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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Why is Right-Wing Populism becoming, well, so…popular?

The aftershock of a tumultuous Trump presidency, Brexit and a rise in right-wing political groups in Europe signifies a worrying return to the 1930s. Across most Western societies there have been progressive shifts over a relatively short period of time with gains in gender equality, LGBTQI rights, anti-racism movements, and disability rights. Most of which challenge the normative structures that have been in place for centuries.

This societal shift has created feelings of disempowerment amongst many predominantly white communities. In most capitalist societies there are huge disparities between rich and poor so resentment is only compounded by poverty and unemployment. Increased migration has led to the loss of ‘small town communities’, which can also foster a lack of belonging.

Far right groups take advantage of this disconnect by touting ethnically homogenous societies as a means to solving these problems. You know, where there is a single majority race. Sound familiar? This ‘Ethnonationalism’ plays on identity politics, which are driven by ‘othering’ and scapegoating. Europe has a long history of excluding and demonising minority groups so the refugee crisis was simply the fuel to a fire’s fading embers.

Ultimately, this has all led to a dramatic political shift towards populism and the subsequent roll-back of human rights in many countries. What right-wing populists fail to grasp is that human rights don’t function like pie. Ensuring equal rights for others doesn’t mean less rights for them. It would be a mistake to assume that populist rage is solely a right-wing trend though. Sectarianism and left-wing nationalist parties can be equally divisive. Populism is simply the rose-tinted hankering for the past appealing to ‘ordinary people’ to rally up against the ‘established elite’. Ironically, many leaders of these movements are part of the elite. Trump isn’t exactly your average Joe from rural Idaho.

The language of Hate

Language matters. Politicians and the media often use inflammatory and sensational language when describing refugees and/or immigrants by using biblical phrases like ‘swarms of people’ or ‘opening the floodgates’. The Brexit messaging around losing control of British borders indicated anarchy and chaos, distilling divisiveness and fear. Borders are not meant to be walls. Borders are there to regulate the flow of people, despite what Trump says.

As Frank Black, a former white supremacist maintains, lots of people believe in stereotypes about immigrants, black people and people of colour, but not everyone commits to joining a white nationalist movement. Language reframing and making white supremacy palatable to disenfranchised white communities and those who hold less ‘extreme’ views is key to mainstreaming this ideology.

Freedom and Truth

Truth can be selective. Social media is an echo chamber, depending on who our friends are and where we live. The internet is basically a group of uncontrolled people spouting their unsubstantiated views. It is not the same as people who know how to evaluate content. When Bebo Bob with the IQ of a mollusc says the moon is made of cheese but 99% of scientific laureates say it’s not, why even entertain this nonsense? It’s not opinion, it’s wrong. So, the burning issue is how does traditional media remain relevant in an era where facts apparently don’t matter? Social media has further fomented ideological differences on both sides. Giving airtime to divisive demagogues blurs the lines between truth and falsehood. Trump’s social media ban was significant in showing that adequate policing can stop provocative rhetoric.

Freedom is not guaranteed and those of us in the privileged position of living in a free, democratic society, tend to forget that. In many places, Covid has been an opportunity to erode the freedoms we take for granted and border closures have enabled burgeoning nationalism. Under the cloak of the pandemic digital surveillance has ramped up across China, the Middle East and within the EU. The ruling party in Poland has slowly been eroding women’s rights and Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, implemented a law where he can rule by decree indefinitely. There is no free media under authoritarian regimes and Hungary already has a dangerously restrictive media. Trump tried very hard to besmirch mainstream media to achieve the same.

The Koup Klux Klan

What happened at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.was the result of four years of dismantling faith in democracy, weakening civil liberties, inciting violence, racism and stoking a mistrust of science and truth. Increasing demographic shifts in American society has triggered identity crises amongst white Americans, which are deeply rooted across cultural, racial and social fault lines. When Trump tells his base the election was stolen, it merely reinforces their feelings of powerlessness in the face of these changes. America’s sanctimony in their superior democratic institutions is yet another symptom of extreme nationalism. And it’s dangerous. Far from making America great, Trump has encouraged America to hate by spouting this myopic view of American exceptionalism and supremacy. More accurately, of white American supremacy.

The very structures and systems governing America are rotten. To see armed police officers enabling violent protesters free rein to attack the Capitol Building and the Senate, was shocking. Especially when the National Guard were very present at the Black Lives Matter protests. During these protests, police opened fire, tear gassed, bludgeoned and arrested hundreds of people engaged initially in peaceful protest. Of course, we can’t condone rioting. Yet, the core issues behind why people engage in violent protest are important. Black Lives Matter is a civil rights movement. The pro-Trump riot was a direct attack on democracy backed by a sitting President who wanted to overturn the result of an election. People have the right to protest. But these were the same people who condemned athletes for taking a knee. Their hypocrisy not only delegitimises their ‘cause’ but their ideology seeks to harm and stigmatise.

The devolution of the 45th presidency was littered across Capitol Hill. The smashed windows, bloodied protestors, and vitriol reflected the pitiful remnants of a wannabe dictator, a sad, bloated Pierrot, dancing to his tribe on stage. But no one is laughing. To quote Trump himself, ‘you know what’s deplorable? Being impeached.’ And he’s done it twice. Thankfully, it’s the end of an error. Yet, Trump is merely a symptom of an increasingly problematic underbelly and a reflection of greater issues within political narratives. Conservatives are slow to change and Democrats are slow to compromise.

So, how do we create less divisive, more inclusive societies?

Social Democracy:

Pure democracy only really works where you have a basic culture of homogeneity. Globalisation means we no longer have societal uniformity. Embracing the socially democratic governance of post-war politics means a society that supports a competitive economy whilst helping those who need it most. People’s lives should be valued above global banks. When the British government decides children in need only deserve half a pepper and bits of tuna in a doggy bag, there is something morally awry. It would surely make less economic sense (not to mention it’s wholly environmentally unfriendly) to employ someone to cut and bag food than it would to donate a can of tuna and a whole pepper. I’m sure Tory cats get treated to better.

Urban Planning:

Budgetary planning should be more transparent and accessible, particularly for those most affected. Geographic gentrification can be harmful by pushing people to the fringes. This doesn’t solve poverty. Investment in urban planning and affordable housing, which isn’t along the lines of racist red zoning, does. The pandemic has meant commuting has drastically reduced. Rejuvenating inner city neighbourhoods should be prioritised as commuters, now working from home, are making moves to live outside the cities.


Governments need to invest in education. Equal access to free, compulsory education for all children, irrespective of socio-economic backgrounds, means having an education should not make you ‘elite’. We live in a globalised world. Politics and business studies should be core subjects. Teaching students about emerging markets, retraining people to move away from traditional industries and ending unpaid internships can help alleviate cycles of unemployment. Placing value in education can also combat anti-intellectualism. We need to disseminate more meaningful information and encourage people to recognise fake news through critical thinking and fact checking.


Many who come from illiberal societies don’t become liberal overnight and this can create a conflict of values and traditions. This lack of commonality is a breeding ground for populism and extremism. There needs to be better integration and dialogue with those who feel marginalised on both sides. It’s all too easy to dismiss those who turn to right-wing politics as stupid or ignorant. Yet, this only serves to further alienate people. Hatred is rooted in fear and suffering where a way to regain power is to place blame in someone else. Some people have incredibly fixed mind sets, others are just terrible human beings. But, in most instances empathy can create shared emotions and values. It took Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, to wash up on the beach for people to take an interest in the Syrian plight. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to spark conversations.

‘We tend to confuse information with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom, yet today we have more information, less knowledge and even fewer of us have wisdom.”-Slavoj Žižek.

Wisdom requires emotional intelligence and a bond with those around us. Many of us live in our own isolated bubbles but in doing so we can also block views that we need to hear. We are all connected. What happens to others affects each of us eventually. In a world of multicultural integration, the movement decrying it are just shouting louder. But until we begin to listen to those who don’t agree with us, even if it is admittedly frustrating, we will continue to go around in historical circles.


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