How is the far-right capitalizing COVID-19?

The fight against the coronavirus fits well with far-right views on protectionism and their zero-tolerance approach to law and order.

“Despite coronavirus, leftists want open borders for migrants” is the caption in an image showing a large group of male migrants on a rubber boat by popular right-wing outlet Voice of Europe. The image is an example of how far-right politicians and news agencies are capitalizing on the virus to push forward their anti-immigrant and populist message.

In the battle against corona, far-right politicians have been on the forefront when it comes to arguing for a complete lockdown. In the days leading up to the Belgian lockdown, Dries van Langehove, a politician for Flemish Interest, had been giving advice on his social media insisting citizens not to organize parties or go to the supermarket during a peak time, and not to hoard products. Instead he told people to be considerate to others when buying toilet paper, to eat healthy, move around the house, take up a productive routine, clean, read a good book and make more time for each other at home. In the Netherlands, the laid-back response of the government to the virus led to a collaboration between party leaders Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) and Thierry Baudet (Forum for Democracy), who successfully lobbied for closing down schools. Both politicians have also urged the government to change its views on the herd immunity approach and instead go on full lockdown.

The fixation on COVID-19 by right-wing populists is unsurprising, as the virus fits well with the far-right discourse on immigration, community safety and government accountability. Xenophobia, or the fear towards a cultural other, plays a central role in the far-right’s discourse about the emergence and containment of the virus. Where Matteo Salvini linked border control to difficulties of containing the virus, Victor Orban used the first corona patient in the country, an Iranian student, as an opportunity to frame COVID as a consequence of migration. Similarly, Voice of Europe wrote several articles in an attempt to portray immigrant/minority groups as the ones largely ignoring the calls from the government to stay at home in Italy, Germany, and Belgium. In Belgium precisely, Dries Van Langehoven took advantage of the current crisis to attack minorities by posting a suggestive video of youth plundering a warehouse on his Facebook page stating that “the strength of the multicultural society will show itself in all its splendor in the coming weeks …”. Clearly, he was implying that minorities show little solidarity by means of hoarding products.

The crisis also feeds into populist sentiment. Van Langehove tweeted “every extra cent in the budget should now go to the health and economic crisis. Our people must come first, more than ever before”. He posted this with an image of the Minister for Asylum and Migration Maggie De Block in front of a group of male “migrants”, with a statement that De Block asked for an additional €42 million for accommodating asylum seekers. This type of discourse is especially appealing in the current crisis where the working-class sections of the society – the nurses, teachers, police men, cleaners and supermarket personnel – keep society running when everything else seems to be falling apart. In their discourse, far-right leaders describe themselves as the protectors of these working-class people. Dutch politician Geert Wilders tweets frequently in outrage about the enormous cuts that have been made by the ruling elite in the sectors that are now needed the most.

The virus also has given the far-right the opportunity to criticize the way the political elite and experts deal with the crisis. In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte’s decision to stick to a herd immunity approach has created outrage on the far-right. Rutte’s speech to introduce the measure of not “shaking hands” anymore, but rather “touch elbows” led to humorous memes that implicitly criticized the elite, by showing how Geert Wilders would use his elbow (instead of his hands) to hit Rutte or Bruno Bruins – the, now previous, Minister of health. Rutte’s decision was based on information by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). Far-right news outlets such as Ongehoord Nederland as well as far-right leaders Thierry Baudet and Geert Wilders expressed distrust in the institute, which in an earlier stage of the corona crisis made incorrect statements – by arguing that it was unlikely for the disease to appear in the Netherlands and stating that the disease was not very contagious and that children were less likely to infect others.

(Left, Rutte & Wilders, translation: he didn’t give me a handshake, so I decided to go for an elbow | Right: Bruins & Wilders, translation: elbow? Yes on your face).

(Left, Rutte & Wilders, translation: he didn’t give me a handshake, so I decided to go for an elbow | Right: Bruins & Wilders, translation: elbow? Yes on your face).

The idea of a complete lockdown fits well with the authoritarian tendency of the far-right, which often express praise for strong leaders who can ensure socio-political isolation for the purposes of reducing external threats to their totalitarian power. As a matter of fact, tough, total lockdown has proven successful, which helps legitimize the discourse of the far right. The harsh approach taken against the virus in China is an illustrative example, which after 2 months of lockdown reported mid-March to have no new domestic cases. Another example is Hungary´s emergency law, which has allowed Viktor Orbán to rule without limits, a method that was praised by Salvini as the appropriate response to contain the virus. With countries locking down their borders as a necessary intervention to deal with the virus, the European unity is under ever more pressure. The uncertainty about the virus makes for a perfect storm, which plays well into the hands of the far-right.

Ms Ofra Klein is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute. See her profile here.

© Ofra Klein. 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).