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Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán: What's the appeal of ‘respectable extremists’?

Their policies would have been ‘toxic’ a few years ago, so what is it about these provocative politicians that’s stirring up voters?

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Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in 2016. Credit: Chris Carlson/AP/Press Association Imag Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in 2016. Credit: Chris Carlson/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.What is the appeal of the ‘respectable extremist’ in democratic politics? Why are voters in certain parts of the world increasingly flirting with political figures that promote divisive and intolerant solutions to national problems? From Norbert Hofer of Austria's Freedom Party – who was only narrowly defeated in last month’s presidential elections – and Marine Le Pen leader of France’s National Front to the US Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump and the Philippines' new president Rodrigo Duterte, large numbers of citizens are attracted to figures who remain respectably democratic but whose programmes repudiate 'consensual' politics and willingly promote unpalatable choices.

Rhetoric and policy measures once commonly regarded as unacceptable are steadily making their way into the mainstream. Trump has demonised Mexicans, Muslims and women. Hofer opines that the presence of Muslims – and liberal policies generally – have diminished Austria's identity, and Duterte has even recommended the mass execution of criminals. Aren't democracies supposed to filter out these extremes – or at least radically diminish them in favour of pragmatic and centrist programmes? 

The respectable extremists are not seeking to jettison democracy altogether...

Doubtless, there are many local conditions that have given rise to these figures. The global financial crisis, shifting patterns of immigration and peoples seeking refuge, the dissolution of the remnants of social democracy, and the weakening of established patterns of elite control that accompany these changes are all likely factors. But unlike in the 1920s and ‘30s, such changes are not producing militarised movements against democracy. The term 'fascism' is bandied around today to describe some of the more intolerant tendencies but the model of openly anti-democratic movements seeking to establish dictatorships or totalitarianism is not at work here. The respectable extremists are not seeking to jettison democracy altogether in the name of racial purity or by means of a charismatic leader who embodies the unity of the nation reborn. Nor is there an overt desire for some kind of 'cleansing' violence to re-establish social and political order. There are fascistic elements present in the language and styles of these leaders or their parties, but this is not classic fascism. Rather than repudiating democracy, these leaders claim to be saving it from the perils of liberalism. Presenting themselves not as rebels against democracy but as its well-dressed and articulate supporters, illiberal nationalists and conservatives are enjoying electoral success with widespread popular support.

Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, for example, notoriously insists that “a democracy does not necessarily have to be liberal”. An admirer of Russia's President Putin, Orbán sees in the post-2008 financial crisis an opportunity to affirm a muscular, populist nationalism that makes a “break with liberal principles and methods of social organisation, and in general with the liberal understanding of society”. Liberal economies following the collapse of communism, he claims, failed to safeguard Hungary's assets or protect its citizens from indebtedness to foreign banks. Foreign-based NGOs and the EU (of which Hungary is a member) are likewise prone, in his view, to unacceptable interference. Orbán defends what he happily calls “an illiberal state”, which supposedly protects human rights and freedoms but subordinates these to the needs of the “community”. He claims to be of Christian and democratic inspiration, but is unrepentant in forcefully refusing entry to recent migrants and he is accused of manipulating parliament and controlling the media for his own ends.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, talks to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/Pres Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, talks to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. For one commentator, Orbán's “brand of politics is the new norm in Europe” and beyond. Whether it is in the creeping electoral gains of the far right, Donald Trump's audacious bid for the US Republican Presidential nomination, or President Duterte's explicitly strongman persona, a defiant illiberalism is proving to be a winning formula in many democratic states. Although they are not all as authoritarian as Orbán, nonetheless there is often a cynical disregard for the niceties of legislative procedure or public debate. Offering personally backed (if selective) solutions to public problems, occasionally justified by outlandish conspiracy theories, these figures thrive on an immodesty that excites as much as it appalls.

What, then, can possibly be attractive about these figures to democratic publics? The answer lies in a combination of rational and emotional factors. In many respects, there is a rational reaction against the continued failings of governments to ensure a sense of security for key sections of the working and middle classes. Unable satisfactorily to halt the movement of refugees and economic migrants across Europe, for example, and in an era of increased competition for jobs with fewer of the benefits of a welfare safety net, voters are reasonably suspicious of the usual technocratic solutions (particularly via the European Union) offered by established elites and party programmes. 

It is precisely the hostility and intolerance projected by such politicians to universal principles of social and legal justice...that captures the attention of voters.

But there is also a deeper, more emotional appeal to parties and figures prepared to step outside mainstream opinion by identifying an exclusionary principle. It is precisely the hostility and intolerance projected by such politicians to universal principles of social and legal justice, freedom of movement, or refugee status, that captures the attention of voters. Previous governments are felt to have been too relaxed about social pluralism, individual freedom, or responsibility to foreigners. Hardline appeals to a closed national identity, conservative morality, or an open hostility to slow, bureaucratic regimes unresponsive to the public mood strike a cord with already frustrated and disillusioned voters. The very contrariness of the extreme alternatives to established opinion is part of their success. This is so, first, because contrariness helps discriminate among emotional choices, rather than blur the differences between parties and policies; and, second, because simply having previously unacceptable views inside, subverting mainstream politics, symbolically dissolves the aura of stultifying consensus.

The respectable extremists offer the emotionally satisfying prospect of introducing antagonism into government rather than marginalising it; they gladly provoke liberal sensibilities and name the so-called 'enemies' whose demands frustrate democracy (Muslims, political elites, foreign states and organisations, and so on), and they shift the focus of government from benignly administering to society from a distance to solving problems experienced by citizens. In short, they give concrete, tangible form to a perpetual but unifying sense of grievance. The fantasy here is that some ineffable lost quality might be restored ('Make America great again' exclaims Trump) with a provocative programme that refuses compromise.

Whether such parties and politicians can really succeed in the long term is uncertain, although their strong showing in recent elections suggests the disadvantages of political 'toxicity' is waning and illiberal sentiments now increasingly find a willing public audience. What is notable, however, is that their appeal mirrors the rise of populist movements of the left, such as Podemos in Spain. Although their programmes differ radically, each builds upon disaffection with immovable and distant elites, technocratic governance, and centrist politics, rather than democracy as such. Each is guided by figures who are demonstrably 'normal' people and claim to speak for 'ordinary' citizens. But where left populism typically embraces pluralism and tolerance against neo-liberal politics, those on the right rally against such inclusivity. Their advantage over the left lies in a visceral commitment to grievance and their willingness to make hostility and intolerance their goal and not simply a means.

The style of the respectable extremist is to indulge a language of 'urgent' solutions and immoderate sentiments, whilst evading critical scrutiny and refusing responsibility for the damage caused. Parliamentary democracy was once expected to be a bulwark against just such demagoguery. Might it yet rediscover a way to reassert a restraining influence on democracy itself?

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

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