Politics Analysis

Democracy in danger: The rise of Right-wing demagogues

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Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Recent elections in Europe and South America are a warning for democracy. Dr Lee Duffield sets about finding psychological causes for what he calls the crop of “off-balance” players, "demagogues”, on the Right-wing.

THE RECENT elections in Sweden and Italy, which went towards extremist parties campaigning against immigrants, and the Brazil election where they were narrowly knocked back, are a warning for democracy.

The first decades of this century have brought the linked issues of a climate crisis and an immigration crisis: environmental disasters – droughts and crop failures, floods, storms, fires, consequential regional wars – have millions on the move, looking for somewhere better to live, or at least some viable space;  so far 65-million displaced worldwide. More to come; it cannot just go away.

What the United Nations is decrying as this “colossal global dysfunction”, has caused anxiety if not already some level of hysteria.

Against more rational responses, it has brought forward the current crop of political opportunists and demagogues belonging to the extreme Right, or in full flirtation with it: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris Johnson in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Scott Morrison in Australia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Donald Trump in the United States.

It is a fraternity, with its own contradictions and different levels of intensity. In common, they respond to having a “mad” leader, entertaining or charismatic characters who work a crowd.

That has crude and very salutary models in the highly dangerous demagogues of the 1930s, raising the question: where can it lead? Early on, people laughed out loud at the uniformed, saluting, posturing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

New parties and taking over parties

These today have their own parties, getting votes from former habitual supporters of traditional parties, especially from the “orthodox” centre-Right, like the Liberals, or they have been taking over those centre-Right parties.

The hard-to-believe collapse of the ruling British Conservative Party in Parliament this month had all the marks of such a take-over.

The various resigning ministers or revolving party leaders, putting their ideology first, have vied with one another to advocate implementing preposterous theories — variations on ripping off the state to give money to capitalist investors.

They might propose vicious attacks on migrants as a cover to try and hold onto some public support. In this evaporating stability, are there no more pragmatists in the Tory Government, “old-fashioned” statesperson types, non-ideological, interested in any kind of compromise?

The continuing domination of the U.S. Republican Party by the Donald Trump movement is the most important development of that kind, in terms of its possible consequences around the globe.

The successes of the “Teal” women’s group in the Australian Federal Election this year showed non-ideological Liberal voters at last getting alarmed about the way their old “moderate” party has gone — so many of their elected members and officials acting only like corporate lobbyists or espousing dicta of extremism and intolerance.

John Howard, an “old” Liberal Prime Minister, provided a kind of transition to it. He tasted and liked stirring up some racial feeling over asylum seekers. Although already a “wet” on the conservative side, he mostly went step by step, implementing policies and being a manager more than a demagogue.

At the end, Howard went to the extreme side in 2007, launching an attack on incomes – “Work Choices” – and was defeated.

The takeover of orthodox centre-Right parties can be acceptable to conservative-minded people in general, like the 172,000 rank-and-file members of the British Conservative Party, since they like “their” party to be in power, instead of it being working-class parties, centrists or the Left-wing. 

This will appeal even if the party is going radical, skimping on principles, maybe venturing into race issues to break out of its normal constituency.

There was the Liberals’ Tampa campaign, run by Howard, aimed at asylum seekers in 2001. There was Boris Johnson’s nationalistic "Brexit" campaign, crafted around keeping out European foreigners, making possible the capture of long-time Labour seats in the post-industrial North of England.

A second incentive for the radicalisation of a conservative party to be accepted by its constituents is the hand-over-of-money phenomenon.

Trump received great adulation party-wide, for massive high-end tax cuts, telling a parcel of investors: “You all got a lot richer.” So the Republican Party, formerly the “Grand Old Party” of responsible government, became his instrument.

Not yet Putins or Xis

The identification of this cluster of “demagogue” political groups leaves out the much rougher, even-more-extreme, potential axis, being the principal two autocracies China and Russia — which have done away with individual political or legal rights and declared a new militarism; together with their acolytes, unstable regimes like North Korea, Syria or Iran.

These must be watched firstly because of a real propensity to make war and secondly because groups on the “demagogue” Right over time might join up with them.

A theme of anti-Americanism and old colonial resentments can be a bonding agent to get despotic leaders in Africa or the Middle East to join up. An aggrieved strong man like a Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, or an Orban in Hungary (both prone to want all things entirely their own way), might one day make the move.

For now, the extreme Rightists, demagogues, are different to such despots. They are working hard at leading popular movements.

Their charismatic leaders cannot yet be accused of setting themselves up as leaders for life, of planning to run gangster regimes, mobilising cyber warfare on an industrial scale, going for ethnic cleansing, starting wars between nation-states or threatening to set off nuclear bombs.

The “demagogue” word is useful for defining how they like to go, as found in any common dictionary search:

'A political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument… [for example] "a gifted demagogue with particular skill in manipulating the press.'"

Unlike the autocrats, Xi in China and Putin in Russia, they have not progressed to the stage of crushing all opposition and prescribing what public opinion has to be.

Some, like Orban in Hungary with his controlling of courts, the electoral system and education – taking over all the institutions – show that they are keenly interested in it. But as yet they mostly still depend on deploying expertise in exploiting media to manufacture the cover story as they charge ahead. So what are the characteristics and possible detectable objectives?

What makes a demagogue?

These are characteristics of the leaders under study, “demagogues”:

A basic conservative outlook towards major disruptions like climate change and COVID, sensing that they are a challenge to existing power holders and so should be denied or ignored.

Bamboozled followers of the movement and vested interests can be called on to kick up senseless time-wasting "debates", with unavoidable outcomes — you cannot stop a flood tide by saying it is not happening.

That may be because several of these men and women, actually come out of conservative (whether wealthy or at least striving) class backgrounds with contempt for any battlers who will not follow them — they come with an attitude of entitlement and command.

The privileged background does not necessarily make you a bully, but if you are a bully it sets you off. In cases where there is no such background, there will be a chip on the shoulder due to the lack of it; they resent, or misrepresent “elite people” as being different to themselves and their foremost supporters, and make a theme of it — urging rank-and-file street followers, “real people” onto the “elites”.

Turning politics into a great show

Showmanship and effective focus on consolidating an exaggeratedly loyal base of followers on the extreme Right: it is conventional wisdom in political sociology that media work can be most effective for building up the support of people who already will agree with you — persuasion by media is otherwise generally too hard to bring off.

More centrist political parties argue on a more rational basis, targeting less volatile followers, but have to satisfy themselves with incremental gains — no flare-ups of support.


There is no way to avoid mentioning the possibility that plain stupidity is a leading characteristic of many in the leadership of the radical Right. The horrible possibility exists that individual leaders believe the slogans as substitutes for knowledge and thought.

The most egregious and recent has been the ruinous and ridiculous career of the ideology-driven Liz Truss as British Prime Minister.

Neoliberalism never had a more trusting believer. Using the state apparatus to borrow money, to give to the richest citizens, was a logical outgrowth of the assault on the system of government begun by her much smarter predecessor Margaret Thatcher.

It was more like naked theft. To succeed at all with that kind of thing you would need a perverse modicum of intelligence. 

Trump, who must be remembered for suggesting the injection of toxic disinfectants to cure COVID, has had many successes and colossal failures too. 

All parties have to accommodate their extra cogs and underachievers; the new legions of the Right seem to be happy to give them a try in the driver’s seat. After all, they might, rashly, gift them with a load of public money.

Negative, angry, argumentative

With an intolerant and unempathetic nature – where you see radical politicians working to their base who are all set to agree with them, making attacks on everybody else – the successful Trump campaign in 2016 began with attacks on “Mexicans” and “Muslims”. 

The base itself is worth a note here: older rather than younger, regional more than metropolitan, below average education (unless ideologues who are themselves on the cynical side or possibly unbalanced), with disposable money, anxious to be given, or at least told simple solutions.

In many cases, once contented with an unchanging environment that they wanted to hold onto, they are so fearful of change it makes them angry: anger about having done alright by their own standards in the old unaltered setting (frequently, it is claimed, through virtuous “hard work”), only to see it all altered, maybe by “somebody” up to no good.

So, they see life and society overwhelmingly in negative terms and go in for aggressive discourse; lots of offensive rhetoric — friendly talk and reasonableness out the window. Some of the more disturbed and simpler minds join it up with ideas of conspiracy — paedophile aliens stole the U.S. Presidency off Donald Trump and so on.

Bringing those things together, you have rejection of those not like themselves, notably foreigners wanting to migrate, or simplistic differentiation by race — merging into nonrational hatreds.

A curious factor is the high level of mobilisation of the base personnel, often people with no background in orthodox politics or community leadership, suddenly talking politics all the time; folks motivated sometimes by holding onto wealth, or by ideas about god, introduced into a world of stimulating but uncreative ideas.

Whipping up the base – all the time

Such is the great fascination with whipping up the base, that when demagogues actually win office these leaders of the Right will run a continuing campaign; it will be about power not government.

Is that a kind of malevolent laziness? The goal is to get power, not to govern, as government would mean concentration and doing exhausting work at the desk, facing up to facts, being satisfied to make limited achievements, maybe bringing people together, being reasonable, being responsible — uninspiring to these individuals.

With power comes excitement; you can do outrageous, extreme things that break rules and conventions of behaviour; it is possible to do favours to your friends, large kick-backs and the like, and leave out all others, especially the targeted outsiders, most often people of colour — when this all started happening before Jews were the main targeted group.

Wild capitalism economics

Wild capitalism and contradictions over economic policy — about handing over money, direct benefits to those who have enough already:

The extreme-Right movement signed up to neoliberalism very early, in the 1970s warming to the idea of having simple “let ‘er rip” business practices instead of having an actual government.

The implicit scope for criminality in this anarchical scheme, all “deregulation” and “privatising”, had great appeal to cynics and ideologues in the ranks, not to mention others with a cowboy outlook, or who lacked the wit to analyse it.

It promised a white-collar equivalent of the kind of feral street revolt that eventuated in Washington on 6 January 2021. 

Neoliberalism, itself a nearly inevitable outgrowth of digitisation in financial systems, making for "efficiency", plus over-production and super-growth, wasting natural resources, now destroying Earth itself, achieved what it wanted in spades.

It got what had always been a main goal of conservative politics: transfer of wealth from have-nots to haves. (Conventionally, the Left-wing wants the flow to go the other way, but through democratically agreed programs, government services as opposed to direct benefit into off-shore bank accounts.)

With time, as the mask has slipped off the neoliberal visage, certain radical Right parties have adjusted policy to hold on to some of their poorer followers; they have decided to back government spending on social security and maybe consider more orthodox tax regimes.

That will be no trouble – “doesn’t matter” they might say – their interest after all is in campaigns not actual policy for governance.

Adults not in charge

Sometimes childishness might be the key to it, delighting in the disruption, never quite coming to maturity and adulthood, maybe talented but seeing the world as a great story or a game.

How far can you go, trashing the playroom and breaking all the other kids’ toys? That would help to explain a common inability ever to come to terms with defeat. Was Trump denying his election defeat in 2020 the action of a 74-year-old infant?

No good at governing

In any event, these leaders (where they are caught up in an electoral system and love to campaign) can win — usually as members of uneasy coalitions. But they can then get turned out of office, even if in the process complaining of unfairness and vowing to return — because they are no good at governing.

If a crisis comes along, such as would-be migrants rushing the borders, that is good for getting into office from opposition; but once there and crisis comes, as seen with the pandemic, in office they will not want to know about it, do not know what to do, fail and get rejected.

They will be as vulnerable as the rest to conditions, like a recession, that ordinarily and always make the public dissatisfied, fearful and in a mood to throw out any government.

The last time this kind of movement swelled up, in the 1920s and 1930s, with Hitler and Mussolini, the problem of hard times alienating the public was responded to by moving from demagoguery to despotism: banning elections, gaoling any opponents, setting up a war economy, launching exhilarating military adventures that gave access to stolen resources, but were catastrophic. It all turned out unwise, stupid, hysterical, ruinous.

Military adventures?

Generally, outside of Russia, we have not come to full-scale military adventurism in the last few decades. Although, the second most recent, major-scale state-on-state invasion was by the United States: the invasion of Iraq in 2003 under President George W Bush, together with Australia under Howard, the United Kingdom and Poland.

This although from the “liberal” “West”, had the hallmarks of actual despotic regimes: a large-scale military deployment, no adequate rational reason for the invasion, lies and self-delusion –especially about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction – bullying impulses, intimations of racism, against Arabs, an element of grand theft, with U.S. corporations accessing Iraqi oil.

Bush was a harbinger, another transition man, ticking all the boxes of privilege, immaturity, stupidity, very happy for his invasion to achieve aggrandisement of U.S. corporate wealth, low on empathy — a state governor who would oversee an execution every fortnight, commuting only one death sentence.

He would be succeeded after 13 years as leader of his party by Donald J Trump, one of the subjects of this analysis.

Building a hard-core base

As said, in this wild branch of politics, depending on the state of mind of who’s involved, losing elections may be seen as anathema, or might actually be accepted as just part of the excitement because the base has a hard core.

Problem-solving by government is not the issue for most of this base; it is about emotion. Some will be ongoing hysterics. The base holds, so where the demagogues lose they may not lose by much and might well get back another time.

In Australia this year, where a taste of this radical bumbling in government created an electoral backlash, the Right-wing still survived in opposition with 58 seats in a parliament of 151 members.

Taking over everything

There is, as said, very often a clear drive to get all the power and so to take over or destroy competing institutions — the courts, public service, universities or the legislature. 

That moves in the direction of becoming despots. Certainly, there is distaste for democratic checks and balances, getting in the way of the drive for power; so there are systematic moves to block, disrupt or countermand free elections. 

Much of this, in the case of electoral systems, is being done overtly in 2022 by Republican-dominated state governments in the United States, driving to disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters.


Lies are the most outstanding additional hallmark of the movement; because where the prime interest is an entertaining, mischievous story, truth gets dismissed.

Over recent decades, political actors who ventured to kick over the traces of inhibition and be outrageous found they could get away with it. There proved to be no sanctions against lying; many people enjoyed it, others didn’t care, so now we have a cancer of lying.

A trash-based media environment helps this, as some of the mainstream media companies down-grade the constraints of “balance” and fact-finding and go for outlandish commentaries to indulge opinions of their owners, and selected employees, and a segment of the available market.

This is the case with a set of conservative media interests in Australia: the News Corp newspapers, the 2GB radio network and Sky News television.

Similarly, social media producing multiple outlets at sub-professional level have inflamed the situation by the proliferation of lies and perverse entertainment masked as reportage on politics and issues of government.

Dishonesty as a trade mark of political activism suggests dismissal of ordinary Christian or humanistic principles which depend on individual conscience — in favour of going for power and money as life’s principal goal.

Oddly enough in several countries, Churchgoers make up much of the radical Right-wing base, although most often it is a form of Christian fundamentalism, where a conversion will follow already-set values and prejudices.

One just picks out ideas that suit, from the Book. An example is the trend in America to argue that whatever you did to get rich, it must have been a reward for being resourceful and good in the eyes of Jesus.


An armed society appeals strongly to gun fanciers of different kinds who sign up with the radical Right.

They might join in deadlocked “debates” (“It’s not the gun it’s the man”, versus, “A weak-minded man with a gun thinks he’s ten feet tall”); the reality is rampant crime and a cruel toll of innocent lives destroyed.

The standard is set by the abandonment of effective controls on military-grade weapons in the United States; a policy aped by others in the movement, as with deregulation and proliferation of firearms in Brazil. 

Finally, the brethren and sisterhood of the far-Right have many differences and variations, the main thing in common being to operate according to how they feel, more than what makes sense.

At times, they may be on opposite sides to one another even in a war. Much depends on what their home polities are like; so wily Boris Johnson, however passionate, always knew that he might be checked and balanced by the checks and balances around him. 

Orban, however, the self-declared exponent of “illiberal democracy”, understands his country has a weak civil society, after its centuries of empire and then Soviet communism, so he can get away with much more.

Roll call of the players — what they do

Not too many examples have been provided up to this point — to avoid the distraction of debating the example before the statement is completed.

The second part of this analysis of the far-Right will give a run-down on the mentality and actions of selected leaders of that movement.

It will show how the general points being made will apply in individual cases, looking at the activities of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, England’s Boris Johnson, Marie Le Pen in France, Giorgia Melani the newly-installed Prime Minister of Italy, Australia’s contribution, Scott Morrison, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and necessarily, Donald Trump, immediate ex-President of the USA.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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