Alice Weidel, from Germany’s far right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party, has the image of the ‘rational voice’ of her party. But when we look at the content of what she says, this image turns out to be a mask.
Framing Alice Weidel as anti-elite
Alice Weidel is one of Germany's most paradoxical politicians. The co-leader of the AfD party is gay, even though most AfD politicians oppose same sex marriage. Media reports have stated that Weidel pays a refugee to clean her house, even though the AfD has a strict anti-immigration platform. She has earned a reputation as a rational voice in a party know for being populistic. But how true is that last statement?
With its conservative, extreme right-wing ideas, the AfD certainly fits the common sense meaning of the word populist: someone who articulates an anti-Islamic, anti-migration and extreme-right nationalist ideology in the name of the people. In this article, I do not use populism in this common sense meaning. I make a distinction between the ideology of the party and the way the party constructs the voice of the people. Populism is seen as an active thing; as a communicative frame. Populism is thus a way of communicating, not an absolute category or an ideology.
“Vox populism is a frame that distinguishes ‘the people’ from the elite. Such frame shapes ‘the people’ without defining it too explicitly (…) This open construct of ‘the people’ enables many individuals to imagine themselves as being a part of the whole, and they support the candidate who seemingly voices their concerns. On the other hand, it constructs ‘the political elite’. This elite is framed as all powerful and not listening to the ‘will of the people’” (Maly, 2016).
Maly defines populism as a communicative frame, a way of speaking in which the politician claims to be speaking with the voice of the people. In this definition populism is not an ideology, it can be use by extreme right, extreme left and center politicians. This populism is connected to media formats. These formats come with a certain speech regime that co-constructs and thus characterizes the populistic frame. In this speech regime, interaction and entertainment are important, and politicians try to speak in a popular voice. Vox populism is thus not just a political, but also media phenomenon. The populist voice is constructed in relation to the dominant media formats of their time (Maly, personal communication, 2017, October 24).
The AfD and Alice Weidel make use of the populist frame quite often in their communication. The distinction between the people and the elite is made very clear by Weidel and her party. In their message, the AfD stands strongly against the established parties and wants to fight for ‘our Germany’. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is blamed for almost everything that goes wrong in Germany. You find this particularly in Weidel’s behaviour on social media. But if she is so clearly using a populist frame, then why is Weidel still seen as the rational voice of her party?
Constructing a rational image
At first sight, Weidel has a very calm personality. Because of this, some media have called Weidel “The AfD’s voice of reason” (Schuster, 2017). “In interview after interview, she smiles, relaxed and confident. No insult or accusation describing her party as populist, racist or xenophobic unnerves her” (Schuster, 2017). This is an attitude you see in almost every of Weidel's public presentations, and it is a very conscious one. Weidel's attitude is part of her message. The theory of Lempert and Silverstein about message, image and issue is applicable here. 'Message' can be decribed as "what the politician seems to communicate about his or her identity and personal values through selectively taking up some issues and avoiding others" (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012: 2). The ‘issues’ are the topics that politicians address, such as refugees, terrorism, same-sex marriage, etc. Through the issues politicans address and avoid, they create an image about themselves. Weidel's moderate and calm attitude, has earned her an image as "the AfD's voice of reason." Note that it is the media that co-constructs this message.
When you do not look at the content of what she is saying, Alice Weidel indeed looks rational, relaxed and calm in interviews, speeches and debates. Even when walking out of a debate (ZDF, 2017) because she did not get the possibility to say what she wanted, she looked casual and not even slightly aggressive. On social media, she also seems ‘rational’. The ‘Dr.’ before her name on Twitter is an example of this: it makes her look like an authority - although this 'Dr.' can also be seen as a paradoxal element, because how can a doctor, or part of the elite, speak in name of the people?. In many statements she makes on Twitter and Facebook, she explains her views with infographics that are easily understandable. In the Tweet below, for instance, the fears of Germans in the last ten years are shown. Next, a link between Merkel’s policy and those fears is made, i.e., the shift in fears should be Merkel’s fault.
Because of this ‘rational’ way of communicating, many people do not immediately link Alice Weidel to populism. Of course, there are people who do see the link. They see, for instance, that the Tweet above is not a realistic accusation and comment to that effect: “And now you use the ‘lying press’ as a source (...)” (thatxxgryffin Tweet, 2017, September 9) and “What does she (Merkel) have to do with that? (…)” (warjaklaroder Tweet, 2017, September 10). But there are also people who see Weidel's accusations as credible. The tweet above got more than 1.000 retweets, and almost 2.000 likes. There are also people who comment things such as: "12 years of Merkel as a chancellor is enough! Let her resign and don't let her look anymore! Be smart, choose AfD! (...)" (brankoo6 Tweet, 2017, September 9).
"Political correctness belongs in the trash heap of history"
Thus, although there are many people who do not believe Alice Weidel's 'facts', there are also people who see Weidel as a credible, rational voice. These people do not link Weidel with the populist frame, although she certainly is communicating through it. So these tweets can be seen as misleading. The fact that people like, retweet and react positively is co-constructing the populist frame, because Weidel sees these likes and retweets as coming from 'the people'. Many likes and retweets are therefore a confirmation of her speaking for the people.
Under the veneer: Weidel's radicalism
In live speeches and appearances, however, we see cracks in Weidel's rational image, especially when we look closely at the content of what she is saying. “Politische Korrektheit gehört in den Müllhaufen der Geschichte” (Dbate, 2017), Weidel claims in a speech in Köln, followed by applause and cheering of the audience. Translation: “Political correctness belongs in the trash heap of history.” Here, she makes the distinction between the political correctness of the elite and the “voice of the democrats and the patriots, who should not let themselves be suppressed” (Dbate, 2017).
This is nationalism, and the message is brought via a populist frame. Weidel claims that she is speaking for the whole German nation (by using the words ‘the voice of the democrats and the patriots’), she even victimizes these ‘democrats and patriots’, accusing the ‘elite’ of not hearing their voice. She claims to be the only one that is democratic, the only one that listens to all Germans. It is also an attack on political correctness, and a claim for sounding more like ‘the people’. Thus, what she says here definitely fits the populist frame.
Every politician claims to be democratic, simply because democracy is a hegemonic element in today’s politics. The real question is how these politicians understand the concept. However, from an Enlightenment perspective, vox populists' claim on democracy may not be all that believable. It is very common thing for populists toredefine the word ‘democracy’ in their claims. Democracy in populist discourse does not refer to representative democracy, to the rule of law and universal human rights. They use “A definition in which democracy has become characterized as politicians uttering ‘the voice of the people’” (Maly, 2016). In this way it is an anti-Enlightenment and demagogic definition of democracy.
"Democracy should be supplemented by people's decisions"
In an interview with The Local, Weidel said: "The AfD is also the only party that calls for referendums, meaning direct democracy (…)” (Luyken, 2017). In the party program of the AfD, the party calls for referendums and directly choosing the ‘Bundespräsidenten’. These are all seen as more direct way of democracy, which according to this new definition of democracy is more qualified democracy that fits ‘the voice of the people’ better.
In an interview with Klaas Heuf, Weidel says: “Democracy should be supplemented by people’s decisions. I think that is an extremely important thing if we want to revive democracy.” (Circus HalliGalli, 2017, from 5:00). Again, more attention to the people’s voice is framed as a condition for a better, revived democracy. But a more direct form of democracy would probably cause the opposite. It brings back an anti-enlightenment tradition, in which the people will not be heard more or better than they are in today's democracy. Israel says of direct democracy: "Sovereign in appearance, the common people in a direct democracy are in reality the slaves of ‘perverse demagogues’ who manipulate and flatter them" (Israel, 2011: 815). What he means, is that the 'elite' drawn by politicians like Weidel will not suddenly disappear with a more direct form of democracy, although that is what Weidel wants people to believe.
The mask has fallen
Alice Weidel’s rational voice may be very credible at first sight. Her rational voice and smile gives a more moderate connotation to her right wing anti-Enlightenment discourse. Her message can be seen as 'the AfD's voice of reason'. But the content of what she is saying stays the same. Through analysing this content, we find that Weidel is just a good actress. The moderate voice is a mask she wears. The issues she addresses, and especially her opinion on these issues, are evidence of her use of a populist frame. Alice Weidel is certainly is not a stereotypical populist, but when you look behind her rational mask, you find that she cannot completely hide her populist frame.
Brankoo. (2017, September 9). Brankoo6 Tweet.
Circus HalliGalli. (2017, September 21). Interview mit Alice Weidel (AfD) | Ein Mann, eine Wahl | ProSieben. [video file].
Dbate. (2017, April 26). So denkt Alice Weidel (AfD) über “Politische Korrektheit”. [video file].
Israel, J. (2011). Democratic Enlightenment. Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights. 1750-1790. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lempert, M. and Silverstein, M. (2012). Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Indiana University Press.
Luyken, J. (2017, May 11). 'Merkel is insane': meet the woman leading the AfD into the elections. The Local.
Maly, I. (2016). Why Trump won. Tilburg: Tilburg University.
Schuster, K. (2017, September 4). AfD's Alice Weidel: The pride of the populists, a mystery to everyone else. DW.
Ulrich L. (2017, September 10). Warjaklaroder Tweet.
Thatgryffindorxx (2017, September 9). Thatxxgryffin Tweet.
Weidel, A. (2017, September 8). Alice_Weidel Tweet.
ZDF. (2017, September 6). Alice Weidel verlässt ZDF-Talk - heute | ZDF. [video file].