There are many things that divide conservatives today, of course, and one of the chief ones is the politics of Europe: How to assess Orbán and Kaczyński? Farage and Le Pen? The “Freedom” party in Austria and the AfD in Germany (a literal alt-Right, the Alternative für Deutschland)? You could name Zeman, Wilders, and others.
These leaders and parties are not identical, but they belong to a family, and people tend to like them, as a class, or dislike them, as a class.
Nigel Farage refers to a “global movement.” After campaigning for the AfD, he traveled to Alabama, to campaign for Roy Moore. The Alabama election, he said, was “important for the whole global movement across the West that we have built up and we have fought for.”
Many conservatives hail Orbán et al. as defenders of the West, bulwarks against Brussels — indeed, “true conservatives,” as against the internationalists and sell-outs. Other conservatives detect an authoritarian smell, whether faint or strong.
And this brings up the question, What is a conservative? Is an American conservative different from a European one? What does Reagan have in common with the Le Pen family? (Congressman Steve King met with Marine, to discuss “shared values,” he said.) For that matter, what does a Brit such as Daniel Hannan have in common with the Continental “illiberals”?
“Illiberal” is not my designation; it is their own, which they employ proudly.
Champions of these illiberals tend to get cross when you compare the illiberals of Europe to their neighbor in the East, Putin, the granddaddy of them all. True, some conservatives admire Putin — but for most, I think, he is still a step too far.
In any case, consider the news out of Poland, where Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party is in charge. We are talking about a brand new law:
“Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes — shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
In 2016, a Russian blogger named Vladimir Luzgin ran afoul of his government. His crime: He stated that the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 (a plain fact). Luzgin was very, very lucky: He got off with a fine (of 200,000 rubles, or about $3,500). He could have been sent to prison. Not a nice prison, mind you — I don’t mean the Ecuadorean embassy in London (where many “true conservatives” troop to see their friend Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks).
Obviously, World War II is a touchy subject, for many people — across Europe and in East Asia as well. Passions about the war are entirely understandable. Yet it is not every government that criminalizes speech it doesn’t care for.
Timothy Snyder, the historian who wrote Bloodlands, said, “The worst thing about a law like this [Poland’s] is that it convinces you that you understand yourself. Your confidence in yourself grows as your knowledge of yourself goes down.”
I believe that friends of Poland — including conservatives, or maybe even starting with conservatives — should say to the government, You do not want to go down this road.
Except, they obviously do. The meaning of conservatism is today up for grabs. You don’t need to be a weatherman to figure out which way the wind is blowing: It’s blowing toward populism, nationalism, and the rest. But political winds can shift, especially with determined political and intellectual leadership.