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Thursday 21 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Hans Punz Demonstrators gather to protest against the so-called Academic Ball being hosted at the Hofburg palace by the Austrian right-wing Freedom party.
The rise of the extremist right is more insidious and worrying, writes Aaron McKenna.

THE FOUNDATION STORY of a political party can tell you a little something about its underlying character and the attraction it holds for modern day members.

The Austrian Freedom Party, which came within 31,000 votes of winning the presidency of the country during the week, was founded by red blooded Nazis.

The populist far right has been on quite a march throughout Europe. The US is also openly flirting with the extremist Donald Trump, showing that across the western world there is an appetite for strongmen (and women, ala Le Pen) with simple solutions to complex problems.

Though labelled right wing, many of these parties are just plain extremist; espousing a hodgepodge of left and right wing ideas from the far ends of the spectrum to solve all our ills.

Bringing back hanging might be a right wing idea, but nationalising industries and invoking tariffs on foreign goods is certainly not. (It was a clever move by postwar lefties to label a party that had the words “socialist” and “workers” in its title as right wing.)

More traditional far left parties have also had a boost, ala Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece; though they tend to be newer fronts for socialist movements than the more established right wing parties like the National Front in France or the Freedom Party in Austria.

The rise of extremist parties

The rise of the extremist right is more insidious and worrying: The far left will run your economy into the ground through naivety, the far right will trample your human rights to dust through malice.

Hungary has had a far right wing government for a few years now, and in that we can see the direction these parties want to take us. All roads for the far right eventually lead back to the war.

The present day Hungarian government has busied itself, among other things, with throwing up a statue to a man who drafted many anti-Jewish laws during that time, Balint Homan. The anti-Semitic dog whistling of the modern day, “reformed” parties is usually accompanied by a raft of other human rights regressions.

The government in Hungary has busied itself dismantling the powers of the courts, regulating the media and police standing by as thugs beat on minority groups when they gather to demonstrate in public. This is the sort of dictatorial, nativist trend that many of these parties espouse and would love dearly to impose upon their countries, regressing them back to the early part of the last century.

It is not enough to scoff at the rise of extremism. The approach of established parties has been to ignore and then ridicule these extremists, all the while watching their share of the popular vote swing to the rallying call of simple solutions. Very few have stopped to really address the underlying fears that are driving people in the richest parts of the world to their waiting arms.

Brand awareness

Part of the rise relates to brand positioning. The extremists have copped on to the idea that they need to soften their coughs significantly. No more big rallies, no more leadership getting caught giving the straight armed salute, and absolutely no philosophical comments about what old Uncle Adolf got right back in the day.

The gentrification at the top of these parties belies a membership core that tends to remain extreme and true to their values. Poor old UKIP can’t go a month without some councillor or MEP putting their foot right in it; and these parties are always getting caught out by mid-level officials opening their mouths in a way “that does not reflect our party ethos and values,” as the standard line goes.

A softer brand alone will only help a party be more palatable to smart voters who know what the score really is underneath all the spit and polish. There is a real desire among voters across Europe for some sort of extreme solutions to the pervasive economic problems that have plagued the continent since the economic crisis began.

If Europe were to sleepwalk back into being a mish-mash of extreme left and right wing states, it will do so because of the complete failure of the European institutions and governments to address the underlying problems. We are wedged into an economic and currency union that has wreaked havoc on our nations since 2008, leaving them unable to absorb the likes of the immigration crisis that has been sparked by wars abroad.

Immigration and extremism might correlate, but usually only when the economic conditions are such that the nativists feel themselves under extreme added pressure from the influx.

As long as politicians fail to tackle the deep and underlying issues at play in our nations, such as the economic penury imposed by Euro membership, we will see more and more governments across Europe consist of or rely on the support from extremist parties. Their solutions will undoubtedly make things worse for all of us in ways that make a simple economic crisis look peachy.

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