Nationalism is born. It exists in the longing and striving for freedom, historically in battle against distant oppressors. In today's Ukraine. It becomes a force with promises of community, independence and security. But it has an ugly cousin: paranoid nationalism.
The concepts "Paranoid nationalism" and "the ugly cousin" are taken from the market liberal magazine The Economist, which in September fires a broadside against the growing nationalist movement.
This "cousin" that the newspaper writes about has no particular color on the ideology, neither his own nor that of those he designates as enemies. They can be red or blue, or just dark skinned.
In China, Xi Jinping paints regime critics as evil agents of Western imperialism. Putin claims that Ukraine is a puppet that plays on the strings of NATO, controlled by a Nazi clique that wants to destroy Russia. India's leaders warn against Muslims. Claims to be waging a "love jihad" to seduce young female virgins of Hindu origin. Tunisia's president paints a black African plot that threatens the country's Arabs.
In Sweden, nationalists call political opponents socialists and traitors with reference to the large immigration. The leader, Jimmie Åkesson, claims that all other parties "stand for an overriding ideology with the stated goal of breaking our nation".
The Economist describes how the paranoid nationalism use fears to gain power. Fear of the unknown, the strange people, the unfamiliar ideas. Fear of poverty, starving people, climate change, violence.
Fear of threats to ordinary life with gasoline and diesel-powered cars, as it seems in Sweden.
Nationalist leaders exploit the fears. They whip up mistrust and hatred to benefit themselves and their cronies. In the pursuit of power, they fight the global order and supranational institutions with the same poisonous mixture of exaggerations and lies.
Leading EU lawyer Michael Dougan at the University of Liverpool claims that the "Brexit" leading-up to the 2016 referendum was "one of the most dishonest campaigns this country has ever seen."
The ugly cousins' intention is to deceive their followers. Once in power, they throw new wood into the nationalist fire to distract the people. Abuse is covered up by evoke demons that steal the spotlight.
Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua. He returns to power in 2006, takes control of the media and summons his old enemy the United States as a demon. He labels political opponents as "agents of the Yankee empire" while behind the scene he positions the family in the corridors of power. When mass protests break out in 2018, he calls the protesters vampires and locks them up. Earlier this year, a Jesuit order was branded a "centre of terrorism" and banned. It's been there ever since Nicaragua wasn't even a country.
While the people are preoccupied with the demons, nationalist leaders take the opportunity to rob their own country. Like Ortega, they capture the state by distributing positions of power to cronies, family or relatives. Like Jacob Zuma in South Africa, they corrupt state-owned companies and put money in their own pockets. Cronies of Putin, the oligarchs, become billionaires.
The more nationalistic they are, the more corrupt they tend to be, writes The Economist. The tool, paranoid nationalism, is used to dismantle the checks and balances that watch over the country's governance and democracy: free press, independent judiciary, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society forces and political opposition.
The cousins don't say: By directing the administration's commissioners, I want to block my political opponents.
They say: The commissioners are traitors!
They do not admit that they want to push back NGOs to avoid scrutiny.
They instead single them out as agents of the globalists, enemies of the nation, and impose absurd controls or simply ban them.
They do not close the media, but they put pressure on critical journalists and publicists. In the perfected state, they control or own the media companies.
According to an estimate by The Economist's analysis panel, at least 50 countries have reduced the space for civil society in recent years.
One example is Tunisian President Kais Saied. Before he started blaming black people for his country's problems, he was unpopular. The management of the economy was heavily criticised. Now he has brought Tunisians with him against the small minority of blacks. At the same time, Saied has eroded the judiciary and closed down the anti-corruption commission, according to the Economist.
With weak institutions, the abuses of the nationalist leaders are facilitated. The despots in Nicaragua, Iran or Zimbabwe are certainly less limited than the leaders in, for example, Hungary or Israel. But in all these countries (and many more) those in power have invented or exaggerated threats to the nation. The threats are used as a pretext to weaken the courts, the press or the opposition and give room for a corrupt administration.
In Sweden, as in other European countries, the EU is portrayed as a threat to the nation's independence and Islam to its very existence.
Authoritarian forces are on the rise after being pushed back after the end of the Cold War, when democracy spread. Country after country then introduced free elections and limited executive power. The space for politicians hunger for power and plunder was reduced. But in the general disillusionment after the 2007-09 financial crisis, they saw the opportunity to regain ground. Paranoid nationalism provided the space and tools to dismantle irritating checks and balances: the democratic institutions.
The space is created by suspicion. If a leader can create a climate of such deep suspicion that loyalty comes before truth, then every critic can be branded a traitor, writes the Economist. In countries that have endured colonial rule – or US involvement, like many in Latin America – there is an audience ready to receive the messages.
Critics are trying to make their voices heard in the noise. In Twilight of Democracy, award-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how authoritarian forces are dismantling democratic institutions, including in Hungary and Poland.
The Austrian political scientist Natascha Strobl analyses in the book Radicalised Conservatism the movement of established parties in the political landscape. Using, among others, the Austrian Sebastian Kurz and Donald Trump as examples, Strobl shows how conservative forces copy right-wing radical language and the nationalists' relationship to media and truth. The political normal is displaced in the pursuit of power.
Paranoid nationalism is not going away. Leaders learn from each other. They are freer now. The Economist believes that the West has lost faith in its program to spread democracy and good governance.
But if ordinary people could only see through the lies behind paranoid nationalism, they would realize how wrong it is, the newspaper writes with the Chinese population in mind, but that probably applies to all countries where paranoid nationalism is on the rise.
The text is partly a translation and interpretation of an editorial in The Economist, from which parts of the country data are taken. The article is available here.
Right-wing Nationalism on the Rise
Europe: Number of seats for right-wing nationalist parties with social conservatism and opposition to immigration as common positions, 2022-09-26. Source: Statista.
Democracy in decline