It reads like something out of a 19th century European history book. Steve Bannon, former Breitbart editor, Trump strategist and leading light of the American alt-right, recently hosted a Congress of the Nationalists in Rome. After its conclusion, he wrote that “it’s hard not to feel that we’re on the right side of history.” Is he right?
We frequently think of Trump and Brexit as isolated phenomena, but the American President is in fact at the head of a global nationalist movement. Hungary. Poland. Austria. The Philippines. And now Italy. All these have governments that tout the revival of the nation state and the tribe, whilst attempting to demolish free trade, open immigration and international co-operation in their wake. Their parties derive from racist provenance, and those seeds are still deeply embedded in their rhetoric, in their philosophy and their agenda. They seek not only to radically change the cultural and political paradigm, but also to undermine civil rights and state institutions, producing de-facto autocracies from Erdogan and Putin’s playbook. Democracies beware! Hitler has risen again, and he’s wearing spray tan!
That, at least, is the narrative perpetuated from the political and media establishments. The reality is rather more nuanced. Let us start with Trump. Things have definitely escalated since I argued his presidency was a farce, not a tragedy. On the one hand, his policy of separating children from their parents on the Mexican border is not merely grotesque, but inhumane. On the other hand, a student of the means by which he achieved his historic summit with Kim Jong-un could anticipate his sudden reversal of this policy – by having committed to the extreme, word is the Democrats are now desperate for a deal with Trump, and will accept caveats they were never previously prepared to include. The result, then, might just be a genuinely bi-partisan immigration reform. This case extends to the entire Trump presidency – one must take the long view. Threats of a trade war may also be a means to a more equitable goal. Not to say that the Trump administration is competent, but one can argue the balance between damage caused and progress made equate to a similar ratio as most other Presidents. For the moment.
Then take the Europeans. The insurrectionist Visegrad countries of Eastern Europe, as well as Italy and Austria, have been, rightly or wrongly, labelled with all manner of nasty language. Perhaps because, to the liberal internationalists chagrin, they have some genuine insight. Beneath the Eurosceptism, the anti-immigration and the mild opposition to free trade lies an emphasis on the sovereignty of the nation-state, national borders and a recognition of the human propensity to be tribal that globalisation has suppressed.
Love or loathe Trump, Orban and the rest of the nationalist cabal, but what they say resonates with voters. And democracies don’t work well when we ignore the voters. So whilst the current smorgasbord of right-wing populists should hardly be considered the future of democracy, it would be reckless to ignore the concerns of the electorate that backed them. Mainstream parties that incorporate liberal sensibilities would be wise to take a hard look at themselves, and their values, and try and build bridges with the people who were left behind by globalisation. They’re not going anywhere, and if the establishment doesn’t change its take, neither are nationalists.