Erik Jones / Jul 2018
Steve Bannon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Steve Bannon is coming to Brussels to repeat the success he had during the Trump campaign in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. He has held high profile encounters with Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, and even Boris Johnson. He has talked to the press, toured the capitals, and now set up his own office, called ‘The Movement’. As he has done all this, Bannon has raised awareness that there are a lot of people in many different European countries who are fearful about migration and fed up with their ruling elites. On the surface, that picture does look a little like the discontent Bannon tapped in the United States. But if Bannon is hoping to use the same arguments and tactics, what will matter more is how Europe is different.
Since Bannon styles himself as a ‘big ideas’ person, the best place to start is his central theme, which is nationalism. In the Trump campaign that translated into putting ‘America First’ and in the Trump administration it translates into openly flexing American power in the pursuit of the country’s national interest. This is the kind of nationalism that emerges from a since of superiority — both moral and cultural. It is American exceptionalism on steroids. And it runs completely against the grain of European history.
Of course, there was a time in Europe when political leaders were willing to put their national interests first, both during the run-up to the First World War and during the interwar period. The lesson of the First World War was that a profound belief in national superiority coupled with a willingness to use force in the national interest has the potential to unleash incredibly destructive forces; the horrors of the Second World War reinforced that message. And the European project we see today is the culmination of decades’ worth of effort to ensure that this lesson does not need to be repeated.
This experience explains why European nationalism has evolved in a way that is fundamentally different from what we see in the United States. Since the United States did not experience the two world wars in the same way that Europeans did, Americans are more likely to use nationalist rhetoric or discourse that Europeans would find anachronistic or even offensive. And any message that Bannon tries to borrow from the Trump campaign and graft onto one of the political parties associated with his Movement is going to learn quickly the meaning of cognitive dissonance.
The crucial distinction lies at the boundary between universal values and cultural idiosyncrasies. People in every country hold values that they believe are and should be universal. For Europeans, that list would include things related to the preservation of human life, the protection of personal dignity, and the promotion of equality of opportunity. People also hold values that they believe are important but that they expect will differ from one country to the next. Here the list might include the strengths of bonds within families, the patterns of social hierarchy (and polite forms of address), and the structure of social solidarity. This combination of the universal and the idiosyncratic is why it is possible to say that there is one set of ‘European values’ and yet many different European ‘social models’.
The tricky part comes where people in different societies either interpret universal values differently or try to promote idiosyncratic values to some kind of universal status. This middle ground is where you find all the push-button issues related to reproductive rights, sexual mores, and law and order that Bannon likes to press. The challenge is how to resolve the conflicts that inevitably arise in this space. In practice, this resolution of that challenge centers on the relationship between tolerance and intolerance.
European nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century was intolerant of tolerance. National communities were segregated and did not mix. Indeed, the whole notion of ‘national unification’ was predicated on that logic. So was the strict doctrine of assimilation. Making French people out of peasants was the mission of civilization. And, where countries could not be cleansed of abiding cultural differences, political leaders had to work hard to find some politics of accommodation. In the Netherlands, this took the form of ‘pillarization’, where subnational political cultures shared the same geographic space but had separate political and social institutions so that they would not have to mix.
European experience with the intolerance of tolerance was tragic, both because it led to the kind of nationalism that fostered two world wars and because it encouraged the kind of imperialism that left lasting scars the world over. As a result, Europeans learned to change the way they deal with fundamental conflicts between cultures about the values they believe to be important. They embraced tolerance and rejected intolerance.
This change in the structure of European values underpins the process of European integration and the many forms of national and international reconciliation that process has fostered. It does not make Europeans cultural relativists; they still believe in the existence of universal values and they tend to share conceptions of those values and to proselytize them the world over. But this embrace of tolerance does change the way Europeans handle conflict by encouraging groups to seek some form of accommodation where differences between groups become less important.
This commitment to accommodation has limits. Most obviously, Europeans are intolerant of intolerance. This is at least part of the reason why Europeans express unease with any form of religious fundamentalism; the problem is not so much with the religion itself as with the intolerance expressed by the devoted. And whenever Europeans confront intolerance within a religious community, they feel free to question any other value or interpretation that religion promotes. This is the line of tension that runs in relations between Europe and Islam (but also between many Europeans and conservative Catholicism – which is why the European Parliament rejected Rocco Buttiglione as Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs).
Nevertheless, the commitment to tolerance has fundamentally transformed European nationalism. Consider the case of the Netherlands. In the early twentieth century, that country was divided into subnational communities that did not mix; by the end of that century it was possible to speak of a single Dutch culture. The value that defines this new, unifying Dutch culture is tolerance, and the first big explosion of Dutch populism was led by a Dutch columnist called Pim Fortuyn who rejected both the older system of Dutch pillarization and the new influx of migrants from the Islamic world because they represented different forms of intolerance. Fortuyn is hard to characterize as a right-wing politician but many more obvious right-wingers in other countries have picked up on his message or popularized similar arguments. The Austrian Jörg Haidar is a good example, but there are many others.
This critique of intolerance often goes too far and takes on racial overtones or discriminatory themes that conflict with other European values, the protection of personal dignity first and foremost. Nevertheless, if you compare the anti-immigrant rhetoric today to the expressions of nationalism in the early 20th Century you can see how far Europeans have traveled. There is a vast gulf that separates even the most unpleasant language about a country being too full to accept more migration from foreign cultures and an explicit political program to move ‘inferior’ races in order to create additional living space for a ‘superior’ culture. That is why the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia was such a European trauma; it reminded everyone of the horrors of the past.
The kind of rhetoric that circulated in the Trump campaign — and that has emerged in the Republican Party over the past three decades — is fundamentally different. It is not based on tolerance or on the intolerance of intolerance. It is based on the intolerance of tolerance that prevailed in older forms of European nationalism. This does not mean that the Trump administration is going to repeat the horrors of previous generations and neither does it try to put American nationalism on a morally equivalent plane with fascism or other dark and terrible political movements.
The point is simply that the approach to a conflict in fundamental values — either related to the way we interpret things like the preservation of human life, the protection of personal dignity, or the promotion of equality of opportunity, or the way we try to promote more idiosyncratic values to something approaching universal status — is fundamentally different. The political right in the United States has made a virtue of intolerance. They do not seek accommodation. And they believe fundamentally not just in the superiority of their commitments but in their right to assert that superiority in the face of conflict.
The advantage that Steve Bannon had in the U.S. context was that he was always willing to raise the temperature in any political argument, to challenge conventional wisdom, to overturn existing accommodations, and to insist on the fundamental correctness or virtue of his arguments. That appeal worked in a political community where tolerance was already held with some suspicion and particularly where people felt their values were not being respected. Moreover, for all that Americans like to point to a history of bipartisanship, there was no overarching norm that underscored the importance of accommodation as the last bulwark to avert catastrophe.
European experience is different. Europeans paid an incredibly high price to learn the importance of tolerance. They may elevate that value to exaggerated significance and they may inadvertently follow the logic of their commitment to unpleasant extremes, but that does not change the nature of the underlying belief structure. If Bannon comes to Europe with the same message and style that he used in the United States, it is going to offend many more Europeans than it encourages. He may believe Europeans can be united in nationalism, but he needs to understand that nationalism in Europe and nationalism in the United States are not the same. What he should also realize is that European nationalism is inextricably bound up in the project for European integration. Europeans may seek the change the basis for their accommodation, but they will not look to bring an end to it.