LONDON — Nationalists versus globalists. Traditionalists versus multiculturalists. The “left behind” versus the elites. If the likes of Donald Trump, Brexit leaders and the European right are to be believed, these binary battle lines — ideological boundaries as clear as those of the Cold War — are what divide the world today.
It’s a temptingly simple framework. But it’s also a narrative trap that chiefly strengthens those who push it — and it’s one that leaves the “left behind,” well … even further behind.
An increasing number of politicians are jumping on this bandwagon, portraying themselves as the leaders of what Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has called a global “movement” of patriots, and their opponents as de facto traitors.
And it works. If one is a self-styled spokesperson for the common man, one’s opponents must be heartless snobs. This framework has started to push lower-class voters away from the Democratic Party in the U.S. and pro-European parties in the EU — political movements that have typically relied on their support.
The truth, however, could not be more different, just as the leaders of this “movement” could not be further removed from the concerns of the lay man. Trump’s government is full of billionaires. Brexit was curated by a curious mix of nationalists and arch-libertarians, hedge fund managers for whom “disruption” is good for business, and free market radicals who want to turn England into a Singapore in the North Sea and slash support for protected sectors such as farming.
Putin’s version of nationalism doesn’t refer to a nation’s right to self-determination — it’s about the right to bully.
The movement’s claim to stand for the “working man” and for national interests is particularly specious considering the new right’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin — someone who blatantly disregards nations’ right to self-determination.
“Nationalism works,” writes Trump supporter and author Mike Cernovich, pointing to the example of “another nationalist,” Putin. The Russian president’s ideology is supple, but if it has centered around anything over the last few years, it is the idea of restoring Russian imperial greatness and crushing the nascent democracies in its former colonies, as evidenced by its aggressions in Ukraine.
In fact, the wave of protests against Putin in 2012 were partly informed by a nationalist surge. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, himself a nationalist, flirted with — for many alarmingly — strong anti-immigration policies. In his calmer moments, Navalny argued Russia needed to grow beyond its imperial mindset to become a “normal” European nation state. Now Navalny has been convicted on trumped-up charges and barred from running in elections, while Putin the imperialist indulges in neocolonial adventures.
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Paradoxically, multilateral institutions such as the European Union — which the Trumps and Putins of this world want nothing more than to destroy — are one of the few ways to amplify the voice of smaller countries, especially in the post-communist East. In a world of “bilateral” relations, they risk being swallowed up by great powers and their “zones of influence.” Putin’s version of nationalism doesn’t refer to a nation’s right to self-determination — it’s about the right to bully.
Putin is an absurd hero for leaders who claim to stand behind the “worker” and the “left behind.” Russia has one of the world’s highest percentages of GDP controlled by wealthy individuals — most of whom are wealthy thanks to their relationship with the Kremlin. Globally, the Putin elite revel in the advantages of offshore money laundering and unregulated financial flows.
Of all the supposed “connections” between Putin and Trump, perhaps the most telling is how criminally-connected money from the former USSR helped finance Trump’s hotel constructions. Both Trump and Putin are not so much anti-globalists as they are more comfortable with a version of globalization with even fewer rules, where dirty money can flow with even less scrutiny.
Instead of reinforcing the idea of patriotic nationalists pitted against heartless globalists, those who are worried by the rise of Trump, Putin and their admirers need to focus on the inherent divisions in the nationalists’ dodgy alliance — and take a close look at how it attracted its followers.
The movement is based far more on language and psychology than on specific policies. Conspiracy and hate speech are its dominant rallying cries — a toxic tool that serves to reassure its followers: “It wasn’t your fault, there is a conspiracy against you!”
Here again, the conspiracies don’t serve the people they supposedly reassure — but the strongmen the people are led to believe they need.
It can be tricky to unseat the conspiratorial mindset. As Russian media researcher and author Vasily Gatov has argued, when you bash someone like Trump or Putin it only strengthens their followers’ conviction in the existence of conspiracies and corruption. Bannon has already called American mainstream media “the opposition,” a blanket statement that ensures any criticism of Trump can be explained away as part of a broken, out-of-touch system.
To avoid this trap, we will have to move beyond mere Trump-bashing. If conspiracy thinking wants to increase people’s dependence on a strongman leader, the antidote lies in empowering people to find the solutions to their problems themselves.
Trump and Putin are not so much anti-globalists as they are more comfortable with a version of globalization with even fewer rules.
For the media this could mean focusing on what some are calling “constructive” or “solutions-based news,” a kind of journalism that, while remaining true to evidence-based research and reporting, is also informed by positive psychology and dedicated to proposing real, practical counter-measures.
We must broadly reject the false political and mental framework Trump and his nationalist-minded cohorts have used to sway voters. But we will also have to guard against resisting them in the way they goad us to — it will only strengthen the illusion of their inevitable power.
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia” (Faber & Faber, 2015). He is a senior visiting fellow at the LSE Institute for Global Affairs.