Jekyll-and-Hyde: What Creates a Far-Right Supporter? Part 2.

Part 1 of this blog summarised current psychological theories relevant to understanding far-right personalities and behaviour. The following sections summarise the data on three non-violent far-right supporters, and analyse to what extent these theories are born out[1].

Case 1: Male aged 76, UKIP and Britain First Supporter

The author has known this individual (Subject 1) socially for 15 years. He is of white European Christian origin – although a full British citizen at birth. He came to England as an immigrant aged around nine and has lived in the UK permanently since. He left school aged 16 and had no tertiary education.

Throughout his adult life until retirement in his late sixties, he held a succession of jobs in the fast food retail sector, mostly as a self-employed small business owner and working typically 12 hours per day, 7 days per week. As a result of his efforts, he was able to acquire a substantial property portfolio, both in the UK and abroad. After his first marriage to an Englishwoman ended in the 1980s, he married a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East who was to all intents and purposes secular e.g. she wore western dress, and she did not pray every day, go to the mosque regularly, or insist on a halal diet.

From 2004 when I first met him until 2014, he rarely made any emphatic statements or comments in my presence about politics, religion or race. He professed to be an orthodox Christian but was, to all intents and purposes, a secular one i.e. he did not pray or go to church regularly. He had a mildly expressed authoritarian world-view e.g. a belief in law-and-order, advocating capital punishment, paying his taxes, not relying on state benefits, and generally obeying the law. However, he also exhibited more authoritarian attitudes about social behaviour (e.g., he detested women who smoked cigarettes or chewed gum or who wore ‘too much’ jewellery; and he disapproved strongly of household pets and their ‘anti-social’ owners).

In 2014, however, he announced to me and others that he had joined the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and was strongly in favour of Britain leaving the EU (i.e. pro-Brexit). In addition, he would make anti-immigrant, anti-black and anti-Muslim statements, the frequency, egregiousness and anger of which increased markedly into 2015 and 2016. One of his central themes was that a Christian Europe was being steadily obliterated by Muslim immigrant hordes and that the EU was a major alleged culprit in this by enabling and requiring large-scale immigration. The far-right leader and Islamophobe Tommy Robinson was one of his heroes, as was the Alt-Right US President Donald Trump. In any social setting, he would find an opportunity to introduce his ethno-religious prejudicial views into the discourse. Typically, this would occur when someone mentioned a trigger word (such as “immigration”, “immigrant”, “Asian” or “Muslim”). Up to this point in the setting, he would appear calm and ‘normal’; upon hearing the trigger word, he would erupt into a torrent of ethno-religious invective lasting several minutes, accompanied by angry facial expressions. This abrupt Jekyll and Hyde transformation was striking.

His dalliance with UKIP lasted less than a year and he then joined Britain First (BF)[2], the more hard-line far-right group. Moreover, he became an enthusiastic participant in BF’s Facebook presence and was responsible for some of the more extreme Islamophobic postings, until eventually Facebook banned BF and other far-right groups in 2019 (Antisemitism, 2019).

Despite the author’s attempts and those of others over a four-year period to challenge his assertions and moderate his extreme views, he steadfastly refused and dismissed our entreaties as “naïve”, “unpatriotic” and “weak”. We were also unable to comprehend how, as someone with such bigoted expressed views against all Muslims (not just Islamist extremists), he had nonetheless been married to one for more than 35 years. There was no apparent inter-spousal conflict of an ethno-religious nature during that time.

Case 2: Male aged 78, UKIP Member and Brexit Party Supporter

The author has known Subject 2 for 25 years. Like Subject 1, he left school at 16 and had no tertiary education. Also like Subject 1, until retirement he held a succession of jobs, mostly as a self-employed small business owner in the business services sector.

He was very well read and articulate and had an enquiring mind and a broad interest in politics and world affairs. From his school days, he had a lifelong friend who became the General Secretary of a major national trade union, with whom he would have lively and frank debates on British politics and politicians. Over his lifetime, he had at various times supported the Conservatives and the Labour Party, although by the early 2000s he was a Conservative supporter. However, he never seemed satisfied with the Tories or indeed any political party and would frequently express his criticisms and complaints about them and his frustration at what he regarded as the self-serving incompetence of British politicians in general and how they all ignored ‘the people’.

From 1994 to 2013, although frequently expressing pejorative evaluations of British politicians, governments and their policies, Subject 2 did not express any noticeably far-right or authoritarian views. Typical complaints focussed on such topics as poor salaries of nurses and frontline emergency workers, inadequate policing, and poor old-age pensions. He expressed concern about high immigration but not in any specific or angry way. Increasingly, though, he complained about ‘political correctness’, especially from left-wing sources in local authorities and in the media. For example, he objected to being told that he could no longer use traditional colloquial terms such as ‘chinky’ for Chinese restaurants as it was now deemed patronising and racially offensive. He also objected to being told that he now had to use gender-neutral titles and references to individuals and that Christmas celebrations were being dropped as they might offend non-Christian citizens.

The year 2014 seemed to propel him into a different mode of thinking. Two particular situations appeared to have energised him ‒ unprecedentedly large waves of mass migration of refugees into Europe (and potentially UK) linked especially to wars and civil strife in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2013 announcement by the British government of a referendum to leave the EU. As a result of the latter, UKIP began a relentless campaign to promote a ‘Yes’ referendum outcome, although the referendum would not be held until 2016. The UKIP arguments and rhetoric seemed to encapsulate for Subject 2 everything that he had felt frustrated about for so long. He felt he was being listened to, and that UKIP offered a salvation. Nigel Farage became his idol, joined in 2016 by Tommy Robinson and Donald Trump. Moreover, similarly to Subject 1, he began to talk of a Christian Europe being steadily obliterated by Muslim immigrant hordes and the EU being a major alleged culprit in this by enabling and requiring large-scale immigration. He did not distinguish between Islamist extremists and ordinary Muslims ‒ in his view they were all part of the same threat.

As the Brexit referendum approached, and afterwards, his rhetoric became increasingly authoritarian, stridently attacking anyone who wished Britain to stay in the EU or who even uttered caution about Brexit. To him, as he stated on many occasions, the referendum win for Brexit was a clear instruction by the people and failure to deliver it would be to overturn democracy. When challenged about the non-binding status of an indicative referendum, and the fact that Britain has operated on a representative democracy model for over 400 years and not a direct democracy model, he seemed confused and perplexed but nevertheless refused to accept these facts. In his view, ‘The People’ had spoken.

Remarkably, he too exhibited a Jekyll and Hyde transformation from calm, ‘normal’ demeanour to one of ranting and raving about the alleged iniquities of Islam, Muslims, immigrants, the EU, and British politicians from the mainstream parties. Once started, he would continue hectoring loudly for anything up to ten minutes without a break. Just as with Subject 1, his sudden rants would be triggered by certain key words from others in conversation.

While eventually in 2017 conceding that he was in fact now a far-right supporter, he did not concede that UKIP was in any way extreme or that he himself was an ethno-religious bigot. Indeed, he argued that “the facts” about Islam and Muslims fully justified his position. The arrest, charging and conviction of the Islamophobic far-right former EDL leader Tommy Robinson for contempt of court (Hamilton, 2018; Dearden, 2019) became the subject of another round of vitriolic rants. Despite Robinson’s numerous criminal convictions, Subject 2 refused to accept that he was, by definition, a criminal.

The rightward lurch of UKIP under Batten did not diminish his support for the party, but when Farage quit UKIP and announced the launch of his new Brexit Party, Subject 2 enthusiastically followed suit by quitting UKIP to support the new party. Again, as with UKIP, he refused to acknowledge that, although the Brexit Party is styled as a populist party, that did not mean that it did not share extreme beliefs held by more hard-right groups.

Case 3: Female aged 77, UKIP Supporter

Subject 3 is a 77-year old female that the author had known for some three years as an acquaintance. She is a white native-born Englishwoman who, while nominally Christian, does not go to church regularly. She had no tertiary education and for most of her working life held a number of office administration jobs.

A lively, vivacious personality, she had a reputation for imposing her views and wishes on others and not being a good listener. Most of the time, she appeared ‘normal’ and engaging during conversations. However, just like Subjects 1 and 2, certain trigger words uttered by others would typically spark a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, whereby she would embark on a torrent of hate-filled invective against immigrants, Muslims and benefit scroungers. She alleged that the welfare state was disproportionately benefitting immigrants and Muslims, and that these groups were responsible for increased crime. She was a great admirer of Nigel Farage and the Islamophobic far-right activist Tommy Robinson. Like Subjects 1 and 2, she was particularly incensed by Robinson’s 2018 conviction and jailing, subsequent release pending appeal, and eventual retrial, conviction and jailing. She went on ‘free Tommy Robinson’ protest marches. A former Conservative supporter who had switched to supporting UKIP, she appeared not to see any conflict with supporting more extremist views, such as those of Robinson. She also expressed dismay at Prince Harry marrying Meghan Markle, as the latter was not white.

For at least two years prior to the 2019 Facebook ban covering all National Front, BNP, EDL, and BF accounts and material (Antisemitism, 2019), she had been a prolific poster of pro-Robinson/EDL/BF propaganda and hate commentary against Muslims. She revealed to the author that she saw this as a fundamental right of ‘freedom of expression’, and refused to accept that dissemination of such incitement was probably a criminal offence. She was shocked and upset when in 2018 Facebook officially warned her to moderate her content or face the closure of her account.

Observations and Comments on the Three Cases

These three cases cannot be used to infer that far-right supporters in general would think and act in a similar way. However, notwithstanding the limitations and weaknesses of this study, it is valid to consider to what extent psychological theories cited in Part 1 appear to be born out.

While Pettigrew’s notion of psychological ‘tinder’ and an external ‘spark’ certainly seems to apply to the three Subjects, their education level was on the low side of average for the population rather than definitely below average. What was evident was their chaotic, emotional and undisciplined way of thinking e.g. uttering easily disprovable falsehoods and connecting them with other wild assertions about ethnic and religious minorities[3].

Pettigrew (2017) states that five highly inter-related characteristics stand out that are central to a social-psychological analysis: authoritarianism, social dominance orientation (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), outgroup prejudice, the absence of intergroup contact, and relative deprivation. All of these were exhibited to varying extent in the three Subjects, although there were also some contra-indications.

All three are extroverts, and also conscientious to the point of neuroticism. On agreeableness, they all showed a Jekyll and Hyde presentation of self. Most of the time, they would be sociable, talkative, charming and agreeable. However, on hearing a trigger word, they would rapidly descend into being anti-social, charmless and disagreeable.

There was no evidence that any of the three Subjects was subject to absence of inter-group contact or were not open to new experience. For example, all had travelled to other countries, and two had travelled extensively to other continents including the Middle East, India and South Africa. Subject 1 would typically spend several weeks every year with his wife’s family in a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East. All three had enquiring minds and were active in exploring new social pursuits and travel opportunities.

On relative deprivation, while none of the three Subjects could fairly be described as deprived relative to the general population, individually, they expressed feelings of relative deprivation regarding immigrants and Muslims, whom they alleged had gained preferential access to health care, welfare benefits, and free social housing.

On neuroticism, there was a striking display of Islamophobia in all three Subjects, apparently only arising after 2013 or possibly deliberately not revealed by them before then. There was also evidence of other phobias. For example, Subject 1 had an abnormal fear of household pets and contaminated food in restaurants, and also held bizarre fear-based theories about the causes and spread of disease. Subject 2 had been agoraphobic for many years and suffered from general anxiety. Whether an individual suffering from one or more other phobias is likely to be more predisposed to ethno-religious phobias is unclear.

All three Subjects also exhibited xenophobia and outgroup prejudice. The emotion of fear is triggered by a feeling of lack of control or uncertainty about the nature, scale or outcome of a particular perceived threat or risk. While the risk can never be zero, it is unlikely to be anything close to the levels ascribed by far-right individuals. Inflated estimates in the general population are typical. For example, UK respondents to the Ipsos-MORI (2014) poll put the proportion of the UK population  that were Muslim at 21%, against an actual level of 5%. The same Ipsos-MORI poll reported similar inflation appearing in the US and other countries. The role of the media, Internet and social media in enabling far-right communicators, especially demagogues, to stoke the fires of ethno-religious fears, anger and hatred is well recognized. Authoritarian individuals, possibly with underlying but hidden ethno-religious phobias, appear especially susceptible.

In conclusion, while not acceptable to generalise from these three isolated cases, something of value may still be derived. The data apparently supports Duckitt & Sibley (2010), Macrea & Costa (2003), Pettigrew (2017) and Sidanius & Pratto (1999) but not on lack of openness to new experience and absence of intergroup contact. It is not possible to determine from these data whether these discrepancies are merely aberrant exceptions likely to be found randomly in the population, or represent something more substantive. Similarly, the vivid Dr  Jekyll and Mr Hyde transformations in all three may be simply an unusual coincidence or may be more prevalent among far-right supporters. Further large-scale studies are required to examine the psychology of far-right supporters.

Dr Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences – Excellence in Innovation & Technology) https://www.cerides.euc.ac.cy at the European University Cyprus. He is author of several books on risk, including editing and contributing to the two-volume anthology The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon (2018, 2019 Ibidem Verlag).

© Alan Waring. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] The author thanks clinical and political psychologist Dr Roger Paxton for reviewing a draft of this article.

[2] See Allchorn (2018) on BF’s trajectory.

[3] See Dror & MacKenzie (2008), Kahan et al (2017) and Nickerson (1998) on confirmation bias.