11 April 2017

How populism went global

By Nathan Kennan

On the afternoon of 29 March, 2017, a group of jubilant Members of the European Parliament were cutting cake and drinking Spanish cava outside the Old Hack Pub in Brussels, directly across from the offices of the European Commission. This collection of British, German, French, Italian, Polish and Czech politicians were celebrating the activation by Theresa May of Article 50. What united them was a single common goal: to do themselves out of a job.

When one considers the political events that have rocked the Western world in the past year, populism is the first word that springs to mind. What began as a one-off coup de feu with Donald Trump’s shock nomination as Republican candidate for President a year or so ago soon developed into something more serious on the 23 June.

Soon after the Leave victory in the referendum, and with his party in full-blown self-destruction mode, UKIP leader Nigel Farage – perhaps the most reviled MEP in the European Parliament – got on a plane to Mississippi.

That’s where the surprising paradox of right-wing populism comes into focus. Why did Nigel Farage jump across the pond to campaign with Donald Trump? Why did Marine Le Pen, the French nationalist leader of the Front National, lunch in Trump Tower in Manhattan just a few weeks after Trump’s victory?

In other words, how and why has it come to be that, in the face of the admittedly somewhat top-down imposition of political, financial and even military globalisation, the counter-movement bent on ending all of this integration is perhaps more internationally unified than any other political and social movement today?

The answer is that this populist movement, which refers to itself by a variety of different terms throughout the Western world, is very much a single movement working together to accomplish common goals. While some members of the alt-right in America, Poland or Austria may deny it, their movement has a foothold in such a range of countries due not just to social media, but to the kind of barrier-breaking common human interaction and cooperation that goes by the name of globalisation.

That is not to say that Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Beppe Grillo, Geert Wilders and others are working towards a singular goal.

Apart from perhaps Breitbart, which I will get to later, there are few openly globalised populist institutions. Perhaps that is because to be global is somewhat taboo given the movement’s desire to return to hard borders.

The exchange of ideas, people, and information from one country to another and between the global elite is what maddens this new movement. They would like preserve the identities of individual cultures before global forces spoil them by merging them into a shared international identity.

But it is globalisation – or as it is often referred to by the alt-right, globalism – that has been the main enabler of right-wing populism. The exchange of ideas, their evolution from country to country, the transfer of people and cooperation between them – all of these things are very much thanks to globalisation and without them it is nearly impossible to imagine the chain reaction currently sweeping through the West.

How globalised is populism? Do the movements act in coordination? Do they use similar media outlets? Do they use the same terminology, share the same goals, and act similarly when they actually reach positions of power? Without a doubt there is a level of coordination among right-wing populist forces that defies the very goal of independence that they seek.

Populists across the globe have sought encouragement and taken inspiration from the success of one another. After the Leave campaign won the European referendum, Donald Trump famously boasted his victory would be “Brexit plus-plus”. Marine Le Pen has spoken often of a Frexit based on Brexit, and Geert Wilders, before his poor performance in the recent Dutch elections, was not only compared to Trump and others, but rightly insisted he had come first and had perhaps enabled the successes that came after.

A much more formal kind of co-operation takes place in the European Parliament, where there are two groupings of far-Right parties: Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, chaired jointly by Nigel Farage and David Borelli, the parliamentary leader of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement; and Europe of Nations and Freedom, which is dominated by the Front National.

For an illustration of the worldwide nature of the media and the terminology used by populists, look no further than Breitbart News. Founded by American John Breitbart in 2007, its most infamous journalist was, until recently, Milo Yiannopoulos, a British alt-right icon who has provoked outrage during his speaking tours of the United States (where he lives on a visa – so much for the anti-immigration stance he and his cohort vigilantly advocate).

Breitbart News established a London presence in 2014, has a Jerusalem branch and earlier this year announced its plans to open offices in Paris and Berlin. The far-Right German party Alternative für Deutschland regularly cites stories from Breitbart and other non-German websites to demonstrate what it sees as the dangers of immigration into Germany.

Far-Right activists might counter these criticisms by saying that a global problem demands a global response. But this level of coordination goes further than simply fighting to destroy a system – it is creating a unified culture for the far-Right, establishing common goals across continents, and breaking down barriers between groups of people who may have been left behind by globalisation, but are now forming their own globalised world.

Were the far-Right to get what they wanted, would their global movement dismantle? It seems unlikely. Take Nigel Farage after his referendum triumph. His goals achieved, Farage could have been perfectly content to sit at home in splendid isolation. Instead, he felt compelled to help Trump.

It seems that Farage felt a certain kinship with Trump, a man he had never met until then, due to their common goals and shared enemy. Virtually unknown in America, the UKIP leader was soon hired as a paid contributor to Fox News. Such is globalisation.

Marine Le Pen visited Trump Tower after Trump and Farage had triumphed. No one knows exactly what took place during her visit, apart from the fact that she seems not to have met Trump himself, nor to have necessarily been there for any purpose other than to show her face in the temple of American populism.

Yet the fact that she was there is enough to signify the kinds of bonds engendered by globalised populism. It has its leaders, its movements, its significant buildings, and even visiting such a place is a political statement, even if she left without a photograph in front of Trump’s golden lift. Just visiting Trump tower symbolically affirmed to her supporters where she stood, where they all stood, and where she would take France if given the opportunity.

As much as globalisation in its current form is despised by a large segment of most Western societies, not only are they using many of its tools and properties to their advantage, but they seem unaware of how much it has helped them reach the point they are at.

Nathan Kennan is a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science