The American media is so obsessed with presidential election politics that significant trends elsewhere, especially in Europe, are being totally missed. Right-wing populist parties are increasingly doing well, whether it is the National Front in France, UKIP, or similar parties in Eastern Europe. Uncontrolled Islamic immigration and terrorist attacks have upended the usually sleepy political climate in Europe and it is hard to tell where things will wind up. In the US Donald Trump has tapped the same disenchantment and continues run strongly in the polls.
The question is whether all of this represents a conservative trend, or something else. Whatever they are, the right populists are not conservative, although claiming the mantle is unsurprisingly in keeping with stretching the meaning of political terminology and identity. Since all of these candidates are calling themselves conservative but are far apart on many subjects it essentially just show how meaningless political labels have become.
If we look closely, the only areas the right populists and conservatives have common ground is some disposition towards nationalism and the traditional culture of their societies. We may find these things favorable in moderation. The problem with the further right is that there is always a danger of driving over the cliff, as all the countries that participated in the disaster of World War I certainly did. That along with the second world war made nationalism unpopular in Europe until recently. Thus there is a difference between patriotism and chauvinism, (a term so misused in this country most people don’t have the foggiest notion of what it really means. It originated with critics of a 19th century French figure who was so over the top in sabre-rattling and near loony extreme nationalism that the term chauvinism stuck). At the same time there is nothing wrong with patriotism or pride in one’s own culture. The problem in the west is an intellectual class that despises their own culture, and become horrified when people react accordingly.
But there similarities end. The populists want action, which usually distresses conservatives who abhor social disruption. No one is making much of an economic argument but here again populists are tapping into real feelings about stagnant incomes and elusive prosperity. Trump has managed to channel a good part of this sentiment, and when responsible establishment figures attack him it seems to have the opposite effect. For there are some problems in the way this righteous indignation has come across on two levels. First, we have the problem of loss in faith in institutions across society, be it the political class, what passes for “intellectuals” in this country, the media, etc. etc. whose scolding of Trump only further reduces their tenuous legitimacy while inflating his.
I am hardly a supporter of Trump but in this sense find his critics annoyingly hysterical. He could hardly be worse than the past couple of presidents, he might do more to serve the interests of the working class, he’d get along well with Putin and probably cut a favorable deal with the Chinese leaders. The president after all can only exercise real power in foreign affairs, being otherwise hemmed in domestically by strong constitutional limits. However in other places where the constitutional order is less strongly embedded there could be problems, even somewhere like the Fifth Republic (France).
Trump, like the other populists, is not invested in the system, a fact that is working in his favor at present, but could backfire if he were to come into real interaction with it in office. In such an eventuality given how moribund the Democrats are, I could see the principal opposition to Trump coming, ironicallly from conservatives. Given the way things are going, and indeed have almost always gone, we would be a lot better off if it didn’t matter so much who was president. Perhaps that will be the net result of all of this, but at this stage the only thing we can reliably expect is the unexpected.