Some preliminary thoughts on the European elections that conclude today. I apologize for the lack of structure here, but I wanted to offer some initial thoughts. Perhaps I’ll put this together a bit more coherently later, after the final results are in.
I think the first thing it is important to point out is that we should not be mistaken about what we are witnessing: we are watching the dismantling of the 70+ year post-WWII European order of peace and democracy. While the final results are not in, all predictions are that the far-right nationalist-populist parties are in for a big win in this election. These parties are frighteningly similar to their early twentieth-century predecessors in the National Socialists/Nazis, Fascists, and similar groups. Many of their leaders consciously quote, imitate, and model themselves on the early 20th century nationalists. Italy’s Salvini, for example, has quoted Mussolini with approval on several occasions. People like this are already in charge in Hungary, Austria, Italy, Great Britain, Poland, and elsewhere and have come disturbingly close to victory in countries like France. What they are arguing in favor of is an end to the European unity that has been based on a shared economy, a shared belief in liberal democracy, and a shared need for security since the end of World War II.
During one of my visits to Europe several years ago, I was able to travel through Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France over several days without ever stopping at a border or having to change currency. As I crossed each border, I was amazed (and still am) at how Europe had changed. These same borders which could now be freely crossed had once hosted the slaughter of millions of young men in the trenches. All of the mass delusions of nationalism they had fought, killed, suffered, and died for, one hoped, were long gone.
But then came the economic collapse of 2008 and the migrant crisis of the 2010s. And, with them, fear. And the far right parties, which had attained single digits in election after election latched onto this fear, just as their Nazi and Fascist predecessors did in the first half of the twentieth century. They used the fear of economic troubles and the fear of others to create a movement based in bizarre conspiracy theories (see Salvini’s rhetoric about the plan of Belgian bureaucrats to replace Europeans with a race of slaves) and identity politics (see, for example, the “if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere” nonsense of Britain’s May). Of course, fear is always irrational, but the fears that are being manipulated here are irrational in an extreme way; they depart from reality and enter in the realm of fantasy.
In addition to rightwing nuts manipulating these irrational fears, I believe the election of Trump in the United States plays a significant role in the current dismantling of Europe. The great strength of the United States has always been that it is a large and diverse nation separated from the rest of the world by an ocean. As a result, it has been able to play a role in world affairs that puts it in some sense outside of and even above the usual waves. We weathered the two most devastating wars in the history of the world with no damage to our mainland–in fact, with a strengthened economic and military position. As a result of the US’s ability to stand apart from the rest of the world, the President of the United States became the “leader of the free world”– a figure who is able to stand above the morass of world politics and act as a symbol of democratic values worldwide. Yes, often hypocritically–to talk of freedom while maintaining an apartheid regime in the American South, for example, is surely rank hypocrisy–but the symbolic nature of the US persisted nonetheless. America’s willingness to pay the big bills for the defense of both France and Germany (through NATO), for example, is what makes it possible for that border to be as it is today: open and free, rather than as it was just a century ago: trenches, barbwire, and bombs.
Unfortunately, it was our very strength–our ability to stand apart–that became our weakness. The relative isolation of the US and its central role in world politics makes it possible for Americans to be a uniquely myopic people. If you think this isn’t so, turn on the TV sometime to any American news network and count the number of stories about a country other than the US, then turn to a major news network in some other country (the BBC or Al Jazeera for example) and count how many news stories are about other countries. The rest of the world spends a lot more time thinking about the rest of the world. Most Americans, on the other hand, probably have no idea that there are important elections being held in Europe today or for the last several days.
This myopia made it possible for our own nationalist-populist nut to manipulate our own fears about immigration and economics. Most Americans don’t think about the rest of the world, have no awareness of it, and don’t travel outside the US. Only about a third of Americans even hold a passport (and, not surprisingly, passport holders tend to skew to the left). We elected a shrill, bumbling nincompoop who repeated “America First” and “Make America Great Again” over and over again without considering the consequences.
The consequence is that there is now no leader of the free world. There is no figure who stands above the morass. Some people have suggested that Germany’s Merkel has inherited the title. She hasn’t. She may be the last leader of a great nation still defending the validity–the necessity–of the post-WWII order, but she is in the thick of it. Germany, by its very geography, is in the center of things and always will be.
So what are we left with? Screaming, incompetent demagogues peddling conspiracy theories and snake oil. The future is bleak indeed. If we must be afraid of something, let’s be afraid of ourselves and our propensity to make terrible self-destructive decisions based on irrational fears.