Right-Wing Populism as a Strategy of the Radical Right

The term “right-wing populism,” although commonly used by the German media, has been the subject of intense debate among social scientists, focusing on the central question of whether right-wing populism is an independent political phenomenon that is separate from right-wing extremism, or simply a strategic political option within the radical right. In the context of European comparative studies, political organizations and parties from different countries are often lumped together into ideological “families,” categorized according to shared ideological features that transcend national borders.

In regards to the broad family of “(neo-)Fascist, (neo-)Nazi, right-wing extremist or right-wing populist parties,” it has recently been argued that “right-wing populist” parties represent their own distinct subgroup within this family. This argument is firmly rejected here; in fact, one can argue that there is generally little point in labeling particular parties from the far-right spectrum as “right-wing populist” solely because of their chosen political strategy.[1]The “right-wing populist” label is simply a particularizing one that points to the strategy chosen by a specific right-wing extremist stream.

Populist right-wing extremists are simply those that make use of populist tools and strategies. They try to agitate the public by choosing particular topics and pushing them in the media, especially through the use of staged events and a personality cult (as lately exploited by Donald Trump), with the goal of inserting themselves into established public discourses; here, they pick up on current topics of debate, and polarize the discussion through targeted polemics. A central strategy is to conjure up an ostensible opposition between the political elite and “the people,” with the radical right purporting to advocate for the latter. Far-right populists claim that they are fighting against an alleged Establishment, or separate ‘political class’, ontologically distinct from the ‘pure’ demos or people.[2]As seen in the case of Trump’s election to the American presidency, this strategy can even allow a central figure of the economic elite to present himself as an enemy of the elite.

Proponents of populist right-wing extremism will often try to avoid using explicitly fascistic and/or Nazi vocabulary.[3]However, a closer examination of the underlying political substance, meaning the core ideological foundations, reveals no significant differences between populist and non-populist forms of right-wing extremism. Populism is therefore no more than a strategic option for right-wing extremists: after all, the historical Nazis used the same rhetoric to set themselves up as defenders against the alleged political and media elites of the Weimar Republic, wielding words like “Volksverräter” and “Lügenpresse” (“betrayer of the Volk” and “the lying press”) in the battle against democracy itself. These are words that are now being deployed by right-wing extremists again in the present day – with the same divisive intent and effect. In order not to cede ground to right-wing extremism, democrats should therefore be wary in normalizing the same populist language and techniques used by such parties.

Professor Samuel Salzborn is Senior Fellow at CARR, and is a Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University Berlin, Germany. See his profile here.

© Samuel Salzborn. 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]For an overview of the relevant debate, cf. Reinhard Heinisch, and Oscar Mazzoleni, eds. Understanding Populist Party Organisation: The Radical Right in Western Europe. London 2016; Gabriella Lazaridis, Giovanna Campani, and Annie Benveniste (eds.). The Rise of the Far Right in Europe: Populist Shifts and “Othering.”London 2016; Cas Mudde: Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge 2007; Andrea L. P. Pirro 2015. The Populist Radical Right in Central and Eastern Europe: Ideology, Impact, and Electoral Performance. London 2015.

[2]Cf. Yascha Mounk: The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It, Cambridge 2018.

[3]Although Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) is an example of a far-right populist party for which this does not apply, and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) has begun to openly argue for the rehabilitation of Nazi expressions like “völkisch” and “Volksgemeinschaft,” words that promote “ethnonationalist” concerns and the “ethnonational community”