Nationalist Internationalists? The Strange Paradoxes of the Global Right

Nationalist Internationalists? The Strange Paradoxes of the Global Right
By Rita Abrahamsen, Jean-François Drolet, Alexandra Gheciu, Srdjan Vucetic and Michael C. Williams

The first step toward meeting the challenge of the Radical Right is to understand their ideas, strategies, and organisations.

For nearly three years, we have been researching the Radical Right.  It has been quite a journey. We started planning the project before President Trump’s election victory and before the BREXIT referendum. Our hunch was that the growing prominence of populist-nationalist groups and parties in country after country was not a coincidence and that their successes could not be explained with reference only to domestic politics.  We also suspected that while these various groups were fiercely proud of their national identity and distinctiveness, they simultaneously had an international agenda and a vision for a radically transformed world order.

And here we are, three years later and our hypotheses have become daily news.

Barely a day goes by without a story about electoral gains for the Radical Right. The remarkable results for AfD in Germany’s recent election is the latest in a series of electoral successes that include the rise of the BREXIT party in the UK and the ascendance of Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy.  At the EU level, the recent parliamentary elections resulted in dramatic setbacks for the old parties of the centre-left and centre-right and significant gains for right-wing parties. Then there are the frequent rallies and clashes between right-wing groups and their detractors. Portland, Oregon, traditionally regarded as a progressive stronghold, is the latest scene of violent confrontations between the far-right Proud Boys and the anti-fascist group ANTIFA.

A painting depicting a workman chipping away at a star on the E.U. flag by artist Banksy is seen in Dover, England, on Jan. 3, 2019.

The international connections and global agendas of the Radical Right have also attracted attention. Fired from his job as President Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon embarked on a mission to mobilise European right-wing movements, seeking to establish a federation of nationalist parties in Europe and also start a new university. Bannon’s “Movement” has had setbacks, but his aspirations have made substantial progress. Russia, openly and clandestinely, supports a wide array of Radical Right movements and parties across the globe, including controversially Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national.

On numerous occasions, the role of the internet in spreading Radical Right ideas and memes has come to light, and many of these groups – of various degrees of extremism – have made masterful use of algorithm-powered platforms such as Google, Facebook, youTube and Twitter and turned the new media to benefit the new right.


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Yet, our understanding of how the Radical Right is globally connected and how these connections work to strengthen their appeal within individual countries is still inadequate.  Here are five things we have learnt from our project:

  1. The contemporary Radical Right is intellectually and politically savvy. It is grounded in its own analysis of contemporary politics and international relations and has its own tradition of political thought and international political sociology. This tradition has been mobilised and renewed by an intellectual vanguard with the aim of moving the discourse and organisational strategies of the Radical Right away from Third Reich nostalgia and skinhead subculture by providing alternative resources to interpret events, history, concepts, literature, films, and popular culture. “Economic dislocation” and “cultural resentment” (to name but two common explanations) do not in themselves account for the rise of today’s Right. Equally important is the way these issues are framed within the discourse of the Right and their mobilising potential.

    The contemporary Radical Right is intellectually and politically savvy.

  2. The Radical Right’s support for “diversity” intersects with several left-wing critiques of globalisation and economic liberalisation, but flips it around in a manner that portrays the defence of “white people” as legitimate as the defence of other identities and cultures. “White identitarianism”, the Right insists, is a question of culture and civilisation rather than race. Consequently, those who make claims about racial subjugation are either “playing identity politics”— a seemingly new type of politics that breeds seemingly absurd concerns about political correctness, micro-aggressions, cultural appropriations, trigger warnings, safe spaces and the like — or they are themselves (“anti-white” or “reverse”) racists. This discourse positions the Right as the defender of “the people”, their “common sense” and values, the nation, and free speech. The same strategy drives the Right’s attacks on multiculturalism, immigration and LGTBQ rights.

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  3. The Radical Right is not a Euro-Atlantic phenomenon. For example, the rise of white identitarianism has given new life to the Radical Right in South Africa, and the Afrikaner minority has reframed a previously discredited Afrikaner nationalism in civilisational and identitarian terms. Globally, the image of the white South African minority at the southern-most tip of Africa circulates within Radical Right discourses as a futuristic dystopia, an image of what is to come with the “great replacement” of Europe’s “white civilisation” by immigrants.

  4.  To understand – and counter – the contemporary Right, we need to understand its “newness”.  We need to abandon the old categories of fascism and fascist internationalism while remaining conscious of historical lineages and possible continuities.  Crucially, a non-Fascist global Right is much harder to counter than a movement that carries the historical legacy of the swastika and the holocaust. Opponents of fascism have a well-practised vocabulary of anti-fascism, but the same lexicon has been found wanting in the face of the contemporary Radical Right. “Populism” is also too vague a term — the Radical Right challenges liberal democracy in much more authoritarian and profound ways. It aims to break the link between democracy and liberalism, accentuate the importance of charismatic leadership, and depreciate parliamentary democracy and human rights.

  5. While many dismiss the Radical Right’s electoral appeal as a temporary protest vote, believing (and hoping) that eventually, its supporters will come to its senses, we think this optimism is unwarranted. Today’s Radical Right movements present a fundamental challenge. A first step toward meeting that challenge is to understand their ideas, strategies, and organisations.

To learn more, please join us at CIPS for the panel Global Right: Radical Conservatism and World Order Monday 16 September at 12:00.  

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