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If anything, right-wing populism or authoritarian populism has a highly problematic relationship to truth. Already one of authoritarian populism’s ideological predecessors, Adolf Hitler, talked about his great struggle between the truth and the lie. Hitler’s ideological predecessor, Benito Mussolini, truly believed in, I have a habit of always and everywhere saying the truth. Both were masters of lying.
Even though Mussolini and Hitler were nightmares of the early 20th century, with today’s rise of right-wing populists – Donald Trump in the USA (2016-2020), Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Victor Orban in Hungary, Salvini in Italy, Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, Erdogan in Turkey, Strake in Austria, Babis in the Czech Republic, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK, Pauline Hanson in Australia, etc. – the issue of truth and lying remains relevant as right-wing populism is very much alive.
Much of their political power comes from doubting what is truth and reality, favoring conspiracy theories and myths, encouraging rage and paranoia, as well as inventing, promoting and broadcasting outright lies. Right-wing populism flourished in The Age of Post-Truth.
Ever since the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43BC) and quintessential mastermind of rhetoric, lying has become inextricably linked to politics. This, of course, includes propaganda (now called public relations, PR), the already quite common hypocrisy of right-wing politicians, deception, fabrication, accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation.
A key to understanding right-wing populism and its idée fixe is that hiding, twisting, ignoring and simply destroying the truth is done in the name of a greater good. Put simply, lying becomes a means to an end, and the end is defined by the authoritarian leader as something that lies in an often rather unspecified distant future. It is often linked to the salvation of a nation once it has won the battle against some sort of dark forces.
Usually, this is found in an overall goal spiced up by a superior ideology. Unsurprisingly, the submission of truth to ideological or political power lies at the center of authoritarian populism. In Nietzsche’s terms, the strong – not the weak – defines what is truth and what is a lie. Authoritarian populism thrives on a strong leader’s Will To Power.
For right-wing populism, power is what makes and defines truth. It is based on the belief that lies are necessary, as long as they serve an often rather simple but always, an absolute ideological truth. This invented and often mythical truth is always bigger than the lies they fabricate. Whether truth or lies, its relevance is that they serve what authoritarian populism defines as the greater good, the ultimate goal, the divine destiny.
Almost self-evidently, this rather often than not leads to brutality and violence as shown in the cases of Oslo, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Walmart in El Paso (Texas), Charlottesville, and elsewhere. Unlike the Fascist and Nazis of the early 20th century, today’s authoritarian populist prefer to outsource violence to adjacent Neo-Nazis. They are the willing executors of the often implied and at times, simply assumed will of the authoritarian leader.
The division of labor between those who insinuate and those who kill, allows right-wing populist leaders to “officially” distance themselves from violence. At times, the authoritarian leader even pretends to mourn the death – furnished with a quick (and all too often: very appropriate) Twitter announcement. Other authoritarian populists are more direct. They prefer to praise right-wing terrorists as “very fine people” as Donald Trump once did.
Much of what authoritarian populists like Donald Trump say is based on racism which, despite overwhelming DNA evidence, believes that human beings are hierarchically divided into a master and inferior races. It sets the Herrenmesch against the Untermensch, the super-human against the inferior, and the white against the non-white.
In a typical perpetrator-victim reversal, this represents a paranoid belief that the Untermensch seeks to replace the master race. As a consequence, the white race needs to defend itself against those deemed inferior. Essentially, racism means that lies are presented as truth. In its final consequence, this is a twisted truth that has, can and will kill. Right-wing populists express this, for example, when denigrating Afro-Brazilians (Bolsonaro) and speak of Mexican rapists (Trump). Most authoritarian populists seem to stimulate racism without encouraging brutality and violence too openly.
To get propagandistic race messages across, authoritarian populists often use specific propaganda techniques such as framing, innuendo, lying without consequences, twisting reality, replacing rational debate with paranoia, conjuring up resentment, creating emotionally charged appeals and blurring the line between reality and an invented fiction that serves the goal of their ideology.
Commonly, this is spiced up with a fabricated claim that there is an existential threat attacking our beloved nation. Most of these myths are related to well-known Nazi propaganda. Nazi leader and first-class conspiracy inventor Hermann Goering once said,
Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
In this quasi-mythical hallucination, issues like democracy, simply gets in the way. Democracy is framed as an impediment against a unified nation with the will to defend itself. In other words, democracy weakens a nation’s readiness to engage in a battle against its enemies. Key to understand authoritarian populism, is its readiness to defend one’s nation against some sort of illusive enemy. The enemy can be presented as an external or internal threat – or both.
Today, the anti-communism of the 1940s and 1950s has largely been replaced by the term “Muslim”. Exchange the word “communist” with “Radical Muslim” and many of the old speeches can be presented without further changes again and again by authoritarian populists. Communism (then) and Muslims (today) are presented as a danger to democracy camouflaging the fact that the real danger is authoritarian populism. Neither communists nor Muslims have ever produced Auschwitz-style death factories, running trains day and night through an entire continent to gas millions of people. By the time all this occurred, democracy had already died a painful death.
Authoritarian populism’s relationship to democracy differs from outright fascism and Nazism in one respect. Authoritarian populism or right-wing populism is not the same as fascism and Nazism. Donald Trump is not a Nazi nor is he a fascist. Donald Trump remains an authoritarian populist.
In fascism, you cannot vote the fascist leader out of office. In a democratic country, this is possible as the USA has shown in 2020 when roughly seven million more Americans voted for Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump. Neither in Italy in 1930 nor in Germany in 1940 nor in Spain (1950-1970) nor in Chile (1970s-1980), would this have been possible.
Today, authoritarian populism can no longer eliminate democracy totally as, the level of acceptance of democracy remains way too high in many countries for such an audacious project. Unlike fascism and Nazism, authoritarian populism needs to live with democracy.
Yet, authoritarian populism seeks to weaken and undermine democracy rendering it ineffective. In short, authoritarian populists want to shrink the power of democratically elected preventatives while fascism will destroy them in concentration camps and adjacent torture chambers.
One might argue that authoritarian populism is a kind of mild-mannered fascism adopted to parliamentarian democracy. Perhaps, Hungary is one of the prime examples showing the most advanced case of circumventing democracy and converting it into an authoritarian quasi-dictatorship with democratic elections.
Unlike Hungary, the free press in the USA continues to work even when faced with almost daily attacks as being the enemy of the people. In the USA and in many other countries, the independent quality press continues to work fulfilling its essential role in a functioning democracy.
As a consequence, unmasking the lies of right-wing populism remains an essential task of the free press and of democracy. This is of key importance for the survival of democracy. Once democracy is eliminated, authoritarian populism can triumph. It is just as Sigmund Freud once said, veneer of civilization is very thin. Indeed, the veneer of democracy is rather thin. Beyond that, there is only a paper-thin border between outright fascism and authoritarian populism.
While authoritarian populism may not be able to annihilate democracy, what authoritarian populism does is weakening and damaging democracy and, as seen in the case of Hungary, reshaping democracy into a mirror image of an authoritarian populist – the antisemitic Victor Orban. This is the point where lies, disinformation campaign, right-wing deceptions come in.
They play a crucial key role in undermining public trust in democracy. This is the reason why right-wing populists will continue to lie. In propaganda, this phenomenon is known as gaslighting – it eliminates the borders between what is real and what is fiction. To achieve this, authoritarian populists replace the empirical truth of scientific facts with mythical truths based on lies.
To achieve this, many authoritarian populists conjure up something they believe to be a “divine destiny”. Such a divine destiny is the outcome of a mythical process framed as natural. Divine destiny is the product of an authoritarian leader who understands his people. For authoritarian populism, there is next to no difference between a reality-based perspective and a mythical perspective directed towards a divine destiny – usually of nation, as seen, for example, in MAGA: Make America Great Again.
For authoritarian populism, there simply is no difference between disinformation and lies and the belief in a magical truth that guides a nation towards its divine destiny. By inventing an alternative reality, authoritarian populists are not only lying to themselves, but they also lie to everyone else. This is done to achieve the final end goal of a magical future.
The key to understand all this is to realize that the truth and reality is a matter of faith especially, a faith into the mythical future of a divine destiny. As a consequence, there is no difference between truth and propaganda because both serve the same goal which is – the divine destiny of the nation. For right-wing populists, propaganda isn’t lying at all. Instead, it is listening to the soul of the people.
In that, right-wing populism rejects the elitism of classical conservatism. Instead, it thrives from a mythical link between the heroic leader – Donald Trump, Orban, Modi, Le Pen, Duterte, etc. and the people. In authoritarian populism, the people aren’t despised and resented in the same way as the elite does. Instead, the natural link between leader and population serves as a justification for right-wing politics.
Instead of rejecting the people, authoritarian populism sees the people as the source of the truth. Truth is what emanates from the soul of the people. This results from an act of faith. This, of course, can never be corroborated by empirical facts and truth. Both are irrelevant.
An understanding of reality by authoritarian populism rests almost exclusively on a non-verifiable truth – a truth that does not need factual evidence. What is truth for most thinking people, is not what the truth is for authoritarian populists. For most thinking people, truth and reality have something to do with the outcome of a demonstrable connection between cause and effect. This is the truth that science can prove. For authoritarian populism, this is all fake because it is neither based on a mythical link between the authoritarian leader and his population, nor is it based on a belief in a divine destiny.
As a consequence, what most people understand to be truth and reality, is different for authoritarian populists. For authoritarian populism, verifiable facts, for example, are rejected because, for one, they do not come from the inner self. They are not born out of a natural understanding of a mythical past. And they are not developed through spiritual leader-people link. For the authoritarian populists, scientifically verifiable facts are always external and foreign.
They come from the outside. They are alien. They are a hindrance on the way to a divine destiny. To the authoritarian populists, empirical truth is an outside truth and an alternative truth that disturbs the natural order between a natural leader and his people. Worse, the inner truth of authoritarian populism is seen as superior to the alienating truth of science. For the authoritarian populists, scientific truth is cold and without emotions. It misses a spiritual link to the leader. It does not come from a natural order.
Naturally, for the authoritarian populists, their truth is superior to our truth based on science because verifiable truth lacks several key ingredients. It has no link to the natural leader seen as truth-teller; it is not based on what the people (the mythical Volk, the Aryan white race) feel; and it is not based on a divine future, and it is not based on the natural and indestructible unity of Volk and leader.
The leader of the people and the natural and divine leader alone is capable of expressing the wishes and the truth of his people. He speaks the authentic truth – a truth that comes from his heart. In a second step, the authentic leader is projecting his – largely invented – truth on his enemies so that une idée fixe of replacement becomes possible. This leads to the Neo-Nazi battle cry, You will not replace us!
In the end, what authoritarian populism does is to re-assign the borders between what is truth and what is their mythical version of truth. Replacement myths replace reality. The divine destiny of authoritarian populism finds fulfillment in not just reshaping what is true and what is a lie, but more importantly, in reshaping reality. Once the right-wing myth and the lie is accepted as the new reality, Auschwitz becomes possible.
Meg Young is a Sydney Accountant who enjoys foreign films and music and, in her free time works on her MBA.