It is necessary to keep an eye on the other strategies of the New Right and populists, to protect the political culture from a change towards right-wing ideas.
By Franziska Fislage
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a key topic of discussion in the media was the growing impact of populism on political culture and the political order. The February 2020 election of Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) as Minister-President of the federal state of Thuringia in Germany gained international attention, as it marked the first time since the Second World War that a candidate was elected head of state government by the Christian Democrats (CDU), the liberals (FDP) and the right-wing, and partly right-extremist, party Alternative for Germany (AfD) by a ‘parliamentary trick’ — AfD members did not vote for their own candidate but unexpectedly shifted their votes to the liberal candidate, Kemmerich. This was contrary to common political behaviour in Germany.
Even though the move was not illegal, Kemmerich’s election with votes from right-wing members of parliament broke a taboo in German politics. With this shift, the AfD wanted to — and did — expose and ridicule the parliament and parliamentary procedures. A government crisis in Thuringia followed. One day after the election, FDP leader Christian Lindner suggested that Kemmerich should withdraw from the post of minister-president, which he did. After several weeks of consultation on how to deal with this scandal, former prime minister Bodo Ramelow from the left party Die Linke was re-elected by the parliamentarians. This incident gained certain attention as it reveals the populists’ strategy and the threat to Germany’s political culture by questioning the common understanding of political norms and procedures.
Globally, populism has changed the way politicians communicate on social media as well as in parliaments. Populists and extremists have infiltrated the democratic political culture, altering what is deemed acceptable in public discourse. Democratic principles are routinely attacked by right-wing political parties’ anti-pluralistic tendencies. Populists resort to inflammatory rhetoric, making statements against migrants or minorities or other “enemies” of “the nation” or “the people.” A constitution, laws, checks and balances, and a common understanding of dos and don’ts are essential to develop a political culture for the stability of a democracy. This also includes the acceptance of fundamental principles of the constitution and its procedures, trust in political institutions, and pluralism. These aspects are increasingly questioned by populists and extremists. This common understanding is under threat due to populists’ anti-pluralism and anti-constitutionalism.
Links between populists and the New Right
The New Right plays a major role in developments regarding the change of political culture. As a group of intellectuals, the New Right is more a network of people than an organisation with a clear structure (such as a political party or an association). The New Right does not want to achieve political power through governmental responsibility but through a predominance of their positions. For instance, in 2017, Steve Bannon, once a chief strategist to former US President Donald Trump, founded The Movement, a Brussels-based transnational organisation that aims to build a network among national-conservative and right-wing-populist parties and like-minded supporters.
The New Right’s basic assumption is that political change has to follow a mental change (“cultural revolution from the right”). This “cultural revolution from the right” implies a change in the political culture, leading to a medium-term or long-term political reorganisation. For the New Right, it is important that their positions dominate in public discourse before they can be implemented. The New Right clearly wants to overcome the democratic state based on a constitution and rule of law and shift it from a pluralistic understanding of democracy to a homogenous one, and from an individual understanding of human rights to human rights for nations. The New Right’s main focus is on establishing institutions or think tanks, such as the Institut für Staatspolitik (Institute for State Policy) and the Bibliothek des Konservatismus (Library of Conservatism) in Germany and spreading their ideas and views via publishers, newspapers and journals, such as Sezession and Blaue Narzisse . In Italy, Bannon helped to build up the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Institute for Human Dignity), a right-wing Roman Catholic institute.
In the past, the New Right did not seek to link their ideas to a political party, but this has now changed. Bannon, for instance, tried to connect The Movement with several European parties. Similarly, the New Right in Germany has strong links to the AfD. With the entry of the AfD into parliament in 2017, Götz Kubitschek, a key figure in Germany’s New Right and who also oversees the Institut für Staatspolitik, sensed that his own ideas could also enter parliament. Kubitschek is also working on strategies for AfD policies, consulting several AfD politicians and is influencing the work of the party via Der Flügel (The Wing), which was led by Björn Höcke who is also the head of the Thuringia AfD. Although Der Flügel has officially been dissolved after an executive order of the AfD party board in 2020, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution maintains that there is no secured knowledge that the intraparty organisation has truly been disbanded. The entry of the AfD into the German Bundestag (federal parliament) led to a boost of the New Right scene. Some analysts have said that every second AfD parliamentarian in the Bundestag has staff linked to the New Right or right-extremist milieu. Moreover, former staff from the Institut für Staatspolitik are now also working in the parliament. Similar developments are happening in other European countries as well, such as in France.
Protecting political culture and political order
The increasing links between the New Right and the AfD in Germany and Bannon’s attempt to connect with political parties show that the New Right has infiltrated politics. In Germany, the New Right has found a parliamentary outlet for their ideas and efforts of “cultural change.” At the first glance, the election of a liberal candidate Kemmerich in Thuringia might not appear to fit into the populist strategy of being the alternative to established parties. But this move fits perfectly into the New Right’s destructive strategy. Kubitschek even praised Höcke for his constructive-destructive strategies in Thuringia. The AfD wanted to expose and ridicule the parliament, the main stage for discourse and conflict resolution. The polarisation created through this act is an attempt to destroy the political culture, which includes achieving a broad orderly consensus. Although the incident might not seem like much to worry about, it might be a sign of things to come.
Countering populism and the New Right
As populism increases globally, it is important to understand all aspects of it, including having an awareness of the tricks applied by the New Right and populists. Political parties must think outside the box and be sensitive to right-wing parties’ behaviour, such as recognising that a party need not vote for its own candidate anymore, and that the change in political culture goes beyond the atmosphere and tone in debates. It is also necessary to keep an eye on the other strategies of the New Right and populists, to protect the political culture from a change towards right-wing ideas. This includes having an awareness of and also exposing their strategies. It is only if the strategies used by populists and extremists are exposed for what they are that their potential impacts can be weakened. Therefore, alliances among established democratic forces, such as politicians, political parties, networks, organisations and institutions, are more important than ever to analyse and tackle populist and right-wing threats. It is only by working together and by sharing information that they can protect the democratic political culture from further infiltration by populists, extremists and the New Right.
 Armin Pfahl-Traughber, “Was die “Neue Rechte” ist – und was nicht,” 2019; Samuel Salzborn, Rechtsextremismus. Erscheinungsformen und Erklärungsansätze (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2018), pp. 75.
 Fabio Wolkenstein, Steve Bannon und The Movement. Ambition und Wirklichkeit (Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2019), pp. 5f.
 Pfahl-Traughber, “Was die “Neue Rechte” ist“
 Salzborn, Rechtsextremismus, pp. 81f; Christian Fuchs and Paul Middelhoff, Das Netzwerk der Neuen Rechten. Wer sie lenkt, wer sie finanziert und wie sie die Gesellschaft verändern (Reinbeck: Rowohlt Verlag, 2019), pp. 202f.
 Mark Hosenball, “Steve Bannon drafting curriculum for right-wing Catholic Institute in Italy,” Reuters, 14 September 2018.
 Wolkenstein, Steve Bannon und „The Movement”, pp. 9ff
 Fuchs and Middelhoff, Das Netzwerk der Neuen Rechten, pp. 139f
 Fuchs and Middelhoff, Das Netzwerk der Neuen Rechten, pp. 48, 52, 139
 Fuchs and Middelhoff, Das Netzwerk der Neuen Rechten, pp. 152
 Uwe Backes and Patrick Moreau, Europas moderner Rechtsextremismus. Zur Attraktivität radikaler rechter Politikangebote zwischen demokratischem Konservatismus und Neofaschismus (Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2021), not published yet.
 Patrick Gensing and Konstantin Kumpfmüller, “Machtkampf in Thüringen. Die “konstruktiv-destruktive” AfD-Strategie,” Tagesschau, 6 February 2020.