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Populist Nationalists Everywhere Want to Disappear the Nation
They all have the same domestic enemies and the same vision
Shutterstock. Grand Warszawski.
When Polish voters go to the polls in two days, they will have a choice: to vote for Poles or to vote for traitors. That, at least, is how the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has framed this election.
According to Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of PiS, Donald Tusk, leader of the rival Civic Platform party, is “the personification of evil in Poland, pure evil.” Tusk, he said, was “gathering all dark elements under his banner in order simply to win, to implement a plan that is not Polish, but [a plan] of the Brussels bureaucracy.” At another event, he alleged that the entire opposition was made up of “traitors” who “must be morally exterminated.” A victory for the opposition, he said in May, would not just bring his party’s eight consecutive years in power to an end— it would mean “the end of Poland” itself.
Many Nationalists, One Threat
There are two ironies in the nationalist notion that voting for the opposition is voting against the country and the first one is this: Although nationalist politicians promise to preserve the distinctive character of their country, the threat they are all fighting, namely, their political opposition and their critics, and the terms they use to describe this threat, is always the same.
Take India, for example, where, for years now, opponents and critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been branded as anti-nationals. Modi has gone out of his way to ding Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch of the family at the helm of the opposition Congress Party, for her Italian origins, calling into question her and her family’s legitimacy as authentically Indian. But Modi and his allies are not only questioning Sonia’s authenticity. He has also branded a wide swath of people who have protested him and his party—from journalists to lawyers—as “anti-national.” (His challenger, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s son, has tried to flip this rhetoric, saying that it is Modi who is the traitor for inciting ethnic violence, but that has thus far proved an unsuccessful political strategy.) Incidentally, vilifying the opposition as anti-national is not the only thing that the BJP has picked up from its illiberal peers abroad. Undocumented immigration from neighboring countries had not been a huge issue in India. But after noticing that nativist attacks worked well for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Modi’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, took to condemning Muslim immigrants as “termites” who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal.
Nor is this an isolated incident of authoritarians’ copycatting each other. The US Republican Party and Hungary’s Fidesz, for example, have forged a mutual admiration society (with Hungary, in turn, having passed legislation against NGOs that looked remarkably similar to Russia’s own efforts a few years prior). Meanwhile, in Israel there had, earlier this year, been open discussion of whether the radical judicial reforms proposed by the hard-right Benjamin Netanyahu government that were roiling the country before the heinous Hamas attack were lifted from Hungary and Poland.
But returning to Trump: He not only alleged that he was the only possible rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election, but that he was the only candidate who loved the United States. In 2019, when he launched his reelection bid, Trump said that Democrats “want to destroy our country.” Nor did he drop such hyperbole after leaving office: Earlier this summer, he asserted that President Joe Biden and the Democrats hate America. Trump has also alleged that those contesting him are not legitimate political opponents, but, in a throwback to the Red Scare of the 1950s, “Marxists” and “Communists.” (It is true that Biden has also said that Trump is a threat to democracy; in this case, however, Biden is speaking about a person who actually did try to overturn an election.)
Moreover, these politicians aren’t just saying that they are the only real politicians, they are also saying that their voters are the only real voters. They slam those who vote for the opposition as city dwellers or overeducated or rootless cosmopolites who have forfeited their claim to being the “Real People.” In the United States, this led directly to political violence since those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 claimed that they were there to take their country back, as if the country also doesn’t belong to those who voted against Trump.
The idea of the “Real America” did not start with Donald Trump, though. Ahead of the 2008 presidential election, one of John McCain’s advisors said that north Virginia, which is Democrat-leaning and where a third of the state’s voters lives, was not “real Virginia.” But the strategy went into overdrive after Trump became the spiritual head of the Republican Party. (Trump also does more niche versions of this, for example, by repeatedly arguing that to really be a good American Jewish voter, an American Jew should vote for him.)
The populist politicians from Warsaw to Washington are insisting that only some voters and groups—which is to say only some citizens—can be considered “real,” but the Modi government is perhaps going farther than all. It is using the “anti-national” label to neutralize critics condemning his citizenship reforms that would strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship. Only those who align themselves with this faith cleansing agenda, as far as Modi and his allies are concerned, can be considered true Indians.
A few weeks ago, the Indian press experienced what is being characterized by some as the biggest crackdown on its freedom in the country’s history. Authorities conducted a coordinated raid on the homes and offices of 45 journalists using the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a draconian law that was meant to snag terrorists but is now being wielded against those considered—wait for it!— “anti-nationals.” Trump dangerously called the press the “enemy of the people” somewhat metaphorically. In India, the metaphor has become literal.
Seemingly all nationalists everywhere have the same enemy: The opposition, the press, and the populace that won’t vote for them.
One Nation, One Party
And that brings us to the second irony, namely, that once the mortal enemies of the nation have been “exterminated,” what’s left in each case is the same:
In calling their enemies anti-nationals, these nationalists are seeking, votes, yes, but they are also doing another thing: They are changing their relationship with the nation so that they are no longer there to serve it. Rather, the nation is there to serve them. They are bigger than the nation. Their stature is higher. They are not mere politicians who have to engage in politics to win the favor of voters. They are the only legitimate rulers who are owed loyalty by all. The nation, in this vision, is not made up of varied opinions and robust criticisms and disagreements and civil society. The nation is just a big party—their party and, little by little, the nation’s variety and diversity has to be erased and the nation made synonymous with the one and only true party.
All this demonstrates that though the populist nationalist project promises to protect each country’s distinct identity, ultimately, it makes each just like its other populist peers. To preserve the nation, the nationalists would disappear the nation.
This is a fundamentally totalitarian vision.
© The UnPopulist 2023