Europe is brimming with Donald Trump-types, as well as Bernie Sanders-types — and oh yes, quite a few Nigel Farages. These disparate leaders might not agree on much, but they do agree that the elites—especially the transnational elites who run outfits such as the European Union — have done a bad job at governing and that the little guy should get a better break. …
If we step back from the headlines, we can see a broader trend in the world today: The decline of old authority.
That old authority included faith in institutions, especially international institutions. Yet people in America, and around the world, aren’t sure whom to trust anymore; they believe, with ample justification, that their leaders have let them down. And so for now, at least, they are putting their trust in themselves. That is, if the elites can’t be relied upon, well, the people themselves will have to figure it out, choosing new leaders who speak to them in a new language of solidarity. This is populism, and it blends into nationalism, because both “isms” are validated by the popular will.
Europe, 1848 — a watershed year:
Yet in fact, this populist-nationalist impulse isn’t so new: History has seen it before.
Back in 1848, Europe was dominated by kings and queens, emperors and tsars. All these royals formed their own kind of internationale; King Christian IX of Denmark, for example, was known as “the father-in-law of Europe,” because so many of his family members married into other European royal houses, from Britain to Spain.
Moreover, many of these crowned heads ruled over territories that had agglomerated into baroque geographical arrangements; that is, their boundaries paid no regard to the obvious demarcations of culture and language. They were in fact, multinational empires, held together by force, and little else.
The biggest of these multinational domains was the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, whose capital was Vienna. … While Austria was large, it was weak. That is, the populace didn’t have much in common, and certainly, few wanted to fight for Austria. The only thing that held the empire together was the autocratic power of the Hapsburgs. …
And so we come, of course, to the obvious parallel: The Hapsburg Empire was its own version of the European Union. That is, the European Union today has many of the features of the Hapsburg Empire yesterday: the same polyglot nature, the same out-of-touch government—and the same populist-nationalist passions pulling it apart, nation by nation.
Things came to a boil in 1848. Riots and revolts erupted all over Europe, from Paris to Copenhagen to Warsaw, some 50 uprisings in all. The big idea was national self-determination — often for nations that didn’t yet exist because they had been submerged in someone else’s kingdom. That’s why 1848 is remembered as “the spring of nations.”
The rebels scored some immediate successes: The French monarchy was overthrown, for the second and last time. … Yet elsewhere in Europe, the rebellions were put down. That is, when the smoke cleared, the royals were still in charge, at least for the time being.
And yet without a doubt, everything had changed: In 1848, the old authority of the crowned heads had fallen, and it couldn’t be restored. …
The old geographical lines continued to fade; new nations, based on common bonds, rose up, pulling together the fragments of some decaying empire. Thus Italy was united in 1861, Germany in 1871, and Romania in 1878, among others.
Now it’s easy to see the parallel with today: As we have seen, beginning in 1848, the populist-nationalists started to pull down the old order. And in our time, in Europe and around the world, a new set of populist-nationalists — animated by many of the same impulses, aiming at many of the same sort of targets — are doing the exact same thing.
Here is the UN Secretary-General just last week, calling for nations around the globe to unite to fight nationalism, xenophobia, and climate change:
hat-tip Stephen Neil