Europe’s right-wing populist problem and American parallels

I’ve spent my morning and early afternoon reading all sorts of cheerful things about the rise of the right in Europe, as if the rise of the right here weren’t cheerful enough. Specifically, I’ve read Ian Buruma’s article in the forthcoming issue of The Nation three times now, and find it very disturbing. I’ve also relistened to the July 27th broadcast of Democracy Now! which featured two fantastic interviews that will make you think hard about the populist right in Europe and make you want whiskey. The first was the always fantastic Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, C Street, and the new Sweet Heaven When I Die. Sharlet actually read the entirety of Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto — Breivik, of course, is the extreme right-wing Christian terrorist arrested for the deaths of 77 Norwegians. The second interview was with Eva Gabrielsson, longtime partner of the late Stieg Larsson, known best for his bestselling Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), but who devoted his tragically short life to combating right-wing extremism in Scandinavia through his relentless journalism in the Trotskyist Fjärde internationalen, Britain’s Searchlight, and the journal he founded (on which Millennium was based) Expo.

I lived in Berlin for three months when in college, and in Frankfurt for nearly a year after I graduated, and read as much German journalism as I could. I’m still a regular reader of Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung — both excellent publications, which, if you’re down with German dependent clauses, are well worth reading. Far better journalism than we usually get here, on par with The New York Times at its best and The Guardian. Had my first encounters with Europe’s New Right in those pages, specifically a piece in Die Zeit about the rising right in Hungary (which, if you haven’t read about yet, please do — Fidesz and its leader and current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are truly terrifying). In Germany, at least, the contemporary right has its home in the NDP (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), reviled among the mainstream political parties (CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, Die Grünen, Die Linke) and completely ineffectual nationally. And yet. The NDP has successfully put members in the regional legislatures of two of the sixteen German states, with 14 members total in those two. The NDP is a Neo-Nazi party, extremely hostile to the large Turkish immigrant population in Germany, and to Islam in general.
The above is an important point both Buruma and Sharlet make. Buruma:

And then 9/11 happened, and the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the bombings in Madrid and London—all these atrocities perpetrated by terrorists acting in the name of a violent Islamist revolution. This finally gave right-wing populists a cause with which to crash into the center of European politics.

European civilization, frightened citizens were being told, had to be defended against “Islamization,” against fanatical aliens who breed so fast that white Europeans will soon be outnumbered. And the promoters of this cause were not nostalgic old SS men dreaming of the good old days, or neo-Fascists pining for black shirts and military marches, or skinheads itching for a brawl. Quite the opposite: Europe’s new populists are smartly dressed modern men and women who claim to be defending our freedoms. And they are persuasive because people are afraid and resentful, blaming economic and social anxieties on “liberal elites.” But if the fears are vague and various, the focal point is Islam.

Breivik took a kind of logical next step from that rhetoric. And that’s part of why I think it’s troubling when people sort of attempt to dismiss him as a madman and not deal with the politics that are very much a part of our, unfortunately, mainstream political discourse, that walk right up to the edge of violence.

Or, you know, in the case of U.S. war in the Middle East—you know, I’ve reported on this in the past, and we talked about this on the show here before—a number of senior American officers, Lieutenant General Bruce Fister, described the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as “a spiritual war of the greatest magnitude.” There was video of the top American Army chaplain in Afghanistan saying that we’re there fighting in Afghanistan for Christianity.
Buruma’s article is extraordinarily relevant, as he discusses the rise of the right across Europe, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Francesco Speroni in Italy. It’s truly shocking to read how widespread this still-somewhat-underground movement has become. With the increasing economic turmoil across Europe — UK, Greece, Spain, and Italy have already erupted into protest, and the demise of the Euro seems ever more likely — it’s worth remembering that the hyperinflation of 1923 and the economic despair of the ’20s in general were key contributing factors to the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany. When people get desperate, they’ll turn to any ideology that ameliorates their despair and promises better days. This poses an interesting question for the Left — essentially how do we convince despairing and angry folk here and elsewhere that we have the solutions to wide-scale social breakdown?
This brings us to the United States. The crucial distinction to make here, I think, is between the largely youth-oriented and economy-focused activism/rioting in Europe, and the largely middle-aged and culturally-predicated activism here, courtesy of the Tea Party. The United States is in a Second Great Depression, none of this Great Recession stuff. When one-sixth of the populace is dependent on food stamps just to eat, when U6 unemployment is around 20%, when unemployment among minority populations reach as high as 40%, when young people graduate college with $25,000 in debt and no chance at a well-paying job, it’s a depression. Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West on 08.09’s Democracy Now! and Barbara Ehrenreich on the 08.08 broadcast go into much further depth and much more eloquently about how poverty is getting worse daily in the United States. The economic reality here, as in Europe, is dire for most people, and I predict it won’t be long before the rage prevalent on the extreme Right about their mythologized version of America extends to economic issues beyond the Tea Party’s Randian aversion to taxation or community of any kind. Worth pointing out as well that a great deal of the cultural aggression among Tea Partiers is explicitly directed at Muslims, from Herman Cain stating that he would never hire a Muslim for his cabinet to completely absurd anti-Shariah laws passed in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
It’s a frightening global moment, ripe for anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic scapegoating, riper still for extreme political upheaval. So far, the Right, here and in Europe, is positioning itself far better than the Left, despite the Right’s complete economic and social fantasies. Both in the United States and in Europe, the growing movements on the Right are predicated on a nativist meme that’s been around for centuries hearkening back to a hypothetical “pure” state in which “liberty” means doing whatever you’d like and the brown people are ruthless savages intent on infiltrating and undermining our societies. This fear of “The Other” surfaces when times are tough and white Westerners need a scapegoat. The Right has egged on this attitude since the Crusades (yes, I know politics are a bit different now), and is currently doing so to demonize Islam, the LGBT community, minority communities, the poor, and basically anyone who isn’t relatively well-off all in the name of “purifying” societies in the United States and Europe.
To the point, right-wing extremism is ascendant at the moment, and we on the Left need to do everything we can to combat scapegoating and to press what democracy we have to pass a jobs program. Otherwise, this’ll be America before we can blink.
Maybe that wouldn’t even be a bad thing, as long as we can get the masses on our side.
(Cross-posted at

~ by Benji on August 14, 2011.

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