The Globalism of the Anti-Globalists

Steve Bannon with Marine Le Pen at a National Front Party convention in Lille, France, March 10, 2018. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)
Why is Steve Bannon such an international presence?

It’s a curious thing that one’s credibility as an American anti-globalist now seems dependent on one’s possessing detailed opinions on everything from German refugee policy to who should sit in the Italian senate.

Take anti-globalist superstar Steve Bannon. He’s been globetrotting non-stop since leaving the White House, giving speeches in Hong Kong and Japan, counseling candidates in Italy, and stumping for political parties in France. Similar things are happening in the other direction too, of course: Marion Maréchal–Le Pen, of France’s stridently anti-globalist National Front, was a keynote speaker at this year’s CPAC, while various other leading lights of the European anti-globalist Right, such as Holland’s Geert Wilders and Britain’s Nigel Farage, routinely offer political commentary in and about America.

Conventional wisdom declares these characters to be part of an ideological fad called “populism,” which is said to be worryingly nationalistic, yet also generic enough to make its messages, themes, and leaders universally relevant. That a sensationalistic press would uncritically swallow such an apparent paradox is predictable; that the anti-globalists themselves would be similarly untroubled is more perplexing.

In this new populism-driven world order, the identified foe of the nationalist forces are not boring local politicians, but a sensational medley of the most broadly disagreeable initiatives from around the Occident — the immigration policies of Angela Merkel, the corruption of Hillary Clinton, the bureaucracy of the European Union, the political correctness of Justin Trudeau, etc. — which are collectively blamed on these disparate leaders’ “globalist” agenda. Since the villains are shared, their victims are equally transcendent. A self-proclaimed American nationalist may be as deeply invested in Brexit as a British nationalist is in the success of Donald Trump. The struggle against “globalism” thus can’t help but become globalized, sustained by a worldwide infrastructure of news outlets, Web forums, YouTube channels, podcasts, social-media accounts, and celebrities, all thoroughly literate in the politics of multiple nations — to say nothing of English, the language once dubbed “Globish” for its planetary reach.

For proponents of such a transnational movement to rationalize themselves as “nationalist,” the definition of nationalism itself must be stretched in trans-national fashion, with the national interest no longer revolving around the narrow defense of any one country or culture, but a broader, universalist concept like “Western civilization,” “Judeo-Christain values,” or even (on the angriest fringe) “whiteness.” The unavoidable cultural differences separating nationalists of different nationalities, including the rather starkly different ways many of them conceptualize what it means to be on “the right,” are either glossed over or ignored.

The contradictions may be too severe to be sustainable, however. Increasingly, the self-declared leadership of the anti-globalist movement seems to be tottering on the precipice of Animal Farm–style decadence, in which the supposed heroes have evolved into an arrogant mirror of everything they purport to hate. There is very obviously an anti-globalist global elite these days, comprising a tight class of educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan politicians, journalists, and Internet personalities who enjoy international travel and intellectual careers, and usually have more in common with one another (and even their opponents) than with the forgotten men of the lower classes they purport to speak for. It is not at all clear, for instance, what pressing interest an unemployed Pennsylvania steelworker has in what party controls the French National Assembly, yet a great many professional anti-globalists seem much more interested in the latter than in the former, because it exists in a world they more easily understand and relate to.

Globalization is a real phenomenon, and the spread of post-national, post-modern philosophies among the ruling classes of the world has wrought very real, destructive consequences. Yet not all of these consequences are relevant to American lives, and Americans have no reason to be automatically invested in foreign problems and foreign politics simply because Internet technology makes it easier to learn about them and sympathize. While some struggles of non-American nations reflect universal dilemmas of governance that run parallel to American experiences, just as many do not, and need to be appreciated as symptoms of deeply particular localized phenomena that admirably have no American equivalent. The present chaotic state of Italian politics, for instance, is an outgrowth more of decades of uniquely Italian economic, cultural, and constitutional dysfunction than of some cute general phenomenon of “fed-up voters around the world.” I don’t really understand Italy’s issues, and odds are high you don’t either — and neither does Steve Bannon, and neither does, indeed, any non-Italian person. Nor should we necessarily want to.

The earliest, most consistent promise of life in America was an escape from the politics of other continents, Europe first among them. I must confess to possessing a bit of nostalgia for some of the cultural norms of historic American isolationism, in which there was a lot more shining-city-on-a-hill-type rhetoric positing America as an exception, refuge, and example, as opposed to just one more boring member of “the West” drifting along the same global trends as everywhere else. It was not too long ago that the mainstream American conception of European populists was something alien and bizarre, an exoticism to be shrugged off with a “glad that’s not our problem.” There was an impressive American unity, dare I say, nationalism, inherent in such emotional distance. It embraced a pride and confidence in American uniqueness, and the success that flowed from the distinct American socio-political order, as opposed to viewing America’s domestic condition as broadly interchangeable with that of the rest of the planet.

The earliest, most consistent promise of life in America was an escape from the politics of other continents, Europe first among them.

Knowledge about the politics of other countries is information worth possessing for its own sake, and in an inter-connected world, it’s neither mature or safe to wallow in insulated ignorance. Useful insight into foreign politics is something quite different, however, as it requires familiarity not only with a foreign nation’s history, geography, economics, laws, leaders, and political system, but also with the subtle ways in which these forces emphasize and undermine one another to create a larger “political culture” — one of the most complicated characteristics of any organized civilization, and one outsiders are least equipped to grasp. The whole concept of representative democracy — one of the virtues globalism is said to threaten — presupposes that those closest to a community’s problems have the greatest right to address them, yet today’s globalized anti-globalist movement seems eager to abandon that modest principle in favor of turning world politics into a reality show of stylized conflict over a few universally applicable abstractions.

In a globalized economy, it may be hard for the determined nationalist to make a living focusing on the esoteric, insular issues particular to his country, rather than those of interest to the wider world. But that was supposed to be the point.