When Donald Trump was elected President of the USA in 2016, a book from 1935 became an unlikely bestseller in the States. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here tells the story of an uneducated, uncultured, narcissistic, far‐right, anti‐immigrant blowhard who, through a campaign of fear‐mongering, takes office in the White House. The similarities to Trump’s victory are indeed astonishing: one could easily read the first quarter of the book, which focuses on the campaigning, as a barely fictionalised account of Trump’s road to ascendancy. The populist demagogue of Lewis’s novel even has a name of suitable Trumpian flatulence: Buzz Windrip.
Little wonder the novel caught the popular imagination. But the rest of the book bears no similarities to Trump’s America. Written as Hitler ruled in Germany, Lewis’s vision encompasses concentration camps and executions of political prisoners; a dystopian future for America, but all too real for Europe at that time. Some excitable readers of the novel in 2016 and 2017 anticipated a similar extreme right‐wing scenario under Trump’s rule. Such a hyperbolic reaction reflects a very real confusion today among electorates and political commentators alike in distinguishing between various points along the expansive right‐wing spectrum.
The above introduction is relevant to Cas Mudde’s new book. Although he does not discuss the novel, he does open with Trump’s inaugural speech. Furthermore, the publisher has for the simple cover a red Trumpian baseball cap with the famous MAGA slogan (‘Make America Great Again’) replaced by the book’s title. It is a clever cover that panders to—and reinforces—current lack of clarity in responses to the rise of a hard/far/extreme right‐wing resurgence across the globe. But it does the volume a disservice because, as one would expect from Mudde, one of the world’s foremost academic experts on right‐wing extremism, there is little of this confusion to be found between the covers.
Here Mudde helpfully differentiates between the extreme right, which is anti‐democratic, revolutionary, and has only a narrow support base, and the radical right, which is reformist, operates within democratic norms and is populist. Most successful hard‐right parties belong to the second group; genuinely neo‐fascist and neo‐Nazi groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece have relatively limited appeal. Mudde is therefore expressing a similar measured view to David Renton in his thoughtful book The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right (Pluto, 2019). (Renton is more cautious in applying far‐right appellations and, I would argue, is therefore a little more precise.) Mudde thus makes a vital distinction between the two dominant strands of the far right.
The thrust of the book explains how ‘the far right in general, and the populist radical right in particular’ has become normalised in the mainstream. Mudde notes how ‘three of the five most populous countries have a far‐right leader’: Brazil, India and the US. Some historians might quibble over just how far right Trump actually is—much later in the book Mudde notes how the US President has ‘repeatedly disappointed foreign far‐right allies’—but the flow of traffic is clear.
Mudde traces the previous waves of the post war far right before focusing on its current ‘fourth wave’ in the twenty‐first century, in which normalisation has occurred. He then sets out the tricky lexical debate, allowing that there is no consensus on definitions. He might have made more of the tendency for lazy and pejorative brandishing of all populist right‐wing politics as ‘far/hard/extreme right’ which is complacently dangerous, worryingly making it harder to identify the emergence of the very real threat from genuine, malevolent, extreme right movements.
In Weimar Germany, the left too readily labelled all its political opponents, even the Social Democrats, as fascists; by crying ‘Wolf!’ too often, their warnings over Hitler were diluted. Thus, George Orwell was correct (as usual) when, in 1944, he advised using the word ‘fascism’ ‘with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword’. We see similar unhelpful compression today in such titles as The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right , by Enzo Traverso (Verso, 2019), where three separate phenomena are branded as one. Overall, Mudde’s clear‐sighted book is an invaluable corrective to some indolent thinking on the far right.
In 2015, he presciently wrote: ‘populism is a democratic response to undemocratic liberalism’. The recent upsurge of most right‐wing populism can be viewed in a similar vein, even if much of its aspirations are unsavoury to many. Mudde discusses four main themes of the far right: the ever‐present issue of immigration, elevated by Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015, heightening perceived threats of ‘The Great Replacement’ in western Europe and the undermining of ethnocracy; security, which is threatened by perceptions of migrant crime and left‐wing educational institutions; corruption of the elite political establishment; and foreign policy, which includes the ‘powerful EU’ as a ‘threat to national sovereignty’. On the right’s antagonism to the EU, here and elsewhere Mudde fails to mention that many on the left are still opposed to the EU project, and many Greens used to be.
A focus on the far right’s organisation and people encompasses the news website Breitbart, the alt‐right (and the alt‐lite), skinheads and the widening‐out of appeal to female and gay supporters in an attempt to modernise its support base. Famous representatives of ‘homo‐nationalism’ include gay far‐right leaders in Holland (Pim Fortuyn) and, currently, Germany (Alice Weidel of Alternative for Germany). Mudde might have mentioned the leading role of gay activists in France’s National Front (now RN: National Rally).
Gay controversialist Milo Yiannopoulos does not get a look in either. Mudde discusses how the far right stokes fears of repressive Islamic attitudes towards the LGBTQ community to boost recruitment. He also shows how although macho culture is still an obsession among many on the far right, boots, braces and shaven heads are often being left behind for natty sharp dressers such as Richard Spencer, figurehead of America’s alt‐right. Fascist hipsters, anyone?
Mudde reveals the extent to which the far‐right agenda depends on media exposure, easily obtained by even tiny marches of the extreme right through the promising threat of violence. The media are only too happy to accommodate them: if it bleeds, it leads. Social media helps in pushing far‐right activism onto mainstream media. But Mudde is aware of the limits of the normalisation of the far right in mainstream politics, reiterating political scientist Antonis Ellinas’s point that orthodox parties co‐opt far‐right policies ‘to play and then retract the nationalist card’. Overall, the far right has primarily an ‘indirect impact’.
While Mudde declares that ‘the far right is here to stay’, he also emphasises ‘populist radical parties are still, in almost all countries, a political minority—on average the third biggest party’. In Europe they muster an average of only 7.5 per cent in elections. The long‐standing plethora of disconnected and disunited far right groupings, often miniscule in size and effect, might suggest that the highly visible current fourth wave is the far right’s crest. Perhaps the tide will soon ebb outwards. Until then, Mudde’s always absorbing, interesting and authoritative account offers an invaluable guide.