Countering the Radical Right: Feature

How right-wing populists use food to legitimise their extreme views

‘Getting breakfast done’: Italian strawberries, Hungarian pickles and a pint of English beer are all part of the Right’s food fight for voters

Michael Cole
Michael Cole
21 May 2021, 12.01am
The day before the 2019 election, Boris Johnson posted a photo of himself eating a full English to Instagram
Panacea Pictures/ Alamy
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Few everyday items have the ability to stir up feelings of patriotism than a country’s national food and drink. Political leaders are well aware of the potential food has to connect them favourably with the experiences of ordinary people.

The British prime minister Boris Johnson and most of his government ministers were all privately educated at one of the country’s most elite schools. Johnson also allegedly earned more money in a few hours than most people in the UK do in an entire year. Yet, despite this, he has managed to successfully construct an image of himself as ‘one of the people’ – and food has been an important feature of his public profile.

After becoming prime minister in 2019 with the promise that he would “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson’s first official state visit was to Estonia, where he served a traditional Christmas lunch to British troops based there on a NATO mission. Asking the soldiers “Who wants turkey?”, Johnson underlined how important it is for Brits to spend the holiday season enjoying meals together with family and friends, in a demonstration of the prominent role food plays in the nation’s cultural life.

This certainly wasn’t the first time Johnson had used food to connect with his public. During his successful 2019 general election campaign, he helped out at a chip factory in Northern Ireland, made traditional candy with workers in Blackpool and, most British of all, poured and drank a pint of British beer in a pub in Wolverhampton.

‘England’s Glory’

If drinking beer is the best way for a member of the British elite to create the impression that he’s a man of the people, then perhaps Johnson has been taking lessons from his ‘mate’ and one-time leader of the radical right-wing Brexit Party (now called Reform UK), Nigel Farage.

Farage has often been photographed drinking in pubs as a way of showing how he is similar to ordinary people. Following a victory for England’s rugby team against New Zealand, for example, Farage posted a picture of himself on Instagram celebrating by drinking a pint of beer called England’s Glory. In this case, the exclusionary nationalist undertones typical of Farage’s radical right-wing politics were clearly visible.

There are two important points to keep in mind here. First, this is all just a form of propaganda to make elite politicians seem more relatable and to increase public support.

Johnson doesn’t really spend his evenings down his local pub; in fact, not long before he was pictured pulling a pint, he had decided to quit drinking alcohol until Brexit was done. And Farage was banned from his favourite village tavern after being involved in a car crash with the pub’s landlord.

Second, the similarities between the public personas presented by Farage and Johnson demonstrate how the mainstream has adopted tactics previously used by the radical Right, and the increasing difficulty in distinguishing between extreme right-wing and less radical political leaders.

It’s not a coincidence that on the final day of his victorious 2019 election campaign, of the 11 photos and videos posted on Johnson’s official Instagram account, eight were related to food. One image showed Johnson in a roadside café enjoying a classic English breakfast of sausages, bacon and eggs, next to regular people who were preparing for another busy day at work. The caption said “Getting breakfast done!”, but the picture said: “I might be running the country, but really I’m just like you.”

On the final day of his 2019 election campaign, of the 11 posts to Boris Johnson’s Instagram account, eight related to food

Politicians using food and drink to present themselves as ‘of the people’ is not a phenomenon unique to Britain. The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is one of the first to be mentioned in any discussion about right-wing populist leaders. The considerable steps he’s taken to erode democratic practices in Hungary have long caused concern for defenders of liberal values.

So it’s probably no surprise that he, too, has used food as a way of showing that he’s actually just a normal guy.

While many expressed their alarm at Orbán’s opportunistic use of the COVID-19 crisis to enhance his personal authority and establish what some describe as the EU’s “first dictatorship”, on Instagram he was more concerned with asking followers to help him decide what to have for lunch.

Although a prominent characteristic of the direct form of democracy that populists promote does include involving ‘the people’ in important decisions by holding regular referendums on key issues, asking them to choose whether or not the prime minister adds spinach to his meal seems to be taking this to the extreme.

Spinach referendum

In the week following his ‘spinach referendum’, although Orbán was busy in parliament organising the government’s response to the pandemic, he still found time to demonstrate his everyman image on Instagram in a series of food-related posts. His followers were treated to a collection of photos and videos in which the Hungarian leader cheerfully prepared a jar of home-grown pickles.

One Instagram story even included a cartoon dancing pickle superimposed over images of Orbán as he carried his tub of freshly produced Hungarian vegetables through the corridors of power. His smiling face and the caption “It’s ready” clearly indicated his satisfaction with the results of the harvest.

Barely a day goes by without Salvini – leader of Italy's radical Right party Northern League – posting a picture of some fresh Italian produce

Orbán’s new-found affection for homely foodstuffs may be just another way to prove his authenticity, but it may also have been inspired by a phone conversation with one of his good friends: former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

Barely a day goes by without Salvini – leader of the radical Right party Northern League – posting a picture of some fresh Italian produce. As Italy struggled to recover from the devastating impact of COVID-19, Salvini uploaded several images of himself on Instagram enjoying locally harvested strawberries, while reminding his followers that it has never been so important to buy and consume Italian goods.

It’s easy to see how people might be inclined to agree with him about the need to support the local economy in order to help the country get back on its feet. But the danger is that agreeing with Salvini about his love of Italian strawberries by liking his Instagram posts also gives increased exposure and legitimacy to his ultra-nationalist “Put Italy First” rhetoric and radical anti-immigration policies, including the promise to deport 500,000 immigrants. It’s this that ultimately leaves an extremely sour aftertaste.

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