Many Right-wing populists in the West, from Donald Trump in the US, to Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Marine Le Pen in France, are known for their abrasive and direct demeanour. Their critics accuse them of being unpresidential, rude and aggressive. Their followers laud them for their authenticity, genuineness and relatability.
While substance – the policy ideas leaders have – is paramount, the form in which those policies are communicated to the public is also vital. This matters just as much to the political class that populist leaders have to contend with.
Research shows that only 7 per cent of all communication is verbal, while the tone of voice and body language make up 38 per cent and 55 per cent respectively. If nonverbal communication is too hostile, as it is for some leaders on the Right, then it risks antagonising the people in the establishment that need to be won over.
A hostile attitude may do well when convincing an electorate to join your team; it often gives the impression one will be a fighter for their cause. But once in power, it is self-defeating if used against the people who hold the reigns of state.
Giorgia Meloni used to conform to the populist playbook. She was known for her controversial remarks, as well as her loudness, and aggressiveness. Once commenting on immigrants who committed sexual crimes, she called out “Zero mercy for these worms!”
Perhaps harsh words were necessary for her to be heard and to be elected by ordinary people. She led the party she founded, Fratelli d’Italia, from barely 5 per cent of the vote to being much the largest party in a coalition government and her becoming the first female prime minister in Italian history.
But her messaging has changed significantly since she was elected: She rarely gives the press direct interviews anymore; her facial expressions are more relaxed, with smiles; she has more positive things to say than negative ones.
Meloni has more self-control than she used to. She now has to negotiate with a different set of people: The establishment she must receive a certain degree of acceptance from in order to affect the change she hopes for. The alternative to changing an establishment is for a revolution to overthrow it. But that must be a measure of last resort, as revolutions are often bloody and dangerous.
This necessary change in mentality from seeking power to managing it once in office eluded both Trump and Salvini. Both are being prosecuted for several misdemeanours and crimes during and after their time in office. They kept giving the media establishment, which already had significant antipathy towards them, more ammunition to use against them.
Once they were elected, they doubled down on their attitude while failing to realise that in order to effect change, the political class they were now a part of needed to be persuaded, or to the very least needed to be tolerated. They failed to understand their role was no longer to hold impressive rallies and to galvanise the public, but instead to implement the policies they had promised to their electorate.
Furthermore, they failed to lead by example in terms of character and display virtues that resonate with the wider public – such as an even temperament, prudence and fortitude. The display of these character traits wouldn’t undermine their reliability or authenticity. They are the virtues required for someone to hold office successfully, and to provide peace and stability while doing so.
Meloni’s more presidential style is alarming her French counterparts. After a diplomatic row between Italy and France in the Spring, France’s Interior Minister accused Meloni of failing to manage migration and of being “far-right”, like Marine Le Pen. Her mellow response to this provocation was perhaps not what they were anticipating. They were left disarmed, with some spokespersons in Paris denying the Interior Minister’s comments.
She let the foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, deal with the French attack, while holding her line on immigration, asking for more help from Brussels.
The French government was hoping that Meloni’s leadership would be marked by gaffs, uncontrolled emotions and explosive anger common on much of the populist Right. Instead, the opposite happened. The normalisation of her policies is making liberals, even in the European Parliament, worried about conservative successes.
The upcoming European Parliament elections could see Meloni’s group, the European Conservative and Reformists, form an alliance with the centre-right European People’s Party to unite conservatives in Brussels and defeat French president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renew group.
Meloni has displayed an attitude of professionalism, even alliance, with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen – despite von der Leyen’s disparaging comments after her election victory.
If conservatives seek to win, they must in office escape the negativity, bitterness and harshness that has characterised their electoral victory. One needs a positive vision of the future in order to create any meaningful reform. Otherwise one is simply lamenting what is wrong.
Other Right-wing leaders should attempt to imitate Meloni’s policies and style. They need to find points of agreements with liberals, and avoid a toxic, polarised public discourse that is more interested in scoring points against the opposing side than in meaningful reform and the public good.
Alessandra Bocchi is Assosciate Editor at Brussels Signal