Timothy Snyder wrote an excellent essay about the “new conservatism,” in which he compared a more principled traditional form of it (think moderate Republicans of the Old School) to the modern iteration à la Trump. He noted a strange contradiction which has puzzled me as well. The old conservatives were nationalists, rather than internationalists. The new conservatives (whom he alternately calls “far-right” or “fascist”) claim to be nationalists. But they not only embrace right-wing causes around the world, they actively pursue such international political alliances. Witness Donald Trump’s recent pilgrimage to Warsaw, where he joined forces with a rabidly anti-immigrant, right-wing Polish government to denounce the raging Islamist horde supposedly descending on Europe.
So in that sense Trump and the crop of far-right parties represented by Le Pen of France, Orban in Hungary, and Farage in the UK, are internationalists (and many of them anti-Semites as well), but not in any conventional sense of the term. In fact, most of them made their own pilgrimages to Trump Tower in the run-up to the inauguration. Here is how Snyder characterized the nationalist-internationalist conundrum:
Conservatives always began from intuitive understanding of one’s own country and an instinctive defense of sovereignty. The far right of the 1930s was internationalist, in the sense that fascists learned one from the other and admired one another, as Hitler admired Mussolini.
Add to this the strange notion that Donald Trump’s own business empire is international in scope. Though he has substantial U.S. holdings, a great deal of his revenue is generated outside the U.S. This CNN report claims he’s created between 22,000-34,000 jobs both at home and abroad. But a large proportion of those jobs are overseas. His Trump-branded product line is largely manufactured overseas. Forbes has noted the inherent contradiction in his job claims:
If one argued the way Donald Trump argues on the campaign trail, then one could say that Donald Trump is costing America jobs by building hotels and commercial real estate in foreign countries instead of in the United States. In theory, the same money used to build and staff more than a dozen properties abroad could have supported thousands of jobs in America.
Donald Trump…believed a better use of the company’s capital was to invest its money abroad rather in the United States and that those investments in foreign countries would be more profitable.
There is nothing wrong with the company Donald Trump leads investing in other countries. However, there is something wrong when he attacks the head of another company for doing the same.
This is one of the great hypocrisies of Trump’s campaign to “make America great again.” In his own business dealings, aside from making Donald Trump great (i.e. wealthy), he hasn’t made America very great. He’s made his foreign investors and partners really great (and wealthy). So can a nationalist also be an internationalist? Not without betraying a key element of the political philosophy.
Netanyahu as Transactional Nationalist
Though there are many affinities between Trump and Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, it’s worth examining the nature of the Israeli’s nationalism and conservatism. Netanyahu is a Jewish nationalist in the same sense Trump boasts of his American First nationalism. The former is also intensely aware that Israel cannot exist isolated among a “sea of enemies” without forging foreign alliances. He’s done this, as I’ve written here, with some of the most totalitarian, extremist, and fanatical of regimes including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Russia. So Bibi too is an internationalist who finds his friends among the most authoritarian, and even anti-Semitic in foreign lands.
Just today Netanyahu, who is beset by serial corruption scandals at home (the latest concerning a $5.5-billion German submarine contract), embarked on a European trip which will take him to some of the continent’s most far-right locales, including Hungary and Poland.
The prime minister is hailing his visit to Paris to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews of Paris by the Nazis. Meanwhile, he will be warmly embraced by Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, who has demonized the Hungarian-American Jewish financier, George Soros, in vile anti-Semitic terms. Instead of criticizing Orban, Netanyahu has “piled on” by attacking Soros for funding Israeli human rights groups. Israel has also defied the wishes of Hungary’s Jewish community, which prefers him to avoid Orban like the plague. Netanyahu will also be welcomed by Poland’s far-right government, which has denied any Polish culpability for the Holocaust; despite the fact that Auschwitz, the Nazi’s most efficient killing machine, was located on Polish soil.
Netanyahu may be a nationalist, but he’s an exceedingly pragmatic one who is willing to deal with the foreign devil if it will keep him in power a day longer. Like Trump, Netanyahu’s “nationalism” can often be more transactional than rooted in deep-seated principles. Clearly, they both believe respectively in American and Israeli exceptionalism, which may be an even better descriptive term.