When Extremists Go Primetime

How did the far right get so mainstream? 

It is a familiar headline: The global far right is on the rise. Far-right victories dominate  news cycles as authoritarian leaders are elected on promises to bring about a mythical return to order, disregarding values like “inclusivity,” “human rights,” and “liberal democracy.” In the last year, far-right leaders gained new wins across the globe, including in Brazil (with the ascent of Jair Bolsonaro) and in India (with the reelection of Narendra Modi). For those concerned that history’s darkest hours may repeat themselves, it’s looking pretty bleak.

The Far Right Today
by Cas Mudde
Polity, 160 pp.

Few people are more qualified to explain what’s happening than Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist and Guardian columnist who has been researching far-right extremism and populism since the 1980s. His new book, The Far Right Today, aims to compare today’s far-right movements with those of past decades, beginning with the end of the Second World War. He does so by breaking the history of the far right into four “waves.” The first, from 1945 to roughly the mid-1950s, was marginal and preoccupied with nostalgia for prewar fascism. The second wave was a revolt against trends like urbanization and the development of the welfare state. The third wave is defined by the successful electoral rise of radical right parties, like France’s National Front.

Mudde’s central thesis is that a fourth wave of the far right is currently underway. He argues that the newest wave is distinguished by the fact that it’s gone mainstream. He traces the wave to what he sees as the three defining crises of the twenty-first century: global terrorism, from 9/11 onward; the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent worldwide recession; and the 2015 refugee crisis. In the wake of these events, he writes, “mainstream right, and sometimes even left, parties” are increasingly willing to share a bed with far-right figures.

The greatest value of Mudde’s book is its scope. The fourth wave of the far right, he says, is defined by its heterogeneity: There is no one “far right” but rather intersecting parties, movements, and individuals with shared qualities and aims. As Mudde observes, the extent of the far right’s political rise goes far beyond specific national or even regional borders. Some examples are well trodden in news cycles, like Brexit and Victor Orban’s
Hungary. But Mudde also mentions countries like Japan and Australia to illustrate that no nation or region is immune. Australia’s brutal refugee policy, he points out, has inspired far-right immigration politics across Europe.

But despite acknowledging the far right’s diversity, he misses an opportunity to deeply engage with it. Mudde’s book casually juxtaposes far-right parties and people from all corners of the world, but he doesn’t deeply discuss what makes them related. Indeed, he largely rejects the idea that they are related.

Mudde also undermines his second thesis—that the far right is becoming increasingly mainstream—by insisting that the far right continues to be treated differently than the modern conservative movement. He generally treats far-right figures that take over mainstream parties as conquering forces, rather than the logical product of these parties’ affinity for exclusionary policies. The result is a book that thoroughly details the strength of today’s far right while failing to fully explain why it was so easy for extremism to become a vibrant force.

Mudde’s global approach is timely and necessary, and not only because the far right is on the rise in diverse regions and nations. Our world is more densely interconnected than at any point in history, and this has played a direct role in the far right’s ascension. It was the integrated nature of global finance that allowed the 2008 recession to spread so widely, so quickly. The internationalization of conflict and relative ease of transportation continue to help fuel the refugee crisis. As Mudde points out, the far-right movement is in part a reaction to globalization. 

Yet Mudde spends much of his discussion dismissing warnings of transnational organizing as the ravings of “alarmist” anti-fascists or “sensationalist” journalists. He rightly points out that far-right groups suffer from a number of factors that make international collaboration unsuccessful: authoritarian leaders who are reluctant to share power; a tendency toward infighting; and irreconcilable, often irredentist, differences that stem from conflicts over which group is truly superior. But the reality is that neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups are more internationally popular than at any time since 1945. Authoritarian leaders in one country are often well liked in others, and as far-right leaders bolster each other on the world stage, the power of cooperative liberal values erodes.

Right-wing groups across the West, for example, have forged ties with India’s ascendant Hindu nationalists. Russia has funded right-wing, Eurosceptic parties, which in turn have teamed up to try to undermine the European Union. Perhaps most famously, Russian President Vladimir Putin meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump. Russia, of course, had many reasons for its involvement in American politics, including a general desire to destabilize the country. But part of Putin’s reasoning was that he saw a potential ally in Trump’s authoritarian political style and wanted him to win. 

It is therefore fitting that Mudde begins his book with the election of Trump. (His cover is even a red MAGA hat.) In addition to the far right’s breadth and cooperation—the president is outspoken in his admiration for right-wing strongmen worldwide—the rise of Trump explains this book’s other principal subject: “the mainstreaming and normalization of the far right.” 

But Mudde handicaps his exploration of this topic by proclaiming, early in his introduction, that “this book is not concerned with the so-called ‘mainstream right,’ such as conservatives and liberals/libertarians.” (In much of Europe, the term “liberals” refers to individuals who fall on the right side of the economic spectrum, not the left.) Trump may be a shocking aberration from recent American politics, particularly in his brash outbursts and not-so-subtle white nationalist dog whistles, but he fits quite comfortably within the long-established conservative agenda. 

Our world is more densely interconnected than at any point in history, and this has played a direct role in the far right’s rise.

Trump has stacked his cabinet with institutional conservatives—although their tenures have often been short lived. Republicans in Congress who criticized Trump before the election have made happy partners with the president, even when he engages in autocratic behavior, perhaps because he eagerly cuts taxes, slashes regulations, and appoints right-wing judges. Even the “Never Trump” conservative right seems to have lost steam. In one high-profile example, Glenn Beck, the paranoid “constitutional conservative” pundit who at one point compared Trump to Hitler, recently told Fox News pundit Sean Hannity that he had come around to Trump and now fully supports him.

Trump has not changed, of course, and neither has his platform. But Mudde spends very little time exploring what it is that made it so easy for Republicans to change their minds. That’s also true of his discussion of major conservative parties in the rest of the world. The question of how, exactly, the old conservative right ultimately fell in line with the far right is key to The Far Right Today. But because this book is not concerned with the “mainstream right,” it cannot, and does not, provide a satisfying answer. 

Without such an analysis, this is less a book about the mainstreaming of the far right and more a work of taxonomy. It lists some causes for the far right’s rise. It runs through different political parties, individuals, and movements. And at its best moments, it offers a window into the current discourse on the contemporary far-right players.

But between the dense alphabet soup of political parties and more academic analysis of the various debates about how to classify different far-right groups, it is unclear what this book has to add, or who it is for. The world’s liberals (in the American definition) don’t need a book telling them that the far right has gone mainstream. They need a book telling them how. And that would require a discussion of what the “mainstream” was to begin with. 

This discussion is especially crucial, because it is now apparent that mainstream right-wing parties find a lot of promise in far-right policies. The GOP, for example, has long fought to limit immigration. Through his willingness to go to extreme lengths to apprehend and deport migrants, Trump is taking up that fight in a way that previous Republican presidents have not. 

Mudde’s failure to grapple with how mainstream parties have accommodated the far right is a disappointment, especially because his columns for the Guardian are some of the most trenchant analyses of extremism found anywhere. As someone who has seen multiple far-right waves, Mudde knows what a real threat is and what is not. His concern about the general state of today’s politics should alarm us. But while his book does a good job of chronicling serious threats around the world, it doesn’t properly explore the roots of its central thesis: how the far right became mainstream. As a result, it’s unclear what readers should take away from it.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Carol Schaeffer

Carol Schaeffer is a freelance journalist who has reported on the far right from three continents and is currently living in Berlin as a Young Professional Journalist Fulbright Fellow.