“You’re a bunch of scoundrels. You brought people out on the streets on March 8th knowing it would be a massacre and for months you said masks were useless.”
In December 2021, the Spanish far-right party Vox issued this strongly-worded tweet attacking the far-left party Podemos. The broadside came in response to Podemos’s accusation that the party had endangered public health by criticizing the measures imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Vox’s attempt to refute such an allegation is not surprising, its manner of doing so speaks volumes about the party’s political discourse.
Rather than denying or retracting its previous statements, Vox instead attacked Podemos and suggested the party was just as culpable for leading the public astray. In particular, it criticized Podemos’s participation in demonstrations commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8 and the party’s initial confusion regarding the efficacy of masks during the first weeks of the pandemic. Furthermore, the use of vulgar language (“scoundrels” is the least crass translation of the original “canallas”) imbues the message with a crude tone demonstrative of substance-free mudslinging. Even Vox’s verb choice is dripping in disdain for Podemos, as it refers to its political opponents using the informal term for “you” (vosotros) rather than the formal word (ustedes).
More than simply rebutting an accusation or sharing an alternative perspective, Vox’s tweet is meant to convey an intense emotion, one that characterizes much of the party’s discourse—anger.
Far-Right Discourse and Anger
Scholars and the media have frequently noted the far right’s tendency to play on the public’s fears and anxieties in crafting its political discourse. Portraying political elites as untrustworthy and immigrants as dangerous are common examples of this strategy, which relies on constructing an “us–them” distinction and portraying the far right as the only political force capable of protecting “us” from “them.”
Yet, anxiety is not the only emotion the far right manipulates to demonize its adversaries and rally its supporters. Anger also plays a central role in how the far right uses its discourse to interpret events and construct a particular worldview. Anger is an antagonistic emotion that arises in response to threats that are viewed as specific and manageable. Frequently, anger is catalyzed by perceived violations of the normative order, including beliefs, values, and identities. Substantial research in political and social psychology suggests that anger increases reliance on habits and predispositions, encourages processes of blame assignation, and heightens awareness of group boundaries (for example, see here and here). Moreover, anger is an action-oriented emotion that triggers a “fight” response to threats and challenges, rather than the “flight” response more commonly associated with anxiety.
The far right’s anger is embodied in its aggressive discourse, which frequently invokes violent imagery and mobilizes supporters to take up an offensive position against alleged threats. Treating politics as an existential battle between good and evil—in which intergroup boundaries are stark and there is little room for compromise—makes anger a seemingly appropriate, even necessary, response to the threats the far right confronts.
Angry Discourse on the Spanish Far-Right
To unpack Vox’s angry discourse further—and to compare it to other Spanish parties—I turned to approximately 200,000 tweets issued from April 2019 to December 2021 (the start of this period coincides with the first election in which Vox obtained seats in the national parliament). These tweets were issued by the six nationally-competitive parties that won seats in the Spanish parliament in the general elections of April and November 2019: Vox, People’s Party (PP), Citizens (Cs), Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Podemos, and United Left (IU) (Podemos and IU were analyzed separately, despite running together in the electoral alliance Unidas Podemos).
Using a revised version of the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) dictionary, I coded tweets for the presence of anger-inducing discourse. The dictionary includes several hundred words that have a relatively clear and unambiguous association with anger, such as “attack,” “blame,” “enrage,” and “hate.” I then used quantitative text analysis techniques to further unpack the content of such discourse.
The figure below illustrates the frequency of angry discourse in Spanish parties’ tweets. Vox maintains a significant lead over its rivals, with 21.5 percent of the party’s tweets invoking anger. Its closest competitor on this measure is Podemos, whose share of angry tweets (17.3 percent) is approximately 20 percent lower than Vox’s share. Notably, the country’s two largest and oldest parties—the PP on the center-right and the PSOE on the center-left—rank as the least likely to use angry discourse. The presence of anger in their tweets, 13.3 percent for the PP and 12.1 percent for the PSOE, is slightly more than half the amount in Vox’s tweets.
Anger in Spanish Party Tweets, 2019–2021
Taking a closer look at the contents of Vox’s angry discourse reveals the strong link between the party’s anger and other components of its far-right ideology. The figure below illustrates the 25 most frequently used words in Vox’s angry tweets (the words contained in the revised LIWC dictionary were removed prior to analysis, as they are endogenous to the identification of angry tweets). These most commonly used words highlight two central themes of Vox’s discourse—its fervent nationalism and its anti-elite populism.
Top Words in Vox’s Angry Tweets
Most prominently, it is clear that the party’s anger is often paired with expressions of its nationalism. The frequency of words such as “spain” and “spanish,” as well as the party’s almost obsessive use of the Spanish flag emoji, suggest that perceived threats to the Spanish nation motivate some of the party’s harshest discourse. This is further evident in the prominence of “Catalonia” in Vox’s angry tweets—as the party has made opposing regional separatism a key component of its platform.
Furthermore, the party’s anti-elite populism is also embedded within its angry discourse. The party’s anger is directed against the political establishment through general references to “government,” “madrid,” “congress,” and “[the] left,” as well as attacks on specific individuals and entities, including national leaders (“sánchez” and “iglesias”) and rival parties (“psoe” and “pp”). Vox’s anti-elite anger demonstrates the duality inherent in populism, which draws clear lines between the “good” people and “bad” elites.
What Anger Says About Far-Right Politics
Identifying anger as a central component of the far right’s discourse matters, as it clarifies the emotional foundations of far-right appeals and provides a conceptual framework to assess the influence of far-right discourse on the public’s attitudes and behaviors. In particular, focusing more on anger in the study of the far right offers three specific benefits.
First, focusing on anger highlights the aggressive, action-oriented nature of far-right politics. Anger is known to mobilize the public and encourage political participation—whereas anxiety alone typically has no such effect (see here and here). Thus, emphasizing anger as a constitutive aspect of far-right politics serves to clarify how far-right populist leaders—who are often noted for their “charisma”—inspire a passionate response from their supporters.
Second, anger explains and reinforces the commonly-acknowledged centrality of scapegoating on the far right. While it is widely accepted that far-right parties devote considerable energy toward constructing “us–them” dichotomies, anger helps explain why and how such distinctions become salient and meaningful for individuals. Research finds that anger solidifies ingroup solidarity and catalyzes outgroup hostility, suggesting that anger-inducing discourse is a particularly powerful tool in the far right’s attempts to blame elites, immigrants, and “others” for alleged threats to the nation.
Third, anger is a key factor underpinning the far right’s political success. In fact, anger has been found to increase electoral support for the far right, while anxiety has the opposite effect. Such findings suggest that emotions are not extraneous to “real-world” political outcomes, but instead are crucial components of them.
Overall, exploring the emotional content of far-right discourse improves our understanding of how such parties communicate and why their appeals are often quite effective. Focusing specifically on the presence of anger promises to shed light on how the far right uses its discourse to construct the particular brand of aggressive, confrontational politics for which it is best known.
Joseph Cerrone is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at The George Washington University. His research focuses on far-right politics in southern Europe, with an emphasis on how elite discourse influences public perceptions of immigrants and ethnic minorities. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from The George Washington University and a B.A. in International Relations and Spanish from Saint Joseph’s University.