Defeating Far-Right Populism Through Narrative

Washington D.C. (TFC) – On July 23, 2016, Tobias Stone wrote a great article explaining how the victory for the Leave camp in the Brexit referendum could embolden the far-right in America and beyond and lead to a wave of far-right populism. Fast forward six months, and many of Stone’s predictions have come true. Trump has been elected to the American presidency and far-right candidates like Marine Le Penn, Geert Wilders, and Frauke Petry are posing serious threats to establishment candidates throughout Europe. In addition, there has been a major resurgence of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and neo-Nazism in America. In response to this, the left has prepared for a political battle to stop the spread of far-right populism.

Stone, however, argues that those who oppose right-wing populism are fundamentally unprepared to combat it. He chillingly states:

“What can we do? Well, again, looking back, probably not much. The liberal intellectuals are always in the minority…The people who see that open societies, being nice to other people, not being racist, not fighting wars, is a better way to live, they generally end up losing these fights. They don’t fight dirty. They are terrible at appealing to the populace.”

Unfortunately, historical events like the rise of the Third Reich and the Rwandan Genocide, help to support Stone’s claim. This leaves many of us wondering what we can do to stem the rise of far-right populism.

Fortunately, there are ways to do this. However, in order to counter far-right populism, one must understand the psychology behind it. Populism is a movement that seeks to induce ordinary citizens to take direct action against a government that they view as corrupt and controlled by elites. Resentment against elites is usually at its strongest during times of economic hardship, which means that populism is strongly connected with economic hardship. As a result, the timing of the recent resurgence of populism should not be a surprise.

There are many brands of populism but the two most prominent ones in today’s era are left and right wing populism. Left-wing populism usually blames the elites for society’s problems and injustices and argues that ordinary people can take back control by standing together against the elite class. As a result, it usually uses socio-economic class as a method of mobilizing the people. Right-wing populism, however, views society as becoming increasingly chaotic and destabilized and blames certain groups of people or the government colluding with those people as the cause of instability and society’s problems. As a result, they usually seek out a charismatic “strong man” to protect them, restore order, and lead them back to greatness. Usually these leaders create a cult-of-personality and resort to scapegoating, ethno-nationalism, promises of “law and order”, and a sense of reactionary nostalgia as tools to mobilize the public.

Far-right populism has taken hold in the West and a spate of populists like Marine Le Penn and Frauke Petry have risen to prominence on anti-immigrant and anti-refugee platforms. American far-right populism, however, is distinct in that it is also marked by hyper-masculinity as much of the terminology that they use (like “cuck” or “beta”) is related to “manliness”, emasculation, and regressive gender roles.

Far-right populists have ultimately come to power through demagoguery. Many far-right campaigns have simply ignored or sidestepped facts that run contrary to their positions, which has led many to dub the present day as a “post-fact” or “post-truth” era. The far-right has been able to do succeed in the post-fact era because they are able to manipulate emotion, which is the primary driver for much of our decision-making processes and the formation of political beliefs. Unfortunately, the far-right has been able to craft a narrative, based on nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism, that resonates strongly with the public.

The key to combating far-right nationalism is to create a narrative that undermines theirs. Since far-right movements also tend to center around people who are unusually charismatic (and hence vital to the movement), it is necessary to shatter the cult-of-personality surrounding their political leaders. Since far-right populists are emotionally attached to strong-man leadership, then the best way to counter their movement is to portray their leaders as weak and powerless.

So how does this work in practice? The best way to pull this off is to engage with those who sympathize with the far-right. However, the way that you engage with them is vital. As the election season demonstrated, attacking far-right ideas from a policy, moral, or human rights perspective is ineffective. Instead, one should argue that far-right leaders, like Donald Trump, are weak leaders. He has already provided many opportunities for this and will invariably provide many more in the future. Trump’s tendency to tweet disparaging things about people that denounce him, leaves him open to criticism. Instead of arguing that this is immature, one should argue that Trump acts like a crybaby every time someone says something mean about him and that a real leader wouldn’t be phased by something so petty. To really drive the point home, argue that every other president, including Barack Obama, George Bush Jr., Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., and Ronald Reagan were leaders because they didn’t throw temper tantrums, claim that the media was “biased” against them, or act like they needed a safe space every time someone criticized them. This article, which ridicules Trump as a precious little snowflake, is a great model for this approach. Also ask them about how someone who is this thin-skinned is supposed to lead us through a potential nuclear crisis with Kim Jung-Un. It is also fair to point out that Trump’s draft dodging shows that he isn’t man enough to stand up and fight for this country.

Image Source: DonkeyHotey, Flickr,
Donald Trump – Caricature

It should be noted that this strategy should only be used in certain circumstances and it does have limits. If someone is engaging with you in a reasonably rational manner and is at least somewhat receptive to factual debate (i.e. they demonstrate that their opinion can be swayed with fact), then you should engage with them through rational discourse. Instead this message should only be used with those who reject fact. I also warn that my strategy only works if you can convince the other person that Trump’s leadership abilities are lacking. As a result, this strategy is far from guaranteed to work. However, it is much easier to get someone to question Trump’s leadership abilities than it is to make complex arguments about why his economic plan is stupid or why his counter-terrorism policies will backfire. As always, to be convincing, you will need to make this point in a calm and non-whining manner, or else you risk having your points dismissed. Do not expect that this approach will work instantly. Instead, this is a long-term strategy and the point is to sow doubts within the far-right about the leadership abilities of their champion and get them to abandon him when he invariably does something stupid.

A similar strategy can be employed against the neo-Nazi groups, like those led by David Duke and Richard Spencer, that have popped up in Trump’s shadow. The people who join these groups are extremely radicalized and overwhelmingly male. Due to their fascination with gendered terminology, I suspect that a major driver of their radicalization is a sense of insecurity about their masculinity. As a result, they join neo-Nazi groups because it gives them an excuse to bully others, which provides an outlet for them to affirm their “manliness.” Therefore, the key to combatting neo-Nazi groups is to challenge their masculinity. Neo-Nazis should be mocked mercilessly at every turn. They should be labeled as pussies for hiding behind their social media accounts when they launch online intimidation campaigns. They should also be portrayed as effeminate, sexually impotent, and closeted homosexuals. The point here is not to denigrate women, gay people, or those with erectile dysfunction, but rather to deny them the recognition of their manliness that they sought by joining the neo-Nazi movement. If we can successfully brand them as unmanly and weak, then it will stymie their growth and could even induce people to quit the movement.

The events of the last year have shown that those opposed to the far-right need to adapt their message to better resonate with the public. Thus far, the far-right has better appealed to the public and has successfully used demagoguery to attack those who oppose them. If we want to counter their tactics, we need to shift the narrative and put them back on the defensive. Since the far-right’s power ultimately lies in their claims to strong leadership and masculinity, attacking their embodiment of these ideals is key to undermining their message. If we want to maintain open, peaceful, and tolerant societies, then we desperately need to turn the tide against the far-right. I hope that we are able to do this and quickly move past this ugly period of history.