Former US President Donald Trump in 2016 justified his plan to build a wall at the United States’ Southern Border to keep out Mexicans (many of whom implied he were rapists). This motif forms part of Trump’s strategy to “Make America Great Again,” in which the myth of a better, more desirable past – ostensibly before the wrong type of immigrant crossed the borders – shines through.
At a convention of the party’s parliamentary group in 2015, Björn Höcke of the German extremist right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) stated: “We have to rediscover our manhood. Because only if we rediscover our manhood, will we be manly. And only of we’re manly we will be well-fortified, and we have to become well-fortified, dear friends!”
As these examples indicate, current right-wing discourse is marked by an “obsession with gender.” Right-wing populist patterns of gendering often evoke and perform “retrotopian” forms of desire, defined by Zygmunt Bauman as “visions located in the lost/stolen/abandoned but undead past, instead of [like their utopian forebears] being tied to the not-yet-unborn and so inexistent future.” In other words, such a “retrotopian” desire idealizes myths of how society was in the past and mistrusts ideas of progress, change or a better future. This happens within a neoliberal paradigm which has led to widespread insecurity. Right-wing populists highlight such goals as regaining sovereignty or manhood, they sell the past as a model for a more desirable, more attractive future.
Which Past – or Pasts – is/are (Re)Imagined in Right-Wing Populist Discourses on Gender?
Several of these patterns can be observed in current right-wing and conservative discourse and are related to a re-imagining of the past/pasts and a desire to return to a point before colonialism. Furthermore, they seek to return to a (time) before (or: pre-) feminism, gender studies and LGBTQI activism, which are depicted as a danger to (or the destruction of) the traditional family and the natural order of society. Or they imagine a before the entrenchment of neoliberalism in society (manifest as the privatization/individualization of risk), and, obviously, to a before mass immigration, which is portrayed as a danger to security, purity, privilege, families and women.
This blog was produced following the “Re-Imagining the Past” Conference, jointly organised by CIPS and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University ofDuisburg-Essen in Germany.
While right-wing actors promote such a restoration of old masculinist gender politics, simultaneously many claim to protect women’s rights and sexual freedom. One example were the assaults against North African immigrants who were seen to have sexually threatened German women on New Year’s Eve 2015/16. Following these assaults, the AfD demanded a to stop to immigration, which, they claimed, was in order to protect women from assault. This was expressed in the slogans “Rapefugees not welcome” and “our women remain free” – which was used on AfD posters next to a photo of a face covered by a Burqa. Such a discourse seemingly favours the protection and (sexual) freedom of women albeit with the aim of denigrating immigrants of color.
These dynamics cannot be explained as a mere conservative backlash, however. Rather, in many cases, the dynamics have become much more complex and often produce paradoxical outcomes. Increasingly, right-wing populists often use feminist frames of reference to further their goals (for example: protecting women’s safety and liberty). However, these frames are mostly emptied of their gender-justice-seeking content. Populists co-opt these frames and transform them into a kind of pro-women against feminists stance (for example see: “The Triumph of Women“). In essence they use an “ethnosexist” frame in which claims of protecting women’s rights and freedoms are used as an crutch for racist and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Gender as Arena,’ Affective Bridge’ and ‘Illusion of a Future’
Gender proves particularly useful for right-wing populist strategies because following an everyday understanding of gender, based on a male-female binary that is still (predominantly) perceived as natural. Moreover, topics related to gender and sexuality (and reproductive rights, demography, etc.). are also mostly already effectively loaded because gender tackles everyday experiences to which everyone can relate. An important psychological function of gender in current right-wing populist discourse is to express the retrotopian desire to regain sovereignty (even if just in the realm of gender) in uncertain times that are perceived by many as a loss of sovereignty in a neoliberal and globalized setting. A further function of gender in right-wing populist discourse is the creation of “imagined communities” as communities of “feeling politically together” in times of individualization, isolation, and the destruction of ties.
These affective communities include a broad spectrum of actors and sub-communities, and they contribute to the creation of affective truths, that is, truths that feel right like natural gender roles and orders. Gender thus works as an “affective bridge” to address such topics and catapult them into public discourse. Following Wendy Brown, the reinstallation (or protection) of walls (boundaries, borders – such as gender and sexual hierarchies, families, nations) produce “not the future of an illusion […] but the illusion of a future aligned with an idealized past.” Respective narratives we can currently observe in many places where right-wing populists and extremists are strong mirror a long tradition of centring on the (autochthonous) female body as a guarantor for the maintenance of the nation. That is why female bodies – and other non-normative bodies as a perceived threat to purity respectively – play a crucial role in national identities and politics of boundary-making and bordering.
Consequently, right-wing populist patterns and visions we are currently confronted with are fulled of a retrotopian desire to reinstate ethnically charged forms of nationalism and a retrotopian desire especially articulated concerning gender relations, expressing a desire to return to more traditional forms of social organization. This desire is enforced during the additional uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. While performing to represent a position of modernization by using the language of women’s rights and sexual freedom, populist right actors often push forward a retraditionalization paradigm. They indulge in a “retrotopian” affect and sell the emotional ties to an idealized, presumably more secure, just and ordered past as a desirable model for the future. In the face of the alleged hegemony of the affective realm by populist right actors, different, possibly utopian visions of the future are required more than ever, and they are partly gaining new strength as a growing number of feminist and anti-racist movements show.