Dr Lee Duffield lays bare seven critical leaders in the second part of his analysis of radical Right-wing movements and governments worldwide.
EACH SUCH Right-wing party seems to need a prominent leader, whether a dominant figure or a clown, classed here as “demagogues” from a standard dictionary meaning:
'A political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument…'
These have been playing on what the United Nations now calls a “colossal global dysfunction”, where climate change and disease combine with forced migration to create conflict and fear.
The extremist parties work against asylum seekers, play racial politics, disrupt institutions of society like education, courts, or free elections and generate mayhem where they can – for example by deregulating guns – and as a trademark in political debates, trade in lies.
As said in Part 1 of this series, the parties have shown no skill, or interest, in governing – even when elected – preferring to run campaigns, not a government and so they have not this time gone to the full extreme of linking up with the despotic regimes — Russia, China and their collaborators.
Jair Bolsonaro — Brazil
Disastrous handling of the COVID crisis saw some of the worst outcomes with more than 680,000 deaths.
While Bolsonaro has taken a heavy drop in voter support, like many of his movement counterparts he has a resistant core of supporters including many devotees of new Christian churches.
A follower of Donald Trump, Bolsonaro took the same position on his bid for re-election: if it went against him, it had to be rigged.
In a first round of voting for the Presidency, 2 October this year, he actually did better than polls had forecast, raising different suspicions about rigging, on the lines that, “it might take one to know one”. A decisive second round of voting, against Lula, was due on 30 October.
Boris Johnson — England
Ideologues in the ranks seized on the break with European standards of strong governance, to go for broke on wild capitalism, led by Liz Truss’s lunge to pile on fresh unfunded tax cuts.
After her fall, Johnson was himself seen manoeuvring for a possible shock come-back, in the end, deferred, a reminder that despite everything he can count on many votes from the conservative faithful — the dedicated core.
Marine Le Pen — France
She brings together the elements of charismatic leadership, playing on racial tensions and drawing votes away from moderate parties.
Her party, National Rally (RN), is one of a set of such movements across Europe, called “populist” because of offering straight-talking “remedies”.
She was placed second in Presidential Elections this year, underscoring the decline of the traditional centre-Right (Republicans) and centre-Left (Socialist) parties; both fumbling to cope with structural changes in the economy, both also deserving public censure over official corruption when in office.
Like the British Conservatives, the Le Pen party is hostile to the rules-based practices of the European Union but prevaricates about going against firm public opinion in support of continuing membership.
Giorgia Meloni — Italy
The party was the outgrowth of nearly 30 years of movement politics in the ultra-nationalist or “populist” category. Its election breakthrough came in a climate of crisis.
Northern Italy, heavily exposed to China through the rag trade connection, became one of the worst-hit areas under COVID; then, already in financial straits, the country suffered amongst the hardest from the invasion of Ukraine, inflation and impacts on energy costs.
Crisis had actually been longer-term, with a vacuum that followed the collapse of the two adversaries of 40 years, the Christian Democrats and Communists (Don Camillo versus Mayor Peppone), in the 1990s and later break-up of the Socialist Party (as in France betrayed by corrupt leadership).
The poll came on when the “nightclub party”, M5S (Five Star Movement) – a nine-year-old movement that mixes policies across the spectrum – brought on a no-confidence vote, then lost more than half its parliamentary representation in this year’s elections.
Meloni has a coalition with extreme Right parties led by Silvio Berlusconi, the geriatric “bunga bunga” man, former playboy-Prime Minister (very close to Vladimir Putin) and Matteo Salvini, the militant opponent of immigration.
The arithmetic posits that much of her support would come from the old Christian Democrat centre, so policies have had to edge away from fascism towards more centrist ideas like staying in the European Union.
Will this Prime Minister be able to govern effectively with the militant gentlemen on her Right or will the new movement start to blow over like Five Star, or become a makeover of Mussolini?
Scott Morrison — Australia
Intimately identified with Donald Trump, Morrison in office likewise ran an ongoing media campaign, appearing constantly in different work clothes on job sites, getting called “Scotty from Marketing”.
He ran a Government that failed to get programs working to follow up big announcements. It stumbled on COVID, missing key calls such as timely delivery of test kits.
An attempt by Morrison to take centre stage as national leader, a kindly Duce, by chairing a “national cabinet” that included state premiers, ended when the premiers refused to play, instead using their own powers to take on the pandemic.
As PM and a former state political director of the Liberal Party, he persisted in spending time on internal factional manoeuvres, a mystery to most voters, but activity that did nothing to stop encroachment on power by the ideological Right-wing.
On personal political style, he fell out demonstrably with women voters on the “empathy” variable and was universally called out for impulsive lying.
Viktor Orbán — Hungary
Viktor Orbán in 2022 has been backing up his friendship with Vladimir Putin, for example, blocking the transit of allied shipments to Ukraine across his territory, not joining in sanctions against Russia, or criticising those sanctions and still buying in energy stocks from Russia.
This has further eroded relations within the Western military alliance and with the European Union, which has levied economic sanctions against Hungary for breaking its protocols on the justice system, fair elections and human rights.
He had refused to take any share of refugees during the 2015 immigration crisis in Europe. The man asserts he has been following a program of “illiberal democracy”, objecting to the electoral systems of the West and proclaiming that he finds models in China, Russia, India, Singapore or Turkey.
Starting off in 1989 as a proponent of neoliberalism, Orbán has become identified with the nationalist “populist” or “nativist” movements. Drawing support from rural areas, he routinely insults “elites” living in the cities.
Donald Trump — USA
Donald Trump, United States President from 2017-21, might have written this article to outline what he finds good and exciting in the political world.
Trump is at war with conventions of human behaviour especially day-by-day civility, truthfulness and doing your job responsibly. He represents the “neoliberal” phenomenon of billionaires striving to dominate public life, with resources to defy the law if it should impede his ambitions or seek to call him to account.
He has a demagogic interest in propounding his messages, constantly in campaign mode; while unsuccessful in government, in that his diplomatic initiatives, like the “handshake” meetings with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, failed and his negligent response to the pandemic produced dire consequences for the public.
Trump is facing subpoenas and possible charges for various failings in office, not least those connected with the attack on Congress by Trump supporters on 6 January 2021.
Together with the systematic placement by his Administration of judges with Right-wing partisan records, his efforts to influence the counting of votes is being seen as undemocratic, a dangerous bid to paralyse or control the institutions of society.
He continues to command a strong following, responding especially to his efforts to choke off migration, his alliance with the gun lobby and for the more well-healed, his hand-out of billions of dollars in the 2018 tax cuts.
As Trump said:
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Crisis enveloping the world has thrown up a crop of political adventurers taking advantage of distress and panic among people worldwide.
It has echoes of the crises of the First World War and its aftermath of economic collapse, in the 1920s and 1930s, which produced fascist dictatorships — especially Nazi Germany and Italy under Mussolini.
Enamoured of charismatic orators at their head, exploiting emerging mass media systems, these parties were positioned on the Right-wing, where they favoured and depended on major business corporations, suppressed workers’ movements as a prelude to general abrogation of citizens’ rights and mobilised the persecution of minorities.
They have parallels in the "Axis" of autocratic governments in 2022 with China and Russia at the centre.
The demagogic leaders identified here, including several in liberal democracies, have been some time coming through.
The late Margaret Thatcher, John Howard in Australia and George W Bush in the 1980s and 1990s, can be seen as transitional, moving away from cautious and conservative government, towards radical extremes.
The “demagogues” have stopped short of affiliating with the Axis, to this time. But where they move further in that direction, such as moving to conquer more centrist parties, or conquer institutions of society like education or the courts, or if they corrupt electoral systems, the question has to be asked whether they are in transition to a dark future.
This article is Part 2 of a series. You can read Part 1 here.
Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.
- Democracy in danger: The rise of Right-wing demagogues
- One year later and global Right-wing terrorism is still misunderstood
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