Can We All Get Along? Conflict and Comfort between Nationalist-Populist Movements

Can We All Get Along? Conflict and Comfort between Nationalist-Populist Movements

Britons took some offense when the President of the United States stood by then-Prime Minister David Cameron and deigned to tell the United Kingdom how they should vote on the then-upcoming EU referendum. But this is far from an alien scene in the post-cold war world of American hegemony; the US President is expected to weigh in on events that could affect the international calculus for “the world’s policeman.” In contrast, Americans might have been more flustered at the appearance of Brexit mastermind Nigel Farage beside Donald Trump in – of all places – Jacksonville, Missouri. Both men have tried on the mantle of “Mr. Brexit” and both purport to represent rising nationalist-populist movements in their own homelands. Putting aside any umbrage each country may have taken, can we even make sense of this political cross-pollination taking place between both sides of the pond?

Maybe Breitbart News, America’s foremost megaphone for the Trump campaign and its nationalist-populist supporters, can provide some answers. “The Worldwide Trumpian Majority: Lessons from Brexit, Britain, and the United States” blared the headline of one August 7 article composed by James P. Pinkerton. Through this headline and article runs the theme of an international collaboration between nationalist-populist movements in different nations, or at least a feeling of solidarity among them. Trump and Farage form something of an axis against Obama and Cameron, their common establishment, globalist enemies. Trump and Farage are opposed to career politicians in their respective countries, but because these career politicians are a part of a larger transnational diplomatic apparatus, they have brought one another’s opponents into each other’s crosshairs.

Although this seems to be a majority united by what it is against rather than what it is for. And this begs the question – is there really a “Worldwide Trumpian Majority?” Not so much a numerical majority, but a collection of nationalist-populist movements working together to achieve their respective goals? I emphasize the word “respective” because on their face nationalist-populist movements possess different objectives with respect to the nation-states they support. For example: a French nationalist desires what is best for the French nation; an American nationalist desires what is best for the American nation; these motivations hardly guarantee a natural unity between French and American interests. In fact, some might draw the conclusion that nationalism promotes rather than reduces conflict, that international relations really does conform to the realist’s view of the world as some Hobbesian zero-sum game.

The go-to case study supporting this proposition is the breakdown of Europe’s nineteenth-century alliance system and resultant world wars; neither nationalism nor fascism proved themselves particularly adept at fostering peace among nations during these periods. Or consider Europe at present; Sarkozy and his Les republicains backers are calling for the United Kingdom to move the Calais refugee camp onto their own soil. In response, the UK has announced it will be building a wall to protect the integrity of its borders.

This sort of narrative also explains the foreign policy of another state already in the throes of nationalism-populism and Vladimir Putin’s friendliness toward Europe’s far-right. Russia has provided succor to the National Front in the form of financial support; in return, Marine Le Pen has praised her party’s benefactor. A similar albeit immaterial relationship exists between Trump and Putin, who have reciprocated “compliments” in recent months. There is a real suspicion among members of the international community that Putin’ overtures to groups such as these is not inspired by solidarity but a kind of foreign policy realism. By growing nationalism-populism abroad, Russia furthers its own interests by either internally destabilizing Western Europe and America or bringing to power political parties that take less of an aggressive stance towards Russia. This narrative is popular among neoconservatives and especially the Clinton campaign, which has cast the hacking of the Democratic National Committee as a Russian plot to hand the election to the Republicans. Trump’s employment of Paul Manafort and the subsequent softening of the Republican Party platform’s language on the conflict in Ukraine do nothing to counter this accusation.

Yet it may be rash of us to label these mutual displays of affection between Russia and other nationalist-populist movements a kind of quid pro quo. James Buchanan, Trump’s nationalist-populist prototype, has repeatedly praised Putin in paleoconservative publications such as The American Conservative for what he perceives as the Russian ruler’s traditionalism.

Many on the so-called “Alt-Right” also sing Putin’s praises along these same lines. Nationalist-populists genuinely admire Putin’s deployment of strongman tactics to preserve religious and cultural institutions. For them, the stewardship of these institutions is the primary means by which their country can be saved from the growing threats of Islam, the “Regressive Left,” and globalization. Moreover, they hold that military interventionism and adventurism are detrimental. Within this worldview conflict with the Russian state appears unnecessary and drains resources away from possible points of collaboration, such as defeating Islamic terrorism. In short, even if Putin projects that nascent nationalist-populist movements will prove salubrious to Russian interests, the nationalist-populist movements themselves continue to act in good faith because they believe friendlier relations with Russia would be a boon rather than a bane to their respective states.

It appears that nationalism-populism only mitigates conflict on the world stage insofar as it 1) is chiefly inward-looking and focused on cultivating domestic policy, and 2) takes as its overriding foreign policy objective the destruction of forces antithetical to Western civilization. The former characteristic inclines nations to avoid diverting resources to military deterrence and action against other states, whereas the latter motivates them to work together. This is of what the “Worldwide Trumpian Majority” might consist; less a unifying disdain for the power elites and their globalist credo and more a desire to avoid one another in all cases except those presenting existential threats. What is clear from this analysis is that the mainstream media and the establishment have failed to properly understand nationalism-populism; their models are the European nation-state and fascist regime, not the contemporary Western countries under assault from all sides, both at home and abroad. In this way historical analogues have distorted rather than clarified the phenomenon of nationalism-populism. Here the “experts” might well be wrong.

Follow this author on Twitter @TroyWerden

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