Nationalists are riding a wave of emotion
The Dutch election was the first bright spot in a while for people in Europe and the United States who are deeply worried that the backlash against globalization will bring even more white “Judeo-Christian” nationalist parties to power. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte defeated the anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders, who has called for closing Dutch borders, shutting mosques, and banning the Koran.
The standard way of describing political forces ranging from Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to Donald Trump’s supporters in the United States is “populist.” Populism means a politics of the people, juxtaposed against a politics of the elites. But in the United States at least, Trump’s ideology — which has little to do with traditional Republican conservatism — frames the axis of division not as the many versus the few, but as nationalists versus globalists.
In the first issue of American Affairs, a new conservative journal dedicated to “exploring the true content of our common citizenship,” Georgetown University professor Joshua Mitchell writes that for “several generations conservatives have thought that the domestic enemy was progressivism. Now they imagine they face a new problem: populism.”
In fact, Mitchell argues, what is really happening is not a mass movement of the people, but a “revolt in the name of national sovereignty.” A revolt in the name of a connected nation, of citizens connected to one another, to their “towns, cities, states, and nation.” As Mitchell depicts it, theirs is a grounded nationalism, rooted in the wealth of voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville identified as the American antidote to the abstract rational universalism of both the French and the American revolutions.
The key point here is the relationship between borders, culture, and connection. By maintaining sovereignty at the national rather than the global level, borders can be defended and communities defined and maintained. If those borders dissolve, what binds human beings to one another is no longer their community or their common cultures, but only their identity. Thus, Mitchell argues, globalism and identity politics go together, and both are detached from national identity.
Being labeled a rootless globalist is always dangerous, as the Jewish people know all too well. The leading Soviet anti-Semitic slur was “rootless cosmopolitan,” a term used to refer to Jewish intellectuals and one that Vladimir Putin would be perfectly comfortable with today as he revives a Russian nationalism based on the Russian Orthodox Church, Mother Russia, and Slavic peasant culture.
Back in the United States, many Trump supporters also excoriate globalists for what they experience as sneering disdain. They rage against what they perceive as the moral sanctimony — indeed, the righteousness — of the left. Sam Altman, the CEO of the prestigious start-up incubator Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, spent several months after the presidential election traveling across the United States and talking to Trump voters. When the conversation turned to the reactions of the left to Trump’s victory, many of his interlocutors argued that “the left is more intolerant than the right.” Altman observes that this view “came up a lot, with real animosity in otherwise pleasant conversations.”
He quotes one person saying, “Stop calling us racists. Stop calling us idiots. We aren’t. Listen to us when we try to tell you why we aren’t. Oh, and stop making fun of us.” That perceived combination of arrogance and ridicule fans irritation into rage and revenge fantasies.
Current White House advisers have a similar reaction. A new profile of Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager turned White House counselor, notes that she has not “forgotten how people treated her back when they thought she was a sure loser. Their attitude wasn’t one of outright rudeness or contempt; it was so much worse than that. It was syrupy condescension — the smarmy, indulgent niceness of people who think they’re better than you.”
So much of higher education is about learning how to question and manage emotion. First-year law school students learn how to suppress their natural intuitions of justice – a defective car caused an accident that injured a child severely; surely the manufacturer should pay — in favor of carefully reasoned analysis of the costs and benefits to society as a whole. That training often means that highly educated “elites,” who socialize primarily with one another, either forget or willfully ignore the role of emotion in politics — except to the extent that campaign consultants produce an endless supply of gauzy “feel-good” political commercials.
Feelings of being disconnected and despised, however, are powerful emotions, strong enough to twist facts into a dark alternate reality. It is critical to look beyond a simple story of populism, of masses versus elites. A narrative of grounded, connected nationalism versus sanctimonious free-floating globalism is one that will generate support and staying power even among many well-educated people.
The right response is not to deny the existence or legitimacy of a desire to stay grounded amid tumultuous change, or love of country and culture, much less to look down on the less educated. It is to build a new narrative of patriotism, culture, connection, and inclusion. Even if Wilders lost this month and Le Pen loses in May, they and their supporters will not be going away.