buruma146_ VINCENT JANNINKAFPGetty Images_thierry baudet Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images

The Revolt Against Virtue

The assumption of virtue among those who count themselves as progressive may help to explain the popularity of right-wing agitators, as well as the link between anti-immigrant sentiment and denial of climate change. Anything, it seems, is better than admitting that the experts are right.

NEW YORK – A common explanation for the rise of right-wing demagogues around the world is that many people feel “left behind” by globalism, technology, deindustrialization, pan-national institutions, and so on. They feel abandoned by the “liberal elites,” and so they vote for extremists who promise to “take back” their countries and “make them great” again.

This account is plausible in seedy parts of eastern Germany, the bleak old mining towns in the north of Britain, or the Rust Belt in the American Midwest. But it leaves out the large number of populist voters who are relatively prosperous. These people are often past middle age, and overwhelmingly white. They, too, might feel left behind by changes that bewilder them: the rise of non-Western powers and the increasing prominence of non-white minorities; hence the loathing of US President Barack Obama and the receptiveness to myths – spread by Trump, among others – that Obama wasn’t really born in the US. 

Harder to explain is the extraordinary success of a new far-right party in the Netherlands. The Forum voor Democratie (FvD) didn’t even exist three years ago, but it gained some 15% of the vote in recent provincial elections, making it one of the largest factions in the upper house. Polls suggest that it could soon become the largest party in the country.

Compared to most places, even in Western Europe, the Netherlands is exceedingly wealthy and, for the most part, quite calm and peaceful. Some people who voted for the FvD might feel relatively left behind, but many are as comfortable as the highly educated, urbane party leader, Thierry Baudet. Neither he, nor many of his most vocal followers, are disgruntled provincials. Many resemble what Americans call typical frat boys, members of student fraternities who celebrate the privileges of wealth and status.

But Baudet is a type of politician more often seen in Europe than in the US: a right-wing dandy, dressed in the foppish manner of a vintage car dealer. His thinking leans heavily on early-twentieth-century ideologues, who worried about the decadence of Western civilization, which in their view could be saved only by authoritarian leadership. Like Mussolini, Baudet believes in “direct democracy,” where the voice of the people is expressed in referendums.

In his view, immigrants, especially Muslims, dilute the purity of native populations and undermine Western cultures with their alien ways. He thinks that European civilization is equally threatened by “cultural Marxists,” who should be purged from schools and national institutions. Baudet wishes to safeguard the national identity by pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union. And, like Trump, whom he admires, Baudet thinks that climate change is a hoax.

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Why should this appeal to so many people in such a stable, prosperous country? And why do politicians who worry about immigrants and national decline almost automatically assume that climate change is not a problem? I found a possible answer, not in Amsterdam, but in London, where I marched a few weeks ago with hundreds of thousands of UK citizens in protest against Brexit.

The crowd was utterly civilized, almost genteel even, and exuded a kind of virtuousness. There was a mostly unspoken assumption that Brexiteers were not just wrong, but bigots and xenophobes. This may be true of many Brexiteers, and especially of some of their loudest official cheerleaders. My own sentiments were entirely with the marchers. But the assumption of virtue among those who count themselves as progressive may help to explain the popularity of right-wing agitators, as well as the link between anti-immigrant sentiment and denial of climate change.

Left-of-center parties used to represent the economic interests of the industrial working class. The focus began to change in the last decades of the twentieth century, when race, gender, and ecology became more important concerns of the left. Anti-racism, equal rights for women and sexual minorities, as well as the health of the planet – all worthy goals – injected a strong sense of virtuousness into progressive politics. We knew what was best for people, and those who opposed us were either stupid or wicked.

This attitude can be hard to tolerate, especially when it is accompanied by social and educational privilege, which it often is. The Netherlands has a long tradition of virtuous rule. You can see it in portraits by Frans Hals of seventeenth-century Dutch worthies dressed in sober but expensive black clothes. These figures, who were indeed often inspired by noble motives, held a firm belief that their innate Protestant virtue gave them the right to govern.

Something of this tradition survived in the Netherlands for a long time. The liberal and social democratic parties, in particular, would tell people that good citizens should believe in European integration, welcome “guest workers” and refugees, eat and drink healthily, and do everything possible to mitigate the damage of changing climate conditions.

The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.

And that personal rebellion quickly turns political. If “they” tell us to stay in Europe, let’s get out. If they tell us to accept immigrants, let’s turn them away. If they tell us that climate change is a serious threat, let’s deny it. Anything, it seems, is better than admitting that the experts are right. This is true in Trump country, and it is just as true in the placid, affluent Netherlands.

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