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.


  • Yeah, we're pretty good at blending in… Moose and Skverel vill pay! Besides, Russia has enough of its own neo-Nazis to be comfortable with the modern resurgence.

    What I'm trying to say is that no matter who you are, if you have an ethical bone in your body, you're probably "the enemy".

  • Joseph Nobles says:

    The only way to make sure the right people get the largesse is to remove the wrong people from the borders. That was a big part of Trump's message – get them out and put up a big wall between us and them. When Trump doesn't follow through on that, a lot of people are going to be bitter. Next time they'll elect them someone who will. The grindstone of ethnic cleansing grinds slow, but exceedingly fine.

  • Being Polish is depressing these days. It's either populist xenophobic authoritarians, or opportunistic libertarians (who are socially conservative anyway).
    I mean, between the two, the libertarians are somewhat better, but the eagerness with which they're willing to adopt nationalistic symbols and rhetoric themselves is disturbing and off-putting. The current craze with the "Cursed Soldiers", post WW II anti-communist militants, was started by the supposed liberals.

  • This fits right in with your charter school post–that system is a way to funnel money directly to the people you want while excluding most others.

  • 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.


  • Great post, as usual. I would only add that the post-Great Recession madness on the right has been totally manipulated both by the media and by an extremist ideology-driven Congress focused pretty much solely on destruction of the federal government. No one has voted for this and so the prospect of a totally out-of-control rightwing government is likely to backfire hugely.

  • This is an interesting observation. I tend to think that racism drives a lot of the politics in this country. But what I don't like about much of the racial theorizing is the lack of testable predictions. So what should we expect in other populist movements? Would we find the same sort of thing, say, in a white populist movement that rose to power in a place like South Africa?

  • There is a certain element of entertainment in the idea of a right wing imploding, except for that bit about being in ground zero with the demented SOBs…

  • PhoenixRising says:

    "But what I don't like about much of the racial theorizing is the lack of testable predictions. So what should we expect in other populist movements? Would we find the same sort of thing, say, in a white populist movement that rose to power in a place like South Africa?"

    You've wandered out of Ed's field and into mine, so I'll pitch in. You're not looking for testable hypotheses, but instead analogs. The analog that would let us think usefully about ethnic nationalism in the US probably isn't South Africa, which was under colonial rule in the 20th century, being made up of the leftovers of a shooting war between 2 European powers also in the 20th century.

    Australia and Brazil, both, for different reasons, are a heck of lot closer. And as Australia offers English-language media it's easier to follow.

    Guess what's happening there now? Yep, it's ethnic nationalism on the rise. See also Brexit, in which Welsh Britons voted to cut their own throats to be the final 'real' English ethnicity through the gate. Scots don't want to reduce themselves to fit through it, and voted accordingly.

    The notion that every ethnicity ought to have its nation-state is a fairly new development arising from the 1848 revolution era. Germany made a lot of things fucked up, in the process of becoming Germany, and one of them was how Europeans thought about the relationship between political identity and ethnic identity.

    Israel is the apotheosis, but the Palestinians didn't get a nation because everyone involved understood that they were Arabs and therefore could join up with one of the adjacent Arab states. Today, we're seeing no new countries based on ethnicity, but lots of exciting things that were Never going to happen Again (in Europe in the 1940s, credit Sam Powers) seem to be happening since the collapse of the USSR, from Kosovo to Rwanda to Sudan…and perhaps soon at a theater near you.

    tl;dr: Yep, ethnic nationalism is one of those ideas that millions of humans have died for, recently, and also it definitely exists and drives voter choice.

  • PhoenixRising,

    Pretty much all Western countries seem to have xenophobic nationalist movements in ascendency, but the real question would have been: is Australia's version economic-populist or economic-libertarian?

    By the way, how it plays out is very different in each case. There are many countries with proportional representation, where even a party capturing a large share of the vote can be marginalised by the others forming a coalition, so you may need up to 51% voter support to do serious damage. In Australia there is a two-party system, but you cannot just capture one of them by being rich and having a lot of press attention, so that system is much harder to insert an extremist into. The USA have the (unique?) situation of a primary process vulnerable to outsiders and a two-party system so polarised that people would vote for a pot plant as long as it had the right letter after its name.

  • Not all European countries are as homogeneous as Poland. The population of France is estimated to be about 15% ethnic minorities (mostly Muslim North Africans), and the UK about 13% (including Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, other south Asians, Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, etc.).

    Both have large and active right-wing populist parties (the Front National and UKIP respectively), which are happy to encourage the belief that They (dark-skinned, urban, and possibly Muslim) are getting favours from the state which should rightfully go to Us (white, rural and small-town, nominally Christian), without spelling out precisely how they would change things.

    The difference is that the FN and UKIP are not in government, and Trump soon will be. So the former can safely ignore the contradictions in their rhetoric; while Trump's are about to be exposed to reality, with the incoherent results identified by Ed.

  • An interesting wrinkle with the distinction between the Right People and the Not Right people is that those borders can be drawn without respect to race. Faggy latte-drinking city-folk are just as Other as the Mooslims…even more so, in a way.

  • @HoosierPoli… Ding ding ding! With (half?) of voters being “against” them and “not real Americans,” this is why they feel so threatened. Us with our hopes for socialized medicine, World Peace, legal abortion, doubts and criticism of religion, doubts and criticism of their reactionary governance, embracing of gays, interracial marriage, etc. etc. etc. makes them feel scared and vindictive and angry. They don't understand the other, they don't want to, and they'd rather die cold and miserable than change their beliefs. We can't just vote our way out of this mess.

  • PhoenixRising: What Alex SL said. What's interesting about Ed's post, to my mind, is the character of the U.S.'s current populist movement. What explains the odd coupling of populism and economic austerity for the populous? Ed supports the hypothesis that it's racism, the same kind that one finds in other populist movements. The explanation for why we don't see it in Poland is because Poland is racially homogeneous. The other hypothesis is that the U.S. is an libertarian outlier. If the sort of model that Ed has in mind here generalizes to other cases, then the outlier theory begins to look ad hoc.

    As for Australia, my impression is that it's pretty darn homogeneous. So if Ed is correct, then we should expect Australia's populism to behave more like Poland's than the U.S.'s.

  • "anti-government, pro-individualism ideology is much more prominent in the U.S. than it is elsewhere"

    Here is a good place to remember that America was settled by religious cranks, grifters, and people who just couldn't get along with their neighbors.

  • Joseph Nobles is on the right track. You can't practice eliminationism in the form of death camp genocide (yet), but you can effectively fine tune the law to produce an attenuated version. I remember when cocaine made the cover of Time as the first "safe" social drug. It wasn't until crack came along that we had to "get tough" with the users. When heroin was perceived as a ghetto problem, again, prison was the solution of choice. Now that we have an "opioid epidemic" that impacts large swaths of rural America, we need more treatment and a better understanding of the conditions that precipitate abuse.

    Funny how that works.

  • I think the USA has been a special case since the first slaves in 1619. Unlike other western cultures, it grew roots so deep that I'd bet they've corrupted the mainstream values permanently, or at least another hundred or two years. It taints everything with that special USA edge. Once slavery was such an integral part of southern life– early 1800s?– I'd guess the only way to have moved past it was to let the south secede, then eventually have a black revolution that purged the white upperclass.

  • @ Joseph Nobles — Yes, it is a slow process. What a lot of people forget is that the Nazis were in power for about eight years before they decided to start killing Jews. Prior to that, their plan was to round them up and deport them.

  • Actually Poland was still killing Jews into the early 1960s. They called them cosmopolites.

    Your analysis lines up with this op-ed in the New York Times:

    They want more and more in exchange for less and less. They hate it when the people who produce the wealth try to grab some for themselves. They think people who produce wealth are intrinsically evil while they themselves are intrinsically good.

  • @swkellogg

    It's one of the things that gets me all fired up, the idea that we have a "public health crisis" because the Rust Belt is full of white heroin addicts, but when the black inner-cities had drug addicts, it was because of "the destruction of black family values" or some shit.

    Having worked at a Large Chain Drug Store in the inner-city in the Rust Belt (Dayton), we had issues with shoplifting and stealing. As a rule, I would rather face one of the dudes from the neighborhood (usually black) because it was a little game we played, they tried to steal, we tried to catch them, they'd give up the stuff (not all right away, but eventually) and we'd throw them out and tell them to not come back. The people coming into the neighborhood to buy heroin? Those, mainly white people, were trouble because they *needed* to get high and would steal and wanted to see what you'd do about it, and they would fight you.

    But people in the white neighborhoods were all scared of my store's neighborhood because it was at the corner of "stab whitey and shoot whitey", as if there were roving gangs of thugs looking to drag white people into the street and do terrible things to them. It's the same reason the stupid, criminal behavior by those kids from Chicago are getting all that attention: it is confirmation in the eyes of racist white people that black people are all animals looking to commit violence on the rest of society. I don't know how many Facebook comments are basically "if they don't like the police, the police should just stop going to their neighborhoods and let them all kill each other", ignoring the violence and drug peddling that occurs because white people all go to the hood to buy drugs, or that maybe, just maybe, that police abuse creates a culture of fearing the police and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system that leads to a culture of street justice, which only increases the violence.

    But yeah, people vote for Trump and LePage in Maine because they blame the crime and drugs on the "blah" people and allow the rural white people to believe that everything is the fault of the "other" and that everything would be like Mayberry RFD if it wasn't for the stupid liberals or something.

  • @Khaled

    First off –nice post.

    Your comment on the kind of crap that people post on Zuckerberg's Magical Metadata Gathering Apparatus is one of the main reasons (aside from my basic paranoia) that I'm not on it. It's dispiriting enough to have to confront the clueless racism of the "I'm not racist but…" crowd, let alone that of the more avowedly racist shitbags.

    For the most part, getting racist white people to acknowledge the insidious nature of racist constructs — that they are a product of socialization and not of the result of some arbitrarily selected and unduly emphasized biological characteristic — can be all but impossible. Additionally, the fact that the American psyche is constructed around (at least in part) heapin' helpings of the myth of bootstrap individualism, to such an extent that the socialized don't even know they've been socialized, makes the situation all the worse.

    At some point you realize you're just wasting your time.

    This nation is a vast sea of false consciousness.

  • There's another aspect, Ed. They take it (the Medicaid, the welfare, the Snap, whatever) but–they're mad at you liberals for making them need it or want it (like the Others do).

  • Thank you, Khaled.

    It's one of the things that gets me all fired up, the idea that we have a "public health crisis" because the Rust Belt is full of white heroin addicts, but when the black inner-cities had drug addicts, it was because of "the destruction of black family values" or some shit.

    And bury Charles Murray up to his neck on an incoming tide, while we're at it.

  • probably has to do with the European Libertarian party starting out as socialists.

    The "Property is Theft" types

  • @swkellog and Khaled, YES

    Slavery created an obscene perversion of morals that we still experience constantly.

  • @Ursula, as does Christianity, but we can't talk about that much, because people will get all butt-hurt about it.

  • @Isaac

    I'd say that Christianity is a moderately incoherent and rather ridiculous Jewish heresy, but I don't think it is in itself an obscene perversion of morals. Can it be reworked to that end? Sure – that's how you get vicious moral voids like Mike Pence glorying in their own virtue – but let's not mistake the Jesus powder cut with white power fascism for the real stuff.

  • Science denial.
    History denial.
    Magical thinking.
    Yeah. The real stuff.
    Either some magic dude's son/dad broke the laws of physics so that his followers can be in a choir in magic happy land for ever and ever because he chose them and they chose him, meanwhile all the unchosen folks are gonna be in magical burning land, or not.
    It's not coherent. It's a two-thousand year old con, and the only reason it still exists is because it's a tool that the powerful use to oppress the weak.

  • PhoenixRising says:


    "As for Australia, my impression is that it's pretty darn homogeneous. So if Ed is correct, then we should expect Australia's populism to behave more like Poland's than the U.S.'s."

    Your impression is wrong. Australia is in Asia and looks like it, demographically. It's a pretty good test case for 'but how do we knooooowww race is the factor here?'

  • @Isaac

    Plenty of people over time, including Martin Luther King, have found resources and ethics in Christianity that run contrary to the rather glib list you offered to support your extreme claim. Do you think your judgment of, for example, racism is superior to that of MLK?

  • @Isaac; Christianity in a nutshell: an all-knowing and all-powerful deity created the heavens and earth and populated the earth with people, whose behavior so offended him (what, he didn't see THAT coming?) that he impregnated a terrified child in order to send himself down to try in vain to convince people to do what he wanted. Didn't work, so he sacrificed himself to himself in order to save humanity…from him. But it still didn't work (he didn't see THAT coming either, apparently).

    So how is this guy all-knowing and all-powerful, again?

  • @Khaled; @swkellogg;

    There is another difference between the present opiate epidemic and drug addictions of the past. The drugs of the past were mostly illegal and arrived via the underground market. The opiates causing our current set of problems are legal drugs, produced by shareholder-owned corporations, prescribed by bona-fide doctors, and sold at local pharmacies. If you're a pro-capitalist, pro-business type, do you not have to talk around this distinction very carefully…?

  • @jcastarz:

    Like handguns used in crimes, most of the drugs start as "legal" but. without having access to the CDC/FBI stats, I'm gonna guess that a lot of the "victperps" of opioid abuse are not usin' their own meds.

    On a lighter note, for the Mayberry referent, you can't spell "opioid" with "opi".

  • Out in Western MD and West VA, I would say that the opiates used are both heroin and pills. In Baltimore, the heroin trade is lovingly known locally as the Shadow Economy, because peddling smack is the only way some people can make a living when the cost of living is so much higher than a local job will pay. There are also a lot of colleges there churning out overeducated white people who drive down wages, and why pay an adult with experience when you can hire a recent grad with a degree for much less? (Though it should be noted, the heroin trade probably really started to flourish when the steel mill closed.) Requiring the possession of a degree for shit that doesn't require a degree has the added bonus of providing a smokescreen for reinforcing white (and rich) supremacy.

    True, heroin is seen as more of an "urban" problem, and we all know that "urban" is a euphemism for "black". I would say that the hillbillies in bumfuck Maryland probably use heroin as their drug of choice over pills, pills are usually for people who are rich/in major denial/partially functioning/in the shallow end of the pool. But nobody wants to SAY that out loud; we spent so much time vilifying the grizzled homeless panhandling mainlining junkie during the Drug War, we want to make that guy black and suffering at the hands of God for doing the devil's work, while pill popping is a sanitized, "accidental" addiction that happens to innocent white people. The narrative with the latter is that they are all patients prescribed drugs that they later become addicted-to, they were just innocently taking them as prescribed and then Boom! They were hooked. In reality, people usually just steal them or buy them off others, just like anything else.

  • It's somehow relevant that one of the major events that made me start to doubt all that Christian bullshit was when my pastor was arrested because he got arrested for forging prescriptions to support his opioid addiction. White guy. No jail time. Still a pastor and he'll retire with a pension and the respect of his community.

  • @Aurora S; you're in Western MD? I go through there to visit friends who work at WVU. It's always a treat to stop at Fruitland for whatever fruit's in season!

    My thoughts on "accidental" addiction; I've been wondering just how the hell these people can even get prescriptions in the first place; my experience has always been the opposite. For example, in the late 1990s I was in a very serious car accident (one of the first victims of a texting-while-driving moron! Lucky me!) with some major body damage that landed me in the CCU of a hospital. Anytime I complained that I was in pain, I was told that I was just an addict and they weren't going to give me anything for it. Let's see, I'm lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines, with obvious severe injuries…yup, I'm just pretending to be in pain because gosh, who would be in that kind of situation?!?!

  • @Isaac, the hypocrisy is astounding, isn't it? I first started questioning Christianity when I went to college and was randomly assigned a dorm room with 3 born-again, Southern Baptist roommates. They lied, they stole, they drank and smoke, and they "entertained" their boyfriends in the room every weekend…but I (who didn't do any of those things) was going straight to hell because I "didn't accept Jesus as my savior" (at the time I self-identified as generic Christian, but no particular denomination).

    They had "bible study" classes in the room that were just bad-mouthing whoever in their group didn't show up, and they loved to tell each other that they were all going to hell for this infraction or that infraction or the other infraction. Over Christmas break, I borrowed one of their bibles to get a handle on their crazy, contradictory beliefs, and discovered that the craziness was baked right in, from the multiple versions of creation in Genesis through the insane hatred of shellfish (which they all ate with gusto) and clothing of mixed fibers.

  • This reminds me of one of the less lovely aspects of the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Whenever the topic switched to "Why can't we have at least some form of socialized health insurance like they have in every other country?," the "reasonable" conservative answer (that is, delivered with polite condescension rather than sneering condescension) was "Well, it works in Scandinavia because they're a lot less diverse than we are."

    This was said casually, blithely, as a statement of simple fact. What that sentence actually means — that here in the US we have too many racists to consider keeping poor nonwhite people from dying — was never discussed. Everyone shrugged and moved on.

  • Skepticalist says:

    Even one of my conservative (conservative, not insane) friends said that it's about time for single payer government medical insurance, mostly just to get it out of the way and that in the long run it would save money.

    I was once told that god was testing me when I started seeing an Oncologist. Really? I said that if so god is a sadist and why would a god waste time on it? I was also told to praise Jesus when my treatment began doing well. I lied and said that I'd consider it when the lady next to me in the office no longer had to carry a waste basket in case she vomited from chemo therapy while waiting for more.

    God is not great as they say.

  • @Katydid

    The US has a long and rather schizophrenic history with opioids, pain relievers, decongestants and drugs in general. On the one hand, pharmaceutical corporations and doctors routinely push for over-prescription of a variety of highly-addictive products (see rise in Benzodiazepine addiction through products like Valium). On the other hand, the War on Drugs™ implies that anything that could possibly be used to get high is a Class I substance (Kratom, Whippets, making Pseudoephedrine and some DxM products prescription-only). This inner tension produces terrible results for patients, who are either arbitrarily denied pain relief or over-medicated on it.

  • We are all sinners and hypocrites in our own way, but it is amusing how most fundies are so little better than us heathens, isn't it?

    They are supposed to be miraculously transformed, I am told!

    The deeper problem is that Christianity cannot answer Eurythro's Dilemna or the Problem of Evil. Sure, they dance around it with convoluted nonsense and theobabble, but any observation of the world would lead to conclude that the deity is Omnimalevolent.

    ( I love John Zande!)

  • @jcdenton; aren't Whip-its when you suck out the nitrogen from a can of whipped cream? If there's another one, please educate me (sincere request).

  • @Katydid

    Whippets/Whip-its indeed refers to the Nitrous Oxide sucked out of whipping cream recharging bottles. Mixes well with THC, or so I've heard.

  • Thanks, jcdenton. I make my own whipped cream from heavy whipping cream and some liquid stevia, so I have no direct experience with sucking down nitrous oxide, with or without enhancement.

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