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  • Author or Editor: Ruth Wodak x
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On 17 July 2018, former US president Barack Obama was invited to give the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg. In his speech, he warned that: a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move … I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts. … Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.

Obviously, Obama did not use the terms ‘illiberal democracy’, ‘neo-authoritarianism’ or ‘populism’ (or other terms which currently dominate social-science scholarship and media reporting), but he certainly put his finger on the drastic socio-political changes that have been taking place globally, including in EU member states, specifically since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 (Rheindorf and Wodak, 2018).

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The term ‘illiberal democracy’, coined by Fareed Zakaria in 1997, has gained much traction, specifically since its use by Hungarian Prime Minster Victor Orbán in 2014. Ever since, Orbán and his governing party Fidesz have been implementing this vision resulting in major cutdowns on free speech, freedom of press, of various NGOs which support human rights, and so forth. Moreover, Fidesz won the 2018 national election with a strong focus on antiimmigration policies. Although Orbán’s restrictive migration policies were widely criticised during the so-called refugee crisis 2015, many EU member states have started to follow the Hungarian policy of closing borders and protecting the EU from asylum-seekers and an alleged invasion by Muslims. Hence, I claim that formerly taboo subjects and expressions in mainstream discourse are being accepted more and more (‘normalisation’). Such normalisation goes hand in hand with a certain ‘shamelessness’: the limits of the sayable are shifting regarding both the frequency of lies and the violating of discourse conventions – as well as regarding repeated attacks on central democratic institutions. Normalising the assessment of migrants as a threat to inner security and a burden on the welfare state and education system must be perceived as an international development – generally instrumentalising a ‘politics of fear’.

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This paper presents results from a comparative and qualitative discourse-historical analysis of governmental crisis communication in Austria, Germany, France, Hungary and Sweden, during the global COVID-19 pandemic lockdown from March 2020 to May 2020 (a ‘discourse strand’). By analysing a sample of important speeches and press conferences by government leaders (all performing as the ‘face of crisis management’), it is possible to deconstruct a range of discursive strategies announcing/legitimising restrictive measures in order to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic where everybody is in danger of falling ill, regardless of their status, position, education and so forth. I focus on four frames that have been employed to mitigate the ‘dread of death’ (Bauman, 2006) and counter the ‘denial of death’ (Becker, 1973/2020): a ‘religious frame’, a ‘dialogic frame’, a frame emphasising ‘trust’, and a frame of ‘leading a war’. These interpretation frameworks are all embedded in ‘renationalising’ tendencies, specifically visible in the EU member states where even the Schengen Area was suddenly abolished (in order to ‘keep the virus out’) and borders were closed. Thus, everybody continues to be confronted with national biopolitics and body politics (Wodak, 2021).

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