Cas Mudde, political scientist: ‘Anyone should be worried about Trump being in power’

The Dutch academic talks to EL PAÍS about welfare chauvinism, the rise of ‘far-right porn’ and how the mainstream became radicalized

Cas Mudde
Political scientist Cas Mudde on Thursday in Berlin (Germany).
Elena G. Sevillano

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, 56, has spent decades analyzing the rise of the far right. And he is not optimistic. Movements that threaten liberal democracies are on the rise, and their populist rhetoric is permeating the general debate without us realizing it. “The radical right has not become moderate; it is the mainstream that has become radicalized,” he warns. Mudd has been living in the United States since 2008, where he is a professor at the University of Georgia. He takes advantage of his trips to Europe to give talks, meet with his colleagues in various countries and watch a game of soccer now and then. He has seen a game in Berlin, where he speaks to us before flying to Barcelona to take part in Orwell Day, which is held on Tuesday at the Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB). Mudde — who is the author of The Far Right Today and the highly cited Populism: A Very Short Introduction — talks about Spain’s far-right party Vox, the dangers of another Donald Trump presidency in the U.S., and how the mainstream became radicalized.

Question. You explain that Western societies have gone from excluding radical discourse to normalizing it in just three decades. How did this happen?

Answer. At the end of the 1990s, there was still a big taboo around xenophobia and nationalism. But then there was 9/11, and the response was Islamophobia and prejudice. Once we got into that discourse, there was only one party that that had a discourse on immigration that was negative, and that was the far right. Other parties adopted this framework and started to talk about immigration as a problem, as a threat to national identity and national security. And once you adopt the framework, you’re going to come out with their positions. Once you do that, the difference between you and the far right becomes smaller, and so there’s less reason to exclude them.

Q. How do you define their ideology?

A. The core is not socioeconomic, the core is sociocultural, and is based on nativism, which is a xenophobic form of nationalism. You want your state to be inhabited exclusively or primarily by your own nation, which you define in a strict way, and you consider every other people — so-called aliens — as a threat. Combined with authoritarianism, with their own view of law and order view and with populism in many cases. And also with what we call welfare chauvinism. They support the welfare state, but only for their people.

Q. You say that tolerance and inclusion are advancing in most countries, especially among young people. How can the reactionary wave be explained?

A. Who votes? Older people, mostly. Older people are not necessarily more xenophobic, but for them, immigration has become a problem and an identity issue.

Q. And what is the role of the conservative parties in this context?

A. We’ve seen a radicalization of the mainstream and particularly the mainstream right. The [Spanish conservative Popular Party] PP, for example, is much more right-wing today, especially on social and cultural issues, than it was 30 years ago. In France, the [conservative] Republican Party is like the National Rally. There are some exceptions, such as the [Christian Democratic Union] CDU in Germany. The center is moving to the right for electoral gain. In the end, they will be indistinguishable from the far right. And as [French far-right politician] Jean-Marie Le Pen said in the 1980s, people will choose the original over the copy.

Q. Is Vox dangerous?

A. Very. Vox is a radical right-wing party, just like the National Rally or the AfD [in Germany]. The fact that they came out of the mainstream [leading members used to belong to the PP], the fact that they are professional politicians, the fact that they’re smoother than some of the other radical right parties doesn’t mean anything. Ideologically it’s nativism, authoritarianism and populism. There is a danger because fundamentally they’re anti-liberal democracy, they have issues with minority rights, the separation of powers and the rule of law, like all the radical parties of the right. And they are particularly dangerous because they are competent. Vox will want to work within the system and will probably have an ally in the PP.

Q. In what way?

A. Vox is like [far-right leader Giorgia] Meloni in Italy and, to a certain degree, like [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary: these are people who want to change the system from within. And they know how.

Q. Does it make sense to turn elections into a plebiscite of “either me or the far right,” as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has done [ahead of a snap election scheduled for July]?

A. The problem with focusing the elections on the far right is that the party that is against them wins, but so does the far right. Because you make them central to the debate. The PP, of course, is going to try to counter that by saying: if you want to stop Vox, give us a majority.

Q. And do you think the PP will enter that game?

A. To be honest, to me, the PP is a bigger threat in the short run to liberal democracy than Vox. Vox is not going to get 30% overnight. If Vox is going to get influence, it’s either indirectly because the PP moves further to the right or directly through a coalition. So in that sense, Pedro Sánchez needs to raise that plebiscite. The problem for me is that it always limits the debate. As a consequence, Spaniards are probably not going to talk about housing, education, health care.

Q. What responsibility does the media have?

A. The media is often seen as part of the democratic arena, and they’re not. A media outlet is a business, and it needs to sell. A lot of individual journalists are very concerned about the far right, but they work in an institution for which the far right is a bonus. The far right sells, scandals sell.

Q. This was seen with Trump, right?

A. Nothing proved it better. The ratings for CNN, subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post went through the roof. Liberals love to be afraid of the far right. They’ll eat up any story, even if it is a fabricated story about a populist international. Those are the most read stories. I call it “far-right porn.”

Q. Europe is worried about another Trump presidency.

A. Anyone should be worried about Trump being in power. He’s unpredictable, and would be the most powerful person in the world as president and the leader of the biggest army. And Ron DeSantis is ideologically identical. He’s as nativist, as authoritarian and anti-democratic as Trump, and both are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Q. We have undemocratic leaders in Europe. How does the European Union deal with them?

A. For a long time, the lesson came from Hungary: if you are authoritarian at home, but you’re loyal in Brussels, the EU will let you be. Now there’s a new lesson from Poland, which is: if you’re authoritarian at home, but you play ball in terms of NATO and foreign policy interests, then you’re okay. At the moment, Orbán is really marginalized, but that’s not because of liberal democracy, it’s because of his pro-Putin position. The prevailing lesson is that by being staunchly anti-Putin, they will leave me alone.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS