When future president Ronald Reagan and Republican fusionists built an anti-Soviet coalition in the 1960s, they brought together a panoply of libertarians and traditionalists who did not share much philosophically. Ever since, conservative intellectuals and political leaders have debated the coherence of fusionism — or lack thereof.
In Europe, meanwhile, right-wing movements have long suffered from a wider and more deep-rooted split. On one side, moderate conservatives who generally support free markets, defend free trade and the European Union, care very little about upholding traditions, and stand ready to intervene abroad in the name of human rights. On the other, nationalists who espouse quasi-socialist economic policies, oppose immigration, reject the European Union, criticize unregulated international trade, and insist on the necessity to preserve national identities. In appearance, these two political tribes disagree on almost everything. When nationalists argue in favor of military-service programs, moderates respond that such proposals would compromise civil liberties. When nationalists claim that a strong welfare state helps traditional families, moderates answer that the invisible hand is more than capable of handling the health-care sector. As for foreign affairs, while moderates see every challenge to the liberal world order as an existential threat, nationalists celebrate the collapse of transnational cooperation with unbridled enthusiasm. From Islam and education to abortion and immigration, the list of their disagreements goes on and on.
This opposition is primarily philosophical. In many ways, the mainstream European Right emerged as a by-product of the Enlightenment. Embracing a classical-liberal approach to the state and its function, moderates refuse to champion a well-defined vision of virtue; instead, they limit government intervention so as to accommodate clashing worldviews, value systems, and religious beliefs. French conservatives such as former President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, celebrate the symbolic legacy of the French Revolution — they might deplore the violent excesses of the Reign of Terror, but they certainly agree with the modernist message that 1789 wanted to convey. At heart, the politics of modern European conservatism are procedural, not substantive. What matters most is the preservation of what John Stuart Mill called the “marketplace of ideas,” the shared use of reason, the protection of public order, and the stability of the social contract. At heart, the centrist Right wants to “conserve” only the structures established by our predecessors, not their way of life.
European nationalists reject this classical-liberal project, which they view as a dishonest attempt to sell mild centrism masquerading as conservatism. Where moderates see the Enlightenment as the beginning of restraint on state power and freedom of speech, nationalists remember that Immanuel Kant and others invited their contemporaries to liberate themselves from the “lazy” and “immature” grip of religion. Like their progressive counterparts, populist right-wingers lament the Enlightenment’s careless insistence on “reason,” this panacea meant to deliver us from all prejudices — including, as Mary Wollstonecraft put it, the “servile grip” of traditions.
To this rationalist ethos, nationalists oppose deep-rooted feelings of belonging. Civilization is a necessary burden, one that we must shoulder with unrestrained pride and courage. Our filial duty to the past is absolute, and if upholding what Pericles called “the seal of our ancestors’ approval” means fighting what others might see as “progress,” then so be it. To the comfort of transnational institutions, nationalists prefer the risky path of sovereignty. Their conservatism is all-encompassing: We ought to preserve the permanence of culture, religious fervor, and institutions. Fundamentally procedural, mainstream European conservatives stand ready to compromise in the name of public cohesion. Populist nationalists, on the other hand, view politics as a zero-sum game in which every concession to the “decadent” Left brings us one step closer to Hayek’s “road to serfdom.”
Beyond policy disagreements, another significant difference between the two political movements is one of style. Typically, moderate European conservatives such as Theresa May or Angela Merkel take on the role of the nuanced technocrat. Their tone is measured, their attitude detached from the ire of popular politics. They do not present themselves as the tribunes of a disenchanted populace. Hailing from elite universities and investment banks, they embody a certain kind of worldly urbanity. By contrast, populist right-wingers such as Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage champion what President Trump calls the “silent majority.” Convinced culture warriors, they do not refrain from using bombastic rhetoric, historical hyperbole, and ominous imagery. For them, politics is not a Greek agora but a Roman gladiatorial contest.
Last week, Polish president Andrzej Duda, a quintessential representative of this rising nationalist Right, won reelection in a squeaker. His victory might have been narrow, but its symbolic ramifications could be monumental. Duda’s triumph is but a symptom of a wider political paradigm shift: The gradual replacement of the mainstream classical liberal Right by its populist counterpart. Determined to hold on to the presidency, Andrzej Duda ran a decisively divisive campaign. On June 13, he told supporters that the LGBT movement was an “ideology worse than Communism,” before accusing the German media of backing his liberal opponent, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski. Among other controversial measures, Duda used the state-run media as a campaign tool for the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS); on June 9, the caption at the center of Poland’s main evening news program read, “Will Trzaskowski fulfill Jewish demands?” While some may find Duda’s excesses intolerable, his supporters simply reply that the end justifies the means. Ultimately, European nationalists and progressives have at least one thing in common: They both see politics as a battleground in which opponents have to be vanquished with decisive force.
The rise of populist nationalism in Europe may well be a temporary phenomenon. For now, however, the likes of Duda and Viktor Orbán enjoy an incontestable surge in popularity, one that is at least justified by two factors. First, globalization has encouraged the development of a rural–urban split; while the cosmopolitan inhabitants of well-connected cities delight in the status quo, their fellow citizens in the countryside witness the methodical dismemberment of their communities. For too long, moderates have refused to face this cultural malaise, responding with nothing but polished smiles and technocratic promises. Populists, who understand that emotion and distress are nonnegotiable parts of politics, have capitalized on the inaction of mainstream political forces. Second, and most important, the modern European Right has purely and simply abandoned sound conservative principles. The Polish MEP Ryszard Legutko famously observed that there is no longer any meaningful difference between the neoliberal Left and its right-wing counterpart. While we need not agree with Legutko’s politics, his remark certainly struck a chord among disillusioned Europeans in search of renewal.
Despite this panoply of promising signs, however, the development of a growing generational divide might seal the ultimate demise of nationalism. All across Europe, populist leaders have proven unable to earn the support of the youth, another disenchanted demographic whose electoral significance increases by the day. Duda won but narrowly, as 65 percent of voters under the age of 30 opposed his candidacy, just as younger voters have rejected President Trump’s, Boris Johnson’s, and Matteo Salvini’s. For now, the unwavering turnout of the rural working class fuels the rise of nationalism; in a few years, a more moderate voice may well become necessary to capture the enthusiasm of entire generations for whom globalization seems to be a given.
Whether the rising tide of populist nationalism will strengthen or wane is an unanswerable question. But to those who begin to think about building a post-Trump Republican Party, the failures of mainstream European conservatives might be a good place to start.