If, against this background, the category “Populism” indeed once served as one of the analytical categories that could be used to differentiate between various parties and social movements before the advent of Web 2.0, it is now simply redundant. Whoever participates in social media, especially as a politician, is soon compelled by the technical restrictions to use a populist mode of communication. This is because both social media and populism share an orientation towards escalation, reduction, polarization and simplification of arguments – which is, for example with tweets of a maximum of 280 characters, simply unavoidable. Alongside specifically structured forms of communication that have, in the age of Web 2.0, removed the power of the word “populism” as a distinguishing term, the strategic dimension of populism itself is to perform a kind of self-staging: a marketing of simplified and polarizing concepts in an emotional way while creating consensus not through persuasive argument but through an overwhelming affective inundation.
This also sketches out the whole dilemma with regard to the parties categorized as “right-wing populist” in Europe: a party classified as right-wing populist is fixed in a category – “populist” — that, in its over-generalization, applies to all parties, while at the same time diverting attention from the goals, methods, and content of right-wing parties by overemphasizing the (media-)strategic moment of self-staging. Crucial to these parties’ success, in terms of mass-psychology, is voter self-identification with them. In successful parties, both leadership and base conceive of themselves as getting a raw deal. The successful right-wing parties are, simply put, parties of the average and the mediocre who perceive themselves as outsiders, because they consider themselves to be above average. To this extent, the label “right-wing populist” makes it difficult to effectively engage against these parties. One the one hand, the label has become so common in the media-democracy that it no longer serves as a point of distinction (“populism”); on the other hand, it deflects the actually necessary, content-related question about the parties’ right-wing alignment, and instead works secretly with an undifferentiated notion of the causes of success.
I therefore propose that the category “right-wing populism” be reserved exclusively for a description of strategies within right-wing extremism, because it cannot be used to differentiate sharply between meanings and it does not carry a substantial meaning as a category of comparison. This is because every right-wing extremist party acts sometimes in a more, sometimes a less populist way. Right-wing populism is about an inflammatory strategy of choosing topics and their media launch in which the staging and the cult of personality are central, with the goal of being able to connect to established (media)-strategies by picking up current debates and escalating them in a polarizing and polemical fashion. Right-wing populist strategies often avoid explicitly fascist and/or Nazi vocabulary (exceptions to this include the right-wing populist strategies of the FPÖ in Austria and the AfD in Germany). However, in the ideological substance there is no example that could show that right-wing populism is more than simply a strategic option of right-wing extremism, making it a concept that cannot bear the role of a separate political family.
➽Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin. See his profile here: