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by • July 27, 2023 • Opinion, Politics, Weekly ColumnComments (0)272

Europe’s Dangerous Flirtation with Fascism

A Euro Coalition Forms Similar to the Reagan GOP

It wasn’t long ago that fascists across the globe worshipped Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.  They were enthralled by his “strongman” image, police state tactics and disdain for democracy. Unfortunately for Putin, he divided his international fan club when he embraced Russian imperialism with his disastrous invasion of Ukraine.

His all-powerful reputation also took a hit after his reign was briefly challenged by Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Standing by Putin now seems a riskier bet, particularly after Biden masterfully unified NATO. Even if Putin eventually conquers Ukraine, his military power has been depleted and the Russian army has revealed itself corrupt, incompetent and overrated. Even African leaders who have long kowtowed to Putin are having second thoughts on relations with Moscow.

Russia’s reputational decline has created a competition between two competing authoritarian European models. The first is the pro-Russia Hungarian faction led by Viktor Orbán. The second is the Polish model, which is staunchly anti-Russia. New Eastern Europe reports:

Hungary and Poland, two European Union member states that are often mentioned jointly when talking about illiberalism and democratic erosion, and known as fierce allies within the EU, have increasingly mimicked each other’s undemocratic turns and backed each other up in their disputes with the EU over the years.

However, despite the two EU members’ mutual support in the past, their relationship took a hit last year due to their differing stances on Russia, Ukraine and the Russian war in Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s continuous opportunism and Russia-friendly stance estranged the former allies. His reluctance to back down from his Putin-friendly position now has the potential to break the Polish-Hungarian axis in the EU for good.

It seems that the Polish model of illiberalism is winning the day. The latest evidence is Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pivoting away from Russia and consenting to Sweden joining NATO. Italy’s right-wing government has also surprised many observers by supporting Ukraine.

President Joe Biden will meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni today to solidify ties over a shared interest in defeating Russia. While I passionately support this partnership for the narrow purpose of assisting Ukraine, we can take no comfort in the normalization of fascist leaders, such as Meloni, in Europe.

The ascendant Polish model of authoritarianism looks very much like Ronald Reagan’s right-wing coalition of the 1980’s. It’s a scary alliance of fundamentalist religious cranks, virulent homophobes, misogynists urging European women to procreate, actual Nazis fueled by white supremacy who are fervently anti-immigration, and greedy corporate interests opposed to mitigating climate change. (While Reagan himself wasn’t an autocrat, he achieved power by assembling a coalition of crazies that set the stage for today’s anti-democratic GOP)

Like the Reagan era, the glue that binds the European “axis of autocrats” is a shared interest in containing Russia’s ambitions. If right wing extremists continue taking power in Europe, I predict a precipitous military buildup. While it’s in America’s interest for NATO members to increase their war-fighting budgets, taken to the extreme, we could eventually see competing European centers of military power.

One does not have to be an Ivy League historian to see that this doesn’t end well. Cynics might say, “the Europeans love their social programs and would never upend them to increase military spending.” But fascism, by definition, relies on the projection of military strength and targeting scapegoats. We all know where this road leads.

While some NATO countries are aiding Ukraine to uphold democracy, other nations are only against Russia because of their geographic misfortune of sharing a border with the fearsome Polar Bear. After the Ukraine war ends, papered-over tensions between the liberal and illiberal factions will likely intensify.

Another reason that the Polish model is triumphing is because of white supremacy. If you’re going to have a coalition that includes Nazi-sympathizers, it’s a prerequisite to include the blond hair, blue eyed Aryan/Scandinavian nations, who coincidentally are the ones most threatened by Russian revanchism. The once-unthinkable rise of fascist parties in Sweden and Finland drive home the danger the civilized world now faces.

While the far right in Europe is still divided on support for Ukraine, those differences will fade, as opposition to Russia becomes a unifying force. It will be similar to how social conservatives, libertarians and war hawks joined forces in the U.S. during the Soviet era.

Italy is a perfect example of this disturbing new paradigm. In The New York Times, David Broder wrote a chilling op-ed , “What’s Happening in Italy Is Scary, and It’s Spreading,” outlining how Meloni’s unexpected support for Ukraine has obfuscated her fascist-leaning agenda on the boot:

The comforting tale of a populist firebrand turned pragmatist overlooks something important: what’s been happening in Italy. Ms. Meloni’s administration has spent its first months accusing minorities of undermining the triad of God, nation and family, with dire practical consequences for migrants, nongovernmental organizations and same-sex parents. Efforts to weaken anti-torture legislation, stack the public broadcaster with loyalists and rewrite Italy’s postwar constitution to increase executive power are similarly troubling. Ms. Meloni’s government isn’t just nativist but has a harsh authoritarian streak, too.   

Meanwhile, in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is gaining momentum, forcing mainstream conservatives to contemplate welcoming these fascists into their coalition. The New York Times reported on this troubling dilemma:

The ascent of the AfD, a party widely viewed as a threat to Germany’s democratic fabric, has posed a crisis for the country’s entire political establishment, but an especially acute one for the Christian Democrats, who are struggling openly with how to deal with the challenge.

Should they pivot further right themselves and risk their centrist identity? Should they continue to try to isolate the AfD? Or, as that becomes increasingly difficult, should they break longstanding norms and work with the AfD instead?

I think the answer to whether Germany’s mainstream conservative parties should entertain fascism is obvious. The last time this occurred the nation was destroyed and left in ruins. Tragically, it seems when charismatic populist autocrats work their black magic, too many gullible people suffer from collective amnesia and retreat into comforting cocoons of hate.

Hopefully, enough voters will wise up and have fascism flashbacks, electing to keep the deranged demagogues out of power. In Spain, predictions that the far-right Vox party would become a kingmaker were defied, as Vox lost seats in Spain’s July elections. Had they succeeded, it would have become the first fascist-leaning government since dictator General Francisco Franco.

While we must put aside widening rifts to help Ukraine prevail, the end of the war will mark the beginning of our next fight for freedom. Once the insidious Putin model is defeated, the hideous Polish model must be dealt with.

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