Today
Sat 23 October 2021

Sian Norris explores why populist and far-right leaders win on anti-corruption platforms only to be accused of exploiting their positions for personal gain

The right-wing populist Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been forced to resign following allegations of corruption. Kurz, who leads The People’s Party (ÖVP) has been accused of using Government money to ensure positive tabloid coverage. He denies all the claims. 

The latest scandal to hit a right-wing populist leader raises questions about the hypocrisy of the far-right when it comes to corruption, and the meaning of corruption for both these leaders and their followers. 

Right-wing populist leaders talk at length about corruption on their rise to power. Former US President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of Wall Street and Washington DC; Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro was elected on an “anti-corruption” platform following the now overturned bribery conviction of his predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In former communist eastern European countries such as Hungary, Romania and Poland, right-wing populists pointed to the cronyism of the former communist regimes – as well as the continued power and influence of former communist officials in the 1990s governments – to facilitate their own rise to power. 

However, the very men who win elections based on anti-corruption promises are often shown to be engaging in corrupt, nepotistic or crony behaviour themselves. The latest iteration of this is Kurz in Austria. 

Trump, for example, was accused of using the presidency to enrich himself and his family, of appointing family members to his administration, as well as using the presidency as a branding opportunity for his Mar-a-Lago resorts.

Bolsanaro has been personally implicated in an alleged corruption racket involving the supposed misappropriation of his workforce’s wages – allegations he denies. In Hungary, there have been multiple suggestions of corruption against the right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, including evidence of how Orban’s own family is secretly benefiting from EU funds and Government contracts. 

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The Fascistic Concept of Corruption 

When far-right and right-wing populist leaders talk about fighting corruption, most mainstream audiences will assume they are talking about financial misbehaviour or crony networks. 

Promises to fight corruption are couched on the idea that wealthy elites are exploiting ordinary workers – ‘workers’ standing for white men. These elites are often portrayed or signalled as Jewish in an antisemitic dog whistle to racist sections of the politician’s base.

But the idea that the far-right is interested in fighting financial corruption is illusory. When far-right figures talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law” or an “usurpation of the natural order”, according to writer Jason Stanley, in his book How Fascism Works.

This purity or natural order is based on the fascistic belief that power belongs to white men, that women and black and minority ethnic people are inferior, and that LGBTIQ people do not have the right to exist. This thought architecture sees the rights of women, black and ethnic minority people and LGBTIQ people as “corrupting” the natural order and contaminating the purity of white male supremacy. 

In order to “drain the swamp”, the far-right is not interested in rooting out financial misbehaviour or putting an end to tax avoidance. As the aforementioned examples of far-right and right-wing populist leaders show, more often than not they are keen to encourage or benefit from such deals. Instead, the far-rights seeks to drain political institutions – and public spaces more widely – from these so-called “impure influences” and restore the “natural order” of white, male supremacy.  

Stanley explains how “when women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of a democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption.”

On the extreme edges, this is evidenced by far-right activists like Jim Dowson, formerly of the British Nationalist Party and founder of the anti-Islam group Britain First. Dowson and his followers see women’s presence in powerful institutions, such as the European Union or national parliaments, as a corruption of those spaces. 

Dowson left Britain First and became the “pro-life figurehead” of the Knights Templar International. In 2019, the organisation posted an article on its website titled ‘The War On Men’, whose author wrote how the threats posed by immigration and “secularisation” would not have been possible without the “feminisation” of public life – i.e. women entering politics and taking up leadership positions in institutions such as the Government and the European Union. This is an example of how the far-right sees women’s – and LGBTIQ’s people and black people’s – equality as a corruption of the natural order where power is solely the preserve of white, straight men. 

In a separate video, Dowson railed that “society is engulfed by silly women” and the presence of women in public space has caused “the whole of society to degenerate” – i.e. become corrupted. This degeneration, he is clear, is represented by progress on women’s, LGBTIQ and civil rights, as well as more liberal approaches to migration, which as a general rule women legislators and voters are more likely to support.

Thus, it should not come as a surprise that populist leaders elected on promises to end corruption are later accused of financial corruption, nepotism or cronyism themselves. The “swamp” they identify is populated by liberal and progressive movements; the “pollution” is the presence of women, black and minority ethnic people and LGBTIQ people in formally “pure” spaces; the desired outcome is a restored “natural order” of white male supremacy in political and public spaces with women, black and minority ethnic and LGBTIQ people pushed out. 

Understanding this fascistic thought architecture around purity and the natural order helps to make sense of why so many far-right and right-wing populist leaders can both rail against corruption while basking in its assets. 

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