conflict & communication online, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2017
ISSN 1618-0747




Ruth Wodak (2015): The politics of fear. London: Sage.
ISBN 978-1-446247-00-6

The British decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 American presidential elections, and Marine Le Pen’s entry into the second round of the French presidential elections are just some recent examples of seemingly rampant right-wing populist successes. In her recent book, The Politics of Fear, the Austrian linguist Ruth Wodak, diagnoses a general move to the right in large parts of Europe and the US, and argues that “right-wing populism is not a passing phenomenon” (p. 30). First published in English and translated into and published in German in 2016 [1], the book received the highly regarded Austrian Wissenschaftsbuch des Jahres award in 2017.
The author’s aim is to trace, understand and explain the trajectories of right-wing populist parties from the margins of the political landscape to the centre. Wodak accomplishes this using a discourse-historical perspective, focussing on European countries and the USA, and illustrating her points with vignettes. In the course of her book, she describes and explains several common strategies of right-wing populist movements, e.g. scapegoating, offending political opponents, creating a rift between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, legitimising the politics of exclusion, dramatisation, etc. She not only identifies common characteristics of right-wing populist parties/movements (revisionism, nativism, anti-intellectualism and chauvinism, among others), but also addresses differences in the respective rhetoric of Eastern and Western populist movements.
After introducing some central elements of right-wing populism, Wodak defines this phenomenon “as a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and usually combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism” (p.7). She elaborates on the role of the media for right-wing populists as means to set the agenda by provoking scandals (chapter 1). Based on reviews of the scientific literature on right-wing populism and analyses of some election results, the author concludes that there are differences between the European populist movements which can best be explained in terms of socio-political as well as historical factors, e.g. different political regimes in Western and Eastern European countries resulting in differing identities (chapter 2).
Next, Wodak presents the specific discursive strategies of right-wing populist parties and how they are combined with discriminatory, exclusionary practices. Since blunt ways of expressing racist attitudes are taboo (at least in Western Europe), there are coded ways of expressing them (calculated ambivalence). Wodak shows how the Discourse-Historical Approach can help identify and explain argumentation schemes, topoi and fallacies in discourses. She illustrates this by showing how some right-wing populist parties appeal to security needs and – when it suits them and despite their general EU-scepticism – invoke the EU, thus creating an image of Muslims as ‘dangerous others’. She explains how provocative statements serve as an effective means of attracting and holding public attention, followed by different forms of denial, ambivalent apologies or blame shifting (chapter 3). The revival of nationalism, a (re-)invention of “traditional, parochial, closed nation-states” (p.74), encompasses the construction of national identity and belonging along ethnic, nationalistic and/or religious lines. This entails the construction of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’, the depiction of migrants as parasites threatening the ‘fatherland’ and the ‘mother tongue’. In this logic, protecting the border means protecting the nation, its culture and values. Wodak argues that this exclusionary rhetoric becomes increasingly normalised as established parties try to follow the right-wing populist path in order to retain their voters (chapter 4).
As anti-Semitism cannot be openly expressed, coded language has become the rule. Therefore, Wodak argues, the analysis of verbal expressions should take into account collective memories, ongoing debates, the functions of public interviews and discussions, settings, contexts, etc. She summarises and explains major strategies of blame and denial that are often used by right-wing populist parties and stresses the role conspiracy theories play in victim-perpetrator reversal (chapter 5). Next, the author discusses how the charisma and authenticity of right-wing populist leaders are created. She argues that media play an important role in this process. In this context, charisma is not to be understood as a personality trait but rather as a social construction (chapter 6).
Wodak notes that the gender discourses of right-wing populist movements have been under-researched. She argues that men are the main victims of globalisation and modernisation. Right-wing populist movements nurture hopes that the “old order” can be restored. Accordingly, conservative family values (the dominant father (patriarch), the caring mother, obedient children), homophobia and anti-abortion campaigns are a central part of these movements. Wodak assumes an underlying fear “of both empowered and independent white women as well as women symbolizing the ‘Other’, namely the veiled Muslim woman as metonym for the ‘post-modern stranger’” (p.153). Hence, it could be seen as a contradictio in adiecto that, increasingly, women can be found in leadership positions of right-wing populist movements. Wodak explains this in terms of the ambiguous roles women play in right-wing populist discourses. The fear of strangers is “accompanied by a gendered discourse which, on the one hand, appeals to the liberation of women according to Human Rights Conventions and is directed against Muslim women and, on the other hand, restricts women’s rights via traditional Christian religious values directed against freedom to choose abortion and to live independent lives” (p.153). Because open racism and anti-Semitism are taboo, Wodak regards chauvinistic nationalism and Islamophobia as “a functionally equivalent ideology,” as authoritarianism sensu Adorno et al. [2]. She underpins her analysis by providing examples from, among others, the Swiss SVP, the British BNP and the Austrian FPÖ (chapter 7).
Finally, Wodak posits a “Haiderization of Europe” (p.177), an increasing normalisation of xenophobic, anti-Semitic and exclusionary rhetoric, accompanied by corresponding legislation. Right-wing populist movements have become a mainstream political force, with the entire political spectrum moving to the right. For this, the author provides several interrelated explanations: (1) the presence of threatening abstract phenomena like climate change, globalisation or the financial crisis; (2) rising unemployment, poverty, migration, and the growing gap between rich and poor which entail a general discontent; (3) the recurrent efforts of centre-right and centre-left parties to implement demands of right-wing populist parties in order to retain their voters; (4) the media being in a catch-22. If they do not report scandals, they seem to accept them. If they do report them, they help right-wing populists spread their message. Wodak also suggests alternatives to current ways of dealing with right-wing populism: reforms instead of scapegoating, a politics of well-being, developing an inclusive “We” instead of the division between “Us” and “Them,” recovering agenda-setting powers in lieu of merely reacting to populists, striving to uphold values, alternative patterns of media reporting and advancing a politics of solidarity (chapter 8).
With her book, Wodak presents a coherent overview and analysis of the current wave of right-wing populist movements and parties. By providing, contextualising and analysing examples of racist and anti-Semitic statements by actors across different countries, she illustrates her central assertions and makes right-wing populist discourses and their inherent logic more tangible for readers.
Although we cannot agree with her claim that the role of gender in right-wing populist movements has been neglected in previous research [3][4][5], it is particularly commendable that Wodak devotes special attention to the aspect of gender in right-wing populist discourses. She not only provides explanations for the presence of women in leading roles, but also highlights how certain parts of emancipatory discourses are (ab)used to create a front against “outsiders,” specifically Muslims.
A glossary at the end of the book lists and briefly describes 27 right-wing movements or parties in Europe and the USA (Tea Party Movement) and thereby provides a comprehensive overview. However, cum grano salis only, since it does not always become clear according to what criteria Wodak chose to include certain parties while omitting others. Thus, it is somewhat puzzling that she includes the German right-wing extremist NPD but not the Hungarian Fidesz.
While it must be conceded that, to date, there is no generally agreed-upon definition of right-wing populism, and the boundaries between right-wing populism, traditional right-wing extremism and conservatism are blurred, Wodak does not really resolve this problem. Her definition of right-wing populism “as a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and usually combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism” (p.7) is not adequately explained. While she gives reasons for including the element of anti-elitism, she does not explain why she includes laissez-faire liberalism as a definition criterion.

The Austrian Wissenschaftsbuch des Jahres award is given to books that present scientific topics to a wide public in a comprehensible and enlightening manner. That it aims at a broader public might explain some minor weaknesses of Wodak’s book, such as the lack of a more comprehensive methodological chapter. Aside from that, her book is not only worth reading, it should be recommended to every reader who is concerned about the current wave of right-wing populism and related developments in society at large.


Stephanie Thiel



[1] Wodak, R. (2016). Politik mit der Angst. Zur Wirkung rechtspopulistischer Diskurse. Wien: Edition Konturen.
[2] Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. & Sanford, N. (1967 [1950]). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
[3] Meret, S. & Siim, B. (2013). Gender, Populism and Politics of Belonging: Discourses of Right-Wing Populist Parties in Denmark, Norway and Austria. In: Siim B. & Mokre M. (eds.) Negotiating Gender and Diversity in an Emergent European Public Sphere. Gender and Politics Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
[4] Norocel, O.C. (2010). Romania is a family and it needs a strict father: conceptual metaphors at work in radical right populist discourses. Nationalities Papers 38 (5): 705-721.
[5] Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender & Nation. London: Sage.

The author: Stephanie Thiel earned her Diploma in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Criminology from the Hamburg University, Germany. A PhD candidate in the Peace Research Group (Projektgruppe Friedensforschung) at the University of Konstanz, she currently works as a sexual therapist at the university hospital in Giessen. Her fields of interest include anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiments, anomie, corruption, white-collar crime and political economy.

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