Jair Bolsonaro during participation in the Unica Forum 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June 18, 2018. Photo: Marcelo Chello

Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Firebrand and Cheerleader for Dictatorship

Jair Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. His caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Trump in his use of such platforms. He is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” — however, his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

By Simon P. Watmough

Introduction

On September 6, 2018, the then 64-year-old presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro was campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora in Brazil’s southern state of Minas Gerais, about 189 km from Rio de Janeiro. The city —a stronghold of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT)— nevertheless drew a massive crowd of supporters for the right-wing populist Congressman ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, set for October 7. According to some reports, some 30,000 supporters lined the streets (D. Phillips, 2019).

Videos—later shared widely on social media—captured the extraordinary scenes that followed. Dressed casually in his signature yellow and green t-shirt bearing the slogan “Meu Partido e Brasil” (“My party is Brazil”), the former army captain can be seen being carried aloft the shoulders of a mass of supporters moving along Juiz de Fora’s central plaza. He is smiling and waving jubilantly to crowds of well-wishers. Suddenly Bolsonaro grimaces in agony, clutching his abdomen. An assailant in the crowd has plunged a knife deep into his stomach, seriously wounding the far-right firebrand.

By all accounts, the attack nearly killed Bolsonaro, who was rushed to a local hospital having lost as much as two liters of blood. Internal injuries meant he was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was only removed well into his first month in office, in January 2019. Indeed, his injuries and hospitalization kept him largely off the trail for the duration of the campaign. Despite this, Bolsonaro came in first place in the October 7 first round, taking 46 percent in a crowded field of 13 candidates. He went on to win the second round on October 28, taking 55 percent of the votes cast against the PT candidate Fernando Haddad (Londoño & Darlington, 2018).

The stabbing “unwittingly boosted his TV exposure, just as his social media campaign took off” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95). Indeed, Bolsonaro drew adeptly on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to post images of himself in his hospital bed in surgical gowns receiving treatment to still-fresh wounds and in various stages of recovery. These bear a strong resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi’s parading of his bloody face and head wounds after being struck with a blunt instrument by a man at a campaign rally in Milan in April 2009 (Winward, 2009).

In this way, the attack formed a crucial backdrop to Bolsonaro’s campaign and eventual victory. Beyond the sympathy it garnered him, it seemed to reinforce two central aspects of his campaign. First, it made him a direct victim of the country’s disorder (thus reinforcing his claim to be one with ordinary Brazilians fed up with violent crime). Second— in surviving the attack—he bolstered his “tough guy” credentials, proving his uncompromising manhood and the “legendary” status he claims as his mantle.

Entering office as Brazil’s 38th president on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro ushered in a new era in Brazilian politics, the contours of which are still falling into place. Before Bolsonaro’s victory, “Brazilian presidential elections … [were] marked by a virtual duopoly, with the left-leaning PT and the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) as the predictable finalists” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). In presidential elections between 1994 and 2018, the two parties had consistently taken 70–90 percent of the vote between them. His victory thus marked a break in the relative stability of Brazil’s party system and the so-called “Nova República” (“New Republic”) that emerged when the army restored civilian rule in 1985 after 21 years of military rule (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93).

Hidden in Plain Sight

The thrice-married Bolsonaro was born in 1955 in Sao Paulo state to a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family. Neither strictly an insider nor a clear outsider, his rise was instead “hidden in plain sight” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 80). His backstory—a contentious but rather undistinguished military and congressional career—and controversial statements mark him out as distinctive. Yet, he is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” (Weizenmann, 2019) — or the earlier Latin American populists like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Brazil’s own Fernando Collor de Mello. There is something to these comparisons, although arguably his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Bolsonaro began his career as a military cadet, serving 15 years in the army, much of it as a paratrooper. His military experience and identity as a former soldier are central to his political style and his approach to government. It may be fair to say that his military identity is the most salient aspect of his political brand, the foundation on which all else is built. His authoritarian leanings were evident even during his time in the army. Toward the end of his career, at the dawn of the Nova República, he began to court controversy. In 1986, he landed his first blow against the new democratic regime, going public with a series of critiques that the new civilian leadership was undermining the military. In an article published in Veja, a popular Brazilian tabloid, he lambasted the inability of elected elites to ensure adequate pay and conditions for ordinary soldiers (Polimédio, 2018). In 1987, he was arrested and drummed out of the military when it became clear he had sketched plans to bomb military installations to bring attention to the poor pay and conditions (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 12). He was found guilty by a military tribunal but was released soon afterward on appeal.

Almost immediately after the Veja controversy, Bolsonaro entered politics. From 1989 to 1991, he was a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro. Then he entered national politics in 1991. He won a seat representing Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies, which he held for the next 27 years. During his time in Congress, he achieved little legislatively, and what moves he did make were concerned with improving the military pay and conditions (Polimédio, 2018). He was an inveterate party-switcher. Between his election to the National Congress in 1991 and his move to the presidential field in 2018, he changed parties seven times (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” was “the way out for Brazil”. Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship”

President Jair Bolsonaro takes part in the Brazilian Army Day celebration at the headquarters of the Brazilian Army Command in Sao Paulo, Brazil in April 18, 2019. Photo: BW Press.

 

“I am in favor of dictatorship”

Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. He infamously harassed one female Congresswoman, saying she “was ‘too ugly’ to be raped, claimed some black people were not ‘even good for procreation,’ and said he would rather one of his four sons ‘die in an accident’ than be gay” (Child, 2019). He has also described the conception of his fifth child — a daughter — as “a moment of weakness” (Brum, 2018).

However, it is arguably his open support for military rule and his yearning for a return to the period of military dictatorship that have most alarmed Brazilians. In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” (using the army to prorogue Congress and the courts to rule by decree as Peru’s President Fujimori had done) was “the way out for Brazil” (Brooke, 1993). Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship” (Weizenmann, 2019). He is on record publicly stating that the military dictatorship “should have killed more people” and that “You can’t change anything in this country with voting and elections” (Polimédio, 2018). Bolsonaro has long taken the view that the 1964 coup that felled Brazil’s post-WWII democracy was righteous and that the period of military dictatorship that ensued (1964 –1985) was “a glorious era” for Brazil, one “in which law and order prevailed” (Lichterbach, 2019).

His abhorrent views were cast into sharp relief in 2016 during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (see below). A Congressman at the time, he voted to impeach Rousseff — who as a young leftist had been arrested and tortured by the military — and “dedicated his vote ‘to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra’… one of the most sadistic torturers and murderers in the military dictatorship” (Brum, 2018). Many Bolsonaro supporters — including his own children — posted on social media wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Ustra lives!” (ibid.)

“Populism as Parody”: Visual Self-Representation and Political Style

Bolsonaro’s caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Donald Trump in his use of such platforms—especially Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube—to reach the Brazilian people directly, unmediated by traditional channels (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). His campaign “relied heavily on political microtargeting via social media —and focused especially on professionalising a ‘fake news’ industry. In a country in which 70 percent of the population is functionally illiterate… the effect of fake news disseminated via WhatsApp has been perverse” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95).

As Evangelista and Bruno (2019: 17) note, this social media campaigning exacerbated “political feelings [already] present in the political debate.” Facebook/WhatsApp and YouTube especially allowed him to steadily expand his support over time as his message went viral: “Social media was essential … to generate unexpected exposure to messages through viral and targeted dissemination of contents. Memes, emojis, and images were at the center of the discursive battle to build pro-Bolsonaro interpretive frameworks” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

Bolsonaro’s distinctive mode of visual self-representation on social media stands out even among populist leaders worldwide. Mendonça and Caetano (2020) have argued persuasively that Bolsonaro deliberately curates his image on social media—especially Instagram—to emphasize simultaneous “eccentricity and ordinariness which makes his demeanor, his body, and his appropriation of institutional power function as a series of parodies” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 3). This chimes as well with Brum’s analysis of him as an “anti-president” who uses caricature and disdainful mockery to simultaneously emulate and disarm his opposition (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).

Mendonça and Caetano (2020: 12) note that Bolsonaro’s “visual aesthetic combines a sense of being of the people while at the same time projecting an understanding of himself as a charismatic exceptionality.” In this way, the authors argue, Bolsonaro has sought to make a parody of the office to simultaneously appropriate its symbolic power while crafting an image of being an outsider and “close to the people” via ordinary—almost hokey—images, including an Instagram post of him preparing breakfast with “ordinary bread rolls with sweetened condensed milk, poured directly from the can” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 14).

Bolsonaro’s ubiquitous social media presence and campaigning proved wildly successful. He retains fanatical support across Brazil. His fan base, which refers to him as “O Mito” (“The Legend”), skews heavily male and young. Indeed, one enterprising Brazilian company sought to cash in on his notoriety and has named one of its energy drinks — “Bolsomito” —after him (D. Phillips, 2018). His largest single support base is Brazil’s rapidly growing Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal community, which makes up around a quarter of the country. The rise of Brazil’s Evangelicals has occurred against the backdrop of a much broader shift in social values over the last 30 years, especially around the question of law and order: “Today, more Brazilians are in favor of legalizing capital punishment, lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, and life without parole for individuals who commit heinous crimes” (Polimédio, 2018).

Bolsonaro was also supported during the campaign by a small — but highly vocal — coterie of popular social movements, whose demonstrations and protests were amplified by social media as well as the mainstream press. These groups include Movimento Brasil Livre (the Free Brazil Movement) and the Vem pra Rua (Come to the Street) movement (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). Eventually, Bolsonaro was able to unite the three strands of the right in Brazil — “the nostalgia right, who yearn for the security of the military dictatorship,” the religious right, primarily Brazil’s large and vocal Evangelical community, and the “liberal right [that is] always railing about the hypertrophy of the Brazilian state” (Child, 2019).

A toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system.

Millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the government of Dilma Rousseff and ask for her impeachment in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 13, 2016. Photo: Alf Ribeiro.

A Perfect Storm: The Four Winds of Crisis Ushering in Bolsonaro’s Rise

As is generally understood, populist leaders mobilize support “from the perception of crises, breakdown or threat” (Moffitt & Tormey, 2014: 391–392). Bolsonaro’s rise is no different and must be understood against the backdrop of a broad-based set of crises that began in 2013, which Uri Friedman of The Atlantic has referred to as “the slow implosion of Brazil” (Friedman, 2016). Hunter and Power (2019) describe this systemic collapse as a “perfect storm” of four distinct but overlapping crises: an economic crisis, a crisis of law and order, a corruption crisis, and a political legitimation crisis.

Brazil’s post-2013 economic woes underlie everything else. Between 2000 and 2012, Brazil was among the fastest-growing major economies on earth, growing at an average rate of 5 percent per annum. Moreover, under the government of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the PT, which came to power in 2003, growth was widely dispersed—arguably for the first time in Brazilian history. Millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty as Lula’s administration diverted swelling government coffers into cash payments for low-income households, most notably via the Bolsa Familia program, the world’s largest cash transfer program (Gazola Hellmann, 2015). But in 2014, the boom turned to bust as Brazil was plunged into the deepest recession in its history (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72)

At the same time, Brazil’s violent crime rate—always high—skyrocketed, driving citizens in the major cities to despair. Gun violence is a particular problem, and seven of the world’s top 20 most violent cities are in Brazil. With over 68,000 homicides per year, Brazil has a murder rate that is over four times the global average (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93; Child, 2019). Indeed, one public opinion study found that violence—a social problem typically seen as best-handled by right-wing parties—was the most salient concern for Brazilian voters ahead of the 2018 elections (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Then, shortly after the economic crisis began to bite, Brazil was consumed by a corruption scandal on a scale that dwarfed anything before. Indeed, the “Lava Jato” (“Carwash”) investigations launched by federal prosecutors in early 2014 became the most extensive (and expensive) anti-corruption drive ever seen (Child, 2019) and seemed to capture almost the entire political class in its net. As Hunter and Power (2019: 73) note, between 2014 and 2018, the Carwash investigations “produced nearly one-thousand arrest warrants and 125 … guilty verdicts falling on politicians and private businesspeople alike. Although the investigation ensnared politicians from fourteen different political parties … the most important names were linked to the PT.”

These several crises fueled a fourth strand—namely, a toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system. The partisan crisis reflected the two emerging trends in Brazilian politics—namely, rising antipathy to the PT (known as “antipetismo”)—due to its perceived culpability in the country’s many crises—and growing nostalgia for the “order” and “clean government” of the military dictatorship (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72). As president, Rousseff was caught up in the corruption scandal, and in 2016 she was impeached and removed from office. Crucially, her predecessor and PT standard-bearer Lula —who had decided to again run as the PT candidate — was also implicated; in April 2018, he was imprisoned on corruption charges, making him ineligible for president (Iglesias, 2019).

The political environment, especially after Rousseff’s impeachment, grew toxic, leading to unprecedented declines in public support, not only for the PT government but for the system as a whole. A 2017 Ipsos survey found that 94 percent of Brazilians lack faith in the political elite (cited in Polimédio, 2018). Moreover, a 2018 Latinobarometer survey found that among 18 Latin American governments in 2017–18, Brazil’s recorded the lowest levels of public trust (cited in Hunter & Power, 2019: 74).

The 2018 Elections

As Weizenmann (2019) argues, “Any one of these… crises could have produced extremist demagoguery on their own. Taken together, dire economic circumstances, rising violence, and political delegitimization” opened up the perfect opportunity for a candidate like Bolsonaro. His campaign—announced in June 2018—very skillfully navigated the collapse in the established system. In so doing, Bolsonaro pushed a message perfectly crafted for the moment—a focus on “law and order,” strong leadership,” and being an “outsider” driving a total restructuring of the system.

Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan was “Brazil first, God above all” — a clear nod to the Evangelical section of his base. He enjoyed several high-profile endorsements, including from the world-famous former Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, now retired (Savarese, 2018). It came despite his controversial campaign tactics, such as when he vowed to end the so-called “concessions” to native Brazilians and former slaves, known in Brazil as “Quilombolas” (The Independent, 2019).

A crucial turning point in the campaign came at the end of August 2018 when Lula was jailed and disqualified from the race, which essentially cleared Bolsonaro’s path. Lula had been “the front-runner in the polls until being disqualified” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). The PT hastily put Fernando Haddad up as an alternative candidate. While he remains beloved in Brazil and his personal brand went some way to overcoming the antipetismo sweeping the country after 2014, Lula’s continued sway failed to translate into support for Haddad. The October 7 first round indicated just how successful Bolsonaro would be with Lula out of the picture; he took 46 percent of the vote and moved decisively into the second round (Cowie & Child, 2018).

Simultaneously, elections were held for Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. Support for Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (SLP) surged — the party won 52 seats in the 513-seat chamber, up from just one in 2014 (Hunter & Power, 2019; Weizenmann, 2019). In a highly fragmented party system, this gave the SLP the plurality of the popular vote. Crucially, the 2018 congressional elections also saw a sharp increase in support for parties within the so-called “Bancada da bala” (“Bullet faction”), the loose congressional caucus committed to the arms industry, and a more militarist approach to law and order and public security. Their share rose from 35 to 61 seats in Brazil’s lower house, with 15 Senators in the caucus elected, including Flavio Bolsonaro from Rio de Janeiro state: “Members want to legalize the arming of citizens and make the shooting down of bandits by the military and police exempt from punishment,” (Milz, 2018).

Overall, Bolsonaro benefited from the coalescing of the so-called “triple B” coalition, made up of “bulls” (i.e., agribusiness), “bullets” (the gun lobby), and “bibles” (Pentecostals). Underpinning all was a focus on Bolsonaro’s military credentials, his willingness to “shake up the system” and his fanning of the center-right obsession with the apparent spread of “cultural Marxism”—an amorphous ideology supposedly endorsing political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism—throughout Brazilian society (Savarese, 2020).

Finally, against a backdrop of antipetismo and Bolsonaro’s promises to reform “the country’s broken pension system, reductions to the size of government, limits on social benefits, and a restructuring of the country’s taxation system” (Weizenmann, 2019), corporate Brazil came on board. In the end, “Brazil’s business community—at first dubious about the candidate’s purported free-market conversion… swung behind him when faced with the binary choice between Bolsonaro and the return of the statist PT” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 70).

The most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general.

President of Brazil Jair Messias Bolsonaro with ministers, governor and senator as well as authorities at the Military Police Soldiers Graduation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 18, 2020. Photo: Jorge Hely Veiga

A Government of Soldiers and Culture Warriors

Brazil’s cabinet picks reflected all the campaign themes and the “triple B” coalition that underpinned it. His ministerial appointments fall into three main categories—namely, technocrats, culture warriors, and military men (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96). On the first, Bolsonaro was compelled to overcome a sense that he was ill-prepared for office, especially to handle Brazil’s fractured economy. He had assuaged much of this on the trail by promising to appoint specialists and technocrats where needed (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96; Polimédio, 2018). His two key picks as “super ministers” — Paulo Guedes as economy minister and Sergio Moro as justice minister — reflected this drive.

Bolsonaro’s appointment of Moro—the lead judge in the Operation Carwash investigations— as his justice minister surprised many and seemed to cement the connection between Brazil’s corruption crisis and Bolsonaro’s win. However, this was shattered in mid-2019 when claims arose that Moro had shown a clear bias in the case against Lula. The investigative journalism newsmagazine, The Intercept, leaked messages purporting to show that Moro had collaborated with the prosecutors (a claim he denies) to ensure Lula’s conviction and disqualification from the 2018 campaign (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 3; Fishman et al., 2019).

Within a year, Moro had resigned his post, accusing Bolsonaro of political interference in police investigations at both federal and state levels. He left office in late April 2020 (McGeever, 2020). Moro’s allegations indicated the president had fired several police chiefs to head off investigations into his son’s alleged corruption. The Attorney-General then opened an investigation (Brito & Paraguassu, 2020). Indeed, for a politician supposedly a paragon of anti-corruption, Bolsonaro has himself become increasingly tarred with the corruption brush. His son, Flavio, has proved problematic (to say the least) dogged by allegations of misappropriating funds (and worse) from the beginning (Milz, 2019a).

Bolsonaro has also appointed prominent religious figures to his cabinet, notably Damares Alves (Women’s Affairs) and Milton Ribeiro (Education), both Evangelical pastors. Alves, who has been in the cabinet since the beginning, has courted controversy for her remarks about gender norms, women’s rights, and Brazil’s annual carnival season. On her election, she made headlines with the slogan, “it’s a new era in Brazil —boys wear blue, and girls wear pink” (Deutsche Welle, 2019a).

Ribeiro —who was appointed in July 2020 after the previous education ministers were forced to resign on account of scandal and corruption — has also caused issues with his focus on religion in schools and continuing Bolsonaro’s strategy of stripping the education system of leftists and “cultural Marxism.” Religious groups welcomed the move, saying, “the education ministry is key to boosting Christian values in Brazil,” and casting aside what they contend is leftist influence in the schools (Savarese, 2020).

Arguably most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general. By September 2019, Bolsonaro had appointed seven serving or former military officers to the government (Hunter & Power, 2019: 82), excluding Mourão. In early 2020, he capped off a cabinet of soldiers by appointing four-star army general and current army chief of staff Walter Souza Braga Netto as his presidential chief of staff. Braga’s appointment took the total number serving, including Mourão, to ten (Deutsche Welle, 2020a). While warnings of a potential coup have been repeatedly swatted back, the fact that military figures so dominate the government has alarmed many (Romero et al., 2020).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent.

Thousands of activists unite in protest for democracy and racial equality and against the Bolsonaro government in São Paulo, Brazil on June 07, 2020. Photo: Alf Ribeiro

The First Year: Protests, Paralysis, and Pensions

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro had promised “a conservative revolution.” Central to this was his promise to liberalize gun laws, which in Brazil are quite restrictive. Despite this, the country is plagued by terrible gun violence, arguably the most visible aspect of rampant criminality. In his first week in office, Bolsonaro moved on the gun issue—a presidential decree on January 14, 2019, expanded the number of firearms Brazilians could legally own and promised to remove “open carry” restrictions further on in the term (Marcello & Stargardter, 2019). Many of his early moves had the ring of empty symbolism — for example, in the first week, the new administration purged the federal government of so-called “leftist” public servants, who were simply legitimate appointees from previous administrations (The Independent, 2019).

The president and his inner circle stand accused of playing up divisions in the government and society as a kind of “symbolic politics” to bolster their political support: “In this regard, some commentators stress that Bolsonaro and his sons have choreographed certain movements. All the political confusion portrayed since the beginning… shows a pattern of rehearsed sketches to demonstrate cohesion around the conservative values they defend” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).The purpose here is three-fold: to mobilize the base, bolster the Bolsonaro’s “anti-system and transgressive credentials,” and distract commentators from the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the government (ibid.).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent, with the numbers saying they distrusted him outright, rising from 30 percent to 44 percent (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 98). These numbers reflect the key points of social resistance to Bolsonaro’s new administration, which erupted in widespread protest in his first few months in office. Indeed, they began in the campaign, with the nationwide #EleNao (“Not Him”) demonstrations dogging his campaign in 2018. Protests highlighted his anti-LGBT and anti-women attacks and his treatment of indigenous people. Brazil’s April 2019 Carnival seasons saw a slew of floats and parade groups mocking and protesting the president. In particular, there was a pointed response to Alves’ gender assertions, with female carnival-goers dressed in blue and men in pink (Deutsche Welle, 2019a). In the Rio Carnival of 2020, Evangelical Christians hit back with promises to “bring Jesus” to revelers (D. Phillips, 2020).

While he had promised “a conservative revolution,” Bolsonaro’s progress was plodding. He refused to play by the traditional political rules, shunning the country’s long-standing political culture of horse-trading for policy wins. Ironically, a similar approach brought down the country’s last populist leader Fernando Collor de Mello, in the mid-1990s (Panizza, 2000). Like Trump, Bolsonaro appears to believe that he can achieve policy wins by dint of sheer personality and his diffuse and vocal support among his support base.

The 2019 Amazon wildfires drew the world’s attention and calls for concerted international action, most notably from French President Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro burned a vast swathe of his political capital attacking foreign leaders’ attempts to address the issue, with France’s president and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany coming in for intense criticism. In August 2019, after a G7 meeting that promised a “rescue fund” for the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro lashed out, asserting sovereigntist claims, accusing Macron and the G7 of neo-imperialism (T. Phillips, 2019).

Toward the end of 2019, Bolsonaro scored a victory with the passing of pension reform. Brazil’s pension system had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and without some changes, it threatened to blow up the federal deficit. Fixing the problem had been a central plank of Bolsonaro’s campaign. After much wrangling in Congress and a June 2019 general strike opposing Bolsonaro’s plans to right-size the pension system, reform passed in October 2019. The win did not appear, however, to staunch his bleeding popular support. By late 2019, his approval ratings had fallen to 31 percent—down from 49 percent when he was elected in October 2018 (Milz, 2019b).

The experience of dealing with an uncompromising Congress has clearly affected the maverick politician, by all accounts has been infuriated by the congressional argy-bargy involved in prosecuting his agenda. At the end of the year, the notorious party-switcher announced he was forming a new party, the Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil). It was also announced that his son Flavio—a senator from Rio de Janeiro who ran on the SLP ticket—would take a senior leadership role in the new party. “The party platform ‘recognizes God’s place in the life, history and soul of the Brazilian people,’ is anti-abortion, rejects ‘socialism and communism,’ and supports the right to possess firearms” (Deutsche Welle, 2019b).

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the pandemic crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll.

People wait in a big line to receive food donations for lunch in a downtown street during a severe economic crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 2, 2020. Photo: Nelson Antoine

The Second Year: COVID-19, Policy Failure, and an Electoral Rebuke

After the October 2019 pension reform victory, Bolsonaro’s fortunes might have looked up. However, in early 2020 the COVID-19 crisis hit, dominating Bolsonaro’s second year in office. The crisis has struck Brazil particularly hard and has only been exacerbated by the Bolsonaro administration’s failure to adequately address the public health emergency and coordinate a response among Brazil’s state and municipal governments. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. He even emulated Trump’s dosing with hydroxychloroquine, which he has called “a miracle cure” (Eisele, 2020). Furthermore, just as Trump did, Bolsonaro self-represented his own infection with COVID-19—which occurred after months downplaying its virology and impact—as part of his “real man” macho image. In so doing, in March of 2019, he referenced his September 2018 stabbing, telling his large social media following that if I am “able to survive being stabbed, then a “little flu” was unlikely to kill [me]” (Eisele, 2020).

Brazil, a federation of 26 states and one federal territory, has devolved responsibility for health and public health. This has played into Bolsonaro’s hands, allowing him to play up “local elites” who stand in the way: “The 65-year-old has repeatedly and harshly criticized the virus-related restrictions to everyday life — some of which have since been relaxed — imposed by states and municipal governments… [In July 2020], he vetoed a law passed by Congress on nationwide regulations concerning the wearing of face masks in public” (Eisele, 2020).

The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll. In local elections held across the country in November 2020, Bolsonaro-backed parties lost ground, as did the main opposition PT. Moreover, in a “direct rebuke to Bolsonaro, voters in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city, re-elected mayor Alexandre Kalil, who took tough quarantine and social distancing steps that were criticized directly by the president” (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). The established center-right and conservative parties saw a return to electoral fortune after their poor showing in the 2018 congressional elections. Bolsonaro’s former party, the SLP, failed to take top place in a single election (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). His Aliança pelo Brasil did not stand candidates, as the party had formed too late to gather the necessary signatures to register as an official electoral party (Ying, 2020).

Conclusion

After just over two years in power, the very worst predictions about Bolsonaro’s presidency have not materialized. Certainly, the military has so far remained firmly in the barracks and has swatted back calls for intervention in politics (Romero et al., 2020). None of this should be taken as a call to celebrate. Indeed, it is really down to a fortuitous mix of incompetence on the part of the administration — most evident in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the checks and balances in Brazil’s federal system. Bolsonaro’s own stubborn refusal to play by established rules and establish a governing congressional coalition is also a key factor, meaning his agenda has largely stalled in the legislature. Thus, like Trump in his first term in office, institutional inertia has managed to blunt and slow the worst effects of Bolsonaro’s radical agenda.

Nevertheless, much damage is being done to the fabric of Brazilian society. As The New York Times recently noted: “The upheaval in Brazil is leading investors to rush for the exits. Capital flight is reaching levels unseen since the 1990s. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 8 percent this year. Car production, a once-thriving pillar of the economy, has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1950s” (Romero et al., 2020). However, Bolsonaro continues to enjoy widespread — if minority — support in the electorate, as this brief has detailed at length. Moreover, his new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, is an as-yet untested legislative vehicle and could well do very well at the next general election scheduled for October 2022. Much depends, of course, on Brazil’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the trajectory of further reform efforts.

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Phillips, T. (2019). “Jair Bolsonaro demands Macron withdraw ‘insults’ over Amazon fires.” The Guardian. August 27. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/27/jair-bolsonaro-demands-emmanuel-macron-withdraw-insults-over-fires (accessed on December 22, 2020).

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Thousands of people turn out for the anti racism - anti-Donald Trump and Nigel Farage rally through central London on March 18, 2017. Photo: John Gomez

Populists International (I) — Populists Hand in Hand: Farage and Trump

How Does International Cooperation Work Between Populists? 

The last decade has seen a rise in cooperation between xenophobic right-wing populists, both in Europe and internationally. Elsewhere, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Western populists from majority Muslim countries and left-wing Latin American populist leaders. My hope with this commentary series is to begin a fruitful discussion about this cooperation. I will start by examining the stunning cooperation between British right-wing populist Nigel Farage and former US President Donald Trump, the populist held power in a country long viewed as the beacon of democracy.  

By Mustafa Demir

The relationship between former US President Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and hard Eurosceptic, went beyond the limits of a mere friendship to become an international cooperation, if not a coalition. As such, it is relevant to international populism studies. The two supported the other’s political campaigns and gave statements and interviews promoting one another’s political agendas. They even physically appeared at each other’s election rallies as “guests of honour.” They readily endorsed the other as a fellow “man of the people.” 

Farage routinely commented or posted on social media in support of Trump. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), Farage appeared at a Trump campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2016. He was introduced to the crowd – by Trump – as “the man behind Brexit.” Addressing the pro-Trump crow, Farage stated that, “I wouldn’t vote for Hilary Clinton if you paid me.”

He continued as follows: “[UKIP] made 23 June our Independence Day when we smashed the Establishment… If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals.”

Farage also used this opportunity to lambast Prime Minister David Cameron and former US President Barack Obama for backing the “Remain” campaign. He drew parallels between the US elections and the Brexit referendum, and he urged “the ordinary people” of the US to “stand up to the establishment and take back control with a ‘people’s army.’” 

He successfully appealed to the emotions of the crowd, saying: “I come to you from the United Kingdom with a message of hope and a message of optimism. If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals – and we did it…[You, the Americans, have a] fantastic opportunity with November’s election. And you’ll do it by doing what we did for Brexit in Britain. We had our own people’s army or ordinary citizens… If you want change, you better get your walking boots on, you better get out there campaigning; and, remember, anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment.”

Daniel Bates of the Evening Standard noted that Farage’s appearance was an historical moment, in the sense that it was the “first time a British politician has ever addressed a Republican Presidential rally.” 

Farage also appeared in the most recent election campaign. He appeared in Arizona in November 2020. Marina Hyde, of the Guardian, broke the news with the title “Behold Trump’s pre-election secret weapon: Nigel Farage, ‘king of Europe.’” She was quoting Trump, who welcomed Farage to the state with the moniker, “the king of Europe.” Farage responded by calling Trump, “the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life.” 

Of course, this “favour” was not one sided. Trump came Farage’s aid during the Brexit campaign. When former President Obama visited London in April 2016, his comment on the upcoming Brexit referendum – and its possible negative consequences for Britain – upset Farage, who called it a “monstrous interference” in British politics. It was: “…A monstrous interference, I’d rather he stayed in Washington, frankly, if that’s what he’s going to do. You wouldn’t expect the British Prime Minister to intervene in your presidential election, you wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to endorse one candidate or another. Perhaps he’s another one of those people who doesn’t understand what [the EU] is.

Despite this, Farage always welcomed Trump’s support for the campaign. And despite his supposed reservations about foreign interference in elections, he did not hesitate to take the stage in Jackson, where he urged the American people not to vote for Hilary Clinton. Farage reacted to the possibility of Obama’s sharing his opinion supporting the “remain” campaign and said,

After assuming power in January 2017, less than seven months after the Brexit referendum, Trump repeatedly commented on British politics. For example, he did not hesitate to criticize former PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan. In July 2018, speaking to the Sun, Trump said, “I would have done it much differently… I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

During May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, Trump claimed Brexit was a “blessing for the world” and a “beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Trump was ecstatic about Brexit. The “Leave” campaign echoed his own populist themes and showed the sea-change that was happening in Western politics and the increasing popularity of anti-establishment candidates. Brexit was undeniably a warning sign that populism and nationalism were gaining momentum. It was not an isolated accident, but a groundswell that would redefine political paradigms.

Despite his support for Brexit, Trump has always been a highly unpopular figure in the UK. In contrast, Farage seems highly popular with Trump’s far right supporters. The US media saw Farage’s 2020 appearance in Arizona as “yesterday’s man” who was “forced to travel abroad to seek a spotlight.” Farage’s influence in the UK has waned since Brexit. 

Farage has also not hesitated to join far-right, pro-Trump, conspiracy-spreading radio programmes and gave interviews supporting Trump’s narratives and policies. Among many others, some of the conspiracies he spread included the lie that Obama is a Muslim plotting against the US and that Trump’s impeachment was a “Jewish coup.” In some of these interviews, Farage repeatedly discussed a supposed plot by bankers and “globalists” to impose a world government, a conspiracy theory strongly linked to antisemitism.

Similarly, during and after the Brexit campaign, he hosted Trump on his radio show on LBC radio. LBC is a respected radio station providing platforms to different segments of society. In October 2019, Trump joined Farage’s programme and commented positively on the performance of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the process of Brexit while criticising Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although Trump has never been popular in the UK, the fact that he joined the conversation in support of his good friend Farage is worth highlighting. It should also be noted that the LBC has announced Farage stepping down “with immediate effect” in June 2020, following a radio show in which he compared Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to the Taliban. 

When it comes to cooperation between these two populists, Gideon Rachman underlines the link between the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump. Rachman marks with bold letters that both these incidents “will forever be linked in history. The two events took place within a few months of each other. Both were populist revolts that appealed to similar constituencies.” 

Supporting Rachman’s view, Laetitia Langlois (2018: 16) rightly argues that: “The pro-Brexit and the pro-Trump votes rest on the same dynamics: they are both angry votes against the elite, against immigration, against globalisation. It is no surprise then that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are so close: as the embodiments of the rage against the system and the two populist voices in the anglosphere, they had common ideas, common targets and common objectives.”

Trump and Farage view the concerns of their constituents as basically the same. Speaking at the Jackson rally, with Farage at his side, Trump said: “They voted to break away from rule by large corporations and media executives who believe in a world without borders…They voted to reclaim control over immigration, over their economy, over their government…. Working people and the great people of the UK took control of their destiny.”

As a final note, Trump spoke to his supporters while seeing himself out of the White House and off Florida. He said, “we will be back in some form.” After his acquittal in his  2nd impeachment trial, on 13th of February, 2021, Trump released a press statement, celebrating his acquittal. He said: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”

If he manages to make a come-back, there is no doubt that he would not leave his good friend Nigel jobless. Thus, it is not surprising to see Farage celebrating Trump’s acquittal, as evidenced by the following Tweet:

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a controversial figure, one who has frequently appeared in international media due to his brusque remarks and increasingly authoritarian practises, both abroad and domestically. During his premiership and subsequent presidency, he successfully changed Turkey’s political fabric and is now aiming to influence international politics in unprecedented ways. Erdogan’s journey, from mayor of Istanbul to prospective leader of the Muslim world, has been facilitated by exploiting existing power structures – or dismantling them, if they don’t serve his needs. All the while, he’s retained his charisma as an influential Islamist leader working in the best interests of “the people” and the “ummah.” By using populist strategies and manipulating democratic institutions, Erdogan is increasingly a populist authoritarian. 

Since his National View (Milli Gorus) years in 1970s and 80s under the mentorship of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s worldview and narrative had always had populist elements that constructed him and practicing Muslim Turks as the real and morally superior owners of Turkey but they had been victims of the Kemalist elite that oppressed them and denied their general will. However, Erdogan’s populism has been intensified after he consolidated his power in early 2010s and its anti-Westernist conspiratorial content has increased. 

A recent study (Lewis et al. 2019) published in The Guardian shows that Erdogan is the only right-wing leader labelled ‘very populist.’ Based on the extent to which their speeches have populist ideas, each populist leader under study was given an average populism score. The speeches were graded on a 0-2 scale, ranging from not populist to very populist.According to the study, the average populism score across all 40 countries has doubled from 0.2 in the early 2000s to around 0.4 in 2019. Erdogan was ‘somewhat populist’ between 2007-2014. However, between the years of 2014-2018, he was ‘very populist’ with a score of 1.5 out of 2.0. Only Hugo Chavez (1.9) and Nicolas Maduro (1.6) received higher score than Erdogan while Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi had a score of only 0.8. 

The Republic of Turkey was built in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed the First World War cost Turkey an empire, a monarchy, caliphate, and the majority of its lands, save for the Anatolian heartland. This has caused immense trauma, anxiety and insecurity among the ruling elite. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dreamed of reviving a republic from the ashes of empire. Defeated at the hands of the European powers, Ataturk and several followers were convinced that “reinventing” the nation and its “ideal citizens” in the mould of the European civilisation would provide the foundation for a modern, secular republic. For 80 years, Kemalism promoted a nationalist homogenising narrative hinging on the national reconstruction of a Turkey detached from its Ottoman past and rebuilt according to a secular blueprint. However, detaching the Turkish people from their Ottoman roots has proved unsuccessful; and Kemalism succeeded only in marginalizing and victimising all ethnic, religious and political minority groups that didn’t fit the prototype of the Kemalists’ desired citizen, Homo LASTus – Laicist, Ataturkist, Sunni, and Turkish (Yilmaz, 2021).

More than eight decades of repression and denial of the Ottoman past and heterogeneous fabric of society gave room to a resentful counter narrative to rise. While Homo LASTus isolated non-Muslims and non-Turkish groups, it is the conservative Sunni majority who have given birth to an Islamist populist voice. The man voicing their anxieties, discontent, grievances, insecurities, fears and future hopes is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populism has shapeshifted – from centre-right to far-right (Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). His early coalition and representation of resentful liberals, democrats, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, ethnic minorities and civil society organizations that were marginalized and even demonised under Kemalism has gradually transformed to a narrow core of vindictive conservative Sunni, Islamist, ultra-Turkish nationalists. 

Through his long political career, Erdogan has always had the benefit of positioning himself as a man of the people due his humble beginnings. This has set him apart from the political and military “elite” (Lowen, 2017; BBC, 2002). The fairy tale-esque nature of his childhood story – the upward mobility of a poor boy raised in a poor and angry urban setting at the margins of Istanbul’s more prosperous and Westernised areas becoming the leader of Turkey (Cagaptay, 2017) – inspired his voters. Some even see him as the chosen “sultan” or “caliph” for a “New” Turkey – and possibly even for the Muslim world; others rightly criticize his populist and autocratic tendencies (Lowen, 2017). Yet when closely observed, Erdogan’s political ideology is mostly that of the shape-shifter; he ensures his political survival at all costs – even if those costs are damaging the institutional fabric of the country and widening deep rifts in a multi-ethnic and religious society (Genc, 2019).

There have been many studies published on the Erdogan and AKP’s recent populism (e.g. Selçuk 2016; Yabancı 2016; Kirdiş and Drhiemur 2016; Özpek and Yaşar 2018; Yilmaz 2018; Castaldo 2018; Özçetin 2019; Sawae 2020; Taş 2020; Yilmaz 2021). As such, this profile will not discuss the Erdogan’s populism in detail, leaving it to the other excellent studies to do so. Instead, this will focus on the emotional aspects of Erdogan’s populism – including Ottoman nostalgia, anxiety, hate, antagonism, victimhood, and resentment – and how they are used to mobilize voters. 

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution.

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

 

The Shape-Shifter: Islamism and Young Erdogan

To understand his politics and personality, one must start with Erdogan’s childhood. Born in the poor Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, most of his early life was spent in Rize province, in Turkey’s Black Sea region(Lowen,2017). Raised in a working-class family, Erdogan was sent to a religiously-oriented Imam Hatip school by his father, a ferry captain (Genc, 2019). It is unclear if he ever received a university degree from Marmara University due to ambiguity surrounding the issue (BBC, 2016). Nevertheless, his years at the Imam Hatip greatly impacted him. He studied the Quran, the life of the Prophet, and Muslim teachings. He also spent a considerable amount of time improving his Quran recitation, which earned the praise of his friends (Genc, 2019; BBC, 2002).

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi – MSP), which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi – MNP) that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015). Erbakan was a prominent voice against the secular ideology of Kemalism, which had isolated many Muslim Turks. As an adolescent, Erdogan was exposed to the manifesto of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus which based its Islamist ideology around severing the Turkish nation from secularism, Westernism and Capitalism. Milli Gorus was also sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and harshly critical of Zionism. Milli Gorus’s ideology was civilizationalist and pan-Islamic and urged the nation to cut its ties with Europe and align with Muslim-majority countries (Sahin & Dogantekin, 2019)

Erdogan spent considerable time within the MSP’s youth group and gained recognition when he organized a boxing match during the visit of the Afghan mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The profound influence of religion on Erdogan’s early life was evident when he turned down a spot on an Istanbul city soccer team because the city had a ban on the Islamic beard at that time (Genc, 2019).

After a second ban, Erbakan re-founded his party yet again, this time named the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi – RP). Erdogan’s commitment to the party earned him a spot as the party’s provincial head in Istanbul. He possessed the art of amassing a huge number of volunteers to hand out flyers and hang posters, displaying his leadership and organizing skills. Most of his time was occupied in political work, and he was soon known for his great oratory skills with emotive mobilizational power. He delivered emotional and resentful speeches decrying “the evil new world order” and supporting “Muslim brothers” across borders that resonated with the victimhood mood of the conservative sections of society (Genc, 2019)

Erdogan’s earlier political affiliations helped him not only identify with Islamist populism but also see its value in Turkish society. Kemalists had for years suppressed a chain of Sunni Islamist parties as part of their secular agenda, only breeding further resentment. To attach populism with a divinely sanctioned ideology – Islam in this case – was a viable opportunity. Thus, Erdogan did not shy away from using public sentiments and emotions towards religious oppression to gain prominence for himself. 

Rising to prominence in 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed down for violating the tenets of Kemalism. Erdogan became a vocal critic of the government and was arrested for reading a poem that the state claimed, “incited violence.” While the arrest was the highlight of his tenure, his agenda was public focused, including improving traffic congestion, dealing with water shortages, and controlling pollution. He remained more pragmatic than Islamist (BBC, 2002).

At the same time, there were hints of religiously motivated actions taken during this period. First, he symbolically limited the use and sale of alcohol (Ozbilgin, 2013). The step was taken under the guise of “public safety,” appealing to both religious voters and concerned citizens. He also rebelled by not asking his wife to uncover her head and instead avoided bringing her to official functions and government spaces – covered women were barred from entering public offices and educational institutes as part of the Kemalist ideology to secularize Turkey (BBC, 2002)

His blend of public works and subtle moves to please Islamist groups made him popular. When asked about why he’d developed such a good reputation, Erdogan responded, “I am Istanbul’s imam” (Genc, 2019). His statement reflected two major things about his populism. Firstly, as early as the 1990s, his confidence in himself as “the chosen one” was not rooted in democratic measures and values; rather, it was always attached to a “divine” element. The word imam[1] gave him an air of Islamist populism. Secondly, his smirky response shows belief in the idea that Islam and liberal democracies can be merged for the welfare of “the people.” Thus, positioning himself as a “Muslim Democrat” – one who is able to tolerate non-Muslims and yet at the same time be “Muslim enough” allowed him to amass great public support. 

His “imamet” of the city came to an abrupt end when his recitation of a controversial Islamo-nationalist and militarist poem landed him in jail for four months (he was sentenced to ten). The poem featured the lines, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” Due to its clear Islamist references, the poem was considered unconstitutional (Genc, 2019). His jail time added to his victimhood and populist popularity; he was viewed as “bold” in the face of the victimising evil Kemalist elite and not afraid of the Kemalist regime that had for decades muffled freedom of expression and religious affiliation. Erdogan established himself as the antithesis to the status quo, another populist hallmark. 

For Erdogan, the ultimate aim has always been power, and everything could be instrumentalized to achieve this. He signalled this in the 1990s when, as mayor of Istanbul, he said, “…democracy can’t be an objective but an only an instrument… democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” 

Erdogan, following his imprisonment, found himself without a party. Increasingly, the public viewed him as pious and courageous; his humble beginnings added to his credibility as a leader of the “people.” Moreover, his reformist attitude and promising improvements during his tenure as mayor of Istanbul earned him a voter base across large sections of society, especially the conservative segments across the rural landscape of Anatolia.

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.”

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

 

Rebellious Erdogan with Moderate Views

While he had been able to connect with the discontent conservative masses, to survive the secular military and judiciary – and also to attract a large voter base of non-Sunnis, non-Muslims, and non-Turks – Erdogan rebranded himself. He moderated his views, especially on the west, to appeal to voters in national elections (Yilmaz, 2009). This was the first example of his pragmatic, populist shape-shifting. He issued statements that were more populous than religious, claiming, “We don’t need bearded men who are good Quran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019)

The prohibition of Welfare Party in 1998 paved the way for the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP), which was also banned in 2001. The dissolution of the Virtue Party led to the birth of two conservative parties. One of them was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arınc. Erdogan was also a major figure in its founding, although he was technically still banned from politics. He described his role in the party, very much the opposite of what it is today, as part of a group of leaders: “a cadre will run the party, and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” His role, in his words, was that of an “orchestra chief.” He declared, the “age of me-centred politics is over” (Genc, 2019).

The other party to rise from the Virtue Party’s ashes was the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP), which over the years, despite being a right-wing party, has taken an anti-Erdogan stance. During AKP’s first election, it was nearly banned, which resulted in Gul running as the party’s main candidate, since Erdogan was still technically banned from contesting elections because of his conviction for reciting the poem. Eventually, through a by-election and verdict from the judiciary, Gul stepped down as prime minister in 2003; Erdogan assumed office. 

He was ushered in as the beginning of the era of Muslim Democrats (Yilmaz, 2009). It was a model hailed by many as a blueprint for success for the Muslim world. Its proponents claimed it brought “the best of both worlds,” combining a hint of religion with liberal democratic values. 

But the party never truly embraced the image. Instead, this was a survival move for the AKP and Erdogan, who were able to win votes on a broad spectrum of anti-Kemalist sentiments and among those hoping for a truly democratic Turkey. This appeal to the latter groups was the populist side of Erdogan’s Islamist politics. 

Erdogan’s first tenure as prime minister was marked by impressive economic growth for the country and a quest to bridge the gap with Europe. Erdogan boasted, “When we first came to government… our relations with some of the countries in our region were almost non-existent… [now] we have friendly relations with most of our neighbouring countries… we have relations in [the] political, economic, social, cultural, commercial, military areas with many of the countries in the region” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Playing the role of a pro-Western conservative, he insisted on Turkey’s presence in NATO and in a bid to secure membership of the European Union (EU) (Söylemez, 2012; Genc, 2011)

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.” He launched a “democratic war” against the Kemalist elite and the country’s system of military tutelage. It is now clear that these were more of a means to an end, as most populists consolidate ideologies to gain support as a way of easing into power. 

Erdogan often tried to have it both ways. The Turkish government offered to launch a joint fact-finding mission, with Armenia, into the genocide that took place at the end of World War I; however, the government refused to actually admit the genocide took place. At an intentional forum, Erdogan plainly explained, “Diasporas in some countries lobbying for resolutions in the parliaments of other countries is like an extrajudicial… it’s an extrajudicial execution because there is no fact-based process here. So, this is something that Turkey cannot accept… we told our friends, but we still do not have a response,” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007).

As Erdogan’s second national election approached, there were nationwide protests about fears that he and the AKP planned to change Turkey’s constitution (de Bendern, 2007; BBC, 2007). Erdogan’s populist theatrics garnered public political support and centred around the hope that “new Turkey” would be part of the EU and an economic power. 

Populists often use the media and the political bully pulpit to become public fixtures, deepening their connection with the people. It makes them more human and relatable. In the midst of the on-going countrywide protests, Erdogan apparently “fainted” inside his car, which led to a mass panic and a dramatic rescue attempt. The episode added to Erdogan’s narrative as a “wronged man” who was being betrayed despite doing all he could for the people and the country (Genc, 2019; Dincsahin 2012)

In 2008, an attempt to close the AKP again failed, although it led to the party’s funding being limited. However, Erdogan’s relatively moderate first term had resonated with voters: in 2007, he linked his party’s win to the ethos of Turkey’s democratic and secular values. By electing him, the country had passed the test: “The Turkish Republic is a democratic, secular social state governed by the rule of law, and throughout this process this year, Turkey has gone through an important test of democracy and come out stronger than before from these elections,” Erdogan stated (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). 

By the end of his second term, it was clear that Erdogan was gifted at fully utilizing the rifts in Turkish society to gain a popular mandate. He had made “the people” those who were disenfranchised by the Kemalists, positioning himself as a humble outsider – as compared to the Kemalist elite who were the others. He would use his experience to address the country’s core issues through democratic means. Economic growth, better diplomatic ties, and a bid to join the EU established him as the “leader” of a people failed by the Kemalist Homo LASTus project.  

After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology. This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the EU membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Kursat Bayhan

 

The Authoritarian Populist Surfaces

Erdogan’s worldview has always contained populist elements, dating back to his National View (Milli Gorus) years in the 1970s and 80s. In the National View narratives, practicing Muslims were framed as the real owners of the homeland (“the people”) but had been victims of the pro-Western and secularist Kemalists (the “evil elite”) that oppressed them. However, with the economy slowing down in 2009, Erdogan’s populism intensified and soon became the core feature of his narrative (Dinçşahin 2012; Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology (Onbaşı 2016). This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the European Union membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020).

This also has roots in Erbakan’s National View Islamism and the totalitarian ideology of Erdogan’s more influential role model, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, which included a strong religio-moral component and claimed that “the people” they represented did not only refer to those who were exploited, excluded, oppressed, and victimised but also to practicing Muslims who were constructed as morally superior (Tugal 2002)

He is an Islamist; however, different from other Islamists. He developed an Islamist populist style to further appeal to the grievances, resentfulness and hopes of the conservative Turkish Sunni masses that were victimised by the “evil” Kemalist elite who were the pawns of the West. In this narrative, he constructed himself as the only genuine representative of the people and their general will.

Public Enemies

After spending a considerable amount of time wearing the guise of a Muslim Democrat, Erdogan made a final shape-shift, gradually exposing his populist autocratic style of rule in the aftermath of the 2011 elections (Turkish Weekly, 2011). He used trials such as Sledgehammer (Balyoz) and Ergenekon to increasingly target the military and position himself and the AKP as the voice of democracy against the “corrupt” military. The Kemalist military was public enemy number one. Through populist “otherizing,” Erdogan continued to eliminate his greatest opponents and further polarize support in his direction. His actions were justified: they were bringing justice to the Turkish people who had, for generations, been wronged by the elite and corrupt military.

The Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations, which occurred between 2008 – 2011, gave more legitimacy to Erdogan. High-ranking military generals were put on trial and, as a consequence of the 2010 Constitutional Referendum, a number of Kemalist judiciary members were replaced. This led to a weakening of institutional checks on the AKP from the Kemalist factions. This was one of the first examples of Erdogan undermining democratic institutions by using populist divisiveness to consolidate his position. He justified it as in the best interest of the people.  

Erdogan’s commitment to democracy was gradually side-lined for populism, and then Erdogan re-introduced Islamism to the picture. As part of this transformation, the “black Turks” – conservative Muslims who had been oppressed by the Kemalist “white Turks” – were position as “the people” and the Kemalists, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, and non-Turks were the “other” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Erdogan and the AKP used the classic populist card of segregating the “pure” people and the “corrupt” elite. He was the people’s man – their voice.

Islamism was at the heart of Erdogan’s populist agenda. Erdogan lifted the rules of banning women from wearing headscarves in public offices and departments. This was celebrated, as it gave women the autonomy to choose what they wanted. However, it was not done to give women democratic rights, but to consolidate Erdogan’s status as a “good Muslim” who stood up for the historically oppressed group. Increasingly, he expressed more conservative views regarding women; for instance, three years later, he publicly claimed, “no Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning… we will multiply our descendants,” (BBC, 2020). 

Moreover, during his third term, Erdogan imposed hefty taxes and restrictions on alcohol sales (Ozbilgin, 2013). The tax meant that Turkish Airline stopped serving drinks on domestic flights; stores could no longer sell alcoholic beverages between 10 pm to 6 am. Lastly, stores selling alcohol had to be at least 100 meters from places of worship or educational institutes. Violators were to face mammoth fines. Brushing away criticism, Erdogan defended his actions: “There are such regulations everywhere in the world. The youth of a nation should be protected from bad habits,” (Ozbilgin, 2013). As Erdogan consolidated his power, he used Islamism to change the social fabric, divide society, and legitimize his decisions through “pure” religious motivations. 

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power.

Crowd protesting in Gezi parki, Taksim, istanbul on May 31 2013.

Erdogan also gradually and successfully turned the media and civil society into “public enemy number one.” The Gezi Protests, in 2013, allowed Erdogan to “otherize” anyone who questioned the government’s policies. Of people gathered in Gezi, he said: “Are the people only those at Gezi Park? Aren’t those who came to meet us at Istanbul airport people, too? Those who are gathered now in Ankara; aren’t they people, too?” Erdogan called on the protesters to face off in local elections the next year. “Instead of [occupying] Gezi Park or Kugulu Park [in Ankara], there are seven months [until the elections]. Be patient and let’s face off at the ballot box.”

The protests allowed Erdogan to play on the existential insecurity of Turkish voters. He played up conspiracies that Western or outside powers were trying to destabilize the country. This again played on the public’s collective paranoia, which dated back to the Treaty of Sèvres, when the allied forces divided the defeated Ottoman Empire. This lingering trauma is deeply rooted within many Turkish people. 

The Gezi Protests sprang up in the wake of a government plan to build a shopping mall and mosque on the site of Gezi Park, a public area in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. At issue was Erdogan’s clientelism: he was increasingly running the country by buying the patronage of various individuals. A vast majority of “welfare” projects were centred around privatizing public sectors, and this led to the rise of a new bourgeoisie who profited from the neo-liberal reforms. They were naturally loyal to Erdogan’s patronage (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Lowen, 2017)

The Gezi Protests erupted after nearly three years of “welfare” being used a guise to hand out contracts to Erdogan-friendly businessmen. The development of the park symbolized the frustrations of marginalized groups: public space was being privatized, to benefit Erdogan and his allies. The peaceful protests were met with state violence; 11 people were killed due to police brutality (Lowen, 2017). Erdogan “otherized” the protestors and their sympathizers, defining their support as “terrorism propaganda” or “insulting” the country’s leadership. He also attacked the media supporting the protestors and criticizing the government. In a statement, he said, “There is no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their pen and position to serve their aims” (Lowen, 2017).

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power. All the while, he effectively dismissed any opposition as “propaganda.” 

In December 2013, a series of police investigations revealed corruption involving high-level AKP elite, including Erdogan’s son Bilal and three cabinet ministers. The regime refused to let the investigations proceed: Erdogan characterized them as a “judicial coup” carried out by members of the Gulen Movement and initiated a comprehensive crackdown against the Movement. The police officers in charge of the investigation were arrested. The prosecutors on the case were replaced, and the cases were subsequently closed. In the following months, the regime seized Gulen Movement-affiliated media organisations, appointing trustees and turning them into pro-AKP mouthpieces. They seized other Gulen Movement organisations and businesses, effectively usurping thousands of private properties (Day, 2016).

The Gulenists became yet another “enemy.” Erdogan alleged members of the Movement were wiretapping himself and other Turkish officials, endangering the state (The Guardian, 2014). Mass arrests of police, civil servants, and members of the judiciary followed. Erdogan accused Gulen of establishing a “parallel structure” within the state. Erdogan pledged that he would “go into their lairs” and bring an end to the parallel structure (Butler, 2014).

Amidst this backdrop, in 2015, Erdogan was elected President. He presented himself as the “man who holds Turkey together” amidst constant threats and crises (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020). Many of these conflicts and crises were of Erdogan’s making. 

The 2016 coup attempt was to become the magnum opus of Erdogan’s populism. He called it a “blessing in disguise.” Without evidence, Erdogan blamed the coup on Gulenists. He was targeting Gulen when he said, “I have a message for Pennsylvania (referring to Gulen)… you have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.” Following the coup attempt, any opposition to Erdogan and his party was opposition to Turkey, a country surrounded by “enemies” inside and out (Flinks, 2016)

The purge following the failed coup attempt was merciless. The remaining opposition was crushed. It is estimated that more than 150,000 public servants were deposed from their former jobs, and thousands more were arrested (BBC, 2020).

In the wake of the failed coup, a 2017 referendum abolished the office of Prime Minister, replacing it with an executive presidency. It gave President Erdogan the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). Erdogan had successfully “otherized” all potential opponents – Kemalist institutions, civil society organizations, and the media. These “others” were a threat to the very survival of Turkey – a thread made crystal clear during the failed coup attempt. Using populism rooted in anti-Western sentiment, pro-Islamist ideology, Turkish nationalism, and conspiracy theories, Erdogan suppressed dissent, broke institutional checks and balances, and established a “new elite” who were a loyal support base in the private sector for himself and his party. He was even able to co-opt the secularist and nationalist opposition parties (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020; Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). Under such circumstance, the referendum was always bound to pass. 

As President, Erdogan has become more belligerent, especially towards the West. The man who wanted to build bridges between the West, Middle East, and Turkey has been in constant spats with Western countries. Erdogan has been constantly creating and managing international crises, while at the same time fighting off the “terrorist threat” facing Turkey from Kurdish militias (Tol, 2020).

No credible opposition remains. With Kemalists drawn out of power, religious propaganda in his hand, and the creation of multiple “enemies,” he has a comfortable hegemony over Turkish politics. Religion is used to run his “security state” and shore up support. Since disbanding thousands of schools and educational institutes linked to the Gulen Movement, Erdogan has turned them into Islamist schools. The Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) is also used as a tool. His handpicked Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa to support the Erdogan regime’s actions following the coup. 

The views of his most adamant supporters are reflected in a comment by one supporter who expressed his feeling for President Erdogan before the 2017 referendum: “He speaks our language, gets aggressive like we do – and tells the world what we want to say” (Lowen, 2017). He has become the embodiment of “the people”: they see themselves reflected in his words and actions. 

Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war.

Supporters wait for the arrival of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a referendum rally in Istanbul on April 8, 2017. Photo: Thomas Koch

 

Leader of the Ummah

Modern Turkey still basks in the glorious history of its long Ottoman past. The collapse of the Empire as a result of Treaty of Sèvres led to the formation of the modern-day republic. Erdogan has harnessed the resentment, grievances, trauma, anxieties, fears, insecurity and siege mentality that still exist over the partition of the Empire, occupation of Turkey by the Western powers, the imposition of westernising and secularising Kemalism and its victimisations.

Thus, a wave of Ottoman restorative nostalgia is visible in Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy. Within Turkey, he has used the education system, media, and scheduling of public holidays to shape the common narrative: that Turkish Sunni Muslims should take pride in their Ottoman heritage. Through these gestures, he seeks to restore the country to its former “glory,” embedding the idea of “greatness” in Turks. Organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar are collaborations with the Diyanet to facilitate the construction of this narrative (Yabanci, 2019)

Moreover, Erdogan has not only banned critical content from the media. He has successfully replaced it with more “Islamist” or pro-Ottoman oriented content, such as the global hit “Diriliş: Ertugrul,” a fictional tale inspired by the alleged founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s support is visible for such shows when he visits their sets with his family members and “gifts” the show to fellow “brother Muslims” countries for free, in good faith, so that “young minds” can be exposed to a “counter” to Western influence (Banka, 2020)

Erdogan has used religion as a cudgel, to continue dividing society and consolidating his support. His ideology is perhaps best reflected in his speech after Hagia Sophia was controversially reconverted to a mosque, in 2020: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream the same about the Republic of Turkey … We tear up those scenarios of those who want to siege our country politically, economically, militarily by realizing a much large vision … To those who are surprised by Turkey … rising again like a giant who woke up from its century old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!’” (Global Village Space, 2020).

Media and educational institutions are broadcasting Erdoganist ideology overseas. Turkey has given the broadcasting rights of Ottoman-based fiction shows to Azerbaijan and Pakistan. At the same time, the Diyanet has been active in its engagement with the Turkish diaspora as well non-Turkish Muslim minorities living in the West. Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war: “The West sided with terrorists, and all of them attacked us. These include NATO countries, as well as European Union countries. Weren’t you against terrorism? Since when you have been acting with them?” (Jones, 2019)

His rhetoric was as strong as ever when he called the French people “sponsors of terrorism” and their head of state “retarded” in the aftermath of a crackdown on radical Muslims following the murder of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth (Mishra, 2020). He strained relations with Germany after issuing highly insensitive remarks calling out the “fascists” who “will never destroy Turkey’s honour” and asking Turks to “defy the grandchildren of Nazis” (Lowen, 2017). Not shying away from championing his “Islamist cause,” he has lent his sympathies to the Egypt based pan-Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is known to showcase their four-finger salute called the “rabaa” (BBC, 2020)

In addition to lending verbal support to causes such as Palestine and Kashmir, the Turkish military has become involved in conflicts in various Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. It held joint exercises with Azerbaijan just before its conflict with Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (BBC, 2020). Turkey has sent “peacekeeping troops” to Qatar, Somalia, and Afghanistan, further expanding its role in the Muslim world (Tol, 2020). While Erdogan harbours Sunni Muslim views, he has also urged the Muslim world to unite. 

At home and overseas, Islamist Erdogan is the Muslim leader who is the “real” one, representing the authentic values of “the people” or “ummah” – but mainly Sunni Muslims (Çapan & Zarakol, 2019). Erdogan’s version of Islam excludes not only non-Muslims, but also Alevis (Yilmaz and Barry, 2020). The “white Turks” at home are the domestic enemies, while externally, the Western and Zionist “lobbies” are out to cripple the Muslim world (Erdemir & Lechner, 2018; Yılmaz Z. 2017). Erdogan is the voice of the deprived “real” people, their champion against the interests of the “others.”

Ironically, his anti-Western stance and goodwill towards the ummah are circumstantial. Once, Erdogan pledged to seek justice for the Palestinians and has expressed antisemitic views; yet, the softening towards Israel by the Gulf countries has led Erdogan to also take a softer stance: he does not have a problem with the nation itself, but only “the top level.” He said, “It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable.” However, he further elaborated, “If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different … We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” (Aljazeera, 2020)

While Erdogan has been critical of Western countries, exploiting the religio-cultural divides, he has been busy cultivating closer ties to countries such as Russia and China (despite China oppressing and detaining millions of Uighurs in an obvious attempt of genocide). Russia is an Orthodox Christian majority state, and China is a hybrid-communist state without an official religion (Tol, 2020). Thus, it is evident that religion is a means to an end, an effort to gain influence at home and abroad. It has worked: Erdogan increasingly presents himself abroad as the presumptive heir of the Muslim Ummah. 

He expounded on this in a speech he gave at the World Muslim Minorities summit in 2018: “Differences should not be an obstacle to love and brotherhood… Just like the direction of the Qibla — the direction that a Muslim takes when praying — is the same, the hearts of all Muslims are also same despite them being in different locations around the world … Today, attacks on Muslims and refugees have become commonplace in many states that practice democracy and law… Muslim women are being harassed on streets, at workplaces just because they wear headscarves. The Western world wants to defend its own ideology and way of life through anti-Islamism.”

While the Kemalists were embarrassed of their heritage, Erdogan has embraced Turkey’s Ottoman past. His narratives provide pride and hope to “the people.” He has promised them glory through nostalgic references and used a pan-Islamic populism that is transnational in nature to extend Turkey’s influence in Muslim countries. Erdogan has placed himself at the heart of dreams of the caliphate’s revival. He is the Islamist populist Muslim leader of an increasingly autocratic, populist and necropolitical republic that encourages its citizens to sacrifice their lives for the nation, state, religion and its leader (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021).

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.”

The pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are seen at the building in Istanbul on February 14, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

 

Conclusion 

The republic is facing its first reconstruction. While Ataturk was the founding father of the Republic, today Erdogan has become the father of New Turkey. Having reconstructed the republic, he now seeks to influence the broader Muslim world (Genc, 2019)

His populism can be summed up as the “Erdoganist ideology” or “Erdoganism” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) and has helped him craft a new national identity based on “Islamism, majoritarianism, Muslim nationalism, authoritarianism, patrimonialism, personalism, [the] personality cult of Erdogan, Ottomanist restorative nostalgia, Islamist myth-making, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, victimhood, Islamist populism, civilizationism, anti-Westernism, resentfulness, vindictiveness, and anti-Western conspiracy theories to support and legitimize his position in power” (Yilmaz, 2021). In other words, he constructed all the tools to craft an Islamist populist political stage on which to rise. 

Beginning his journey in the midst of conservative and Islamist political parties, Erdogan understood that his early survival in politics depended on his ability to pose as a “democrat”; thus, he modelled himself and the AKP as “Muslim Democrat.” The only “others” were the corrupt, Western, and elite Kemalists. Thus, the first stage of his political life was supported by a heterogeneous “people” who were Kurds, non-Muslims, and conservatives along with those let-down by eight decades of Kemalist rule. By his third term in office, Kemalist institutions had been diminished, laying the groundwork the emergence of an autocratic leader. 

The second transitional phase in Erdogan’s political career came when he was faced with increasing homegrown opposition and rejection by the EU. Feeling insufficient, exposed, vulnerable, and attacked, Erdogan was successful in launching a series of attacks on any opposition. These were supported by conspiracy theories. Erdogan made Turkey a “vulnerable state,” attacked by conspirators, parallel structures, and devious foreign influence; only he, the strongman, could “save” Turkey restore its glory, dormant for 100 years. To consolidate power, changes in the constitution were introduced in the name of “security”; those defined as the “people” narrowed, driven by ultra-nationalism and Islamism. All the while, Erdogan assumed the position of a strong leader and guide for a great nation that was under attack from all sides. 

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas, such as promises of a “great” Turkey or a “new Turkey.” Erdogan, the “leader” or “hope” of the Muslim world is the sole figure at the movement’s centre. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.” Erdogan has become once “the people” – his success is theirs, and vice versa (Yilmaz, 2021).

Erdogan’s intervention in the media and educational spheres mean Turkish youth are exposed to his narrative. Thus, not only has he been able to galvanize support from an existing voter bank; he has also been creating a “loyal army” of supporters who believe in the ideals of their leader and identify with an imagined Ottoman Islamist identity that instils in them a “duty” to spread Islam in the public sphere, establish ties with “brother” Muslim and Turkic peoples, and defend the “oppressed” Muslim world against the “anti-Muslim lobby” (namely, the West and Israel) and not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for this cause (Yilmaz, 2021).

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled. All this has been done in the name of “the people.” After nearly two decades, Erdogan remains at the centre of it all. 

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[1] The word imam symbioses someone as a leader or model for Muslims 

Greta Thunberg, climate activist, has been demonstrating on Fridays outside the Swedish Parliament. Photo: Liv Oeian

Greta Thunberg: Climate Populism As Productive Double?

This commentary considers aspects of populism that Greta Thunberg’s climate movement exposes and transforms. Dr. Hart also considers Thunberg’s “spectrum superpower” and the force of activist community-building in a climate crisis that is already here.  

By Heidi Hart

In today’s polarizing politics, xenophobic populism is usually seen as a distant opposite of grassroots progressive movements. The reductive binary of evil twin/good twin is tempting, too, but what happens if we look at ways in which a youthful climate movement mirrors and transforms populist action? The double or Doppelgänger, when it appears in literature and film, is both familiar and other, in Freud’s sense of the uncanny (Glynn, 2016). If viewed through the mirror-lens, Thunberg’s role as an unexpectedly charismatic leader of a viral movement can seem as populist as that of autocrats who whip up nationalist feeling in their followers. What her work does, though, is to reveal the power of soulful activism to transform group dynamics for an outward cause rather than toward self-preservation. Though her position as a white female from a wealthy Nordic country has overshadowed less privileged young activists (Mernit, 2019), Thunberg’s movement is a useful case study in how populist impulses can speak truth to power, to use the old Quaker phrase, rather than sow fear and hate. 

Climate populism, which “tends to take ‘the people’ to be a global subject rather than a national project” and has led to the “quick uptake” of projects like the Green New Deal, can certainly risk dilution (Bosworth, 2020) and denial of Black and Brown community concerns (Coleman, 2021). At the same time, it holds potential for what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright have called “Climate X,” a future vision that does not compromise endlessly for the sake of neoliberal planetary “management” on the one hand or surrender to autocratic oppressions on the other. This vision calls for “a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike,”[i] very much in line with Thunberg’s project. Though the authors recognize the “impractical” idealism of transnational, anti-capitalist revolution, from the neoliberal perspective, they hope for class struggles and local, Indigenous-informed efforts to “subtract” communities from damaging power systems,[ii] taking inspiration from the “palpable urgency”[iii] in mass movements like Fridays for Future.

Thunberg’s unexpected “superpower” (Rourke, 2019) in her Asperger’s has been remarkably effective in focusing the Fridays movement on specific, concrete goals rather than on feel-good platitudes. In its “ghost” role as a suppressed aspect of normative European culture,[iv] the autism spectrum exposes gifts buried under assumptions that “human” means “neurotypical” (Morris, 2004). In a recent essay by Thunberg’s mother, related to the family’s new book,[v]Malena Ernman recounts Greta’s years of facing bullying at school while refusing to eat at home. After being diagnosed with “high-functioning Asperger’s” and beginning to talk about her humiliations at school, Greta found her vocation in the very dissonance she experienced, painfully, between modern comforts and planetary disease. “She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye” (Ernman, 2020).

Having been raised in a well-educated family, with an opera singer mother with the luxury of posting “sun-drenched selfies from Japan” – and later regretting this (Ernman, 2020) – Thunberg continues to call attention to the blind privilege of travel as consumption and to corporate powers whose carbon footprints dwarf those of even the most profligate tourists. 

Thunberg’s insistence on uncompromising truth about global warming, her sailing to the US for the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Brady, 2019) despite criticism for white yachting privilege (Parker, 2019), and her ability to stare down Donald Trump (Rosen, 2019) have led not only to internet fame but to an equally viral youth movement as well. Online spread via YouTube videos, memes, and tweets is common to both far-right and climate populism, but younger activists disrupting autocratic power structures bring an open, 1960s-like energy to their efforts (Ellis, 2019)

Thunberg has certainly inspired Gen-Z activists to TikTok their way to organizing Black Lives Matter events and embarrassing Donald Trump at a largely empty rally (Herrman, 2020). At the same time, she does not take credit as a sole actor, citing her own inspiration from the Parkland shooting survivors in the US and from earlier activists, many unrecognized because they did not come from the global North and “many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.”[vi] Thunberg also recognizes that although the Fridays movement may have started with her lonely, quiet presence outside Parliament with a sign, it has grown through “the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations.”[vii] The recent documentary on Thunberg has received some negative reviews, not because it adds to scoffing from the right or left, but because it valorizes her as one savior figure in a movement that needs multitudes, a critique with which she would agree (Bradshaw, 2020).

The power of the pause – refusing to attend school once a week, holding one’s ground despite the bullying Thunberg now faces on a global scale – has proven inspiring to many in its own right. In a world that runs on an assumption of “endless growth” fueled by extractivism,[viii] simply stopping normal routines can open up a space for questioning what “normal” even is. The COVID year has brought to light what privileged humans deeply fear: failure of the drive for more stuff, more speed, more work, more travel, more development, more corporate comforts. In this very stoppage, though, is hope for a planet already in crisis. In her recent video, released close to the Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary, Thunberg reflects on how little “big speeches” have done to halt carbon emissions and enact the “system change” the planet needs (Common Dreams, 2020). Her own speeches may be small in comparison, but they serve a crucial role in calling for a halt to the mythology of endless growth. 

So, what comes next? A 2020 document published anonymously in France, more radically subverting individualist privilege than Thunberg’s movement does, holds that neither calling out governments on the one hand nor altering consumer habits on the other is enough to address climate crisis at its depth. This text, titled “Re-attachments” (Anonymous, 2020/2021) does call for strikes and direct action (along the lines of Mann and Wainwright’s “Climate X” and Thunberg’s stoppages) but adds another antidote: an ecology of “presence” rather than “absence.” 

This means that instead of feeling helpless in the face of mass extinctions and lost habitats, we can mourn these while fostering commitment to new forms of community in an already compromised world. “In order to develop constituent forms of material and political autonomy, we need to communize spaces, land, wastelands, buildings, churches, houses, and parks” (Anonymous, 2020/2021). Learning from Indigenous practices of ecological co-regulation (in a respectful way, without cultural extractivism or appropriation) can aid in developing stronger bonds between humans and other species, too. Greta Thunberg’s model of quiet, searing clarity has been a giant step toward mobilizing climate action; the communities her work continues to form, in contrast to the chat rooms of fear-based populism, may be its greatest gift.   


References

[i] Mann, Geoff & Wainright, Joel. (2018). Climate Leviathan. Verso Books. p. 160. 

[ii] Ibid. 175.

[iii] Ibid. 173.

[iv] Mindell, Arnold. (1995). Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Lao Tse Press. 69-70.

[v] Thunberg, Greta and Malena Ernman, Svante Thunberg, Beate Ernman. (2020). Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. Penguin.

[vi] Klein, Naomi. (2020). “On Fire.” All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. Penguin Random House. p. 42.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Higgs, Kerryn. (2016). Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. MIT Press.

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

Music and the Far-Right Trance

By Heidi Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


References

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proud Boys is a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group who have been known to use violence against left-wing opponents. The group describes themselves as “Western chauvinists,” by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”. The group, which is the new face of far-right extremism, one that recruits through shared precarity and male grievances promotes and engages in political violence.

By Bulent Kenes

During his presidential term, Donald Trump showed more sympathy for far right and extremist groups than any US president in recent memory. Prior to his term, white supremacists, white nationalists, and other far-right extremist groups operated mainly on the political margins and could expect condemnation from most mainstream politicians. However, Trump’s rhetoric has lent legitimacy to their agendas. His administration also pressured law enforcement agencies to downplay the threat posed by these extremist groups. Thus, it created a permissive atmosphere for such groups to operate in (Matanock & Staniland, 2020), and extremists have been increasingly emboldened (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019).

On January 6, 2021, a ragtag band of Trump’s extremist supporters shocked the world when they stormed the US Capitol Building, leaving a trail of destruction and violence in their wake. When all was said and done, five people, including a police officer, were dead. Though the invaders were made up of a bizarre patchwork of far-right groups, conspiracy theorists, and lone wolves, a significant proportion of those pictured at the scene affiliated themselves with the Proud Boys. In recent months the group has become synonymous with violent opposition to the Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements (Greig, 2021). It raises the question: who are the Proud Boys? 

The Proud Boys are a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group who have been known to use violence against left-wing opponents (Greig, 2021). The group describes themselves as “Western chauvinists,” by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world” (McBain, 2020). According to Kutner, the Proud Boys are the new face of far-right extremism, one that recruits through shared precarity and male grievances (Kutner, 2020). Meanwhile, others define it as a neo-fascist and white supremacist organization that promotes and engages in political violence in a number of countries, including the US, Canada (MacFarquhar et.al., 2020), Australia (Culkin, 2017), several European countries, and even Israel (Israel Faxx, 2020). Vitolo-Haddad (2019) is right to define the Proud Boys as “a multinational fraternal organization” that uses an aesthetic of libertarianism to advance a fascist politic. 

The Proud Boys is a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group – one that loves Trump and hates Muslims, Jews, and trans people but permits non-white membership.

Gavin McInnes

The Proud Boys was founded by noted racist, anti-Semite, and Islamophobe Gavin McInnes, Vice Media’s co-founder and former commentator, a “provocateur” who has described himself as “an old punk from Canada.” McInnes turned to the political right in 2008 and introduced the Proud Boys to the larger public (McInnes, 2016) on September 15, 2016. According to Coaston (2018), the group is a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group – one that loves Trump and hates Muslims, Jews, and trans people but permits non-white membership. The group took its name from the song “Proud of Your Boy” from the Disney musical Aladdin.

While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes the group as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration” (McBain, 2020), the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) designated the Proud Boys as hate group who “regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists (Mom Demand Action, 2020). “What really defines the Proud Boys is their activity on the ground, so their proclivity to violence and their consistent presence as a counter-movement to left-wing protests,” said Jacob Davey, a senior researcher focusing on the far-right. Joseph Lowndes, a political science professor, described them as an “authoritarian group focused on the glorification of male violence,” more an “overblown street gang” than a well-organised militia (McBain, 2020). 

The Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they made national headlines in August 2017. The rally was advertised as a protest about the removal of confederate statues (Stolberg & Rosenthal, 2017). Later, it was proven to be a pretext for a violent show of force (Sankin & Pham, 2017). After one woman was killed and 19 others were seriously injured in a vehicular attack, McInnes “disavowed” Proud Boys who attended (Barnes, 2017)

The next year, in 2018, the group was temporarily classified as an extremist organization by the FBI (Kutner, 2020) after the group was involved in a violent clash with anarchists on the streets of Manhattan, following an event in which McInnes portrayed Otoya Yamaguchi, a young far-right extremist who assassinated the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party (Coaston, 2018). Because of this clash, McInnes stepped down from his role as the Proud Boys’ leader, stating he would no longer be involved with the group in any capacity (Wilson, 2018). In a video, McInnes said, “I am officially disassociating myself from the Proud Boys. In all capacities, forever, I quit.” He added, “I’m told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” referring to the Proud Boys who were facing legal problems (Coaston, 2018). Since early 2019, Enrique Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban American who briefly ran for Congress, has been the chairman of the Proud Boys (Sidner, 2020).

Enrique Tarrio.

According to the group, there are four levels of Proud Boy membership. The first is to declare yourself to be a Proud Boy. “This means you make your Western chauvinism public and you don’t care who knows it” through declaring that “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” (SPLC, 2021). The second level is the swearing-off of masturbation known online as “nofap” or #NoWanks combined with a “cereal beat-in” – if you want into the group, you have to get beaten up while successfully reciting the names of five breakfast cereals, because “defending the West against the people who want to shut it down is like remembering cereals as you’re being bombarded with ten fists.” The third level is to get a specific Proud Boys tattoo. But it’s the fourth and newest level that gets the most attention: get into a physical altercation for the “cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an Antifa,” McInnes explained in 2017 (Coaston, 2018). Tarrio got involved with the Proud Boys after volunteering at an event for the far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017 and became a fourth-degree Proud Boy after punching a member of Antifa in the face in June 2018 (Coaston, 2018).

Cultural Hijacking: Repurposing Uhuru

The Proud Boys’ loose organisational structure makes it hard to estimate its overall size; most experts suggest there are several thousand members, spread across the US and a handful of international chapters (McBain, 2020). Though the total number of Proud Boys members is unknown, reports estimate membership between several hundred up to 6,000 (Greenspan, 2020). For instance, the website Rewire estimates there are roughly 6,000 members (SPLC, 2021). The leader of the group estimated that the numbers are closer to 8,000, but this number is likely inflated (Kutner, 2020).

Some members of the group are high-profile. The political operative and Trump adviser, Roger Stone – whose 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice was commuted by the president – was videoed taking the Proud Boys oath. During his trial Stone testified that some Proud Boys had helped him run his social media accounts. Jason Kessler, one of the organisers of the rally in Charlottesville, was a Proud Boy. The founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, also has links to the group (McBain, 2020).

Members are known for a provocative practice called cultural hijacking, in which the symbols and language of civil rights leaders are repurposed to advance far-right narratives. The intent is not to appropriate civil rights symbolism, but to weaken the communicative power of groups from which the symbols originated. After hijacking these terms, they ascribe new labels to the groups they have hijacked them from. Civil rights activists become social justice warriors, snowflakes, or the intolerant left. Of the culturally hijacked terms, the most commonly used is Uhuru – Swahili for African solidarity. Proud Boys have repurposed Uhuru as a rallying cry, in a manner similar to the military use of Oohrah used in the US Navy (Kutner, 2020).

The Proud Boys have emerged by rejecting mainstream conservatism, which they often view as a failure (DeCook, 2018).The group is distinct from other neo-conservative movements because of their heavy and strategic use of social media, and although other factions of the alt-right are known for their digital media savvy, the Proud Boys have specifically harnessed the power of digital technologies and have used Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms for recruitment, identity reinforcement, and to highlight the visibility of members in the world (DeCook, 2018). Social media serves a function of not only organizing and recruitment, but also serves as an educational and socialization space (Jacoby & Ochs, 1995). The group uses memes specifically as a means of spreading propaganda. These memes are bite sized nuggets of political ideology and culture that are easily digestible and spread by netizens (DeCook, 2018). Thus, memes themselves are a form of political participation within larger social movements and are an important facet of identity and community building (Mina, 2018; Nagle, 2017; Shifman, 2014) and as a vehicle to express either an individual or a collective voice (Freund, 2013; Nagle, 2017; Paddock, 2015).Memes are an extension of spoken utterances through visual and digital means (DeCook, 2018).

Pepe the Frog in Proud Boys’ uniform.

Further, the use of the cartoon character Pepe (the frog) – which was co-opted by the larger alt-right as a symbol – has been used to build group identity as well (ADL, 2016). The Proud Boys depict Pepe wearing the Proud Boys’ uniform and flashing the “OK” hand symbol used by white supremacists. As with other fascist aesthetics, the Proud Boys use clothing and branding in order to cement their group membership and to make their political and ideological affiliation visibleTheir group mantra of ‘West is the Best’ is often used in their memes, their posts, and symbols of American masculinity are used in recruitment memes. The aestheticization of their political ideology goes a step further through the usage of tattoos. These tattoos symbolize not only a progression in rank into the organization and the members’ allegiance to the Proud Boys, but also function as an aesthetic quality along with the uniforms, the hashtags used to gain visibility online, and other symbols (DeCook, 2018).

However, the Proud Boys have seen their digital reach limited; the group has been banned by social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube (Wendling, 2020; Murphy, 2020). In August 2018, Twitter terminated the official account for the group, along with McInnes’ account, under its policy prohibiting violent extremist groups (Roettgers, 2018). Facebook and Instagram also banned the group and McInnes in October 2018 (CBC, 2018). That same year, in December, YouTube banned the Proud Boys founder for copyright violation (Solsman, 2018). In February 2019, Slate magazine reported that Square, Chase Paymentech, and PayPal had pulled their payment processing services from 1776.shop, an online far-right merchandise site associated with the Proud Boys (Glaser, 2019).

In light of mass deplatforming, as well as the right-wing social network Parler going dark, everyone from casual Trump supporters to far-right militants have been flocking to alternative social networks such as the encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Signal. In particular, the Proud Boys is making a substantive play at organizing on Telegram. Two major Proud Boys channels on Telegram have exploded in use by at least 69 percent and 83 percent since January 5, 2021(Dickson, 2021).

A Supremacist Alt-Right Organisation Pretending to be Alt-Lite

The Proud Boys emerged as part of the alt-right. However, its founder McInnes distanced himself from this movement in early 2017, saying the Proud Boys was “alt-light” (Marantz, 2017) despite his and the group’s overt xenophobia and racism. McInnes told the New York Times in 2003 that “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life” (Widdicombe, 2013; Grigoriadis, 2003). Nevertheless, McInnes alleged that “they (alt-right) care about the white race. We care about Western values.” This is a view that has come to be known as “civic nationalism,” as opposed to white nationalism – or “alt-light,” as opposed to alt-right (Marantz, 2017). The ADL also defines the group as part of the alt-lite (ADL, 2021), although they are routinely associated with the “alt-right.” 

McInnes’s insistence that the Proud Boys have nothing to do with the “alt-right” grew even more adamant after the violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. In a blog post titled “We are not alt-right” in August 2017, he alerted his group that “alt-right” members planned to “infiltrate” Proud Boys meetings and “sabotage” them (Woodhouse, 2017). The article stated that the Proud Boys did not concur with the alt-right regarding the Jewish Question and racial identity politics (Kutner, 2020). The violence in Charlottesville sharpened the divide between the “alt-right” and the “alt-light,” but it may be a distinction without a difference (Woodhouse, 2017).

Despite also denying the group’s racism, McInnes himself has ties to the racist right. He has contributed to hate sites like VDare.com and American Renaissance, both of which publish the work of white supremacists and so-called “race realists.” He even used Taki’s Magazine – a far-right publication whose contributors include Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor – to announce the founding of the Proud Boys (SPLC, 2021). The ADL says McInnes has previously posted videos of himself giving the Nazi salute, saying, “Heil Hitler,” defending Holocaust deniers, and repeatedly using racial and antisemitic slurs (Murphy, 2020).

Obviously, McInnes plays a duplicitous rhetorical game: rejecting white nationalism and the term “alt-right” while espousing some of its central tenets. In the spring of 2015, he formed a partnership with the Canadian far-right Rebel Media and launched “The Gavin McInnes Show” with Compound Media. On both platforms, he regularly chatted with right-wing guests and carved out an ideological space for frustrated young men to rally around: western culture is superior to all others, racism is a myth created by guilty white liberals, Islam is a culture of violence, and feminism “is about de-masculinizing men,” he told his audience (SPLC, 2021). 

Despite leaders claiming they disavow racism, the Proud Boys have ties to white supremacists and sometimes use nationalist rhetoric common among hate groups (Hawkins, 2021). The attempt to distance their organization from the alt-right may be an intentional, image-saving move in order to remain appealing to the larger public and to attract more members. These strategies are a way for the Proud Boys to adapt to their wider audience’s views of the organization (Bourdieu 1991). Pragmatically sidestepping the question of race, the Proud Boys make their protofascist appeal in the language of patriotic individualism: pro-America, pro-capitalism, and pro-Trump. This strategy has allowed them to gain entry into the Republican mainstream. They’re also shifting from ethnically defined nationalism to a version that purports to target outsiders based on their legal status, not the colour of their skinO’Connor hints (2021) that the Proud Boys is dangerous because it functions as a “pipeline” to even more violent ideologies. In a 2018 survey conducted by the SPLC of users on the Right Stuff forums, 15 percent of respondents mentioned McInnes as either an important influence on their political development or as useful in converting others (Miller, 2018).

Functioning similarly to a religious group, McInnes acted as the leader of the movement and a prophet of sorts for yearsThe members operate the organization under the belief that “The West is the Best,” but welcome non-white members as long as these members acknowledge that Western civilization is superior to all others (Sommer, 2017). Furthermore, their views have elements of the white genocide conspiracy theory (Walters, 2017), and some members espouse white supremacist and antisemitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups (ADL, 2021). What the Proud Boys promise is a space for “pro-Western Chauvin[ist]” men to have their views and beliefs supported, to mingle with like-minded others, and to hopefully shift the world back towards their favoured ideology (DeCook, 2018).

A Libertarian-Fascist Movement That Venerates Housewives

The Proud Boys lists among its central tenets a belief in “closed borders” and the aim of “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism” (Murphy, 2020). An introductory article in Proud Boy Magazine professes thirteen core tenets, which combine patriarchal and patriotic ideals with libertarian, anti-government rhetoric: minimal government, maximum freedom, anti-political correctness, anti-drug war, anti-masturbation, closed borders, anti-racial guilt, anti-racism, pro-free speech, pro-gun rights, glorifying the entrepreneur, venerating the housewife, and reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism (Elders, 2018). 

The combination of militaristic rhetoric, violence on behalf of sovereign authority, radically traditional gender roles, glorification of entrepreneurship, and closed-border policies situate the group within a growing libertarian-fascist movement. Despite purporting to oppose government tyranny, the Proud Boys’ values exemplify the slippage between right-libertarianism and fascism (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019), working toward what Michael Orth (1990) described as a “libertarian Utopia which combines violence, repression of women, and a dictatorial state into an all-American Utopia which emits strong fascist resonances.” Similarly, political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. (2013) argues that this contradiction is inevitable in right-wing libertarianism, and the Proud Boys adopt a libertarian “aesthetic” of freedom to promote a politics that is often authoritarian.

Moreover, negative precarity and the need to fight to prevent the perceived extinction of western culture has been a central factor in the Proud Boys’ recruitment (Kutner, 2020). Paul Elliott Johnson (2017) states that allusions to the concept of negative precarity are found in repeated images Proud Boys disseminate in their groups. “These images construct a new perception of reality based on precarity as a white, working-class American male at risk of losing his place in society amidst changing demographics and issues surrounding immigration,” according to Johnson. Members are motivated by attempts “to establish political, social, or cultural superiority as a springboard for action on behalf of social change” (Goldzwig, 1989: 208). The belief that Western culture is superior begets a belief that members of other cultures should have less freedom, power, and opportunity, which is seen simply as the natural outcome of not being part of the Western in-group. Proud Boys believe that they have entered a “soft civil war” with battle lines drawn not by ideology, but by association and identity (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

The Proud Boys’ beliefs vary from the call to “give everyone a gun” and “end welfare” to a return to traditional gender roles (Greig, 2021). They represent an unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism (ADL, 2021). Therefore,repeated warnings about the Proud Boys as a dangerous white supremacist group were issued by counterterrorist centres. In a 22-page, 2019 document published by the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC), various incidents of violence involving the Proud Boys are discussed under the heading of “White Supremacist Extremism.” CIAC described how “the Proud Boys has been active in spreading conspiracy theories regarding Covid-19 on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram,” suggesting that “a faction of elites are weaponizing the virus, and a vaccine would likely be a tool for population control and mind control” (Wilson, 2020). The FBI also lists the Proud Boys as an extremist group while Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled them a hate group (Greig, 2021).

Like other white supremacist networks, the Proud Boys believes that whites have their own culture that is superior to other cultures, are genetically superior to other peoples, and should exert dominance over others. They also adhere to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy. This conspiracy claims that whites are being eradicated by ethnic and racial minorities, including Jews and immigrants (McAleenan, 2019). Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, and Patrick Crusius, the El Paso Walmart shooter, espoused the most radical view of the Great Replacement conspiracy, known as Accelerationism (Jones et al, 2020).

Although not outwardly a religious organization, one of the key factors of the Proud Boys’ ideology is embracing Christianity because of its association with Western civilization. The Proud Boys magazine had an article denouncing atheists, stating that “Christianity is the Western Religion.” The ideology and the use of phrases like “Deus Vult” point to the group’s religious element, as well as the fraternity-esque concepts of brotherhood. The Proud Boys is not necessarily a religious movement that is acting as a social movement, but rather one that is harnessing religion to invoke nostalgia for the past and as an element of their larger desire to impose a specific moral order (DeCook, 2018). Postings on GiveSendGo, a niche Christian fundraising website, show that at least $247,000 has been raised for at least eight members of the Proud Boys (Brittain & David, 2021).

Meanwhile, calls to “murder Antifa” and memes jokingly posting “Antifa hunting permits,” are further examples of the call for violent acts to eradicate what the group views as their political opponents. For Proud Boys and other organizations in the alt-right sphere, Antifa is the true enemy of the Christian, white ethnonationalist west because of their embrace of socialism and multiculturalism (DeCook, 2018). By positioning Antifa as the enemy, the solidification of an “out-group” strengthens the “in-group” identity (Tajfel 1978). But members’ skill at wielding irreverence, mocking political correctness, and hewing close to views espoused by mainstream conservatives has allowed the Proud Boys to camouflage their most dangerous ideologies and flourish where other groups have withered (Hawkins, 2021). The group has historically attempted to market itself towards the Republican mainstream on platforms such as Facebook by deliberately avoiding the use of overtly racist symbols (Crawford, 2020).

The Proud Boys Found A Soulmate In Donald Trump

On the night of the US presidential election on November 3, 2016, the Proud Boys gathered to await the possibility of “a cultural change” in the country. Proud Boys’ founder McInnes announced, “Tonight, we either take the country or we lose the country to the establishment” (Bazile, 2017). Attendees of the Proud Boys’ election night party repeated their mantra: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world” (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

Two months later, in his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump contrasted the “forgotten people” with a corrupt elite. Trump’s “American people,” like the Proud Boys, were the people who “do not believe the corrupt fake news anymore.” As used by Trump, “the people” is both a rhetorical construction and an embodied metaphor found in phrasing like “the incredible patriots here today” and “the magnitude of the crowd” stretching “all the way to the monument in Washington.” For the president, size is a sign of moral virtue: “As this enormous crowd shows,” he said, “we have truth and justice on our side” (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).

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

The demagogue atop the Proud Boys’ political reality, their “God Emperor,” Trump utilizes a rhetoric of victimization to call on the impatient masses to reclaim their power and agency. Johnson (2017: 230) describes Trump’s demagoguery as “a toxic, paradoxically abject masculine style whose incoherence is opaque to his critics but meaningful to his adherents, for it helps them imagine themselves as victims of a political tragedy centred around the displacement of ‘real America’ from the political centre by a feminized political establishment.” Fortunately, for the “real Americans” in this political tragedy, Trump provides a solution: fight for the West (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). In his remarks in Poland, in 2017, Trump reminded the patriots “that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life”(YouTube, 2017).

The Proud Boys find symbolic identification with the West as articulated by President Trump, figured as the leader of a fight that is inevitably victorious because of the inherent superiority of the Western warrior caste. So long as patriots continue in the ritualistic sacrifice of themselves, history is converted into a promise: “The West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.” America must be made great again, and again, and again, so “that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defence.” Trump’s promise was predictably appealing to rural voters, but that the Proud Boys were catalysed by his victory to operate in the mainly metropolitan areas where they live, reflecting how truly mainstream the Proud Boys’ beliefs are. In other words, Trump did not enchant new believers in an ideology that they had never heard, but rather coherently pieced back together an identity that reproduces itself through masculine violence (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

As political parties have been overtaken by political tribes (Fukuyama, 2021), the Proud Boys viewed Trump’s election as a reclamation of their sovereign authority to govern by force, particularly in defence of “the West” – that spatial organization of whiteness described by Trump in Poland as “worth defending with your life” (Trump, 2017). Spellbound by demagogic rhetoric and the mythos of “the West,” the Proud Boys interpreted Trump’s election as tacit authorization to follow a pathway to self-empowerment achieved through violence (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). As Perry stated, the seeds sowed by Trumpism have begun to bear fruit and the harvest is rather rotten. Trump openly pandered to white racial resentment in the 2016 election and was awarded the most important job in the world (Perry, 2018).

A study by Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago found that Trumpism hasn’t bred more racists in the US – but it has emboldened people with xenophobic views to feel more comfortable expressing them in public. It’s impossible to separate the growing visibility of white supremacists under the guise of the alt-right without associating it with Trumpism. Now, more candidates with white supremacist ties are emerging from the shadows to run for public office. Spencer Sunshine, who follows white nationalist movements, explained that the “ideas of the alt-right are now part of the GOP” (Strickland, 2018). In Trump, they have found empowerment, a call to mass, warlike action aimed at reinforcing a universalized white, male, heterosexual, and entrepreneurial political subject. While right-wing, “patriot” militias are not new in the US, they have primarily mobilized in rural areas and have often fixated on liberatory militancy (Durham, 1996).

America’s white supremacists, who were explicit in saying they felt emboldened by President Trump, have held rallies across the country. The Proud Boys have been filmed marching through the streets, chanting, “Pinochet did nothing wrong!” (The phrase is a reference to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s penchant for murdering leftists by throwing them out of helicopters into the ocean (Mathias, 2020)). Early in Trump’s presidency, emboldened neo-Nazi and fascist groups came out into the open but were met with widespread revulsion. Thus, the tactics of the far-right changed, becoming more insidious – and much more successful (O’Connor,  2021).

John Cohen, a former counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security and now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said white supremacists have become more sophisticated in their communication. “In the past they were viewed as racist individuals who were on the fringe or outside of mainstream society. Now their thoughts and ideas and messaging have been incorporated into the mainstream political discourse by a growing number of elected officials,’’ said Cohen (Ortiz, 2020). Media Matters, a not-for-profit progressive research centre which monitors misinformation, has counted 97 right-wing congressional candidates who have embraced QAnon, a conspiracy theory based in antisemitic tropes which has incited supporters to violence and is popular among Trump supporters (Kaplan, 2020).

In October 2019, Donald Trump, Jr. posed for a photo with Proud Boy member Luke Rohlfing. The photo is part of the Proud Boys’ strategy: posing alongside high-level Republicans to gain legitimacy. Both US Sen. Ted Cruz and then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott have been photographed alongside Proud Boys, as have US Reps Mario Diaz-Balart and Devin Nunes. Cruz took his support a step farther, backing a non-binding resolution that would have defined anti-fascist activists as domestic terrorists after Enrique Tarrio launched a petition in favour of the bill (ADL, 2021). Tarrio would later be named Florida state director of Latinos for Trump. As one Republican operative later said, “The Trump campaign is well aware of the organised participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events. They don’t care,” (O’Connor, 2021). 

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

Despite the fact that white supremacists and far-right extremists have killed more people in the US in the last decade than adherents of any other ideology have, the Trump administration did little to address the threat. Instead, it reduced the federal oversight of white supremacist groups.

The Proud Boys began to grow into something very few had expected: a hegemonic force on the far-right able to appeal to mainstream conservatives, carving out a space for white nationalists and fascists. They observed Richard Spencer and Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) chair Matthew Heimbach’s mistakes. Their more moderate strategies have won them greater appeal by foregrounding ultranationalism and a vicious opposition to left-wing politics. Getting closer to the mainstream of American conservatism has made the Proud Boys even more dangerous. They have received sympathetic media coverage from Fox News, while actively recruiting new members not only from the far right but from racist skinhead groups across the country. It’s no accident that the Proud Boys chosen uniform features black and yellow shirts by Fred Perry – a favoured skinhead brand (O’Connor, 2021). 

The Proud Boys and the far-right – once fringe white nationalist groups – have increasingly infiltrated the mainstream of American political and cultural discussion, with poisonous results. One must look no further than President Trump’s senior adviser for policy and chief speechwriter, Stephen Miller, to see this deleterious effect. In December 2019, the SPLC’s Hatewatch published a cache of more than 900 e-mails Miller wrote to his contacts at Breitbart News before the 2016 presidential election. In the emails, Miller, an adviser to the Trump campaign at the time, advocated many of the most extreme white supremacist concepts. These included the “great replacement” theory, fears of “white genocide” through immigration, race science, and eugenics; he also linked immigrants with crime, glorified the Confederacy, and promoted the genocidal book, The Camp of the Saints, as a roadmap for US policy (Clark, 2020). 

Yet thankfully, public attitudes have generally changed for the better. A public survey shows American attitudes toward racial integration and immigration have become more open among liberals and conservatives alike, with two-thirds of Americans in a recent Pew Research Center survey saying that “openness to people from all over the world is essential to who America is as a nation” (Pew, 2019). In such a changing landscape, old-fashioned racist and xenophobic appeals are unlikely to be politically successful beyond a small fringe, so the propagandists of racism have had to develop subtler approaches to stoking fear and hatred for political ends (Clark, 2020).

Trump opened his 2016 presidential campaign by claiming Mexico was sending drug dealers and rapists to the US. Once in office, he followed those proclamations by implementing a travel ban on majority Muslim countries and later refused to condemn white supremacists (Gabbatt, 2020). His rhetoric surrounding immigration is where he appears to most closely align with white supremacist concepts. Stopping immigration is the central aim of white nationalism, as white nationalists see this as the only way of stopping immigrants from taking power away from a white majority. To achieve their goal, white nationalists have typically tied the diversification of America to a Jewish plot (Clark, 2020).

Equating immigration with an “invasion” was a common tactic of Trump’s campaign. According to research by Media Matters, in January and February 2019 alone, Trump’s Facebook page ran more than 2,000 ads using that term. The former president is far from the only elected leader to make that analogy, but his voice carries the farthest. “When you have the person with the biggest bullhorn not only in the country but in the world using this language, doesn’t that give cover to other people to use it?’’ said Colin P. Clarke, who is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center (Ortiz, 2020).

Proud Boy Derek Wray identified the radical traditionalism within the pro-Trump movement and “a new wave of nationalist populism” that “swept America … under the premise of putting America First” (Wray, 2017). These views are what undergirded the chant, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us,” (Gabbatt, 2017) at the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist murdered a woman and injured 35 others. President Trump’s response to the riot – saying that there were “very fine people, on both sides” (Holan, 2019) – provided implicit support for these positions. Notably, the former president did not oppose all immigration; for example, he has said that immigrants from Norway would be welcome in the US (Kirby, 2018).

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, in which 600 far-right supporters clashed with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, was a “wake-up call” that white supremacist groups were resurgent. But despite the fact that white supremacists and far-right extremists have killed more people in the US in the last decade than adherents of any other ideology have, the Trump administration did little to address the threat. Instead, it reduced the federal oversight of white supremacist groups. Soon after taking office, Trump cut the Department of Homeland Security’s budget for terrorism prevention (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019). 

In 2018, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, who once joked that he thought KKK members “were OK until I learned they smoked pot,” signed a memorandum that restricted the Justice Department’s ability to oversee troubled police departments, including the 14 that had agreed to be monitored under the Obama administration because of their records of racial discrimination and police abuse. In early 2019, the FBI revealed that it had changed its classification system for terrorism cases. While there were once 11 categories, including a specific one for white supremacy, the new list featured just four, including the catch-all “racially motivated violent extremism.” This change means it’s now harder to narrow down exactly what resources the FBI is putting toward the specific threat of white supremacy (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019).

Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of counterterrorism at the Department of Homeland Security, had a front-row view of the surge of right-wing extremist activity in the Trump era. She said that in her position, she tried to get Trump to take this sort of right-wing extremism far more seriously yet was unable to do so. “He was given the opportunity to condemn White Supremacy,” Neumann said, “He refused.” When Trump declines to offer unequivocal condemnation of them, they understand this as tacit support (Sargent, 2020).

US President Donald J. Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the first presidential election debate at Samson Pavilion in Cleveland, Ohio, US, 29 September 2020.

Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists during a bellicose first presidential debate in 2020, during which racism emerged as one of the most contentious issues.

Trump also refused to condemn white supremacists during a bellicose first presidential debate in 2020, during which racism emerged as one of the most contentious issues. The exchange came almost an hour into the debate, with moderator Chris Wallace asking Trump to directly address his supporters and urge calm. “Are you willing to condemn white supremacists, and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities?” Wallace said. After initially saying “sure,” Trump said, “I’m prepared to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing” (Olorunnipa & Wootson, 2020).

Pressed by Biden to directly rein in his supporters, Trump said, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name . . .who would you like me to condemn?” When Biden said, “Proud Boys,” Trump responded by telling the group to “stand back and stand by,” terminology that was seized by both Trump’s detractors and members of the group. “This is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem,” Trump said (Olorunnipa & Wootson, 2020). The moment echoed his statement that there were “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville.

Trump’s rhetorical embrace of right-wing fringe groups came just days after large numbers of Proud Boys massed in Portland, Ore., where ongoing racial justice protests have repeatedly descended into violence. Some in the group took to social media to welcome Trump’s comments as a call to arms. On Parler, the platform and social network where numerous extremist groups have moved following crackdowns on Facebook on Twitter, the chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, responded to Trump’s remarks by posting, “That’s my president!” Numerous effusive posts followed. “Standing by sir,” he wrote. Another message soon followed: “So Proud of my guys right now.” Members of the group used Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comments to create a fresh logo on social media. In an interview, Tarrio said he supported Trump’s commentary, a sign that the group’s attempts to achieve legitimacy and recognition got a boost during the debate. (Olorunnipa & Wootson, 2020).

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

The New York Times reported that within minutes of this statement, the Proud Boys’ chairman Tarrio called the T-shirt business he owns in Miami to order shirts emblazoned with the logo “Proud Boys standing by.” Google searches for the group spiked, and hundreds joined Proud Boys groups on the instant messaging platform Telegram. “I think he was saying I appreciate you and I appreciate your support,” said the group’s founder, McInnes (McBain, 2020). Tarrio also said he interpreted “stand back and stand by” as meaning they should just keep doing what they’re doing (Murphy, 2020). Tarrio stated in a tweet that he was “extremely proud” of Trump, and that “stand back and stand by” is what the Proud Boys have “always” done (Coaston, 2018)

By telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” and refusing to uniformly denounce the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Trump has cultivated a favourable ambiguity around the status of militant far-right groups in the political arena (Matanock & Staniland, 2020). Experts in extremism agreed that Trump’s comments amounted to an unprecedented shout-out to a group that has a demonstrated history of fomenting violence in America. “You’re essentially telling a paramilitary force to ‘stand by’,” said Heidi Beirich, an expert on far-right politics who co-founded the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (Hawkins, 2021).

Therefore, the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol was a fitting end to Trump’s presidency. It was the logical culmination of four years of violently partisan rhetoric. Trump is less the cause but rather the natural expression of far-right populism run amok. Still, he is an impressive expression of American populism. As the only representative elected by all Americans, the US president has both institutional and rhetorical power given his unique media exposure. The “commander-in-chief” is also the “storyteller-in-chief.” His January 6 “Save America” speech is a perfect illustration of the way a populist narrative can sway the masses (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).

After the presidential election in 2020, the Proud Boys had declared its undying loyalty to President Trump. In a November 8, 2020 post in a private channel of the messaging app Telegram, the group urged its followers to attend protests against an election that it said had been fraudulently stolen from Trump. “Hail Emperor Trump,” the Proud Boys wrote.

However, as Trump departed the White House, the Proud Boys have also started abandoning his side. In dozens of conversations on social media sites like Gab and Telegram, members of the group have begun calling Trump a “shill” and “extraordinarily weak.” They have also urged supporters to stop attending rallies and protests held for Trump or the Republican Party. The discontent with Trump, who condemned the violence, has boiled over. On social media, Proud Boys participants have complained about his willingness to leave office and said his disavowal of the Capitol rampage was an act of betrayal. And Trump, cut off on Facebook and Twitter, has been unable to talk directly to them to soothe their concerns or issue new rallying cries (Frenkel, 2021).

The change in support happened slowly. After the election, the Proud Boys urged their members to attend “Stop the Steal” rallies. One Nov. 23 message on a Proud Boys Telegram page read, “No Trump, no peace.” But when Trump’s legal efforts failed, the Proud Boys called for him to use his presidential powers to stay in office. In the last two weeks of December, they pushed Trump in their protests and on social media to “Cross the Rubicon.” The group expected Trump to champion the mob; instead, Trump released a video on Jan. 8 denouncing the violence. The disappointment was immediately palpable. Since then, at least five men who identified as members of the Proud Boys have been arrested in connection to the Capitol riots. Some Proud Boys became furious that Trump did not appear interested in issuing presidential pardons for their members who were arrested. They accused Trump of “instigating” the events at the Capitol, then “wash[ing] his hands of it” (Frenkel, 2021).

Violence as a Founding Ideology

As like all other far-right populist groups, the Proud Boys strengthen members’ commitment to their perceived in-group, a phenomenon fundamental to demagoguery’s “us” versus “them” logic (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Furthermore, they adhere to an ideology that consists of both symbolic and physical violence (DeCook, 2018). The Proud Boys’ violent characteristics come from their founding mentality. In April 2016, McInnes, who believes violence is “a really effective way to solve problems,” said: “I want violence, I want punching in the face. I’m disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough,” (WNYC-The Takeaway, 2018; Marantz, 2017a). In August 2017, he further stated that “[w]e don’t start fights […] but we will finish them,” (Moser, 2017). 

Violence is not confined to official Proud Boys’ events; rather, it is a core organizational principle. In a June 2016 episode of The Gavin McInnes Show, McInnes declared, “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. … We will assassinate you”. McInnes offers the assertion that political problems, which take on feminine embodiments, are best solved by violence: “Fighting solves everything. We need more violence from the Trump people. Trump supporters: choke a motherfucker. Choke a bitch. Choke a tranny. Get your fingers around the windpipe. If they spit on you, that’s assault” (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). McInnes even made a video praising the use of violence, saying, “What’s the matter with fighting? Fighting solves everything. The war on fighting is the same as the war on masculinity.” Since the Proud Boys glorifies violence, the SPLC has called the group an “alt-right fight club” (Morlin, 2017).

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

McInnes believes the violence is a logical response to how the “left” has responded to right-wing speaking events, writing in June 2017: “The right isn’t violent. The left is. By allowing these sociopaths to shut down free speech with violence you are all but demanding a war. Okay, fine, you got it. It’s official. This is a war,” (Coaston, 2018). Violence is firmly entrenched in the Proud Boys dogma and venerated within the organization. In early 2017, the group added a new degree to their membership hierarchy: in order to enter the 4th level, a member needs to “get involved in a major fight for the cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an Antifa,” McInnes explained (Metro US, 2017.)

McInnes has also claimed in a video message hosted by Rebel Media that Proud Boys “are the only ones fighting” the anti-fascist collective Antifa. “I want you to fight them too,” he continued. “It’s fun. When they go low, go lower. Mace them back, throw bricks at their head. Destroy them. We’ve been doing it a while now and I’ve got to say, it’s really invigorating,” (McBain, 2020). McInnes was filmed punching a counter-protestor outside of the DeploraBall, an unofficial inaugural ball, in Washington DC, in January 2017. Moreover, after a speaking engagement at New York University turned violent, he wryly declared: “I cannot recommend violence enough. It’s a really effective way to solve problems.” Though he claimed in the interview he was ready to “get violent and beat the f–k out of everybody,” he later backtracked in a Proud Boys Magazine piece, assuring the public the fraternal group was opposed to “senseless violence.” “We don’t start fights, we finish them,” McInnes wrote (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021).

According to Kurtner (2020), the Proud Boys justify violence behind this outwardly apolitical motto, “We don’t start fights, but we finish them.” The Proud Boys’ violence is a manifestation of the group’s underlying political motivations. To explain why some Proud Boys increase their commitment to violence, it is important to understand the grievances that make involvement appealing to new recruits (Kutner, 2020). For all the digital chaos wrought by the so-called “alt-right,” open-air political violence remains the most immediate way to radicalise and recruit young men into far-right movements. Videos and gifs of Proud Boys beating up Antifa, in turn, become digital propaganda (O’Connor,  2021). 

In a May 2018 episode of Get Off My Lawn, entitled “Fighting Solves Everything,” McInnes explains, “You’re not a man until you’ve had the crap beaten out of you, beaten the crap out of someone, had your heart broken, and broken a heart.” Under this cultural mode of masculine reproduction, violence is a rule of manhood. Violence becomes not only a condition of manhood but also a conflict resolution strategy and method for survival in a competitive economic system (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). “Being bullied is just as important as bullying because they teach you the inevitable truth that we live in a kill or be killed society,” McInnes once said (McInnes, 2013).

Proud Boys leadership released a “clarified” set of bylaws that seemed to contradict their prior, violent rhetoric: “Any requirement that a brother commit a violent or illegal act as a condition precedent to receiving a fourth degree is, by this bylaw, abolished” (ADL, 2021). Despite this change, and despite McInnes leaving the group, his inspiration remains visible, particularly in the violence the Proud Boys still embrace. The Proud Boys often rely on the actions of their opposition to draw attention to themselves and their cause (Coaston, 2018). They are motivated by their shared identification in a symbolic struggle against an imagined “other.” In the Proud Boys’ case, a rearticulation of the epic struggle between East and West is a fight between good and evil that spilled first blood in the Crusades. Through this mythos, members find redemptive joy through the glorified violence of an illusory war that has become increasingly materialized as reality (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

Their organizing is underwritten by a clear sense of urgency, a self-described militant desperation heard in their assertion, “We have one last chance to make the West great again” (Proud Boy Magazine, 2018). Making the most of this “last chance,” the Proud Boys unveiled their “official military arm,” the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK), in April 2017. The announcement formalized the paramilitary structure the fraternity had been using, organizing “watchdogs into a force to protect and serve when the police are told to stand down” (Bazile, 2017). The Alt- Knights were quickly folded back into the main organization, such that any Proud Boy may perceive their actions as extensions of state authority to maintain order when the police are restrained by civil rights ordinances or First Amendment protections (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019)

FOAK was established by Kyle Chapman (a.k.a. Based Stickman) who is a violent felon and who has repeatedly encouraged violence against anti-fascist activists. His persona stems from his history of threatening counter-protestors with a heavy iron stick (ADL, 2021), reportedly with McInnes’s backing. Chapman openly encourages fellow Proud Boys and others on the far right to “sacrifice” for their beliefs. “You are also going to have to come to the realization that you may have to bleed to keep this going,” he told a crowd in Sacramento. “You’re maybe going to have to do some time in jail and you very may well have to die… I’m willing to die. Are you guys willing to die?” he asked, and was met with cheers (SPLC, 2021).

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

The Proud Boys see themselves as essential to restoring “law and order” to US cities. Therefore, there is a blurred line between actual federal forces and armed vigilante groups. Thus, they could act in a sense of impunity thanks to the tolerance of police.

Similar calls have come from Augustus Invictus (Austin Gillespie), a former Florida attorney and Senate candidate. Chapman named him second-in-command of FOAK. Invictus’ ideology is a bizarre mix: he holds many mainstream libertarian beliefs but also claims Nazi and antisemitic thinkers as his chief intellectual influencers and paganism as his faith. During his Senate run in 2016, journalists discovered that Invictus had slaughtered a goat and drank its blood as part of a pagan ritual. In campaign material, he criticized the federal government for abandoning eugenics programs. He’s also an admitted Holocaust denier (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021).

The Proud Boys see themselves as essential to restoring “law and order” to US cities. “There’s now a blurred line between actual federal forces and armed vigilante groups,” said Joseph Lowndes (McBain, 2020), a political scientist at the University of Oregon. Therefore, they could act in a sense of impunity thanks to the tolerance of police. On Aug. 22, 2020, during a Proud Boys march in Portland, members of the organization clashed with Antifa supporters and other counter protesters in front of police headquarters (Hawkins, 2021). This clash between right-wing and left-wing activists was one of many in Portland and other American cities throughout the summer. This is part of a trend of far-right vigilantism, where Proud Boys self-deputize in order to “assist” law enforcement. This logic, however, elides the fact that many members of the group have criminal records for violent behaviour and the organization actively pursues violence against its perceived enemies (ADL, 2021).

Homegrown far-right extremism poses a persistent and lethal threat to the lives and well-being of Americans. This risk is often underestimated because of the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Excluding 9/11, between 1990 and 2019, the ECDB identified 47 events in the US motivated by Islamist extremism that killed 154 people. When you include 9/11 as a singular event, those numbers jump dramatically to 48 homicide events and 3,150 people killed. The database also identified 217 homicide events motivated by far-right extremism, with 345 killed. And when you include the Oklahoma City bombing, it rises to 218 homicide events and 513 killed. To focus solely on Islamist extremism is to ignore the number of murders perpetrated by the extreme far-right. Evidence shows far-right violent extremism poses a particular threat to law enforcement and racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities (Gruenewald et al., 2020).

The Proud Boys’ commitment ranges from passive online consumption to overt offline action. A 2017 incident in Islamberg – a small Muslim town in upstate New York – provides insight into how some Proud Boys moved from passive consumers of in-group content to active, operational agents (Kutner, 2020). Two years prior, Islamberg had been targeted when former congressional candidate Robert Doggart was arrested by the FBI for a plot to bomb the same community. In a statement later released, Doggart said, “I don’t want to have to kill children, but there’s always collateral damage” (Ghianni, 2017)

In their online statements, Proud Boys have claimed they have only used violence in self-defence: “If our mere presence causes people to want to commit acts of violence, we’re not afraid to defend ourselves,” Tarrio said. But members are often seen carrying firearms and bats and donning protective gear, and some have been convicted of crimes against anti-fascist protesters (Murphy, 2020). Members have supported the Proud Boys’ agenda by attending and organizing right-wing events (Kramer, 2017). Many regularly appear in their half-serious “uniform”: black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts branded with the Proud Boys logo, khaki pants, and red Make America Great Again hats (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019)

Meanwhile, Canada has formally labeled the Proud Boys as a terrorist group. The Proud Boys were recognised as a “terrorist entity,” meaning the government may seize property and other belongings connected to the group and financial institutions “are subject to reporting requirements” with respect to the group’s property under Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act (Li, 2021). “The Proud Boys consists of semi-autonomous chapters located in the US, Canada, and internationally,” Public Safety Canada said in a statement. “The group and its members have openly encouraged, planned, and conducted violent activities against those they perceive to be opposed to their ideology and political beliefs,” (Public Safety Canada, 2021).

The Proud Boys has become a fixture at political demonstrations around the country (Hawkins, 2021). Especially in densely populated cities, the Proud Boys exemplify how demagoguery motivates individuals to engage in warlike militancy. This militancy operates under a political framework obfuscated by the smoke and mirrors of capitalism, wherein demagoguery weaponizes feelings of precarity against scapegoated out-groups (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said the Proud Boys hold events purely to attract counter protesters, with the understanding that provoking any counter protesters can feed a “victimization narrative.” “So when Antifa throw stuff at them … Proud Boys are able to say, ‘See, they are trying to silence us and stop our freedom of speech,’” he said (Coaston, 2018).

Longing For the Days When Girls Were Girls and Men Were Men

Members of the Proud Boys are opposed to feminism and promote traditional gender stereotypes in which women are subservient to men (Carter, 2017; WNYC-The Takeaway, 2018). According to the ADL, the Proud Boys is misogynistic, and the group calls women “lazy” and “less ambitious” than men while “venerat[ing] the housewife” (Wilson, 2018). The group’s founder, McInnes, wrote: “Though sexual intercourse is encouraged, Proud Boys have an endgame, and it is to settle down and have kids. They have absolutely no respect for feminists but venerate the housewife so much, they are actually becoming quite popular with women” (McInnes, 2016). He has also called for “enforced monogamy” and criticized feminism as “a cancer” (Wilson, 2018) that “makes women ugly” (ADL, 2021).

The Proud Boys targets men who feel that the modern world is lacking a space for them. The group equates itself with previous “men’s” organizations like the Elks Lodge, which were established in a similar response to growing progressive trends in society like voting rights being granted to women (Kimmel 2013). In essence, the religious aspect of the movement is merely a call back to a time when white, Christian men were in power – and that position wasn’t questioned (DeCook, 2018). Therefore, women are not permitted to be Proud Boys. The group longs for the days when “girls were girls and men were men,” (Coaston, 2018; Hawkins, 2021). For Proud Boys, the West is unable to protect the masses, which have been made feminine in their defencelessness and thus desire “to be led by a dominating male.” They often assert that only men can understand the struggle of being men and support each other emotionally through the stressors of protecting and defending civilization (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

The religious aspect of the Proud Boys is merely a call back to a time when white, Christian men were in power – and that position wasn’t questioned. Therefore, women are not permitted to be Proud Boys. The group longs for the days when “girls were girls and men were men”.

The Proud Boys exist at the intersection of libertarianism, anti-feminism, and misogyny. They obscure their core fascist values by appropriating libertarian philosophy, belying their members’ misogyny and desire to control women (Kutner, 2020). Instead of examining neoliberal policies, Proud Boys attribute the changing role of men in the world to women, women who have defied what they believe to be the natural order of things (Michael DeLuca & Peeples 2002). This desire to return to the “natural” order of things and re-exert control is referred to by members as “radical traditionalism” (Meisenzahl, 2019). McInnes says the “victim mentality” of women and other historically oppressed groups is unhealthy, arguing that “there is an incentive to be a victim. It is cool to be a victim.” He sees white men and Western culture as “under siege” and described criticism of his ideas as “victim blaming” (Houpt, 2017). The Proud Boys’ activism is largely concerned with decreases in “the life span of white males,” men’s economic power, and cultural appreciation for “radically traditional men” (Wray, 2017).

The Proud Boys use their anti-masturbation policies to encourage members to seek out women and procreate, hoping to reverse demographic and cultural changes by placing “men and women back in their rightful place, together in a home with children” (Wray, 2017). In the academic space, this is classified more generally as a component of fundamentalism, in which traditional gender roles are enforced (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). The Proud Boys venerate traditional gender norms and firmly patriarchal social structures; however, the women who become their partners also support and buy-into the ideology (Kelly, 2018). Therefore, the organization has a female-member-only auxiliary wing named “Proud Boys’ Girls” that supports the same ideology (Feuer, 2018). One of the key tenets of the Proud Boys is to ultimately settle down and have a family, thus continuing Western civilization; children can be indoctrinated into the ideology (DeCook, 2018).

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

Within the Proud Boys’ Girls – notably, the apostrophe denoting ownership – (Bourdieu, 1991) many of the women are the romantic partners of male group members. “I was shocked when I first got the analytics back,” says Jack Buckby, the head of Proud Boys UK: “They call themselves Proud Boys” Girls and they are our second-biggest demographic.” According to McInnes (2016), it may seem counterintuitive that a male-only group would have such a big female following, but nobody wants men to be men more than the women who depend on themHowever, the exclusion of women from the group’s meetings is telling of the larger extremist movement that contends that feminism has “infected” Western society. Establishing a separate group for women is are similar to how the Ku Klux Klan had a women’s group to support the larger organization (Blee, 2008). These intersections privilege whiteness above all else, as well as men over women, and help to situate the practices of the group, positioning women as mere  extensions of men via their role as traditional wives (Kelly, 2018). Thus, the Proud Boys upholds hegemonic patriarchal notions of masculinity and gender roles (DeCook, 2018).

For Proud Boys, the state of the family – as a reproductive mechanism and unit of economic power – is presumed to be reflective of the state of the West (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). Those who have abdicated their roles as “radically traditional men” are made responsible for declines in nuclear families and economic security, resulting in the inheritance of an “entire pussified, weak, immoral culture of feminized failure” (Wray, 2017). Proud Boy Andrew Bell Ramos explained, “Most of the problems we have in the country are because men aren’t stepping up and doing the things they’ve done forever, being providers, being strong, being manly” (SBS Dateline, 2018). To remedy these masculine failings, Proud Boys call for men to “retake their manhood” and “become a man that great women can love, and great companies can hire” (Wray, 2017).

According to McInnes, who no longer supports marriage equality because he believes it’s part of a secret plan to destroy Christianity (Coaston, 2018), many Proud Boys were raised by single moms and needed a male figure in their lives (Metro US, 2017). For them, entertaining content acted as the gateway to a new reality constructed of race preservation, conspiracy theories, and male self-awareness through victimhood. These grievances are found in a manosphere, which McInnes defines as an ecosystem of disparate male grievance groups that emerged as a reaction to feminism. The manosphere may contain entertaining content, but this content may not always act as a pull factor (Kutner, 2020). Referencing Neo’s journey in The Matrix, “taking the red pill” or “getting redpilled” is used to describe an awakening. Getting redpilled refers to the antifeminist ideology within the manosphere. The term taking the red pill refers to men opening their eyes to the reality of male subjugation by women. As a perceived antidote to being seen as effeminate, members maintain their redpilled status through aggressively over-performing masculinity and adopting rigid gender roles (Kutner, 2020).

This fear of being seen as effeminate makes men susceptible to messaging that relies on negative precarity, i.e. Trump evoking the image of America as “weak, vulnerable and effeminate” (Johnson, 2017). Proud Boys don’t want freedom in the libertarian sense they have co-opted; they want the freedom to subjugate women in order to invert the redpill paradigm. This makes the Proud Boys authoritarian at their core (Kutner, 2020). The general appeal of groups like the Proud Boys is the retaliation for a perceived loss of white male supremacy and the erosion of privileges that were exclusively for white men (McSwiney, 2021). Trump’s hypermasculinity is contrasted to the Democrats’ enlightened masculinity, portrayed as weak and feminine. An extreme incarnation of this hypermasculinity is the Proud Boys (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).

Proud To Be Islamophobic

Within the Proud Boys creed “The West is the Best” lies an implicit anti-Eastern bias common among right-wing extremists and white supremacists (ADL, 2021). According to the SPLC, the group maintains affiliations with extremists and is known for anti-Muslim rhetoric. The group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, told NBC News (2017), “I’m not a fan of Islam. I think it’s fair to call me Islamophobic” (Hawkins, 2021). His Rebel Media videos feature titles like “Donald Trump’s Muslim ban is exactly what we need right now,” “10 examples of the Koran being violent,” and “Islam isn’t ‘dope.’ It’s sexist,” (SPLC, 2021). McInnes’ shift to the far-right after he left Vice Media in 2008 also included espousing anti-Muslim sentiments: “the Muslim world is filled with shoeless, toothless, inbred, hill-dwelling, rifle-toting, sodomy-prone men” (Coaston, 2018).

He hosted Pamela Geller, among the most prominent figures in the anti-Muslim movement, on his show “Get Off My Lawn,” on the conservative online outlet CRTV. “People in America say ‘Muslims are what? One or two percent of the population? There’s never going to be sharia law here,’” he said during the interview before assuring viewers that Britain, where Muslims are “raping children regularly” and where “women are raped several times in one night,” is the “canary in the coalmine,” (SPLC, 2021). McInnes has called the idea of a Muslim-American president “insane” and compared it to electing “a German president in 1942 in America.” In a talk show on Fox News, he said there was a “huge problem with inbreeding within the Muslim community,” and alleged that “they [Muslims] hate all non-Muslims,” (ADL, 2021).

A Proud Boys’ meme implies that Muslims have been eliminated from the world, thus why there are none in Star Trek, which further implies part of the far-right’s goals in participating in ethnic and religious genocide.

According to an SPLC compilation (2021), McInnes has repeatedly used anti-Muslim rhetoric – and has himself said it is fair to call him Islamophobic. “It’s such a rape culture with these immigrants, I don’t even think these women see it as rape. They see it as just like having teeth pulled,” (McInnes, Get Off My Lawn, June 19, 2018). “Muslims have a problem with inbreeding. They tend to marry their first cousins… and that is a major problem here because when you have mentally damaged inbreds – which not all Muslims are, but a disproportionate number are – and you have a hate book called the Koran…you end up with a perfect recipe for mass murder,” (McInnes, Get Off My Lawn, April 24, 2018).“Muslims are stupid. And the only thing they really respect is violence and being tough” (McInnes, The Gavin McInnes Show, March 8, 2017).

A Proud Boys’ meme implies that Muslims have been eliminated from the world, thus why there are none in Star Trek, which further implies part of the far-right’s goals in participating in ethnic and religious genocide (DeCook, 2018). This subtlety, the implying rather than outright saying, is typical of dog-whistle politics and rhetoric used by the far-right and other previous fascist governments (Caffier 2017). Moreover, the hashtags used for the images can often be more telling of the ideology than the visual elements of the meme or photograph. For instance, the “#DeusVult” hashtag comes from a war cry from the Crusades and is invoked to imply that there needs to be another holy war to fight against Islam. (The hashtag may have emerged due to the popularity of a game called Crusader Kings (DeCook, 2018).) Using it symbolically establishes a divide between the “Christian” West and the “Muslim” East, making it a signifier of virulent Islamophobia and modern-day Orientalism (Said, 1979; Ulaby 2017). The members speak of a white, Christian West that they feel has been invaded by immigrants, and echo extremist beliefs that have led to mass killings, such as in the cases of Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof (Teitelbaum, 2015). Remember that new members of the Proud Boys must refuse to apologize for “creating the Western World.”  

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

Antisemitism and the Proud Boys

Despite the Proud Boys having a chapter in Israel, they are associated with anti-Semites (Israel Faxx, 2020). For instance, Facebook pages for Proud Boys chapters in Florida featured Holocaust denials (like a meme implying the number of those who died during the Holocaust was simply invented) and virulently racist rhetoric (Coaston, 2018). Although McInnes has decried antisemitism, his past statements tell a different story. Evidence shows McInnes has embraced antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments, including a video he made for the far-right Canadian outlet Rebel Media initially called “10 Things I Hate about Jews,” which was later retitled “Ten Things I Hate About Israel.” He has also argued that historically, perhaps Jews “were ostracized for a good reason” (Coaston, 2018). He has also posted videos of himself giving the Nazi salute and repeatedly saying “Heil Hitler” (ADL, 2021).

It was during his trip to Israel in 2017 that McInnes appears to have had somewhat of an antisemitic awakening. On his show on March 8, 2017, McInnes muses that Jews were somehow responsible for World War II because “the Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t that disproportionately influenced by Jewish intellectuals?” He also defended Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, saying, “Like at one point, the tour guide goes, ‘You know, and there are people who think that this didn’t happen.’ And I felt myself defending the super-far-right Nazis, just because I was sick of so much brainwashing. And I felt like going, ‘Well, they never said it didn’t happen. What they’re saying is that it was much less than six million and that they starved to death and they weren’t gassed.’” Then he finished his train of thought with some thoughts about Jews’ “obsession” with the Holocaust. “God, they’re so obsessed with the Holocaust. I don’t know if it’s healthy to dwell.” At another point McInnes said: “Jews: If you don’t want to get people mad, don’t be annoying,” (ADL, 2021).

Ron Coleman, who is a Jewish lawyer representing McInnes in a defamation lawsuit against the SPLC, said Israelis could be attracted to the Proud Boys because of the value placed on masculinity in Israel. Israeli men, as well as American Jews, may be “nauseated” by what Coleman called “the enforced cultural feminization” of men and boys in the US. Coleman also said Jews who feel left out by the mainstream Jewish political alignment with the left – about 70 percent of Jews vote Democratic – may be attracted to the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys have seized upon the presence of an Israeli chapter as evidence that the group is not antisemitic (Israel Faxx, 2020).

Conclusion

Numerous journalists and experts on far-right extremism have raised the alarm about the Proud Boys and similar racist organisations. However, it wasn’t until after the 2020 presidential election – and especially January 6, 2021 extremist insurrection – that the mainstream recognised the threat posed by the far right. Because of this indifference, which led to a deliberate amount of tolerance, white supremacists have accumulated sufficient power to trigger political chaos – chaos that they hope will lead to a race war and the creation of their own white nation (Smith, 2021). Rightfully, many people associate far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. It’s true that hate crimes, antisemitism, and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since his campaign began in 2015. But far-right extremists existed long before Trump. While adapting to the times, far-right extremism has continued into the present. It’s not dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence (Hinton, 2020).

As O’Connor (2021) highlighted, in the face of a belated federal crackdown, the experienced exponents of extremist violence are likely to beat a tactical retreat before making their next push. The movement they fight for now finds itself on new terrain: more organisationally developed than ever before, even with Trump out of office; a fracturing and reforming Republican party creating new alliances and coalitions to leverage and exploit; and the multiplying pressures of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the climate continuing to build. Trump’s inflammatory influence may be long-lasting and yet may yet take a greater toll on American society – after all, the Proud Boys had hoped to assassinate former Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during their violent storming of the US Capitol (Slisco, 2021). Reports since the insurrection suggest they were closer to their goal than many would like to consider.

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Elementary school kids in a classroom raising their hands.

Challenging far-right in education through culturally relevant pedagogy

Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues.

By F. Zehra Colak & Erkan Toguslu 

The idea and practice of neutrality – that is, not expressing views or avoiding political discussions – in the Western education system is seen as self-evident and rarely questioned. However, education has always been shaped by the socio-cultural realities and political ideologies of the day. Political ideas about how a society should be organized have informed school textbooks, educational policies, and teacher trainings, affecting not only what is taught but also what is not taught in schools. 

Following the post 1980’s resurgence of far-right parties and populism in European politics, a right-wing ethnocentric worldview has gained prominence in political and administrative institutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such political growth has also led to populist views gaining ground in European educational systems, too. Despite this, there has been little research into the potential effects of the far right’s effect on education in Europe, although recent research has identified how the far right aims to impact educational policy and acts as an educational actor. 

In Italy, this is exemplified by the far-right League Party’s plan to diminish university attendance rates among high-schoolers, limiting their exposure to leftist views at universities. League also demanded an academic book be removedfrom the reading list of a course at the University of Bologna. Similar actions have been observed across Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is asking for the re-design of history subjects, simultaneously advocating for teaching students about their German roots while engaging in acts that downplay the history of the Holocaust. In France, educational policy is not one of the main populist strategies of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party National Rally, although the party supports patriotic moral education and teaching national history as a defence against multiculturalism. The populist discourse and practices employed by National Rally impact the strategies and policies of centre-right parties in councils and in the parliament. The councils run by Le Pen’s party ban school canteens from serving pork-free menus, discriminating against Muslim and Jewish students. On French university campuses, Collectif Marianne, Assas Patriote, and Action française étudiante work to advance the cause of far-right ideologies, primarily through university councils. 

The increasing political influence of the European far-right also impacts the discourses and actions of parties in power. In northern Belgium, Flanders, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (NVA) party has pressed a proposal to establish a Flemish Canon, which will be taught to pupils at schools, as well as newcomers. The canon is described as follows: “In order to promote the sense of identity of the younger generation, we are following the example of the Netherlands in drawing up a Flemish canon, a list of anchor points from our Flemish culture and history, which characterize Flanders as a European nation.” Turkey is another example of how populists in power impact the educational agenda. In Turkey, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been removed from the biology textbooks used in high schools. This decision was based on the argument that the theory is controversial and difficult to comprehend. 

The aforementioned far-right strategies focus on a monolithic understanding of society, showcasing the far right’s refusal to accept multicultural identities and cosmopolitanism. The strategy of imposing a national identity and moral code through the education system is crystalized in the debate over students from immigrant backgrounds. The far right views these students as the main problem in schools. They are emblematic of decadence, illiteracy, and violence. Given the power of education in reaching and influencing large groups and shaping society, it’s not surprising that different political actors and forces, including the contemporary far right, aim to instil their social and political values into educational institutions. At a time when teachers and students are displaying authoritarian tendencies, how best to push against the harmful far-right narratives seeking to shatter the values of democracy in European education? There is undoubtedly more than one answer to this question. We will, however, focus on one pedagogical approach that could be adopted in schools to curb the harmful effects of populist rhetoric. That approach is culturally relevant pedagogy.

Gloria Ladson-Billings is an American pedagogical theorist who, after a decade teaching in American public schools, wondered why Black students were less successful than their white peers. While getting her Ph.D. in curriculum and teacher education, her research revealed how Black students were viewed as deficient and deviant by teachers, administrators, and students and treated as problematic. In order to challenge this “deficiency” narrative, she began to ask questions about teachers and their classrooms, which eventually led to the development of culturally relevant pedagogy in the 1990s.

Based on her research with successful teachers of African American students, Ladson-Billings advocates a focus on students’ academic success, cultural competence, and socio-political or critical consciousness. The first component might seem obvious for educational institutions typically characterized by their commitment to ensuring the academic success of their students. However, Ladson-Billings centralizes student learning and stresses the role of teachers in engaging students to develop tools for critical thinking. As part of this process, teachers must have high expectations for their students. It is only when students are learning that they can have the desired academic outcomes and succeed on examinations. 

The second tenet, cultural competence, refers to the recognition that students show up in school with their own culture, language, norms, and ideas, all of which can impact a student’s learning experiences. Given the increasingly diversifying cultural make-up of many industrialized societies, schools are increasingly populated by more multiracial and multi-ethnic students. However, the far right’s emphasis on the distinctive culture, values, and identity of the national group risks marginalizing students from minority backgrounds while prioritizing the culture and interests of the majority group. Moreover, exclusionary national identities are often reinforced by polarizing narratives that frame immigrants – especially those from Africa and the Middle East – as a threat to the Western way of life. 

In response to these populist discourses, teachers need to work on empowering all students, offering them the tools to examine critically their own position in society. Recognizing and valuing the knowledge and experiences of students of different genders, faiths, cultures, languages, socioeconomic statuses, and abilities is critical to support positive identity development and facilitating access to different cultures. By being mindful of who they are teaching and what the students’ specific needs are, teachers can help all students to cultivate multicultural competencies. In other words, teachers should utilize students’ cultural backgrounds as a critical learning resource that can help them make sense of an increasingly globalized world.  

The third and perhaps most important component of culturally relevant pedagogy is the development of students’ socio-political or critical consciousness in this hyper-polarized political climate. The goal of this tenet is to help students to develop the necessary skills to question social inequities in society and to not just consume knowledge, but to be critical of it. This approach has certain similarities with citizenship education, which stresses helping youth develop the tools to recognize and solve problems in society and promotes the democratic values of freedom and non-discrimination. While this aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is vital to the development of students’ skills as democratic citizens, it is often ignored in schools due to the “neutrality” narrative that dismisses discussions about political issues in classrooms. 

This aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is not about teachers pushing their own political agendas in the classroom. If they’re not able to ask complex questions about societal issues, students are denied the space to expose anti-democratic and populist narratives and form their own counter-narratives informed by critical reasoning. Avoiding or suppressing conversations about controversial topics could actually create more room for authoritarian views to gain popularity among students. Alternatively, encouraging students to elaborate on ideas and issues that they find meaningful or that affect their everyday realities could support their understanding and critical awareness of their social context and position within it. 

Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues. This can be achieved by the transformation of teacher training programs. In fact, teachers should be taught that “one of the most effective ways to affect democracy is through the classroom.” By teaching their students the tools to think critically, teachers prepare them to understand their role and position in multicultural societies and to assess the implications of the far right’s growing influence on democratic values, such as equity, freedom, and justice.