As President Trump and his cadre still refuse to concede the American presidential election, even going so far as to begin vetting new appointees for a regime that will never govern, the reaction from Joe Biden’s team has been instructive. That is to say, they have largely ignored the mess playing out on Pennsylvania Avenue and the many abrasive Trumpian provocations, instead focusing on the task in hand and assembling the teams that will take on the big tasks facing the Biden presidency: COVID-19 and its fallout.
It’s particularly notable because it is a continuation of the strategy Biden had pursued throughout his presidential campaign. While anti-Trump campaigners worried that Biden’s campaign was sedate, lacking in passion, and too fearful of attacking Trump, Biden was fighting a successful campaign based on the one thing that is anathema to far-right populists: rules of engagement and dialogue. Instead of triggering aggression and divisiveness, Biden strived to unify people also across the traditional left-right cleavages in order to set out his agenda.
Far-right populists always want to fight dirty. They use what linguists label “eristic argumentation” – a form of destructive argumentation full of ad hominem attacks; they are not interested in possibly agreeing to disagree. It costs them nothing - as that kind of performance is what their supporters expect in the first place - but causes immeasurable damage to their opponents. When Hillary Clinton, for instance, went on the offensive in 2016, unfortunately calling some Trump supporters “deplorables,” it provided the perfect fuel for Trump to energise his base. “Look,” the Trump campaign was legitimately able to say, “the mask has slipped. This is what the elites really think of you”.
The need for an aggressive, unclean performance was evident in the Trump campaign’s refusal to engage in a virtual debate where their candidate would have to wait his turn to speak, rather than attempt to dominate, attack, and discombobulate his opponent.
Are there lessons here for the wider world in how we engage with far-right populist movements? Quite possibly. In the UK, Sir Keir Starmer has won praise and criticism in equal measure for his often dispassionate engagement with prime minister Boris Johnson. Critics see his approach as tepid. Supporters believe his calm approach is a deliberate contrast to Johnson’s bombast. While Johnson’s now-former senior advisor Dominic Cummings liked to think of himself as the enemy of the stuffy and slow-moving civil service, Starmer talks up his credentials as a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, well experienced in subtle, rational and persuasive argumentation, and by proxy a defender of institutions, of checks and balances.
In the European Union, the problem exists at a national and supranational level. Emmanuel Macron, for instance, managed to portray himself both as a disruptor and as a defender of the institutions of the Republic when facing off against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017. But, increasing tensions over terrorism may again create an opportunity for the far-right in the coming months and years. However, Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have recently taken over the security agenda and fight against terrorism, thus robbing the far-right of their precious law and order rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the collected states of the EU have an ongoing headache with Hungary and Poland, two countries whose continuous flouting of the liberal norms of the Union amount to a strategic and calculated provocation.
The EU last week voted to suspend funds from member states who breach fundamental rights - an obvious reference to the populist governments of Hungary and Poland who have persistently attacked press freedom, the independence of the judiciary, and reproductive rights. Indeed, the European Commission is currently explicitly signaling to the two illiberal, neo-autocratic governments that they are not afraid of the latter’s possible veto against the projected budget. Thus, it remains quite unpredictable how this struggle will be resolved and what a compromise might look like.
Far-right populism does not manifest in the same way everywhere, but methods of combating it are similar. Firstly, recognising this is not “politics as usual” is vital. The normally disputatious Democratic Party was successful in the US presidential election largely because the factions within it realised the single most important goal was the defeat of Trump. Similar strategies have been seen in France in the defeats of Le Pen père et fille, and more recently in Austria’s 2016 presidential election, when the mainstream parties united behind an independent, formerly Green candidate to defeat the far-right populist Freedom Party candidate.
Secondly, it’s crucial to use existing mechanisms governing public life: it remains a possibility that Donald Trump will ultimately be defeated in a New York courtroom, brought down over suspicious accounting practices related to his 2016 campaign funding or in respect to his tax avoidance. In the years of his presidency, right up to the present day, Trump repeatedly shamelessly violated social media platforms’ terms of service.
Yet, it was only when the result of the election looked assured that Twitter began to take action over his more contentious and inflammatory posts - even then not suspending his account as would likely have happened to a user who was not the or one of the most powerful men in the world. It’s hard to know what effect social media sanctions may have had, but they would undoubtedly have sent a clear message - rules still apply, even when populists are in power.
Thirdly, it is imperative to resist the temptation to jump on the far-right populist bandwagon out of fear of losing voters. Innovative socio-economic policies and programmes must be launched to attract groups of voters that have been or feel neglected to date, including the “precariat,” the part-time employed, small businesses, and so on. More participation and dialogue are required at all levels of society. If change actually reaches no deeper than rhetoric, far-right ideologies will merely become softer on the surface, more implicit, and possibly even more difficult to deconstruct.
Finally, not falling into the trap of far-right populism entails developing and maintaining alternative patterns of media reporting. Instead of highlighting ever more outrageous and brazen utterances, it would make sense to point out the underlying dynamics and the related intentions, that is, getting on the front page at whatever cost.
- Ruth Wodak is Emeritus Professor of Discourse Studies at the UK’s University of Lancaster and the author of ‘The Politics of Fear: The Shameless Normalization of Far-Right Discourse’
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