The Nationalist International

This past weekend, nationalist leaders joined together in public for the first time.
01/23/2017 11:21 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2017
Le Pen, Wilders and other European far-right leaders meet to discuss the European Union, in Koblenz, Germany. Jan. 21, 2017.
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters
Le Pen, Wilders and other European far-right leaders meet to discuss the European Union, in Koblenz, Germany. Jan. 21, 2017.

This past weekend, there was an effort to give birth to what might be called a Nationalist International. In Koblenz, Germany, leaders of the main nationalist parties of Holland, Germany, France and Italy, among others, joined together in public for the first time, celebrating the victories of Brexit and President Donald Trump and vowing to build on them.

“2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up,” said Marine Le Pen, head of France’s right-wing National Front party and a leading candidate for the French presidency this coming spring. “2017, I am certain of it, will be the year of the awakening of the peoples of continental Europe. It’s no longer a question of if, but when.” Geert Wilders, who is likely to become Holland’s next prime minister after March elections, put it this way: “Yesterday a new America, today Koblenz, tomorrow a new Europe. We are at the dawn of a Patriotic Spring.”

Nationalism is something more and more countries have in common. The day before Le Pen and Wilders’s remarks in Koblenz, Trump said in his inaugural speech, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” He urged each American to “open your heart to patriotism.” Later this week, Trump will have his first meeting as president with a fellow head of state: Theresa May, prime minister of Britain, who is herself at the head of a movement based on the assertion of national sovereignty, in her case against the European Union. 

It’s not immediately obvious how nationalist movements — motivated by slogans like Trump’s “America First” — might unite in solidarity. The Koblenz meeting was the first of its kind precisely because Europe’s nationalist parties and groups have not found it easy to get along. Many in Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland, which was the host and convener in Koblenz, opposed the meeting and, in particular, the large role for Le Pen, whose party they see as overly socialist. Le Pen strove to square this circle, emphasizing the claim that the European Union and the euro “deny diversity.” “I love France because it is France,” she said. “I love Germany because it is Germany.” This drew great applause from the audience.

Opposition to the EU and the euro gives European nationalist parties their unifying element. The EU is seen as anti-national and anti-democratic. The struggle against it is therefore pro-national regardless of what the particular nation might be. The White House version of this is, on a broader scale, more akin to what Le Pen in Koblenz called the “return of nation states” in defiance of “globalism.” Trump has also spoken, most famously at the Republican convention, of his own “movement” as being for the nation-state and against globalism.

But the most thorough articulation of this view came in 2014 from Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and formerly the executive chairman of Breitbart News. Bannon was speaking to a conservative Catholic group in Rome by video hookup. He positioned the movement he championed at Breitbart, and is seemingly now championing in the White House, as part of a global trend:

Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global Tea Party movement. We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like [the right-wing U.K. Independence Party] and Front National and other center right [parties]. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — we think that will all be worked through with time.

The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the ‘party of Davos’ ... So I think you’re seeing a global reaction to centralized government.

And you’re seeing that, whether that was UKIP and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, whether it’s these groups in the Low Countries in Europe, whether it’s in France. There’s a new Tea Party in Germany [the AfD]. The theme is all the same. And the theme is middle-class and working-class people. They’re saying, “Hey, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. I’m getting less benefits than I’m ever getting through this. I’m incurring less wealth myself, and I’m seeing a system of fat cats who say they’re conservative and say they back capitalist principles, but all they’re doing is binding with corporatists.” Right? Corporatists, to garner all the benefits for themselves.

And that center-right revolt is really a global revolt.

Class Warfare, Identity Politics

The commonality that Bannon emphasizes is economic and class-based rather than cultural. Maybe the strangest thing about U.S. politics today is that the Republicans have become the party of class warfare while the Democrats are the party of cultural identity. There is almost no historical substance to Trump’s patriotism — no sense of the actual experiences of a particular group of people sharing their successes and failures, going together through time on a particular patch of land. It is nearly a rootless nationalism.

The more traditionally Republican aspect of this economic nationalism lies in its desire to minimize government: national government and international government. This is the U.S. version of a “return of nation-states.” The idea is that nation-states will coexist best, just as an individual state is governed best, without the interfering over-reaching hand of liberalism. This has never been true for long in the modern era, unless you accept interstate war as a natural aspect of coexistence. The White House must be hoping this time is different.

Europe’s nationalisms have roughly the same relationship to globalization as their American economic-nationalist cousin. Their relationship to history, however, is less distanced. In Koblenz, Le Pen spoke of a return of “diversity”. “There is, behind each of our peoples, a unique fabric of particular family traditions,” she said. “There is a language. There is a history.” These national features are “not interchangeable.” The EU and the euro “deny diversity” — cultural in the first instance, economic in the second, political in both.

Framing cultural nationalism as diversity has been crucial to the optimism of European populism. It offers nostalgia and renaissance in a single gesture. It’s also where you’ll find the “baggage” Bannon mentioned — “and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially.” His own optimism that such baggage “will all be worked through with time” seems itself like a vestige of globalization and its McWorld promises.

Sacred War

How real is the Nationalist International? The abundant baggage that keeps nationalisms separate might well be skirted by the middle-class revulsion at globalization that unites them. Maybe there is indeed a Globalization Lite that can preserve international trade, innovation and technological advancement while enabling nations to distribute wealth and opportunity internally— mind you, through the very same state apparatuses that today’s nationalists tend to deride.

Meanwhile, the Nationalist International’s chief source of cultural cohesion is opposition to Muslim immigrants and militant Islam. There is no disagreement here among the participating groups at Koblenz. This was also the point at which Bannon, in his 2014 remarks, left the harbor of economic nationalism behind. He advocated “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam:”

If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna or Tours or other places … It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West ... ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?

To the degree that this becomes commonplace and is backed by the power of states, the Nationalist International as a strategic force could have years ahead of it.

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