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date: 21 July 2018

Charisma and the Radical Right

Abstract and Keywords

Although the concept of “charismatic” leaders is commonplace in political discourse, many academics hold that the notion is vague and these leaders’ alleged appeal to voters untestable. This chapter sets out a conceptualization of such leaders, focusing on radical mission, personal presence, symbiotic hierarchy, and Manichean demonization. It then considers four broad theories about why charismatic leaders have notable effects (and why the radical right gathers support): socioeconomic change and crisis, political opportunity structures, cultural legitimation, and psychological affinities. While it is important not to overstate the powers of most leaders, the chapter concludes by arguing that we need to appreciate the role of “coterie” charisma over an inner core, helping to keep parties together. Moreover, charismatic leaders exert a centripetal appeal, particularly to authoritarians and/or those least interested in politics, creating a more differentiated following than the affective bond stressed in the classic Weberian model.

Keywords: charismatic leaders, political leaders, radical right party organization, leadership, right-wing politicians

During recent decades there have been frequent claims that we are witnessing the rise of a new generation of “charismatic” right-wing leaders in Western democracies. However, it has been countered that the change taking place is better termed the “personalization” of politics. This refers to the way in which the traditional media have increasingly focused their political coverage on leaders, though it can point more specifically to the rise of leaders who lack organizational bases, such as Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump, creating new parties or using old ones to target their appeals at an increasingly dealigned electorate. Moreover, some major alleged cases of charismatic effects, notably the dramatic increase in Margaret Thatcher’s popularity during the 1982 Falklands War and George W. Bush’s after the 9/11 terror attacks, have been seen as examples of office rather than personal charisma, a situational tendency to rally round the flag at times of crisis.

The significance of charismatic leadership has been central to debates about the rise of the “populist radical right” in Europe since the 1980s (Mudde 2007). Charisma is often seen as an important factor in explaining the relative success of this family compared to the post-1945 neofascist “old” right and to different electoral performances within the new family (Ignazi 2003; van Kessel 2015; Pedahzur and Brichta 2002; Taggart 2000; cf. Eatwell 2017). The list of charismatic leaders during the first wave of breakthroughs includes Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French Front National (FN), Jörg Haider of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreich (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), and Umberto Bossi of the Italian Lega Nord (LN, Northern League). More recent leaders of parties that have achieved significant support include Geert Wilders of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party of Freedom), Timo Soini of Perussuomalaiset (PS, Finns Party, formerly True Finns), and the LN’s Matteo Salvini. There have also been notable female leaders following Pia Kjaersgaard and Pauline Hanson, who in the 1990s founded the Dansk Folkeparti (DF, Danish People’s Party) and the Australian One Nation Party, respectively (Immerzeel, Coffé, and van der Lippe 2015; Meret 2015). In 2011 Marine (p. 252) Le Pen succeeded her father and sought to “detoxify” the FN in an attempt to broaden its support—a process that in 2015 led to the expulsion of the elder Le Pen following repeated anti-Semitic statements. Germany too has seen the rise of female leadership in the shape of Frauke Petry, who in 2015 became the co-chair of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which quickly became the most successful populist party since 1945.

However, what exactly characterizes such “charismatic” leaders? Should the confident and handsome Haider be grouped together with the ill-kept and often garrulous Bossi, who once quipped that his party had “a hard-on”? What links the down-to-earth, motherly style of Kjaersgaard with the self-conscious ordinariness of Hanson, who left school at fifteen, or with Petry, who is a successful businesswoman with a Göttingen doctoral degree? Is not the managerial style of Marine Le Pen, a lawyer by profession, very different from that of her provocative father, who had fought in Algeria and retained a macho style into old age? Predictably, such differences have led many academics to hold that the term “charisma” is at best vague and at worst debased to the point of meaninglessness—especially when applied in popular usage to, for example, media “celebrities” such as Trump, who was best known for hosting the television show The Apprentice before he began a serious run for the presidency in 2015.

Moreover, many hold that it is impossible to demonstrate an empirical link between allegedly charismatic leadership and voting (Art 2011; van der Brug and Mughan 2007). Explanations of the sudden takeoff of the FN most commonly focus on demand-side factors, such as socioeconomic change and growing concerns about immigration, rather than supply-side factors, including Le Pen’s growing access to state media in the 1980s after an economically troubled left-wing government sought to split the rising mainstream right (Rydgren 2002; cf. Eatwell 2002). Moreover, some successful radical right parties do not have leaders who are seen as charismatic, including the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party) under Christoph Blocher, the Sweden Democrats (SD) under Jimmie Åkesson, and Siv Jensen of the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet (FrP, Progress Party), a populist party that has metamorphosed into the mainstream right in the new millennium, thus moving in the opposite direction to the SVP during the 1990s.

Analyzing the relationship between leader and voters raises major methodological problems that can be only touched upon below, as the main purpose of this chapter is to set out a post-Weberian model of charisma. In the pioneering approach established by Max Weber during the early twentieth century, charisma was seen as a quasi-religious phenomenon in which confident, prophetic leaders affectively inspired a mass population at times of crisis and against a background of secular modernization (Weber 1968). This approach offers some insights into historical manifestations of charismatic leaders, including the rise of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party in the early 1920s and of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party during the early 1930s. However, it is inadequate as a monocausal explanation of these manifestations because fascism also exerted an economic appeal and grew especially in communities where mass parties penetrated “uncivil” society—factors that highlight the relevance to voting of differentiated (p. 253) propaganda, organization, community norms, and national traditions (Brustein 1996; Mann 2004; Riley 2010).

Nevertheless, it is important not to remove charismatic leadership from this mix. In the pages that follow, I seek to develop two broad perspectives about political charisma. Using mainly examples from recent decades, I first set out a concept of the charismatic leader, highlighting four characteristics: radical mission, personal presence, symbiotic hierarchy, and Manichean demonization. Second, I consider four theoretical approaches to support for such leaders and the radical right more generally: socioeconomic change and crisis, political opportunity structures, cultural legitimation, and psychological affinities. In the conclusion I highlight the importance of considering both internal party “coterie” charisma and the ability to create an external “centripetal” appeal, which involves a greater emphasis on policy voting and differentiated followers than the affective Weberian model does (Eatwell 2002, 2005, 2006).1

Conceptualizing the Charismatic Leader

In this section I seek to build a synoptic characterization of the charismatic personality. It is important to stress that a full analysis would require a more systematic diachronic and synchronic perspective to highlight how leaders’ appeals can change through time and how they can target appeals at different groups at the same time. A major problem with existing analyses of charisma is the tendency to homogenize leaders’ appeals and/or to fail to realize that charismatic leadership and entrepreneurial political leadership are not necessarily polar opposites, especially in an age when there is extensive information about voters’ views on a wide range of issues (information unavailable to Hitler before coming to power, as political polling only developed during the 1930s).

A Radical Mission

Charismatic leaders are characterized by radical missions, which help to give them “issue ownership” (though mainstream parties may borrow part of such leaders’ platforms to help defuse electoral insurgency). The missionary leader should not be confused with the iconic leader, whose face is well known and who may even symbolize the nation. Leaders such as U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower and German chancellor Angela Merkel exhibit a pragmatic form of politics. Charismatics such as Hitler are saviors, not fixers (although this can be tempered by more ambiguous language, and they may mix quasi-religious with economically rational appeals). Jean-Marie Le Pen’s mission was not always linked to detailed policies, but most of the key issues have been clear since the early 1980s. By that time the need to overthrow the mainstream parties and (p. 254) to halt immigration and multiculturalism were his signature themes (Zúquete 2007)—though after Marine Le Pen became leader in 2011 the mission added a stronger “neither right nor left” economic crusade, including opposition to the European Union (EU) and to U.S.-led neoliberal globalization.

Mission is often linked to a foundation myth, where leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen are portrayed as the founder of the movement. The founder of the Danish Fremskridtspartiet (FrP, Progress Party) in the early 1970s, Mogens Glistrup, provides another example of missionary politics—though his enemy was the bloated, high-tax state rather than immigration and multiculturalism, issues that became central to the Danish FrP under Kjaersgaard and her successor Kristian Thulesen Dahl, who strongly supported statist welfare chauvinist policies (a reflection of the way in which the “thin” ideology of populism can be grafted onto different ideologies). Bossi is another good example of the exploitation of a foundation myth, having led the party from its formation until 2013. Berlusconi similarly portrayed his Forza Italia (FI, Forward Italy) during the 1990s as a new movement (not a party), whose activists were often referred to as “missionaries of truth.” In the case of Wilders, he was not only the founder of the PVV in 2006 but remains its only member! Other leaders are more inclined to celebrate their role at a critical turn, such as Haider, who after becoming leader in 1986 turned an uneasy coalition of conservatives and fascists into a populist party (though, like the FN, the FPÖ retained fascist milieus). Charismatic leaders also frequently seek to portray elements of their life as part of a grander narrative about their mission. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which was formed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, grew up in poverty on the margins of society in Kazahkstan. He sought to restore the borders of a Greater Russia that would pursue a form of “National Bolshevism,” rather than the mix of criminality and free markets that he claimed characterized post-communist Russia. Such narratives open the possibility of appealing to far more than those who just admire strong leaders—in this case the poor in Russia, the military, and so on.

Personal Presence

Charismatic leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Haider, Wilders, and Salvini have great confidence and personal presence. Whereas leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler exhibited these skills publicly mainly at mass rallies, recent studies have tended to stress a leader’s ability to create an effective appeal via the traditional media. This means that charisma should not necessarily be equated with a “hot” rather than “cool” style. Wilders, for example, can use humor and well-timed one-liners, which helped him win the Dutch Press politician of the year award. The young Hungarian Jobbik leader Gábor Vona has a university degree and is highly articulate, using limited media opportunities to help him achieve almost film-star status (though Vona, like most extreme and populist right leaders, also holds rallies). Given that the mainstream media often exclude these leaders or offer only negative publicity, such leaders have to learn how to present themselves via other media. (p. 255) Hanson forcefully presented herself via local and talk radio, which were more open to politically unpolished discussion than the national media. Radical right leaders have also had to learn to use new media including the Internet and Twitter, with Jean-Marie Le Pen an early user of the former to hone his image and disseminate FN policy.

Partly as a result of these trends, some leaders, such as Le Pen senior, have used image consultants or have at least studied political marketing. These developments have led to the claim that the term “pseudo-charisma” is analytically helpful, as it points to the essentially contrived nature of many party leaders’ images. If the analytical focus is specifically on leader qualities and views, then “pseudo-charisma” can be useful to demonstrate the manufactured element of a mission, as it was for Bush after 9/11. However, if the focus is on audience response, there is a need to explain why certain leaders’ discourse and image are appealing, regardless of whether this is largely contrived. For example, Trump’s roller-coaster presidential campaign appears to have been based more on his own instincts and views than on those of campaign consultants. But regardless of the role of professional advisors, he won in part because he seemed to many voters to be authentic, albeit inexperienced—perceptions that helped him overcome some of his gaffes (though some of these were almost certainly designed to obtain free publicity and appeal to the political fringe).

Symbiotic Hierarchy

Although charismatic leaders seek to portray themselves as the embodiment of a special mission, they can also portray themselves as an ordinary (wo)man of the people. After coming to power, Hitler at times emanated a godlike aura, while at others he was more the common man dressed in simple clothes, though often sporting the Iron Cross he had won in the war (an image that had egalitarian as well as military connotations). Charismatics employ a complex discourse and imagery of both obedience and empowerment. One of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s most-cited aphorisms claimed that he merely said out loud what ordinary French people thought in private. Similarly, publicity for the current leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache, has stated that “he wants what we want” and “he says what Vienna thinks.”

A common technique in attempting to create a sense of leader-follower identity is the use of a “low” rather than “high” language. Bossi is a good example of someone who clearly sought to break with the cant and grandiloquence of traditional Italian political discourse. Zhirinovsky, too, frequently used macho language, and employed sexual allusion in television advertisements. Berlusconi often proudly spoke come la gente, “like the people,” but he could also switch to a more businesslike style when seeking to portray himself as a leading entrepreneur and statesman. While major historical examples of charisma, such as Mussolini, have typically employed a male form of narrative/symbolism associated with action and heroics, the modern tendency to view politics in terms of economics and welfare offers more opportunities for females. Thatcher made great play of coming from a shopkeeper background, and initially stressed her status as a housewife (though she later adopted a more masculine, even military air after the successful 1982 Falklands War). (p. 256) Kjaersgaard, too, has courted the image of a housewife and mother, though she combined this somewhat uneasily with an authoritarian rule over her party, which she justified in terms of preventing the splits that had plagued the Progress Party. Hanson portrayed herself as a brave, pioneer critic of the establishment, someone who was “one of us,” the common people—an identification that initially helped her overcome recurring gaffes.

Manichean Demonization

An important part in the rhetorical armory of charismatics is the targeting of enemies, such as Hitler’s demonization of Marxists and Jews (though this trait must be used cautiously in countries with consensual-liberal political cultures). In some cases these can be internal enemies, who in recent decades are typically nonwhite “immigrants.” The targeting of Muslims since 9/11 highlights both terrorist threats and allegedly irreconcilable cultural difference, whereas earlier anti-immigrant politics focused on issues such as allegations of criminality and welfare abuse. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, whose eponymous party list in 2002 included nonwhites, specifically sought to reject charges of racism by stressing that Islam was alien to the Dutch tradition of democracy and tolerance (Fortuyn was openly gay). Mainstream parties have been another major target. For example, a common theme in Bossi’s speeches was an attack on partitocrazia, the corrupt linkages between parties and business interests that had come to alienate many Italians by the turn of the 1990s. Trump’s presidential campaign, in a paradoxical twist for someone running as a Republican, demonized mainstream politicians and named various businesses that he alleged had “exported” American jobs and/or failed to pay appropriate taxes (whereas his failure to pay taxes was legitimate).

Foes can also be external. Anti-U.S. themes have become common in Europe, often linked to the theme of conspiracy and hidden power. However, while anti-Semitic and anti-Roma tropes remain strong in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe the former has become less prominent among the radical right, partly because some parties support Israel as part of their anti-Islamic front. This change also helps to shield them from the toxic charge of “fascism” and to a lesser extent “racism.” The EU, too, has become the object of attack, not least for undermining national sovereignty. Salvini, who has overseen a remarkable revival of LN support following the financial scandal that led Bossi to resign, has dubbed the euro a “crime against humanity” and the EU a new Soviet Union based on authoritarianism and corruption.

Theorizing Charismatic (and Radical Right) Support

History is littered with leaders who can be fitted into this conception of charisma but whose parties had only a handful of followers. In some cases they disappeared into (p. 257) obscurity. On a few occasions, such as with Hitler after 1929, the wilderness years were followed by sudden takeoff. More recently, Timo Soini led what was to become the Finns Party for more than ten years before his appeal to the common man and criticisms of the EU led to his being elected to the European Parliament in 2009 with the highest personal share of the vote. This was followed by his party making a major breakthrough in national elections.

A model of charisma, therefore, needs to consider the relationship between leaders and voters, and to more generally assess the various demand- and supply-side factors that lie behind the failure or success of the radical right. Although in an earlier work I set out ten such theories (Eatwell 2003), here I will highlight four partly overlapping approaches that reflect broad schools of analysis. Together they offer many insights, though they neglect the appeal of charismatic leaders to core activists who engage in much of the local activity, which has often been a factor behind the rise and continued success of the radical right. They also tend to homogenize the nature of the mass support such leaders attract, rather than highlighting appeals built on notably different constituencies, albeit ones in which forms of nationalism lie at their core (Zhirkov 2014).

Socioeconomic Change and Crisis

In line with the dominance of structure over agency approaches in history and political science, many academics hold that charismatic leaders are most likely to emerge at times of major socioeconomic change—and especially when economic crisis coincides with political crisis.

Such approaches often focus on the impact of sudden change, like the deep depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash in a Germany that had previously been witnessing improving living standards and which paralyzed the parliamentary system. More recently, the radical right in many countries, such as France, has gathered momentum following the most recent recession—though it is important to stress that this has not happened in some of the most severely affected countries, including Ireland and Spain (Kriesi and Pappas 2015).

However, there is a crucial structure-agency point relevant here. Crisis is normally portrayed as an objective reality that unfolds according to structural determinants. But leaders can heighten and even create a sense of crisis by framing “objective” reality—crisis can be talked up or down. Structural causes are often less important than the specific unfolding of a crisis, which is in many ways a function of chance or political decisions—like the way in which the Socialist French president François Mitterrand opened state television to the FN in the 1980s, giving Jean-Marie Le Pen a powerful opportunity to set out his mission (the FN’s poll ratings rose notably after his first appearance on a major talk show). More recently, Socialist president François Hollande appeared to vacillate and failed to set out a clear alternative to the radical socioeconomic policies of Marine Le Pen. (p. 258)

The impact of the post-2007 recession also has to be seen in terms of its impact on earlier socioeconomic trends. A key group that has been affected by change in recent decades is the less educated, working-class male who finds himself alienated from postmaterial, feminist, Green, and middle-class agendas (Ignazi 1992). Certainly many of Trump’s supporters were alienated by what they saw as “political correctness” concerning issues beyond just immigration and ethnicity, though those two were undoubtedly major issues for his supporters. This hostility tends to overlap those whose economic prospects have declined and who have been referred to as the “losers of modernization,” though these are not necessarily unemployed or among the poorest voters (Betz and Immerfall 1998). These “left-behinds” have been important supporters of Trump and many West European radical right parties, with pessimistic voters attracted to strong leaders who offered the chance of an alternative and rosier future.

Nevertheless, the precise link between economic factors and voting is not clear. Haider and the FPÖ rose rapidly during the 1990s at a time of prosperity and low unemployment. Globalization posed threats about the future, but if there was a crisis, it related more to fears about national identity than to economic interests. This was a time of growing discussion of Überfremdung (over-foreignerization) following immigration from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Similarly, the rise of the AfD after 2014 owed more to fears about new waves of immigrants from the Middle East and beyond, who were welcomed by Merkel, than to the “soft” Euroskeptic concerns about the Eurozone and the threats to the relatively strong German economy that had played a major part in the party’s formation (a change that brought more extremists into the party, posing future image and unity problems).

A loss of identity following rapid social change was central to mass society theory, which was a major interpretation of fascism in the 1950s and 1960s. However, this fell from favor in the face of evidence that fascism was often strongest where community remained strong, such as rural areas and small towns, with community leaders such as clerics or doctors frequently leading others into (or against) fascist parties. A similar conclusion has been reached in some studies of the contemporary radical right, for example regarding the way in which the FN built up support among pieds noirs, returnees from colonial Algeria and their descendants (Veugelers, Menard, and Permingeat 2015), and penetrated other networks including Catholic fundamentalists and right-wing groupuscules. The LN also grew partly by working through former Christian Democrat networks, though it benefited from reverse socialization, in which dealigned young voters influenced older family and friends (Bull and Gilbert 2001).

The anomic approach has come back into favor among those who see prewar fascism as a “political religion” in which voters suffering from a “sense-making” crisis were attracted to secular gods. This broad argument also features in approaches to the contemporary radical right, in particular the claim that traditional social structures based on class and religion have broken down. Countries such as Austria and the Netherlands exhibited subcultures, or Lagers, that resulted in highly “pillared” forms of politics, but in recent decades their breakdown has allowed the rise of new parties with strong leaders who appeal across historical divisions in the name of the nation. On the other (p. 259) hand, some academics have challenged the claim that the radical right in Western Europe appeals particularly to socially isolated voters—though there appears to be some national variation, with Denmark and France, countries that have spawned charismatic leaders, far more likely to see isolated individuals turning to the radical right than in Belgium, Norway, and Switzerland (Rydgren 2009).

Political Opportunity Structures

A second broad theoretical set of approaches is partly linked to institutionalism in the social sciences. These are often referred to as “political opportunity structure” approaches, and they understand institutions in a broad way that is not confined to the formal constitutional sphere, encompassing parties and the media too.

A common claim on this approach is that the emergence of charismatic leaders is associated with strong presidential rather than parliamentary systems, or with weak party systems. Presidential elections inevitably focus on individuals, though the differences between the arrogant Trump and Hillary Clinton, who campaigned heavily on experience and judgment rather than personality, illustrate that presidential systems do not necessarily produce charismatics. Although Trump’s demonization of his opponent owed much to his egocentric personality, such attacks are less characteristic of proportionally based parliamentary systems, which are likely to need some form of coalition government.

However, this type of government can encourage consensual politics, which opens space for radical challengers who can find a powerful issue neglected by the mainstream, such as immigration in recent decades. The rise of Le Pen and the FN took place against a background of mainstream parties not wanting to discuss immigration and linked issues, such as crime and welfare. Moreover, major changes are taking place in party systems, including the weakening of mainstream parties as a result of a complex set of factors, such as the changes in civil society noted earlier, loss of faith in traditional ideologies (other than nationalism), and perceptions of corruption among leaders. There has been a notable decline in partisanship, which opens voters to new appeals (Holmberg 2007)—though this has not always been accompanied by the rise of major new challengers, even in systems that use proportional representation, which makes the initial breakthrough easier. Another important factor that has helped to undermine mainstream parties is the tension in liberal democracy between the promise of popular participation and the reality of electoral competition among increasingly distant elites—an issue that can be exploited by charismatic leaders, who promise to create a new form of politics that embodies the true will of the people.

Nevertheless, it is important not to associate charismatic leaders in Europe with weak and/or personal party organization of the Berlusconi type. Jean-Marie Le Pen, for example, built up an extensive organization, including youth and professional groups. Under his daughter Marine, the FN has sought to broaden and deepen membership and keep out the type of extremist who previously helped produce a “spoiled identity.” The case (p. 260) of the Finns Party is interesting in this context. The PS, which has never been linked to extremism, has been led by Soini for virtually its whole existence. Although he developed a strong personal charismatic appeal, he used political entrepreneurial skills to create a strong organization in a way that has been described as “charisma plus” (Arter 2016). Soini’s image both as a man of the people and as a competent leader attracted a substantial body of floating voters as the party took off.

This raises the issue of the relative importance of organization and the personalization of politics. Many academics have argued that there is only weak evidence in parliamentary democracies that personalization significantly influences voters, not least because the media in liberal democracies are pluralistic and/or non-partisan (Karvonen 2010). A particular problem for the radical right is that in most countries they enjoy little mainstream media access, let alone support. However, this has encouraged an extensive use of new media to bypass gatekeepers, which has become highly important as most West European countries have moved toward universal Net coverage and the digital divide has been reduced. Moreover, the claim that personalization has little impact on voting needs careful examination in the specific context of the radical right.

Can the FPÖ’s rise be divorced from the fact that the newspaper Neue Kronen Zeitung (which has an enormous share of the Austrian readership) strongly supported Haider and set an agenda that helped him? More generally, charismatic leaders fit into paradigms based on storytelling and melodrama in the popular media. There is also a tendency for the media to reflect public opinion as well as set the agenda, which means that coverage of issues such as immigration and the economy recently have featured prominently. In the Netherlands, Wilders needs the media, as he has no mass party. There is evidence that his vision and provocative statements have made him attractive to gatekeepers (van der Pas, de Vries, and van der Brug 2013). A similar trend has taken place in Italy, where Salvini has enjoyed extensive media access as well as using new media, which has more than compensated for the loss of the LN’s own newspaper and television channel.

Especially where extremist parties face media exclusion and/or lack charismatic leadership, it is also important to consider local political contexts. In the new millennium the British National Party (BNP) and the Greek Golden Dawn have sought to build organization and gain votes through highly localized campaigning, which involved providing services such as helping the old, repairing housing, and supporting those most in need (Dinas et al. 2016). In both cases this helped them make electoral breakthroughs in local elections before moving onto the national stage—though the BNP imploded after the 2010 general election, with incompetence and splits among the leadership playing a major part.

Cultural Legitimation

A third approach, linked to political culture analyses, holds that the rise of charismatic leaders is helped by some form of historical legitimation. This is sometimes referred to (p. 261) in terms of “discursive opportunity structures,” highlighting the omission in previous approaches of an important factor that helps explain national variation.

A classic study of Hitler’s charisma does not stress personal traits so much as the nature of the interwar crisis and the German tradition of strong leaders that Hitler consciously exploited (Kershaw 1998). A major problem for the radical right in the post-1945 era has been overcoming the fear of strong leaders, especially any who evoke echoes of fascism, which remains a powerful delegitimizing tool—used even against those who have no connection with a fascist past, such as Trump. In the case of those who did have a clear fascist past, such as the BNP’s Nick Griffin, this undoubtedly helped prevent them getting anything like the potential vote achievable by a less extreme party.

However, leaders can employ images that play on counterhistorical allusions. The attraction of Bossi’s gangly image can be seen not only in terms of a reaction to Mussolinian macho posturing but also in terms of Catholic iconography of the twisted, tortured body on the cross (Barraclough 1998). Bossi’s frequently shabby image also contrasted sharply with that of traditional politicians and rich newcomers such as the impeccably dressed Berlusconi. All of this helps explain his appeal by the mid-1990s to those who had formerly been on the left, as well as to Catholics. Jean-Marie Le Pen frequently used a language of resistance (to immigration, to political correctness, and so on) in order to counter charges of fascism—though this sat somewhat uneasily with a Vichy-inspired language aimed at the extreme right and his infamous claim that the Holocaust was but a “detail” of history.

In the case of the FN, one of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s greatest successes was manipulating conceptions of Frenchness. On one hand, he sought to create a primordialist sense of French identity, based on deep ethnic links and historical greatness. On the other, he has cleverly exploited a more modernist, assimilationist conception of being French—an “open” invitation to join the nation, but one that requires its new citizens to become truly French by assimilating in a way that earlier immigrants from countries such as Belgium and Italy had. Moreover, Le Pen cleverly deployed a “differentialist” discourse, initially disseminated by nouvelle droite intellectuals such as Alain de Benoist, which has sought to divert charges of racism by rejecting hierarchies and stressing difference. This was used to argue the Muslims could not be assimilated and that their culture was a threat to the secular French state. It is worth adding that France has a tradition of strong leaders, but in the interwar era no significant fascist movement materialized. Tradition, therefore, provides a set of templates, but it requires a skilled political leader to deploy them successfully.

Charisma can also emerge in societies lacking a tradition of strong political leadership, as the Netherlands shows. Fortuyn’s relatively free market ideology and conception of leadership was more commercial than political. It was “businesslike but with a heart,” according to his website—an important factor in a work-oriented culture within which mainstream politicians were falling into increasing disdain. Fortuyn had been both an academic and a media personality before he became a politician, and he constructed an image of a man who understood the real problems of society and who was not afraid to speak out against politically correct elites. Wilders similarly tailored his appeal to Dutch (p. 262) values, including a strong support for women’s equality and gay rights that has been missing in many of the more male-oriented radical right parties (and whose vote is often heavily male).

Psychological Affinities

A fourth broad set of approaches seeks to understand charisma and/or the radical right in terms of the psychology of voters. These arguments can be important to explaining the relatively sudden increase in support for radical right parties. For example, recent white fears in the United States about ethnic minorities, new immigration, and linked issues such as welfare spending raised existential concerns about threats to the “normative order,” which meant that white people who felt that change had reached a tipping point were willing to take a risk on an inexperienced politician such as Trump, whose radical (albeit vague) policy solutions appealed within a polarized electorate (Hetherington and Weiler 2009; Stenner 2010).

Much of the early post-1945 work of this type on fascism was influenced by Theodor Adorno’s theory of the authoritarian personality, which depicted strict upbringing within the family, school, and other institutions as producing a tendency toward conformism and respect for strong leadership. This approach ignores other powerful motives for turning to fascism, noted earlier, and it is weak at explaining its sudden takeoff electorally in both Italy and Germany. Nevertheless, in spite of further problems operationalizing the concept, variations have been used to explain postwar radical right voting. In general, it seems that strongly held nationalist-exclusive views have been a better predictor of voting than authoritarianism (Dunn 2015), but there is growing evidence that a pool of authoritarian voters is available to be mobilized by the right leader (YouGov UK 2016).

Such support further disproves another common early approach to the revival of the radical right, namely, the claim that it was essentially an unstructured protest vote. There is no doubt that radical right voters are protesting many things, including the performance of the mainstream parties, immigration, and the state of the economy in recent years. However, they are also making a rational choice in the sense that they are aligning themselves with parties whose views on issues such as immigration are the closest to their own. Although there have been effective mainstream challengers who have stolen parts of the radical right’s clothes, for example Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 French presidential elections, radical right parties and their domineering leaders tend to have strong issue ownership in this field.

A rare attempt specifically to analyze the psychological appeal of charisma comes from Madsen and Snow (1991). They argue that a person overwhelmed by change may simply not vote, but a charismatic leader helps give people a sense that the leader can change things while at the same time remaining responsive to the followers’ needs. Put another way, people have a need to understand complex events, and often find it easiest to come to terms with complexity through the image of a single person who is held (p. 263) to be special, but in some way accountable. Madsen and Snow call this “proxy control.” Although the full thesis is difficult to test empirically, it is certainly the case that leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen have exerted a strong appeal to the apolitical, to those most disconnected from mainstream politics. Polls in France showed that this group, often called the “marais electorate,” grew from 19 percent of the electorate in 1981 to 31 percent by 2002. Trump exerted a similar appeal in winning the U.S. presidency in 2016.

However, while Madsen and Snow may offer a reason people become hungry for leaders, they do not tell us exactly what type of leader appeals—they focus unduly on the magnetizability of followers rather than the magnetism of a leader. At this point, specific leader appeals can be added back into the equation. In the organizational psychology literature about successful leaders, the characteristics that most stand out—vision and confidence—featured at the top of the earlier list of charismatic traits. People are also attracted to leaders who are seen as special but not distant. Theories of identity creation point to the importance of defining the “other” as an important part of the process. From a political point of view, focusing on the “other” also allows for the creation of a wider constituency of support than does focusing on specific positive traits. Indeed, as the concluding section will underline, one of the most important aspects of the charismatic leader is his/her ability to put together support based on notably different factors and motivations.


The concept of charismatic leadership has undoubtedly become debased in popular usage. Even academics often use the term in an undefined way and/or stretch the concept to include political leaders who are not truly charismatic. For example, Bush after 9/11 adopted aspects of charismatic discourse, such as a mission to destroy terrorism, but the support that rallied around him was more the result of office and situational charisma rather than personal charisma.

Trump has failed to benefit from office charisma because he has so polarized voters that he had little chance of broadening his base. Indeed, many radical right leaders and parties remain stigmatized, turning voters away more than attracting them. This is especially true of those who can effectively be tagged with the “fascist” or “extremist” label. Although Jean-Marie Le Pen polled higher in four presidential elections than his party’s standing at the time, large numbers of French voters saw him as beyond the pale—as his failure to achieve even 20 percent of the vote in the 2002 presidential run-off ballot shows.

Many of the arguments presented above seem to point away from suggesting that charismatic leadership has been important to the rise in support for radical right parties. The current academic conventional wisdom holds that this rise has been based heavily on the demand side, particularly issues linked to immigration, which since the 1980s has been the number one issue for many supporters of the radical right in Western (p. 264) Europe and increasingly in the United States. Economic problems in many countries have further increased support for policies such as restricting immigration and welfare chauvinism, as well as fears about globalization and growing inequalities between rich and poor. These factors were far more important than Hanson’s discredited leadership in the sudden revival of the Australian One Nation Party during 2016.

Another problem with the classic formulation of the charisma thesis—illustrated both by studies of fascism and by studies of the more contemporary radical right—is that it features a binary approach, which focuses on macro (societal) or micro (individual) factors. But local and group (meso) perspectives are also crucial to understanding support, including the role played by opinion leaders. This points to the possibility that charisma may act mainly on a minority, who then recruit (often by using other forms of appeal) a wider constituency. For example, the rise of the Lega Nord has to be understood in part within the context of local networks, including strong family groups in which the young often socialized the old into new allegiances. Golden Dawn, a party clearly lacking any form of charismatic leadership, has similarly sought to build and use local networks, partly as a way of bypassing the hostility of mainstream media (reinforced by a strong new media presence).

However, I do not want to end by concluding that historians and social scientists should banish the term “charisma.” Rather, I want to argue that charisma remains an important approach to understanding the success of radical right parties in two major senses.

Coterie Charisma

While leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen or Bossi have failed to display mass affective charisma, they have unquestionably displayed what I term “coterie charisma” of the type that Mussolini and especially Hitler had earlier achieved. In other words, they attracted a hard core of supporters, both in their inner courts and more locally, who have held that the leader was driven by a special mission and/or that the leader was invested with unique powers. This helped keep the party together in the wilderness years and inspired great exertions on behalf of the cause. This relationship with core followers is very different from that of a leader such as Blocher and to a lesser extent Berlusconi, whose parties were based on factors such as strong organization and media support, respectively (though the media often featured Berlusconi and he attracted an element of coterie charisma) (McDonnell 2016).

However, it is important to stress that coterie charisma does not have to be affective. Some may see the leader more in terms of potential effectiveness in holding a group together, and in terms of the ability to win support. Certainly some of those who helped set up the FN in 1972 saw the choice of Le Pen in such terms. When the FN experienced a major split in 1998–1999, it was largely over the belief that the party’s support had plateaued around 15 percent and needed a new leadership, less tainted with extremism, in order to drive it further forward. Marine Le Pen’s succession in part reflected a (p. 265) dynastic and nepotistic tendency in the party, but it also demonstrated a strong belief in the party’s inner core that she was the leader who could achieve the electoral breakthrough, perhaps even win a presidential election. A high level of respect for a strong leader was also important in helping another founding father, Geert Wilders, to develop the PVV as an electoral machine, including the training of candidates and exclusion of extremists—though this again underlines the importance of organization for sustained party success (de Lange and Art 2011).

Centripetal Charisma

Some voters came to see parties such as the FN, FPÖ, and LN through the matrix of their leaders—a characteristic that I term “centripetal charisma.” The Nazis are an even better example, as by the 1930s they were commonly known as “the Hitler Party.” Put another way, such leaders are viewed as immanent, as the embodiment of the party—a trait especially common when linked to foundational or turning-point leader mythology (which can cause a problem when there is a succession, though the new leadership of Marine Le Pen and Salvini shows that this is not necessarily fatal to a party’s prospects, as the new leader can become the new embodiment of the party).

The ability of a party to present a united front, epitomized by a single leader who tends to dominate media coverage, has two important consequences. First, voters are offered, to adopt rational choice terminology, a low-cost form of signaling that helps send key policy messages to potential supporters. One of the most striking things about the poll evidence for many radical right leaders and parties is that voters are not simply protesting. Many may be alienated from the mainstream and have other grievances, but they are attracted by various policies (although they can come from different parts of the ideological spectrum). For example, during the 2002 presidential elections in France, a poll that asked people on what criteria they would choose their candidate found that Le Pen’s supporters ranked platform first, with the highest score of all the sixteen first-ballot candidates (62 percent), whereas personality ranked fifth (29 percent).

Second, by becoming the epitome of their parties, leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen have helped to overcome the dissonance that might have been created by the market segmentation politics they have pursued. The Weberian conception of charisma implies a leader dominated by a single mission, but leaders such as Le Pen and Zhirinovsky went out of their way to target appeals at different sectors of the electorate. To some extent this even involved potentially contradictory discourses—for example, Le Pen’s evocation of Vichyite themes with his attempt to court left-wing voters through welfare chauvinism and his use of resistance discourse. The potential dissonance created by different discourses was partly resolved by developing these through coteries at the local level and highly targeted campaigning. But by perceiving politics through the medium of the national leader, many voters used a form of cognitive dissonance to homogenize their party image in a way that would have been much less likely had their primary focus been mainly on policies. (p. 266)

It is important at this point to return to a point touched upon earlier, namely, the political entrepreneurial skills of leaders. Certainly some are more capable than others of constructing a broad constituency of support. Bossi, for example, briefly assembled a coalition based on small-business interests and resentments against the central government in Rome and mainstream politicians. But when he sought to broaden his themes, he turned further to the right, especially on immigration. Where the LN achieved local electoral success outside its “natural” constituency of small northern industrial towns, it was often helped by notables who broadened the party’s appeal—for instance, in Milan, where ex-socialist Marco Formentini became mayor. Recently, a crucial change enacted by Salvini after support for the LN slumped has been a broader appeal, which even encompassed dropping the LN’s foundational regionalism. Although agenda-setting is a complex issue (involving the media, mainstream parties, and others) it is important not to play down the role of leadership, and in particular the role of charismatic leaders who can confidently set out a new vision.


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(1.) I am very grateful to James Eatwell for his comments on this chapter.