Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson (Getty Images/Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Mark Wilson/Salon)

Impeachment won't slow the global rise of the radical right — but an alternative vision might

Cas Mudde, expert on the far right, says it's pointless to tell people Donald Trump is bad. What else have we got?


Chauncey DeVega
December 19, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

Donald Trump's impeachment is a rebuke against the global new right and its assault on democracy and the rule of law.

On Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives finally voted to impeach Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors, including abuse of power and obstructing Congress and the rule of law. There are many possible reasons to impeach Trump, but these relate to his efforts to extort the government of Ukraine into launching a fake investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic nominee.

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Trump now becomes the third American president to have ever been impeached. But he is unique and distinct in one way, as the only president to be impeached for using his public office to interfere in U.S. foreign policy and betray a foreign ally for personal gain.

Although the power of impeachment is largely symbolic — since Trump will almost certainly not be removed from office — it still marks an act of resistance against the rising tide of the global right, and its assault on democracy and the rule of law.

Cas Mudde is one of the world’s leading experts on right-wing extremism, populism, democracy and the global new right. Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and a contributing writer for the Guardian. He is the author of several books, including “The Far Right in America," “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe” and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction" (with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser). His newest book is “The Far Right Today.”

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In our conversation, Mudde discussed how Donald Trump's authoritarian populist movement is similar to (and different from) related movements led by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other such leaders around the world. Mudde also detailed the goals of what he calls the "populist radical right," explored its understanding of reality and "common sense" and explained the role of racism and nativism in this global assault against liberal democracy.

Mudde also issued an important warning to the Democratic Party and other defenders of liberal democracy in the U.S. and around the world: They must offer a positive, alternative vision to that posed by global right-wing extremism if they hope to defeat it. If Democrats simply run as the “anti-Trump” party in 2020, Mudde suggests, they will most likely lose.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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You are an expert on the global new right. How does it make you feel to watch their power and influence grow and take hold with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and many other leaders and movements around the world? 

I feel sad and I feel stressed, in part, because I believe that the type of politics that is truly detrimental to liberal democracy is winning. I also feel that way because the divides in this country are so deep and fundamental that there are more and more people with whom I can't have a real conversation because we just live in different worlds.

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Democracy is prefaced on some shared reality and a basic consensus about the truth. Trumpers and other members of the right-wing have rejected that premise. Without such a common understanding, how is it possible to engage in basic decision-making about politics and society?

This question of “alternate realities” is about much more than people who do not care about the truth. I believe that most people on the radical right actually think that they are basing their arguments on the facts. They believe that we are being swamped by immigrants. They believe that the conspiracies they spread are true and that the only reason other people do not accept these conspiracies as being true is because the mainstream media doesn't talk about them. This makes matters much more difficult, because if it was just simply ignorance then we could have an argument about the facts.

It goes much further than just different opinions. Those who are members of the right wing and those outside it have different truth organizations. What the New York Times is to many liberals, Fox News is to many conservatives. Fox News, despite how inaccurate it is, is the media of record for conservatives. As such, they hold it in high esteem.

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Has this illiberal, anti-democratic right-wing movement constructed its own reality? Or is it something else?

There are two parts of the far right. On the one hand there are the neo-Nazis who in fact are not very “new” in their beliefs and ideologies. Today’s neo-Nazis stand for roughly the same things as their predecessors.

But the radical right isn't that much different from the mainstream. The idea of nativism is pretty much based on the idea of the nation-state, which is a dominant principle in most politics, particularly in Europe . For example, the idea that Germany is a country of Germans. If that's the case, everyone who is not German is a threat.

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Authoritarians believe in law and order from their own point of view. They even believe in some version of “democracy.”  But for these members of the far right, democracy is pretty much just unfettered majority rule.

Minority rights are, for them, almost by definition undemocratic. The far right does not want something completely different than what many in the more mainstream of society want. However, they have a very different interpretation of what "democracy" and "nation" mean.

How did the global new right come into power?

From a more European perspective, it is a result of a combination of changes. For many people, social democracy has outlived its purpose because it has successfully created a welfare state, to the extent the public wanted it. This moment with the rise of the far right is also a consequence of broader globalization and the integration of markets — but also immigration, which has fundamentally changed society and has also created tensions that were always present but just not as salient.

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For example, I grew up in the Netherlands. Those years ago, my school was almost completely white. I believe we had one nonwhite student in my high school, and everyone wanted to be friends with him because he was considered cool. If you were to go to my former high school now, it will probably be between one-third to one-half nonwhite.

When I was young, I assumed that Dutch people were white, but that was never an issue me. It didn’t feel relevant to me. At present, issues such as “whiteness” and what it means to be “Dutch” or “Muslim” have all become relevant.

Why are these members of the radical right — and other more mainstream conservatives as well — so compelled toward simple explanations about the world?

Simple things always give people a feeling that they understand the world and that they can control what happens around them. What members of the right-wing — and especially the far right — have is a very essentialist understanding of categories. When they talk about what it means to be “white,” they do so as if that category is objective and fixed and has never changed. Whiteness, in fact, is something different than what many people thought whiteness was 50 years ago in the United States and elsewhere.

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When we explain to people who believe in these essential and fixed categories that whiteness is dynamic and changing and that itself is evidence of how social integration is possible, they will still say, "Oh yeah, but certain groups can be integrated and others can’t." What they assume to be some natural state of being of racial homogeneity is not true. The very ideas of “whiteness” and “race” are constructs.

How do you make sense of the relationship between what was the mainstream right — here in the U.S., that being the Republican Party — and the more radical elements of the far right?

There are significant differences between, for example, the role of far-right ideas and people within the British Conservative Party, the U.S. Republican Party and Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France. The mainstream right has pretty much always been pro-market.

Even when they were open to immigrants, they were considered “guests,” particularly in Europe. As guests, they were expected to adjust to the country they were in. Even the whole concept of “tolerance” — which most social democrats, for example, would stand for — is still a hierarchical concept. It means that, I, the real authentic native person, tolerates you, the immigrant. In practice, I have the power to tolerate you. Now, that was never really a problem as long as the number of immigrants was small.

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When that number became bigger, it became much more problematic. And you see this in the most extreme form in the United States. One of the key reasons why Donald Trump won in 2016, and why his type of politics win, is a massive fear of the U.S. becoming a “majority minority” country.

A changing society, white fears of becoming a “minority” in “their own country,” and of course 9/11 and rampant Islamophobia helped to create this moment with Trump being president.

In the most basic sense, what do these right-wing movements and parties have in common internationally? And how are they different?

What the radical right has in common, from [Jair] Bolsonaro to Trump to Le Pen, is a combination of nativism, authoritarianism and populism as an ideological core. However, that does not mean that they are all part of one movement. Actually, the ties between the different groups are very slight. This is in part because they are nationalists first. The radical right’s leaders are not very interested in building global networks. On top of that, they come from very different traditions and operate in very different organizations.

Bolsonaro did not even have his own party until a few weeks ago. Trump has taken over the Republican Party. Whereas Marine Le Pen is a product of her party and political culture. This fourth wave of the far right exists in extreme heterogeneity, but they do share some common ideas.

What is “populism”? And how is it being used by the mainstream news media and others, correctly or otherwise?

Populists believe that they are “the voice of the people” where “the people” are never the full population. “The people” are those who share the same interests and values as the populists. However, populism is not by definition nativist or racist. There are inclusive populist movements as well. For example, in both Spain and Greece left-wing populists were pro-immigration. Populists are also not necessarily white either.

But at present, populism is almost exclusively right-wing — I describe them more accurately as the “populist radical right.” Populism is only one part of their ideology. Nativism, which is a more ethnic interpretation of “the people,” is predominant. Therefore, when the populist radical right talks about “the people” they mean the people of a certain nation. That nation can be multiracial, but often it is not.

How does the populist radical right envision the world? What is their version of “common sense”?

The “common sense” of the radical right wing is that “like wants to live with like.” This means implicitly that whites want to live with whites. The Dutch want to live with the Dutch. In Europe, we do not like to talk about “races.” We talk about “Dutch culture” and the like.

The “common sense” of the right is also shown by how they like to talk about the animal world: “Tigers don't live with lions.” For them, that is common sense. That's natural. That's the other thing that the right has always done, which is to believe in “natural differences.” They believe that it's unnatural for the state to intervene because that goes against the inherent nature of what human beings are. Human beings want to be with people like themselves. They claim they want to go back to the natural order, and that in a natural order everyone knows their place. That means ethnic minorities, but also women and in various cases, gays and lesbians, etc.

Why do Trump’s followers embrace him given that his policies, and that of these right-wing populists more generally, will hurt most of his own rank-and-file supporters, both economically and in other ways?

The vast majority of voters for the radical right, let alone for Trump, are not destitute. They actually have an economic buffer, as Brexit showed. These voters are willing to pay a price for what they consider to be “freedom.” I'm not sure that Trump's voters, and other radical right voters, are naïve. I believe many of them just find it much more important that there are fewer immigrants around them. In these voters' minds, it means they will make more money.

To take one example: There are many people in the United States who find it more important to make abortion illegal than to improve their personal economic well-being. Their voices are as rational as that of someone who votes on the basis of their wallet. They are not being misled. There is another myth about Trump’s voters that needs to be highlighted. Some people argue that Trump’s voters see him as some sort of God. They do not. The vast majority, even among his most ardent supporters, see all of Trump’s flaws.

What they like is, first and foremost, that Donald Trump is not of the professional political class. Trump is screwing up the system. That is what his followers want out of him. What that should tell outside observers is not so much what is wrong with Trump but why so many people feel angry towards mainstream politicians and the political professional class more generally.

In the U.S. there is wage stagnation. We have growing economic inequality. The welfare state is being dismantled in many countries. We have massive corporate interests, and mainstream parties have failed. The Republicans have failed at least as much as the Democrats. But this idea from the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party that if Trump is defeated there will be some return to the so-called good old days of the 1990s is really being blind to the problems that have created Donald Trump and his movement.

How can liberals and progressives do better in the struggle over language? For example, there are all these worries about the health of “liberal democracy” in the U.S. and the West. But too many Americans hear “liberal" and that comes with negative  associations about black and brown people, gays and lesbians, and of course “big government.” Conservatives have been masterful in programming that negative association. “Liberal” now means something bad.

The right wing has been incredibly successful in winning the battle over language. I think it is most visible in terms like “political correctness," which is a weaponized term that has very little to do with what it was originally about. At present, “free speech” is a very potent example of how the right has weaponized language.

“Free speech” in the current context, as used by the right-wing has nothing to do with what free speech initially meant, namely that the state should not prevent you from saying things. Whereas now it is about the idea that the New York Times, for example, must let you write an op-ed for them. This is absurd, this notion that you have a God-given right to an op-ed in the New York Times.

And that free speech should come without consequences.

As used by the right, “free speech” means, by and large, that you can say something racist and I can then correctly identify it as being racist. But members of the right believe that they can say something racist and no one can be critical of it.

Language is one of the weaknesses, at the moment, of the left in general, but even with liberal Democrats. Hillary Clinton is an example of this, but she is certainly not alone. Many Democrats do this when they talk about “hard-working Americans.”

In the United States that language has a very racialized connotation. White people hear "white people" when you say “hard-working Americans." Whereas many minorities will think, "Oh, you said 'hard-working Americans.' You're talking to white people."

“Working class” is another example. It is amazing how in the U.S. “working class” is used to mean the white working class. We also quite often speak about the “working class” when we actually mean men and not women. Language is a significant part of the political struggle of the left.

“Moderate” is another example of problematic language. Consider Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Apparently, the narrative goes that they are “radical” and the American people want a “moderate.” Now, first of all, the country is polarized. So what does “moderate” even mean? What does the center mean in a polarized world? Many of the positions that Sanders and Warren stand for are actually supported by a majority of Americans. Why would that be “radical”? But in practice “radical” still has that negative connotation and the term “moderate” has a positive connotation in American political discourse.

What do we do about the old problem that there are individuals, political parties and other groups who use democratic procedures such as voting to infiltrate a government with the goal of undermining if not destroying democracy?

I'm definitely a free-speech extremist. I think that you should be allowed pretty much to campaign for everything. You should have a right to be a member of the Nazi Party and to campaign to create a Nazi state. I actually would prefer to know that beforehand so I can make an informed decision.

We should also, however, not be blind to the illiberal aspects of many so-called liberal democratic parties. If you look at Europe, for example, freedom of speech is pretty constrained. You can't deny the Holocaust. You can't say things that are perceived as racist. Even the U.S. does not have full freedom of speech. A person is not allowed to praise terrorism, for example.

Why should Americans care about British politics and the recent election victory of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives?

I do not believe that Americans should care that much about the recent British election. Johnson is going to take the U.K. out of the EU, but the EU is going to survive and will not be much weaker because the U.K. is not in it. He will try to get a special relationship with Trump and will not get it. I just wrote a column in the Guardian about this. I do not think that there is a strong lesson from the U.K. elections for the U.S. elections.

Johnson’s win does not mean that if a party or candidate goes hard left that they cannot win the election. There are any number of specific factors that played a role in the British election — Brexit, which is unique, being one of them. It is important to see things for what they really are. First and foremost, these were British elections. Boris Johnson might look a bit like Trump, but he is still a British politician set in the British context of politics and culture.

What can be done to stop the global ascent of the radical right?

First and foremost, we should see things in the correct perspective. In almost all countries, the radical right is a minority and the vast majority of people vote for liberal democratic parties, be they conservative, liberals or social democrats. That is very important. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. The radical right is not the majority. The second question, then, is why don't these people vote for the radical right? And why are the people who support liberal democracy not mobilized like those people who vote for the radical right?

Advocates for liberal democracy, for the most part, do not offer anything. This goes back to neoliberalism to a certain extent. Advocates of liberal democracy, the political mainstream centrists, do not offer positive narratives. Yes, the U.S. is a bit different with Warren and Sanders, who are in fact providing positive narratives. But in most cases, this is not true.

Defenders of liberal democracy are basically just saying, “Don’t vote for the radical right.” “Don't vote for Trump." "Don't vote for Johnson." "Don't go out of the EU because things will be worse.”

“Things will be worse” is not a very good mobilization strategy. The Democrats do not need to convince anyone anymore that Trump is bad. The people who don't see that now will not see that fact a year from now either. Whatever you tell them, the vast majority of people know that Trump is bad. The point is, they don't think the Democrats are worth coming out for. That is the challenge faced by the Democrats.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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