(Credit: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Staff Writer
Over the past 75 years, many Western nations moved steadily toward cooperation and interconnectedness, as their shared economic and political interests converged during this period called globalization. But the political winds are shifting, and there are signs of a new age of populism and nationalism emerging in Europe, a development that eventually could undermine post-war security and unity.
Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in part by promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., of political elites and to “Make America Great Again,” a broad-brush populist slogan that supported a more isolationist, protectionist, “America First” posture toward the wider world. His campaign rhetoric criticizing some Muslims and Mexicans and his recent efforts to limit immigration and trade have left many analysts wondering whether his presidency could effectively move the country toward a period of ethno-nationalism.
Trump’s surprise election has proved a political windfall and an inspirational template to far-right candidates in Europe, as some countries prepare for major elections. These include the Netherlands (March), France (April and May), and Germany (September). These rightist groups predate Trump politically and tie themselves more tightly to nationalism, but they are also happy to ride on the coattails of his victory.
Marine Le Pen, the National Front party leader running for president of France, embraces antiglobalization and anti-immigration policies. Both Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie, the former party leader, lavishly cheered Trump’s election on Twitter, while other European nationalist party figures in the Netherlands, Hungary, and Greece touted his win as a positive sign of things to come. She has promised to “take back” France by withdrawing from the European Union (EU), a move that Trump has applauded, as he did when Britain voted last year to leave that body, rocking the EU to its core. Lately, Le Pen has been rising in the polls as her mainstream electoral opponents have faltered.
Other figures on Europe’s far right, including Geert Wilders, founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which spearheaded Britain’s break with the EU, have met with and supported Trump. Farage dined with Trump last week in Washington, appeared at Trump’s inauguration, and also made several appearances with him during the campaign. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Northern League, has reportedly offered to help Trump expand his support in Europe.
Indeed, some in the Trump administration have embraced the value of a far-right coalition between the United States and Europe. Leading the way is Trump’s chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon M.B.A. ’85 , the former chairman of Breitbart Media, a pro-Trump online news outlet. Breitbart has been something of a safe harbor for white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and other digitally savvy right-wing fringe groups. It’s an assertion Bannon appears to agree with, once referring to Breitbart as the “home of the alt-right.” Shortly after the election, Breitbart announced it would expand to France and Germany to help bring Trumpism to audiences there. During a rare public appearance last week, Bannon, widely-seen as Trump’s ideological compass, said their victory made clear that there is a political “movement” afoot, one in which the administration’s “economic nationalist agenda” will help galvanize the Republican Party, and the nation, into “a new political order.”
A new salience
Although the words populism and ethno-nationalism are often used interchangeably, they actually are distinctly different.
“Populism is a way of making political claims that oppose ostensibly ‘corrupt elites’ with ‘the virtuous people,’” said Bart Bonikowski, a Harvard associate professor of sociology who studies populist and nationalist movements.
The left often labels big business and banking executives as elites, while the right typically targets the state itself and those who keep it running, like civil servants, bureaucrats, and elected officials, along with academics and other intellectuals, “whereas ethno-nationalism is … a definition of the nation that excludes various ethnic, religious, and racial out-groups,” he said.
Because populism is less an ideology than a form of political discourse, it is often attached to a variety of political ideologies, including nationalism.
“It’s basically a strategy for mobilizing political support for whatever politicians’ objectives might be,” said Bonikowski. “It so happens that in Europe and the United States and elsewhere … populism attached to ethno-nationalism has gained traction. But that doesn’t mean the two things are the same or that they only occur with one another.”
Nationalism can be ethnocentric or primarily civic in focus. Some strains are more inclusive than others, often based on political principles and respect for institutions that rest on subjective identification with a nation. Ethnic-driven nationalism is often about a shared ancestry, religion, and language and a common dissent, said Bonikowski, a resident faculty member at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES).
Despite some public perceptions, populism and ethno-nationalism have not suddenly surged in the United States and Europe since Trump’s ascendancy. Many European nationalist parties have been around for decades, with varying levels of success. In 2015, Hungary and Poland installed hard right, antiglobalization governments
Fascism is not taking root in the United States as it did in Europe’s fertile ground in the 1930s, but the ascendance of President Donald Trump and the early actions of his administration may move the United States in an authoritarian direction, a panel of Harvard historians told a a full house at CES.