Normalizing Hate Politics

AfD leader Björn Höcke

In six months, federal elections will be held in Germany. The right-wing AfD, party which in recent months has been polling consistently well above 10%, will almost certainly enter federal parliament. Barring any unforeseeable catastrophic event, Merkel will remain in power, but the rise of the far-right has already shaken Germany’s politics.

About a month ago, a “strategy paper“, adopted by the national leadership of the AfD was leaked to the press, providing us with an insight into what to expect in the coming months. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung summed it up: “‘Carefully planned provocations’ are supposed to lead the other parties to nervous and unfair reactions. The more the AfD will be stigmatized, ‘the more positive the image of the party will be’”, the paper says.”

In other words: In order to attract attention and to push the boundaries of political discourse, the AfD plans to put out statements, designed to provoke media coverage. The statement must be carefully calculated, with two different audiences in mind: The media and general public must be outraged by the shrieking dog-whistle provocation, which lands just short of an explicit endorsement of extremist views. But for sympathizers it must be possible to decode the message as innocent, normal even so that the media’s reaction will in turn appear hysterical and irrational – an oppressive establishment’s attempt to shut down a critical voice.

One example of this tactic was party leader Frauke Petry’s demand in an interview last September to rehabilitate the term “völkisch.” Why, she asked with obviously faked ignorance, should this term, (which is merely the term Volk/the people turned into an adjective), have only negative connotations? The next day, her party dominated the news, as every single right-thinking person in politics and media made their objection heard.

But some were on her side. ‘What’s so bad about “the Volk”, anyways? And why aren’t we allowed to reference it in a positive way?’ many of her followers will have wondered, baffled and outraged by the critical reaction, and either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the term’s clear meaning as a label of racist Nazi ideology. Petry, with one cynical sleight of hand, had turned the whole media into moralizing scolds arrayed against her, and herself into a victim.

All this was done to polarize society more, and to fill her followers with even greater contempt for any attempts by the “mainstream” to “dictate” the boundaries of civilized discourse. The endgame, of course, is to normalize reactionary and hateful politics.

In order to play this game effectively, it helps to be an opportunist, a demagogue with neither scruples nor strong personal convictions – which may be the reason that the ex-liberal Donald Trump excelled at it intuitively. You have to walk a fine line: it’s difficult to satisfy the urges of your bloodthirsty base and to etaper the media class into moral revulsion, while at the same time not going so far that you will harm yourself in the long run. It is a strategy that reflects the ambiguity at the heart of the success of the AfD, a party that harbors its fair share of extremists but still finds support among many “ordinary” conservative people outside of radical milieus.

It seems clear by now that Björn Höcke’s recent speech, in which he called for “a 180° degree turn in our politics of memory” may have been similarly designed as a provocation. All too early and well-prepared were the follow-up explanations he sent out to journalists, in which he began to relativize (but never apologize for) his statements. Höcke was “surprised” by the reactions, he wrote. “In my speech, I merely wanted to question the way in which we Germans look back on our history, and how our history can create a sense of identity in the 21st century.”

Alas, this time it didn’t work. It wasn’t only the “Lügenpresse” which attacked him in the aftermath, it was his own party too. With great relish, some of his rivals stuck in the knife, declaring him a “liability” for the party. But even supporters shook their heads over his clumsiness. Only Höcke’s closest allies stood by him.

It certainly didn’t look good. The beer-hall vibe, the aggressive crowd … even the lighting was off. For anyone familiar with Höcke’s career, there were few surprises in his speech, but to thousands of people watching him on YouTube, he presented himself in all his glory like never before. In an exhaustive study of Höcke’s rhetoric and ideology, produced for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, the sociologist Andreas Kemper last year already came to the carefully considered conclusion that Höcke is, in fact, a fascist.

Kemper has also amassed overwhelming circumstantial evidence that in 2011 and 2012, Höcke, a teacher and civil servant before becoming party-leader in Thüringen, published letters and articles under a pseudonym in a neo-Nazi magazine, praising, among other things, National Socialism as the first anti-globalization movement in modern times.

Björn Höcke may be a demagogue, and like any successful populist he tailors his message opportunistically to his audiences. But a man without convictions he ain’t. Höcke is the real deal, a true believer: a fanatical adherent to nationalist ideology, and one of the leading figures of a well-organized radical nationalist network.

The party itself is not really divided, but its leaders clearly are. Höcke is the charismatic figurehead of the radical ultranationalist wing, which dominates the eastern states and is closely connected to anti-immigrant street movements. Frauke Petry, on the other hand, has gained control over the party, but is by no means powerful enough to marginalize her opponents. Höcke, after all, is popular with the base, and often holds rallies drawing a few thousand people. The two factions don’t disagree about the (vague and contradictory) program of the party, but they DO have different conceptions of their historical role. Petry and her allies are seeking to establish a modern right-wing party and follow the model of Austrian far-right party FPÖ or the Front National, which have long become “normal” parties competing for power.

Höcke and his allies in the “New Right”, however, have loftier, almost revolutionary goals, and they are much more connected to the ideological world of neo-fascist extremism. To them, the nation is in existential crisis. Only a radical break, an “absolute victory”, as Höcke put it in his speech, can save it. Their ideology and style is harkening back to older political traditions, most importantly the national-revolutionary and anti-liberal politics of the Weimar Republic.

In Höcke’s words, their party constitutes “the last evolutionary and peaceful chance for Germany”. Stoking the fires of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim resentment, these far-right ideologues are attempting to settle scores with a system they have loathed for decades. The party, Höcke always demanded, must position itself “in fundamental opposition (Fundamentalopposition)” and remain a “movement party” connected to other forms of resistance. He implores his party not to be corrupted by the moderating forces of day-to-day politics.

Höcke’s decision not to stand for federal election can be read as a victory of his nemesis Petry – but it may also reflect the conviction by Höcke and his allies that parliamentary politics ultimately are secondary. What counts is to agitate, to bring down and discredit the establishment and the government, and ultimately to transform the political culture. The change must be fundamental.

In many other countries, right-wing populism is able to build on historical political cultures in national history. The Alt-Right, for example, wants to return to a pre-civil rights era, in which the “white identity” of the American nation was not a fringe idea, but rather undisputed “common sense”: an idea so normal it barely needed to be expressed. Until 1965, national immigration quotas guaranteed that the people coming to America would be almost predominantly Northern European in origin, protestant by religion, and white in complexion. Expect policies like this to be put forward soon.

Another of the favorite debating tricks of the Alt-Right is to gleefully point out that the founding fathers would have agreed with many of their racist, anti-democratic, or anti-feminist ideas. And they wouldn’t be wrong. In this sense, while these right-wing radicals reject modern America, they can still call themselves with some justification “American patriots.” In a similar way, France’s Front National is able to appropriate the powerful language of French republicanism: It’s xeno-and Islamophobia sounds secularist (all the more so, since Marine Le Pen is poised to compete against the conservative catholic Francois Fillon in the upcoming elections), and it’s call for a revolt of “the people” against the elites consciously draws on historical traditions of popular revolt. They reject what France has become, but they don’t reject France.

In Germany, it’s not that simple. The new nationalists want to leave the past behind, they say, and found a new, confident patriotism – but, as Höcke proved beyond a doubt, they remain obsessed with the German defeat and its subsequent status of submission to the West. Smart right-wing politicians know that, if they want to build a majority for xenophobia, their best bet is to stay away from history, and instead present themselves as a modern, future-looking movement, at peace with the constitution and the post-war order. But to the nationalist radicals, this post-war order itself is precisely the problem. The rot, they believe, has set in a long time before Merkel came to power.

In his speech, Höcke likened Angela Merkel to Erich Honecker, and his own movement to the resistance that brought down the communist state of East Germany. Like the fascists of the 1920s, Höcke painted an apocalyptic picture of a nation in grave danger, surrounded by enemies and ruled by traitors. It is worth listening to him in detail, if only to satisfy a morbid curiosity of what fascist demagoguery sounds like in the 21st century:

“Our once respected army has been turned from an instrument of defense into a gendered, multiculturalized intervention force in service to the USA. Our once well-regarded culture, after having undergone an encompassing Americanization, is now threatened to be destroyed by multicultural sameness. Our once well-functioning education system, and I am saying this with all due bluntness, was deliberately destroyed in recent decades. Our once proud cities are going to seed more and more, and have become breeding places of crime and violence, and unfortunately often home to radical iIlamists. (…) Our once powerful economy is merely a wreck now, neoliberally emaciated. The social peace, for which the whole world used to envy us, has become existentially threatened by growing abuse and the surrender of limited national solidarity, the import of alien peoples and the inevitable conflicts. Dear friends, our dear Volk is deeply divided, and for the first time its existence is actually threatened in a fundamental way: by low birth rates and mass immigration. Dear friends, this is the terrible state of our nation, this is the terrible state of our people in the year 2017.

I have often used an image, which still seems to describe it best: The old forces, meaning: the old parties (“Altparteien”), but not only the old parties, also the unions, more than anything the established churches (crowd erupts in loud jeers), and the ever growing welfare industry, which is making money off these perverted policies, these old forces that I just named, they are dissolving our beloved fatherland like a piece of soap under a warm stream of water. But we, the patriots, we will turn off this stream of water! We will take our Germany back, piece by piece! (crowd chants: “Höcke! Höcke! Höcke!”)

I have always insisted, I have preached again and again, and I will do it again tonight, because it is so important: The AfD is the last evolutionary, it is the last peaceful chance that our fatherland has.”

Photograph courtesy of White Wolf Revolution. Published under a Creative Commons license.