In 2017, nativism went mainstream in the West

By Ishaan Tharoor

“You will not replace us!” went the guttural cry from a small, torch-wielding crowd of American white nationalists and neo-Nazis. They marched in August through a leafy Virginia town in defense of monuments to Confederate leaders, figures from the past who had waged a war to preserve slavery. In the uproar surrounding the rally, an anti-fascist activist was killed when a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. The far right spilled blood on American soil.

Despite national outrage over the episode, President Trump struck an awkward pose, infamously remarking that there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis. Trump’s attempts at condemnation rang hollow. The young, mostly white men who marched in Charlottesville, Va., may be reprehensible adherents of a fringe ideology, but they had been galvanized by the president, who, throughout both his election campaign and subsequent year in power, constantly pulled from a dark seam of ethno-nationalism underlying American politics.

A year ago, in the wake of Trump’s stunning election victory, it was in vogue to talk about the “populist” moment upending the West. Elections on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrated how a wide segment of the electorate was fed up with the status quo, skeptical of elites ensconced in their country’s financial and political capitals, and eager to throw up walls around their nations in the face of the forces of globalization. Looking back at this year’s events, it is clear that their anxieties were more cultural than economic.

The politics of many Trump voters, and their counterparts overseas, were less truly “populist” — anchored in some moral vision of a united people — than “nativist,” animated by divisive, ethnic tribalism.

It may thus be unsurprising that Trump’s first legislative victory of his presidency is a deeply unpopular tax overhaul. In the long run, the reforms will likely provide the greatest benefits to corporations and the mega-rich, possibly to the detriment of virtually everyone else. “Trump has governed like a plutocrat in populist clothes,” wrote Nouriel Roubini, an economist at New York University. “He is betting that social conservatives and white blue-collar supporters in rural areas will vote on the basis of nationalist and religious sentiment and antipathy toward secular coastal elites, rather than for their own financial interests.”

So the cry of “you will not replace us” can be heard in Trump’s hectoring over “rapist” immigrants and bans on Muslim-majority nations. And like a lot about current far-right American politics, it’s imported from Europe. The right-wing, xenophobic French polemicist Renaud Camus popularized the idea of the “great replacement:” That somehow trends of immigration in the West would lead to a kind of demographic extinction event. “You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people,” he said.

Stephen Bannon, the ultra-nationalist ideologue who entered the White House with Trump and whose rhetoric fueled Trump’s demagoguery over immigrants and Muslims, feeds off these narratives. He cites approvingly the garish visions of Jean Raspail, another French anti-immigration writer, whose apocalyptic, racist work prefigured far-right opposition to refugees and asylum seekers.

“We are a country, a civilization, a language, a way of life,” Raspail told journalist Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of a new book featured by Today’s WorldView. “If we blend it with something that does not correspond at all to who we are, it won’t work, and we’ll be lost.”

This once-fringe racial paranoia, combined with a resentment of the “establishment,” has found a home in the White House. “There is, and there are, people at the highest levels of government that don’t want to let America be America,” declared Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., at a rally on Wednesday.

In Europe, this discourse found its way to the heart of political campaigns. “The radical right has by and large defined the discussion around the refugee crisis and the project of European integration,” Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, told Today’s WorldView.

In 2017, far-right parties — including factions linked to a past of fascism and Nazi apologia — did not “win” elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands, but they performed better than ever before. And in countries like the Netherlands and Austria, nativist platforms have shifted policy to the right or even been brought into power. That we even considered the thwarted election challenges of far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders “defeats,” argued Mudde, “says such much about the normalization of their politics.”

And what are those politics? Post columnist Anne Applebaum offered a searing encapsulation in a lengthy essay earlier this year: “They conjure up worlds made up of ethnically or racially pure nations, old-fashioned factories, traditional male-female hierarchies and impenetrable borders. Their enemies are homosexuals, racial and religious minorities, advocates of human rights, the media, and the courts,” she wrote. “They are often not real Christians but rather cynics who use ‘Christianity’ as a tribal identifier, a way of distinguishing themselves from their enemies: they are ‘Christians’ fighting against ‘Muslims’ — or against ‘liberals’ if there are no ‘Muslims’ available.”

Applebaum was writing on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, and was struck by the extent to which the Europe’s far right operates in a neo-Bolshevik mold. “To an extraordinary degree, they have adopted Lenin’s refusal to compromise,” she wrote, referring to both entrenched illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary, as well as the right-wing populists farther west.

“I think Lenin would have recognized 2017 as a revolutionary moment as was 1917,” Victor Sebestyen, author of a new biography of the Soviet leader, told Today’s WorldView. “The neo-Bolsheviks are using a similar game, intolerant rhetoric and similar tactics, creating scapegoats who are later identified as ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘saboteurs.’ It is happening in Eastern Europe, certainly in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.”

Bannon, significantly, has styled himself in the past as a “Leninist,” eager to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.” White House intrigues forced him away from the Oval Office, but his fingerprints remain all over Trump’s rage, from the president’s war on the media, to his denunciations of judges that get in his way, to his sweeping contempt for his opponents and perpetual appeals to a thinly veiled white nationalism.

“What we learned in 2017 is that institutions by themselves cannot defend liberal democracy,” Mudde said, “and mainstream politicians won’t either.”

And so as polarization deepens, and bad blood builds up, the question begs: Can they replace us?

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Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

21 December 2017