Outright boring

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

Listen to this article

"Wokeism", "gender agenda", "climate terror": The patchwork of keywords that combine to form the discourse of right-wing parties and movements seems to be becoming more and more similar internationally. We spoke with political scientist Dr. Léonie de Jonge about how ideas are spreading on the right-wing fringe - and are also becoming acceptable in Luxembourg.

Somehow it is always the same pattern: "asylum abuse", "eco-terror", "woke", "the parties of bans". Ideas that are increasingly taken up by parties and currents on the right-wing fringe, even in Luxembourg, have usually already been declared – in their eyes – "problematic" by right-wingers abroad. Not infrequently, a glance across the borders or the Atlantic even allows one predict which issues will probably soon be taken up as "problematic". It is no coincidence that the push against drag culture has also reached Luxembourg after conservatives in the USA made it a "problem". A call that has often led to violence there.

Dr. Léonie de Jonge is Assistant Professor of European Politics and Society at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She deals primarily with right-wing populist movements. She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2019 for her work on this topic. We talked to her about how right-wing movements learn from each other, develop and adapt their ideas, how they influence social discourse, but at the same time the spokespeople behind them appear posh to the outside world.

In your analysis of Luxembourg's right-wing parties in 2019, you classified them as "comparatively moderate". A lot has happened since then: Fred Keup is party president of the ADR. Déi Konservativ, then a marginal note, are still active. How has the situation changed since you described them in The Successes & Failures of Right-Wing Populist Parties in the Benelux Countries?

As one might have expected. The more moderate members have tended to be marginalised, like Gast Gibéryen, and have been replaced by people with more conservative, right-wing ideologies. That's not unusual, you often see that with radical right-wing and right-wing populist parties, that there are more moderate and more radical currents. When there are splinter groups, it is usually the more radical ones that prevail. That is a trend that can also be seen here.

Of course, the question is always when one can or must call something radical or extreme right-wing. It is clear that the borderline is becoming increasingly blurred and that the parties are also playing with it to some extent. This can be seen quite clearly in the ADR, where extreme right-wing ideas are cropping up again and again. They are increasingly taking up themes that can also be seen in far-right parties abroad. At some point, the question arises as to where one can still see a difference between an ADR and an AfD.

Examples of this are fighting words like "wokeism", "gender agenda", "climate terror", "corona dictatorship", but also criticism of drag culture and LGBTQ+ movements. These have been known for a long time from abroad but they are slowly appearing in Luxembourg as well. The example of Tata Tom shows this quite clearly. Drag culture was never a hot potato until it was declared war on in America. It seems that right-wing populist groups around the world are copying from each other?

Yes, although I would no longer call it right-wing populism, but rather radical right-wing ideas. This development is a result of mainstreaming, or "normalisation". It's often hard to classify exactly where the ideas come from, but especially with the gender discourse, you could see signs online five or six years ago. It usually starts with memes, jokes, on 4Chan or similar online message channels. Here the ideas are presented and at some point they are taken up by bigger actors. Right-wing radicalism and right-wing populism are not phenomena that are primarily or solely located in the party landscape, but mainly in social movements in which many non-political actors are also active. But political groups subsequently take up these issues and ideas and try to make their mark in these new thematic areas. We have seen this during the past years at Corona. There, classic issues like immigration have taken a back seat and been replaced by new ones. Gender and climate are the new favourite topics of right-wing extremists. Here, they almost all overlap. This is interesting if only because these are classically nationalist movements, but they are becoming more and more international. The ideas are very easily taken up by actors in other countries.


Léonie de Jonge

It is ironic that of all things, the classically nationalist, authoritarian groupings have suddenly come together almost as an international movement.

On the one hand, this is strategic. For example, they can profit from watching what works for Donald Trump, for example, and how he does electorally, and get carried away by these ideas. But on the other hand, it's really ideological. You find people internationally who share their world view. They can exchange ideas, conceptions, but also strategies among themselves. So it's not surprising that in many countries you see the same thing; they are based on the same ideology. Something that works in Poland can also work here. They learn from each other. Partly we see this when ideas are almost copy-pasted. This is something that is also happening more and more in Luxembourg, as the example of ADR shows.

Can we also observe this internationalisation in programme items and political issues, not just in individual keywords?

Yes, and I think that is also logical. We are an enormously small country and of course not an island. It is obvious that the political discussions in neighbouring countries also have an effect on us. This can be seen in all parties and is, I think, also quite normal and partly very healthy that we not only look inwards, but also around us. These issues are also discussed a lot in the media, in the social media. And of course, this also sets part of the agenda for politics. Have we already addressed this issue, or do we need to address it here as well? Especially when there are elections and election programmes are written, they are certainly oriented towards issues abroad. Ideas certainly do not stop at borders, especially today. And it is quite logical that this is also reflected in national politics.

If these ideas spread so successfully in this way, do our "local" right-wing and extreme right-wing movements and parties even have and need ideas of their own? Isn't it enough to just "copy-paste"?

I don't know if this is really a relevant question anymore. The movements are based on an ideology: Nativism and authoritarianism. This results in a second step in xenophobic and exclusionary ideas. If you see society as hierarchical and inequalities as natural, then of course this can quickly turn into sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-LGBTQ ideas. Of course, every country has its own interpretation of these issues, which is and has to be adapted to the context and society. For example, I think of the ADRenalin president's attempt to introduce this gun-thing. This is obviously imported from the USA and Switzerland, but it just doesn't fit into the Luxembourg context. That the youth parties are a bit more radical, however, is something you notice with every party. People like Fred Keup package and market it more cleverly so that it suits the Luxembourgish taste. But in general you can see that in this rhetoric, a lot of noise is made, a lot is tried out until something sticks. In this way, the border is pushed a little further again.

An example of this can also be found in a speech by Joé Thein of déi Conservatives, who presented a complete sweeping blow in a single sentence: "Gréng politics, besides eco-terror, climate socialism, also stands for mass migration, asylum abuse, job destruction, wealth destruction, fraud, environmental sins, paternalism, prohibitionism, regulations, expropriation, control of private life, Tax increases, rent and purchase price increases, consumer dictatorship, land consumption, fuel price crisis, electricity price explosions, car rushes, speed limits, compulsory electric cars, waste floods, insect destruction, gender nonsense, hostility to the homeland, planned economy."

Doesn't this importing and adapting of narratives also provide a target? After all, political strategists and mainstream parties can deal with the ideas in advance and prepare counter-strategies?

Yes, we know that this can work. But only if mainstream parties, civil society and the media go along and take up this issue. We have seen this with the issue of migration. In the 1980s, this issue was not taken up much politically in the Netherlands, and if it was, it was as an economic issue, but not as a cultural issue. Then the centre-right parties suddenly took it up as a cultural issue to win some votes and expand their agenda. This prepared the field for far-right and radical right parties to take "issue-ownership" of these issues. So when "woke" and "gender" and their "dangers" are talked about forever by the ADR, you are just waiting for a CSV to eventually include the issue in its agenda as well. Then it gets talked about more and more in the media until at some point everyone actually believes that there is a real danger. Then it is a "problem". Then it is a political issue. And the parties that have taken "issue ownership" early – both for and against, have an advantage. A party that has established itself as pro-LGBTQ early on, for example, can also claim this issue for itself.

"In general, you can see that in [far-right] rhetoric, a lot of noise is made, a lot is tried out until something sticks. As a result, the boundaries are gradually pushed further."

Dr. Léonie de Jonge

This battle for "issue-ownership", i.e. ownership of controversial issues, is raging internationally. Right-wing populist figures are well known around the world: Politicians like Trump, influencers like Andrew Tate, political strategists like Steve Bannon … ADRenalin president Maksymilian Woroszylo recently posted a photo thanking self-proclaimed "populist" Gavin Wax, president of the "Trumpist" New York Young Republican Club, for a – slightly ironic – "strong cooperation against expanding globalisation" among "national patriots". You argue in your book that right-wing populist movements have long lacked charismatic figures and organisations. Have figures like Trump become de facto leaders of right-wing populists here? In other words, do people vote for ADR because they like Andrew Tate?

That's an interesting question. I don't think it's one-to-one. But what figures like Tate are doing is normalising and spreading this ideology. What was obscure and marginal years ago is now central. This makes it harder and harder to deprive these figures of their platform. We increasingly find ideas that were on the outer fringes of far-right movements in everyday life. In pop culture, in places where we don't expect them. Online, where we have come to know it, but also in martial arts, sometimes in food culture.

You see ideas popping up in new places. They are no longer confined to their own circles. But that doesn't change the fact that the media still play a very important role in this, just like the mainstream parties. They still help to decide what is legitimate and "normal", and how far tolerance for intolerance should go in a liberal democracy. They still have that responsibility.

Wait, we need to take a step back: Food?

Absolutely, food is par excellence a subject that involves many ideas and values: National culture, sense of belonging, national feeling. Food is an excellent way to communicate who "belongs" and who does not. This can be seen, for example, in France, where Le Pen proposed that halal food should no longer be offered in schools. In Italy, there was a polemic because only Italian food was to be sold in entire cities. The effect was that all the kebab shops had to close. And who owns them? Well, mostly people who don't come from Italy. You can communicate a lot of other ideas with food. And that's only in the radical right. In the extreme right-wing you see it even more pronounced. In Germany, for example, there are certain nipster movements (Nazi hipsters, editor's note) that eat a lot of vegan food. That's super interesting because you wouldn't necessarily associate that with each other. But the far-right fringe is becoming more and more heterogeneous and is courting an ever-growing audience. You watch a "normal" cooking show on the internet and suddenly you hear, "This is to feed our white people." Ideas like that then slowly creep in. People actually click on the videos because of the food culture, but they stumble across far-right ideas. Food is also important in this Andrew Tate scene because his content is very much about what you do with your body, its effects on masculinity and sperm production.

People generally don't go on these channels because they're far-right. They go because that person has a philosophy about food, about what masculinity is, strength … So people come into contact with right-wing ideology indirectly by slipping in through other ideas. It's like a Trojan horse that brings these ideas in.


"We increasingly find ideas that were on the outer fringes of far-right movements in everyday life."

Dr. Léonie de Jonge

One of the strategies here is not to position oneself explicitly, but to give ambiguous answers publicly, but to send clear signals internally. After Alain Vossen withdrew from the ADR list because of photos of him with Nazi insignia, the latter called it "partly photoshopped out of context at the time" in a letter. Vossen "regrets his carefree use of social media at the time and consistently distances himself from his post at the time". The ideology and symbolism themselves are not criticised. In interviews, party figures say that they "don't want to have anything to do with right-wing extremism", but explicitly do not call Vossen's behaviour "right-wing extremist" themselves. Instead, one finds speculation about visual similarities to logos of sports brands and "context" … The implication: "We distance ourselves from some other hypothetical right-wing extremism, but what you see here is not right-wing extremism" …

I guess the approach is strategic. They pay a lot of attention to details. This approach is called 'calculated ambivalence', where you know exactly where you can be ambiguous and how you can use that to send a message to the far-right fringe without making that clear, for example by not clearly excluding it. At the same time you maintain the image that you yourself are not like that. You leave that doubt. This often happens through seemingly trivial expressions. In the European Parliament recently, a politician from Vlaams Belang (a far-right separatist party in Belgium, editor's note) made the white power sign. (A sign similar to the "Ok" sign. The finger position suggests the letters "WP", which can stand for "White Power", ed.) This was posted on Facebook, to which the media naturally had to react and raised the question of what exactly it was supposed to mean. He of course said he didn't know and didn't mean it, he just wanted to say it was 'all okay'. That fits the script perfectly. Then they can portray themselves as victims of negative framing, which leads to this right-wing populist perpetual motion machine: You do something, there are scandalised reactions, the media pounce on it, it's discussed forever. Then the right-wing populist has the chance to deny everything, to take a victim position and immediately produces the next scandal. So on the one hand you are constantly in the media, on the other hand the machine keeps turning.

Especially "white power", which most people would see as a harmless "ok" sign, has been deliberately perverted with the intended goal of sowing doubt. Often "normal" expressions are co-opted in this way.

This is a phenomenon we often see. The "Pepe the Frog" meme, various items of clothing, numbers like 1488, "14 Words" – there are an enormous number of such extreme right-wing symbols that you first have to know in order to see them. And people in these extreme right-wing circles know them. This is what we call a Dog Whistle: when far-right politicians suddenly use words, numbers or clothing to send messages to their supporters that they can understand perfectly, but at the same time deny in the media.

Another important indicator of the success of right-wing populist parties is economic circumstances. On average, Luxembourgers are currently doing quite well. Around half of the voters are civil servants, so they are in a kind of "Marché protégé", as it is called in your book, to which de facto only Luxembourgers have access, and in which no one can threaten them that "foreigners will take away their jobs". Nevertheless, many people are currently having to cut back. Does that worry you?

I don't see any reason why this should change fundamentally. But that is only one factor. It also doesn't mean that we are immune to radical right-wing and right-wing extremist ideas and tendencies. In Luxembourg, too, such currents are becoming more and more acceptable. That is definitely worrying.