Almost every day, new stories emerge about some populist right-wing politician doing something outrageous. Whether it is another racist Trump-tweet, some right-wing party seeking Russian funding, or hate-speech against immigrants. What once used to terminate a political career has become distinguished etiquette for the populist far-right. Media, civil society, and politicians seem helpless in finding an adequate response. None of these scandals seem to threaten the political success of the far-right. How can this development be explained?
This article looks at three obscure episodes of right-wing politics to show the tactics which are used by populists in Europe to maneuver public and media discourse to their advantage.
Fight a Bad Headline with an Even Crazier Headline
For populists the media game is all about entertainment. Not in the sense of giving the audience a good time, but in the sense of catching the audience’s attention. Thus, when two weeks ago, reports emerged about investigations into Salvini and his Lega party soliciting Russian funding by funneling money through an illegal scheme of discounted oil trade contracts[i] the question was not how to best deny the allegations, but how to divert attention away from it.
So, what could possibly beat this story about an illegal party funding scheme between Lega and Russian investors? How about a plot by pro-Ukrainian, Italian fascists to assassinate Salvini with a Matra Super 530F, 250-kilogram missile? Of course, this interpretation of the story is far from reality, but it generates attention. So, what actually happened? Just a few days after stories about the illegal party funding scheme broke, Italian customs officials seized one of the French missiles from a member of the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova. The 60-year old man raised suspicions when he sent a picture of the missile via WhatsApp, offering it for sale for the price of half a million Euro.[ii] How he came in possession of the air-to-air missile is yet to be determined.
Salvini seized the opportunity to offer an interpretation of the situation: Pro-Ukrainian, Italian fascists had planned to assassinate him with the missile, because they were opposed to his plans to strengthen Italy’s relations with Russia.[iii] Thanks to Salvini heroically informing the Italian police, the dangerous man was arrested, and the weapon seized. [iv] The James Bond-like story made headlines and successfully caught the attention of the media and the public. While the police confirmed that there had been an investigation in an alleged death threat against Salvini, it denied any connection to the missile incident. [v] Furthermore, an air-to-air missile is rather impractical to assassinate an individual as it is built to shoot down airplanes and requires an appropriate fighter-jet to be utilized. Nonetheless, these facts were overshadowed by the outrageous story told by Salvini.
This obscure episode shows that a bad headline can successfully be defeated with an even crazier one. Of course, the truth will see the light of day eventually, but by then the news cycle has probably moved on. What remains in the memory of the average voter is the gist of the message carried in the outrageous headlines. Those who take the time to fully inform themselves about the story are unlikely to be the target group of the populist right-wing, anyways. This, hence, confronts societies with some fundamental questions on how the media contributes to public discourse and how voters can protect themselves from misinformation and half-truths.
Always on the Attack, Never on the Defense
Donald Trump may be the best example of a populist who never backs down, never admits that he was wrong, and never apologizes for anything. It is a very effective way of communicating with his supporters as it divides the debate into right and wrong, offers a clear enemy, and unites his supporters behind a simple message. In 2016 it was “Lock her up!” in reference to “crooked” Hillary Clinton. In 2019, it is “Send her back!” in his most recent standoff with four congresswomen. The Ibiza-scandal which shook Austria’s political landscape in May 2019, shows that European populists can play this game just as well as Trump.
To briefly recap the scandal, a video was leaked showing former vice-chancellor Heinz Christian “HC” Strache in his Ibiza Villa, offering public contracts to the niece of a Russian oligarch in return for good publicity in the run-up of the 2017 election. While the oligarch niece turned out to be an actor, Strache, the self-proclaimed guarantor of law and order, revealed his willingness to engage in corruption, nepotism, misappropriation, and media manipulation.
Strache resigned from all offices; however, without any admission of guilt. Instead he began to advance a narrative portraying him as the victim of a treacherous smear campaign and launched a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.[vi] His strategy turned out to be successful. Just eight days after his resignation, Strache was elected to the European Parliament on May 26th. While his placement on his party’s list, was a symbolic act to fill the ranks, voters seized the opportunity to cast more than 45 000 votes to move Strache to the top of the list, granting him a mandate for the European Parliament.[vii] While he decided to forgo his mandate, this shows that even one of the most significant political scandals in Austrian history was not sufficient to end the political career of its main character.
In a video to his followers, Strache announced that he would fight the allegations against him and return once all judicial charges have been cleared.[viii] Since a conviction of Strache is, indeed, unlikely, his narrative has created the perfect set up to stage his political comeback and put the blame on someone else. For example, on former chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Apparently one of his staffers had five hard drives from the chancellor’s ministry scrapped under a fake name, just a few days before the vote of no confidence, which the police recently started investigating since the staffer had forgotten to pay for the scrapyard’s services.[ix]
Being constantly on the attack, refusing an admission of guilt, and instead blaming anyone else but oneself has proved to be a successful strategy for the former Austrian vice-Chancellor. The aftermath of the Ibiza affair raises the challenge of what standards a citizenry should apply to judge its politicians and how the public deals with mistakes made by their elected officials. The media’s sensationalism has led to a public space in which an admission of wrongdoing, even in cases of minor importance, yields the potential of ending a political career. The natural reaction of politicians is, understandably, to protect themselves through vague statements and a refusal to admit any wrongdoing. For cases of serious magnitude such as the Ibiza scandal, this means that, if taken to the extreme, a strategy of always being on the attack and never being on the defense, can create a vacuum without any accountability.
Politics as Performance Art
The populist right-wing wants to be perceived as the true defender of the people’s will and they have realized that symbols, gestures, and dramatic theater can go a long way with potential voters. A spectacular example for populist performance art was delivered on the 10th of July during a plenary session of the local parliament for the North Rhine-Westphalia region in Western Germany.
During a debate about jobs in the region’s mining sector, a group of approximately 100 coal miners observed the plenary session in their work uniforms from the visitors’ stand. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) had proposed an initiative to save the miners’ jobs which are likely to be lost in the country’s opt-out of coal as a source of energy. The AfD’s delegates led the debate in an unusually hostile manner, strongly and loudly attacking the other parties.[x] When the proposal was rejected in a vote by the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats (FDP), the miners started hitting against the glass walls and shouted insults at the parliamentarians.[xi] They were eventually removed by the parliament’s security.
What a beautiful image for the true defenders of the people to step in: the people are being kicked out of their own parliament. On the same evening, the AfD published a short clip of the riots with dramatic music in the background, highlights of their parliamentarians’ speeches, and some uplifting words of the group’s leader to the miners after they had been removed from the scene.[xii] AfD staffers had been ready at the scene to record everything, as if they had known that something would happen that evening.
As it turned out, many of the miners were not real miners, but instead in the parliament upon invitation of AfD. The relevant mining company confirmed that many of those rioting, were neither current nor former employees in the mining sector.[xiii] The whole incident was staged from the political proposal to the riots. Whether the termination of labor contracts between an employer and its employees is legally sound, is a matter for the judiciary.[xiv] By raising the issue in the plenary, AfD attempted to politicize the debate, obscure the separation of powers, and present itself as the defender of the people against the evil establishment.
The lesson that can be drawn from this theatric performance art in North Rhine-Westphalia is that the populist right-wing does not shy away from abusing the democratic institutions to which they were elected. Especially in Germany, citizens should be alarmed at this development. While AfD is taking the detour of theatrics to undermine parliament, Hitler did not hesitate to declare himself the absolute dictator of the German Reich when the Reichstag burned down in 1933.
European populists have dramatically changed the nature of public debate by placing the most outrageous headlines, by constantly being on the attack, and by turning democratic institutions into theaters of populist madness and manipulation. This confronts societies and their citizens with some crucial questions: How can we ensure a free and fair public discourse without half-truths, misinformation, and sensationalism? How shall we hold politicians accountable for their words and actions? And how do we protect the most fundamental rights and institutions which uphold democracies? These questions require answers, otherwise such obscure episodes of right-wing politics may turn into an anti-democratic reality.
[i] Borelli, S. (11.07.2019); “Italian prosecutors investigate reports that League sought Russian funding“; POLITICO; retrieved on 22.07.2019; https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-prosecutors-investigate-reports-that-league-sought-russian-funding-matteo-salvini-aide-gianluca-savoini/
[ii] Meiler, O. (17.07.2019); „Italienischer Zoll findet Rakete bei Rechtsextremen“; Süddeutsche Zeitung; retrieved on 22.07.2019; https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/italien-rakete-rechtsextreme-salvini-1.4528495
[iii] See [ii]
[iv] See [ii]
[v] See [ii]
[vi] Wiegand, R. (04.06.2019); „Strache stellt Strafanzeige wegen Ibiza-Video”; Süddeutsche Zeitung; retrieved on 22.07.2019; https://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/ibiza-strache-oesterreich-strafanzeige-1.4474431
[vii] Münch, P. (06.06.2019); „Strache ist fast schon wieder da“; Süddeutsche Zeitung; retrieved on 22.07.2019; https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/oesterreich-strache-comeback-plan-1.4476038
[ix] „Enger Kurz-Mitarbeiter soll fünf Festplatten vernichtet haben“; Die Zeit; retrieved on 23.07.2019; https://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2019-07/oesterreich-sebastian-kurz-mitarbeiter-festplatten-vernichtung
[x] Reisener, T. (11.07.2019). „Dutzende Bergleute randalieren im Düsseldorfer Landtag“; Rheinische Post; retrieved on 22.07.2019; https://rp-online.de/nrw/landespolitik/duesseldorf-bergleute-randalieren-im-landtag-hausverbot-erteilt_aid-42416293
[xi] See [x]
[xiii] „Verdacht auf falsche Bergleute bei Eklat im Landtag“; Rheinische Post; retrieved on 22.07.2019; https://rp-online.de/nrw/panorama/bergbaukonzern-rag-verdacht-auf-falsche-bergleute-bei-eklat-im-nrw-landtag_aid-43709827
[xiv] See [x]