The Populist Horseshoe?

Owen Billo

Comparing left and right populism this week immediately brought to mind the horseshoe theory. Essentially, the idea is that the far left and far right are closer to each other than they are to centrism, as illustrated above. Specifically, this is the gist that I got from the Fieschi and Rooduijn/Akkerman articles. Fieschi brings up the same question we’ve had in discussions for a few weeks now, which is how xenophobia plays into definitions of populism. She argues that it should be included in the definition of populism because both create an ‘other,’ but tries to include left populism in there. Rooduijn and Akkerman similarly argue (although via a study) that the radical left uses populist tactics as much as the radical right. However, I found their definitions problematic. They define “radical” left as no longer being communist, no longer celebrating the proletariat, and no longer rejecting liberal democracy. That just doesn’t sound very radical to me. Yet in their study they look at nominal communist parties, which contradicts their definition.

The Mudde/Kaltwasser, March, and Vampa articles, on the other hand, seem to disagree with the horseshoe theory – and their arguments are much more persuasive to me. None of them deny that the populist left exists (because it’s undeniable), but they do greatly distinguish the two kinds of populism while linking them with that common label of “populist.” They also define populism the same way as the first authors we read in this course did, that is, as being vessels for ideology. Therefore, we can greatly distinguish populisms by the ‘pilot’ ideology. Mudde and Kaltwasser primarily distinguish them as left populism = inclusionary while right populism = exclusionary. Vampa distinguishes them (specifically in Spain) as being left populism = regionalist while right populism = centralist. Overall, I think that understanding populism as a vessel in this way works very well to overturn the horseshoe theory.

“It’s Just a Joke, Bro”

Owen Billo

You’ve probably seen someone say the title of this post before. You’ve probably thought about how “”jokes”” can still carry political messages (political cartoons are a thing after all). Maybe you’ve even applied the term “post-irony” to it. This is the underlying theme I noticed in the readings this week.

The Doerr article makes this point the most clearly in discussing the ‘black sheep’ political ads. The ads are creating a moral panic over an issue that doesn’t really exist, and are doing so using subtly racist dogwhistles. However, they can get away with this by playing up the cartoon aspect and using a logo with a cute sun rising over a field. If anybody sees through this facade, the ad’s creators can simply deploy “it’s just a joke” and a series of rehearsed “”free speech”” soundbites.

This series of rhetoric is also present with Charlie Hebdo as shown in the Neffati article. Under Philippe Val, Hebdo published comics portraying muslims as dark, barbarian invaders aiming to colonize Europe. When this was criticized, Val simply labelled his critics as anti-semites. Val’s reaction exemplifies the next stage of this rhetoric: the victim complex.

Present in both Hebdo and the online circles discussed in the Strick article are islamophobes comparing themselves to Holocaust victims. Obviously, none of these people are anywhere near as oppressed as Jews were, but as Strick points out they still (falsely) claim to be victims of a genocide – the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. The great replacement conspiracy theory was already present in Hebdo, but it takes much longer to write and debate these ideas in magazines than it does online, so these online discourses accelerate the conspiracy theory.

Relevant documentary, if you have the time. There is a good discussion to be had about this on whether it’s post-irony or meta-irony (terminology explained in the video)

Religion, WW2, and Anti-Genderism

Owen Billo

“Of course the Catholic Church started it, of course they did. I shouldn’t even be surprised.” -Me, about 90 minutes ago

Source: Futurama, Season 6 Episode 4, “Proposition Infinity”

The Paternotte/Kuhar article shows that modern anti-gender campaigns originated from the Catholic Church in the 1990s. The Church created a fictional dichotomy between a “culture of life” represented by themselves and a “culture of death” represented by feminism and the LGBT+ community. Despite being a Catholic thing, this idea quickly spread transnationally. However, there is still a potentially Catholic-inspired anti-semitic angle to it, as we see in Hungary with the Peto article. There (and presumably in other countries too), gender is viewed as coming from universities and primarily from the Central European University, which was established by George Soros. Last week, the readings discussed how the use of Soros as a scapegoat was an anti-semitic distraction from actual government corruption under Viktor Orban. This reference to Soros is no different, and really the whole thing smells of smoke and mirrors.

Both the Paternotte/Kuhar and Butler articles note that anti-gender campaigns accuse the LGBT+ community of being pedophiles, and gee I wonder why the CATHOLIC CHURCH would do that. Maybe they use those accusations as a distraction from their own actions? This rhetoric can also be used to strengthen the Church’s position by embedding it in religious freedom debates, anti-colonialism, moralism, and national cultures, as most of this week’s articles point out. Somewhat separate from religion is the aspect of Holocaust memory brought up in the Zuk/Zuk article. Here, we see Polish politicians and clergy equating abortion to the Holocaust, which is evidence of Eastern Europe’s failure to come to terms with the Holocaust, as discussed in previous weeks. It also fits into the anti-semitism of the Soros conspiracy.

The Complicated Mess of Islamophobia and Antisemitism

Owen Billo

Going into these readings I already knew a lot about the Hungarian government’s disdain towards George Soros. They believe that Soros is behind some plot to destroy Europe and Christianity by filling it with Middle-Eastern refugees. Of course the idea that these refugees are dangerous is islamophobic, but the use of Soros also implies a Jewish-ness to the conspiracy. However, Hungary can escape accusations of anti-semitism by dancing around the question and using dogwhistles (the triple-parentheses dogwhistle comes to mind). This was the focus of the Kalmar article, but the Stone article and the articles about QAnon also discuss this.

In the Stone article, the connection is made between Eastern Europe not dealing with its anti-semitic past and the existence of its islamophobic present. Open anti-semitism isn’t allowed, but anti-semitism can be rerouted through conspiracies that are subtly implied to be Jewish in nature. It reminded me of the movie Look Who’s Back where (as far as I remember) Hitler comes back in modern Germany and becomes a far-right, anti-refugee “””comedian””” who mirrors the islamophobic rhetoric Stone is talking about.

The Guner article feels slightly separate from the others in discussing the ‘whiteness’ of the Turks. The racial ambiguity of Turkey reflects the social construction of race: the Turks originated from Central Asia but have been often considered white and now have a perception of themselves as black (in what seems to be a spiritual/cultural way). I remember Looks Who’s Back very briefly poking fun at this as well.

Populism, Myth, and the Fictional Good Ol’ Days

Owen Billo

Some kind of populist myth is mentioned in all of the articles this week, but most prominently in the Bull article. When Bull discusses the role of memory in populist discourse, it is that memory is being hijacked by myth to promote a “people” and their supposed “good ol’ days.” Those good ol’ days are a fiction constructed by the myth, but people’s memories are easily corrupted so they start to remember the past differently. Once people believe in a fictionalized past, it is easy for someone to say “x took that away from you” and the antagonism of populism begins.

In the Molnar article, the above sentiment is reflected in a partially medieval aesthetic reminiscent of the obsession with the medieval world that we read about earlier. One German man says of the Turkish immigrants something like “they had kicked out the Turks at Vienna in 1683 and should not be letting them in now.” The Kalb article about Eastern Europe shows a more interesting myth in that the good ol’ days are not as clear, but there is still the “x took that away from you” sentiment. After the collapse of the USSR, people in Eastern Europe had hope, but that hope was crushed by the failures of mass privatization, which they associated with liberalization. This resulted in the myth that “liberalism took your hope away from you.” The Mamonova/Franquesa/Brooks article shows the most clear ‘good ol’ days’ sentiment in discussing the rural-urban divide, where for rural-dwellers the time before urban migration was better but the amount to which it was better has been exaggerated. The result is a resentment towards ‘urban elites’ for luring their population away. Resentment also appears to be a common theme.

Op/ED #2: New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: The Corruption of Europe’s Anti-Corruption Populists

Owen Billo


When populists come to power part of their platform is almost always anti-corruption, and yet these same populists are consistently corrupt themselves.  They portray themselves as outlets of the people’s will, and of course the people are opposed to corruption.  But positioning oneself as the sole outlet of the people’s will also creates an image of infallibility, which is inevitably used to cover up corruption.  Focusing on Europe, the populist parties which have taken power (primarily in Eastern Europe) have been ideal examples of this.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban started off as a liberal opposing Hungary’s authoritarian Communist regime.  He and his party, Fidesz, fought against that regime’s deep-seated corruption, and he has built off of that image ever since.  Today, as a far-right populist, Orban rails against the fictional corruption of George Soros and the LGBT+ community, trying to shore up his image as Hungary’s saviour from financial, political, and moral corruption.  At the same time, Orban’s government is in a standoff with the European Union (EU) over nepotism as well as misuse and embezzlement of EU funds by Orban.  Hungary’s media situation is also atrocious, with media regulations being heavily biased in favour of the ruling Fidesz party and most private media being owned by the pro-Fidesz Central European Press and Media Foundation.  Both Hungary and Poland have been accused by the EU of weakening judicial independence in their countries.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivering a speech at a right wing political convention. Source:

While Poland’s Law and Justice party is not quite as corrupt as Hungary’s Fidesz, that charge of weakening judicial independence is very much true.  Last year, Poland fell to its worst ever ranking in the global corruption index from Transparency International.  This year, it worked the rolling back of anti-corruption legislation into a bill also assisting Ukrainian refugees.  Because “you wouldn’t want to vote against helping Ukrainian refugees, would you?”  All of this is in stark contrast to the party’s fight against the fictional corruption of what it calls “LGBT ideology.”  Even the party’s name, “Law and Justice” conjures up the image of an anti-corruption party, and yet an anti-corruption party it is not.

Czechia is a country which recently removed its corrupt anti-corruption party, the ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), from office.  However, before that happened the ANO was just like Fidesz and Law and Justice.  ANO’s leader, Andrej Babis, is the second-richest person in Czechia and “has won elections based on a pretense that [he] is not a part of the establishment and that he would deal with [a] corrupted political elite.”  Despite this image of Babis as an anti-corruption crusader and his party’s name reflecting anti-corruption attitudes, after losing his election he is now on trial for committing fraud worth $2 million.

Corruption as discussed above is not just limited to EU countries either, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the worst offenders in power right now.  Since he came to power almost 23 years ago, Putin has publicly waged a battle against Russia’s oligarchs – powerful Russian businessmen who hold monopolies over various Russian industries.  He rose to popularity in part because of his aim to clean up Russia after the difficulties of the Yeltsin administration, and this still bolsters his popularity.  Before his invasion of Ukraine, Putin was in hot water due to his lavish, multi-billion dollar mansion being revealed by Putin critic Alexei Navalny.  Navalny was later poisoned -narrowly surviving- and then jailed by the Russian government as retaliation.  After the invasion of Ukraine began, American sanctions on Russia are beginning to reveal the true extent of Putin’s wealth and his friendly connections with oligarchs who were ostensibly supposed to be his enemies.

Vladimir Putin’s lavish mansion on the Black Sea. Source:

Overall, Eastern Europe (both inside and outside the EU) provides some great examples of how populists portray themselves to be anti-corruption and then turn out to be corrupt themselves.  Additionally, when the corruption they initially railed against is defeated or if they are personally suspected of corruption, they tend to use scapegoats as a distraction.  Anti-corruption populists do often replace genuinely corrupt, non-populist governments. That corruption should not be ignored, but nor should anybody forget that the populist replacements are just as corrupt as those they replace, if not more so.  In the end, the anti-corruption populists are the new boss, same as the old boss.

Left and Right Populist Interactions

What stood out to me again in this week’s reading is the simultaneous hatred and overlap between far right populism and far left populism. The Mammon article notes that both groups sought to end the neoliberal capitalist order, and in that respect they had common goals and actions. From last week’s readings we also know that some members switched sides. At the same time, the Amyot and Glynn articles discuss Italy’s Years of Lead where the common enemy was the Italian Communist Party rather than neoliberalism, and the fascists and (neoliberal?) conservative sides worked together against them. Yet when the Italian conservatives (Christian Democratic Party) accepted the socialists into the governing coalition, they aggravated the right and a fascist coup started brewing. What all of this tells me is that, probably throughout Western Europe, all three sides generally hated each other and only worked together if they perceived one side as growing too strong.

Somewhat separate from this was the British National Front, which vehemently opposed both neoliberalism and communism, perceiving them as being the same. Rather than trying to balance out the aforementioned sides, they instead worked with islamists and black nationalists. Another, less bizarre alliance is that of the populist far right and the women who join it. The Chrisafis article says that the populist far right has a sexism problem but women still join it (primarily, but not necessarily) because they fear immigrant cultures. On the other side, there were also women active on the communist side in the Years of Lead, which might be less surprising but it should be noted that the Italian communists were also heavily male-dominated. Perhaps the common theme, then, is that populist groups will make alliances with just about anybody if they feel it’s in their mutual interest or if they feel some sort of kinship.

Roots of Europeanism and Anti-Westernism

Owen Billo

The Biess article provides an interesting start to the others as it covers the New Left but also hints at what appears to be a pipeline between New Left and New Right. Some things to note in the Biess article: the New Left was generally anti-Western as we see their opposition to the United States and Israel, they were utopian and wanted emotion to play a stronger role in society, and they accepted Marx’s Historical Materialism. These three points are how I understand the defection of some of the New Left’s members to the New Right.

Jumping to the Tobin and Griffin articles, some similar traits in the New Right are pointed out. Griffin says that the Nouvell Droite was anti-Western because it viewed Western liberalism and post-Westphalian nationalism as degenerate. Theirs and Julius Evola’s solutions to these problems were certainly utopian, and Evola mourns the death of tradition in terms of secularism overcoming emotion and feeling. Additionally, Tobin notes that Evola was anti-liberal because he viewed it as the step before socialism, which in turn was the step before communism. The ‘inevitable’ transformation of liberal capitalism into socialism and then into communism is very similar to what Marx described as Historical Materialism. Finally, as the Bar-On article says, the Nouvelle Droite used ‘right wing Gramscianism,’ which can be understood as a perversion of Gramscianism, but one that was able to win some support in the left because of its communist roots. With this view, it appears that New Left and New Right identified the same societal issues but came to different conclusions, allowing for crossover and defections between the two. This makes what we read in the Biess article possible.

Op/Ed #1: How Putin Accidentally Split the Populists

Owen Billo

Russia’s 2022 Victory Day Parade, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany. Source:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed a serious divide among the populists of Europe -a divide which springs from Russia’s relationship with nationalism- and this couldn’t be better for the European Union (EU).  The first thing to understand for this argument is that politically radical populism in Europe often correlates with euroscepticism (ie. disapproval of the EU).  A political divide among populists, then, would potentially undermine the unity and political power of euroscepticism as well.  The EU also faces challenges from uncooperative member states, mainly Poland and Hungary, which always had each other’s backs against liberal EU policies.  However, Poland and Hungary have very different opinions on Russia, which they’ve previously been able to work around, but now it’s become impossible for the anti-Russia Poland to ignore Hungary’s pro-Russia-turned-neutral stance.

So, what does this political divide among Europe’s populists look like specifically?  On the far right, it appears as one side valuing ‘European identity’ and perceived anti-communism more while the other values anti-globalism more.  On the far left, it appears as a more simple East vs. West divide.  The divides on both left and right are also deeply related to Russia’s relationship with nationalism and its communist past.

That last one should be explained first.  As much as the USSR might have tried to be multicultural through its Policy on Nationalities, it was still formed from the Russian Empire and its Russian identity never went away.  Certainly in the Western world, “Russia” and “USSR” were essentially synonyms.  After World War Two the Policy on Nationalities was still in effect, but was greatly overshadowed by the dominance of Russian nationalism: Russian was the universal language, Russia was viewed as a ‘big brother,’ and there was a popular perception in the USSR that “the Russian People defeated the Germans.”  This was the moment that Soviet identity shifted from Marxism to Russian nationalism, and from working class heroes to Russian heroes.  We can still see this intimate mixture of Soviet identity and Russian nationalism in modern Russia, notably with the Soviet-imagery-filled Victory Day parades put on by Putin’s regime.

With this view of Soviet history, the divide on the far left is quite understandable: one faction is loyal to the USSR and views modern anti-Western Russian nationalism as the successor to the USSR’s anti-Western Russian nationalism, while the other is loyal to Marxism and views Russian nationalism as a force corrupting Marxism.  A good example is Germany’s The Left party, which is on the verge of splitting between more Western and more anti-Western factions on the issue of Russia.  Similarly, France’s old-school, anti-Western socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has received significant pushback from more modern leftists on his positive views on Putin.

Returning to the populist far right, we can see a slightly more complicated divide arising from this view of Soviet history.  There’s the anti-globalists who associate Russia’s anti-Westernism with anti-liberalism and anti-globalism, contrasted with those who fearfully view the continuation of Russian nationalism as neo-Sovietism and anti-Europeanism.  Just like their far left populist counterparts, the far right populist Alternative for Germany is showing major cracks between the anti-globalist and anti-Russian factions.  On a slightly different note, France’s far right populist Marine Le Pen, long known for her anti-globalist euroscepticism, has only recently walked back her support for Russia.  Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new Prime Minister, did the same, although her partners in government, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, have been more reluctant.  And the UK, even though it’s no longer in the EU, has a similar divide between former Brexit allies Boris Johnson (anti-Russia) and Nigel Farage (previously pro-Russia, now neutral).  On the other, firmly anti-Russia side, there is of course Poland as well as the far right populist movements in Sweden, Spain, and Portugal.  These far right populists sharply contrast with Putin’s far right populist friends in other governments like Hungary.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson walking together in Kyiv. Source:

What we can gather from all this is that radical eurosceptic populists are now divided along the lines explained above.  Currently, those who were previously viewed in the post-Brexit chaos as constituting a major threat to the EU now appear too preoccupied walking on eggshells around Russia to be a serious threat.  They can no longer put up a united front against the EU, which has serious potential for helping the EU to flourish.  Russia’s invasion has also forced many radical eurosceptic populists to re-evaluate their beliefs, as we’ve seen.


Berlusconi Draws Backlash for Appearing to Defend Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine – New York Times

Boris Johnson: West Can’t Let Putin Get Away with Murder – Politico

EU’s Top Court Rejects Appeal By Hungary, Poland, Over Bloc’s Rule-Of-Law Tool – Radio Free Europe

French Election: What Exactly is Marine Le Pen’s Stance on Russia and Vladimir Putin? – Euronews

Germany’s Die Linke on Verge of Split Over Sanctions on Russia – The Guardian

Germany: Far-Right AfD Conference Halted Amid Ukraine War Infighting – DW News

In Pictures: Russia’s Victory Day Parade – BBC News

Italian Far-Right Leader Giorgia Meloni, Once a Putin Admirer, on Course to Become Country’s First Female Prime Minister – The Globe and Mail

Italy’s Salvini Says West Should Rethink Sanctions for Russia – Politico

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, The Veteran Leftist Standing in the Way of a Macron-Le Pen Rematch – France 24

Nigel Farage Says Ukraine Invasion is Result of EU and NATO Provoking Putin – Independent

Portuguese Nationalist Party Chega Utterly Condemns Putin’s Ukraine Invasion – Essential Business

Soviet Policy on Nationalities, 1920s-1930s – University of Chicago Library

Spain’s Vox Party Says Ukrainian Refugees, Not Muslims, Should be Welcome – AA News

Splitting Up Europe’s Authoritarian Alliance – Euractiv

The PopuList – Created by The Guardian

The Soviet Union Never Really Solved Russian Nationalism – Aeon

Who is Jimmie Akesson, Leader of Sweden’s Soaring Far-Right? – France 24


Owen Billo

The denazification questionnaires from the Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later article raise a question that I want to use the other articles from this week to explore: how do we qualify guilt? We already know that the American occupation authority used 131 questions to answer this, but of course this was not effective. Its true ineffectiveness becomes even more clear upon considering the Hearing the Voices of the Victims article, where it points out that non-Jewish Holocaust victims were often still stigmatized and oppressed long after the end of the war. Evidently, Nazi beliefs against these groups were not stamped out by denazification. The Discomfort Zones article further proves this observation, as it notes the flaws in Germans’ excuses for not knowing. In the case of Marianne B., the Holocaust was just down the road, but she -along with many other Germans- exercised willful ignorance despite incredibly obvious signs. She would not be criminally guilty, but she is morally guilty.

The article on Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg goes beyond German guilt, but then also returns to it. Moeller’s theory (which I agree with) is that Kramer was using the film as a way to hold up a mirror to America’s own sins by focusing on victims that could just as easily be victims of American McCarthyism or segregation. Kramer was using German guilt to illicit American guilt. However, this approach also contributed to reducing German feelings of guilt and emboldening the Nazi sympathizers that denazification had failed to get rid of. In that way, Kramer himself became a guilty part of German guilt. Not criminally guilty by any stretch, but, perhaps like Marianne B., morally guilty. In the end, I think the difference between moral guilt and criminal guilt is the best way to qualify and understand guilt.