Shadow Government

In Europe, Nativism and Nationalism May Be Reaching Their Limits

But in the United States, they show no signs of abatement.

U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive for a bilateral meeting during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25.
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive for a bilateral meeting during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25. Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty Images

The pendulum may be starting to swing away from the ugly nativism and nationalism that have infected European politics. The outcome of the United Kingdom’s tortured debate over Brexit remains uncertain, as does the durability and effectiveness of Italy’s new governing coalition. Nonetheless, the beginnings of a Conservative revolt against British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the right-wing League’s fall from power in Italy provide cause for hope that democratic societies can snap back from populist extremes.

To be sure, our moment remains one of great peril for liberal democracy and pluralism. Johnson, Italian hard-right leader Matteo Salvini, U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and their many fellow travelers have revealed just how susceptible North America and Europe are to base political instincts. It remains shocking that the British prime minister seems determined to inflict upon his country a no-deal exit from the European Union—an egregious, destructive act of self-isolation. Or that the U.S. president regularly insults immigrants, has called Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” and took a liking to neo-Nazi marchers in Virginia. Or that Salvini, Italy’s most popular politician and former deputy prime minister, has called for a “mass cleansing” of immigrants from the nation’s cities in defense of a Christian Europe.

But even as demagogy and pandering to racism have become the new normal, recent developments in Britain and Italy suggest that there may be a limit to such reckless behavior. Britain’s Parliament has passed legislation barring a no-deal Brexit. Defections from the Conservative Party earlier this month denied Johnson a governing majority. These developments are coming quite late, but elected representatives are finally standing up and pushing back, even if doing so imperils their political career or personal loyalties. For Jo Johnson, Boris Johnson’s brother, it was both: He stepped down from Parliament this month, saying that he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest” as he announced his resignation.

Ultimately, the Conservative insurrection against Johnson may or may not avert a no-deal Brexit. But the revolt itself is a welcome sign that the self-correcting mechanisms of liberal democracy may be coming back to life in the United Kingdom, checking a prime minster who has been testing the limits of constitutional norms while guiding his country toward the edge of a cliff. The U.K. remains deeply divided and politically dysfunctional. Yet at least for the moment, political moderation and common sense have begun to prevail against populist excess.

Events in Italy provide similar hope that centrism and compromise are making a comeback. The coalition between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, which took shape in a government reshuffle late last month, is hardly a sign of ideological common ground or a harbinger of effective governance. But sidelining Salvini was an urgent priority—and the political system has adequately responded. The League’s ugly hostility toward immigrants and irresponsible Europhobia still have broad public appeal. Nonetheless, Italy is headed back toward a more recognizable and palatable brand of politics.

These turns in British and Italian politics are particularly welcome given the continuing strength of populist leaders in other Western democracies. In Hungary, Orban’s grip on power has only strengthened over time. In Poland, the Law and Justice party demonstrated its staying power in the European Parliament elections last May and is poised to do well in upcoming national elections in October.

And, perhaps most worrying, Trump’s nativist and nationalist taunts at home and abroad show no signs of abating. Indeed, his dangerous brand of politics is likely to only intensify as he seeks to whip up his base and demonize Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Yes, Democrats did take back the House of Representatives last year, and have been trying to check the White House ever since—most recently through efforts to examine documents that would shed light on allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine to produce political dirt on former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, a top Democratic contender for the 2020 presidential nomination. But Trump continues to do enormous damage at home and abroad as he tramples on democratic ideals and practices. And he still has the solid support of around 40 percent of the electorate, providing him a good shot at reelection next year.

At least as distressing as Trump himself has been the Republican Party’s craven submission to his whims. Silence is complicity. Members of Congress who should know better are lining up behind an erratic and unpredictable demagogue. They are doing so because Trump has captured the Republican base, and because he is delivering on at least some of their priorities—including tax cuts and the appointment of conservative judges.

But the Republican Party’s abandonment of its traditional stance on issues such as the deficit, trade, and immigration, as well as its abdication of its duty to govern responsibly, come at a high cost. Trump’s foreign policy is setting the world on edge. At home, his white nationalism, anti-immigrant rants, and flouting of republican ideals threaten U.S. democracy and the pluralism that sustains social cohesion amid racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.

Even so, events in Britain and Italy do provide cause for hope that right-wing populists can be stopped on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, a handful of courageous Conservatives have at least for now foiled Boris Johnson. And in Italy, political pragmatism has thwarted Salvini and brought the country back from the brink.

Because these course corrections in Britain and Italy emerged from political maneuvering rather than new electoral mandates, it is too soon to tell whether they represent a temporary setback for the populists or a more durable political turn. The answer to that question will depend on the ability of the voices of reason in the U.K. and the new government in Italy to generate pragmatic policy programs that address the sources of popular discontent, including economic insecurity and immigration. It will also turn in no small part on the outcome of the historically momentous U.S. election in 2020.

A version of this article appeared in La Stampa.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

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