Forum for Democracy (FvD) is a political party on the rise in the Netherlands. Thierry Baudet, the conservative revolutionary and dandyesque leader of the party, positions himself and his party as right-wing and as an acceptable ideological alternative to all the other Dutch parties. All media controversies about his radical right ideology are labelled by Baudet as the work of opponents trying to frame him and the party in a negative way. A careful analysis of WhatsApp messages of the youth divisions of the party, however, shows a different reality. The analysis of 900 Whatsapp messages of FvD-militants shows that mass media reporting helps shape a metapolitical discourse without ‘de-radicalizing’ the core ideology.
How Thierry Baudet uses controversy to normalize his ideology
Baudet likes to use controversy to normalize his ideology. We can illustrate this strategy by zooming in on his victory speech after the 2019 election and his review of Houellebecq’s book Sérotonine for the American Affairs Journal. The two interventions were in essence about what he calls the decline of the boreal (or ‘Northern’) civilization and what Baudet sees as the devastating impact of what he calls the party cartel in particular and the individualization and atomization of society since the 18th century Enlightenment in general. This discourse is emblematic for Baudet’s ideological position. He regularly echoes anti-Enlightenment, conservative revolutionary and new right thinkers, such as Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye. All the classic tropes from these thinkers are present in his discourse: the decline of the nation, the demographic question, the loss of identity and the traditional family and gender roles, and the devastating impact of globalization, liberalism and the French revolution. And, as with any new right radical right leader, he also loudly stresses the need for a national and civilizational rebirth.
All media controversies about his radical right ideology are labelled by Baudet as the work of opponents trying to frame him and the party in a negative way.
Most notably, however, both his victory speech and his review became the object of intense media scrutiny. Dutch mass media constructed them as highly controversial, but they failed to focus on the ideology of the party. The party was framed as radical right, and lots of controversy arose focusing on what the press saw as the most controversial issues in those texts, but remarkably , even though all the classic ingredients of generic fascism were there, they were hardly scrutinized by the media. The formats of mass media narrowed the discussion down to some emblematic features. In his victory speech the use of the word “boreal” was read as an index of his radical right stance. In his review it was the use of the word “suicide” for the right of abortion and his suggestion that women entering the work place causes the decline of society that affirmed this profile. The mass media focused on his word choice and some concrete sentences, but hardly discussed the ideology that gives meaning to those excerpts. This allowed Baudet to claim that media were taking his words out of context and that ‘they’ avoided the real debate on the issues that he was proposing. He constructed, as usual, the idea of an unfair witch hunt by fully exploiting the multi-layered meanings attached to words as boreal.
WhatsApp, intimate political discourse and mass media
In light of this public debate, the discussions in the WhatsApp groups of the party are revealing. WhatsApp groups have become important tools for political parties and populists in particular. The groups are used to share political messages among young FvD party militants and even to suggest a direct line between the populist and his sympathizers. The closed spaces of those groups not only enable so-called ‘echo chambers’, they also facilitate more intimate conversations among party members and sympathizers – as well as functioning as learning environments for new recruits.
WhatsApp groups have become important tools for political parties and populists in particular. The groups are used to share political messages among young FvD party militants and even to suggest a direct line between the populist and his sympathizers.
As a result of the more intimate, informal and private nature of such groups, participants tend to lower their guards. Those conversations, when made public, can become highly explosive scandals. In particular, and more recently, the Forum for Democracy experienced this first-hand in April 2020 when a group of young militants of the party leaked a series of racist, radical right memes and posts that were posted on the official WhatsApp groups of the party. They did this after their concerns remained unanswered by the leaders of the youth division and the party elite. The whistleblowers categorized the communication in those groups as “expressions that correspond to authoritarian, fascist and / or National Socialist ideas, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and racist imperialism”. In short, the posts showed the integration of the members in the global new right culture. The media backlash was substantial, but the party – even though they called the discourse in the group “disgusting” - refused to apologize.
Imagined surveillance and normalization of radical right discourse
This summer, the renowned Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, asked me to analyze another 900 WhatsApp messages of the youth divisions of Forum for Democracy. Those new chats were collected after the media storm caused by the first leak and they illustrate the impact of the previous leaks. Concretely, we see how members of the WhatsApp group act as if they are being watched by mainstream media like de Volkskrant or NRC.
Moderators help their members to imagine surveillance, i.e. to incorporate it and thus to self-surveil. Party member Iem Al Biyati, for instance, explains how members should interact in the WhatsApp Group: “Place yourself in the position of a journalist before you post edgy memes. You know very well how everything can be framed, so don’t open up that space.” (Volkskrant Database, my translation). In literature this is called imagined surveillance: moderators imagine “the scrutiny that could take place (…) and may engender future risks” for the party and act accordingly by moderating. As a result, a culture of surveillance is installed within the group chat. Not only the moderators but also regular members intervene when somebody posts something that can create so-called ‘bad optics’.
WhatsApp, ideology and bad optics
Why is this important? Well, the interventions and the non-interventions of moderators and members help us understand what the party views as ‘acceptable discourse’ within it and within society at large. It also allows us to understand the reception and appropriation of the discourse of the party elite by the militants and staffers. This is especially relevant when the party elite regularly claim to be misunderstood by the (left-wing) mass media and academia. And lastly and maybe most important in the context of this article, it allows us to assess the impact of mass media hypes on the discourse of the members of the party.
Concretely, we see how members of the WhatsApp group act as if they are being watched by mainstream media like de Volkskrant or NRC.
Moderation policies in the WhatsApp group affects those topics that can connect the party to national socialism, Nazis and antisemitism in particular. Explicit antisemitism, explicit racism or inciting violence are (sometimes) moderated. Any association with those topics has the potential to destroy the metapolitical construction of the party and push the party out of the Overton window. Despite this surveillance culture we see that members are still very explicit in their aversion for LGBTQ+ people, migrants and migration, and the left. The analysis that Dutch identity has been emptied and is now filled with ‘transgenderism’ to destroy the nation passes without moderation. The framing of criminals as mainly ‘non-boreals’ is not moderated which indicates that the controversy that media have made about Baudet’s use of the term didn’t succeed in harming the party.
A similar pattern is visible after mainstream media claimed that Baudet questioned the role of ‘working women’, as well as the existence of euthanasia and abortion in his review of Houellebecq’s book. Baudet himself claimed that his words were taken out of context, but in the WhatsApp groups the members – including moderators – were enthusiastic, responding with “It was about time”, “nice!”, “he is just a great thinker, who thinks things through and puts them up for debate. Very well done! Proud of Cherry” (Volkskrant Database, my translation). This uptake was not only similar to what the mainstream media read in Baudet’s interventions, in many cases this back-facing discourse was far more radical than what Baudet explicitly stated or what media made of it. Mass media reporting didn’t have an impact on the uptake and reception of Baudet’s words among peers.
WhatsApp and the ideology of Forum for Democracy
Already in the nineties, J.B. Thompson stressed that the study of ideology should not only look at the original ‘text’, but also at the transmission, construction, reception and appropriation of ideological discourse. In the WhatsApp messages referred to above, we see how the party’s ideology is shaped in the interaction between the members of the WhatsApp group, the official party discourse, and mass media reporting.
The moderation policies in the WhatsApp groups are partially informed by previous mass media attention. The previous WhatsApp scandal created a surveillance culture that steers the militants away from painful scandals that cannot be won. But this surveillance culture is rarely legitimized in terms of the party and its ideology. The need for self-surveillance is advocated to avoid that the journaille - in the words of another moderator - can use it to ‘frame’ the party.
Despite this surveillance culture we see that members are still very explicit in their aversion for LGBTQ+ people, migrants and migration, and the left.
The imagined surveillance does not seem to affect the uptake of Baudet’s discourse by the militants and staffers in the WhatsApp groups. Mass media hypes that avoid tackling the larger ideology of the party contribute to the metapolitical character of the discourse. They help establishing a radical discourse that avoids explicit connotations with the neo-nazism, antisemitism and fascism. At the same time, we see that mass media reporting hardly affects the ideological core conviction of its members. With the exception of explicit or so-called ‘ironic’ racism, antisemitism and references to Nazis, militants and moderators in the Young Forum for Democracy WhatsApp groups thicken and radicalize Baudet’s discourse even when they think that they are being watched. Boreal has been used in over 100 WhatsApp messages. Baudet clearly has succeeded in introducing the term and establishing a strategic ambivalence concerning its meaning. The militants clearly understand the strategic potential of the ambivalent meaning and it now functions as an identity emblem in the group. It is clear, that when media hypes fail to sketch the bigger ideological picture, the words and sentences that are isolated out of Baudet’s discourse become badges of honor because they have succeeded in ‘triggering’ the outsiders without causing ‘bad optics’.
This article was written as part of my senior fellowship at by CARR (Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right) and has also been published in the Fair Observer