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Meeting the Challenge of the Transnational Right

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I’ve been arguing for some time that progressives too often have their heads in the sand about the transnational dimensions of right-wing extremism, kleptocracy, and oligarchy. This was an important theme of my recent piece in Foreign Affairs. You would think, for example, that the socialist left would recognize the parallels with the first half of the century and adjust their geopolitical vision accordingly. Moreover, trying to counter this challenge should not be a hard call for the center-left and the social-democratic left.

So I’m extremely heartened to read an essay by Bernie Sanders in The Guardian that connects the dots and draws the key conclusions. An excerpt:

Three years ago, who would have imagined that the United States would stay neutral between Canada, our democratic neighbor and second largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia, a monarchic, client state that treats women as third-class citizens? It’s also hard to imagine that Israel’s Netanyahu government would have moved to pass the recent “nation state law”, which essentially codifies the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, if Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t know Trump would have his back.

All of this is not exactly a secret. As the US continues to grow further and further apart from our longtime democratic allies, the US ambassador to Germany recently made clear the Trump administration’s support for rightwing extremist parties across Europe.

In addition to Trump’s hostility toward democratic institutions we have a billionaire president who, in an unprecedented way, has blatantly embedded his own economic interests and those of his cronies into the policies of government.

Other authoritarian states are much farther along this kleptocratic process. In Russia, it is impossible to tell where the decisions of government end and the interests of Vladimir Putin and his circle of oligarchs begin. They operate as one unit. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, there is no debate about separation because the natural resources of the state, valued at trillions of dollars, belong to the Saudi royal family. In Hungary, far-right authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán is openly allied with Putin in Russia. In China, an inner circle led by Xi Jinping has steadily consolidated power, clamping down on domestic political freedom while it aggressively promotes a version of authoritarian capitalism abroad.

We must understand that these authoritarians are part of a common front. They are in close contact with each other, share tactics and, as in the case of European and American rightwing movements, even share some of the same funders. The Mercer family, for example, supporters of the infamous Cambridge Analytica, have been key backers of Trump and of Breitbart News, which operates in Europe, the United States and Israel to advance the same anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda. Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson gives generously to rightwing causes in both the United States and Israel, promoting a shared agenda of intolerance and illiberalism in both countries.

Sanders also calls for a progressive approach to international order, one that recognizes and addresses the failures of disembedded liberalism. Overall, I think it gets a lot of things exactly right.

I know the prospect of transnational progressive solidarity seems daunting, especially in light of divisions among the broad progressive movement in the United States. But there are basic ways to start building it. For example, American conservative organizations routinely host far-right European politicians as speakers at their conferences. American progressives should host their counterparts more frequently to encourage dialogue, the sharing of ideas, and the development of a common identity. The far right is perfectly willing to opportunistically partner with the center-right (indeed, a major difference across European states is whether the center-right will form such an alliance), and opponents of crypto-fascism should not allow themselves to be fractured.

None of this means that progressives should not embrace a healthy civic nationalism or patriotism. We are, first and foremost, citizens of our own countries. Progressive policies must be adapted to specific national circumstances, and progressives cannot concede the domain of national identity to the right. The ethno-nationalists and crypto-fascists of the transnational right can form alliances with the very people that, if they realize their program, they will one day be at war. Progressives, who seek the peaceful coexistence of different national identities, can surely manage to reconcile shared values with international diversity.

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