A week ago, American presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton spoke at length about a phenomenon she identified as “the rising tide of right-wing nationalism”. Describing it as worldwide, she blamed her Republican Party opponent Donald Trump for bringing the “alt right” (alternative right) out of the shadows with its white nationalist ideas, racism, misogyny and anti-Muslim beliefs. Overall, she pinned responsibility on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who Mrs Clinton described as the “grand-godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism”.
Is nationalism becoming that ultimate paradox — a narrowly focused, truly global ideology?
At first glance it certainly seems that way. There’s Mr Trump’s campaign and his “America First” slogan. For years, Mr Putin’s Russia has pursued a careful strategy of managed nationalism. In Britain, there was the successful right-wing UK Independence Party-stoked campaign to leave the European Union. Even in Austria, a largely uneventful democracy, the far right Freedom Party has achieved startling electoral success on the strength of its ability to play up people’s suspicions and anger that “everything is rigged” and that the system is weighted to discount the popular will. Its candidate, Norbert Hofer, lost May’s knife-edge presidential election by only 30,863 votes, managed to get it overturned and will have another shot at winning in a few weeks. The twists and turns of that saga have led Austrian broadsheet Der Standard to categorise it as “a two-fold success” for the nationalists — another chance at the top job and “new material for its us-against-the-establishment propaganda: look, the old political system is so rotten that even the elections aren’t done properly any more”.
But here’s the thing: in many parts of the world, the alt right is not the alternative right at all. It is the real right, it is the left, it is the centre. Sometimes, it may have taken over both sides of the political spectrum.
It is possible to see this most clearly in India, Russia and China, all of which are witnessing the rise of a nationalism that is at least partly premised on the view of the “rotting West” and their own cultural and civilisational superiority.
The reasons are not hard to understand. As Cambridge academic Ernest Gellner, one of the world’s leading theoreticians on nationalism, once said, wherever nationalism has taken root, it has tended to prevail with ease over other modern ideologies. He explained its success as follows: nationalism is a sort of “cultural pool in which individuals who are part of a national group can, like fish, swim comfortably”.
One can extrapolate from that. It is harder and more troublesome to pursue good governance, institutional reform and a solid, if boring, agenda rather than the assured exultation born of Sturm und Drang appeals to nationalist paranoia.
Consider India, where a Hindu nationalist politician once seen as unacceptably extreme is now the prime minister. The BJP government led by Narendra Modi has subsumed the political centre-ground with nationalist fervour, turning beef-eating and cow-slaughter into an antinationalist act in the Hindu-majority country. It has indicated that it views as antinational any criticism of the administration’s hardline approach to Kashmir’s ongoing trauma and any suggestion that the Kashmiri protests are caused as much by Indian short-sightedness as Pakistani meddling.
The surest sign that the alt right has taken over both sides of India’s political spectrum was the centrist opposition Congress Party’s apathy when one of its politicians, a young actor named Divya Spandana, challenged the Indian defence minister’s absurd comment that “going to Pakistan is the same as going to hell”. Congress, Indian commentators now say, seems fearful of speaking out against nationalism, which wins votes.
In China, meanwhile, the alt right is to be found on the left, among the neo-Maoists, those who yearn for a born-again cultural revolution while picking strawberries and vegetables, rearing fowl and studying Chinese classics. It’s worth noting that president Xi Jinping has not repudiated the attempt to mentally return to the doctrine of Mao Zedong.
The echo chamber of the internet reflects the nationalist mood. A group of predominantly female overseas Chinese dubbed Little Pink has become the most vocal — and potent — force against any notion of Taiwanese self-determination and anything else that may undermine the Chinese state.
And in Russia, as former Financial Times Moscow bureau chief Charles Clover says, nationalism has become a mainstream phenomenon over the past decade. It’s not just Mr Putin who has become more nationalistic and more prone to use rhetoric about the Russian empire, so has the opposition. The dominant idea is of Russia as “The Third Rome”, inheritor of Byzantium’s fallen Orthodox greatness and destined to repurpose it for the 21st century.
Clover, whose book Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism was published in April, says the nationalism emerged from a fateful decision made by Mr Putin’s Kremlin: if independent political movements couldn’t be put down by conventional means, it must lead them. This has meant the emergence from the fringes of what Clover calls “nationalists with beards”. In today’s Russia, they’ve become mainstream pundits, have national talk shows and chair the departments of big universities.
The alt right — wherever it really sits on a country’s political spectrum — has had a similar trajectory in India, China and elsewhere.
How long this will last is hard to predict but in the short term, alt-rightism is likely to make international cooperation a lot harder.
Everyone’s in this together.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs
On Twitter: @rashmeerl