They share ideas and ideology, friends and funders. They cross borders to appear at one another’s rallies. They have deep contacts in Russia — they often use Russian disinformation — as well as friends in other authoritarian states. They despise the West and seek to undermine Western institutions. They think of themselves as a revolutionary avant-garde just like, once upon a time, the Communist International, or Comintern, the Soviet-backed organization that linked communist parties around Europe and the world. Now, of course, they are not Soviet-backed, and they are not communist. But this loose group of parties and politicians — Austria’s Freedom Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the UK Independence Party, Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, Donald Trump — have made themselves into a global movement of “anti-globalists.” Meet the “Populist International”: Whoever wins the U.S. election Tuesday, its influence is here to stay.
Although it is often described (by me and others searching for a shorthand) as “far-right,” the Populist International has little to do with the “right” that has thrived in Western countries since World War II. Continental European Christian Democracy arose out of a postwar desire to bring morality back to politics; Gaullism came out of a long French tradition of statism and secularism; Anglo-Saxon conservatives had a historic preference for free markets. Most of them shared a Burkean small-“c” conservatism: a dislike of radical change, skepticism of “progress,” a belief in the importance of conserving institutions and values. Most of them emerged out of particular local and historical traditions. All of them shared a devotion to representative democracy, religious tolerance, Western integration and the Western alliance.
By contrast, the parties that belong to the Populist International, and the media that support it, are not Burkean. They don’t want to conserve or preserve what exists. Instead, they want to radically overthrow the institutions of the present to bring back things that existed in the past — or that they believe existed in the past — by force. Their language takes different forms in different countries, but their revolutionary projects often include the expulsion of immigrants, or at least the return to all-white (or all-Dutch, or all-German) societies; the resurrection of protectionism; the reversal of women’s or minorities’ rights; the end of international institutions and cooperation of all kinds. They advocate violence: In 2014, Trump said that “you’ll have to have riots to go back to where we used to be, when America was great.”
Sometimes they claim to be Christian, but just as often they are nihilists and cynics. Their ideology, sometimes formalized and sometimes not, opposes homosexuality, racial integration, religious tolerance and human rights.
The Populist International holds these goals to be more important than prosperity, more important than economic growth, more important than democracy itself. Like the parties that once formed the Comintern, they are eager to destroy existing institutions — from independent courts and media to international alliances and treaties — to obtain them. This week, Britain’s Daily Mail, a newspaper that propagates the ideas of the Populist International, actually denounced three high-court judges as “Enemies of the People” because they decreed that Britain’s exit from the European Union would require parliamentary consultation. Trump is only one of many politicians — Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary’s Viktor Orban — who have launched attacks on the principles of their own constitutions.
Like their Comintern predecessors, the Populist International also understands that there is much to be gained by mutual support. German Christian Democrats would never have dreamed of campaigning on behalf of British Tories. And although they had much in common, Tories didn’t intervene directly on behalf of U.S. Republicans. By contrast, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, has openly campaigned for Trump, even appearing in a “spin room” to plug the Republican nominee after one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. Geert Wilders, the xenophobic Dutch politician, showed up at the Republican National Convention, where instead of observing, as a Dutch Christian Democrat would have done, he agitated on behalf of Trump, too. All of the populist parties and newspapers use the narratives put out by Sputnik, the Russian news service that serves as an endless source of conspiracy theories and fake news. This week, a fake account of a refugee in Austria acquitted of raping a child — originally broadcast on Russian state TV — was repeated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and then across Europe, including (again) in the Daily Mail.
All the signs are that the movement is still growing. If Trump loses, the story isn’t over: His campaign will no doubt metastasize into a television channel and a news network, and will continue to spread. But his failure will encourage the antidotes — the citizens’ parties, based on ideas rather than charisma, the independent journalists, the democracy movements — that have begun to emerge.
And if Trump wins? The Populist International will be invigorated, not just in the United States but around the world. Trump will be its leader, his daughter Ivanka will be its heir apparent, and liberal democracy, and the West as we know it, may cease to exist. Think about that before you vote.
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