The Young Professionals Seminar in October 2017 in Hamburg focussed on “The Populist Challenge“ in Europe, and I was fortunate to discuss this important topic with so many engaged and enthusiastic follow Europeans. The focus for my contribution to this seminar was to analyse contemporary populists and their common traits.
The first thing to do is to define a list of who the contemporary populists are. With some names, this is easier than with others.
It is undisputed that Jörg Haider, Heinz-Christian Strache, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orbán, the Kaczynski brothers, Beatrix von Storch, Nigel Farrage, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – to name only a few – should be included on such a list.
But what about Canadas Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, son of Canada’s most popular head of government who inherited millions in his twenties. Has he suddenly turned into a populist because he is calling for tax raises for the super-rich?
Some argue that „Putinism“ is different from populism, and that Putin has no wish to mobilise his people. Instead, it is his goal to demobilise and depoliticise Russian voters.
Would you call Kim Jong-un a populist because of his obvious grandiosity or because he shares the same bad taste in hair style with some other well-known populist politicians?
For the sake of this article, it shall suffice to stick with the undisputed ones, as they provide good examples for the theories I wish to outline. As is clear from our United Europe seminar in Hamburg, you could fill books if you wanted to have a deeper look into those exceptions from the rule.
So, without further ado, let’s get in medias res. The common traits I identified in contemporary populists are
– Emotions first
– Taboo breaking
– Cult of personality
To identify the first trait shared by today’s populists, I would like to start by having a look at their ideas. Is there content that all populists share?
Unlike socialism, liberalism, nationalism, communism, fascism, anarchism or conservatism, populism is no political ideology in a narrow sense.. Instead, modern populism is a term used to describe a certain political behaviour.
Populists blatantly use emotions to increase their power. To fuel such emotions, every eligible topic is welcome. But there is one theme often recurring with right- as well as left-wing populists: the homeland.
I suppose that when a society changes quickly and radically, many voters feel an increasing need of feeling protected and wish for a government that can provide for a national sanctuary. The most obvious example here probably is the “red, white and blue“ Brexit vote. As Nigel Farage said, the referendum was all about “taking your country back.”
“America First” and “Make America Great Again” catapulted Donald Trump into the Oval Office. One of Hugo Chávez‘ slogans, “patria, socialismo o muerte“ („homeland, socialism or death“) still lives on in Venezuela as an official military salute.
In the midst of economic growth problems in France, Marine Le Pen raised hopes with her visions of “la grande nation”. Her lack of substance on how to regain importance and wealth did not stop many from pursuing their dream of a „Frexit“.
Erdoğan is keeping up his legitimacy by spreading various conspiracy theories. Whoever is behind those – Zionists, capitalists, Kurds, the CIA, Angela Merkel, Germany’s Lufthansa or simply „international influences“ – Erdoğan successfully creates the image that he is the only one who can defend the country against all outside aggressors. One of his close advisors even once postulated that “foreign forces“ would try to manipulate Erdoğan by using telekinesis.
In my opinion, this subject has blossomed in the recent past due to the enormous media coverage of migration and refugee issues. The media played perfectly into the hands of right-wing populists by allowing them to create bogeymen. The populists were able to proclaim themselves as the saviours of the people which has allowed them endless opportunities.
In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache, party leader of FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) – which is known for its close ties to nationalistic groups – put up election posters proclaiming „Daham statt Islam“ („Homeland before Islam“). At the federal elections on October 5, he received more than 27 percent of the vote.
Not long ago, Europe (and other nations with us) celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Nowadays, it seems to me, building fences and physical barriers is seen as the cure-all solution for poverty, insignificance and social change.
The example of Strache also perfectly fits with the next common trait I would like to mention. Populists do not bother with political correctness. The more blatant and provocative they are, the better. Breaking taboos is their daily business.
The concept of political correctness was born in the United States and soon started to dominate the political, sociolinguistic and psychological discourse all over Europe. Yet today, being called politically correct has turned into an insult. Using blatant – and often offensive – slogans has turned into an effective instrument for populists to emphasise that they are not part of what they describe as the corrupt and deadlocked elite.
Do you remember Donald Trump calling Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly a “bimbo“? In Germany, the Alternative for Gemany (AfD) put up election posters with two skinny girls on a beach saying “Burkas? Wir steh’n auf Bikinis.“ (“Burkas? We like bikinis.“).
Viktor Orbán claimed that all the terrorists are basically migrants. The late Pim Fortuyn, a founding father of Dutch xenophobic populism, once called Islam a „retrograde culture“.
Alexander Gauland from the German AfD suggested not long ago that SPD integration minister Aydan Özoguz should be disposed of in Anatolia because he was offended by her claim that apart for the language, there was no specific German culture: „Ladet sie mal ins Eichsfeld ein und sagt ihr dann, was spezifisch deutsche Kultur ist, danach kommt sie hier nie wieder her und wir werden sie dann auch, Gott sei Dank, in Anatolien entsorgen können.“
When asked to comment on the CDU’s election pledge of full-employment its General Secretary, Peter Tauber, claimed that „if you have learned something useful you do not need to have three minijobs. („Wenn Sie was Ordentliches [sic!] gelernt haben, dann brauchen sie keine drei Minijobs.“)
At this point I want to add that the more newspapers and TV stations mock such slogans and the more they repeat the catch phrases, the more they are what that sticks with voters in the end. Also, media coverage about such incidents is often accompanied by expert opinions about the low level of education of populist voters which probably leaves them very angry with the arrogance of the elite.
In my opinion, another interesting aspect is that especially during election campaigns, not only populists provoke by breaking taboos, but parties from all political genres try to convince voters by using tart memes and posters.
Cult of personality
Let’s have a look at the third common attribute I identified which are the personality cults created around populist leaders. I believe that for populism to be successful, a lead figure in a political party is required.
To underline this, I would like to invite you to look at Austria with me. Heinz-Christian Strache nowadays is the prime example for such a cult of personality. He is undoubtedly the key figure of the Freedom Party’s success. The content of his messages is not to be undervalued, of course. But from my personal experience, I can say that people very often will or will not vote for FPÖ simply because of Strache’s persona. I talked to people who voted for him in the past for one reason alone – they think he is so pretty. Then, I also know people who will not vote for this party only because they think he is slimy.
Strache perfectly fits my profile. Immaculately groomed, well dressed, a people person through and through, constantly working on proving that he is not part of the elite but rather one of the common people.
Still, it was Jörg Haider, whom some call the founder of modern day populism, who brought this skill to perfection. When attending a local event, he never entered through the back door but preferred to use the main entrance like the “common people.“ He did not sit in the front row with all the other politicians but chose an empty seat somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Though he had to keep a very tight schedule, he often would idle away while listening to the personal story of one of his voters. Generally, people who had to wait for him did not mind because this behaviour supported their feeling that he cared.
Now, if you think of the AfD in Germany you have every right to object. This party started with a triumvirate and is currently dominated by personnel disputes, extensive accusations and leadership rochades. During the recent election campaign, no clear lead figure could be spotted. Frauke Petry, then party chairwoman, openly criticised some of her party member for their display of Nazi sympathies. Alexander Gauland, election frontrunner, immediately fired back. It is interesting though, that despite all that inner party controversy, the AfD achieved nearly 13 percent of the vote and was able to enter the German parliament.
But if you keep other grandees in mind, like Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán or Hugo Chávez – to name only a few – I hope you agree with me that the AfD is the exception to the rule.
I would further like to add that in my opinion this cult of personality often, if not always, goes hand in hand with an elevated affinity for new media channels combined with a simplistic communication style.
Yes, there are those, such as Turkey’s dictatorial leader Erdoğan, who would rather restrict access to Twitter than use it for their advantage. But think of Donald Trump. Even if he regularly goes on a rampage against the media, even when he prohibits journalists from attending press events, cries „fake news“ to a fault and presents „alternative facts“, one still has to admit that his provocative 140-characters politics assures him of constant media coverage.
In Austria, Strache is by far the most effective politician when it comes to instrumentalising Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Co. Others, like Alexander Van der Bellen in last year‘s presidential election, proved unable to get that kind of social media momentum going.
Last but not least: in my opinion most of the recent and current populists show some degree of narcissistic behaviour.
Let’s start with what narcissism is. There are many different medical, psychological, psychoanalytical as well as everyday approaches to defining this personality disorder. For our purpose today, a quick layman review of the following two main characteristics will suffice: grandiosity as well as a fragile self- esteem.
Narcissists believe they are superior or special. They are preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty or intelligence. They also believe they are unique or gifted in some special way. Some of you now might think of Il Cavaliere, Silvio Berlusconi, with his media empire, his bunga-bunga parties as well as his face lifts and hair implants. Also, do you remember the discussions about the apparently illegal construction of a new superlative presidential palace for Erdoğan in a protected forest area?
In a 2010 memoir called “Fighting Bull,“ Nigel Farage described his years of making money during the day and drinking hard at night, and his various adventures with women, marriage and divorce. He let everyone who was interested know that he survived testicular cancer in his 20s and, later on, a serious accident when a light aircraft he was in crashed.
Jörg Haider had a habit of drinking a glass full of some special Swiss sand every day because he believed this would clean his arteries and keep him young and vital. To provide you with a more extreme example, I would like you to recall the 2013 declaration of Nicolás Maduro that Hugo Chávez appeared to him in the incarnation of a bird to promise his support.
All that hard work to prove one‘s superiority goes hand in hand with the fact that below the surface, insecurity and self-doubt are brewing. Narcissists have a hard time coping with criticism. They have difficulty tolerating defeat and may be left feeling humiliated or empty when they experience an “injury” in the form of rejection.
Donald Trump is probably the most obvious example. I would just like you to remember how he insulted Michael Bloomberg in 2016 as “a very little guy“ after he questioned his business credentials and called Trump a con man. This happened only a few years after Trump tweeted that his golf partner was “doing a great job as mayor of New York.“ Earlier this year, Erdoğan accused Angela Merkel of applying Nazi methods because members of the Turkish government were not allowed to hold election campaign events in Germany.
Nigel Farage is well known for being especially tough with members of the European Parliament. But an incident with a German journalist in May of this year shows that while he can dish it out, he can’t take it. Because Farage did not want to talk about his alleged ties to Russia and Julian Assange, he abruptly ended the interview, calling the journalist “a nutcase“.
According to a very close acquaintance, Jörg Haider could not stand the thought that his voters might not love him anymore. More than once, unsatisfactory polls caused a breakdown. Yet there is one prominent populistic figure who does not really fit in here: Marine Le Pen. Undisputably she has a very complex family history. But would you call her a narcissist just because of the publicly displayed love-hate relationship with her father?
As you have seen, not every populist fits all of the characteristics completely. Narcissism in particular was disputed during the seminar. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that it is safe to say that these are relevant indicators for populist politicians.
So, the question arises: what to do with these insights? Can knowledge about common traits among modern populists be helpful in finding ways to fight harmful populism?
If you have an opinion on this, please write to me via United Europe!
Bianca Achatz is a member of United Europe in Vienna, where she works at a private bank. In early October 2017, she attended United Europe’s Young Professionals Seminar in Hamburg which focussed on “The Populist Challenge”.