On the eve of the UK’s European Parliament elections, Jean Claude Juncker, current European Commission President, made the statement that has come to define the tone-deafness of EU apologists. When asked about the growing reactions against Brussels and the EU and the rise of nationalist movements across Europe, Juncker turned the question back, “What is wrong with them?”  And if that wasn’t tone deaf enough he added: “these populists, these nationalists, these stupid nationalists.”

In the latest EU elections those “stupid nationalists” made major headway. It was not the tsunami that many predicted but the weakening of center-left and right parties and the rise of both nationalist and green parties is the big story.

Nationalism is on the rise worldwide with nationalist-oriented leaders taking the helm in some of the largest countries. Some call them “authoritarians,” others “populists.” Whatever term of derision they can manufacture they throw it at the wall like wet spaghetti hoping it will stick. Now there are nationalist-leaning governments in Brazil and India, some of the world’s largest democracies.  Narendra Modi, the so-called “Indian Trump,” was reelected by wide margins.

Cause for Alarm?

Some have sounded the alarm, reaching back historically to dark times when nationalism fomented strife and war around the world. It is worth noting that Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia were not nationalists. They were universalists and imperialists and aggressively expansionist in their ambitions. That some people have and may in the future do bad and evil things in the name of the nation, whatever they imagine that nation to be, does not make them nationalists.

The current American president is a good example. Whatever Trump’s rhetoric, he is not a warmonger and his inclination, like the president before him, is to scale back American ambitions abroad and bring the troops home.  Some may not like this and argue, for a number of reasons, that America should maintain its current level of involvement. Fine. My only point is that Trump, who seems to be cut in the similar mold of many of these other so-called nationalists is not looking to aggressively expand American empire or start new wars if he does not have to.

The current President’s inclination to leave other nations alone is not alien to the American foreign policy tradition. In fact, President Andrew Jackson was an originator and the standard bearer of this inclination and serves as a model for Trump to emulate.

What Juncker and many politicians and commentators betray is their inability to appreciate the reasons behind the reaction of nations like Britain, Hungry, Brazil and India. Instead of simply opposing or stigmatizing these leaders, they should seek to understand the concerns that underlie this nationalist trend?

There are good reasons for nations to defend a sense of national identity, culture and history, and economic solidarity with their fellow citizens over and against foreign peoples. While the rise of global capitalism has had overwhelmingly positive effects on most nations, raising millions out of extreme poverty, there is also a downside.

Citizens in these democracies are pushing back against the prevailing order and their complaints are legitimate and real. Competition is becoming more intense globally. Displacement of low skilled workers is significant and the social and cultural effects can be devastating. Not everyone is a winner in the new global economy and it is wholly understandable that nations would turn away from globalism when they fail to see the promise materialize. Many are experiencing growing pains transitioning to the new technology-based economy. Nationalism is often a way to buffer the effects of often brutal and unforgiving progress of the global economy.

Nationalist leaders are speaking to these concerns and if the EU or other Western governments are concerned about the rise of these leaders then maybe that is a cue for them to reexamine what they are doing.

The Lessons of History

If we look for historical analogies, here is a tried and true one: you don’t defeat populism and demagoguery by simply opposing it. You co-opt it. You steal their thunder. You speak to the concerns and frustrations that are animating these responses. What Juncker and so many other politicians do when they make their tin-eared remarks is self-defeating. They choose moral preening to sympathy over a political approach that would seek to work with these countries rather than alienate them further. Why does Nigel Farage appeal to such a large number of Brits? Why does Victor Orban’s message seem to resonate with Hungarians? One does not need to ignore the corruption or authoritarian impulse of some of this nationalism but neither should they ignore the reason why the message seems to resonate.

Nationalist governments have been voted into power all over Europe and they are defying the dictates of Brussels. Is nationalism a problem? In some sense, yes.  These governments can be anti-liberal in their orientation, preferring to preserve and protect a single culture and ethnicity over and against the historic pluralism that has been the ideal in Western Europe and North America in the postwar period. These governments place less emphasis on personal expression and rights;  while they revere individualism, they hold a coherent community as ideal. These governments can be anti-free market, preferring protectionism and state control rather than allowing the market to dictate economic outcomes.

The Brits and Eastern Europeans have been made into nationalist monsters when the reaction to EU overreach is perfectly understandable.

And the way Junker and European Council President, Donald Tusk, have sought to “sway” public opinion only reinforces the worst aspects of insulated, smug European politicians who could care less what the benighted masses think.

The way you co-opt populists is by stealing their message, not morally posturing or demonizing them. That only makes them stronger. Did it matter that Julius Caesar was a blueblood aristocrat from a storied Roman family? Rather than appease or work with Caesar the rigid and self-righteous Cato itched for a confrontation with his arch-nemesis only to send the republic into a tailspin. Caesar may have had tyrannical ambitions but the issues that he spoke to appealed to the masses at Rome because the republican government had failed.

Hopefully, the EU can learn from Rome. If not, they might just go the way of the republic.


Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.