Schulbank, 2017 © Hiro Matsuoka
“The right-wing rhetoric often seeks to polarise”
Interview with Prof. Dr Fabian Virchow, Research Center for right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism at the University of Düsseldorf.
“Lying press” [Lügenpresse] and “the people” [Volk] – can these expressions be classified as right-wing language? In the interview with 42 Magazine Prof. Fabian Virchow, head of the research center for right-wing extremism at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, discusses whether right-wing ideological vocabulary even exists and how right-wing actors use language to benefit their world view.
Prof. Dr Virchow – we are witnessing a resurgence of right-wing political actors – whether these are Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Frauke Petry. To begin with: In your opinion what are some of the reasons for this?
This can hardly be generalized for the number of suggested actors. If there are commonalities, these can be found, one the one hand, in the loss of confidence in the established political system, especially the parties and the governments. In some countries, this loss was fueled by practices of bribery against members of the so-called ‘political class’. However, the turn away from democratic structures, processes and institutions of a civic democracy is also often evident in the significantly lower voter turnout in neighborhoods which lag behind. The low turnout is often an expression of political abstinence. In comparison, voting in wealthier neighborhoods is well above average. On the other side, it is a rejection of a specific form of modernization – or less normatively charged: a social development, which generated significant changes in the last decades – whether this is regarding the population composition as a result of migration processes, or in terms of the visibility of – directly or indirectly mediated– religious pluralism or concerning a broadened acceptance for arrangements regarding sexuality, relationships, and families which do not correspond to the heteronormative matrix.
So primarily, processes of change within a society provide the base for right-wing ideology?
The rejection of these developments – or even skepticism and uncertainty towards them – can be found in specific conditions that are embedded within the political culture of a country. However, the rejection can also become visible with the emergence of new political (party) actors or events which are quickly deteriorating, or which are externally generated such as the so-called refugee crisis. Thus, this often applies to societies, which are still strongly attached to national ideas of homogeneity or in which former social groups defend their positions of power and privileges against politics aimed at greater equality and equal rights.
In addition, there are other factors, some of which may constitute substantial weight, such as the depreciation of life-time achievements and biographies of former GDR citizens, which are remembered across generations. This can lead to the detachment and devaluation of established political actors.
Does the economy and its related changes in the living condition of those affected play a role?
In my opinion, economic crises are not immediate predictors for the rise of right-wing parties, not least because there are numerous counter examples. For instance, there are either economically prosperous states that have strong, extreme, or right-wing populist parties nonetheless or there are societies with permanently high (youth) unemployment rates, in which there are no strong far-right actors, such as Spain or Portugal. Nevertheless, a part of those whose social and economic status is shaken by neo-liberal globalization and structural change, or those who have the subjective impression that they do not control their own lives. This calls for a solution in social concepts that promises exclusionary solidarity. The demands of members of the “we” group are treated favorably in comparison to those of “the others”. The feeling of loss of control over one’s own life also derives from increasing relocation of decision-making responsibilities to supranational bodies, such as the European Central Bank (ECB). A precise analysis also must pay attention to the specifics, for instance, the significance of religion and the church, like in Poland. The political profile of the respective parties and movements partially presents considerable differences. A few examples include the orientation of the foreign policy – transatlantic or pro-Russian – in their economic and social policy or the extent of positive references to authoritarian pre- and inter-war traditions.
“It is certain that right-wing actors intend to influence the meaning and interpretation of terms by giving them specific associations and invoking certain images”
During their election campaign, the AfD used phrases and slogans such as “super alienation” [Überfremdung] and “nationalist”; “ethnic” [völkisch]. The party’s slogan for the 2017 campaign read “Dare, Germany” [Trau dich, Deutschland]. The French Front National promotes the slogan “National preference” – “préférence nationale” – national interests first. It seems as if there exists right-wing ideological vocabulary or a right-wing language. How does this language stand out?
It is quite contentious if a genuine right-wing language exists or not. It is certain that right-wing actors intend to influence the meaning and interpretation of terms by giving them specific associations and invoking certain images. Historically speaking, this is not a new phenomenon. In the Weimar Republic, representatives of the anti-democratic right, such as Carl Schmitt, have advocated the maxim that language control of the population is a prerequisite in order to dominate a nation. Görtz Kubitschek from the extreme right-wing Institute for State Policy, joins this point of view by demanding that expressions need to escalate, and political opponents must be branded. Accordingly, the extreme and populist right is concerned with giving more corporative meaning to certain ideas and associated expressions of order, such as the terms “achievement” or “tradition”. Furthermore, this is also about giving more generally positive connoted words such as “freedom” and “solidarity” national connotations and associations, as well as making them more effective. However, terms like these do not thus simply evolve into right-wing language.
Are there further characteristics of right-wing language?
Yes, there are also invented words such as “foreign national alienation” [“Verausländerung“], which can (most likely) be understood as genuine right-wing language. Terms like this one, interpret social developments in a specific negative way and capture them in a nutshell. I cannot think of a context in which such a term loses its ideological guidance. Terms like “nationalist; ethnic” [völkisch] express central ideologues, thus parts of ideologies, of the world view of this political spectrum.
These terms have often largely disappeared from everyday language due to their connection to the national-socialist racial and extermination policy. In this regard, the extreme and populist right are working on their reinstatement; or they are still or again quite common, such as the word “super alienation” [Überfremdung], which was recently used by a prominent talk show host who used the term without an indication of from far-right ideology.
“The rhetoric of the right-wing simplifies and stereotypes. It produces images of enemies by personifying social issues – whether this in regard to individuals, for example recently the chancellor, or in regard to groups”
Why is the language of the right appealing and how does it function?
The right-wing language makes use of the fact that stereotyping and simple world views are widespread in society and subjectively relieving. Thus, it is often included in the population’s everyday understandings of events or social conditions. The right-wing rhetoric often seeks to polarize by presenting oneself as someone who is not afraid to break taboos and who is not scared to address what others might want to hide. This is the grand gesture, which actually – if we think of authoritarian regimes – feeds off the exaggeration of possible negative consequences of free speech. The language of the right-wing also lives off the provocation, which one the one hand is supposed to present a rebellious moment. On the other hand, it follows and serves the logic of media attention. Ultimately, exaggerations, one-sidedness and occasionally plain inventions – for example with regard to the crime rate of refugees or specific violations of rights – serve to create a feeling of fear and thus, increases the desire for ambiguity, order, and authority. In this respect, the language of the right-wing also refers to authoritarian characteristics and intends to mobilize these. The rhetoric of the right-wing simplifies and stereotypes. It produces images of enemies by personifying social issues – whether this in regard to individuals, for example recently the chancellor, or in regard to groups. The juxtaposition of “us” vs. “them” also serves to present right speakers of the right-wing, displayed in disrespect, as the chosen saviors.
Is the vocabulary and language of the right encrypted? Do they not say what they actually intend to say to avoid that messages might sound right-wing?
I do not share the opinion that many words are encrypted. This might partially be the case with anti-Semitic speech, which talks about “power centers on the east coast of the United States,” but actually follows an anti-Semitic conspiracy narrative of “the (influential) rich Jews”. However, especially in the last few years – and specifically in connection to the increasing number of people seeking protection – I observe most notably a disinhibition in the language as well as a more frequent and more offensive use of derogatory terms.
Which derogatory terms are frequently used in Germany?
The term “lying press” [Lügenpresse] is just one example that is accompanied by an increasing number of hostility and physical attacks on journalists. On the internet there are often extermination fantasies about people marked as “different” and “foreign” – or those who support the welcoming culture. It is also possible to refer to the sexualized threats against female representatives of gender studies.
Terms like “lying press” [Lügenpresse] and “do-gooders” [Gutmenschen] have found their way into our everyday language. Is this a deliberate strategy of right wing parties or a side effect associated with the right-wing debate?
No, this is a conscious and deliberate attempt to occupy and conquer the prerogative of interpretation in social discourses. The extreme and populist right has grappled with this task for a long time. The function of the terms you mentioned is that of denouncing political opponents and citizens engaged in solidarity and attacking their attitudes. The regular reading of right-wing publications promotes a multitude of texts that deal with language policy issues. Liberals and left-wing social forces are accused of wanting to change society through language – think on the allegations of “political correctness,” for example. In fact, however, the extreme and populist right itself appears accordingly.
The AfD and other right-wing parties are counting on the “division” of society. “Us against you” or rather “you against us” – what role does language play in this context?
Language is a central factor since it constitutes a substantial part of communication among people. Terms and figures of speech are used to assess how social movements are valued, who is recognized as a legitimate speaker, which concepts of order are necessary and appropriate – and also how the central question of belonging is discussed. Questions of affiliation and recognition can be discussed linguistically based on various criteria. Traditional racial superiority refers to “race” or “ethnicity,” which is tied to certain physical attributes and character traits. However, because these traits are not (and cannot be) directly recognizable, contrary to the racists’ claims, certain markers have to indicate that a person belongs to a particular group that is stigmatized as “the others”. That was also a function of the so-called “Star of David”. This yellow badge was only able to fulfill this function because it was embedded in corresponding discourses of exclusion and devaluation.
However, verbally expressed racism, is often subtler – what linguistic devices does this rhetoric use?
In cultural racism, features and attributions that revolve around culture and religion emerge to the forefront. In many cases, these are practically naturalized. But they are also associated with other meanings, such as the productivity of social groups. Therefore, I am convinced that this perspective for understanding extreme and populist right-wing policies is still disregarded too often. As this works strongly with the image of the “hard-working people” who are denied the fruits of their labor; on the one hand by the “corrupt elite,” on the other hand by the “lazy subclasses,” thus either Sinti and Roma, refugees, the homeless and the long-term unemployed, but also “the lazy Greeks”. This demagogic confrontation and political slandering is highly linked to common sense and perception and connects with other figures of thought, such as penal populism, in which the lower classes are marked as dangerous. The “law-abiding citizens” must guard himself against those, if necessary with self-help.
Let’s go into detail: The term “the people” [Volk] played a big role in the AfD’s campaign. In Clausnitz, Saxony, refugees who wanted to get off a bus were attacked by right-wing advocates who shouted, “We are the people!” [Wir sind das Volk!]. What do the right-wing people mean by “the people” and how do they use the term?
The term “the people” is a central concept of the political right insofar as it refers to the core of their world view, that is, the assumption that there are collectives whose members are interlinked by ancestry, history, language, and space in a specific way and that they can be clearly distinguished from other collectives. The right-wing basically think as “peoples,” as one of their theorists put it. Therefore, the right does not think of individuals or of social classes – these are other ways to organize social order. In this nationalist logic, peoples are acting subjects and must assert themselves against other peoples – economically, territorially, culturally and, if you like, bio-politically. The latter logic addresses issues of migration, but also issues of birth control. That was the basic premise of Thilo Sarrazin’s bestseller: From his perspective, peoples are able to survive if they keep the “foreign influence” as low as possible.
Historically speaking, this ethnic assumption has produced numerous terms such as “national being” [Volkheit] and “allegiance to the nation” [volkstreu]. These terms are used less today. The AfD also repeatedly demanded to reevaluate the concept of “ethnic” [völkisch]. It is a central concept of the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany).
How does the slogan “We are the people” fit into this picture?
The slogan “We are the people” resonates with the demarcation to the “others”. Above all, however, it creates a contrast between “the people” and the political and media elite. In relation to both groups, it is pretended that these are homogeneous groups distinguished by typical behaviors and character traits. The message is, “You, the elites, do not represent us, we are the majority and the foundation which you have to comply with in your decision makings.” This is an abbreviated understanding of democracy as it lacks, in particular, the correlation to human as well as fundamental rights. On the one hand, the appealing aspect of the slogan has to do with the fact that it is very open to interpretation, and therefore does not necessarily have to be read from a nationalist perspective. On the other hand, this specific slogan refers to a specific historical constellation, namely the Monday demonstrations 1989/90 in the GDR. This is where the slogan draws its strong legitimation from. For the number of people who use this slogan once again, it is associated with the idea that there may be an imminent regime change.
In the United States, Donald Trump celebrated an electoral victory with the slogan “Make America Great Again”. He further promised to “drain the swamp,” which in his opinion is made up of the corrupt political establishment in Washington. Does a universal right-wing language exist, or might it vary based on different countries and political parties?
Basic ideologues and linguistic expressions are often very similar because from a nationalist perspective, it is always about an “own people’s” or the “own nation” first policy. Repeatedly, it can be observed that specific wordings are taken on by one national context from another. The phrase “the great replacement” [Grand Replacement] which originates from an author of the extreme right-wing in France, has also found its way into texts in Germany. At the same time, however, the terms also link to different historical contexts that exist in the respective countries. References which are intended to support the claim of a “great replacement” have to, for people from the respective societies, be part of the interpretation of their everyday experiences and be catchy so that they can be effective in terms of propaganda.
The right-wing populists of the AfD call themselves an alternative. In the United States, the so-called “alt-right” movement is gaining strength, and it also sees itself as an alternative, a traditional left-wing word in politics. Why does the right embrace this language?
In the past, “alternative” may have been widely used by groups of the political left-wing – think of the Alternative List Berlin. But it is certainly not a genuinely left term, so it is open to interpretation. The right-wing has adopted the term at a time when parties are little distinguishable based on many political questions and governmental decision making – in particular the euro rescue policy – have been described as having no alternatives. This has irritated a considerable part of the population. Therefore, the party has opted to use the term as part of the party’s name. Even the immediate precursor of the AfD was called “Election Alternative 2013” [Wahlalternative 2013].
In your opinion: Does the transition of vocabulary, which is primarily used by right-wing political actors, into the everyday language demonstrate a danger for society?
First, it is important to remember that language and terms have an influence on structure perception and thinking processes. Indirectly it often has an impact on actions as well. If one follows the speech act theory it can be said that speaking is an action as well, which influences societal reality. Therefore, it is possible to feed right-wing vocabulary into the discourses of society or even supposedly high-value words, which allegedly generate positive emotions, such as “freedom”. Thus, these are linked with specifically right-wing interpretations, thereby shifting semantic fields and pushing back democratic content.
How can a democratic society identify the language of the right-wing and what can it do about it?
This development can be counteracted by promoting a language sensitivity. This means that we become aware of the power of language beyond simplifying manipulation theories; that we visualize the historicity of certain concepts and the language policies of the right-wing. In addition, this is also about seeking to avoid terms that explicitly or implicitly convey negative images or to stabilize stereotypes if they seem inappropriate. Finally, I would like to agree with Judith Butler that the responsibility of speakers is not to reinvent language, but to deal with the legacy of their use, which restricts or makes the respective speech act.
Interviewer: Martin Böhmer
Translation: Hannah Riegert-Wirtz