The Psychological Dynamics of Far Right Populist Politics: Prejudice, Emotions, and Identity
UNPOP Series
By Juliana Tiemi Suguita, Laura Pimentel, Pedro Renda

It is fundamental to emphasize that psychology, contrary to what most people believe, expands beyond the study of individual behaviors to encompass collective phenomena. Sigmund Freud was concerned with this subject and stated that psychology is simultaneously individual and social. The ascension of populist leaders around the world in the 21st Century has been intriguing social scientists, including social psychologists and stresses the importance of studying psychological dynamics in politics. An interdisciplinary perspective offers huge potential in helping answer one question that still echoes in the existing literature: to what degree does voting for populist supporters relate to individual processing systems of political information? In other words, how do psychological factors influence the rise and consolidation of populist forces? The aim of this article is to shed some light on the emotions that sustain prejudice and how they play a major role in the populist agenda. We argue that by instrumentalizing emotions, far-right populism fosters stereotypes, preconceived ideas and prejudices, which leads to political polarization and the degradation of democracy.

According to Matthew Williams, prejudice is based on stereotypes; a set of characteristics given to a group sustained by generalizations and the categorization phenomenon. In the distant past, our ancestors developed a preference for members of the ingroup as a way to assure that their groups flourished. Creating bonds and building trust was essential to survival and in order to do so, the human brain started to perceive members of outgroups as a threat, associating these “others” with negative characteristics and emotions, such as fear and anger. Consequently, it led to a human tendency to favor people from their own group over members of outside groups.

Furthermore, psychologists assume that concepts and ideas are grouped together in an associative network. Therefore, when one concept is activated, associated ideas are activated as well, making the cluster easier to access by the subject. Highly practiced associations, the ones that are frequently accessed, might become automatically activated when pre-determined ideas are detected. These associations are mainly learnt through processes of socialization, which once they are consolidated, are immensely hard to deconstruct. Members of a group learn from ingroup beliefs, values and characteristics associated with other social groups. Therefore, the associations learnt within a given social group leads to an attitude of distrust towards members of other groups. A study conducted with Princeton University students corroborates this thesis. For instance, when the sample of college students saw a person of a determined ethnic group or nationality, they associated the person with characteristics linked to that group; even though they did not know the particular subject.

Despite the fact that there is no scholarly agreement on a definition of the populist phenomenon, it is possible to identify its core characteristic in the binary division of the world into two opposing poles: “the moral people'' and “the corrupt others”. The core group, “the people” is defined by both vertical and horizontal oppositions: the first creates a distinction between the people and the corrupt elite or the political establishment, while the latter is responsible for contrasting the people and different social groups, usually minority groups. These minorities represent a threat to the identity and values of the good citizen, preventing the people from achieving plenitude. Therefore, the identity of “the people'' and “the other'' are politically constructed; sustained by a relationship of antagonism: a conflict between the powerful and the powerless, the people and the threatening minorities. In other words, populist parties, in order to succeed, instigate the natural human ability to categorize the social world in ways that stress existing social cleavages. Consequently, a sense of common identity is defined by shared resentment and the ability to point out the alleged perpetrators of perceived grievances. In the specific framework of the populist radical right, the rhetoric is extensively guided by the idea that outgroups, generally identified with social minorities or underprivileged populations, have been favored, which results in the withdrawal of rights and privileges of the 'local' and dominant population (the in-group).

Research in the field has already shown that populist communication features emotive language elements: emotional appeals and generalizations are common strategies to create a scenario driven by negative emotions. Besides, one of the most widely used tools by the far right politicians is the association of a negative emotion with an outgroup/social minority. A series of studies conducted by psychologists have shown that negative emotions underlie implicit bias if they are applicable to the socially constructed stereotypes attached to an out-group. Consequently, the activation of a negative emotion associated with a group might lead associations with their underlying negative stereotypes.

To illustrate the aforementioned, we present André Ventura, leader and founder of the Portuguese populist radical right party Chega, as an example. Ventura's social media history has shown that it disproportionately targets the Roma community,  Mendes' quantitative analysis of CHEGA’s posts on Facebook has shown the prevalence of posts that contained the expressions “gypsy” and “minorities”, associated with negative prejudices. Furthermore, Ventura has systematically insisted on so-called problems with the Roma community, claiming that only a small percentage of “the gypsies” live off their work. André Ventura’s discourse concerning the Roma is usually guided by intolerance, exaggerated facial expressions and an aggressive tone. In one of his statements, Ventura alleged that “it is common practice in the gypsy community to destroy houses, vandalize common spaces, default on rent payments, water, gas and electricity consumption”. It is possible to identify the instrumentalization of fear in his declaration by stressing a supposed violent nature of the Roma, which helps perpetuate a negative image of the group. In addition, André Ventura, in a skillful manner, attempts to arouse anger, by claiming that contrary to the “good Portuguese” citizens, the Roma do not pay their taxes, which sustains the stereotype that this minority relies on government subsidies. This is a clear populist construct of ‘us vs them’, in which the virtuous people suffer at the hands of others.

The cited phenomenon isn’t limited to Portugal. Besides Ventura, Brazil's former President Bolsonaro is a good example of the systematic manipulation of emotions deployed in far right populism. During 2022, in addition to the consequences of COVID-19, Brazil has faced an increased number of Monkeypox cases. In an interview held by a popular podcast, Bolsonaro deliberately associated the disease with homosexuals. According to David Pizarro, a prominent psychologist, disgust has been systematically associated with marginalized groups. One of the distinctive characteristics of disgust is that it can be easily elicited and it works through association. Therefore, when one disgusting thing touches a 'clean' one, the clean one becomes dirty. In other words, disgust can be a powerful tool when someone wants to convince one social group that another should be avoided, due to its disgusting characteristics. Research in the field has shown that anger and disgust are related and a consequence of a common state of outrage elicited by a moral violation. The underlying emotion is directly associated with the personal mechanisms to punish the violator. Anger relates to direct aggression, such as yelling and insulting, whilst disgust predicts a preference for indirect means, especially social exclusion and defamation. Although a direct or causal relationship between these kinds of discourse and an increase in hate speech and hate crimes cannot be directly established, it certainly doesn’t bode well that there is a growing, observable tendency for the shameless normalization of far-right discourse in liberal democracies, and all the problems this entails.

In conclusion, it becomes evident how negative attitudes towards outgroups play a fundamental role in increasing political polarization. The perpetuation of negative perceptions and prejudices towards certain groups in society may lead individuals to be more susceptible to persuasion by false information about said groups. As emotionally charged speech is more likely to go viral, in a society/community already marked by conflictual relationships between its different communities and groups, prejudice may drive further polarization of society, creating a threat to democracy due to the unstable environment in which it operates. Although some authors highlight how populism can benefit democracy, mostly from a left-wing perspective, the opposite can also be true. Right-wing populist discourse, due to its capacity for polarization and the mobilization of negative emotions like fear and anger towards out-groups, can create a hostile and undemocratic environment.

Juliana Tiemi Suguita, born in São Paulo, has a degree in Psychology from the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of the University of Coimbra. She is currently in the first year of her Masters in Educational, Developmental, and Counseling Psychology.

Laura Pacheco Pimentel, born on the island of São Miguel, Azores, has a degree in Psychology from the University of the Azores. She is currently in the first year of her master's degree in Educational, Developmental and Counseling Psychology from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the University of Coimbra.

Pedro Torcato Renda da Silva is a 3rd year undergraduate student in Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of the University of Coimbra.