The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has shocked the world. Nobody saw it coming. Not the media, not the pollsters, not the political analysts, and not the Tilburg University students following the New Media and Politics class taught by Belgian culture scientist Ico Maly. “In the months leading up to the presidential election, I told my students that there was a real chance Trump would win the White House. They laughed and said there was no way that would happen”, Maly says.
It happened. Trump’s presidency, his tweets, alternative facts, fake news, white supremacy, misogyny, the ‘alt-right’, Charlottesville: it took us all by surprise, Maly says, despite being perfectly predictable. “What is happening in the US is not exceptional. Of course Trump’s idiosyncratic style is, but the phenomenon as such is an expression of a global phenomenon, a trend that has been building momentum since the fall of the Berlin wall”, he explains. “After the Iron Curtain was drawn back in 1989, the complete restructuring of the global economy led to profound inequality. In a crippling globalized economy, we see new far-right movements capitalize on two fundamental ideas: regaining national control, and putting a stop to immigration.”
Ico Maly wrote his dissertation on the ideology of the New Flemish Alliance, or the N-VA, a nationalist political party in Belgium. Intimately familiar with the nationalist narrative of the N-VA, Maly did not look at Trump’s electoral success with the same astonishment that most of us felt. “I know this story”, he explains. “The N-VA tells a very similar one. It’s a story that resonates with our times, a story that resonates with certain groups today.”
“The New Right uses internet memes and ‘ironic’ Hitler emojis to communicate and mobilize support”
Maly is currently finishing a book on new far-right movements, often referred to as the ‘alt-right’ in the US, which propelled Donald Trump to power. Nieuw Rechts, the book is titled: The New Right. So what exactly is ‘new’ about today’s far-right groups? “Certainly not their ideologies”, Maly says. “The idea of an American Renaissance, white nationalist doctrines, anti-immigrant rhetoric, those are all old. We can best understand them as contemporary manifestations of the two centuries old anti-Enlightenment tradition.”
What’s new, first of all, is the term ‘alt-right’, which is a popularized catch-all term for a large number of fragmented right-wing groups operating on a global scale. What’s also new is the way these groups are structured: there’s no formal structure, no hierarchy, not one official leader. Instead, the movement is structured like a decentralized network, Maly explains, with many different hubs and so-called soft-leaders that are all loosely connected to each other. But perhaps the most crucial newness of movements like the alt-right and the ‘less’ extreme alt-light, is the way they distribute their ideas: online. “They use internet memes and ‘ironic’ Hitler emojis to communicate and mobilize support. They set up trolling and doxing action to shut opponents up. That’s the real novelty.”
According to Maly, alt-right groups not only share the same basic ideas, they also share the same ill-funny memes. “We see the same memes pop up everywhere. That’s no coincidence. These groups are connected. Whether in the United States, in Paris, in Birmingham or in Belgium, they all use a similar discourse, similar memes and tactics.”
In the Netherlands, right-wing politician Thierry Baudet recently made an appearance wearing a green frog pinned on his jacket. The frog showed a strong resemblance to cartoon figure Pepe the Frog, which has been adopted by alt-right meme makers and turned into a symbol of their movement. On alt-right platforms like 4chan, Baudet is praised for his anti-feminist remarks and for his Trump-like crusade against the political establishment. “Thierry Baudet is a more polished version of far-right politicians like Geert Wilders”, Ico Maly says. “But Baudet’s ideologies are very similar.”
“We should be far more worried about extreme-right movements that present themselves as normal, sophisticated political parties”
According to Maly, such seemingly sophisticated advocates of the far-right could do more damage to democracy than alt-right hardliners. “The real danger is not the very extreme, very explicit neo-Nazi. We should be far more worried about extreme-right movements that present themselves as normal, sophisticated political parties. That type of ‘entryism’ is at the heart of the alt-right strategy. That was also why they welcomed the alt-light types like Milo, Cernovich and Bannon.”
In recent years, far-right ideas have increasingly made their way into mainstream politics. “Anti-enlightenment thought has gone mainstream. Today, the notion of democracy as ‘the voice of the people’ is commonly accepted. Parties like the N-VA claim to be democratic, but their idea of democracy is not the democracy of the Enlightenment.”
‘Adapt or leave’
In Belgium, right-wing party Vlaams Blok received heavy criticism in the early 2000s for using the anti-immigrant slogan ‘aanpassen of opkrassen’: adapt or leave. “The slogan was considered a violation of democratic values”, Maly explains. “But when Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte stated that immigrants should ‘act normal or get out’ earlier this year, he was re-elected. It shows that such statements have become normalized over the span of a decade or so.”
With alt-right movements inciting alt-light movements and the alt-lite inciting the mainstream, New Right ideas quickly become the new normal. Although Donald Trump continues to shock, awe and amaze us from inside his Oval Office, his politics and his rhetoric are not as exceptional as many of us like to believe. “Trump’s voice is a radical, cultural nationalist voice”, Maly says. “But the real story here is not about Trump. It’s about anti-democratic ideologies that are gaining power and presence around the world, becoming more and more mainstream.”
President Donald Trump is the symptom, not the disease. And that disease is sweeping through Europe, too. “In Europe, we think Trump’s wall is immoral and outrageous. But what about the fences that we’ve put up on our continent to keep out refugees?”, Maly says. “The underlying idea is the same: to stop immigrants from crossing our borders. Last year, between four and five thousand refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. How is that not immoral and outrageous?”
Ico Maly (1978) is a Belgian researcher, lecturer and publicist. He is an assistant professor in Cultural Studies at Tilburg University, and editor-in-chief of Diggit Magazine. He authored several books on political ideologies, diversity and cultural identities. His new book on global right-wing populism, Nieuw Rechts, will be published in January 2018.