An internet friend recently posted an article from November on the rise of a far-right government in Poland. Being descended from four grandparents born in Poland I make a passing effort to stay abreast of its politics, although in practice I usually find that my attention-hands are full with everything the American system throws at us.
For two years now, astute Americans have seen the rise of Trump on our side of the Atlantic as the American version of something that has been an undercurrent in Europe since the fall of the USSR. Every European democracy has its ultra-right parties defined by enthnocentrism and extreme nationalism. In the U.S., because the rules of our system default us to two very large parties, we have seen this only as a part of the Republican coalition. In the 1980s and 1990s, someone like Pat Buchanan was an aberration. He was part of the Big Tent of the GOP but considered even among his compatriots as the Crazy Uncle. After the Great Recession began in 2007, it started to become apparent that lower-class white nationalism in the form of the Tea Party was not the small component of the American Right that mainstream GOPers wanted everyone to believe. What was once the fringe was clearly on its way to becoming the majority within the GOP, and the appeals they used to gain popularity in the increasingly old, increasingly white, and increasingly socially and economically marginalized Republican masses seemed novel to Americans but were no doubt quite familiar to any European used to the antics of their nation's own far right. Nationalism. Conspiracies. Cries of traitorous intentions. Rejection of anything originating from Liberal institutions like universities, the media, expertise, or reality out of hand. Division of the world into a We and a Them.
One striking difference, though – and the idea that caused my friend to post this article and raise the question – is the heavy emphasis in the European far right on distributive policies that is totally absent in the United States. In Europe they do as all populist parties, left and right, have always done to solidify and build support: they promise to give people things. They use the resources of the state and of power in an exchange theory of politics; vote for us and you will get X, Y, and Z in return. Sometimes those variables would be intangible things like national pride or increased social status relative to other groups. But they always, as in Poland today, include economic handouts in the mix as well.
Why is the American right such a stark exception to this pattern around the world? Populism and the distribution of government largesse go hand in hand everywhere but here. Part of the answer is that anti-government, pro-individualism ideology is much more prominent in the U.S. than it is elsewhere. The other, bigger problem is that American society is not nearly as homogeneous as most countries in Europe. And that's a problem because the American nationalists can't figure out a way to shower the poor with money without letting people who aren't white get some of it. Donald Trump would have done what every nationalist-right figure in Europe does, which is campaign with promises of restoring the correct order of things in society (check) and appealing to the economically adrift by promising them money (strike) – if only he could have found a way to give it exclusively to white people.
The people who respond to Trump's appeals understand this implicitly. Many of them are poor and not the slightest bit opposed to welfare in practice no matter how much they decry it in theory. What they oppose is other people – the wrong people, the not-one-of-us people, the brown people – getting any of what they see as their entitlement. They want the disability and SSI checks, the make-work jobs, the Medicaid, the state-run treatment programs, the school funding, and all the other handouts that Republicans claim they oppose on principle. Trump's appeal to poorer whites has been beaten to death, and they are a demographic that has no problem taking any of these things. The problem is finding a way to promise them more of it without letting any of it fall into the hands of The Other – the immigrants, the blacks and Hispanics, the people in big cities, and so on.
In a country like Poland this is easier to do because the society is, at least compared to the U.S., sorely lacking in diversity. It's a very white, very Catholic, very ethnically unified country for the most part due to, uh, some stuff that happened between 1940 and 1945. So targeting voters requires only targeting them by economic and social class. Here, where African-Americans, Hispanics, and recent immigrants are overrepresented in the part of the population broadly labeled Poor, railing against The Other and The Outsider is complicated. What happens when The Outsiders are not an amorphous mass outside the borders, but other citizens to whom you are equal in theory but need to feel superior to in practice?
Well. What happens is, things get tricky. You end up with a president trying to gut the welfare state while somehow preserving it for Certain People, the Right People, wink wink. You end up with a president who preaches the free market but engages in crony capitalism to save, temporarily, the jobs of the Right People. You have a set of policies and actions that conform to no ideology because the ideology underlying it is white nationalism and, well, you can't just say that's the ideology.
The barbarians outside the gate have always been an effective foil for political rhetoric and populism in particular. In Poland today, the (Muslim) horde at the gate of Europe drives the far right's recent rise. In the United States, the barbarians are not at the gate. They're already inside it. The challenge is not distinguishing Americans from Others, but Real Americans from the Not Real ones. The system for telling which one is which, to the American nationalist, is as uncomplicated as it is unspoken.