Phase one of the takeover of mainstream conservatism is complete. The ascent to power of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orbán, and others marked the arrival of the disruptive populist. The image was the man, “charismatic,” flamboyant. All, except for the Hungarian prime minister, have since lost power; several yearn to return. In the case of the former US president, such a scenario is imminent and still possible come 2024, even amid serious criminal charges.
What matters now is the transformation to phase two, to a new set of leaders potentially even more dangerous because of the experiences they have gained and the greater professionalism and seriousness they may demonstrate.
National Conservatism Is Taking Shape
The trend is clear. The traditional center-right is yielding to the global New Right. In the United States, the Republican Party has been captured by “entryists” at every level. In France, mainstream conservatism was long ago usurped by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally), formerly known as the Front National. Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is only the latest usurper from that country’s radical right. In Spain, the more traditional Partido Popular has cut coalition deals with the radical Vox in several regions and is preparing to do so if it wins the snap elections scheduled for July 23. Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is expected to reinforce its stranglehold at the ballot box later this year. Finally, there is Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, always a hardliner but one who now happily governs with elements from the far right.
We do not need history to remind us of what happens when fringe, sometimes comical, figures grab the reins of power.
The key to success for this new wave is the identification of an overarching ideology. National Conservatism, a term first coined in the US, is coming into shape. It is by no means the finished article. Its goals are simple; its enemies are familiar ones. For the moment, it is the object of mirth and mockery. But as a longer-term global movement for channeling popular anger into the most dangerous form of politics it will be underestimated at our peril.
Britain’s Tories Abandoning the Center
Given that it has been in the news (of the entertainment variety) more than most countries recently, thanks to the antics of Johnson, the United Kingdom is a good place to start. It seems that the Conservatives are desperate to lose the next general election, just as they were on the eve of Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997, just as the Labour Party was at the end of their era in power in 2010. Call it a natural life cycle. Most of all, call it exhaustion.
Governments across the world struggle to rejuvenate while in power. Day-to-day responsibilities get in the way. Opposition is where old ideas are jettisoned, new ones are adopted. The Tories have moved into that mindset already, and who can blame them? They have tried everything. In economics, they have veered from austerity (David Cameron/George Osborne) to patch it up as best you can (Theresa May) to big-state spending (Boris Johnson) to devil-may-care (Liz Truss) and back now to a form of austerity under Rishi Sunak and his finance minister, Jeremy Hunt. On social issues, they began with liberalism and have now thrown in their lot with the many manifestations of “woke”-bashing. The cupboard has been emptied.
Two conferences took place in May that had marked the start of the party’s attempt at a new alignment. A gathering at the seaside resort of Bournemouth of a new group called the Conservative Democratic Organization was more easily lampooned. This motley collection of the old and nostalgic hankered after Margaret Thatcher (dead) and Johnson (who was absent).
The three-day meeting that immediately followed in London was of greater import, not for what it said or did, but for what it presages. American funders and strategists were in abundance at Britain’s first National Conservative Conference, which was organized by the right-wing think tank, the Edmund Burke Foundation. In the US they have had three such conferences and are preparing their fourth, so the ideological kinsmen were happy to lend a hand.
A series of members of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet gave speeches, the most notable of whom was Suella Braverman, the home secretary, effectively disowning her own immigration policies. Such is the growing strength of this still inchoate movement, and such is the weakness of Sunak and the hollowed-out official channels of government that these ministers can act with almost complete impunity. When one Conservative MP used the term “cultural Marxism” (an old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Christian and Conservative values have been undermined by niche Marxist, and largely Jewish, scholars), she did not face sanction.
The soup is still being made, but its ingredients are not hard to discern—ethno-nationalism, a censorious yearning (often led by female politicians) for traditional Christian values and motherhood (to reverse falling birth rates across the Western world), a strong military, and a deep conviction that the UK is locked in a spiral of decay and disintegration. They see enemies everywhere—“radical woke progressivism,” “cancel culture,” and a “liberal elite” that has captured the civil service, the BBC, the judiciary, even sections of the Conservative Party itself. Some may be having withdrawal symptoms in the absence of Johnson, but after his recent petulant departure as an MP they know they’ll have to find their savior elsewhere.
Across the Atlantic, where the coming crisis is more urgent, the movement is no longer pinning its hopes exclusively on Trump. It remains unclear what effect the latest criminal charges will have on his re-election prospects and so the forces of the New Right are hedging their bets. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis has already embraced National Conservatism; woe betide any prospective Republican candidate who does not.
The Making of Orbánism
To understand the enduring strength of the movement, it is instructive to look elsewhere—to countries such as Hungary and Israel. Both Netanyahu and Orbán have spells in opposition to thank for honing their messages and hardening their strategies.
Orbán started out as a classic politician of the anti-Communist center right, winning his first election as prime minister in 1998 and giving every sign that he would be a reliable member of the European family of nations. It all changed when he lost in 2002. For the next eight years in opposition, he developed a deep sense of personal and political grievance and hired an American consultant to finesse his propaganda skills.
He came under the spell of the late US political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who schooled him in the early arts of wedge politics and culture-war sloganeering. He identified and went after specific enemies—anyone deemed to be liberal, of the left, or inimical to family values. The vilification of his erstwhile mentor, George Soros, suggested a certain antisemitism, curious given that Finkelstein was Jewish (and gay). During the recent demonstrations in Israel over Netanyahu’s power grab against his own judiciary, one of the chants from the protesters was: “Israel is not Hungary; Israel is not Poland.”
Like Netanyahu, like Trump, Orbán manages to be theatrical in his rhetoric while maintaining a flexibility on some aspects of policy. He wages rhetorical war against the European Union (which Hungary joined in 2004), while taking its subsidies, on which his economy relies. For a time, he embraced the orthodoxy of the era—small state, low regulation. He tried the term “illiberal democracy.” That backfired. Recently, like others, he settled on National Conservatism.
The Enemy Is Everywhere
In his case, the enemy is a “Communist resurgence,” whose agents of influence can be found everywhere: any politician on the left (or center), anyone in the media or judiciary, or anyone who has attended Davos. If the power lies with the neo-Marxist dark state, then it stands to reason that you do everything you can to fight back. You do that by harassing judges and closing independent media; you do that by gerrymandering elections.
This is now the standard playbook, adapted for each country’s particular circumstances, giving an entry route for those who have yet to bring the New Right into the heart of government. These are some of the methods that Netanyahu has embraced with his attempts at bringing Israel’s legal system under his control, that the Polish government has used to circumvent parliament. Meanwhile, Trump incited the storming of the US Congress in an attempt to overturn a democratic election, while Johnson tried to stop the House of Commons from debating the final stage of Brexit. They have all tried to intimidate the pillar of state designed to provide checks and balances on untrammeled power.
Some of the methods have so far been quixotic, impulsive. Others have been more successful and enduring. They will only become more efficient as time goes on. The movement has only just begun.
John Kampfner is a regular contributor to The Guardian and The New European. His bestselling book Why the Germans Do It Better was published in 2020.