Demographic Dangers & Declining Birth Rates, Part Three: Demonising Migrants & Refugees.

Much of the rhetoric that demonises refugees & migrants originates in Russia. But some of the mud they are slinging is sticking, & all across Europe & the United States those fleeing war, chaos, poverty & political uncertainty are being demonised for their race, religion or just their precarious, unknown futures.

Peter Winn-Brown
26 min readApr 22, 2023
Yasmin Nasri hugs her daughter before walking her to school in Denmark. She fears deportation & separation from her husband & children (Lorenzo Tugnoli). From WaPo.

Peddling the fantasy…whatever the flavour, whoever the victim, racism is racism no matter how you present it! And migrants are first amongst victims…

Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural ‘fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism, 1995.

“Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship) — one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its’ power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.”

Hannah Arendt (1).

Fascist politics often jumbles up notions of equality and discrimination (2), turning them at one point inside out, and the next upside down until the reasons we ‘hate’ someone, or someones, become almost irrelevant. Just the fact of their being different is enough to rancour…

And why, you ask, does fascism become part of the discussion vis-a-vis refugees and migrants?

Simple really! The demonisation of refugees, migrants, and those other than ‘us’ is a staple part of the fascist diet (2). Umberto Eco, who lived through the Mussolini years in pre-war and wartime Italy as a boy and young man, saw it all first hand, and as he explains in the quote above, the first appeal of a fascist movement is “against the intruders.”

This is where it all begins. And whilst there are no outright fascist governments right now (though Putin’s Russia comes close), there are many regimes, political parties and individual politicians, populists and commentators who employ fascist strategies and rhetoric as common practice. Some more often than others.

Fascism itself has many facets, and typically has a different face for each outlet of fascist rhetoric or policy; its often contradictory, changeable character is a result of what Eco calls its “political and ideological discombobulation.”

Fascism lacks a quintessential character. Each variant, each fascist movement; Italian, German, Russian, British, American, was/is unique. Fascism is then more an umbrella term for a type of political movement; it is a synecdoche that encompasses the various facets that go to make up a fascist policy, movement, or even a nation, or more specifically, fascism itself.

And one stand out characteristic is the fear of difference; the fear of different people, of a different religion, different skin colour, different ideology, or different nation. And without exception the demonisation of refugees today borrows from that fascist element to stoke those fears.

It doesn’t mean the people actioning the demonisation are fascist persay; what it does mean is that either knowingly or unknowingly, the rhetoric and policies employed by these parties/individuals has a distinct and undeniable whiff of fascism about it.

And that aspect of fascism, the fear of difference, is characterised by racism. Pure and simple. Whatever form it takes. Racism is indivisible in all its devilish forms.

Let me explain…

The cover of child’s textbook about Andrew Johnson’s plans for reconstruction.
The cover of child’s textbook from the time about Andrew Johnson’s plans for reconstruction (1865–77).

On March 14 1886, the U.S. Senate passed the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. making the newly emancipated black Americans citizens in the process and enshrining their civil rights in law.

But it didn’t last a month before President Johnson vetoed it because, according to W.E.B. Du Bois, he saw the advancement of minimal black rights enshrined in the law as the first steps on a dangerous road to black equality, perceiving this as outright “discrimination against the white race (2),” an out-sized assumption that persists to this day among many white Americans and Republican politicians alike, and is forming the basis of many new policies put forward as promoting racial equality but in fact work wholly against black Americans.

Amazingly, in 2017 45% of Trump supporters thoughts whites the most discriminated and persecuted race in America, and 54% of white Christians saw Christians as the most persecuted religion, but as Jason Stanley points out the crucial distinction between what one feels is oppression, and the fact of actually being oppressed can be a wide gulf indeed (2).

But just wide enough to stop many people examining honestly which side of the gulf they may be. For example, the continued support for today’s apartheid regime in Israel has this jumbled this up, either through feelings of collective guilt or collective responsibility for a people who have suffered so much. But two wrongs do not a right make. Now that indiscriminate support has the oppressors as the victims, and the actual victims as the threat, and Israeli politicians wield the tool of antisemitism with wild and reckless abandon against any and all who may speak out against them.

(The Zionist) strategy has an inbuilt defence mechanism: the claim that Palestinians who dare to resist their own domination are pursuing not political resistance to the Jewish ethnostate but rather a personal vendetta against Jews themselves; that they would, if given the chance, unleash another Holocaust.”

Rivkah Brown, 2022.

Tareq Baconi, president of the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka, argues that there isn’t space in Holocaust memory for Palestinians either, who have become “collateral damage in European imperialism”, specifically through its attempts to atone for the Holocaust through the creation of the state of Israel, “a land without a people for a people without a land”.

And without wishing to repeat myself, this is a small part of a quote from Umberto Eco that I included in Part Two of this series; but it is one that bears repeating, in part at least…

“I am much concerned about the various Nazi-like movements that have arisen here and there in Europe, including Russia, (even though) I do not think that Nazism, in its original form, is about to reappear as a nationwide movement.”

And yes, Nazism as it was in the 1930’s will likely not ever reappear; but the rhetoric and the use of fascist terminology to demonise refugees, migrants or, as we have seen, anyone who speaks out against Israel today is almost indistinguishable from the sort of language used back then.

And this should concern us all.

Racism is thus indivisible; its’ forms are many, but its’ message is singular. Hate is the endgame, but it is so often underpinned by lies borne out of an irrational fear of something, or someone unknown, or different, or threatening somehow.

The twisted sense of equality and discrimination jumbled up again; whites claiming to be the victims of white counter culture; Jews justifying apartheid because so-called antisemitic Palestinians won’t just give up on life and just die; Ukrainian Nazis who are not Nazis fighting for their freedoms, fighting to stand free from tyranny, become Nazis simply because they won’t give up on everything they believe in and desire; refugees fleeing the ravages of war, overwhelming poverty, climate change, all events often perpetrated by the West, get condemned by the West as rapists, terrorists, criminals and more.

Such is our world; fed by vicious right-wing narratives that push the hideous envelope of fascism open in broad daylight, sending their twisted truths mainstream by playing on and multiplying our fears, our insecurities, our ignorance.

As Trump was wrongly accusing the Mexican authorities of sending the U.S. its “…criminals, drug dealers and rapists,” right-wing social media campaigns — their etymology often times indicating a malign Russian hand at work — were painting Islamic refugees and migrants as serial rapists, kidnappers (3); dangerous, subversive elements that will pollute the purity of the traditional family, contaminating the cultural integrity of the nation (4); a veritable symphony of lies and false stories designed to create a them and us’ narrative that remains a mainstay of basic fascist rhetoric.

Bjorn Hocke, a German right-wing politician.
Bjorn Hocke; the AFD’s legal fascist. Image from Brookings.

In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists — that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.

Umberto Eco, Smart boy and master of the ironical comment. Ur-fascism, 1995.

In Europe anti-immigration rhetoric spells political success…

One of the major beneficiaries of Russian interference campaigns were Germany’s AfD party (Alternative for Germany) who pushed a pro-Kremlin line from within the Bundestag, not necessarily designed to win the over the nation initially, but to weaken and undermine Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats — a predominantly centrist party — by exploiting a fear held widely across West since the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers; that of Islam (3).

Since 2003 there had a rising tide of refugees into Europe from the Middle East, first fleeing the chaos that developed in the wake of the U.S. led invasions of Afghanistan and, more pointedly, Iraq, then from the carnage of the Iraqi insurgency and the chaos of a sectarian civil war that led, ultimately to the rise of Islamic State (ISIS).

Thousands of Syrian refugees await their fate behind barbed wire in Turkey.
Syrian refugees in Turkey await their fate.

The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 turned the rising tide into a growing wave, then as Syria’s Spring receded into a deadly Winter, Syria fell into the horrific violence of a civil war that continues to this day. The region was already aflame in 2014 when Islamic State’s cruel and most un-Islamic violence effectively shattered Europe’s unprepared borders, turning the wave of refugees into a tsunami that broke across the porous borders of the EU in almost unimaginable numbers.

At first European sympathies were to the fore, nowhere more so than in Germany. On September 8th, 2015, Merkel announced Germany’s intention to take in half a million refugees a year (3).

Tim Snyder says it was not coincidental that Russia began bombing Syria less than 3 weeks later. Putin’s declared intention was the ‘harmonisation’ of Eurasia with the EU (3) and the creation of social instability, political impotence and a fear-based, anti-immigrant/refugee fantasy agenda were the tools of the job.

If Merkel wanted refugees, then Russia would provide them says Snyder, so it began an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Syria, that was accompanied by a ruthless propaganda regimen designed to create panic all across Europe, feeding the right-wing narrative, helping parties like the AfD to gain political prominence and make Europe more like Russia.

The harmonisation had begun (3).

False stories that first appeared in Russian state media began to flood the German media, the most sinister tale perhaps the fabricated tale of the gang-rape of 13 year old Lisa F., a supposed victim of Islamic gang culture that just didn’t exist.

An alleged police cover-up and stories of Merkel’s government welcoming Muslim rapists in to roam German streets and prey on young German girls (3) became commonplace. Ably aided and abetted by blind social media algorithms that ignored the truth and magnified the fake scandal, stories like this turned the fascist no-hopers of the AfD into Germany’s third largest party by the 2017 elections (3).

Then in 2020 the state Parliament of Thuringia elected Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democratic Party as the new governor, and in so doing broke a post-WWII political taboo in Germany; because the only reason Kemmerich won was that he had the support of the AfD.

Perhaps the most worrying part of this was that this process was consented to by the Christian Democrats effectively welcoming the AfD to the governmental power party.

The head of the Thuringia AfD, the second strongest party in the regional government and by far the most extreme, was Bjorn Hocke, who also headed a hardline wing within the AfD known as ‘der flugel’ — the wing. Hocke had foretold of the “coming death of the nation through population replacement” in a book in 2018, and a judge had since ruled that he could legally be called “a fascist,” and now, he had his hands of the reins of power.

Whilst Merkel personally bemoaned the situation as deplorable, the fact remains that investigations had showed that her Christian Democrats had aided the AfD to gain power at the local level on no less than 18 occasions during that election cycle showing the degree to which the neo-fascists had been brought in from the political wilderness.

According to Lukas Hermsmeier writing in the NYT, this truly shocking turn of events has come about largely because the Christian Democrats failed to properly delineate any strict borders between themselves and the AfD; an unfortunate hangover from the partition of Germany during the Cold War when political centrists, like Merkel’s Christian Democrats, came to view both the hard-left and hard-right as equally dangerous.

This view, known as the horseshoe theory of politics, led the Christian Democrats to vow to never make any coalitions with either the hard-left or the right’s AfD. But in the East German region of Thuringia the memory of life under the Communists was dying slowly, and the eventual coalition that led to the election of Kemmerich came about in large part to stop the hard-left coming to power locally.

On both the hard-left and hard-right in Germany anti-immigrant rhetoric finds fertile ground with Hermsmeier insisting that the growing influence of the AfD has shifted the centre of German politics firmly to the right through an endless flood of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic hate speech, such that within a short period after Merkel’s acclaimed Syrian refugee pledge more than 25% of Germans were saying that their country was being “swamped with foreigners” and was in danger of becoming ‘Islamised.

This rise in support for the right has been mirrored by an increase in racism more generally, leading one sociologist to call Germany a “society in (cultural) decline.”

And rather bizarrely in the midst of the rise of a right-wing agenda led by a legally anointed fascist, Germany remains steadfast in its unwavering support for Israel, nominally as part of an anti-fascist political agenda, even as Israel itself slips into authoritarianism and the grip of the hard-right under Netanyahu’s new government.

Perhaps understandably, Holocaust memory culture in Germany plays out in sometimes overly zealous, but rather odd ways too. An anti-BDS resolution passed in the Bundestag in 2019 (5) has led to excessively draconian repression of anything deemed to be antisemitic or anti-Israel. Racism in this case gets twisted back on itself, with the victims becoming the guilty, and the so-called ‘anti-fascist’ accusers seeing themselves of the victims of their own history (6).

Racism is indivisible.

As perhaps more evidence of the horseshoe theory, some of the most strident ‘anti-fascist’ political rhetoric emanates from the German far-left, and is characterised by large numbers of Jewish converts who are often highly critical of both German and Israeli Jews who had themselves criticised Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, telling them they are betraying the memory of the Nazi victims and are out of touch with what it takes to be a Jew in the 21st Century (5)(6).

Given the direction Netanyahu is now trying to take Israel in, it is ironic in the extreme that his hard-right agenda that arguably borders on fascism, is being used to further an apartheid regime that anti-fascist German Jewish converts, whose forebears may well have helped perpetrate the Holocaust, use to promote an anti-fascist political agenda in Germany by hijacking the Jewish memory of the Holocaust to pillory Jews whose families actually died or suffered under the Nazis, but who do not support Netanyahu’s regime and his politics, and are rather bizarrely being called antisemites as a consequence.

Wieland Hoban, chair of Judische Stimme, the Jewish anti-Zionist group, in Berlin said, “The real Jews don’t matter. We’re just a signifier in their theoretical narrative, and they don’t believe that Jews hold different opinions and are autonomous actors who are not interested in appearing in this German film, where they have to play a part for the sake of the Germans. It’s narcissistic and ultimately all about the Germans.”

Really! You can’t make this stuff up! It makes my head swim!

And as Israelis take to the streets en masse to protest against Netanyahu’s proposed — but temporarily shelved — plans to reform the judiciary, I am reminded of the words of Benito Mussolini, who stood amidst the crumbling ruins of Italian society in 1920 as the country struggled with competing visions for the future of their nation. He wrote in Il Popolo d’Italia on March 1st of that year…

“Everything that’s happening is sad, considered from a human point of view, but it is inevitable. It is through this internal crisis that the nation will regain its equilibrium. The fascists are firmly determined not to give an inch; they will make their violence increasingly intelligent, but they will not abandon it until the white flag of surrender is raised, and with sincerity, from the adversary’s camp. The fascists stand in closed ranks, ready for all events…”

And perhaps they still do…?

The 10th week of mass demonstrations saw an estimated 500,000 people turn out to protest against the direction of Netanyahu’s government
The 10th week of mass demonstrations saw an estimated 500,000 people turn out to protest against the direction of Netanyahu’s government. From JVL.

But whether from the far-right or the far-left, the anti-immigrant message is — and please forgive the pun — one that travels lightly, but leaves a heavy footprint.

Even in very liberal, largely left-leaning nations such as Denmark, the right-wing rhetoric is hitting home. Despite strong protections for asylum seekers and refugees, attitudes started to change in the 1990’s when the right-wing Danish People’s Party campaigned on an anti-immigrant agenda that attributed the success of the nation thus far to be a result of Denmark’s homogeneous society, and that the highly effective welfare state needed to be ring-fenced in order to protect their traditional ‘Danishness.’

Since then, and especially since 2016 a raft of new measures have been legalised including the ability to pull a refugees protected status without notice, to be then subsequently deported back to Syria by the Danish Immigration Service. Implying that repatriation to ‘certain parts’ of Syria the deported refugees would likely “not be subjected to (the) abuse” that would violate EU laws. But this extreme policy has been condemned by human rights groups and caused the UNHCR to express its grave concern should it continue.

In Sweden too the anti-immigrant message has struck a chord such that in last Autumn’s election the Sweden Democrats became the second largest party in parliament and garnered 20.5% of the vote.

A relatively new party, founded only in 1988, they have their roots in the neo-Nazi movement, and are the largest party in a right leaning coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, head of the centre-right Moderates party.

Jimmy Akesson, head of the Sweden Democrats. A man The Times said normally wears “slightly hipsterish spectacles, (and) is earnest, plausible and softly spoken, less Roderick Spode than a minor character from a Richard Curtis film.” Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images from The Times.

Whilst other coalition partners have voided any chance of the Sweden Democrats actually getting a seat in the government itself, it is thought they still have a strong influence over policy, especially with respect to immigration, policing, the justice system and social benefits.

Traditionally very open to immigration, Sweden actually took in more refugees per capita than Germany in 2015, but the long time parliamentary leaders, the centre-left Social Democrats, are thought to have failed to help the huge intake of mostly Muslim refugees to integrate properly, and the Sweden Democrats successfully tied this to a huge rise in gun violence.

Indeed the London Times reported that “Sweden is the only country in Europe where the rate of fatal shootings is rising,” in large part a consequence of violent feuds between gangs that dominate semi-organised crime in
the ghettos of Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmo and several
smaller cities. The gang vendettas, anecdotally comprised of largely young men from immigrant backgrounds, frequently feature the use handguns, hand grenades and even improvised bombs, leaving many in the cities to feel unsafe as many innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.

And whilst the connection between the refugees and the rise in gun violence is not a proven one, the anti-immigrant rhetoric hit home with the electorate.

But again here the malign hand of Russian interference is at work. Since Finland and Sweden, both traditionally neutral, announced their intentions to join NATO, fearing for their nations security in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the amount of Russian initiated interference has rocketed, and more especially in the build up to the September 2022 election in Sweden.

The Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, set up in January 2022 with a direct remit to protect the Swedish people against attempts by foreign interlocutors to influence public opinion and government policy.

Jumping on the suggested link between gun violence and immigrants, the head of the agency, Henrik Landerholm, said that there had been attempts to sow division and discord based upon immigration and integration.

These campaigns typically begin on social media and then find their way into the mainstream media as they work to create fear, panic and stir the people to violence in response.

The regular narratives from the Russian side are mainly destructive: they are not pro-Russian narratives, they are anti-Swedish narratives in the sense that they are claiming that (Swedish) society is broken,Landerholm said. “They use well-known triggers.

In the past such campaigns were designed to push a wedge between Sweden (and Finland) and NATO as a means to aggregate any chance of either nation getting close to the organisation. But Putin’s invasion changed all that, and the speed of the change Landerholm suggests perhaps caught the Russians out, thereby limiting the chances of any negative effects from any new campaigns on public opinion prior to the election.

Since then Russian efforts have been ramped up, though they have not prevented Finland from becoming a member of NATO as of the 4th April this year. However, Sweden’s membership is at present being held up by Turkey who accuse the Swedes of being lenient on terrorism, and providing a safe haven for Kurdish terrorists. Until this is resolved Swedish membership remains on hold.

Russian disinformation has multiplied this message with campaigns known to originate outside of Sweden that suggested Sweden is an openly racist nation that has a big problem with Islamophobia, and even targeted the social services with a conspiracy that the social services have kidnapped immigrant Muslim children in a bid to create social discontent among both immigrants and Swedes.

Further messaging has sought to bring the QAnon conspiracy to the party by portraying NATO as in thrall to a global cabal directed by the U.S., with membership only benefiting the Swedish elites, and further pushing the fake claims of U.S. bio-labs in Ukraine to undermine trust and cohesion in the putative alliance.

In Italy, Georgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), like the Sweden Democrats have aggressively laundered their neo-Nazi history. The Brothers of Italy can trace its origins back to the Movimiento Sociale Italiano (Italien Social Movement) formed in 1946 to give Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement a political vehicle, and whilst Meloni insists the party has moved far beyond its fascist roots, its symbol and latent revelations about many of its members suggest it has not moved as far as Meloni would have us believe.

Whilst in opposition Meloni’s firebrand rhetoric, insisting that Italian identity is under attack, then attacking the EU as being complicit in ethnic Italian replacement, following similar anti-EU, anti-immigrant lines as Victor Orban, Hungary’s soft authoritarian leader. But since coming to power however, she has tempered her words with a much more realistic tone, perhaps becoming the ‘traditional conservative’ Elettra Ardissino and Erik Jones suggested Italy actually needs, leaving many across the EU to breathe a sigh of relief.

Figure 1. Surging numbers of migrants across the Mediterranean in the first 3 months of 2023. From WaPO.

Indeed so absent is the Euro-sceptic stance of late that she has even taken to asking for more funds to deal with the rising influx of migrants this year (Figure 1.) across the central Mediterranean saying, “On our own we can’t manage a flow that has now reached unmanageable proportions,” pushing for a Europe-wide solution to the problem of migrants crossing the ocean and their subsequent repatriation.

But it is still early days, and her endlessly belligerent coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, has done her no favours with his constant pro-Russia stance, even outlandishly accusing President Zelensky of causing the invasion of his own country in February, perhaps in part to back-up Putin’s assertion of the same point.

Russia, of course, was delighted to see two pro-Russian political leaders flanking Meloni as her coalition partners on election night. As Matteo Salvini and Belusconi stood side by side with Meloni, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said with a gleeful smirk, “We are ready to welcome any political forces that are able to go beyond the established mainstream, which is filled with hate for our country.

But out of earshot both Peskov and Putin must be annoyed that their Italian patsy’s have not swayed Meloni’s staunch support for Ukraine and their President towards a more Russo-centric approach.

And as the migrant crisis in Europe shows every sign of surging again as we move into the Summer, Meloni has predicted that perhaps as many a million people may attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Africa this year.

And Meloni’s success may inspire other right-wing movements to believe they too can emulate her rise.

In Spain, where elections will take place in May this year, Santiago Abascal’s Vox party has made rapid gains promoting a fervent nationalist message that praises the Spanish union in the aftermath of the 2017 Catalan secessionist crisis. Their message is familiar and wants to ‘make Spain great again,’ using commonly held right-wing tropes of anti-Muslim, anti-immigration to keep Spain for the Spanish.

In France Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, pro-Russian message is well documented (3), and has seen her rise dramatically in the polls of late as Macron has struggled to push through the much needed, but immensely unpopular pension reforms.

With his popularity in freefall and Le Pen’s star rising, the protests have continued even after France’s Constitutional court has given the pension reforms the green light.

And in many ways the situation in France might be considered a bellwether for the state of Western democracies. Far-right populist movements are ascendant everywhere; their unabashed admiration for Putin’s regime a common theme, as is their anti-immigrant stance that has seen them touch a chord with many voters leading to their adoption into mainstream politics as we have seen above.

During Brexit the ‘Leave’ campaign used posters like this to suggest the queues of Turks who were waiting to come to Britain should Turkey join the EU. The fact that was never going to happen was irrelevant! The damage had been done courtesy of illegally harvested data by Cambridge Analytica, part owned by Steve Bannon, and Russian disinformation campaigns that targeted vulnerable individuals with personally tailored social media posts.

“Italy needs peace in order to recover, to rebuild itself, to set out on the course of its inevitable greatness. Only a madman or a criminal can think of triggering new wars that are not imposed by some sudden aggression.”

Benito Mussolini, Il Popolo d’Italia, November 11th, 1920. From Antonio Scurati, Son of the Century, 2018.

The anti-immigrant messaging is only a symptom of a much more serious disease…the decline of democracy!

Should we be surprised by any of this? The transnational turn to the right. The rise of the braggadocio populist mouthpieces who sell hate, division, a them and us narrative using traditional fascist tropes? The anti-immigrant rhetoric is just one line in an essay of indeterminate length that, if allowed to run its course, always ends in the same place; the death of democracy.

Plato recognised the weakness in democratic systems 2000 years ago. He saw how the openness of a democratic system could be used against itself by demagogues using “false and braggart words.

More recently Arendt (1) nailed down what she saw as the characteristics of an authoritarian in the making; a radically lonely individual, she wrote, who “without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.

It has been suggested that roughly a third of the population in any country has an authoritarian predisposition that favours what one might call ethnic homogeneity, or more bluntly, racial purity, though these characteristics may remain hidden without necessarily manifesting itself at all unless provoked (10) by a rampant populist or demagogue bent on power at any cost.

The appealing aspect of authoritarianism to those with the predisposition is its simplicity; there is a total lack of complexity and ambiguity about it. It is black or white. It is the binary one or zero. It is the us or them equation. It isn’t in itself politically left- or right-wing — that might come later — it is anti-pluralistic, and is inherently suspicious of new ideas, new people, new experiences. It is highly conservative at heart (10).

As Umberto Eco says, it is “against the intruders.”

Populists, demagogues and authoritarians give voice to those suspicions, those fears, using allegorical instances and tales to foment the desired narrative, to solicit votes and ultimately win power.

The message is a simple one; it is us and them (2). It is ‘we the people’ versus those ‘who are not our people.’

Anne Applebaum, who Tim Snyder describes as a ‘penetrating investigator of contemporary politics,’ tells her personal history of Poland’s descent into soft authoritarianism in her wonderful book, The Twilight of Democracy (10), and in the process shows how America and much of Europe is at constant risk as well.

She explains how the rather improperly named Law and Justice Party in Poland ran a largely moderate right-wing campaign to win the 2015 election by a slim majority, perhaps fooling some of their voters as to their actual political leanings. Applebaum says almost immediately their radicalism became apparent.

They began by attacking the justice system to bring its verdicts under government control, much as Netanyahu is now trying to do in Israel. Then it took over the main public broadcasters, installing right-wing extremists to present programmes of government sanctioned propaganda, just as Putin had done in the early 2000’s in Russia. Successfully employing harsh, right-wing rhetoric that targeted Muslim immigrants which, as Applebaum points out, can be difficult in a nation with almost no Islamic immigrants at all, but just as Orban had already done successfully in Hungary, so the message was taken on board in Poland.

And that was just the beginning. The point being that it shows how exportable right-wing narratives are, how they travel, how what works in one place can work again, and again, with just the odd tweak to fit the local grievances. And most of all it shows how hard this messaging is to combat in democratic nations that stand on free speech and liberty.

Writing in Foreign Affairs recently Justin Casey and Dan Nexon drew valid comparisons between the inter-world war fascists and today’s populists who both see themselves battling mysterious internationalist enemies, often characterised as globalists, international financiers, cosmopolitan liberals or multi-culturalists. And “…they blame these forces for the erosion of traditional sex and gender roles, the promotion of same-sex relationships and other forms of “deviant” behavior, and the supposed degradation of national values. Both adopt narratives that present specific outsiders (racial, ethnic, religious, or whatever) as foreign pathogens.”

Whether these today’s party’s are fascist or not is, for the sake of this argument, irrelevant, but the political shift, the normalisation their rhetoric brings to the debate is not. And the transnational character of their rhetoric is also pertinent and as noted above, it travels lightly, carried on the winds of disinformation by social media algorithms that don’t distinguish truth from fact, or right from wrong, or right-wing from fascist, but delineate solely on the basis of share-ability.

For example, comments made on a regular basis by the truly deplorable Marjorie Taylor-Green; had they been made just 10 years would have seen her banished from the Republican Party, but today they barely warrant a line in a news report, but they flood the social media feeds of right-wing followers who adopt the words as truth regardless of their often slim relation to truth or fact.

The normalisation of right-wing disinformation is a worrying trend that we should all be concerned about.

The facts are that in the U.S. racial inequality between white and black Americans has not changed since the period known as Reconstruction, just after the Civil War. Today, for every $100 the average white family has, the average black family has just $5, and yet as detailed at the top of this piece, most whites see themselves as the victims, and wrongly think racial inequality has shifted so far that they are the ones under discrimination (7).

Much of this self-victimisation in the U.S. has been shown to be a socio- psychological effect of the growing awareness that the white majority is slowly losing its numerical dominance and by c.2050 they will likely no longer constitute the majority of Americans (2).

This impending ‘replacement’ has made white Americans less likely to support affirmative action, and more prone to back restrictions on immigration, and right-wing policies more generally, perceiving the imminent loss of their dominant social, economic, cultural and political status (8).

And this feeling has been shown to be far from limited to the U.S., and is rather a general feeling of victimisation that dominant groups everywhere feel when they perceive the threat of the loss of their status. And this theme is a “universal element” of contemporary fascist politics, as Jason Stanley explains (2):

“Fascist propaganda promotes fear of interbreeding and race mixing, of corrupting the pure nation with, in the words of Charles Lindbergh, speaking for the (original) America First movement, ‘inferior blood.’”

Putin’s assertion that Russia needs to self-purify, to get rid of all Western influences, to eliminate all but what he often calls ‘ethnic Russians’ is pure fascist rhetoric; and he has exported it successfully to the West, adapting the message to fit the insecurities, fears and socio-political dramas of the day in each nation. And his support of right-wing groups and parties has given him the perfect mouthpiece to ram the message home.

Across Europe that message has been highly successful. Migrants and asylum seekers are no longer the victims; it is the rest of us who have become the victims of the raping, criminalising intruder terrorists from ‘over there’ who only wish to supplant us.

Our welcome they say should not be characterised with solace, with sympathy, with aid and with succour, but with violence, rancour, incarceration, deportation and criminalisation. These people want what we have; they are here to replace us. Period.

And for many this fear is a palpable one. But is it a wholly unfounded one?

Extensive genetic studies have shown evidence of a significant population transition in regions known to be historically prone to high levels of migration, such as across Europe and the British Isles, and the Middle East. British demographer David Coleman emphasises that the current “substantial inflows from cultures of remote origins” combined with the speed of change may eclipse anything seen before (9).

In 2001 London’s population was 40% non-British ethnic origin (9) and having lived there myself for a number years just prior to that, and having close family there now, anecdotally most Londoners welcome the diversity, if for no other reason than the variety of restaurants such a diverse cultural base provides!

But even though Britain’s political integration of immigrants is well established and accepted — Rishi Sunak, the new-ish PM, for example, has Indian origins of which he is very proud — but even for first and second generation immigrants further immigration can still be a divisive element.

Suella Braverman, like Sunak, is of Indian ethnicity and the current British Home Secretary, and as such, the woman charged with dealing with the issue of immigration. Controversially she has called the arrival of the many small boats of often illegal immigrants arriving on the shores of Britain an “invasion and has vowed to end the practice.

But such divisive language smacks of fascism, a point controversially made by BBC sports presenter Gary Lineker who likened Braverman’s comments to those made in “Germany in the 30's” in a tweet.

Again, to stress the point that, Russia apart, there are no fascist regimes in today’s Europe. But, much of the rhetoric employed by right-wing politicians and populists has a distinctive fascist flavour to it.

Traditionally the fundamental fascist bond of loyalty is to the tribe, the ethnic identity, the religion, all of which equates to the nation. Fascist nationalism has its heart a repudiation of the democratic ideal, which it sees as subservient to national pride and has at its core the goal of preserving the ethnic dominance and racial hierarchy for the chosen people (2).

Casey and Nexon above, indicated that ‘outsiders’ can be seen by some as ‘foreign pathogens.’ This is a very interesting choice of words that points the way to my next post where I’ll take look at the psychological responses to immigration, and examine some new research that has found the perceived ‘contamination’ represented by immigrants and refugees is seen by some as more than just cultural and political appropriation, and could be linked to “the psychological dimension of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, traditionalism and authoritarianism” and even to pathogen-linked fears.

Until next time….thanks for reading.

  1. Totalitarianism; Hannah Arendt, 1951.
  2. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them; Jason Stanley, 2018.
  3. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.
  4. Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes; Spassena P. Koleva, Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, Peter H. Ditto, Jonathan Haidt. Journal of Research in Personality (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2012.01.006
  5. The Trouble With Germany Part 1; On the Nose podcast from Jewish Currents with Arielle Angel. Published 28th July 2022.
  6. Desiring Victimhood: German Self-Formation and the Figure of the Jew; Hannah Tzuberi & Patricia Piberger. A lecture given at the Hijacking Memory Conference in Berlin, June 10, 2022. Also available as pdf download.
  7. Americans Misperceive Racial Economic Equality; Michael W. Kraus, Julian M. Rucker, Jennifer A. Richeson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114:39, 10324–31, doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1707719114
  8. Racial and Political Dynamics of an Approaching “Majority-Minority” United States; Maureen A. Craig, Julian M. Rucker, and Jennifer A. Richeson, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, (2017). (pdf download).
  9. Immigration and Ethnic Change in Low-Fertility Countries: A Third Demographic Transition; David Coleman, Population and Development Review, Vol. 32, no.3 (Sep., 2006), pp. 401–446.
  10. Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends; Anne Applebaum, 2020.
Depiction of a Ukrainian flag with the words ‘solidarity with the people of Ukraine against Russian aggression’ across it.
#solidaritywithUkraine

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Peter Winn-Brown

The past can illuminate the present if we shine the light of inquiry openly, truthfully, with attention to detail & care for the salient facts.