As more and more populist parties gain government responsibility and find increasingly wide audiences for their views, the rise of populism seems to be a conspicuous, almost obtrusive phenomenon. This rise can be particularly observed on the right, and it became apparent even more so after the election of Trump and the results of the Brexit referendum. As will be shown here, right-wing populist actors such as those involved with Trump use symbolism to push forward their orientations against globalization in a very specific and particularly eclectic way. In particular, their usage of symbolism is characterized by a perpetually recurring appropriation of various nationalistic pasts. As such, the symbols used are not to be understood literally; instead, they may even be interchangeable. Ultimately, symbolism provides a narrative tool to create a dichotomous, antagonistic relationship between the ‘true people’ and the ‘elites’ – the latter being portrayed (namely by right-wing populists) as corrupt and evil.
As of today, several nations have been shaped by right-wing populist government leaders with probably the most prominent being Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini and Donald Trump (whose recent electoral defeat by Joe Biden and its implications for right-wing populism must be discussed here). Despite their various geographical locations, many different populist movements seem to share similar vocabularies and repertoires with which they try to create a recollection of ‘the old times’ (meaning going back to non-global, isolationist nation-state times) – one very famous example being the widespread use of the ‘[country] first’ slogans, which operate on a symbolic and emotional level as well as on a vague imagination level. Underlying is the imagination of a ‘heartland’, a concept that is central to populism and that represents a romanticized, and thus not rationally tangible place which is reconstructed out of a sense of a better past (Taggart 2000: 95). The US began with their version of the ‘[country] first’ slogans when Woodrow Wilson tried to find a name for his protectionist politics during World War I and eventually coined the slogan ‘America First’ (Rauchway 2016). This has been appropriated, for instance, in the British context by the Brexit-movement (‘Britain first’) as well as in the Italian context, in which Salvini coined the slogan ‘Italians First’. This anti-globalist seeming slogan has, above all, a narrative function: through means of emotional mobilization, a longing for the past and an ‘othering’, meaning a demarcation of one group from the unspecified ‘elites’ (who serve as a very flexible enemy), ought to be achieved. In addition, by building up ‘elites’ as a common enemy that is somehow external and does not belong to the ‘true people’, a solidarity among the backward-oriented ought to be achieved as well.
As can be seen with the examples of Britain, Italy, and the US, it seems like different right-wing populist movements do engage in eclecticism in a variety of ways. This results in a variety of appropriations of ideas, narratives, myths, images and so on, which represent something other than themselves and evoke an attitude or series of impressions that (by imagination) are associated with some kind of symbol – this suggests that symbolism might have an elevated relevance in populist politics (Edelman 1985: 6). During their party congress on April 11th, 2021, the German right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) held a controversial debate about the question of whether or not they should propose the withdrawal from the European Union in their party program. Thus, the controversy was about whether they, as a nationalist right-wing political group, should (implicitly) commit themselves to the idea of European unity by not proposing an EU-withdrawal. Party leader Jörg Meuthen had spoken out in favor of staying in the EU, which was met with great opposition from within the party and which even led to many party members stating that they no longer believe Meuthen to be a good party leader. This shows that the demarcation of the one group from all others is only symbolic, since the AfD builds up the EU as an enemy and yet is not at all committed to leaving the EU. The AfD, just like many other right-wing populist parties in the EU-parliament, has yet to determine in what way they want to get involved with EU-level politics to advance their ideas of anti-globalization and, ultimately, their idea of a recollection back to nation-states as some sort of territorial myth (Kahn 2014: 224). Adding to that, the Eurosceptic EU-parliament alliance ‘Identity and Democracy Party’ (ID) – of which some members are also in the AfD – seems to follow a mixed agenda of blocking, but also sometimes constructively participating in daily parliamentary work. Accordingly, right-wing populist movements actually do not really seem to be interested in making constructive politics; instead, they are vague and rather try to evoke transfigured imaginations. Again, this also highlights that the demarcation of the group (i.e., the statists/nationalists) from all other groups (i.e., the ‘elites’ and globalists) has an explicitly symbolic character. Noticing the usage of symbolism across different populists, one might raise the question whether there is a link/intertwining between different right-wing movements’ symbolism that are used to promote ideas of political and cultural recollection and if so, what exactly does it look like? Looking at the tumult that ensued after the 2020 US-presidential election might help answering this question.
On January 6th, the U.S. capitol was stormed during a violent riot by a group of protesters, many of them Donald Trump supporters. The rioters attempted to overturn Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election by disrupting the joint session of the U.S. Congress that had assembled to count electoral votes and, subsequently, formalize Joe Biden’s victory. Interestingly enough, this is not the first time that such a (violent) contestation of election results or a storming of a governmental building has occurred. On the contrary, there are dozens of similar events that were initiated by right-wing movements, one of which being the storming of the Spanish parliament in 1981, when a group of 200 armed individuals held MPs hostage in an attempt to overthrow the government, which had just carried out democratic elections days before. In this example as well as in the recent storming on January 6th, the goal was to restore ‘the old order’ and bring back isolationist politics. However, it should be mentioned that there have also been events with opposite motivations, where progressive actors wanted to modernise and democratize a backward-oriented government or regime. Perhaps the most famous example of a forward-oriented contestation of government/regime authority is the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, which marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Here, civilians had surrounded and ultimately conquered what was the very symbol of the Ancien Regime’s abuse of power and oppression. This shows that protests against the government or even the storming of government buildings can certainly have a positive, pro-democratic framing, too. One might suspect that those involved in the storming on January 6th built on this framing (in the hopes that their actions, even if illegal, might be seen as well-intentioned efforts, thus hoping that what they have done would be legitimized).
As can be seen with the cases of the US and Spain, questioning democratic elections seems to be a recurring theme among right-wing movements, though, the use of symbolism was not as strikingly frequent and dense in the older examples as it is now. Trump supporters, for instance, very extensively used the slogan ‘Stop the Steal’ (another easy to remember symbolic narrative) ahead of and during the election. The aim of using that particular slogan was clearly the de-legitimation of the election itself. Not only questioning the results of an election but also calling them a ‘steal’ and thus implicitly and symbolically criminalizing those who won the election, can also be seen as a rather serious violation against one of the very principles of democratic processes, namely the recognition of a majority of votes by every actor (including those that lost the election). However, not only are the users of this slogan de-legitimizing the election and its results, but they are also legitimizing the storming of the capitol: in the face of ‘theft’ (by the ‘others’, particularly the Democratic Party and its actors), the storming and vandalization of a government building itself might not seem so criminal anymore – at least this might be what those involved in the events on January 6th hoped for. Furthermore, by simultaneously declaring the Democratic Party as a ‘party of elites’ and transfiguring Trump (despite being a billionaire) as the ‘voice of the little people’, the storming also seems to be further legitimized and justified on a symbolic and emotional level. What is particularly interesting about the storming on January 6th: a large number of rioters were carrying Confederate Flags and had extraordinarily long beards, which overall invoked the impression of a southern states hillbilly aesthetics. Infamously among or rather leading the rioters at the U.S. capitol was conspiracy theorist and fiery Trump supporter Jake Angeli, who has been in the focus of media attention since.
Angeli, in a literal sense, embodies a type of symbolic political backwardness which has been more and more noticeable over the last few years with the likes of relatively newly emerging right-wing populist leaders such as Johnson, Salvini and Trump. Having in mind these highly influential government leaders which have shaped not only the political culture of their country, but also impacted the rest of the world, one question arises: What makes the specific case of Jake Angeli (which could easily be dismissed as yet another conspiracy theorist trying to undermine the government’s authority) so interesting and also particularly alarming? In many ways, Angeli’s individual case can be used as an extrapolation for understanding the strategically used symbolism of right-wing political movements in general. The variety with which symbolism is being used in politics has increased over the past years, resulting in different forms of symbolism being mixed and intertwined with one another (Kahn 2014: 221). In the case of Angeli, this intertwining of symbolism can be grasped just by examining his appearance (see photograph): First, one can see three essential symbols of Norse Mythology, namely the Valknut (which is associated with battle and death), Yggdrasil (the tree of life) and Mjolnir (used as a divine weapon). Adding to that, Angeli’s appearance also resembles that of a Viking, and it has a very archaic tone with his pagan, barbarian-like clothing, which consists of fur and a horned helmet (which is most likely the reason why he is also referred to as a ‘shaman’ or ‘bison man’). Apart from that ‘barbaric’ costume, Angeli has a brickwork tattoo on his arm (alluding to the ‘Trump Wall’) with which, once again, isolationist orientations are on display.
In conclusion, right-wing populist movements and actors are advancing their beliefs of anti-globalization (as well as anti-establishment/-elites) and recollection in a very intertwined and somewhat diffuse, yet conscious and in no way random manner – being both anti-global (e.g., ‘America first’, as well as groups like the ID partially trying to block parliamentary work in the EU-parliament) and global (e.g., appropriation of Norse Mythology in the context of American patriotism/nationalism in the case of Jake Angeli, as well as statist parties even being in the EU-parliament at all). Overall, the way in which symbolism is used by these actors is characterized by a high degree of diversity, variance, and intertwining. Finally, the examples at hand also showed that right-wing populists’ use of symbolism and their strategies of conveying (political) messages are characterized by a general vagueness and transfiguration of the past. From that, in turn, follows that the symbolism should not be taken so seriously – exactly because it is vague, eclectic and, for that reason, may ultimately be interchangeable.
Edelman, M. (1985). The Symbolic Uses of Politics. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Kahn, Sylvain (2014). ‘The nation-state as a territorial myth of European construction’. L’Espace géographique, 43(3): 240–250.
Rauchway, Eric (2016). ‘How “America First” Got Its Nationalistic Edge’. The Atlantic, available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/william-randolph-hearst-gave-america-first-its-nationalist-edge/481497/. Date of most recent access: 13.07.2021
Taggart, P. A. (2000). Populism. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.
About the author
Serkan Topal is a student of sociology at the University of Duisburg-Essen with research interests in economic sociology and sociological theory.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freistein, Katja and Gadinger, Frank. (2020). 'Populist Stories of Honest Men and Proud Mothers: A Visual Narrative Analysis'. Review of International Studies,46(2), 217–236.
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