There's nothing new about the far right and the unpleasant views that its supporters espouse. What's changed is that some of those views have been embraced by the political mainstream and are now viewed as normal. Political scientist Cas Mudde, Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor at the University of Georgia, talks us through the best books on the far right.
Can you start by explaining the essence of the far right? What does someone who is on the far right tend to believe?
The essence of the far right is nativism. It’s the belief that you are part of some kind of essentialist group, based on either culture or race, which should be homogeneous and which perceives everyone else as threatening. You want your state to be the state of your nation or race. You want to close it towards others and you perceive the rest of the world as a threatening space.
The fundamental difference within the far right is the vision on democracy. The extreme right is anti-democratic to the core. They just don’t believe that people should elect their own leaders. The radical right believes in democracy, but believes in an extreme kind of majoritarianism. So whereas our system of liberal democracy has protection of minority rights, rule of law and separation of powers, for the radical right the majority should be allowed to do pretty much whatever it wants within the context of ‘we elect our leaders.’
And am I right to understand from your book, The Far Right Today, that the problem is that radical right views have become part of the political mainstream? It’s no longer just fringe groups engaging in this nativist rhetoric.
Yes. So much of the literature on the far right—and some of the books that we’ll discuss today—is situated in the last two decades of the 20th century, when the radical right was seen as a challenger to the mainstream. They came from the outside, they brought new issues, they were beyond what was acceptable.
I argue that in this century the radical right—in its views and in its actors—has become mainstream. So in almost all countries today, immigration is seen as problematic. Islam is seen as problematic. Immigration and security are linked. And, in a growing number of countries, radical right parties are now just seen as normal parties that you go into coalitions with.
“The argument is not so much that we are becoming less and less tolerant. Ironically, we’re actually becoming more tolerant towards diversity.”
That is a fundamental change. Not only is the radical right bigger and more mainstream, but their issues are now not even recognized as radical right positions anymore. One example I’ve been using in interviews recently is that the European Commission now has a commissioner for ‘protecting our European way of life’ which includes immigration. That is a perfect example of the mainstreaming of a far right frame, this idea that immigration and the protection of ‘our way of life’ are connected. And when Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the Commission, was pushed on this she said, ‘Oh that’s not far right. That comes out of our own program.’ She doesn’t even understand that this was adopted earlier from the far right. It’s become just a mainstream right position.
And is it all just spin or is the reason these are now mainstream issues the fact that immigration is much more of a problem than in the past?
It depends. There have been periods of mass immigration in previous centuries and in previous decades. In the first decade of the 21st century, immigration wasn’t necessarily higher than it was in the 1980s or in the 1960s. But obviously there is a relationship between the fact that more and more countries are becoming multicultural and multiethnic and the issue of identity.
The question is the framing. We recently had the so-called refugee crisis, where over a million asylum seekers came into Europe. We’ve had massive waves of asylum seekers before. In the 1950s it was the Hungarians, in the 1960s it was the Czechoslovaks. They weren’t in the millions, but there were hundreds of thousands of them. We didn’t see them as a threat to our national identity or security. We thought of them in terms of freedom and democracy and escaping from communism. Now, we link asylum seekers to jihadism and terrorism. That isn’t necessary. You could link them to human tragedy or to economic opportunity.
I’m not saying that immigration isn’t a political issue. I’m not necessarily saying that Islam might not be a political issue. These are legitimate political issues that you can talk about, but different frames are possible. And most of the debate is based on exaggeration of the problem, both in terms of the link between immigration and terrorism or Muslims and crime.
Why do you think far right ideas are attractive to some people and not others?
Studies show that they are actually attractive to far more people than just those who vote for the far right. Pluralities, and often even majorities, believe that there are too many immigrants, that crime is punished too softly, and that politicians cannot be trusted.
The argument is not so much that we are becoming less and less tolerant. Ironically, we’re actually becoming more tolerant towards diversity. My parents’ generation was probably more racist than my generation, but there were virtually no non-white people in the Netherlands at that time. No one talked about it, but the assumption was that Dutch people were white and that they were either Christian or secular. You just never had to say that, because they were all white and everyone was Christian or secular. To a large extent the reason why this is an issue now is not because our attitudes have changed, but because the topic has become more salient and people feel threatened in what they thought was normal.
“Whereas in the 1980s as soon as you said ‘immigration’ everyone would be shocked, nowadays as long as you don’t Sieg Heil openly you’re just being provocative”
So I think today’s struggle is much more about what in the US context is called ‘white supremacy’ than racism in the classic sense. People are not opposed to the fact that there are immigrants or Muslims or non-white people. What they’re worried about is that it’s no longer their country, that their attitudes and their values are no longer the dominant ones. That’s because many of the so-called immigrants were actually born and raised in the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. They are part of ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. So this argument of ‘We are the Christians and they are the Muslims’ or ‘We Brits or Dutch are white and Christian and the immigrants are not white and Muslim’ is just not true anymore.
So do you sympathize with the far right at all?
No. I sympathize with people having problems with change, but I don’t sympathize with the scapegoating related to it. I don’t sympathize much with the populism, although I do believe that most established parties have failed (though not necessarily in the sense of the corruption that populists talk about).
Personally, I think everyone has a right to stand for what they stand for and, in that sense, the far right is a legitimate part of the political conversation. But I’m very outspokenly critical of them and my book is written, in part, so that we can oppose the far right and strengthen liberal democracy.
At one point in your book there’s a chapter about responses. You say that whenever you give a talk people always ask you, ‘What can we do about the far right?’ Don’t you say that the most effective response might be banning far right parties?
I say that without supporting it. What I dislike about a lot of the debate is that people claim to be more tolerant than they are. By and large they don’t accept the far right as legitimate actors, but they want to be good liberal democrats and therefore oppose banning far right parties and instead constrict freedom of speech or freedom of demonstration. But if you truly think they are not legitimate actors, you should ban them. If you ban them, they can’t be successful. It’s very simple: if you can’t run for elections, you can’t win seats.
The problem with that is you’ve only taken care of far right parties, not their issues or their frames. They will still be adopted by other parties. But it won’t be to the same extent, because they will no longer be an electoral threat. Britain’s Conservative party without UKIP would still have adopted certain nativist, authoritarian and populist policies. But because of the threat of UKIP, they did so more.
Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen about the far right. Approaching them chronologically, the first on the list is Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, from 1994. So tell me about this book and why it’s so important.
We’re talking about the radical right as if it only started recently. Much of the analysis is linked to Trump, as if everything just began with him and with Brexit. And yet, here is a book that’s 25 years old that already describes a Front National in France and an FPÖ in Austria that are gaining around 15% of the vote. This book is a good reminder of how old the phenomenon is.
More importantly, this book—which I believe is the best book ever written on the topic—started the modern study of the radical right, particularly in political science. Until Betz’s book, almost all the work written on radical right parties and politics was quasi-historical. It treated them as neo-fascist and looked at what they had in common with the former fascists.
Betz looked at them as a new party. He approached them not from the viewpoint of the fascists of the 1930s, but of the green parties of the 1980s. He said, ‘Okay, to understand the rise of the far right, we shouldn’t look at the Second World War, but at developments in society that have given space to new parties—with the greens on the left and the far right on the right.’
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This was a much more distant and neutral academic approach to the far right, which massively increased our insight, because for a long time it had been very hard to understand how a party that was seen as the modern version of Hitler could win 15% of the vote. How could 15% of the French support the Holocaust? Because that would be the logic of seeing the far right as neo-fascist. So seeing the far right as a new group of parties that, to a large extent, acted the same as other types of contemporary parties—rather than the fascist parties of the 1920s, 30s—massively changed our view.
The book also introduces a few important themes. It was one of the first to speak about populism and the politics of resentment. He focused on the resentment that people who voted for these parties felt. It was a protest, a frustration over immigrants coming in. It was connected to immigration, but these weren’t the old-school racist ideas. So the book is foundational in that way as well.
He writes that the first radical right-wing parties to gain significant electoral support were the Danish and Norwegian progress parties in the early 1970s. I found that surprising, because these are two very wealthy countries.
Yes, and actually one of the weaknesses of Betz’s study is that it focuses only on the countries where the far right was successful. Almost all of these countries were the wealthiest ones, with the best functioning economies and the lowest unemployment rates—like Austria, Denmark and Norway. France would be one of the outliers, but even France wasn’t doing too badly at that time.
He identifies two subtypes and distinguishes between neoliberal populism and national populism. The neoliberal populists are the progress parties of Denmark and Norway. They are against the establishment, but mostly they’re against the welfare state. The national populists—what we normally call the radical right—are the ones who are against the establishment but, moreover, against immigration. This distinction is still relevant today.
I personally exclude neoliberal populists from the radical right because nativism isn’t central to them. But other scholars still include these types of parties. What we find in many studies is that they’re just different types of parties. They have different electorates and they act differently in government. And so Betz already notes that.
“When people are frustrated, they like to see someone rattle the establishment.”
The other way in which Betz is foundational is that he is the first to see what he calls a ‘proletarianization’ of the electorates of national populist parties. The old school interpretation of the far-right voter is that it’s small, independent business owners, farmers etc. Betz notices in the 1990s that particularly the Front National and the FPÖ are getting increasingly working class electorates. As a consequence, the parties also shift to more centrist, pro-welfare state politics.
So the far right parties follow their electorate. Initially they were more pro-market, pro-small business, but as their electorate becomes more working class, they start to adopt welfare chauvinism, where you support the welfare state but only for your “own people”. All of these things are still highly relevant today.
And is the far right predominantly working class?
The electorates are now so big that by definition the working class can only be a small part of it. The people’s parties have moved towards more cross-class coalitions. The working class is still disproportionately represented within the electorate, but it’s only a minority. For many parties only about a third of its electorate is working class.
At the beginning of the book he writes, “the rise of the radical populist right appears to share similarities with the rise of fascism in the interwar period.” So he is making some historical comparisons with fascism?
It’s almost comical to read that, given how small these parties were then, compared to now, and yet how alarmed he was about them. That’s something I touch upon in my own book as part of the mainstreaming. We’re now happy when a far-right party wins only one third of the vote. In the 1990s, we were in the streets when they won seven per cent.
But I think that position plays very little role in the book as a whole. It bumped up the sexiness of the topic, but throughout the book he is very clear that this is not a modern fascism. The threat is different and the circumstances are different.
Let’s go on to the next book on your list of books about the far right. This is Revolt on the Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. It’s about the British far right party, UKIP, and my copy is blessed with a picture of Nigel Farage drinking a beer on the front cover. Tell me more about this book and why you think it’s a good one for understanding the far right.
For me, there are two reasons why this is a really good book for a general audience. First, it’s an excellent summary of the key insights of 25 years of social science research on the radical right. They pull everything together just perfectly. It’s also a great example of a solid academic study that draws on both theory and data and addresses a highly topical issue in a very accessible way. It sold more than virtually any political science book—I heard around 8,000 copies, which is massive for political science—and I think it did so because it’s very well written. It’s not dumbed down, it’s still solid, but it’s understandable.
The book puts the rise of a party, UKIP, into the much broader context of what they call a ‘revolt’ on the right. As a consequence, the book goes beyond UKIP and also provides a good insight into why Brexit could happen, because it’s part of that same thing. The revolt has consequences like UKIP, but it also pushes the Tories to the right and creates someone like Boris Johnson. So that, I think, is the strength of the book. It shows this societal change of which UKIP is more a consequence than a cause.
I didn’t realize that UKIP started at the London School of Economics! In terms of the trajectory the authors trace, it’s from 2011 that UKIP moved from the fringes to become a serious threat to the Tory party. What was the main reason for that? Is it people feeling their British-ness was under threat?
It’s a broader revolt than that and is also about populism. There’s dissatisfaction with both political parties, of not taking care of key issues, of looking the same. Labour had become New Labour. Both parties had converged on the centre and certain issues were no longer really divisive. Both parties agreed on European integration, for example. Both parties agreed on immigration, to a certain extent. It’s a type of politics that clearly favours one type of Britain, which is to a large extent London. It’s an integrated city—in terms of ethnicity, in terms of Europe and also economically.
The authors describe a large group of people who feel abandoned, who feel what they call ‘left behind.’ Now, I have a bit of a problem with that specific term. It’s a longstanding argument about what we refer to in the literature as the so-called ‘losers of modernization/globalization.’ It’s the idea that there’s a process of globalization that has created winners and losers. That is in itself true, however, it’s not an objective category. Whether you’re a winner or a loser is partly how you self-define. There are actually a lot of people who have objectively won from modernization, but who feel that they have lost. The state has invested a lot in them or in their towns, but they feel they’ve been left behind. So it is somewhat true that people who feel that they are losers of globalization will support the radical right more than others, but it’s a very vague category.
“There’s a lot of money in the far right. Some in this subculture are believers, others are just people who want to make money out of it.”
The other problem I have with the term is that it creates this idea that there are two groups, the winners and the losers who have been left behind. But actually there’s a third group, which has always been left behind. The current left behind are the white working class, the people who under industrialization were doing well. Now everyone else has gone further and they have stagnated.
But under them is a third category, which is predominantly non-white, that no one ever cared about. They’re left out of that book. When ‘left behind’ becomes a normative category—as in the discourse of David Goodhart, for example, with his ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’—then the poorest people are not even mentioned. That’s how poor they are. They are often immigrants who never had a steady position with protection.
What I don’t understand is why the slogans of the radical right should be viewed as a solution for the left behinds—or whatever I should call this group who are feeling disgruntled or alienated.
That’s a good segue to Ruth Wodak, because that’s one of the strengths of her book, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean.
Most early studies of the far right and radical right parties focused on explaining the demand side. Why would anyone want to vote for them? Most of the explanations tended to be deterministic: it’s because of immigration or it’s because of unemployment or it’s because they’ve always been fascist. These explanations assumed that whatever the radical right offered was irrelevant. So it didn’t matter whether you had a charismatic leader or a monkey as a leader, the result would be the same.
Obviously that is not the case. There’s a reason why Nigel Farage is successful and Nick Griffin, who lead the British National Party, wasn’t. It’s about what he offers. UKIP is more moderate and Farage is from a different class. He’s more successful, he’s smoother in his propaganda.
Ruth Wodak is one of the most prominent discourse scholars. Discourse is about looking at propaganda in its political context. For example, one of the old slogans of the Flemish Bloc (VB) was “500,000 unemployed: why then guest workers?” If you take that literally, it’s just a question. If you take it in its political context, it’s an anti-immigration sentiment.
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She shows that what radical right parties do is transgress norms and break political taboos. That’s the populism part and it’s very attractive. When people are frustrated, they like to see someone rattle the establishment. There’s also an element of fearlessness in it. Look at these people, who dare to go where we all want to go! There are a lot of people who would love to go out in the open and make racist or sexist statements, but they don’t want to pay the social cost. They admire the person who does. That’s the taboo-breaking. That’s what Trump does the whole time. He’s saying, ‘I don’t care about these things.’ Many people would love to be like that.
The Front National had the perfect slogan in the 90s, “We say what you think.” It’s not that we’re smarter, we’re exactly like you, but we fight your fight for you, because we know the social cost you have to pay and we’re willing to do that for you. So Wodak shows that, on the one hand, you have the transgression of norms.
On the other hand, you have the scapegoating and the politics of fear. Why would you vote for parties that scapegoat? Because they give you an explanation of why your life is bad. It’s not because you didn’t move from your area that no longer has jobs, or because you didn’t finish your education. Or something else complex, like the fact the economy has changed and your job is no longer needed. No, it’s because of immigrants. What immigrants do is give a very clear explanation of why things are going badly, and externalize guilt.
The focus on immigrants also creates an in-group and an out-group. It’s not just you, an isolated individual. No, you’re part of a powerful nation that fights this out-group. And because of the politics of fear, you create a sense of urgency. We are being invaded. That makes you scared, and makes you look for radical solutions. We have to act now! The regular boundaries can’t be upheld, strong action is required.
That’s where the far right gets in. A large part of the populist discourse in general, but the far right discourse in particular, is about creating a sense of crisis. Once there is a crisis, you have salience, you have urgency. The mainstream has failed; you need to look for someone outside of the usual. This far right party is kind of out there, but this is a crisis! Normally what they say goes too far, and I’ll stick with the Conservatives. But right now we need someone who really breaks it open, so I’ll vote for Nigel Farage.
Wow. It’s powerful, isn’t it? We should add that the book looks at the phenomenon in a lot of different countries in Europe (even Cyprus) as well as the US.
What I like particularly about the book is that she walks you through the examples. It isn’t just abstract. It’s almost like the book has exercises—and so it’s incredibly useful for education. In think tanks or NGOS or schools, you can use this book. You can either read it as the teacher or, if students are more advanced, tell them to read it and then take, for example, a Brexit party poster or a flyer or speech by Boris Johnson and say ‘okay, in what way does this do the same and in what way doesn’t it?’ The book is really empowering. It really makes you understand the mechanism of it rather than just describing it.
She focuses on charismatic leaders, and the Austrian far right leader Jörg Haider, who died in a car crash (while driving over twice the speed limit) in 2008. She writes about “a staging of politics that soon blurred the boundaries between entertainment and serious politics, between a fictionalization of politics and the politicization of fiction.” That really made me think of parallels with Trump.
Totally. She emphasizes two parts of the supply side of the far right. On the one hand, the internal supply side, which is what the far right offers. There’s also the external part, which is what others offer, and particularly what the media do. She shows how the media today—which has changed significantly and has become much more commercial—facilitates the rise of people like Haider or Farage. They are charismatic or mediagenic leaders, and are almost like a drug to the media. They just can’t resist them because they sell. They provide the type of scandalous quote that the media crave.
What is important here is that the far right is not just passive: it’s part of its own success or failure. Haider was successful because the media was now open to someone like him. Britain has a specifically problematic media structure, and the media had been open to someone like Farage for quite a long time. But what it got was Nick Griffin, and groups like the EDL. There had to be the supply as well and then, when it all comes together, it’s powerful.
So the media play a massively important role, but it’s complex. The media is seldom truly a friend of the far right. In the UK we had the Daily Express, which for a while was pretty much the UKIP newspaper, but in most cases newspapers push the issues and the frames of the far right, but are negative towards the far right itself.
That can still help the far right, because as long as you talk about immigration as a threat, it doesn’t matter much if you say the far right parties are bad. If they’re the only ones talking about immigration as a threat, it will win them support.
Let’s talk about the next book on your list, which is The Extreme Gone Mainstream by Cynthia Miller-Idriss, which is about youth culture in Germany. Tell me more about how this book sheds light on the far right.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a sociologist who focuses on education and on the youth. Both are very relevant to any politics and particularly the far right. We know that by and large our political attitudes are formed in our early 20s, and yet the youth are virtually never studied by anyone. This makes the book highly original, which is incredibly hard, because there are so many books and articles about the far right.
The book focuses on fashion, which is very close to identity, and far right subculture. We have very few studies on this, and those that we do focus almost exclusively on Nazi skinheads, which were largely a 1980s/early 1990s phenomenon. Nowadays, there is a very broad variety of far-right subcultures and what she shows is that they mainstream that culture. That’s partly because far right themes are now part of the mainstream. So if you are in a suit or some other kind of acceptable outfit, you can fit part of what you believe into that and blend in while still stand out to those in the know. So whereas in the 1980s as soon as you said ‘immigration’ everyone would be shocked, nowadays as long as you don’t Sieg Heil openly you’re just being provocative.
“The book is really empowering. It really makes you understand the mechanism of it rather than just describing it.”
What she shows is the importance of symbols in subcultures and what I find particularly interesting is that the symbols are constantly changing. We still think of far right symbols as swastikas and perhaps the Celtic cross. But nowadays you have many different ones and the symbols have different functions. On the one hand, you have to avoid the law, which particularly in Germany is very strict. It’s a cat and mouse game. You’re trying to make a symbol that signals to those in the in-crowd ‘I’m far right,’ but isn’t recognizable by the state. It’s fashion too. This is the very visual culture that we’re in today, the meme culture, and the far right is part of that game. The style has just changed significantly. Everyone can recognize a Nazi skinhead, but we will walk past people who are dressed as far right on a day-to-day basis and not recognize them.
This is not unique. It’s what football hooligans already did in the 1990s. They have all kinds of expensive brands—like Stone Island—that look normal and are normal. They allow someone in the hooligan subculture to directly recognize who is a hooligan, whereas your average policeman won’t.
So she’s writing about these successful commercial brands that appeal to the ‘Nipsters,’ the neo-Nazi hipsters?
She’s not such a big fan of that term, because the media is obsessed with it. The Nazi hipsters, the Identitarian movement, get an insane amount of attention. What she is trying to show is how pervasive this culture is within certain circles. She focuses on vocational training schools in Germany. She interviews several of the students. Only some are in the scene, but almost everyone knows about it. They all recognize it, even though their teachers have no clue what is happening.
Some of these brands are very expensive. Some you can only get through far-right online stores, but others, like Thor Steinar, have boutique stores. I was in Prague a few years ago and I walked past a very small high-end shopping mall, on one of the most expensive shopping streets. I was just flabbergasted to see a Thor Steinar store there. Two years later it was still there, so they must be doing good business because rents on that street are high. That’s the other part that’s interesting about this book. There’s a lot of money in the far right. Some in this subculture are believers, others are just people who want to make money out of it.
In the introduction of the book, she talks about young people joining Isis and the reasons they give for finding the caliphate attractive. She hears echoes of what the German youths she studies say. And she realizes it’s a really big issue for society. She writes: “For the first time in my academic career, it dawned on me, I may have learned something that might truly matter in the world—that people should listen to.”
I fully agree. Over the weekend our local student newspaper had photos taken before a big football game. There’s this rivalry between Georgia and Florida and all the students meet at the beach. There was a picture of a hunky guy with a girl and he had a tattoo on his left shoulder. It was the symbol of the Three Percenters, which is a far-right militia. The editors of the newspaper didn’t pick up on it, because it’s not a swastika. It reminded me how illiterate the media—but also teachers and law enforcement—are about the ever-shifting symbols of the far right.
What Cynthia shows is how important those symbols are as signifiers and signallers within the community. As academics, we spend too little time on them, because we tend to study texts and difficult ideological things. Kids are not busy with that. Few neo-Nazis read Mein Kampf, but all love the Nazi flag. It’s hard. It’s strong. In the street, you’re not going to go around with a swastika because you’ll get pulled over, but instead we have these other markers that still have to look awesome, but are in the grey zone.
That insight is important, particularly because what this book shows is that we’re dealing with a different far right. The far right parties are no longer small groups pushing from the outside. Far right supporters are no longer just working class white males. Increasingly, they’re Trump supporters. They’re at my college. They’re groups like Turning Point USA, rich white kids, who are well-educated and well-dressed and who are supporting the far right. We haven’t made that transition yet. When you see a picture of a far right rally in a newspaper, you still see the one skinhead who was at that meeting, because that’s what we think a far-right person is. As long as we do that, as long as we associate the far right with the symbols of yesteryear, we miss what she calls the mainstreaming of these very extreme right views. In her case, the young people she studies are not even radical right: they are pretty much neo-Nazis.
We’re now at no. 5 of your list of books on the far right. As your final choice, you’ve chosen Right-Wing Populism in America by Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, which goes right back to colonial times.
I was a bit conflicted which book to choose. Since Trump there has been an explosion of new books on the far right in the US. Before that, there was virtually nothing, except some work in the 1960s, which was mostly about the John Birch Society and anti-communism.
I’ve chosen Berlet and Lyons for a variety of reasons, but the most important is that it shows the long history of the far right in the United States. The far right didn’t start with Trump. They show this in a quasi-historical way. The authors are activist researchers rather than academics, but they use a very solid conceptual framework.
They talk about conspiracism and the importance of conspiracy theories, which is very important, particularly in the US. They talk about demonization and scapegoating, something that Wodak also focuses on. Then they have a specific term, that is mostly used here in the US, which is producerism. I really like that concept. It’s a combination of nativism and populism. In producerism, you consider yourself part of the producing class, the people who create stuff. They’re squeezed from above by the bankers and the elites, who are mooching off their work, but they’re also squeezed from below by immigrants and non-whites who live off their work through the welfare state.
What they show in the book is that while the far right never really had a successful party or politician at the federal level, they’ve always been around. As the subtitle suggests, they’ve always been “too close for comfort” to the mainstream right. There have always been these types of groups around the Republican Party and they have been very important at the state level in certain parts of the country: in the South, in Arizona, Mississippi and others.
There’s a section of the book about patriots and militias. Are guns an important part of this far right worldview in America?
It’s one scene. Guns are so pervasive and so massively popular that there’s no distinguishing between the mainstream right and the radical right. What the US has had, which no other country has, is a separate tradition of an anti-government right which is heavily weaponized. Traditionally, the far right believes in the state. It wants a strong, central state to push things through. Here in the US, you have the anti-government militias and sovereign citizens who believe that the local level is the highest legitimate level. They distrust the federal government and this is one of the reasons why they have their guns: to protect themselves from the government. That comes out of the whole frontier mentality and the specific history of the US.
“It’s just like old Marxism, with its false consciousness. Before people were misdirected through religion, now they’re misdirected through racism.”
It’s relevant because the militia scene has always been alive. At the moment, we have a lot of different new militias—like the Three Percenters or The Oath Keepers. Right now, they’re kind of in an identity crisis, because traditionally they’re anti-government, particularly the federal government, but they love Trump. So now they’re with Trump but against the ‘deep state.’ They claim not to be racist and at times they even have one non-white person, but they tend to protect neo-Nazis and side only with radical right, nativist forces.
But guns are a key aspect. Guns make a group of three people in the US potentially dangerous, which in Europe they’re not. Here you can get semi-automatics. I only have to drive five minutes to buy semi-automatic weapons in a shop, perfectly legally.
In the book they write, “Rather than dismiss rightwing populists as paranoid or fanatical extremists—or romanticize them as ‘the people’ resisting tyranny, we need to recognize these movements as both complex and dangerous: complex because they speak to a combination of legitimate and selfish grievances, dangerous because they channel people’s hopes and fears into misguided rebellions that only serve to heighten inequality and oppression.” Do you agree with that?
Partly. It’s a very left wing statement, to which I’m sympathetic. But I don’t think all the supporters of the far right are necessarily the downtrodden. I believe there is a part of the far right which is white people who are in economic trouble and, rather than blaming neoliberalism, they blame immigrants. Those people are in line with what Berlet and Lyons argue.
But there is a significant part of the far right that is very well off and well-educated. They’re not a victim of anything. They’re not misguided. They’re just racist or white supremacist. This is my problem with the ‘left behind’ rhetoric as well. It’s partly true, although even if you’re not that educated and you’re in financial trouble, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have no choice other than to become far right or racist. There are a lot of people who are less educated and in economically dire situations who feel solidarity with their non-white, fellow workers.
So that’s what I don’t like. I think it comes out of the left’s tendency to see the far-right voter as an economic anxiety voter, a misguided worker. It’s just like old Marxism, with its false consciousness. Before people were misdirected through religion, now they’re misdirected through racism. It’s only a part of that electorate and I don’t necessarily even believe it’s the most important part.
Is there any other aspect of the far right that comes up in the books that we should talk about, that we haven’t covered yet?
We haven’t talked about gender, which comes up in some of the books, most explicitly in Wodak.
Yes, and you have a chapter on it in your book, The Far Right Today, as well.
Yes, it’s probably the most original chapter in the book. To me gender is crucial, also because it shows the complexity of the contemporary far right. The contemporary far right is not just one type of movement—not in terms of ideology, not in types of organization nor in types of activity.
We still have the classic, bullish, masculine leader like Trump or Bolsonaro, and we have, to a certain extent, the more classic female leader, like Sarah Palin or Pauline Hanson, who play to the ‘mother of the nation’ stereotype. But then you also have Marine Le Pen who is clearly a very successful, professional woman who is not playing that stereotype. She pushes boundaries, but not too many. We also have more modern men as leaders who are not particularly masculine or violent, like Jimmie Åkesson and others.
What it shows to me is that, first and foremost, the far right is a product of the national context. Yes, there are some things that are happening more broadly, but if you want to understand why Bolsonara won, you first have to look at Brazilian politics before you look at the Dutch far right.
Overall, in the national context, the far right always holds relatively conservative views on gender. However, what is conservative in the Netherlands is progressive in Brazil and so you can’t expect the same type of discourse and leader. Bolsonaro would never be successful in the Netherlands, but then Pim Fortuyn would never have been successful in Brazil or the US. Gender shows this diversity that you have in the far right, as well as the transition. The far right today is different. It allows for different kinds of people.
It shows just how adaptable the far right is, which is one of the reasons why they have been around for about four decades now and why they will be around even when things change. This is not just stupid people who beat up other people. There are very smart people in it, there are zealots in it, and there are opportunists in it, men and women who make the most out of the opportunities.
So it’s not predominantly men anymore?
Men are still predominant, as they are in virtually every other political movement, but there are a growing group of women that are participating. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are feminists. Many of these women are in it for exactly the same reason as the men, they feel that Muslims are threatening their nation. Their activism tends to be more prominent in northern European countries, which overall are more emancipated than southern European countries.
It’s still largely a male and masculine world because masculinity plays an important role, but much less so in certain countries than in others. It’s not the 1930s. Women are not just babymakers for the nation. For every radical right group, they are still that, but there are also many on the radical right who are perfectly fine with women working outside of the household, with having careers, with being successful (as long as they take a few years off to provide babies for the nation).
I really hope a lot of people read these books while the far right is in the spotlight, as it seems to be an issue that is not going to go away. Starting with your book, of course.
There’s a lot of media attention at the moment because there is so much going on. I hope my book will be around for at least 10 years, but that the far right will be less prominent by then, and that I can update it in time, because this is not about something that’s just happening now. It’s about a phenomenon that has been around for decades and will be around for decades. My book is just an introduction.
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Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and Professor II at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. He is also a columnist for Guardian US.
Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and Professor II at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. He is also a columnist for Guardian US.
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