Nationalism (3): populist poseurs

Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University, says, in the fourth of a series of articles on nationalism in Foreign Affairs, that “What the past few years have witnessed is not the rise of nationalism per se but the rise of one variant of it: nationalist populism. “Nationalism” and “populism” are often conflated, but they refer to different phenomena.” He goes on to explain that “The most charitable definition of “nationalism” is the idea that cultural communities should ideally possess their own states and that loyalty to fellow nationals ought to trump other obligations. “Populism,” meanwhile, is sometimes taken to be a shorthand for “criticism of elites,” and it is true that populists, when in opposition, criticize sitting governments and other parties. More important, however, is their claim that they and they alone represent what they usually call “the real people” or “the silent majority.” Populists thus declare all other contenders for power to be illegitimate … [and, he says] … In this way, populists’ complaints are always fundamentally personal and moral: the problem, invariably, is that their adversaries are corrupt. In this sense, populists are indeed antiestablishment. But populists also deem citizens who do not take their side to be inauthentic, not part of “the real people”: they are un-American, un-Polish, un-Turkish, and so on. Populism attacks not merely elites and establishments but also the very idea of political pluralism—with vulnerable minorities usually becoming the first victims.

So, Donald Trump, Mateusz Morawiecki and Recep Erdoğan are not, in Professor Müller’s view, real nationalists; they are, instead, he says “better understood as populist poseurs who have won support by drawing on the rhetoric and imagery of nationalism … [but, he adds] … Unfortunately, they have managed to convince not only their supporters but also their opponents that they are responding to deep nationalist yearnings among ordinary people. The more that defenders of liberalism and the liberal order buy the stories these leaders (and associated movements) are selling and adopt the framing and rhetoric of populism, the more they allow their opponents’ ideas to shape political debates … [and] … In doing so, parties and institutions of the center-left and the center-right are helping bring about the very thing they hope to avoid: more closed societies and less global cooperation to address common problems.

He goes on to say that “Populism is not a doctrine; it is more like a frame. And all populists have to fill the frame with content that will explain who “the real people” are and what they want. That content can take many different forms and can draw on ideas from the left or the right. From the late 1990s until his death in 2013, the Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chávez created a disastrous “socialism for the twenty-first century” in his country, wrecking its economy and demonizing all of his opponents in the process. Today’s right-wing populists mostly draw on nationalist ideas, such as distrust of international institutions (even if a nation joined such organizations voluntarily), economic protectionism, and hostility to the idea of providing development aid to other countries … [and, he says, without having to give examples because our media is full of them] … These beliefs often cross over into nativism or racism, as when nationalist populists promote the idea that only native-born citizens are entitled to jobs and benefits or insinuate that some immigrants can never be loyal citizens. He says that “one can be a nationalist without being a populist; a leader can maintain that national loyalties come first without saying that he or she alone can represent the nation. But today, all right-wing populists are nationalists. They promise to take back control on behalf of “the real people,” which in their definition is never the population as a whole … [and he cites the example of] … Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right UK Independence Party at the time of the Brexit vote, [who] celebrated the outcome as a “victory for real people,” implying that the 48 percent of British voters who preferred that their country stay in the EU were not properly part of the nation.

Professor Müller examines some of the examples of populist poseurs in Europe adopting the false flag of nationalism, but in America, he says, “in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “the people” did not comprehensively endorse a nationalist “America first” agenda. Rather, in more mundane fashion, citizens who identified as Republicans came out to vote for their party’s candidate, who was not a typical politician but also hardly the leader of a spontaneous grass-roots antiglobalization movement. Donald Trump ultimately won the backing of the party machinery; the enthusiastic support of establishment Republican figures such as Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani; and near-constant cheerleading on Fox News. As the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have argued, it turned out to be a fairly normal election, albeit with an abnormal Republican candidate who faced a deeply unpopular Democratic contender.” I think that is a very reasonable explanation of what we all saw.

But I find the semantics unhelpful. I don’t care that President Trump is a populist poseur rather than a real nationalist; he remains an ignorant, semi-literate bully and buffoon who seems to be deeply, personally committed to tearing down the liberal world order that has sustained peace and allowed the (modest) spread of democracy for the last 75 years. No matter what special counsel Robert Mueller may (or may not) have found, it seems pretty clear that Donald J Trump favours Vladimir Putin over, say, Theresa May, Angela Merkel or Scott Morrison and that means that he is unfit to be the leader of the West.

In a warning to principled conservatives, including Canadian Conservatives, he says that “Many politicians, especially those from mainstream center-right parties, have been at a loss when it comes to countering nationalist populism. Increasingly, though, they are betting on a seemingly paradoxical strategy of what one might call “destruction through imitation.” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, for example, have tried to outflank their far-right competitors with tough talk on refugees, Islam, and immigration … [but, Professor Müller warns] … This strategy is unlikely to succeed in the long run, but it is bound to do serious damage to European democracy. No matter how fast one chases populists to the fringes, it’s almost impossible to catch them. Extremist outfits such as the Danish People’s Party or the Party for Freedom of the far-right Dutch provocateur Geert Wilders will never be satisfied with the immigration proposals of more established parties, no matter how restrictive they are. And their supporters are unlikely to switch their allegiances: they’ll continue to prefer the originals over the imitators … [and] … A deeper concern is the effect that established parties making opportunistic shifts in response to the populist threat will have. First, they denounce populists as demagogues peddling lies. Then, when support for populists grows, mainstream politicians begin to suggest that the populists have intuited, or even firmly know, something about people’s concerns and anxieties that others haven’t, or don’t. This reflects an understanding of democratic representation as an almost mechanical system for reproducing existing interests, ideas, and even identities. In this view, savvy populist political entrepreneurs discover trends within the polity and then import them into the political system.” It is, however, very acceptable, in my opinion, to hold, as I do, three distinct opinions about immigration, refugees and illegal migration because they are three quite separate and distinct issues.

Finally, Jan-Werner Müller says, and I agree, fully, that: “There are deep and often legitimate conflicts about trade, immigration, and the shape of the international order. Liberals [by which, in Canada, we mean Conservatives] should not present their choices on these issues as self-evidently correct or as purely win-win; they must convincingly make the case for their ideas and justify their stance to the disadvantaged. But … [he adds, and this is a key point] … they should also not adopt the framing and rhetoric of populists, opportunistic center-right politicians, and academics who make careers out of explaining away xenophobic views as merely symptoms of economic anxiety. Doing so will lead liberals to make preemptive concessions that betray their ideals.” The better angels of our nature must lead Conservatives to make sensible proposals on a whole range of issues that make sense to a solid majority of Canadians.

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