Originally published in TomDispatch.
What alt-right guru Steve Bannon failed to create, German taxpayers have just stepped in to revive: a Nationalist International. Thanks to the German government, the far right is about to get its own well-heeled global think tank, complete with the sort of political academy that was so dear to Bannon’s plan for world domination.
Germany’s gift to the far right is the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, the public-policy arm of the country’s most prominent extremist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Erasmus, a Dutch humanist of the Renaissance best known for his ironic essay “In Praise of Folly,” would have been appalled at such a grotesque misappropriation of his name. The AfD, after all, has built its political base on a series of follies diametrically opposed to humanism, from its initial anti-immigration screeds to its current overtures to the anti-vaccination crowd.
Strangely enough, the AfD underperformed in the recent German elections, its parliamentary delegation losing 11 seats. Still, by capturing a little more than 10% of the vote, the party made it into parliament a second consecutive time. As a result, it qualifies for what all other major parties also receive: government support of its foundation. Unless legal efforts to block this largesse succeed, the Erasmus foundation will soon enjoy the equivalent of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars a year.
Consider that an extraordinary shot in the arm for the global far right, since the AfD will be funded to establish outposts of hate throughout the world. The foundation of the left-wing Die Linke party, the more appropriately labeled Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, already has offices in more than 20 countries. The Green Party’s foundation, named after Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Heinrich Böll, is in more than 30 countries. The far right hasn’t had this kind of opportunity for global expansion since fascism’s heyday in the 1930s.
The notion that the AfD could engage in anything remotely resembling “political education” should be laughable. But that’s exactly how its foundation plans to use the coming federal windfall: to recruit and train a new generation of far-right thinkers and activists. The Erasmus Stiftung aims to hire more than 900 people for its political academy and allied educational institutions. That’s even more ambitious than the academy of intellectual “gladiators” Bannon once dreamed of creating in a former monastery in the Italian countryside.
The Erasmus website says nothing about its global ambitions. Based on the AfD’s latest platform, however, expect the foundation to gather together Euroskeptics to plot the evisceration of the European Union; advance the AfD’s anti-immigrant platform with counterparts across Europe like Lega in Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and several extremist groups in the Balkans; and pour money into establishing a “respectable” face for white nationalism by networking among identitarian groups in North America, the former Soviet Union, and Australasia.
This thunder on the right certainly sounds ominous. And yet, after the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, the precipitous decline in public support for President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the ongoing efforts to counter the far right in Eastern Europe, the prospect of a Nationalist International might seem further away today than, say, four years ago.
One well-funded German foundation is not likely to change that forecast. Unfortunately, the Erasmus Foundation is anything but the only storm cloud on the political horizon.
In reality, the global disillusionment with mainstream politics that fueled the rise of Trump and his ilk has only grown more intense in these last months. New authoritarian populists have consolidated power in places like El Salvador — where President Nayib Bukele calls himself the “world’s coolest dictator” — and are poised for possible takeovers in countries like Chile and Italy. And who knows? Even Donald Trump might claw his way back into the White House in 2024.
In other words, just when you thought it might finally be safe to go back into the international community, the global situation may grow far worse. With the help of German taxpayers and aided by anger over vaccine mandates, a malfunctioning world economy, and the enduring corruption of the powerful, the global right could rebound, securing greater power and influence in the years to come.
The Building Wave of Reaction
At this point, by all the laws of politics, Donald Trump should be radioactive. He lost his re-election bid in November 2020 and his subsequent coup attempt failed. He’s had a lousy record when it comes to expanding Republican Party power, having helped that very party forfeit its House majority in 2018 and its Senate majority in 2020. He continues to face multiple lawsuits and investigations. He’s been barred from Facebook and Twitter.
For Trump, however, politics is a philosopher’s stone. He’s managed to transmute his leaden style — not to mention his countless private failings and professional bankruptcies — into political gold. The big surprise is that so many people continue to fall for such fool’s gold.
Because of his fervent, ever-loyal base of support, Trump continues to control the Republican Party and remains on track to run for president in 2024, with no credible Republican competition in sight. Even his overall popularity, which never made it above 50% when he was president, has recently improved marginally from a February low of 38.8% to an almost sunny 43.4%.
Led by this urban elitist from New York, the Republican Party has all but given up on cities and reliably blue regions of the country. Still, it now controls all the levers of power in 23 states, while the Democrats do so in only 15. With a mixture of gerrymandering, voter suppression, federal stonewalling, and a master narrative about fraudulent elections, the Republicans aim to win back control of Congress in 2022 — something the odds increasingly favor — on their way to reclaiming the White House in 2024. At the moment, Donald Trump is the bookies’ choice to win the next presidential election, largely on the strength of not being Joe Biden (just as he won in 2016 by not being Hillary Clinton).
Since he can’t run for king of the world, Trump cares little about building international alliances, but the growing potential for him to return to power in 2024 has inspired right-leaning populists globally to believe that they, too, can lead their countries without the requisite skill, experience, or psychological stability. Indeed, from President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, being vulgar and vicious has already served a variety of them all too well.
Even more troubling is the new generation of Trump-style politicians coming to the fore globally. In Chile, for instance, the once-traditional conservative José Antonio Kast has remade himself as a far-right populist and in November won the first round of that country’s presidential elections. Across the Pacific in the Philippines, an all-too-literal political marriage of authoritarianism and populism is taking place as Bongbong Marcos, the son of the notorious former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has selected Sara, the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, to be his running mate in next year’s presidential election. Polling already puts them way ahead of the competition. In France, where Marine Le Pen has had a lock on the extremist vote for a decade, journalist Éric Zemmour is challenging her from the right with his predictions of a coming civil war and Muslim takeover.
Meanwhile, Trump’s minions in America are strengthening their international connections to create a global field of dreams. For many of them, Hungary remains the home plate of that very field of dreams. Right-wingers have been flocking to Budapest to learn how that country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, transformed the most liberal corner of Eastern Europe into the region’s most reactionary country. (Admittedly, he now faces stiff competition from the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Janez Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party, among other right-wing forces in Eastern Europe.)
Typically enough, former vice president Mike Pence visited Budapest in September to praise Orbán’s “family-centric” anti-abortion version of social policy. This summer, Tucker Carlson broadcast a full week of his Fox News program from that same city. In the process, he devoted an entire show to Orbán’s virulently anti-immigrant initiatives, headlining it: “Why can’t we have this in America?” In fact, this country’s most reactionary political types are so in love with Hungary that they’re scheduling the annual Conservative Policy Action Conference for Budapest next spring, which will only cement such a transatlantic link.
Remember, in 2002, Orbán was kicked out of the prime minister’s office after one term in office, only to return to power in 2010. He’s been ruling ever since. The Trumpistas dream of pulling off just such a political comeback in America.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Spanish far-right party Vox has established its own Disenso Foundation to knit together a reactionary “Iberosphere” that includes the Mexican right, extremists in Colombia, the Bolsonaro family in Brazil, and even Texas senator Ted Cruz. But the Western Europe state most likely to follow Hungary’s lead is Italy. Right now, Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, presides over a technocratic administration in Rome. Italian politics, however, is heading straight for neo-fascism. The party that’s only recently surged to the top of the polls, Brothers of Italy, has its roots in a group started in the wake of World War II by diehard supporters of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It promotes an anti-vaxx “Italy first” agenda and, if elections were held today, would likely create a ruling coalition with the alt-right Lega Party and right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy.
Meanwhile, several right-wing nationalists and populists are padding their CVs for a future role as the head of any new Nationalist International. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have the strongest claim to the title, given his longstanding support for right-wing and Euroskeptical parties, as well as the way he’s positioned Russia as the preeminent anti-liberal power around.
Don’t rule out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though. He’s mended fences with the far right in his own country, while trying to establish Turkey as a regional hegemon. Increasingly disillusioned with his NATO peers, he’s purchased weapons from Russia and even hinted at pushing Turkey into the nuclear club. And don’t forget Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi either. Working overtime to contain China, the Hindu nationalist has also been assiduously cultivating strong relations with the right-wing in both the U.S. and Israel.
Creating an actual Axis of Illiberalism from such disparate countries would not be easy given geopolitical rivalries, ideological differences, and personal ambitions. Still, the failures of current global institutions — and the liberal internationalism that animates them — provide a powerful glue with the potential to hold together genuinely disparate elements in an emerging right, adding up to a new version of global fascism.
When the future members of a Nationalist International argue that the status quo — a raging pandemic, runaway climate change, persistent economic inequality, staggering numbers of displaced people on the move — is broken and they have just the plan to fix it, plenty of non-extremists are likely to find the message all too compelling. Short on hope and desperate for change, the disaffected and disenfranchised have proven willing to offer the noisy nationalists and reactionary populists a shot at power (which, given their unscrupulous tactics, may be all they need).
Saving the World (from Liberals)
One of the most persistent symbols of international politics has certainly been the wall. Think of the Great Wall of China, designed to protect successive dynasties from the predations of nomadic outsiders. Many metropolitan areas around the world have retained some portion of the historic walls that once established them as city-states. The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of the Cold War, while Trump’s border wall was the only infrastructure program of his presidency (even if it was never truly built).
The far right is now — thank you, Donald Trump! — obsessed with walls, drawing on not only history but a deep reservoir of fear of the outsider. Like “austerity” for neoliberals, “walls” have proven the far right’s one-size-fits-all answer to almost every question. Immigrants? Wall them out. Climate change? Build walls now to prevent future waves of desperate global-warming refugees. Economic decline? Hey, install those tariff walls. Angry neighbors? Walls of weaponry and anti-missile defenses are the obvious answer.
The far right considers not rising sea levels but globalization — trade flows, the movement of people, expanding international governance — as the tide that needs containing. Far right populists are busy constructing dikes of all sorts to keep out such unwanted global flows and preserve national control in an increasingly chaotic world.
Moving down the great chain of governance, it’s no surprise that the far right also wants to culturally wall off communities to uphold what it calls “family values” against contrary civic values, different religious practices, and alternate conceptions of sexuality and gender. It even wants to wall off individuals to “protect” them against intrusive government practices like vaccine mandates. To secure such walls, literal or metaphoric, what’s needed above all are a bloated military at the national level, paramilitaries at the community level, and a semi-automatic in the hands of every red-blooded right-wing individual.
Such walls are a hedge against uncertainty, though ironically the far right’s truest contribution to modern political ideology is not certainty, but a radical skepticism. Sure, that ancient right-wing American crew, the John Birch Society, did traffic in conspiracy theories involving Communists and fluoridated water. But that was nothing compared to the way the modern political right has weaponized conspiracy theories to acquire permanent power. With claims of stolen elections, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and others have even cast doubt on the very capacity of democracy to represent voters, emphasizing that only populist extremists can represent the “authentic” wishes of the electorate.
On the other hand, elections that far-right candidates win, like the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia, are automatically defined as free and fair. Radical skepticism about the electoral system, after all, is only a convenient ladder that, once in power, the far right is all too ready to kick away.
The final conspiracy theory to fall will undoubtedly be the nefariousness of the “globalists” who have teamed up to contaminate the “precious bodily fluids” of pure Americans (or Brazilians or Hungarians). As long as liberal internationalists run global institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organization, “globalists” will be useful bogeys for the nationalists to rally their followers. However, if the Trumps of this world capture enough countries and successfully infiltrate global institutions, then there will be no more talk of evil globalists.
In that worst-case scenario, even a Nationalist International will no longer be necessary as we discover in Hemingway fashion that, for Trump and his kind, the sun also rises. For all practical purposes, right-wing populists will have taken over the world. Given their blithe disregard for pandemics and climate change, such a victory would, of course, be pyrrhic.
Their win, humanity’s loss.