income university students. Poverty fell and he led the political involvement of the informal sector, the rural poor, urban middle classes, and the northern small business and landowners. 

Populist material, political, and cultural inclusion was not accompanied by the respect for pluralism and dissent. Perón for example expropriated critical newspapers. His government created a chain of radio stations and newspapers and produced movies and other propaganda materials. Perón dominated the labour movement by displacing and jailing communist, socialist, and anarchist leaders, and by promoting cronies to the leadership of the powerful national labour confederation CGT.

When populists included it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived of as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression, and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained. 

Despite the historical record of populist power being at best ambiguous for democracy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe view left-wing populism as a normatively desirable democratizing alternative to stopping the xenophobic and racist populist right. Populism, Laclau argues, entails the renaissance of politics. It is a revolt against technocratic reasoning, the surrendering of national sovereignty to supranational institutions, and of the popular will to neoliberal political elites. With the global rise of neoliberalism, understood as a rational and scientific mode of governance, public debate on the political economy was closed and replaced by the imposition of the criteria of experts. When all parties accepted neoliberalism and the rule of technocrats, politics was reduced to an administrative enterprise. Contrary to social democrats that embraced neoliberalism, the populist right used nationalist and xenophobic arguments to challenge globalization and the surrendering of national sovereignty. To stop right-wing variants, the left must construct popular democratic subjects.

Laclau’s normative defence of populism is problematic because he relies on Carl Schmitt’s view of the political as the struggle between friend and enemy. Under these constructs, it is difficult to imagine democratic adversaries who have legitimate institutional spaces. Enemies, as in Schmitt’s view, might need to be manufactured and contained. Moreover, the historical record of left populists in power in Latin America does not support views of populism as democratizing tout court. The leftist governments of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Ernesto and Cristina Kichner, and Rafael Correa were inclusionary. When the prices of commodities were high, for example, they reduced poverty. Yet their governments entered into war against the media, attempted to control civil society, and attacked freedoms of expression, association, and the inviolability of the individual. 

ii) Populism Leads to Autocracy

A second group of scholars argue that populism in power leads to authoritarianism. Kurt Weyland differentiates two routes by which populists erode democracy. The first is that when populists close all democratic institutional channels to the opposition, they provoke the most reactionary sectors to plot military coups. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the history of Latin America oscillated between populists in power being ousted by military coups. 

After the third wave of democratization, when the international community accepted elections as the only tool to name and remove presidents, coups became too costly. Nowadays, populism, Weyland argues, is leading to slow processes of democratic erosion. The systematic yet incremental confrontations between populist presidents with the media and with critical organizations of civil society, the instrumental use of laws to punish critics and to favour cronies, and the concentration of power in the presidency leads to what Guillermo O’Donnell conceptualizes as the slow death of democracy—or to competitive authoritarian regimes. 

iii) Populism Is a Sui-generis Combination of Inclusion and Autocracy 

For a third group of scholars, populism in democratizing contexts and when citizens were not incorporated into political parties is a unique mix of inclusion and autocracy. Populism in Latin America was simultaneously inclusionary and anti-pluralist. Populists’ democratic credentials were grounded in the premise that legitimacy lies in winning free elections. In the 1930s and 1940s, Juan Perón in Argentina and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador fought against electoral fraud and expanded the franchise. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa used elections to displace traditional neoliberal elites and to build new hegemonic blocks. Yet elections under populism are plebiscitarian, and rivals are turned into enemies. Populist inclusion is based on the condition of surrendering one’s will to the leader who claims to be the embodiment of the people and the nation.

If global populist trends continue, what sort of a world will we be inhabiting in 20-30 years?

I don’t know. But what we learned after Trump was voted out of office in 2020, and his attempts to stay in power at all costs, is that populism is here to stay. Our task as citizens, students, and scholars is to understand its complexities without demonizing it. We have to comprehend why these parties mobilize citizens without using stereotypes that label followers as irrational. 

Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook. They, for instance, politicize anger at socioeconomic and political exclusions. If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctions of democracy, their solutions are problematic. Populism can lead to processes of democratic disfigurement when the complexities of modern society are reduced to the struggle between two antagonistic camps, and when one part of the population claims to represent the population as a whole. Under these conditions, opponents do not have institutional or normative spaces to articulate dissent, becoming the hideous oligarchy or the anti-national other. The populist critique needs to be taken seriously, yet we have to interrogate whether their solutions will actually return power to the people or will lead to what Nadia Urbinati calls “the disfigurement of democracy.”

***

Who is Carlos de la Torre?

Carlos de la Torre is Director of the UF Center for Latin American Studies. He has a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. He was a fellow at the Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. His areas of interest are populism, democratization, and authoritarianism, as well as racism and citizenship in the Americas.

His most recent books are The Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (Routlege, 2019); Populisms a Quick Immersion(Tibidabo Editions, 2019); De Velasco a Correa: Insurreciones, populismo y elecciones en Ecuador (Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 2015); The Promise and Perils of Populism (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015); Latin American Populism of the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Cynthia Arnson, (The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013); and Populist Seduction in Latin America (Ohio University Press, second edition 2010).

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.

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.