Skip to main content

Ruth, you have been working for years on populism from a linguistic and semiotic perspective–an approach that remains under-studied in the global political science-oriented discussions on populism. You recently published the second edition of your book The Politics of Fear, and coauthored a great paper on the notions of impoliteness and shameless normalization in Trump and Berlusconi press conferences. Could you delve into the concept of shameless normalization–how you measure or study the normalization process?

Well, when analyzing far-right populism (I haven’t conducted so much research and empirical work on left-wing populism) one always and necessarily has to consider both the form and content of utterances, texts, images, and so forth–that is, of semiosis. Far-right populism is NOT a matter of performance and rhetoric; there is always an ideological agenda involved. I wanted to integrate the approaches of political science and the many dimensions of ideology and history, but also to investigate how populist rhetoric is realized and how it is manifested in micro contexts: What do such politicians actually do beyond simply addressing their voters? How do they persuade their audience? Whom do they specifically address? How do they perform their everyday populist agenda? When doing this research, I considered and compared the last six years, because the first edition of my book, The Politics of Fear, appeared in 2015, with the second edition in 2021. So much has happened between these two editions!

One of the most interesting new phenomena is what I call normalization and shameless normalization–normalization in the sense that many agendas of the far right have reached the mainstream, like anti-migration, anti-asylum politics, border-politics, i.e. closing the borders for some and opening them for others, the imaginary of an allegedly homogenous people, a very conservative identity and gender politics. This is particularly true of some national-conservative parties. We were able to observe such normalization processes in Austria but also in the UK, a bit in the Scandinavian countries, and especially in the United States.

Studying normalization processes is currently particularly important because conservative parties support and integrate far-right agendas into their programs and into their election campaigns. This is the case in the UK, in Austria, and in all the Visegrád Group countries (Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, and Poland); there is almost no difference anymore between the far right and traditionally Christian social-conservative parties, in many aspects. There still exist a few differences, but the boundaries are blurred. This has consequences: on the one hand, a far-right agenda becomes mainstreamed, acceptable, and normalized; on the other hand, the extreme right must find new agendas because some of its own programmatic issues have been adopted (that is, co-opted by the mainstream). We can observe this development, especially in respect to the anti-vaccination movement, to the Identitarian movements, the “great replacement theory,” and so on.

When I was studying this new development, I noticed another salient phenomenon, which I label shameless normalization. Part of this strategy consists of the violation of conventional taboos about racism, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism, and so forth. On the other hand, conversational norms and norms of etiquette are also violated. The attempt to “be authentic” and “speak like we do” and “dare say what we all would like to say, but we don’t dare say,” implies that conventions of politeness have been completely transgressed; it has become acceptable in some contexts to make misogynist and sexist jokes again, or anti-Semitic and racist jokes. And, more generally, it implies that the conventions of dialogue–How do we speak to each other? How do we listen? How do we argue?–have been basically thrown out the window.

This became apparent when investigating Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example. If you analyze Orbán’s speeches at the European Parliament or when he engages in negotiations and debates, he is speaking on two or more different levels. He just doesn’t answer a question he doesn’t like. He can say something which is obviously not true, and it doesn’t matter. It has now become acceptable to engage and interact with others in this way in the public sphere, in formal situations and not just behind closed doors. That led me to create the concept of shameless normalization. It comprises both the normalization of far-right agendas, but it’s also a conversational style of breaking of taboos, violating conversational maxims, neglecting all rules of politeness and of negotiation.

In respect to the paper which you mentioned in your question: I began researching impoliteness with my colleague from Lancaster University, Jonathan Culpeper, since he’s an expert on politeness and impoliteness, and I was the expert on far-right populism and shameless normalization. We then included Elena Semino, who provided the data about Berlusconi; and we could then compare Berlusconi with Trump. I find it interesting that Berlusconi did and still does perform in a similar manner to Trump. He already staged himself as a very rich and successful businessman years ago. He’s also the owner of most Italian media and has established himself as someone who is able to violate taboos, as somebody who can say what he wants, and as the savior of the people.

That led me to create the concept of shameless normalization. It comprises both the normalization of far-right agendas, but it’s also a conversational style of breaking of taboos, violating conversational maxims, neglecting all rules of politeness and of negotiation.

Trump was indeed successful in staging himself as an entrepreneur, although he did have much misfortune during his life in business. Nevertheless, he came across as very successful. He was also an entertainer; both Berlusconi and Trump like making jokes and like to entertain crowds. We compared many instances and it’s obvious that Berlusconi also violated many taboos and that he did this frequently. There are the famous episodes like when he offended Martin Schulz, then president of the European Parliament. It was quite a horrendous episode, but Berlusconi then joked about it and gave a kind of apology–the kind where he felt compelled to apologize but still somehow conceding that he had done something which was not okay. Trump did not do that.

Trump just directly and explicitly offended journalists, women, members of Congress, foreign politicians, etc. And it just didn’t matter. A discursive shift occurred: a significant change in the acceptance of what is right and wrong, what is polite and impolite, what you can say, what can you cannot say, what is acceptable for whom, and how leaders can construct themselves in different contexts. This shamelessness has another relevant dimension to be considered, apart from the shift in norms and of discourse. It is found in relation to people who had been ashamed that they were unemployed, that they were not successful. The so-called, “deplorables” called out by Hillary Clinton suddenly felt spoken to and were told, “You don’t have to be ashamed. You are not guilty. Someone else is to be blamed–migrants, minorities, career women, et cetera–but I will save you. You do not have to be ashamed. You can actually regain your self-esteem and recognition.”

In this way, there was another facet of shamelessness: attributing to those who had been ashamed, who are ashamed, recognition: conveying that it’s not their individual problem despite the neoliberal, individualistic agenda. This seems like quite an interesting contradiction, but it is two sides of the same coin. Accordingly, Trump was very successful because he talked to these people on a conversational and equal level. People did make fun of his style, which, however, was cleverly chosen because people could understand it: “he spoke like we do.” He didn’t talk down to the people, he spoke to the people and he continuously scandalized and provoked; this necessarily made the headlines. In this way, Trump could also distract from his policies and agendas and catch attention continuously. All these aspects are condensed in the concept of shamelessness.

In your paper on “Micro-Politics of Right-Wing Populism,” you explain why we need a multi-methodical, multi-modal, and critical interdisciplinary analysis to understand far-right electoral successes. Can you summarize your main methodological and conceptual arguments? How do we combine the big picture of populism’s rise happening in many countries at the same time, and each context being culturally specific?

I think it’s very important to conduct qualitative, context-dependent research. On the other hand, as you propose and I completely agree, there exist some general characteristics of the far right. Even though many researchers are not aware how far the history of the far right reaches back or that postwar far-right populism also draws on Latin American left-wing populism and on the postwar French Nouvelle Droite. Many different ideological traditions came together in different contexts and draw on different traditions. Obviously it’s relevant to the development of specific far-right populist parties whether there exists a fascist or Nazi past, or not. In this way, we observe huge differences between countries where such a fascist past existed, like in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and Portugal, and other countries, which draw on other traditions.

We observe huge differences between countries where such a fascist past existed, like in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and Portugal, and other countries, which draw on other traditions.

We can conclude that the political and programmatic agendas are dependent on such socio-political and historical contexts. Just to give an example: of course religion has played a big role in the postwar developments. But if you compare gender politics, which are currently at the center of political debates in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary, with the debate on gender politics among the far-right in Scandinavia, you’d believe that there exist two separate worlds. There exists a strong Orthodox Christian influence in the east. Strong homophobia in Russia, Ukraine, and in Poland, where there even occurs an attempt to turn the clock back on abortion legislation and so forth. These developments are completely against EU conventions; you would never win an election in the Scandinavian countries or in the Netherlands with such agenda. It would be completely impossible. France, as you know best, is a bit different, because there exists a strong Catholic tradition. Even Marine Le Pen oscillates between pro and contra. Austria also has a strong antiabortion and homophobic tradition drawing on Catholicism.

So that’s why context dependency and historical awareness are very important. Then there exist some issues which are quite general. The anti-elitism, the anti-pluralism, the ethno-nationalism you find in all far-right populist parties: there exist different exclusionary politics; moreover, a strict hierarchical leadership, the way the parties are organized, and an emphasis on “law and order” is found in all these parties.

But two more issues are relevant, which are strongly distributed in different contexts. One is historical revisionism: who do you want to refer to in the past? In Hungary, for example, suddenly historical fascist leaders become important again, like Miklós Horthy. There are statues of Horthy because everything directed against communism must, per se, be good. Going back to Nazi slogans and Nazi roots constitutes retrotopia, which Zygmunt Bauman has thoroughly discussed: nostalgia for a homogeneous völkisch past.

Another divisive topic is welfare chauvinism. In social welfare countries like Germany, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries, these parties support social welfare programs but want to keep them for “themselves.” So yes, migrants can come, they can work, they pay taxes, but they don’t get the benefits. So, it’s basically nationalism plus socialism because the benefits are deemed to be only for “us.” In some other countries, welfare does not have the same legitimacy, so far-right populist leaders are more (neo)liberal economically. That’s why I have decided to look very closely at certain contexts apart from general criteria. In investigating the micro politics, I try to understand how these politicians and these parties, programs, slogans, images, and posters are used in order to convey certain messages, and then ask: Which messages? How they do that? Are they successful?

Due to the different mediums the far-right populists use different discursive-rhetorical strategies, linguistic strategies, and arguments. It is fascinating to see how very clever many of these parties were already 20, even 30 years ago, when the mainstream still came across static and traditional in their performance and image-making. I compared, for example, the way they portrayed themselves on their homepages. At that time, Heinz-Christian Strache and Jörg Haider (former leaders of the Austrian Freedom Party) were extremely skillful examples. They had very interesting homepages, created rap songs and postcards that you could download, poems, and also short films. In contrast, the mainstream parties had pictures of somebody getting on a plane, getting off a plane, shaking hands with somebody else–completely uninteresting images, very ritualized. The populist parties brought in a really interesting dynamic, also in their visual politics.

Now of course mainstream parties have caught up, but populist rhetoric did cause a significant rift in the postwar consensus. And in that way, I do agree also with Ernesto Laclau that populism brought back conflict into politics.

You have also worked more broadly on narratives of exclusion and how the “migration crisis” has reshaped the way Europeans discuss human rights by securitizing European identity. First, could you comment on the racialization of space that we have seen these last years, from Trump’s wall at the US-Mexico border to the Israeli walls up to the more recent Polish wall at the border with Belarus–how narratives of being a fortress that needs protection are used to “otherize” those who found themselves on the other side of these walls?

Oh, absolutely. As I said, the way some parties have been dealing with the far right is by colonizing their agendas. That means moving to the right, normalizing the agenda of the far right. In respect to exclusionary politics, it means breaking with the Geneva Convention and violating human rights, which are part of the European Charter. In the EU, the appeals of the far right to close borders, not to let others in, drawing on old xenophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma sentiments, have come very much to the fore and are contradicting these salient postwar conventions. But they’re also contradicting the Schengen Agreement and, of course, many humanitarian conventions.

Accordingly, far-right populism is linked to welfare chauvinism–we must close the borders because these are illegal migrants who only want our benefits and our jobs. That presupposes that these are (a) not refugees but migrants, and (b) that they’re illegal. Thus, they’re presupposing immediately that migrants and refugees are criminals because illegality means they are doing something which is not legal. In migration studies, we don’t use the term illegal. We use irregular and irregular means, sans papiers; they don’t have the documents–they’re refugees. If their applications for asylum are not granted and they continue to remain in the country, only then are they “illegal.” But if they are asylum seekers and applying for asylum and waiting for a decision, they’re certainly not to be perceived as illegal.

We already conducted a study in the 1990s, analyzing the national newspapers over six years in the UK. Apart from The Financial Times and The Guardian, all newspapers were writing about illegal migrants. It didn’t matter where they came from. If they were Bosnian refugees during the post-Yugoslav wars, if they were refugees from Afghanistan or wherever, they were all regarded as “bogus” asylum seekers.

Such exclusionary racialization of space has become mainstream.

I also find the concept of “Fortress Europe” very dangerous. The Nazis used that concept during the Battle of Britain in World War II. Now it has been redefined and contextualized, but we shouldn’t forget this etymology of the term. In that way, such exclusionary racialization of space has become mainstream. This racialization implies there are certain spaces that are reserved for certain people and other people don’t deserve to live in those spaces or to transcend the borders. It is what Bastian Vollmer calls “the moralization of borders.” The idea is that some people deserve to transcend the borders and others don’t, based on specific criteria: they are rich, white, or young.

We are thus confronted with gatekeeping processes; thus, there are spaces that are reserved for “us” and spaces that are reserved for “them.” We observe specific spaces, which are now being created for them, such as deportation camps in Libya or islands in Australia; there exist typically racialized spaces, such as the ghettos–also, historically of course, Jewish ghettos, but also the black ghettos in the United States.

We also experience that these impromptu refugee camps become small cities; they will not vanish similar to the camps in Mória and Lesbos. Basically, what has happened and is happening more and more, is a complete normalization of far-right, extreme-right anti-migration and anti-asylum politics. The EU is not able to propose a different policy because asylum policies are national. The EU can only recommend, but each country can decide on its own, just like with health policies, which are also national/subsidiary. Old stereotypes are gaining traction: for example, the antisemitic world conspiracy theory, that the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros is allegedly pushing Muslim migrants to Hungary. It’s a very difficult narrative to construct, but it seems to work. The same was true in the United States. Again, we experience borders as racialized spaces, the Mexican-American border, and the building of walls. Securitization has become a whole industry; there’s enormous of amounts of money to be made.

It was obvious that every time Trump wanted to distract from some failures (the so-called “dead-cat” strategy), he would start to campaign against Mexican migrants. Such strategies, which are re-semiotized, and material practices, which are revived from darker times, remind me of a slogan of Jonathan Freedland, who said, “We’re entering an era of endarkenment.” We can only hope that there will be more egalitarian humanitarian policies in the future. For example, many experts claim that Europe needs many migrants to survive. Yet certain parts of the EU’s membership just don’t seem to care. It’s going to be an interesting and challenging time to observe if compromises are possible, or if this contradiction exists as one big challenge to the EU, because we are confronted with huge ideological and political differences, indeed with polarization–for example between Orbán in Hungary and Prime Minister Jan Asselborn of Luxembourg. We will have to wait and see.

Ruth Wodak is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated to the University of Vienna. Besides various other prizes, she was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize for Elite Researchers in 1996, an Honorary Doctorate from University of Örebro in Sweden in 2010, and an Honorary Doctorate from Warwick University in 2020. She is past-President of the Societas Linguistica Europaea. 2011, she was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria, and 2018, the Lebenswerk Preis for her lifetime achievements, from the Austrian Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She is member of the British Academy of Social Sciences and member of the Academia Europaea. In March 2020, she became Honorary Member of the Senate of the University of Vienna. In June 2021, she was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for her lifetime achievements. She is member of the editorial board of a range of linguistic journals and co-editor of the journals Discourse and Society, Critical Discourse Studies, and Language and Politics.

She has held visiting professorships in University of Uppsala, Stanford University, University Minnesota, University of East Anglia, and Georgetown University. 2008, she was awarded the Kerstin Hesselgren Chair of the Swedish Parliament (at University Örebrö). In the spring 2014, Ruth held the Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In the spring 2016, Ruth was Distinguished Schuman Fellow at the Schuman Centre, EUI, Florence. 2017, she held the Willi Brandt Chair at the University of Malmö, Sweden. 2019/2020, she was a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (IWM).

Her research interests focus on discourse studies; gender studies; identity politics and the politics of the past; political communication and populism; prejudice and discrimination; and on ethnographic methods of linguistic field work. Ruth has published 11 monographs, 29 co-authored monographs, over 60 edited volumes and special issues of journals, and ca 420 peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters. Her work has been translated into English, Italian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, Czech, Bosnian, Greek, Slovenian, and Serbian.

Recent book publications include

The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourses (Sage 2021, 2nd revised and extended edition); Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control (Multilingual Matters 2020; with M. Rheindorf); Identitäten im Wandel. (Springer 2020; with R. de Cillia, M. Rheindorf, S. Lehner); Europe at the Crossroads (Nordicum 2019; with P. Bevelander); The Routledge Handbook of Language and Politics (Routledge 2018, with B. Forchtner); Kinder der Rückkehr (Springer 2018, with E. Berger); The Politics of Fear. What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage, 2015; translated into the German, Russian, Bosnian, and Japanese); The discourse of politics in action: Politics as Usual’ (Palgrave, revised 2nd edition 2011; translated into the Chinese); Methods of CDS (Sage 2016, with M. Meyer; 3rd revised edition, translated into the Korean, Spanish, and Arabic); Migration, Identity and Belonging (LUP 2011, with G. Delanty, P. Jones); The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the German Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation (Palgrave 2008; with H. Heer, W. Manoschek, A. Pollak); The Politics of Exclusion. Debating Migration in Austria (Transaction Press 2009; with M. Krzyżanowski); The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (Sage 2010; with B. Johnstone, P. Kerswill); Analyzing Fascist Discourse. Fascism in Talk and Text (Routledge 2013; with J E Richardson), and Rightwing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse (Bloomsbury 2013; with M. KhosraviNik, B. Mral). See Wodak for more information.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.