Nationalism is thriving using the very mechanism it denounces

Nationalism wears a thin disguise.
Nationalism wears a thin disguise.
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile
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In spring this year, the World Congress of Families—an ultra-conservative US Christian coalition whose mission is to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society”—held a convention in Verona, Italy. The event was attended by Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist League party and Italy’s deputy prime minister, who gave his support to the movement by saying, “This is the kind of Europe we like.”

The guest list included nationalist advocates and politicians from all over the world, many known for their anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, and anti-feminist stances, like Ugandan politician Lucy Akello who has supported a law that punishes homosexuality with life imprisonment, and in some cases the death penalty.

This trend of international and intercultural support amongst nativists thrives elsewhere. After meeting with Italian populists in Milan, Nigel Farage decided to emulate their digital tools and propaganda strategy when building the Brexit party in the UK. “The Brexit party is the virtual carbon copy of the Five Star Movement,” said Arron Banks, the insurance tycoon who co-founded the Leave-EU campaign and lavishly funded Farage.

Spain’s far-right Vox party has been endorsed by former US political strategist Steve Bannon, who likened their rise to the Tea Party movement in the US and who also provided social media strategy pointers to the campaigns. The party won 10% of the vote in April elections, under its slogan “Make Spain great again!

Ahead of International Women’s Day, party members drove a bus around with a picture of Hitler on its side, captioned with the hashtag #StopFeminazis.

The movement has been called “a danger to women [and] LGBTQ persons,” but that doesn’t seem to have slowed its pace as its leaders claim to fight against what it labels “supremacist feminism and gender totalitarianism.”

Why words matter

As a novelist, I pay close attention to linguistics. Over the past few years, I have watched as words are emptied of their meanings by demagogues.

I’ve seen politicians and political groups deliberately conflate progressive phrases with manifestations of totalitarianism, coining bizarre terms such as “tolerance tyrants,” and “homofascism.”

It’s not only words that populist nationalism distorts; it is also history.

Fernando Paz, a leading congressional candidate for Vox who has since resigned, claimed most Jews were killed by local populations in Eastern Europe, not the Holocaust, and that the Nuremberg trials carry “the air of a farce.”

While there has been progress in the world, as when we witnessed Ireland spectacularly approve same-sex marriage, backlash has been swift. After Ireland’s ruling, Paz tweeted out, “With the firmness of a sleepwalker, the West is hurling itself into the abyss.”

There’s a staggering irony at play here. While nationalists bolster their movement by denouncing outsiders as the enemy, their biggest source of strength—and momentum—lies in an increasingly intricate, intercultural network of support in the form of cross-border funding and international cooperation.

I come from Turkey, where the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of populist nationalism carries familiar resonance. A few months ago, the Radio and Television Supreme Council—an Orwellian institution that oversees every broadcast in the country—declared the American TV drama series 9-1-1 contained an “inappropriate display of two elderly men” that  was “against the national and spiritual values of [Turkish] society.” FoxLife, the TV channel that airs the show in Turkey, was handed a broadcast suspension fine for normalizing homosexual relationships.

In June, Istanbul’s LGBTQ pride march was stopped by police, and the event was banned for the fifth year in a row. Activists who insisted on marching were tear-gassed and many were detained.

In July, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbas, declared that same-sex relationships constituted “heresy.” This is the same institution that in 2018 claimed on their website that girls as young as nine years old were spiritually ready to get married. One out of every three marriages in the country today involves underage girls, according to women’s rights groups. Cases of gender-based violence in Turkey escalated by 1,400% from 2002 to 2009.

I site Turkey because it gives us a salient example of how populist nationalism—and its next-in-line, populist authoritarianism—not only generates nativism and a systematic distrust of foreigners, but exacerbates sexism, misogyny and homophobia.

History lessons

Much has been said about how today’s political environment bears a resemblance to the interwar years of 1918 to 1939. But comparisons of this kind, while they have some degree of validity, can be misleading insofar as they prevent us from seeing what is completely new and different.

Today’s nationalistic movements, despite all their flag-waving rhetoric, benefit critically from international financial support and corporate structures, from online networks and digital partnerships to handshake alliances.

One of the biggest ironies of our time is that in the 21st century, nationalism has become a true benefactor of globalization.

In a similar vein, autocrats in one part of the world are emboldened by autocrats in another part of the world. Bolsonaro’s presence makes Erdogan’s life easier.

Populist nationalism is not only anti-liberal and anti-pluralistic; it is also predominantly anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ. Gender is a major component of today’s culture wars. The attack against women’s rights and the rights of sexual minorities is not a random occurrence, but a systematic backlash with deep international ties.

Feminism’s new new wave

We have arrived at a crossroads in the post-#MeToo era. As proponents of better rights for women and gender and sexual minorities, we need to understand that we cannot retreat into the echo chambers of identity politics. A truly progressive movement has to go beyond delineating—or aligning—tribes. The newest wave of feminism must fully endorse global sisterhood and global solidarity.

Here is our challenge: Although we have enough reasons to be angry and fearful and frustrated, we cannot make anger, fear, or frustration be our guiding force.

From Turkey to Hungary to Brazil, populist demagogues have proven again and again that they love to divide societies and cultures into tribes in order to consolidate their own power. This rhetoric separates people into real people versus not-so-real people, and the entire world into countries-that-matter versus countries-that-do-not really-matter.

Nevertheless, as more and more cross-national connections are established, xenophobic nationalism is profiting from “internationalism” where it can, while feigning to denounce the very notion.

Populism is the fake answer to real problems. The issues are real and urgent, but that nativism is the solution is a dangerous illusion.

We need a new feminism that proves itself to be a major global force. We need a new feminism that derives its power from emotional intelligence, urgently addresses the most vital issues around inequality, proudly walks hand-in-hand with people who need LGBTQ rights.

We need a new feminism that profoundly connects with men—particularly young men from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are often relegated to the margins, disenfranchised, and driven to a breaking point as a result.

We have to focus on the problems that brought us to where we are today. Patriarchy systematically oppresses women, but it similarly makes men unhappy, alienated and unfree. The current system continues to put enormous pressure on boys and men, from harmful expectations of masculinity that increasingly weigh on mental health.

At the moment the most influential rhetoric that addresses discontented men is, unfortunately, a deeply anti-feminist rhetoric being employed by either populist reactionaries or their allies. This means a growing number of young men are led to believe that the only platforms where they are welcomed are the platforms of the far-right.

It’s incredibly important that feminism empowers women and sexual minorities everywhere. But let’s imagine for a moment how revolutionary it would be if new feminism could fully focus on, empathize with, and offer solutions to the challenges of masculinity?

The movement for gender equality is a movement for equality for all. Feminism, with its emphasis on justice and dignity, can reach out to populations who feel left out. By doing so, feminists can expand beyond their conventional borders.

It’s time for advocates for the rights of women and sexual minorities today to decisively smash echo chambers with a truly cosmopolitan vision. Identity politics will not take us forward. The answer to one kind of tribalism is not forming another tribe of our own.

We must transcend tribalism of all kinds. If we speak from the heart as well as the mind, and make equality, inclusion and diversity into universal principles, deal honestly and thoroughly with the racial, cultural, geographical, educational and class barriers that have kept us apart as fellow human beings, we can be one of the most important and strong democratic forces against the international networks of xenophobic nationalism.

Just as nationalists have taken words and phrases and twisted them and assigned new meanings that serve their campaigns, I believe we can restore our language with integrity. Every alternative progressive movement has to define its new emotional language. Words are powerful; stories, transformative.

It’s ironic, but populist nationalism and populist authoritarianism prove just how powerful internationalism can be. They’ve coopted intercultural alliances to serve their purposes. Now those who believe in humanism and those who defend liberal democracy have to come forward with a true global vision.