Politics & Media
Apr 12, 2024, 06:24AM

Nationalist Failures

Right-wing populism makes the U.S. and Israel weaker.

Gettyimages 951558418.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

An irony of our time is that right-wing “nationalism,” while promising to defend a nation’s security, undermines that security instead. That’s happening in the United States and Israel.

In an article last year, written a few weeks after Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, I wrote the following:

“I see some causes for cautious optimism that the world situation may become less-troubled over the next few years and decades.”
“For one, the malevolent ideologies currently propounded by aggressive nations and groups tend to have limited appeal to the public in democratic countries. That was clear recently when left-wing activists’ celebrations of Hamas’ attack brought a widespread backlash…. Today, despite affinities for Putin’s Russia or Orban’s Hungary among conservatives such as Rod Dreher, or attempts on the hard-left to cloak Islamic extremism in liberatory rhetoric, relatively few people want to live in societies ruled by such ideologies.”

“Second, democratic nations have been working together on military and diplomatic matters in the last few years to a greater degree than in recent decades, marking a particular reversal from the every-country-for-itself attitude spurred by the Trump administration. This has manifested in support for Ukraine and Israel and stepped-up efforts to deter aggression against Taiwan….”

“Third, two pernicious avatars of the populist style in Western democracies, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, appear now to be near the end of their careers, whether through prosecution or political rejection. Although one remains in power and the other possibly could return to it, their manifest failures have generated a degree of opposition that will present formidable obstacles to their ambitions.”

I was overly optimistic on all points. The hard anti-Israel left retains considerable sway while presenting the swastika as a righteous symbol. Viktor Orbán is celebrated at the Heritage Foundation even as protests grow against his government in Hungary. Support for Ukraine’s been blocked by congressional Republicans, which may result in the invaded country losing the war. Support for Israel’s also wavered, for which the Israeli right blames the Biden administration while overlooking Republicans’ role and, more importantly, how Israel’s own failures are eroding relations with the U.S. Meanwhile, both Netanyahu and Trump are achieving their paramount goals: to defend their political standing and stay out of prison.

A damning essay by Alon Pinkas in Haaretz traces Netanyahu’s “value destruction” of Israel’s security and power, both in the run-up to October 7 and in handling of the war since. Israel’s right-wing government provided financial support for Hamas, to divide Palestinians and avoid any negotiations, while pushing for a judicial transformation that divided Israelis. The subsequent warfare brought carnage but left Hamas’ Gaza leader Yehya Sinwar, who caused the war, alive and with prospects for retaining power. Whether there was any combination of military and diplomatic action that could’ve freed hostages, minimized civilian casualties, and offered any hope for a post-Hamas future in Gaza, we’ll never know; what’s clear is that a tough-talking, responsibility-evading “nationalist” prime minister was ill-suited to provide it.

In the U.S., “nationalism” is equally inimical to national interests. When the Democrats offered a border-security plan, Republicans rejected it on orders from Trump, eager for border chaos as a campaign issue. Republican committee chiefs now openly worry their party’s infected by Russian influence. An isolationist foreign policy, already partly enacted through blocking of Ukraine aid, plays into the hands of Russia and China, both of which seek and thrive upon weakening of American alliances. Meanwhile, although “culture war” divisiveness is stoked by left and right, it’s become the dominant feature of Republican politics, with foreign policy and economics overshadowed by social and cultural issues.

The Unpopulist, a Substack newsletter, recently offered an excellent video explaining how populism leads to authoritarianism, by identifying a nation’s identity with majorities or pluralities at the expense of minorities (which may be defined in various ways, such as by race, religion or sexuality). What’s increasingly evident is that such populist nationalism doesn’t “purify” or strengthen nations, but rather weakens them, by creating disunities and distractions, and by elevating the needs of a demagogic leader.

Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber


Register or Login to leave a comment