The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a right-wing, anti-islam, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party, which has conservative ideals and uses populist rhetorics. In Germany’s last elections, the party celebrated a huge victory, winning 12,6 percent of all votes, making the party the third largest of the country (Eijsvoogel, 2017). This article, will discuss how party leader Alice Weidel constructs her online and offline message as a speaker for the party and whether her persona aligns with the agenda of her political party.
Message, image and issue
The party’s leader, Alice Weidel, contributes hugely to the image of the party. However, Weidel’s personal background does not seem to match the main issues the party addresses. The party itself is strongly anti-globalization, homophobic and conservative, yet Weidel is a lesbian, has worked as an investment banker in China for several years, and has a PhD in economics. Weidel gives off the impression to have embraced certain progressive values, which is a common phenomenon within the New Right. Whether we look at Fortuyn in The Netherlands, or Milo in the US, the New Right often adds certain progressive values to its political agenda to use for their own conservative purposes (Maly, 2018). These progressive values change when put in a different discourse, and are purely instrumental.
To further strengthen her rational, moderate image, Weidel often talks about democracy and portrays herself as a democratic politician.
Weidel’s main goal as a politician is to get her message across to the public. Message in politics is not only what she explicitly tells her public, such as how she will tackle certain issues, and specific numbers and policies, ‘message’ in politics refers to how people view the politician’s identity and personal values in combination with their discourse. It is a carefully constructed identity that is created by how a politician deals with political issues (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). The more a politician talks about issues they feel strongly about, the more their identity is created. By discussing these issues, the politician is constructing an image of themself and what they stand for.
In Weidel’s case, she often gives off the message of being a calm, moderate woman. “Instead of ranting about the refugee crisis or Islamist terrorists, Weidel opts for a calm tone”, Kathleen Schuster (2017) describes in a portrait of Weidel. “In interview after interview, she smiles, relaxed and confident. No insult or accusation describing her party as populist, racist or xenophobic unnerves her”.
Moreover, her personal identity, as a lesbian woman, contributes greatly to maintaining her image and helps to soften the image of the AfD. It serves as ‘proof’ that she and her party are not homophobic and even support the LGBT community, even though some of their ideals might suggest otherwise. The AfD opposes same-sex marriage, for example, and thinks that gay couples should not be allowed to adopt (Staudenmaier, 2017). Due to her sexuality, Alice Weidel does not have to prove to the public that she is tolerant, because how could a lesbian woman be discriminating and homophobic? And how could she be a member of a discriminating, homophobic party? Having her as leader of the AfD is a very strategic move, as this has led LGBT people to vote for AfD as well.
To further strengthen her rational, moderate image, Weidel often talks about democracy and portrays herself as a democratic politician. In an interview with Von Mayntz and Rathcke (2017) she said the following: “Es ist eine große Gefahr für die Demokratie, wenn das Versammlungsrecht immer weiter eingeschränkt wird” (which translates to: “It is a great danger for democracy when the assembly right is being more and more restricted.”). Here, she shows she cares about “democracy”. She and her party call for more direct democracy, in which the voice of the people is heard, in their program. However, Weidel’s definition of democracy is not the traditional one. It is a way of interpreting democracy that is often used by populist politicians, where “democracy has become characterized as politicians uttering ‘the voice of the people’” (Maly, 2016). Israel (2011) describes this as follows: “their [the politician’s] chosen political tool was that of democratically elected representation as a means of both democratizing and lending proper direction to republics, representation held in a new kind of balance between authority to legislate and accountability to the electorate” (p. 813).
Weidel and the populist communicative frame
The populist communicative frame is used by politicians to present themselves as the ones that speak in name of the people, against an all-powerful elite (Maly, 2016). The concrete modalities of that voice can differ – from ‘rude and controversial talk’ to seemingly ‘rational and intellectual’. Whereas Nigel Farage and Donald Trump talk in a simplified way, we see that other politicians use a different style in the construction of their populist image.
Even though Alice Weidel seems to communicate in a rational, moderate way at first, this turns out to be misleading. When you look at the issues the party addresses, and their opinions about these issues, it turns out that Weidel and her party communicate a lot within the populist frame. The intellectual and rational style of Weidel’s discourse is still framed as a voice that speaks ‘in name of the people’.
Weidel has constructed an image around herself as ‘AfD’s rational voice’.
The populist voice of Weidel is visible in both form and content. The party calls for a more direct democracy (AfD, Wahlprogramm, n.d.), in which ‘the Germans’ get their voice back. In this classic populist rhetoric we see that the AfD – just like Forum voor Democratie in the Netherlands, Front National in France and Vlaams Belang in Flanders - frames its discourse as the voice of the people, and does this by pleading for direct democracy for instance. The refusal of other parties to engage with that proposition is then framed as the elites being scared of the voice of the people.
The current chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seen as a stereotypical member of the elite, is held accountable for everything that goes wrong in Germany. More women getting raped in Germany? Merkel’s fault (Weidel, 2017c). People are more scared of terrorism today than ten years ago? Merkel’s fault (Alice Weidel Tweet, 2017). By doing this, Weidel and her party make a very sharp distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, in which the people are portrayed as victims of the elite.
Weidel’s famous moment
Weidel caused quite some commotion when she walked out of a debate launched on TV channel ZDF in September of 2017 (ZDF, 2017). She appeared to be disturbed and agitated when she was attacked by multiple politicians. She did not receive much attention from the other politicians and was repeatedly cut off by her opponents, until she abruptly left the debate.
Weidel has constructed an image around herself as ‘AfD’s rational voice’. Walking out of the debate might at first sight seem like quite an irrational thing to do, but when you see her walking away, she looks very calm and confident about her action. This attitude is part of Weidel’s message. Her leaving the debate might look irrational at first, but because of this calm attitude, it does no harm to her rational image.
Afterwards, Weidel reacts to this event by posting a video on Facebook that shows a different view of what happened (Weidel, 2017a). In this video, she creates the impression that she was relaxed, intelligent, well-expressed and in charge of the debate; which strengthens her rational image. Moreover, she makes it seem like her opponents do not have a response to what she says and are mainly listening to her. Therefore, by walking out of the debate, Weidel frames the events as an example of the AfD being victim of the elite (Martin, 2017).
On- and off message
The AfD regularly reveals information that is negative for their political enemies, such as Merkel’s CDU (#lautgegenmerkel). The goal of Weidel’s campaign team is to publish as much information as possible that is ‘on message’, e.g. information that is consistent with the party and their standpoints, and enforces a feeling of ‘realness’ and reliability (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012), about her and her party, and as much information as possible that is ‘off message’ about their opponents.
It can be a real blow to the party and to Weidel’s image when information that is ‘off message’ is published. This was the case when it became public that she had paid a Syrian refugee to clean her house illegally (Mortimer, 2017). There is no hard evidence that this was true, but when asked for a response, her lawyer declared that the time they were given to come up with an answer was ‘too short for the elaboration of relatively complex legal issues’ (Connor, 2017). He later stated that Weidel had a ‘friendly contact’ with a Syrian woman, but that she was definitely not employing her. Weidel simply called the accusation ‘fake news’, which is a term that is used to describe false information that is published and disguised as news reporting, often to make large audiences believe the stories, which can be damaging to a person (Hunt, 2017). A lot of her supporters believed Weidel, but it also made a lot of people question her reliability.
Weidel calling the publication 'fake news' was 'on message' for her loyal supporters. Itsupports their view that other politicians and the media are corrupt and against the AfD no matter what. This then becomes an example of the hate campaign against them. Her supporters do not believe information that is ‘off message’ for the AfD, because it only strengthens their beliefs that she is anti-establishment. The image above shows a supporter who thanks her for her clarification about the news. The supporter immediately believes her and does not question her explanation.
In the images above, opponents express that they think Weidel is a hypocrite and that they do not believe her denial of this story. The ‘mainstream’ political parties and their supporters see this as a confirmation of how hypocritical populist right-wing politicians are; that they only want others to live the way they prescribe, and in the meantime continue living their own comfortable lives.
An example of information that is ‘on message’ for Weidel, is a picture on her Facebook timeline of her shaking hands with a religious figure (Weidel, 2017b). Weidel is holding flowers, obviously one is thanking another. It looks like the two have a respectful and warm meeting. This is perfectly 'on message' for her image as party leader of a conservative Christian party. The fact that she shares this picture implies that she wants to promote this image of herself.
Weidel and social media
Most politicians nowadays have to be active on social media to get their voice out there. By tweeting, posting and sharing things, an online message is constructed. This is also the case for Alice Weidel.
Looking at Weidel’s social media use, she appears to be mainly active on Twitter and Facebook, where she has 23.000 and 125.000 followers on December 12th, 2017. On both platforms, she portrays herself as a friendly, yet professional woman. She does so by, for example, posting solely about politics on these platforms and not using them to speak out on personal issues. Another example of this is her Twitter name, which is Dr. Alice Weidel. Calling herself ‘Dr.’ carries the association in it of her being a smart and professional woman. In her Twitter bio, she introduces herself as the Group Chairman of the @AfDimBundestag and as a member of the AfD federal executive committee. All of these elements work together in the construction of a very professional online message.
This also shows that there is somewhat of a clash between Weidel’s content and the stylization of her social media accounts. Both on Facebook and Twitter we see that her posts are solely about politics and all fit the strong right wing ideals of the AfD that are part of her message. Portraying herself as a friendly and professional woman forms a strong contrast with the content of her messages. This shows the power of stylization. While the posts construct the identity of a strong right-wing politician, the stylization of her online profiles still makes her able to portray herself as a friendly and approachable person.
Even though Weidel and the AfD seem to bring about a new, alternative and democratic message, they speak in an old tradition that is essentially undemocratic.
Moreover, Weidel also constructs an online message of herself as ‘the voice of the people’, which again shows that she fits in the populist political frame. Her Twitter header is an example of this. It shows the German people, holding their flags. She thanks them (“Danke, Deutschland!” - “Thank you, Germany!”) for their votes in the last elections. We can also see an eagle on one of the flags, which celebrates Germany and nationalism.
Weidel and other politicians try to reach their audience through social media, in order to spread their message, construct ‘the voice of the people’ and in this way create an online following. To accomplish this, they need some type of support group. According to Castells (2015), these (online) social movements “are the producers of new values and goals around which the institutions of society are transformed to represent these values by creating new norms to organize social life” (p. 8).
Nowadays, there are tons of these online support movements on both global and local levels. An example of an online support movement for the AfD and Weidel on a local level is Reconquista Germanica: a Facebook account created by Nikolai Alexander, which has been liked almost 15.000 times. Reconquista Germanica has also spread to YouTube and Twitter and has created a huge online following. The goal of RG is to ridicule other German parties, such as the CDU and SPD, and to spread the voice of the AfD in a positive way. To do this, they make use of memes that are often full of satire and are sometimes offensive.
In the picture abov,e we see an example of one of these RG memes. It shows the leader of the CDU, Angela Merkel, and the text “Vom Integrationskurs direkt zur Kraftfahrerausbildung (Mit unserem Darlehensprogramm)” (Translates to: ‘from the integration course directly to drivers training (with our loaning program)’). In this way, RG tries to ridicule Merkel, the CDU and their ideals. They make fun of immigrants coming to our country, saying that once they do their integration course they will just become a bus driver anyway, get a maintenance loan and not make anything better of their lives.
At the same time this also good publicity for the ideas of the AfD. By ridiculing the ideals of the CDU, they shine a better light on their own ideals and state that these are the right ones to believe and follow. This meme is about immigration and as the AfD is very much anti-immigration, this meme states that immigration does not hold any good promises for Germany.
Weidel's discursive battle for anti-Enlightenment ideas
Even though Weidel and the AfD seem to bring about a new, alternative and democratic message, they speak in an old tradition that is essentially undemocratic. This starts with demonizing Muslims, and not accepting them as legitimate inhabitants of Germany:
In these images, Weidel can be seen promoting a view of Germany as a homogeneous entity with a homogeneous culture, and as a nation that is weakened by other cultures. This type of discourse is part of an attack on Enlightenment values. Enlightenment thinkers strived to improve society by means of reason. To do this, freedom on all domains needs to be a universal right and is at the base of a society (Maly, 2012: 95). The Enlightenment ideology is fundamental to what is considered a democracy today: an institution that is based on equality and freedom, and that uses representatives to represent the people in government (Maly, 2012: 98). Weidel obviously prioritizes other things: for her and her party, the German nation and identity need to be preserved. This ideology resembles the thinking of organic nationalism, which is an important feature of anti-Enlightenment ideas. In organic nationalism, the nation state is seen as an organic and ‘living’ thing, with a unique identity and soul (Maly, 2012: 124). People should cherish and preserve the nation state, and not change it; this view clearly places the nation above the individual (Maly, 2012: 104 – 105).
Weidel, like all politicans, engages in a discursive battle to persuade the people to believe in her interpretation of words like nation and democracy:
“This discursive battle is waged over the definition of words, the interpretation of facts, the understanding of the ideology or the general image of the party” (Maly 2014, as quoted in Maly 2016).
In other words, Weidel gives another meaning to words with a positive connotation like democracy, and uses it to spread her ideology of organic nationalism. Weidel wages a discursive battle in which democracy doesn’t stand for freedom and equality for all, but for binding referenda and other populist measures of direct democracy, like she does here in an interview with Klaas Heufer:
"We demand a separation of authority and mandate. Then the democracy needs to be completed by referenda. That is something very important, in order to revive the democracy”.
By using Enlightenment concepts like democracy in an anti-Enlightenment and therefore undemocratic context, the representative democracy is undermined and Weidel can attack the Enlightenment concept of democracy without clearly stating that that is what she’s doing.
Alice Weidel has created a strong political image of herself as being a rational, moderate woman. This works to her advantage in justifying her opinions and actions. Having her as a leader for the AfD attenuates their image, for example of the party being homophobic, so it even works as a justification of the party’s statements. On social media, she successfully carries out this professional image as well, by making good use of stylization.
Due to her image, she does not immediately come across as a populist. However, if you really listen to the issues that she and her party address, you notice that it actually is very populistic, as they continuously make a distinction between the ‘elite’ and ‘the people’. It is also the reason why, online and offline, she is often referred to as ‘the voice of the people’. She receives online support to maintain this image in the form of online movements, such as the Facebook page called Reconquista Germanica. This page tries to start meme wars to get the radical right-wing ideas of the AfD across and make them a bit more accessible to outsiders. Moreover, Weidel’s tradition of speaking, with anti-Muslim and anti-refugee statements, is clearly anti-Enlightenment and anti-democratic. While attempting to save the homogeneous nation state, the group is placed above the individual. To persuade the people, Weidel engages in a discursive battle for the meaning of Enlightenment concepts like democracy, and gives it a twisted and undemocratic meaning.
The fact that Alice Weidel, being a highly educated lesbian woman, is the leader of the AfD is often confusing to many people. However, we can say that her personal and political image of a moderate, friendly and rational woman is very beneficial to her and her party.
AfD. (n.d.) Wahlprogramm.
Bernstein, J. (2017). This Man Helped Build The Trump Meme Army — Now He Wants To Reform It. Buzzfeed.
Castells, M. (2015). Networks of outrage and hope. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Connor, R. (2017). Far-right AfD leader Alice Weidel 'employed Syrian refugee as cleaner'. DW.
Eijsvoogel, J. (2017, September 24). Merkel blijft, maar AfD is de échte winnaar. NRC.
Hunt, J. (2017). 'Fake news' named Collins Dictionary's official Word of the Year for 2017. independent.co.uk.
Israel, J. (2011). Democratic Enlightenment. Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights. 1750-1790. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lempert, M., & Silverstein, M. (2012). Creatures of politics: media, message, and the American presidency. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Maly, I. (2012). N-VA: analyse van een politieke ideologie. Berchem: EPO
Maly, I. (2014). ‘Politiek als een strijd om betekenis. Over de verantwoordelijkheid van politicologen in het maatschappelijk debat’, Res Publica (Leuven Voorburg, Belgium – The Netherlands)2014, 4: 513-28
Maly, I. (2016). ‘Scientific’ nationalism. N-VA and the discursive battle for the Flemish nation. Nations and Nationalism, 22(2), 266-286.
Maly, I. (2016). Why Trump won. Tilburg: Tilburg University.
Maly, I. (2018). Nieuw Rechts. Berchem: Epo.
Martin, M. (2017). German anti-immigrant candidate walks out of TV debate - World | The Star Online. Thestar.com.my.
Mortimer, C. (2017). Lead election candidate of Germany's far-right AfD party 'secretly employed Syrian asylum seeker as cleaner'. The Independent.
Rathcke, J., & Von Mayntz, G. (2017). Alice Weidel: „Nur Zäune garantieren Freiheit“. General-Anzeiger.
Schuster, K. (2017, September 4). AfD's Alice Weidel: The pride of the populists, a mystery to everyone else. DW.
Staudenmaier, R. (2017, March 17). Gay in the AfD: Talking with LGBT supporters of Germany’s populist party. DW.
Weidel, A. (2017a). “Warum habe ich die Sendung "Wie gehts, Deutschland?" verlassen?.” Alice Weidel Facebookpage (2017, September 6). [video file].
Weidel, A. (2017, September 3). Alice Weidel Facebook post
Weidel, A. (2017, September 8). Alice Weidel Tweet.
Weidel, A. (2017, September 15). Alice Weidel Facebook post
Weidel, A. (2017, October 28). Alice Weidel Facebook post
ZDF. (2017, September 6). Alice Weidel verlässt ZDF-Talk - heute | ZDF. [video file].