Interview #36 — The Far Right Today

The Far Right Today is Cas Mudde’s new book. It is extremely recommended for academics, but its clarity, scope, and tone make it a great read for everyone interested in knowing what form the far right takes in contemporary politics, its origins and causesleadership styles, and its links to issues such as religion and gender. Most importantly, this book is a great read for those who want to know what can be done to protect liberal democracy’s pluralism and minority rights.

The book brings you across neo-Nazi skin subcultures of Mongolia and Malaysia, the Japanese gaisensha (vans covered in propaganda slogans and fitted with loudspeakers), Eastern German football hooligans, Nemzeti rock, and femonationalism, with a particular emphasis on cases such as India, Hungary, Israel, Brazil, and the United States. The variety of cases examined, the clarity of the language, and the diversity of topics considered, contribute to offer a panoramic view of the contemporary far right with vivid colors and unsettling details, but it also offers an engaging and necessary pro-active section on how to respond to the challenges posed by the far right.

Enjoy the read.

POP) In your new book, you describe the process of mainstreaming and normalization of the far right in general, and the populist radical right in particular. You explain that the current mainstreaming of the far right is the result of a process that started after the Second World War. While first-wave neo-fascist parties were at the fringes of the political arena, fourth-wave parties brought far right ideas at its core. What are the main causes of this process? Which events acted as a catalyst for such a transformation? What role did mainstream mass media and social media play?


You can find the book here

Cas Mudde) Leaving aside structural processes that loosened the ties between voters and mainstream parties, like the post-industrial revolution and secularization, as well as the responses to these developments by the mainstream parties, notably convergence upon an “Integration Consensus” (in terms of European integration, multiculturalism, and neoliberalism), I think the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the way they were generally framed, have played a major role. They have brought socio-cultural issues to the heart of the political debate and created anxiety about identity and immigration and connected them to security issues, most notably terrorism. The so-called refugee crisis of 2015 functioned as a catalyst, mainstreaming not just far right policies but also frames – most notably that immigration and Islam are threats to national identity and security.

Traditional media have been the most important, in particular tabloids and private media. The privatization of most mass media has lead to a tabloidization of the media, where they chase eyeballs by playing on fear and scandal, i.e. issues like crime, corruption and immigration, which benefit the far right. Social media has further weakened the gatekeeper of the old media elite. Moreover, in many cases the traditional media underestimated the popularity of the far right and overcompensated by giving its themes and voices disproportionate attention, in part by mistaking Twitter for society.


POP) In a context where mainstream, established political actors (from Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz to his British former-counterpart Theresa May) are introducing stricter policies on immigration, integration, and terrorism themselves, does it still make sense to draw a distinction? Where does the mainstream end, and where does the far right begin?

CM) I do believe it still makes sense to distinguish between (mostly) right-wing parties that adopt far right policies for mostly opportunistic electoral reasons and far right parties for whom these policies reflect their core ideology. Simply said, it matters whether you are governed by the Conservative Party or the Brexit Party. Or by Kurz’s ÖVP or Hofer’s FPÖ. That said, it becomes more and more difficult to determine what is ideology and what is mere strategy, particularly if issues like identity and immigration continue to dominate the political agenda.

The difference between “national conservatism” and “radical right” was always problematic, but with immigration taking centre-stage, it turns out that it was largely insignificant for parties like Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland. At the same time, parties like the British Conservatives and the US Republicans might just go through a radical right phase to appease their new leaders and radicalized base.

What is clear, however, is that the old academic consensus of “we know it when we see it” no longer holds and scholars should spend more time on classifying political parties. For decades scholars have just followed “convention” by dividing parties into “mainstream right” and “radical right”, but how can the Norwegian Progress Party be a radical right party and the US Republican Party a mainstream party, given that the latter’s nativism, authoritarianism and populism are much stronger (not only in the person of Trump)? And is there still a qualitative difference between the French Republicans and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, or is it mainly a matter of degree? We need to rethink and redo conceptualization, operationalizations and classifications.

POP) You claim that the goal of the populist radical right is to establish an ethnocracy: a nominally democratic regime in which the dominance of one ethnic group is structurally determined. Can you give some concrete examples of this kind of discourse and its implementation?

CM) It has been propagated by the Front National (now Rassemblement National) for decades. Under Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party already emphasized “national preference” in terms of employment and welfare policies. Today, most far right parties support some form of welfare chauvinism in which welfare provisions are linked to ethnic-based citizenship. The most extreme contemporary example of ethnocracy is Israel, in particular after the adoption of the Basic Law in 2018, pushed through by the mostly far right coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu. This law explicitly defines Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish People, effectively excluding almost one quarter of the official population (the vast majority Arabs).


POP) In Europe, contemporary far right movements are often Christian. However, far right principles can be combined with any religious faith (or remain non-religious). Could you give us some examples of far right movements having close ties with different religions? Lately, the first story that comes to mind is the brutal repression of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar operated by far-right Buddhists, on which Aung San Suu Kyi found common ground with Orbán.

CM) I discuss the complex relationship between far right ideologies and religion in the book, showing that far right ideology can be combined with pretty much every religion and non-religion. There are parties that combine far right ideology with Islam, like the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in Turkey, but also with Judaism, like Jewish Home and the New Right in Israel, and Hinduism, like the Indian People’s Party (BJP), the largest party in the world. Many West European parties are at best culturally Christian, in the sense that they see (a form of) Christianity as part of the national culture and identity but they are not explicitly religious.

POP) You discuss the prototypical and quintessential type of far right leader, perfectly embodied by Jean-Marie Le Pen: white, male, straight, authoritarian, charismatic, violent, and with a military background. Interestingly, however, you point out that this portrait is less and less accurate when we describe contemporary far right leaders: they are increasingly non-man, non-straight, and non-white. Could this transformation have any significant impact on these parties’ ideology and policies?

CM) Yes, you see that the more successful far right parties adapt to their national societies in terms of gender stereotypes and therefore party leadership. While all far right parties have relatively conservative gender views, in terms of their national society, this does mean that those of many far right parties in Northern Europe are fairly progressive by global standards. Hence, the Rassemblement National can be led by an assertive female leader like Marine Le Pen, while the Sweden Democrats are led by a leader, Jimmie Äkesson, who does not fit traditional views of masculinity – for example, he took a hiatus as party leader to deal with mental issues.

At the same time, Islamophobia has created a space in far right groups for non-white but non-Muslim Europeans. One of the key leaders of the English Defence League was a Sikh, while the leader of Freedom and Democracy (SPD) in the Czech Republic, Tomio Okamura, is half Japanese-Korean. This no longer matters so much, as the “Other” is first and foremost Muslim, which means that the “us” is open to almost every non-Muslim.


POP) Periodically, the media talk of some international collaboration between far right actors, but more often than not, these alliances are ephemeral and contentious. Why are these collaborations rarely successful? Do you think this is going to remain the case also in the near future?


How populist politicians cooperate and build alliances in international bodies including the European Parliament. Here.

CM) Obviously, there are ideological reasons. Nationalism, and particularly ethnic nationalism, makes international collaboration difficult, particularly between parties from neighbouring countries, which often lay claims to partly overlapping territories (think Hungary and Romania or Croatia and Serbia). But more problematic is the dog-eat-dog worldview of many far right leaders, who see international politics as a zero-sum game, in which everyone puts their own country first (i.e. “America First”) and believe that whatever one country wins, some other(s) lose. Finally, most far right parties have strong leaders who have little experience with real politics. This makes them less experienced in terms of collaboration, both at the national and international level. Obviously, this can change as far right parties become bigger and more mainstream, entering regular coalitions and becoming more accustomed to give-and-take politics.

POP) You conclude your book with twelve theses on the far right’s fourth wave. Number nine, in my opinion, is particularly interesting. You claim that no country is immune to far-right politics. You bring as examples Spain and Germany, two countries where the impact of the Holocaust and right-wing authoritarianism was traditionally used to explain the absence of a successful populist radical right. You argue that after the recent exploits of Vox and Alternative for Germany, we know that this idea was wrong. Vox and AfD clearly exist, and their electoral results came as a shock indeed. However, these two parties are still heavily stigmatized, they have no realistic expectation to be part of a government coalition, and unless their electoral breakthrough is confirmed in future elections, their success might be a flash in a pan. Have we already forgotten the lessons of the Second World War? Or collective memory can still act as a brake for the success of the far right?

Actually, Vox is already supporting coalition governments of the Popular Party and Citizens at the regional (Andulusia) and local (Madrid) levels, while there is significant pressure at the local level to collaborate with AfD. But my point about immunity is more about the electoral breakthrough, rather than electoral persistence, of far right parties and the mainstream of far right policies. Far right parties can have occasional success everywhere, although it requires a certain combination of demand-side and supply-side factors to persist electorally. However, nativist frames and policies have been adopted by mainstream parties in countries without a successful far right party, such as Spain and UK years before the breakthrough of Vox and UKIP.

Surveys show that we are forgetting the history of the Second World War and thereby the lessons of that dark period. However, it is more complex than that. The idea that fascism is bad is still hegemonic in most of the world, including in Western Europe. In fact, many supporters of far right parties see themselves more in line with the resistance than with the fascists of that era. They see themselves as the defenders of democracy against either “left-wing” or “Islamo” fascists.

I think these lessons are in part not so successful anymore because most radical right parties are not, at least in their public face, recognizable as fascist, or similar to fascism, to many people. And, in fact, most do present a different challenge, one to liberal democracy rather than democracy per se. They don’t oppose majority rule but minority rights. Comparing them to openly anti-democratic and genocidal parties might actually do more harm than good, in that respect. While it is important to stress the lessons of the past, it is equally important to address specific new challenges of the present.


Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) at the University of Georgia (USA) and Professor II at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo (Norway). His book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007) won the Stein Rokkan Award for Comparative Social Science Research in 2008. His recent books include (with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser) Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), which has so far been translated into 15 languages, The Far Right in America (Routledge, 2018), and The Far Right Today (Polity, 2019). His forthcoming book (with Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler) is Settling for Success: The Israeli Settler Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2020). He is a columnist for GuardianUS and tweets at @casmudde.

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