Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

How radical Right conspiracy theories drive populist mobilisation

There is little doubt now that conspiracy theories have the potential to radicalize their believers to translate ideas into action

Andreas Önnerfors
25 February 2021, 12.00am
Trump's supporters breach the US Capitol in Washington DC to protest his election loss, on 6 January 2021
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Michael Nigro/Sipa USA/PA Images
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The storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 was a true epiphany of radical Right mobilization. There is little doubt now that conspiracy theories have the potential to radicalize their believers to translate ideas into action. We have seen the pattern before: terrorist manifestos from so-called ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators, like those of the Oslo, Christchurch, Halle and Hanau attacks, are saturated with conspiratorial imagination that made their lethal violence possible.

But while these perpetrators were portrayed as social outcasts and individual exceptions lacking support communities (which, of course, is essentially wrong), the mob attack against US democracy can best be explained by the general affinity between conspiracy beliefs and radical Right populism.

Conspiracy theories are not the ghost light guiding those single ‘lunatic’ perpetrators (i.e terrorists), but floodlights blinding the masses to subscribe to alternative realities. But why is populism so prone to conspiratorial imagination?

European conspiracies

We have tried to answer this question in our forthcoming book, ‘Europe: Continent of Conspiracies. Conspiracy Theories in and about Europe’. To do so, we investigated the impact of conspiracy theories on the understanding of Europe as both a coherent geopolitical entity and an imagined political and cultural space exposed to evil machinations from within and outside.

Topics such as migration, EU enlargement and accession talks, demography and polarization in politics and media narratives, showed us how conspiracy theories have developed explanatory power related to the essence of Europe in general and the European Union in particular.

Conspiracy theories are not the ghost light guiding those single ‘lunatic’ perpetrators (i.e terrorists), but floodlights blinding the masses to subscribe to alternative realities.

We looked at different forms of conspiracy, their themes and typical representations. We noticed that threats are imagined as coming from outside or inside. For example, there is the fear of ‘Islamization’, the threat of ‘invasion’ or the ‘replacement’ of white European citizens. Enemy images are constructed and scapegoats are identified, leading to the resurgence of anti-Semitism for example. More generally, nostalgia fuels narratives about the decline, decadence and apocalyptic and suicidal self-destruction of Europe.

Since 2020, these narratives have been fueled aggressively by the COVID-19-pan-/infodemic. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories were constructed about the origin and intentional or unintentional dissemination of the virus, political countermeasures, epidemiological indicators (e.g., incidence, prevalence and mortality), potential treatment (i.e., medication) and prevention (i.e., vaccines), contributing to panic, disinformation, and political conflict. From the fringes, conspiratorial narratives have been propelled into the mainstream by entering the traditional news cycle.

Populist nostalgia

One effect of mainstreaming extreme positions in the media is the revival of authoritarianism as a political alternative to deliberative and representative democracy. Confronted with the existential threats communicated in conspiratorial narratives about Europe, sizable parts of the electorate turn to political forces promising stability.

Conspiracy theories support the spread of a culture of fear and thus can justify totalitarian or authoritarian policies. Strong imaginaries pretend to provide easy explanations when people feel threatened and insecure. Trapped in an eternal trade-off between freedom and security, the prominent Polish philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued in his last book ‘Retrotopia’, that people long back to the authoritarian and coercive monster, ‘Leviathan’ as described by 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes after the English civil war. For Hobbes, the Leviathan is an entity outside ourselves forcing us to submit to its power, ‘for our best’.

Such an external authority not only promises security, but also a paradoxical release from the suffocating freedom of choice that has apparently dominated the previous (neo)liberal world order. People readily surrender their personal autonomy to a new Leviathan and thus they are also prepared to abandon the advanced rule of law which originally was intended to mitigate different societal interests and to safeguard our civil liberties.

This is what we see happening in real-time in Poland and Hungary, where the independence of the judiciary (and of academia) is being systematically dismantled by populist governments, putting them at odds with EU standards.

On a subtler level, as illustrated by Brexit, expert knowledge is being rejected in favour of simplistic decision-making processes that promise to channel the unmediated ‘will’ of the people, even concerning profoundly complex matters such as international trade and European integration.

This push towards neo-authoritarianism feeds into the populist revival around the globe in which leaders such as Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Victor Órban in Hungary, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia and the like promise to act as strongmen of the people, undisturbed by checks and balances of expert opinion, economic realities, and scientific evidence.

‘Us’ and ‘them’

There is a measurable correlation between populist Euroscepticism and conspiracy beliefs, both of which are inherently related in their rejection of traditional elites, democratic procedures that include checks and balances, and the representation of multiple interests in complex compromises.

Conspiracy theories can be read as narratives establishing clear demarcations between ‘us’ – the people – and ‘them’ – the conspiring elites. In this function, they provide meaning to populist imagination, self-images and victimization. Populists have been able to bypass the previously powerful gatekeepers of mainstream media, and instead bring their combative and polarizing political messages directly to the public, undermining domestic democratic as well as supranational institutions such as the EU.

In the case of Hungary, conspiracy theories are used in the top-down consolidation of populist rule in a rhetoric of fear and enemy images. Such a ‘culture of fear’ has become a factor in the international system, in which populist regimes such as Russia engage in status and symbol politics through repeated disinformation and destabilization campaigns, undermining trust in the negotiated order of international politics.

The way conspiracy theories create meaning goes hand in hand with the populist style in politics, which is nurtured by pitting ‘the people’ against ‘malevolent elites’, dismissing established procedures of decision-making and undermining the societal discourse with false claims.

In Greece, conspiracy narratives in the media communicate populist narratives of victimization in which domestic policy failures are blamed on international agencies. In south-east Europe, ‘Eurovilification’ and ‘Eurofundamentalism’ are described as two sides of the same coin of political trade-offs appealing to the divergent interests of different voter blocks.

The way conspiracy theories create meaning goes hand in hand with the populist style in politics, which is nurtured by pitting ‘the people’ against ‘malevolent elites’, dismissing established procedures of decision-making and undermining the societal discourse with false claims. This unhealthy relationship has turned into a stable factor influencing the preferences and choices of voters in democratic elections and is probably the one that is the most difficult to disentangle.

Toxic realignments

Since the start of 2021 a motley alliance between anti-vaxxers, radical-Right extremists, anti-Semites, climate change deniers, anti-globalists, 5G extremists, anti-establishment campaigners and people with lockdown fatigue who simply feel harassed by governmental regulations or are filled with indignation due to a host of frustrated expectations and grievances, have taken to the streets of European capitals such as Berlin, London or Prague.

Many German (and also recently Czech) protestors against governmental COVID-19 measures have appropriated the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi regime. Displaying the word ungeimpft and neočkovaný (‘unvaccinated’) in pseudo-Hebrew letters, these protestors equate themselves to the victims of intentional genocide and their own government to a totalitarian regime violating human rights.

The Danish protest movement ‘Men in Black’ has appropriated the Italian anti-fascist campaign song ‘Bella Ciao’ and thus portrays itself as a resistance movement against a brutal and oppressive state.

The political positions and opinions of these radical fringes are suddenly gaining momentum from what seems to be a new European mass movement. A toxic realignment of political preferences is currently uniting the traditional ‘Left’, ‘green’ and ‘Right’, which converge in various conspiratorial frames of dystopian populist imagination. Under such circumstances, the leeway to develop visions of an alternative future is dramatically diminished. Yet we are in dire need of moderate and practical utopias based on hope, not fear.

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