There is a new normal now in global politics. What was once the – a that exist outside of and are more radical than mainstream conservativism – has moved rapidly to the centre. rewriting the rules of the postwar political order.

Ten years ago I warned that this far-right wave was coming. Hours before the Conservative Party took the reins of power in Britain on 6 May 2010, that election would be the first stage in “the increasing legitimisation of far-right politics by the end of this decade”.

A dummy wearing an orange, chemical protection suit by the brand Dräger with a large, dark, face shield, is fastened to a fire brigade vehicle’s open rear door and dangles from it. The dummy wears teal-coloured gloves and black Wellington boots. It’s part of a military equipment exhibition organised by Hungarian police and military forces. There are forest-lined hills in the background.
Military equipment exhibition at the international border guard training organised by Hungarian police and military forces. Presentation day included training on how to pacify riots in refugee camps, patrol the border fence or capture migrants. Photo: Rafal Milach, Veszprem, October 2019 (Hollandse Hoogte / Magnum).

Sure enough, the global shift to the far-right has involved a resurgence of nationalism whose fundamental electoral strategy is the The popularity of anti-European Union (EU) nationalists in the European Parliament has from By 2014, this had grown to some – just under a quarter of all seats in the European Parliament. Two years on, Britain voted to leave the EU in the same year that Donald Trump became US president. Then by 2019, the EU elections saw nationalists capture . Later that year, after a period of sustained attacks on parliamentary institutions, Boris Johnson – a politician with a against black people, migrants, and Muslims – led his party to a landslide victory on a hardline anti-EU platform.

As 2020 picks up pace, far-right politics is no longer the province of the fringe. It has encroached onto, and defined, the parameters of the political centre. And if these growth trends persist, it will continue to determine how the centre works throughout the coming decade.

The alt-Reich: reminiscent of, but distinct from 1930s fascism

Shortly before Trump was first elected, I had been commissioned to investigate the trans-Atlantic networks behind the far-right by Tell Mama UK, a London-based charity that exists to track anti-Muslim hate crimes. The report,  , found that nationalist movements and political parties across the US, UK and Europe were increasingly operating in unison. 

While they all mobilised on the basis of anti-Muslim, anti-migrant sentiment; many were also rooted in traditionally antisemitic political movements, and some secretly worked with active neo-Nazi groups. Many self-identify as ‘alt-right’, , and the idea of  This is a theory that goes by but which boils down to this argument: that  

By seeking to protect the west from a perceived Muslim takeover through mass migration, cultural subversion, and political infiltration, the far-right have positioned itself as defenders of freedom and civilisation from a fascist takeover – and, as the ideas have moved from the fringe to the mainstream, the rhetoric of hate has made its way into everyday political life.

Border barrier topped with electric barbed razor wire and a brown-coloured border guard watchtower on the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Hungarian-Serbian border. Photo: Rafal Milach, Tervar, October 2019 (Hollandse Hoogte / Magnum)

Adama Dieng, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, described this trend as of the 1930s, an age when antipathy toward perceived outsiders on racial grounds, particularly Jews, was not only widespread but led to the mass appeal of fascism. Much has changed in the world since the 30s and the alt-right has changed with it. 

One of the most important distinguishing features of the new global far-right network is that it now uses the political centre to disseminate its language, beliefs and political programme. This is done through a range of strategies that include mobilising to carrying out which often bypass political regulations, and the extensive use of ( ) to radicalise people susceptible to its messaging.

These strategies have successfully created what I call the ‘alt-Reich’: a global network of nationalist movements, civil society groups, and political parties by which far-right groups rooted in racism are attempting to influence mainstream conservatism. So far, they’re succeeding.

Not every group or government in the network is necessarily racist – the political groupings within the European Parliament for example are a broad church that range from the traditionally conservative, to the openly bigoted. Other groups in the network actively deny and conceal their racist roots. But it is these complex, networked connections between the entities and individuals that has enabled a worldview historically rooted in white nationalism to increasingly impact national governments, from the White House to Whitehall and Brussels.

Here’s an example of how this network works. One of the most quietly influential organisations, in spreading across the Atlantic, is the New York-based founded by heiress, In one investigation into how anti-Muslim propaganda spreads between Europe, the US and then onto Trump’s Twitter account, found a story of a “Muslim biker gang” in Germany which had been translated and repackaged by the Gatestone Institute. Now the article “included warnings about the country’s supposed slide into Islamic fundamentalism”. That tale of a Muslim group wanting to establish “a parallel Islamic legal system in Germany” was widely reproduced and has outlived even the activities of actual bikers, who according to were reminiscent of Hells Angels and had just one member was considered a possible threat by German authorities.

Gatestone chairman, John Bolton, was Trump’s national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019. Even now, Gatestone remains close to Trump’s inner circle. Within a week of resigning, Bolton a gathering of Trump allies at a Gatestone luncheon, including another billionaire conservative heiress Rebekah Mercer (described ), Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz ( ) and Chris Ruddy ( and CEO of Newsmax, a conservative media company ). 

The chief of staff of Bolton’s National Security Council from May to October 2018 was now president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a Washington thinktank  the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement”. Fleitz co-authored a 2015 publication for CSP arguing that naturalised American Muslim citizens who should be subject to loss of citizenship and deportation. The CSP’s founder is Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan defence official, and a man

Border barrier construction on the Hungarian-Serbian border. The photo shows electric barbed razor wire and masts equipped with megaphones. There is a larger electric mast in the background. Behind the construction lie a narrow grey path made of concrete and a broad, grassy field. In the background we see a thin line of forest and blue skies.
Border crossing between Serbia and Hungary with speakers chanting warnings to deter migrants all day long. Photo: Rafal Milach, Kubekhaza, October 2019

Gatestone has with the far-right antisemitic Canadian website which has defending Holocaust denial and hired former Trump adviser

CSP has a long established with the International Free Press Society in Denmark, an anti-Muslim coalition with the neo-Nazi Belgian Vlaams Belang party. In 2004, following a legal ruling that deemed Vlaams Blok to be racist, the party rebranded as Vlaams Belang (VB) and is today in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking area of north Belgium. The party has followed the of the alt-right, focusing heavily on attracting young audiences online. In 2019,  

Meanwhile, with leverage in Conservative-run Whitehall, including and the which All the while, Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, invites “misfits and weirdos to apply to work at Downing Street, and appoints Andrew Sabisky, a man who

There are public figures – Great Replacement conspiracists you might call them – on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, who make deft use of dehumanising racist memes, distorted demographic data, and debunked science to validate their hate. Best known: former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who And then there’s Katie Hopkins, who of denigrating blacks, Muslims, immigrants, and Jews, and – of course –  Clearly music to Donald Trump’s ears as he retweeted a message Hopkins posted in July 2019 – before

Depiction of a border guard’s left hand’s palm holding the back of his right hand behind his lower back. Only his hands above his backside and his back are shown. He’s wearing a blue guard uniform.
International border guard training organised by Hungarian police and military forces. Photo: Rafal Milach, Veszprem, October 2019 (Hollandse Hoogte / Magnum)

From culture to climate and democracy: the alt-right’s new frontiers

Aside from coopting alt-Reich governments have a

When the German thinktank Adelphi the climate agendas of far-right parties in Europe last year, it found that two-thirds of far-right members of the European Parliament (MEPs) “regularly vote against climate and energy policy measures”. Meanwhile, some of global carbon emissions come from countries led by populist, nationalist leaders. 

Economically, the alt-right be consistently sceptical of international institutions, more protectionist – often fetishising national corporate power – and wanting to restrict public services for the benefit of worthy ‘natives’ rather than foreigners or minorities. 

This is an indication of what lies ahead: the past ten years of persistent far-right expansion in the west, represents – to my mind – the beginning of a more permanent illiberal turn. Particularly when it comes to Islamophobic attitudes, prejudice has intensified as quickly as it has been normalised. The world average was 21% at the time, with highest rates of prejudice found in then Czechoslovakia at 49%, and Bulgaria at 41%. In the 90s, US Americans demonstrated some of the lowest levels of prejudice towards Muslims, polling at 14%.

Again: this is the ‘new normal’ – the backdrop against which this decade’s political struggles must be waged.

Image of a Hungarian Special Forces soldier in full uniform holding a rifle. We see his back as he’s stood alone on a patch of sandy earth at a lakeside, an area on the Croatian-Hungarian border that he’s patrolling. He’s looking out at the calm lake that’s framed by thick, leafy forest. It’s a sunny day and the image shows light blue sky. The man is surrounded by some grass and wood and there are clusters of barbed razor wire lining the ground on his left.
Hungarian Special Forces soldier patrolling the Croatian-Hungarian border at the nature reserve. Photo: Rafal Milach, Erdofu, October 2019 (Hollandse Hoogte / Magnum)

Having now set the tone of the debate by normalising fear of minorities and foreigners, the alt-right is better-placed to secure election wins. With more far-right groups either in power or with direct access to those in power, over the coming decade they are likely to focus on trying to rewrite the very rules of democracy. We see these processes underway already, as leaders and openly deride core institutions of democratic governance:

Simultaneously, and perhaps in places with fewer checks and balances on the power of the state or the army, we are likely to see an escalation of state-backed security, paramilitary and communal violence against Muslim minorities, some of which has already been described by experts as “genocidal”: the mass incarceration of up to three million Muslim Uighur minority citizens in detention camps ; the mass expulsion of nearly a million Rohingya refugees the systematic persecution of Muslim citizens in India including the risk of in Kashmir and Assam.

It is a pretty gloomy picture but the very expansion of the alt-right is also likely to open up unprecedented opportunities to change course.

I spoke of a new far-right wave in 2010, seeing it – as others also have – as a consequence of a deeper global structural crisis. This new and improved alt-right ideology that’s found its way from the political fringe to the mainstream is a direct consequence of a convergence of multiple complex crises including:

People are feeling a deep sense of unease at the pace of change. This is why the alt-Reich’s most successful political experiments claim to be returning people to a glorious past - an attempt to cling onto a way of life that is gradually, inexorably crumbling; an attempt to rationalise its failures by imagining that the causes of those failures are not the system itself, but particular groups of inherently problematic people.  

The photo highlights an area on the Hungarian border. We see a small, grey, concrete road branching to the left. In the belly of its curve lies a muddy grass patch. It’s night, but there’s artificial light making the area visible. We don’t see the source of the light. On the right side of the road, we see three rows of round, barbed razor wire stacked on top of each other against pitch black night sky.
"Attention, attention! I’m warning you that you are at the Hungarian border. If you damage the fence, cross illegally, or attempt to cross, it’s counted as a crime in Hungary. I’m warning you to hold back from committing this crime. You can submit your asylum application at the transit zone." This message is generated by the electric fence in several languages from English to Arabic at the Hungarian-Serbian border. Photo above of Croatian-Hungarian border: Rafal Milach, Erdofu, October 2019

How we take on the alt-right

If the alt-right has capitalised on people’s desires to remake and redefine their societies, then so too can new social movements that join the dots between the various crises humanity faces and proposing strong opposing ideas to those of the alt-right. 

Promising a return to some imagined world of old, parts of the extreme right will continue to deny climate science while resisting calls for climate action; yet others may well come to incorporate climate discourses into their xenophobic agenda, using the acknowledgement of crisis to buckle down on closing national borders. But the alt-right’s insistence on business-as-usual will ultimately be its undoing, as the gap between its promises and ecological-economic reality widens. This is likely to drive renewed discontent even among those constituencies currently propping up extreme rightwing governments. In turn, the alt-right will become much more brittle and susceptible to failure. 

Bar a small area of light blue sky, the image is lined and crossed with different types of fencing layered across and on top of each other. There’s a brown, sturdy fence structure at the front, followed by thinner, intricate rhombus fencing that towers over the solid structure and is topped by security barbed razor wire. Thick, metallic poles uphold the barbed razor wire. Behind this claustrophobic network fencing, we see light blue sky merging into a purple orange hue from the rising sun.
Hungarian-Serbian border. Photo: Rafal Milach, Tervar, October 2019. (Hollandse Hoogte / Magnum)

This is cause for hope, but not complacency. We cannot afford to simply wait while the ‘alt-Reich’ takes us all down with it.

From a systems perspective, change becomes possible when we all recognise that the rise of the far-right is a symptom of a global industrial civilisation in demise. Referencing ecologist CS Holling who identified that all systems go through a cycle of rapid growth, conservation, release and reorganisation, the would say now is “the time when new ideas can have an outsize impact.”

report points to “the rise of countervailing voices inside the formal political ring, among liberal elites, and especially in grassroots movements.” These voices, quoting environmentalist Bill McKibben, need to be “rooted in broad movements, not elite opinion”. Such broad alliances are possible when citizens start to imagine together what the next life cycle of civilisation could look like.

The nationalist impulse is unlikely to disappear – nor will hate for that matter. But in terms of how societies are organised, it is entirely possible to move towards participatory, inclusive societies; built on more local institutions of political and economic empowerment. This, ultimately, means telling new stories, not only of how we got to where we are, but where we might be able to go if we work together, rather than against one another. It also means building bridges across disparate movements addressing climate, race, finance, and all the other global systemic issues, so that we cease operating in silos, but work more holistically to develop and implement these new stories.

The alt-Reich is the last hurrah of a global system in decline, but it will not go quietly – nor should we take it lying down.

Picture showing a police man holding a camera-like surveillance device. The device is pointed towards the viewer as though he’s taking a picture. The man is wearing a police hat, a dark blue uniform jumper over a light blue shirt and a dark blue tie. The background includes a few military men, trees and blue sky.
International border guard training organised by Hungarian police and military forces. The training was accompanied by a display of surveillance and military equipment used at the border. Photo: Rafal Milach, Veszprem, Hungary, October 2019. (Hollandse Hoogte / Magnum)

Dig deeper

The unthinkable has become reality. How can we build back better? How are people crafting solutions that we can all draw from to build back better after the pandemic? From food security, to education and housing, I’m exploring our options Read Zoe Smith’s series, here The real story of US democracy isn’t the drama. It’s the complete unresponsiveness to it Democracy in the United States has often been declared at risk – if not actually dead, then at least on life support. But American democracy isn’t dead, it’s in a deep and worrying coma. Read the analysis by Nesrine Malik, here