Politics & Policy

National Fronts

(Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty)
Trump’s rise is mirrored on the European right.

From Malmö comes the news that the Sweden Democrats, scrubbed-up neo-fascists who have forsaken the Roderick Spode uniforms, have become Sweden’s most popular political party, commanding the allegiance of a quarter of Swedish voters.

The 25 percent mark is of some interest: It’s about where Donald Trump stands in the most recent Republican primary poll and where Bernie Sanders stands in Democratic primary polls. It’s a little bit ahead of the 20 percent mark, where the Danish People’s party stands, and a little bit behind Nigel Farage’s UKIP, while in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front took 25 percent of the vote in local elections earlier this year. Somewhere between one in four and one in five seems to be, for the moment, the golden ratio of pots-and-pans-banging politics.

For the right-leaning movements, the common issue is immigration. Senator Sanders, a professing socialist from Vermont, may seem like an outlier in this gang, but his views on immigration are substantially the same as those of Trump and by no means radically different from those of Marine Le Pen, even if his speeches are edited for progressive audiences; he charges that a shadowy cabal of billionaires (the name “Koch” inevitably looms large) wants to flood the United States with cheap immigrant labor to undermine the working class: “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them,” he says, with emphasis on the eternal infernal Them. “Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first — not wealthy globetrotting donors.” Strangely, Sanders protests that Trump is a beastly beast for holding roughly the same views. “All kinds of people,” indeed — not our kind of people.

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Those views are not unusual in either the American or the European context. Though there is a fair amount of volatility in the polling, between one-third and two-thirds of Americans have told Gallup for years that they wish to see immigration levels decreased. Of those who disagree, most want immigration kept at current levels, and only a relatively small number say they want to see more immigration. Contrary to the advice of the campaign consultants, there isn’t a dramatic difference in immigration attitudes between whites and Hispanics. And though voters do obviously care about immigration, only a minority — the recurring 20 to 25 percent — insists that immigration policy is a deal-breaker in an election. A minority, but not an insignificant one.

Not here, and not in Sweden. The view from Malmö is not entirely surprising: In the Rosengård district, almost the entire population is composed of either immigrants or mostly unassimilated Swedish nationals of immigrant background, a largely Muslim enclave in the shadow of the nearby mosque. Less than half of those residents are employed and, according to the local press, only 60 percent complete elementary school. There have been riots and gang wars, along with ambush attacks on police and ambulance crews. As with the case of Donald Trump in the United States, the Sweden Democrats illustrate that when responsible parties will not confront the issue of uncontrolled immigration, then irresponsible parties will.

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The Sweden Democrats often are described as a neo-Nazi phenomenon, or at least a party with neo-Nazi roots. That is not quite correct. As with most European nationalist movements, you don’t have to turn over too many Sweden Democrat stones until what’s underneath shouts “Sieg, heil!” but the party’s real intellectual roots are in the polemic of Per Engdahl, the 20th-century radical who derived his “new Swedishness” agenda from the policies of Benito Mussolini, rejecting Nazism even as he was happy to make common cause with its admirers. Engdahl, like his Italian inspiration, was robustly anti-liberalism and intensely anti-capitalism. His economics, like those of Trump and Sanders, were essentially corporatist, holding that the economy should be regimented into a series of corporazioni representing various interest groups that would, under political discipline, negotiate wages, trade terms, etc., in accordance with whatever the politicians in power take to be the “national interest.”

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In The Duel, his account of the confrontation between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, the great historian John Lukacs explores one of modern history’s terrible ironies: that even as the national socialists were defeated in Germany, national socialism became the world’s predominant political philosophy, albeit stripped of the cruelty and hatred that animated its German expression. “We are all national socialists now,” he writes. Some models are a little more nationalist (Trump) and some are a little more socialist (Sanders), but both reject laissez-faire categorically. “Hitler was not the founder of National Socialism, not even in Germany,” Lukacs writes, “but he recognized the potential marriage of nationalism with socialism, and also the practical — and not merely rhetorical — primacy of nationalism within that marriage. . . . He also knew that old-fashioned capitalism was gone; that belonged to the 19th century.” Lukacs relates an episode in which Hitler was asked whether he would nationalize German industry. Hitler insisted there was no need: “I shall nationalize the people.” Senator Sanders has a rather wordier version of the same agenda, describing the goal of his campaign as inspiring mass political movement in which “millions of people stand up and loudly proclaim that this nation belongs to all of us.”

(Scott Olson/Getty)

There is a lot going on here. Part of this is traditional xenophobia, the habit of finding aliens to blame during times of political and economic anxiety, which is doubly attractive if those aliens are ethnically distinctive: When was the last time you heard Senator Sanders screaming about our trade deficit with Germany or Pat Buchanan bemoaning the thousands of illegal immigrants from Ireland residing in the United States? Part of it is legitimate concern about immigration that is excessive and chaotic, and detestation of politicians who are so easily mau-maued by suggestions of prejudice that they either refuse to touch the issue or pursue precisely the wrong policies.

But part of it is that John Lukacs was right, though we seem to be haunted less by the ghost of Adolf Hitler than by that of Benito Mussolini, whose economic ideas and executive-centered political model were so attractive to Franklin Roosevelt and to progressives of his era. It is not the case, as some libertarians suggest, that free trade implies free immigration, that laissez-faire implies open borders; that is a mistake made by those who neglect the fact that human beings have economic value but are not economic goods.

#related#Nonetheless, there is a large overlap between those who put immigration restriction at the center of their agenda and those who oppose free trade, and they share the assumption that economic interactions with foreigners absent government guidance toward the “national interest” is necessarily destructive. It is not that there is no such thing as the national interest: We have an intense and necessary interest in what’s going on in Pyongyang at the moment, and what happens in Syria, whether our borders are secure, whether our banking regulations put us at a global disadvantage. But there isn’t a legitimate national interest in having boffins in Washington stand between a fellow in Pittsburgh who wants to buy a pair of sneakers and a guy in Mindanao who wants to sell them to him. That so many are convinced that there is such an interest is only another piece of evidence, superfluous at this point in history, that there isn’t much of a market for markets, that people who have enjoyed the benefits of largely free and open trade for a long time now remain suspicious of the very mechanism that makes the abundance they enjoy possible.

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What is most needed is that ability to make distinctions: between patriotism and nationalism, between citizens and trade goods, between the national interest and the interests of those opportunists who claim to discern it with a little help from a lobbyist or three. If those with the ability and the inclination to make such distinctions cede the field to those without that ability and inclination, then expect one out of four — and maybe more — to follow whatever will-o’-the-wisp promises to deliver them from the alien menace, whether in Malmö, in Hénin-Beaumont, or in Des Moines.


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