The new new radical right: spectre and reality

The emergence of a fresh current on Europe's political right, typified by figures such as Geert Wilders, is being widely discussed. But historically informed scrutiny suggests a different view, says Cas Mudde.
Cas Mudde
20 April 2011

There is yet again a spectre haunting Europe: the “new radical right”. I heard it once more talked of at a recent workshop of European greens: the rise of a movement able to overcome its external and internal isolation by downplaying classic ethnic nationalism and focusing primarily on Islamophobia. The phenomenon is said to encompass two types of organisation: old radical-right parties that have transformed themselves, and entirely new formations.  

But there is a problem here. It wasn’t very long ago that parties like France's Front National (FN) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which had been intermittently successful since the early 1980s, were themselves seen as a “new radical right”. They constituted a break with historical fascism, by embracing (procedural) democracy and exchanging racism for ethno-pluralism (the ideology of “different but equal”). Their experience over the past thirty years has inspired hundreds of articles and books which stress their ideological novelty as a key factor in their ability to break out of their political isolation. So what makes the parties of the year 2011 “newer” than those of, say, the year 1991?  

The “new” argument

The protagonists of the “new radical right” thesis, who include strategists within these very groups, argue that this earlier new radical right grew old by remaining stuck in the channels of ethnic nationalism and European supremacy, leading it into petty border disputes (e.g. over Alto Adige/South Tyrol in Italy or South Flanders in France), and wasteful anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments.

The revivified new radical right has, it is said, de-emphasised ethnic nationalism and embraced the United States and (particularly) Israel, reflecting the importance of its acquired view that there is a “clash of civilisations” between the west and global Islam. The visits to Israel of prominent radical-right politicians, such as Filip Dewinter of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest / VB) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ), are presented as evidence of this departure.  

At the same time, genuinely new organisations and parties have emerged that distance themselves from the putatively old radical right and even reach out to domestic ethnic minorities in their Islamophobic struggle. The examples include the English Defence League (EDL), which has received disproportionate attention for a small street-protest group. Much is made of the participation of ethnic minorities in the EDL leadership and rallies (notably a few Sikhs) and of the group’s pro-Israeli position.

But the most important real newcomer on the radical right is the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom (PVV), now the third largest party in the Dutch parliament and the de facto support-party of the current Dutch government. Wilders, a fanatical defender of all things “western” and “Israeli”, comes from the political mainstream and has always shunned the Dutch radical right.   

Both the EDL and the PVV actively look for international collaborators, particularly in North America. Moreover, their allies on the other side of the Atlantic are not marginal white supremacists, like David Duke was for the British National Party (BNP), but prominent neo-conservative and Islamophobic activists such as Pamela Geller, Daniel Pipes, and Michael Savage. In fact, Geert Wilders has in 2009-11 featured more regularly in op-ed pieces in the conservative Wall Street Journal than any other Dutch politician. The EDL’s experience has been more chequered, though it has found sympathy among some small extreme-right Jewish groups in the US.

The case examined

But does this all mean that a new unholy alliance is emerging on the radical right, which stretches from Brussels to Washington, from London to Tel Aviv? The short answer is: no. The longer explanation lies in three factors. 

First, few old radical-right parties have fundamentally transformed their ideology. Sure, “the Muslim” has replaced “the Turk”, and the nativist rhetoric now incorporates religious and security arguments, but the core business remains ethnic nationalism. Whatever changes Marine Le Pen may bring to the FN - at the least, a lesser emphasis on anti-semitism - her central message will remain “national preference” within France, Europe, and the world. She might not share her father’s distaste for Israel and the US, but nor does she share the neo-conservative mindset (also that of Wilders) about the west’s existential struggle.

The same ethnic-nationalist priorities are evident even among more genuinely pro-Israeli radical-right parties like the Danish People’s Party (DFP) and Belgium’s VB (which incidentally were already pro-Israel before their alleged transformation).  

Second, even the new forces do not see eye to eye. For example, Geert Wilders did not endorse an ostensibly pro-Wilders EDL demonstration in the Netherlands in 2010. He also retains his distance from the supposedly transformed old radical-right parties like the FN and the VB.

The DFP is something of an exception here, in that it keeps itself detached from most reformed radical-right parties but in the European parliament sits in the eclectic “Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group” (which includes old radical-right parties such as the Lega Nord [LN] of Italy and new ones such as the Popular Orthodox Rally [LAOS] of Greece, as well as non-radical-right parties like the conservative-Calvinist SGP of the Netherlands).  

The PVV, by contrast, has not joined any faction in the European parliament. Wilders’s proposed international platform, the International Freedom Alliance (IFA), intends to set up alliances with (as yet unnamed) forces in the United States, Canada, Britain, France and Germany; of these, all but France lacks a significant radical-right party, old or new. Moreover, so far it seems that Wilders has established strong ties only to like-minded people in the US.  

Third, and most damaging to the thesis of a “new radical right”, is that even Geert Wilders himself appears not so “new” either. He may have started out as a conservative Islamophobe within the conservative VVD, and became more of a neo-conservative Islamophobe after leaving and founding his own PVV; but more and more he resembles a figure of the old radical right.

For example, he has exchanged his more elitist conservatism for an outright populist welfare-chauvinism: defending the livelihoods of “Henk and Ingrid” (his personification of the notionally homogenous Dutch society) against the destructive consequences of the “tsunami” of Muslim immigration. And while he initially targeted exclusively Muslim immigrants, he and his party are now noisily antagonistic to east European immigrants. In short, Wilder has changed into a populist radical-right politician, combining nativism, authoritarianism and populism - just like the old radical right.  

The old in the new

In conclusion, there is no “new radical right” that - armed with a fresh ideology and via smooth international collaboration - will overtake the European continent. Ethnic nationalism is still the core ideological feature of all major radical-right players, and ideology and personality still prevent close inter-party cooperation.

It is true that a shared emphasis on Islamophobia could bring the radical right together on some issues, most notably opposition to Turkish membership of the European Union; but the increased diversification of positions on Israel and the United States might actually further undermine their collaboration on many other issues.  

The new radical right that emerged in the 1980s might feel old by now. But it is still largely the same as it ever was, and it is here to stay for some time yet.

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