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    Germany’s soft glove of public relations

    POLITICS / A close look at the communication strategies of four MPs from the right-wing populist party AfD.

    Resurgent fascism in Europe has seen parties resorting to increasingly deceptive means to gloss over their images and make them palatable to populations who grew up after the revelations of the horrors of Hitler’s rule and years of post-war denazification measures. The Voice of the People, a documentary by Andreas Wilcke that screens at the Copenhagen International Film Festival, shows us how Alternative fur Deutschland (the AfD), a right-wing populist party in Germany, is channeling much of its energy into public relations strategies that enable it to broaden its appeal to the mainstream by seeming as what it is not; to hide its more radical tendencies behind a smoke-screen of rhetoric about protecting the freedoms and human rights of citizens. Shot over more than three years following the 2017 election, when the AfD entered parliament with 94 seats, the film follows a number of the party’s MPs, including Norbert Kleinwaechter, a young member of the Bundestag for the state of Brandenburg, behind the scenes in the extremely male-oriented environment of the party backrooms, to reveal more about their approach to communications, and how they strive to represent themselves to voters. It sheds light, in doing so, on global changes to how political players are seeking to sway voters in a more personality-based landscape of rising populism, which is less about debating issues and policy manifestos, and more about sensationalism and stoking emotions.

    Image pollishing

    «They will do everything to position us as right-wing extremists», lower-ranked party members are advised by the AFD’s leaders, who instruct them not to say anything that could be used against them when dealing with their opponents and the press. Self-censoring their own prejudiced beliefs, and toning down the more radical aspects of their plans for governing, are constant concerns behind closed doors, as the party seeks ways to seem legitimate and not alienate their potential voter base. Of course, image-polishing has always occupied a central role in parties across the political spectrum when it comes to drumming up support. But the capacity for a party to sink itself by not being savvy enough to play the media skyrockets when members hold views that endorse hate. That the party’s promise to «reclaim our country and our people» is a less divisive way of calling for ethnic nationalism is supported by footage in which racial slurs and calls for deportation are hurled at black, Berlin-born national football team member Jerome Boateng during a party gathering to watch a match being broadcast, amid loud complaints that the team contains members whose parents originated from outside Germany.

    We witness numerous meetings where speeches are drafted and lines of argument debated. «Violent fascist Antifa groups» are referred to by party members, as they hone their rhetoric together, in perhaps the most absurdist example of their willingness to say up is down and left is right, and gaslight the electorate by labeling things as what they are not, projecting the term «fascist» onto a resistance group that is literally anti-fascist by its very definition. Aside from a general takeaway that AfD members do not, on average, seem very bright (they are portrayed as grasping for vocabulary or pompously checking their own videos of their bombastic, macho posturing), we see them toning down their true intentions for more palatable consumption (expressing an urge to «take over» is abandoned in favour of the less aggressive «wanting our initiatives to bear fruit», for example.) Their desire to appear as everymen, who have all led ordinary lives outside of politics and are merely running for office to rescue citizens from professional politicians, also bleeds into speech-penning and citizen dialogue sessions.

    Their desire to appear as everymen, who have all led ordinary lives outside of politics and are merely running for office to rescue citizens from professional politicians, also bleeds into speech-penning and citizen dialogue sessions.

    Manipulative

    A trip AfD members take to the Greek islands off the coast of Turkey to record footage for public relations purposes in which they interview refugees shows the party at perhaps its most manipulatively exploitative and cynical. They question, with unconcealed arrogance and no real empathy, but without stating their political position, young men about where they have come from and where they intend to travel for work, editing the footage to make it appear that they are all heading for Germany. The AfD are utilising the refugee crisis to stir fears and drum up support, with rhetoric that promises to protect citizens from a supposed upswing in terror and crime that an influx of foreigners may bring, and protestations that, while «everyone expects Germany to pay» to accept these refugees, the nation cannot economically afford it. AfD speeches are written that, in their descriptions of homelands that have become uncanny, appeal to a more profound loss of identity that harks back to earlier nationalistic conceptions of a German Volk or people — and that frame the mixing of cultures as a threat that dilutes a nation’s purity. The idea that Fox News, the American cable station that propagandistically threw its support behind populist President Donald Trump, should start a television channel in Germany, is floated by AfD members as a proposed solution to the stance of papers such as «Bild» that have welcomed refugees, showing again the party’s concern with controlling information and political narratives.

    That, of the 100 percent you get across, 70 percent depends on how you say it, 28 percent on what your audience wants to hear and their view of you, and only two percent on the content is another supposed nugget of advice shared between AfD members on giving speeches. However, history has made it abundantly clear in Germany that while style might be nearly everything in politics, great oratory from leaders has never redeemed their appalling actions.

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    Carmen Gray
    Carmen Gray
    Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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