Populists are in power, not because they miraculously solved the overwhelming problems the world faces today but, rather, they have captivating stories to tell. While the recent rise of populism has led to an immense body of academic work — now an industry of its own — this bourgeoning scholarship has focused heavily on social and economic drivers, yet neglected the narrative force of such movements. In fact, if politics is basically about storytelling, populist politicians have perfected the art. An essential question is then: What do populisms narrate?
National (or identitarian) populist leaders simply tell the same stories to their people. If one were to simply hide the names of leaders and national references in the statements of populists, it would be quite difficult to identify whether they belong to US President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. They all position themselves to lead their respective nations with honour, well deserved from the past, through the troubled waters of the present, to the shores of a bright(er) future. By that narrative, they weave seemingly unconnected events to make sense of reality.
I address this point in my Identities article, ‘The chronopolitics of national populism’, and argue that, despite their claim for uniqueness, national populisms employ a common narrative template as a familiar and intelligible framework to interpret national and global developments. In the words of Christopher Clark, ‘As gravity bends light, so power bends time’ (2019, 1), as does populist power. National populisms operate by conflating the past, present and future into a single narrative to mobilise mass support. While materialising according to different cultural traditions, the populist template is underlined by an oversimplified grasp of temporality with stories revolving around binary notions: insiders versus outsiders, the people versus the elite. Its gravity and authenticity, however, derive from the emotive and affective capital invested in different temporal categories.
Resembling the Golden Age-Decline-Rebirth narrative, common to many nationalisms, the populist template is unique in many ways. It fundamentally narrates a present squeezed between two pasts and two possible futures. Contemporary populisms are neither progressive and futuristic nor reactionary and nostalgic on their own, but are instead centred in the present, opportunistically seeking to preserve its momentum in any way possible. In light of the conception of perpetual victimhood, it is the present when the people become embroiled in an existential struggle in a war against multiple enemies. The present represents an ostensibly unprecedented, exceptional crisis and epitomises the fear, uncertainty and anxiety marked by a primal survival instinct. The social contract to get out of this state of war requires more than cultivating the consent of the people — even more than establishing a Leviathan state. Specifically, it asks for the vigilantism of the citizens, who must unite around the populist leadership to withstand the onslaught.
My Identities article mainly illustrates how this narrative template has operated in Erdoğan’s populism with examples from different cases. His Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has ruled Turkey for nearly two decades, offering an extensive window through which to observe some durable tenacious in both words and deeds. In addition to Turkey’s neo-imperial power projections for the future, the constant battles between conflicting representations of the past to validate the present and the future make the Turkish case especially noteworthy.
Invocations of the Ottoman past in Erdoğan’s populism serve as not only a source of national pride but also proof that the nation is destined for greatness. Despite the bright picture in the distant past, the recent past epitomises how some corrupt elite forces have disrupted the rightful destiny of the virtuous nation. This variation in the narrative helps explain and bridge the tension between a virtuous past and a degenerate present, placing the blame on extrinsic factors. In the Turkish case, multiple victimhood narratives swim in the same current: a) victimhood of the pious Anatolian people in the secular Kemalist regime, b) victimhood of the Turkish nation under assault by Western imperialist powers, and c) victimhood of the oppressed ummah, encircled by Crusaders and Zionists. Beside the differing narrations of distant and recent pasts, Turkish populism also envisages two opposed scenarios for the future: the total demise — if not extinction — of the people, or the return of the ‘good ol’ days’. That is why Erdoğan, in his speeches, commonly identifies references to the country being both teetering on the edge of the abyss of existential crisis, and walking down the path of a prosperous ‘New Turkey’. Between these two options, the present is driven by crisis and emergency and must be redeemed in Erdoğan’s ‘liberation war’ rhetoric.
The temporal construction of populisms has remained a blind spot in the academic literature. A comparative narrative approach across diverse cases in future research will be a much-needed contribution to the field of populism studies.
Blog post by Hakki Taş, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Germany
Read the full article:
Taş, Hakki. The chronopolitics of national populism. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1735160
When Eurosceptics become Europhiles: far-right opposition to Turkish involvement in the European Union
‘Turkey in means Britain out’: this was one of Nigel Farage’s rallying calls during the Brexit campaign, and these ideas were echoed by numerous others within politics and the media during the referendum. A topic which has long proved controversial among Europe’s elites, Turkish involvement in the European Union has seen renewed interest and opposition over recent years in the context of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’, the 2016 EU-Turkey statement, rising Euroscepticism and the mainstreaming of Islamophobia.
Much of the scholarship has suggested that hostility towards Turkey is associated with the construction of European identity. However, while this notion works for those supportive of the EU, the same cannot be said for those who explicitly reject Europe. How and why, therefore, do openly Eurosceptic parties fervently defend the idea of ‘Europeanness’ in order to reject Turkish involvement in the EU?
My Identities article, 'When Eurosceptics become Europhiles: far-right opposition to Turkish involvement in the European Union', explores this question by analysing articles from the official party websites of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Front National/Rassemblement National (FN/RN) over a five-year period (2013-18). Drawing on theories of Islamophobia and Orientalism, the findings highlight that the construction of Turkey as a dangerous other does not constitute a new phenomenon linked to EU integration, but instead forms part of a longer tradition of racism towards ‘the Orient’.
Turkey as an other
It is too big, too poor and too different from us. (UKIP, 04/05/2016)
Both UKIP and the FN/RN portray Turkey as fundamentally different from Europe in terms of its politics and its people. Orientalist metaphors alluding to empire, such as ‘sultan’, ‘Ottoman’ and a ‘future caliphate’, are used to describe the Turkish government and president. Thus, despite legitimate concerns over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s repressive actions against Turkish citizens, the use of Orientalist imagery by these parties underlines their desire to create a form of cultural, not simply political, othering.
This notion of cultural incompatibility is reinforced by their descriptions of Turkish civilisation and people. Religion is central in this framing, with negativity linked both overtly and covertly with Turkey’s association with Islam. For example, a comparison is made to Christians, who are described by the FN/RN as ‘deliverers of balance and stability’ (10/11/2017). The implication is that Muslims are the opposite to this description and are not only different from, but also inferior to, Europeans and European cultural heritage. Thus, strongly Eurosceptic parties become ‘Europhiles’ by subscribing to the notion of a collective European identity in order to other Turkey.
Turkey as a threat
You have declared the lands of our peoples 'lands open to mass immigration and Turkish influence.' (FN/RN, 11/05/2016)
Both UKIP and the FN/RN depict Turkey as a source of danger to Europe through migration and terrorism. Alongside grossly exaggerated warnings of ‘80 million Turks’ (FN/RN, 01/05/2016) entering Europe, Turkish migrants are portrayed as having attitudes incompatible with European liberal progressiveness. UKIP, for example, claim that the arrival of male migrants ‘who do not share European values […] has resulted in spikes in crimes such as rape’ (18/10/2017). By linking sexual violence with migrants so unequivocally, it becomes an exclusively ‘non-European’ problem and, through the widespread manipulation of feminist ideas to target Islam, is implied to be simply a ‘Muslim’ problem (Farris 2012).
Depictions of cultural threat are further emphasised by Turkey’s repeated association with terrorism, whether through accusations of participating in, facilitating or tacitly supporting it. As such, Turkish people are framed as posing a security threat to Europe. Terrorism, like sexual violence, becomes a ‘non-European’ issue, and similarly, its common association with Islam means that it is seen as rooted in culture (Tuastad 2010). The securitisation of Islam and immigration proves a powerful combination. As such, despite attacking the European political project, these parties become defenders of Europe against an outside ‘threat’.
Eurosceptics become Europhiles
In summary, these parties use Orientalist and Islamophobic discourse to construct Turkey as a dangerous other and exclude it permanently from a mythical vision of ‘Europeanness’. The transformation of Eurosceptics into Europhiles underlines how the rejection of Turkey does not simply constitute a mode of fostering loyalty to the EU but is also used to reinforce racist notions of Western superiority.
Farris, S.R. 2012. Femonationalism and the 'regular' army of labor called migrant women. History of the Present 2: 184–199.
Tuastad, D. 2010. Neo-Orientalism and the new barbarism thesis: aspects of symbolic violence in the Middle East conflict(s). Third World Quarterly 24: 591-599.
Blog post by Katy Brown, University of Bath, UK
Read the full article: Brown, Katy. When Eurosceptics become Europhiles: far-right opposition to Turkish involvement in the European Union. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1617530