Old and new demagoguery: the rhetoric of exclusion

Right-wing populist parties tend to be anti-multinational and anti-intellectual: they endorse nationalistic, nativist, and chauvinistic beliefs, embedded - explicitly or coded - in common sense appeals to a presupposed shared knowledge of ‘the people’.

Ruth Wodak
10 May 2011

The results of the most recent elections to the European Parliament in June 2009 indicate a significant growth of rightwing extremist (and rightwing populist) parties and thus, of right wing populist MEPs (Members of the European Parliament); e.g., the British BNP (British National Party), the Austrian FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria/ Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) The Dutch PVV (Party for Freedom/ Partij voor de Vrijheid), the Hungarian Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary/ Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom ) and the Danish Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People's Party/ Dansk Folkeparti ) have all received over 10% of national votes. These election campaigns were accompanied by ‐ sometimes indirect, usually quite explicit ‐ xenophobic and racist propaganda in the respective nation‐states. In some cases, like in Hungary, the recent rise of the new rightwing party Jobbik has also been accompanied by physical violence against Roma and almost daily explicit anti-Semitic diatribes. On the other hand, in Estonia and Latvia, the extremist parties have not had any success simply because the mainstream parties have partly accommodated some of the radical rhetoric of the extreme right movements and parties. In the regional elections in Vienna, in October 2010, the FPÖ even reached 27%, in some workers districts up to 34%; currently, the FPÖ ranks second in nation-wide opinion-polls with 26%.

To counter the rise of right-wing populist parties and politicians, mainstream politics and politicians have increasingly appropriated their arguments, metaphors, idioms, symbols, and images. They claim (quite wrongly according to available evidence), that by implementing proposals and adopting the style of the extreme right wing they will be able to keep voters from drifting rightward. Voters, however, often seem to prefer parties which propose related policies more credibly than the mainstream, even when these begin to parrot their rhetoric and implement immigration freezes.

One clear example can be found in recent debates around Tunisian refugees trying to reach the Italian coast by boat. The Italian government decided to issue Schengen visas to the refugees so that these could cross the borders into other European countries – a measure supported by the EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. The Italian minister for Interior Affairs, Roberto Maroni, officially requested support and solidarity from neighbouring EU member states. The latter, however, do not wish to comply: in a press conference on April 26, 2011, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and the Italian Prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi emphasized that Schengen borders should be closed again even though this would contradict EU policy. Many national media seem to be supporting this new call for a ‘Fortress Europe’.

On April 11, 2011, for example, the conservative Austrian broadsheet Die Presse stated in bold letters: "Italy washes its hands [of Tunisian refugees]" [Italien putzt sich ab]. Below this headline, the then-Minister of Interior Affairs from the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), Maria Fekter, claimed that these Schengen visas would create an “enormous vacuum effect” [Staubsaugereffekt]: Austria should also consider closing its borders again.

Such utterances are characteristic of a relatively coded exclusionary rhetoric in which one standard metaphor is cleanliness: refugees are indirectly depicted as being dirty people, not civilized, and thus not welcome. In addition, Tunisian refugees are not talked about as human beings but only referred to via the documents they might carry (Schengen visas). The metaphorical use of “vacuum”, joins with exaggerated talk not only of “streams” flowing into Europe, but “masses of floods” to denote a natural catastrophe defying control, against which it is implied other countries (such as Austria) will have to defend themselves. Nowhere do we read about the plight of these refugees. We are not told why they have fled their home country. No concrete numbers are mentioned to substantiate the implied threat for European Union countries.

Moreover, no distinction is drawn between migrants and refugees. In the third paragraph of the Die Presse article, the minister claimed that “this is a new illegal migration...; although our [the Austrian] asylum system is stable in relationship to its level [of numbers], illegal migration presents a mega-problem.” Tunisians fleeing conflict suddenly mutate into illegal migrants, i.e. people who have left their country voluntarily. The two categories become one huge, threatening ‘other’, such that any foreigner entering the European Union from Africa is per se illegal. No further evidence seems necessary to underpin this claim. Other politicians are then quoted stating that “illegal streams of refugees [Flüchtlingsströme] will cost Europe even more”. German and Swiss interior ministers, Simonetta Sommaruga and Hans-Peter Friedrich agree with the overall assessment of the “mega-problem”.

Leaders of right-wing populist parties, meanwhile, tend to express exclusionary tenets far more directly and explicitly. For example, on March 25, 2011, the Dutch populist right-wing politician Geert Wilders delivered a speech in Rome, in which he claimed that, “the failure to defend our own culture has turned immigration into the most dangerous threat that can be used against the West. Multiculturalism has made us so tolerant that we tolerate the intolerant.” He then refers to the end of the Roman Empire in drawing a very tenuous analogy to current immigration flows from North Africa (Tunisia), Turkey, and the Middle East: “Rome did not fall overnight. Rome fell gradually. The Romans scarcely noticed what was happening. They did not perceive the immigration of the Barbarians as a threat until it was too late. .... People came to find a better life which their own culture could not provide. But then, on December 31st in the year 406, the Rhine froze and tens of thousands of Germanic Barbarians crossed the river, flooded the Empire and went on a rampage, destroying every city they passed. In 410, Rome was sacked.”

I could have chosen many other examples from vast files of media reports from British, German, Swiss, Swedish, Belgian, Hungarian, Danish, or Italian mainstream newspapers as well as speeches from a range of European rightwing politicians. Many quantitative and qualitative studies have documented the rhetoric of exclusion in systematic detail[i]. It has become part and parcel of a much more general discourse about migrants and migration with the overall schema: ‘We’ (i.e. the Occident or Europe) have to defend ‘Ourselves’ against ‘Them’ (i.e. the ‘Orient’: Roma, Jews, Muslims). But what are the most important features of such a rhetoric?

Populist movements are based on a specific understanding of the ‘demos/people’, that denies the complexity within any society[ii] and assumes an in-born homogeneity. Jörg Haider characterised populism thus in a speech on 12 November 1999: “If anyone doubts it we have put a limit on the presumptuousness of the powerful and have strengthened the hand of citizens. Although the ruling class has never forgiven us for this, the people have thanked us by supporting us. Our politics has thus been condescendingly denounced for being populist. But whatever!

These parties frequently position and discursively construct themselves as ‘saviours of the Occident’ or as ‘Robin Hoods’ who defend the man/woman on the street both against ‘those up there’ and ‘the foreigners’ who might take away ‘British (Dutch, Belgian, Italian) jobs from British (Dutch, Belgian, Italian) workers’ and who ‘do not want to integrate and adapt to our culture’, or similar, as illustrated in Geert Wilders’ speech above. Right-wing populist parties are bound together by the construction of common enemies: ‘They’ are foreigners, defined by ‘race’, religion or language. ‘They’ are elites not only within the country but also in Europe (‘Brussels’) and on the global level (‘Financial Capital’). But cleavages within a society, such as class, caste, religion, and so forth, are omitted from this account; or they are interpreted as the result of ‘elitist conspiracies’. Right-wing populist parties tend to be anti-multinational and anti-intellectual: they endorse nationalistic, nativist, and chauvinistic beliefs, embedded - explicitly or coded - in common sense appeals to a presupposed shared knowledge of ‘the people’.

Why are such parties, and their rhetoric, so successful? In which contexts and with which social groups does it resonate? In examining these trends in Europe, it is useful to differentiate between contexts that are post-imperialist (e.g., France, UK, The Netherlands, and Belgium), post-fascist (e.g., Austria, Hungary, Germany, Romania, Finland, and Norway) or a combination of post-fascism and -imperialism (Italy). Some parties focus primarily on a perceived threat through Islam (e.g., in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Finland, and in Switzerland); some parties restrict their propaganda to the perceived danger to their national identities via ethnic minorities (e.g., in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and in the UK); and some parties primarily endorse a traditional Christian (fundamentalist) conservative-reactionary agenda (e.g., in Austria, Hungary and Poland). Many parties integrate several features at once; depending on the specific audience and context.

The common denominator, I would argue, is the discursive construction of fear. The rise of right wing populist movements in recent years would not have been possible without massive media support. This does not, of course, imply that all newspapers share the same positions; although many tabloids do. For example, the former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Jörg Haider, frequently appeared on the cover of weekly magazines like News or Profil thus adding to his visibility in the public sphere. The Austrian tabloid Neue Kronenzeitung, similar to the Sun or the Daily Mail but with larger reach in relation to the country’s population (around 3 million weekend readers in a country of 8 million), campaigned explicitly and implicitly for Haider: headlines, editorials, images, and letters to the editor were all streamlined to provide support. Leading populist politicians have to be media-savvy: they undergo rhetorical training (such as Neurolinguistic Programming; NLP), employ qualified spin-doctors and are educated in performance techniques which lead to a ‘softer’ image, adapted to mainstream values (but, of course, only for front of stage).

On the other hand, they intentionally provoke the media by violating publicly accepted norms. In this way, the media are forced into a ‘no-win’ situation: if they do not report a scandalous, racist remark, such as the FPÖ’s slogan, as part of the 2010 Viennese election campaign “More courage for ‘Viennese Blood’. Too much foreignness is not good for anybody!” [Mehr Mut für Wiener Blut. Zuviel Fremdheit tut niemandem gut] they might be perceived as endorsing it. If they do write about this, they reproduce the utterance. A predictable dynamic is triggered as the scandal around this slogan in August, 2010, demonstrated: reports of the offensiveness of the remark were first denied by the FPÖ. Once evidence was produced, the scandal was re-defined; in this case, the FPÖ claimed that they were only quoting the title of a well-known Viennese operetta “Wiener Blut” whose libretto had even been written by an Austrian-Jewish author in the nineteenth century. They were, they further claimed, thus certainly not referring to any racist/nativist meanings.

Readers could choose either the official or unofficial, insinuated reading. In any case, the FPÖ was – they further stated – not responsible for the readers’ reception. Victimhood is then claimed by the respective politician, and the event is dramatised and exaggerated. Moreover, what about the FPÖ’s right to freedom of speech: “One must be permitted to criticise Turks, Roma, Muslims, Jews...!” or “We dare say what everybody thinks”, and so forth. This immediately triggers another debate – unrelated to the original scandal, thus functioning as a distraction – about freedom of speech and political correctness, which in turn leads to the construction of a conspiracy: somebody must be ‘pulling the strings’ against the original culprit of the scandal: foreigners, liberal intellectuals, and so forth are quickly discovered. Possibly, a ‘quasi-apology’ might follow in case any ‘misunderstandings’ have occurred; and the entire process begins afresh.

Right wing populist parties cleverly manage to frame media debates in such a way that other parties and politicians are forced to continuously react and respond to ever fresh scandals and intentional provocations. Few opportunities survive to present other frames, values, counter-arguments, and other relevant agenda.

[i] See, f.ex., Baker et al. 2008; Delanty et al. 2010 [2008]; KhosraviNik 2009, 2010; Krzyzanowski & Wodak 2009; Reisigl & Wodak 2001; Richardson 2004; Richardson & Wodak 2009 a, b; Wodak 2009; Wodak & Köhler 2010, 2011; Wodak & Van Dijk 2000.

[ii] Gingrich & Banks 2006; Rydgren 2005; Wodak & Pelinka 2002, Ellinas 2009

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