The functionality of affects: conceptualising far-right populist politics beyond negative emotions

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  • 1 Leipzig University, , Germany
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By focusing on negative affects, such as anger, fear and hate, a normative critique of affective politics tends to overlook the ambiguity and situated nature of affective politics. This paper suggests embracing the ambivalences that characterise the emotional dynamics in political arenas; therefore, it emphasises the functionality of affects. The study adopts a post-dualistic understanding of political affects based on the conceptual devices of Sara Ahmed and Kathleen Stewart to analyse the affective practices and performances of the German political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). An ethnographic lens and analytical focus on the affective politics of far-right agents beyond negativity can permit more subtle nuances and highlight potentially overlooked facets of enactment and performance that have contributed to the successes of far-right political organisations in Europe and the US. The paper ultimately argues that the use of ‘ordinary’ affects produces legitimacy, renders far-right politics appealing and contributes to the normalisation of far-right discourse.

Abstract

By focusing on negative affects, such as anger, fear and hate, a normative critique of affective politics tends to overlook the ambiguity and situated nature of affective politics. This paper suggests embracing the ambivalences that characterise the emotional dynamics in political arenas; therefore, it emphasises the functionality of affects. The study adopts a post-dualistic understanding of political affects based on the conceptual devices of Sara Ahmed and Kathleen Stewart to analyse the affective practices and performances of the German political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). An ethnographic lens and analytical focus on the affective politics of far-right agents beyond negativity can permit more subtle nuances and highlight potentially overlooked facets of enactment and performance that have contributed to the successes of far-right political organisations in Europe and the US. The paper ultimately argues that the use of ‘ordinary’ affects produces legitimacy, renders far-right politics appealing and contributes to the normalisation of far-right discourse.

Key messages

  • A normative critique of affective politics overlooks the ambiguity and situated nature of affects.

  • The ambivalences that characterise the emotional dynamics in political arenas should be embraced.

  • The affective practices in far-right politics challenge liberal feeling rules.

  • The power of affective practices contribute to legitimising the expression of far-right views in public realms.

Introduction

In politics, it is common to frame emotions in negative terms as a manifestation of undesirable, irrational, illegitimate or even immature political conduct. The far right in particular has seemingly been perceived as an affective space that harnesses and amplifies a multiplicity of negative emotions. As part of a wider ‘affective turn’ (Clough and Halley, 2007) in the study of politics, scholars and observers have increasingly engaged with emotional dynamics in political arenas. They have particularly characterised far-right politics by the use of fear (for example, Wodak, 2015), rhetoric of rage and anger (Cox and Durham, 2000; Ebner, 2017; Mishra, 2017) and expressions of hatred (Blee, 2002; Garland and Treadwell, 2012; Emcke, 2019). To conceptualise the affective trajectories of far-right politics, some authors have bundled a multiplicity of negative emotions in the form of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of ‘ressentiment’ (Betz, 2005; Salmela and von Scheve, 2017). In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche has imagined a person who is driven by ressentiment to be the opposite of a ‘noble man’. He has explained that ressentiment is both the condition of the dominated, who suppress their negative emotions, and the source that legitimises their vengeance towards their adversaries. The figures in Nietzsche’s normative concept are construed as rather abstract moral figures that eventually enable an evaluation of the legitimacy of their political conduct.

The political discourse in Germany has witnessed the emergence of a new version of the moral figure driven by ressentiment and an array of negative emotions: the Wutbürger, which translates literally to ‘irate citizens’. The term was established by the German journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit (2010), and the figure is frequently invoked in contemporary political debates to epitomise both the rise of far-right populist politics and the underlying, threatening nature of those political constellations for liberal democracies. In contemporary debates, the Wutbürger are mainly associated with the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident’s (PEGIDA) ‘evening strolls’ and the Alternative für Deutschland’s (Alternative for Germany, AfD) constituency. The Wutbürger are imagined as political subjects who are driven by their negative emotions and, as such, are placed with similar political agents, such as Michael Kimmel’s ‘angry white men’ (2017), in a cluster of ‘anti-democratic’ (Salzborn, 2017), ‘ignorant, irrational, misinformed nationalists’ (Brennan, 2016: 23). In other words, the political conduct of the Wutbürger is dismissed as illegitimate in view of the (negative) emotionally charged nature of their motivations and intentions. Within such a frame, political affects are understood to be the antipode of rational, trustful and democratic politics, and the politics of affect are framed as the source of fake news and unreasonable decisions.

A few problems have arisen from the dualistic conception of political affects. The close association of negative emotions with the far right interferes with the understanding of political affect as inherently ambivalent because negative emotions ‘are mobilized as easily by the political right as by the left, as the histories of disgust and paranoia illustrate so well’ (Ngai, 2007: 5). Furthermore, the emergence of negative political emotions on the periphery of politics might signify increasing adoption of the rather comforting perspective that the racist and nationalist political activities that are associated with the politics of fear, rage and hatred are exclusive features of the political margins and not the mainstream. Yet, as Michael Billig (1995: 7) has argued, while ‘nationalism is expected to deal with … dangerous and powerful passions’, it ‘cannot be confined to the peripheries’. On the one hand, negative emotions are not exclusively mobilised by racist and nationalist political agents, and they cannot be confined to the political fringes of far-right politics. On the other hand, there is still uncertainty about the role of affect in far-right politics, and ‘like other forms of politics, backlash politics are likely to be characterised by more complex and dynamic emotional cultures’ (Busher et al, 2018: 402) than just ‘dangerous and powerful passions’.

This paper builds on the conceptual devices of Sara Ahmed (2014) and Kathleen Stewart (2007) to outline a post-dualistic understanding of political affects which permits us to embrace the complexities and ambivalences that characterise the emotional dynamics in political arenas. The first part of the paper discusses the ambivalence of affect in the context of far-right politics. Instead of devaluating affective politics by highlighting negative emotions, this approach highlights the functionality of affect. Thus, the paper considers what affects do in far-right politics and how they constitute an affective offer that is perceived as appealing. The second part of the paper analyses the affective practices and performances of the German party AfD.1 By more closely examining the impacts of the AfD’s affective practices, which include cynicism, the paper illustrates how the use of ‘ordinary’ affects contributes to transforming the legitimacy of expressing far-right views in public realms, which can in turn further an understanding of how these agents render their political projects identifiable and appealing. Finally, the paper argues that the affective practices of the AfD challenge more liberal ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild, 2016) and contribute to the normalisation of far-right discourse.

This paper is based on research that is part of the BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung) funded research project Strangers in their own land? On the malleability of national narratives using Political Laboratories (PoliLab) (2018–21). This project aims to study how the nation is done in narratives and practices and focuses on the logics of national exclusion (Pates and Futh, 2018) and the role of affective articulations of national identity (Leser et al, 2019). The study is based on 150 narrative interviews with various groups in Germany. In addition, it entailed ethnographic exploration of the practices, articulations and affective politics of the ‘German people’ with particular attention to agents and networks of the far right. This paper ultimately argues that an ethnographic lens and analytic focus on the affective politics of far-right agents and networks can further an understanding of the recent surge of the far right in Europe and the US.

This study is based on formal interviews and informal conversations with AfD politicians and supporters as well as ethnographic observations of AfD campaign events. For the interviews, we approached members of the AfD via e-mail and stated the goals and methods of the research project. Since the AfD campaign events that we observed were public events, no announcement of our presence was necessary. Unlike in the interviews, we were part of an ‘interested public’, albeit as silent observers with specific interests; therefore, we did not conduct our research openly. These events allowed us to observe performances for and interactions between AfD sympathisers instead of witnessing a performance for us as researchers. Still, we do not conceptualise the public events as a more ‘natural’ setting compared to the interviews; rather, the two settings function as different contexts that produce unique performances.

Beyond negativity: The ambivalence of affects

The notion that negative emotions threaten the democratic process is tied to the normative philosophical tradition that considers ‘good’ politics to be a realm that is guided by rationality and freed of ‘passions’.2 In liberal political philosophy, an ‘ideal’ politics is construed as a rational process, while affects are conceptually marginalised (for example, Rawls, 1996; Habermas, 1998).3 Such normative, traditional thinking positions affects as ‘the other’ of rational politics and therefore considers them to be apolitical, alarming, irrational, populist or threatening to democracy (Weber, 2007). In this context, ascribing affectivity to the conduct of a political adversary can operate as a mode of devaluation and delegitimisation.4

If political affects are supposed to be threatening and irrational per se, then a detailed analysis of political affects in the context of far-right populist politics would be futile. It seems that the existing literature with a focus on negative emotions has frequently reproduced the devaluation of affect without furthering an understanding of how the politics of affect actually operate. Among many scholars and observers, a pejorative attitude vis-à-vis negative emotions is a dominant stance towards far-right politics, whereas affects are considered oppositional to truth and rationality. The framing of political agents as motivated by negative emotions reflects a political technique to undermine their standing and to discredit their legitimacy.

Yet, scholars and activists from several disciplines have challenged the devaluation, depoliticisation and irrationalisation of affect when emphasising its productivity, particularly within affect theory (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010) and the sociology of emotions (for example, Hochschild, 2019). Political theorists have stressed the democratic potential of love (Hardt and Negri, 2005; Nussbaum, 2013) and the political necessity of affects in general (Mouffe, 2000). The politics of activists have been especially analysed as intertwined with pride, solidarity and hope but also with despair, anger and shame (Gould 2009). These scholars, among others, have proposed a post-dualistic perspective of the role of affects in politics and offered insight into the rationality and productivity of affects by conceiving of rationality and affects not as mutually exclusive but as ‘intertwined’ (Illouz and Finkelman, 2009).

Curiously, German populist politicians have embraced and asserted the significance of political affects as positive in nature. For instance, the AfD politician Marc Jongen diagnosed a lack of ‘thymotic energy’ in Germany’s political landscape and proposed that more rage and anger would be necessary.5 Furthermore, affective utterances of fear and worry among AfD politicians and supporters have been approached as embodied and hardly refutable arguments; one example is when far-right protestors enact themselves not as the Wutbürger but as besorgte Bürger (‘concerned citizens’), thus insisting on the legitimacy of their affective utterances (Bröckling, 2016). In this regard, it is apparent that political affects have an empowering function while simultaneously challenging both the devaluation of affect and the dualism of truth and affect. During an election campaign in 2016, the AfD politician Georg Pazderski said, ‘[p]erception is reality. That means that what you feel is reality, too’ (quoted in van Laak, 2016). While this statement supports the truthfulness of emotions, it also manifests the ambivalence of affect in contemporary politics.

The ambivalence of affect can be demonstrated more generally for particular ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions as well. Love, for instance, may not only contribute to justice (Nussbaum, 2013) but also legitimise national closure and exclusion (Ahmed, 2014). Conversely, a merely normative critique of ‘negative emotions’, such as anger, tends to ignore their emancipatory potential (for example, Lorde, 2007). In the context of queer feminist affect theory, Brigitte Bargetz has recommended moving ‘beyond a critique or celebration of affect by embracing the political ambivalence of affect’ (2015: 580). This paper promotes the application of the concept of affective ambivalence as a theoretical foundation for research on far-right populist politics of affect. Furthermore, it starts with neither a pejorative gaze from the outside (‘irate citizens’) nor an appreciation-searching gaze from the inside (‘concerned citizens’). Such a theoretical lens allows us to move beyond an essentialist or normative definition of political affectivity as merely a misleading feeling or, on the contrary, a truthful ‘reality’.

A focus on affect in general can offer insight into social, cultural and political life, which is reflected in the turn to affect (Clough and Halley, 2007; Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). Yet, we do not need to celebrate or problematise affect per se. Rather, we should recognise that affect is on the move, and we might scrutinise how the ascriptions and articulations of affect operate and the actual impact of affects. Embracing the ambivalence and contested normativity of affect can clarify how affects are involved in political discourses and practices. Thus, we understand affect to be a generic term that comprises emotional phenomena that are embedded in power relations and influential in social, political, cultural and historical contexts (compare with Cvetkovich, 2012).6 In this regard, affects in the form of social practices (compare with Wetherell, 2012) are able to question established boundaries as well as regulate and (re)produce orders and boundaries (Ahmed, 2014; Penz et al, 2017). In analysing contemporary far-right politics, we refer to theoretical approaches that extend beyond dichotomic and normative conceptions of, for example, rational/irrational, objective/subjective or negative/positive emotions. The following section briefly introduces theoretical approaches to the functionality and performativity of affects.

Beyond normativity: The functionality of affects

In Strange Encounters (2000), Ahmed engages with postcolonial theory to argue that processes and relations of othering work through ‘economies of vision and touch’. She has further developed this argument in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014) by demonstrating that emotions shape social worlds and bodies (such as ‘economies of hate’ in regard to ‘bogus asylum seekers’ or ‘global economies of fear’ in the context of terrorism). Based on the philosophy of Judith Butler, Ahmed has suggested that different worlds and bodies materialise not only through the discursive repetition of norms but also through affective dynamics in which ‘subjects become invested in particular structures’. She has explained that ‘emotions show us how power shapes the very surface of bodies as well as worlds’ (Ahmed, 2014: 12). Ahmed has argued that social objects are constituted through the circulation of affects. No object is inherently worthy of compassion, and no object is innately hateful. Rather, a social object must be made that way. According to Ahmed, affects are not private properties of individuals but ‘play a crucial role in the “surfacing” of individual and collective bodies’ (2014: 117). From her perspective, affects are functional in the sense that they ‘align individuals with communities’, thereby forming connections between elements ‘by sticking figures together’ (2014: 119).

Kathleen Stewart (2007) has similarly examined the trajectories and arenas in which affects circulate. She has focused on ‘ordinary affects’ and thus promotes a post-dualistic conception of affects and emotions:

Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences. They’re things that happen. They happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating, in strategies and their failures, in forms of persuasion, contagion, and compulsion, in modes of attention, attachment, and agency, and in publics and social worlds of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something. (Stewart, 2007: 1–2)

Since Stewart has understood ordinary affects as ‘giv[ing] things the quality of a something to inhabit and animate’ (2007: 15), the politics of affect assume a different perspective. Stewart has emphasised that affects do not have inherent or attached meaning. The charging of someone or something with affect would rather be a matter of circulation, movement and resonance, and the significance of affect ‘lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible’ (Stewart, 2007: 3). From this perspective, and through her mode of writing, Stewart has urged us to explore beyond the spectacular and dramatic to take into account the ordinary and seemingly mundane modes by which affects circulate and generate scenes, situations, worlds and objects in their trajectories. Thus, Stewart has encouraged engagement with the sociomateriality of affects and attention to the dynamics, relations and interruptions that affects create between bodies. In these relations, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, (2010: 2) have argued, ‘lie[s] the real powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected’ – which is why, according to Stewart, what affects do is inherently political: ‘There’s a politics to being/feeling connected (or not), to impacts that are shared (or not), to energies spent worrying or scheming (or not)’ (Stewart, 2007: 16).

Politics, in this conceptualisation, are a matter of performance, enactment and practice, and the ways in which affects shape bodies and social worlds become analysable as a site of ‘ontological politics’, which, according to Annemarie Mol, concern ‘the way in which problems are framed, bodies are shaped, and lives are pushed and pulled in one way or another’ (Mol, 2002: viii). According to Mol, ontology is enacted through practices. Following this argument, the ontology of affects – including the normative classification of certain emotions as negative – needs to be considered as an effect of practices. Such an understanding allows us to grasp affects in terms of their ambivalences, as they are not regarded as democratic or anti-democratic, emancipatory or dangerous, or positive or negative per se. Efforts to classify affect as one or the other and the attachment of affect with certain groups can be analysed as political practices themselves.

Based on the philosophies of Ahmed, Stewart and Mol, we explore how affects are practised and performed, and we approach our research objects as ‘a tangle of potential connections’ (Stewart, 2007: 4). This approach can interrogate how affects attract negative perceptions in the first place as well as how morals and normativities become (un)done in ‘affective practices’ (Wetherell, 2012: 4).

In this regard, it is less important to identify negative affects than to consider what affects can or are able to do, for whom, how and why. We conceptualise affects as situated in social practices and inherent to performances with the potential to shape things and bodies. Such an approach is promising for ethnographic inquiries into a wide array of social phenomena and issues, especially the politics of the far right in Europe and the US. Both Arlie Russel Hochschild (2016) and Katherine Cramer (2016) have ethnographically engaged with rural supporters of Donald Trump and the Tea Party to investigate their emotional attachments to politics. In Germany, Nitzan Shoshan (2016) has examined the political imaginaries of neo-Nazis and how their ‘political delinquency’ is a product of governmental procedures ‘that appeal to affective states generally, and hate in particular’ (Shoshan, 2016: xiv). Both Hilary Pilkington (2016) and Katherine Blee (2018) have studied affects and what they do in the realm of racist activism. Blee has specifically examined emotional dynamics as relational mechanisms that impact the stability of racist activist groups, which is significant to the entry and exit of activists in particular groups (see also Latif et al, 2018). Meanwhile, in her study of the English Defence League, Pilkington (2016: 228–30) has considered the affective dynamics within the movement and how ‘affective bonds’ are performed through a sense of ‘togetherness’ to constitute a collective and ‘enhance the pleasures associated with activism’.

In a similar manner, this paper questions what affects do when practised in far-right populist arenas. It adopts the German party AfD as an example to argue that affects embody political moves and strategies, such as criticising and refuting political antagonists, regulating and intervening in political discourse, and accumulating political resources (electorate, funding, candidates). Notably, affects are the pillars for delivering a narrative about ‘us’. According to far-right agents, what ‘we’ are and what ‘our’ politics should be are matters of performing identities and conveying narratives that are embodied in affective practices (compare with Kinnvall, 2018). Finally, a focus on the affective practices in far-right politics – which necessarily thinks beyond negativity to take account of more ‘ordinary’ and unspectacular practices and performances of affect – does not imply downplaying or overlooking the politics of exclusion but rather subtly nuancing potentially overlooked facets of enactment and performance that have contributed to the success of far-right political organisations in Europe and the US. Attention to several dimensions of the more ‘ordinary’ affective dynamics can provide insight into the normalisation of far-right politics.

Affective dimensions of far-right populist politics in Germany

In Germany, the AfD has increasingly attracted academic attention as the first far-right populist party in federal parliament since the end of the Second World War and as a reflection of the wider trend of parliamentary politics shifting to the right across Europe (Decker, 2016; Grabow, 2016; Özvatan and Forchtner, 2019; Schwörer, 2019). The AfD was founded in 2013 by Bernd Lucke as a political response to the Euro crisis. As the party increasingly gained the support of voters, it quickly evolved from a largely conservative and rather neoliberal party into a conglomerate of differing and contested political stances. Increasingly, the far-right internal organisation Der Flügel (The Wing), which was founded in 2015 by Björn Höcke and André Poggenburg, has been influential on the AfD’s overall composition and political objectives.7

Scholars have struggled to explain the electoral successes of the AfD, and a rising number of hypotheses have yielded scarce empirical evidence (Dellenbaugh-Losse et al, forthcoming). The only sound empirical evidence concerning the AfD constituency is the circular finding that right-wing attitudes and views, especially in regard to immigration, are the main motivation for people to vote for the AfD (Arzheimer and Berning, 2019; Hansen and Olsen, 2019). To comprehend the current surge in far-right politics and make particular sense of their growing establishment in parliamentary politics, we refer to scholars who have proposed profound analyses of the performance and enactment of far-right agents as means of presenting themselves as appealing to mobilise potential supporters. According to Christoffer Kølvraa and Bernhard Forchtner (2019: 227), ‘[t]hrough (visual) rhetoric and various other modes of performativity, the extreme right imagines, aestheticizes and presents an “ideal extreme-right subject” with whom comrades and potential followers might identify’. A closer examination of the far right’s affective practices and performances could clarify how these agents render their political projects identifiable and appealing. Yet, we argue that instead of addressing their politics of negative emotions, such as hatred and fear, which classify their projects as illegitimate from the outset, we need to understand how they enact themselves as politically legitimate through affective practices that enable opposition to ascribed negativity.

Mitigating feelings towards non-belonging

At the end of 2018, we met with members of a local AfD regional association in the small town of Limbach-Oberfrohna in rural Saxony to discuss their views of the dimensions of German national identity. The discussion rapidly shifted to who, from their perspective, does not belong to the ‘German people’ but still claims to be a part. The AfD member Rainer Peters (pseudonym) expected newcomers – ‘migrants, refugees’ – to perform in a particular manner to become German: ‘In my opinion, it is very simple to see who really needs our protection and who just wants to access our social security funds: that is, gratitude. If I’m grateful that I’m here, I’ll take it kind-heartedly, and I’ll take it humbly what I’m given’. He believed that newcomers should be grateful and humble to honour the generosity of Germans in accepting them into the country. Generosity and gratitude, as they are expressed in this situation, form an affective or rather symbolic, fictitious and imagined relation between one social group (‘us’) and another (‘them’) by assigning meaning to these groups via affects. Referring to oneself as a generous person and expecting others to act humbly to demonstrate appreciation for ‘our’ generosity is a decidedly elegant and civilised manner of performing a moral superiority that, on closer inspection, accompanies ‘our’ national identity (Leser et al, 2019). In articulating the logics of national exclusion in an affective frame of moral emotions, the AfD member who was interviewed produced a hierarchical relation of power between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that was embedded in a narrative of a civilised nation that generously protects those who it deems deserving while simultaneously eschewing rather disagreeable affective articulations.

Neither the AfD events that we attended nor our conversations with AfD-affiliated persons yielded any situation or experience involving an open articulation of hatred towards those who are considered different. Yet, the politics of exclusion are still instrumental in articulations such as the above claim, as it remains a powerful mode of differentiating between those who belong and those who do not in a seemingly legitimate manner rather than through hateful articulations. Shoshan (2016) and Blee (2018: 63–71) have argued that hatred in far-right politics operates as a pejorative classification that impacts those who are classified as ‘hateful’. In our research, hate was a feeling that members and supporters of the AfD refrained from expressing explicitly.8 According to Blee (2018: 69), all emotions are ‘socially and politically encouraged (or forbidden)’ to some extent. Hochschild (2016: 15) has added that political realms are governed by ‘feeling rules’ that dictate how one should feel about particular political and social issues. In many contexts, expressions of hatred are socially sanctioned or at least discouraged, which indicates a social disagreeability of particular affective expressions. In this regard, far-right political agents tend to disguise and mitigate their rhetoric of exclusion and find appropriate and legitimate forms to express far-right attitudes. Feelings are never only personal, subjective or intimate, as they are always political. The act of performing emotions in the political realm is inextricably related to the question of legitimacy. Based on our observations, the performance of legitimate political conduct was crucial for the AfD to transfer its messages to audiences and thus create a social space in which relations, identifications and attachments can emerge and flourish.

The ‘cultural intimacy’ of AfD meetings

In autumn 2019, three of the six new states in Germany held regional parliamentary elections in addition to the local government and European Parliamentary elections that took place earlier in the year. In the elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, the AfD managed to gain 27.5 percent and 23.5 percent of the votes, respectively. Although the AfD did not become the dominant party in these states in this election, it still achieved its most impressive results to date. In the year preceding the elections, regional AfD organisations had intensified their campaign efforts, particularly in rural areas. The party sought to provide social spaces in which potential supporters could connect, relate and identify with the political projects of the AfD; thus, they organised a myriad of gatherings and meetings with the interested public in club houses and city halls in villages and cities across East Germany. We were able to attend many such AfD events, which occurred on at least a weekly basis and attracted between 15 and 100 sympathisers.

In March 2019, Jörg Urban, the AfD president of Saxony, organised a meeting entitled ‘Homeland Saxony’ in Großpösna near Leipzig. The event was attended by about 20 people, most of whom were older men. Urban used the event for campaigning purposes and spoke about the AfD manifesto for approximately one hour. The subsequent discussion with the audience was filled with laments about the current state of politics and, in particular, the shortcomings of the current government in Saxony led by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU). Although the AfD had been part of the Saxonian parliament since the election in 2014, it seemed that few changes had been achieved, according to several of the discussants. Eventually, a man in the audience addressed Urban as follows:

Maybe we need to be more courageous, and maybe we need to start talking to our fellow men about the AfD. It’s not uncommon to withhold your opinions. But that’s dangerous. This has been going on for decades, and now we’re being dragged into the mud because we’re telling it as it is.

Another member of the local AfD organisation pridefully added, “we’re expressing our opinions. We’re standing behind our manifesto. We are the mediators in the villages, the spearheads of the AfD”. The audience responded, and several people whispered affirmative words to their neighbours. The AfD member emphasised, “we’re proud of it!” Jörg Urban, standing in the middle of the room, addressed the man who was concerned about publicly expressing his opinions: “Just mention the principle of freedom of speech. What are you allowed to say today and what is forbidden? We need to establish a sensibility in order for people to start thinking: ‘Isn’t it strange that I’m not allowed to say certain things? … How can it be that I can’t talk normally without having to be afraid to be sanctioned in one way or the other?’” An older man in the audience reacted: “I was born in the former GDR, and back then, you weren’t allowed to say anything. Today, when you speak up, people say you’re a right-winger … Today, we’re facing the same conditions as in GDR times. And people need to realise it!” The audience became agitated, and Urban tried to calm them by saying, “yes, everything is getting worse. At the station at night, women aren’t able to disembark the train on their own anymore. Reality is showing us: we need to engage with politics! And we need to have the courage to address problems and meet the people!” Jörg Dornau, another AfD member, addressed the audience: “This is why you need to talk to your children, talk to your grandchildren, your relatives, colleagues, neighbours. Wake the people up! Send them to the ballot boxes!”

During the event, the participants discussed their experiences with the dominant feeling rules and the measures that they could take to actively change the trajectory of these feeling rules in affecting their political lives. Within the ‘safe space’ that was created by the event organisers, they could enact themselves as feeling ‘free’ without fear of any modes of social sanctioning that were applied outside of that space. Moreover, the space that the AfD created on that evening in the small city of Großpösna provided an affective offer that resonated with the participants and established a sense of connection and belonging to a small collective of ‘courageous’ and like-minded people who share knowledge of ‘what is really going on’. Such events facilitate the ‘performance of cultural intimacy’, which Michael Herzfeld (2019: 135) has identified as ‘a vital aspect of what constitutes [the] appeal’ of populist politics.

Cynicism as embodied critique

On 6 July 2019, members of the AfD met in Leinefelde, a small town in Thuringia. The occasion was the fifth ‘Kyffhäuser’ meeting, which is an annual event organised by Der Flügel. Like many of the AfD’s staged performances, the Kyffhäuser meeting was livestreamed on Facebook, which allowed a larger interested audience to virtually attend and comment on the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, the livestream depicted a large conference room in which about 200 people, most of whom were men, were sitting around long tables that were decorated with white tablecloths and German flags. The podium in the front was decorated in the AfD colour blue, and the motto of the meeting – ‘The East is rising’, which implies the assumed electoral successes of the AfD in the upcoming elections in three Länder in East Germany – was written on a blue wall next to the symbol of the Kyffhäuser monument. The meeting began with solemn music, during which the audience stood up, and several flag bearers approached the podium at the front of the room. They were followed by the AfD presidents of Saxony (Jörg Urban), Thuringia (Björn Höcke) and Brandenburg (Andreas Kalbitz), among other speakers. The music stopped, and a five-minute opening film was screened that contained a montage of images of crowds, flags, speeches by AfD politicians, applauding audiences and previous Kyffhäuser meetings. The video, which was accompanied by atmospheric music, further displayed statements and images of male AfD politicians, who were claiming that the ‘existence of our country’ is at stake because of the ‘caste of politicians detached from reality, hostile to the people and arrogant’ yet now ‘being driven against the wall at full throttle’. As an analogy to the peaceful revolution in 1989, Saxony and Thuringia were presented as ‘the heart of the resistance’. According to the film’s statements, the AfD was not only the ‘last evolutionary chance’ but ‘already fighting against time’, which is precisely what it ‘owed’ to both ‘ancestors’ and ‘children’. After the end of the film, Andreas Kalbitz was introduced enthusiastically as ‘probably the next Prime Minister of Brandenburg’. In his 29-minute opening speech, he elaborated on the narrative of the film:

it’s about changing this country, securing it, and to be able to face our grandchildren and children and never having to expose ourselves to their question: What did you do back then? What did you do back then when the ‘rhombus of horror’ Angela Merkel … drove this country up against the wall [long applause]. I don’t want to have to say that I was busy paying off my terraced house during that time. Because a paid-off terraced house is worth absolutely nothing in the caliphate … The German people, that is us [long applause]. And this people is not negotiable. And we resist the attempt of watering us down. To declare all that as arbitrary. We are currently experiencing the great arbitrariness. Family has become everything. Yes [long drawn out, in a cynic tone], the family is under the special protection of the Constitution. Naturally, that becomes arbitrary in the moment where everything can declare itself a family: Two women, a piece of furniture. I don’t know, two pieces of furniture, a man. I don’t know [laughs briefly]. In the end, everything is a family … And then I look at this parliament, ‘Bundestag’ [laughs sarcastically; applause] and I have to say … particularly the ‘rhombus of horror’ Angela Merkel, who has taken an oath to preserve and increase the welfare of the German people. They do not. And we demand nothing other than compliance with this basic law. And we do it stringently … We have no desire to let ourselves be distorted by these laws, to let ourselves be fobbed off with individual cases. My patience has run its course. I have no more patience with established politics. And we have no more time either.

Like the opening video, Kalbitz’s speech did not create an atmosphere of hate, and it contained no discernible demonisation of the ‘other’. However, it presupposed anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, such as the ‘great replacement’ theory. The objects of Kalbitz’s attacks were rather ‘the rhombus of horror Angela Merkel’ and, later in his speech, the ‘blurred Greens’, which Kalbitz depicted as an apocalyptic threat to ‘the welfare of the German people’ that produces a sense of anger at ‘those up there’.

Interestingly, despite the seriousness of the threat to the survival of the German people that Kalbitz was addressing, he repeatedly laughed and invited the audience to join in his laughter. For instance, he ridiculed Angela Merkel’s signature hand pose and used ‘rhombus’ as a code that is presumably known to his audience. Overall, Kalbitz’s speech reeked of cynical and sarcastic humour and mockery in a way that resembled the affective performances of AfD politicians in the events that we have observed since the end of 2018. Cynicism was performed through the speaker’s explicit laughter about the establishment as well as via the numerous cynical allusions and codes that ridiculed political opponents, such as the Green Party, as disinformed, unobjective or unrealistic. We consider these cynical performances to be affective practices of embodied criticism which Margaret Wetherell has described as modes of ‘embodied meaning-making’ (2012: 4). As embodied criticism, cynicism potentially operates as both a powerful and appealing political tool under particular circumstances.9

Kalbitz’s cynical laughter and overall attitude can be considered an affective offer to the physically and virtually present members of the ‘imagined community’ of AfD supporters. The cynical performance enables a reversal of the relation between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ whereby instead of positioning the ‘elite’ on top, laughing about ‘them’ enables those who laugh in a superior position to look down on them. Yet, the invitation to laugh relies on shared knowledge, as a joke that is not understood is not effective. Especially at the beginning of our fieldwork with AfD meetings, we, as participants in these events, were unable to laugh or applaud at the right moments because we lacked knowledge of the applied codes and had no implicit understanding of what functions as a ‘joke’ for them. Gregor Benton (1988: 40) has discussed the ‘joke’s characteristic implicitness’ as follows: ‘[t]he audience cannot but take an active role if the joke is to succeed; it must “fill the gaps, complete the hints, trace the hidden analogies”’. For a joke to ‘work’, there must be implicit knowledge and particular shared assumptions among the audience.

The implicit knowledge in the context of the Kyffhäuser seemed to consist of, among other elements, the certain threat that Muslim migrants would replace the ‘imagined community’ of ‘the German people’. There seemed to be no need for explicit articulations of hate when anti-Muslim conspiracy theories are presented as self-evident truths. The ‘great replacement’ and ‘Islamisation’ that have been induced by chancellor Merkel’s ‘betrayal of the German people’ and supported by the ‘imbecility’ of the Green Party are implicitly referenced by AfD politicians as matters of fact. Failure to share this implicit knowledge and rejection of the truth are templates for cynical jokes. To attest to the ‘truth’, it seemed sufficient to operate with indirect codes, such as the ‘rhombus of horror’, without the need to directly address ‘facts’ that everybody already knew. For Herzfeld (2019), populism as a performative mode is characterised by the political use of such ‘actual truths’: ‘Populist performances draw on a repertoire of culturally intimate secrets – the features of everyday life that official discourse shields from the eyes and ears of outsiders, but that in reality “everyone knows”’ (Herzfeld, 2019: 123).

The affective offer of cynical laughter requires an ‘imagined community’ with a shared epistemological repertoire in order for the audience to accept the offer and laugh about its implications together. Laughing together ultimately operates as a demarcation that allows ‘us’ – a conspiratorial ‘truth community’ – to confront ‘those’ who are far removed from reality. The affective offer invites people to believe in the personal and group-specific possession of the truth, such as that expressed by the leading slogan of the AfD: ‘Courage to tell the truth’. Meanwhile, it attributes the misjudgement of reality to political opponents. This is comically exaggerated when political opponents are characterised as unable to distinguish between people and pieces of furniture.

Political opponents become a symbol of madness, and where madness reigns, clairvoyants cannot react in any other way than to laugh cynically and ‘in the knowledge’ that the apocalypse is imminent, which they watch ‘with waking eyes’, as stated in the opening film. Therefore, such bitter, cynical laughter operates as an affirmation of the self-aggrandising belief in the superiority of AfD supporters. Kalbitz’s speech invited the audience to laugh at the views of others and rise above them together. Ultimately, from such a sublime position, all statements and actions that correspond to one’s own ‘truth’ appear to be legitimate.

The cynical laughter sharply differentiates between not only those who laugh and those who are laughed at but also those who can understand the joke and those who do not believe ‘the truth’. The cynical gesture does not presuppose but produces these diametrical political subjects in the first place. At the same time, the order of these subjects is reversed: it is not the AfD community that represents post-truth and fake news but rather their political opponents – ‘we’ stand above holding the truth about the endangered future, while ‘they’ are blind. In such a reading, the speaker and audience constitute a conspiratorial community that is continuously reproduced in cynical speech. This notion became apparent in Kalbitz’s invocation of a community:

And the fact that you are here is a signal of strength, of cohesion, and I wish that we use this meeting to recharge and gather strength. I never feel as free as here in this sphere, among like-minded people where one can speak without reservations. Where one notices how much ambition and how many good people we have.

The power of Kalbitz’s affective offer derives from the reinforcement of his community’s perceived truths.

Conclusion: transforming registers of feeling

Our political activity is determined by the stories that we tell ourselves, the threats that we believe are most imminent and the voices around us to which we can relate the most. Far-right populist parties, such as the AfD, are actively working to provide political narratives and identities as well as create spaces and opportunities for people to affirm and certify their beliefs. Such work embraces the power of affective practices that contribute to legitimising the expression of far-right views in public realms, which had formerly been unacceptable.

On 2 June 2019, the CDU politician Walter Lübcke, who is known for his pro-migrant attitudes, was found dead in his home in Kassel. The far-right terrorist Stephan Ernst is suspected of having shot him. The incident was followed by an outburst of hate speech on social media platforms, where right-wing extremists expressed joy about Lübcke’s assassination, insulted and ridiculed the late politician, and announced further murders. A few days after the killing, the ARD television programme Kontraste broadcasted a report on how PEGIDA protestors in Dresden reacted to the murder.10 The video depicted one of the protestors saying, ‘compared to the left-wing extremist threat, one murder every two or three years for reasons of hate seems relatively normal’. Another man stated, ‘in my opinion, Mr. Lübcke is a Volksverräter [traitor of the people]. A man who recommends his own people to leave the country if they don’t agree with the refugee policy is, in my opinion, a Volksverräter’. None of the interviewees expressed grief or regret; on the contrary, the murder was framed as a logical consequence of failing politics. For instance, one man in the video commented that the politician ‘had it coming’. In this regard, Ruth Wodak (2019: 197) has suggested that the increasing normalisation of far-right attitudes is accompanied by a progressing ‘shamelessness’ and predicted that we would experience a ‘post-shame era’.

‘Post-shame’ implies a powerful transformation of affective constellations and registers of feeling. The concept further reveals that the diagnosis of having entered a ‘post-truth’ era is misleading, as it only reproduces a dualistic conception of affect versus rationality or emotion versus truth. A transformation of the registers of feeling can additionally build on Hochschild’s (2019) concept of ‘feeling rules’, as such rules appear to have a crucial function in the realm of politics and are inherently subject to contestation and transformation. We argue that feeling rules can be transformed through affective offers that permit the utterance of formerly unsayable things and acceptance of formerly unacceptable modes of conduct. The affective politics of the AfD actively contest notions of liberal ‘feeling rules’, and attempt to foster social spaces in which such rules do not apply. From this perspective, the AfD does not ‘use’ emotions to ‘seduce’ people to adopt far-right views; rather, they create enabling spaces in which people can freely express their far-right views without the need to ‘feel bad’ about them or fear social sanctions. These efforts are subtle and unspectacular, yet they have gradually and persistently advanced the normalisation and social acceptability of far-right attitudes. Thus, ‘shameless’ expressions are being enabled, and AfD supporters are reproducing themselves as a superior ‘truth community’ to allow for performances of complete self-assuredness.

Notes

1

We consider the AfD a far-right populist party based on its promotion of völkisch nationalism, chauvinistic welfare nationalism, racist, in particular anti-Muslim/Islam sentiments, and traditionalist and anti-feminist ideas (compare with Salzborn 2017). Borrowing Michael Herzfeld’s definition of populism (2019: 122), we understand it as ‘a performative mode of political action in which potentially offensive speech, mannerisms, and attitudes are rendered legitimate as alternatives to establishment values and practices’.

2

While there is an established convention among some scholars of distinguishing between emotions, feelings, passion and affect, in this paper, we understand affect as a generic term that comprises emotional phenomena (compare with Ahmed, 2014).

3

Judith N. Shklar’s (1989) The Liberalism of Fear therefore is an exception in the field of liberal political philosophy.

4

Brigitte Bargetz and Birgit Sauer (2015: 93–6) historically locate the devaluation of affect in a liberal dispositive of feelings. They identify this powerful dispositive as a bourgeois, gendered, heteronormative, racialised, and Euro-centric order. ‘The separation of politics and feelings is thus a … political mechanism of domination that limits political agency and enables the exclusion of specific groups and their interests and needs from the political sphere’ (2015: 96).

6

We further acknowledge that affects escape stable and consistent definitions (compare with Cvetkovich, 2012; Thrift, 2004). Affect theory and studies on affects are, as Thrift (2004: 60–3) explained, inter- and transdisciplinary enterprises, and affects can be and are being translated in multiple ways, for example, in psychoanalytic, naturalistic, physiological, relational, and interactional frames.

7

While the Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, VS) considers the entire AfD a Prüffall (test case) since January 2019, Der Flügel has been – as well as the AfD youth organisation, Junge Alternative (Young Alternative) – classified as a Verdachtsfall (suspected case). Thus, Der Flügel is not yet classified as ‘extremist’, but the VS is currently collecting evidence.

8

Blee has further argued that even if ‘hatred’ is rejected by racist activists as a form of pejorative classification, acts of violence against conceived ‘others’ ‘might well be considered conceptually equivalent to hate crimes even when individual perpetrators are not immediately motivated by emotions of intergroup hatred’ (2018: 70).

9

Studies on the Alt-Right show the digital circulation of visual memes, pointing out the importance of irony, cynicism, mockery and ‘insider jokes’ for the success of the far right (for example, Tuters, 2019; Hawley, 2017; Nagle, 2017).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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