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The Roots of Nativism: Banking on the “Deplorables”

Geert Wilders, Austria Freedom Party, FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache news, Netherland Party of Freedom, Alternative für Deutschland, Europe radical-right parties, nativism, history of populism, US populist politics

Vienna, Austria, June 2016 © Johanna Poetsch

April 17, 2018 05:56 EDT

Although originally an American phenomenon, nativism has become central to the understanding of the contemporary radical right. 

They arrived by the thousands in the mid-1750s, immigrants from Württemberg, the Palatinate and Switzerland. Often they were so poor that they had been obliged to sell their children. Wretchedly sick and destitute, they flooded into the city of Philadelphia in search of a new home. The local Anglo-Protestant establishment was anything but hospitable, charging the “uncultivated” newcomers with emitting a malodorous smell, spreading disease and even causing bad weather. Hostility increased once the newcomers started to compete for jobs. Anti-immigrant animosity was further fueled by growing fears that the Germans would not assimilate and Pennsylvania would eventually become a “Germanized” colony.

The outburst of xenophobia in 1750s Pennsylvania marked one of the first episodes of what in American historiography would come to be known as nativism. Although originally an American phenomenon, nativism has become central to the understanding of the contemporary radical right. The electoral success of parties such as France’s Front National, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany is largely owed to their ability to advance a political project that combines populist rhetoric with nativist discourse.

Nativism is informed by the notion that the sensibilities and needs of the “native-born” should be accorded absolute priority over those of newcomers, that they should be given preference simply because they are “native-born.” At the same time, nativism reflects a conscious attempt on the part of the “indigenous” population to defend, maintain and revive the cherished heritage of its culture. In the American case, this was Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. American nativists held that Anglo-Saxon Protestantism undergirded the essential moral and intellectual qualities that were indispensable for democratic citizenship. This made American culture superior.

Nativism returned with a vengeance in the decades preceding the American Civil War, in response to the influx of growing flood of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, largely poor and of Catholic faith. Many of them settled in the cities of the Northeast — Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The response was fast and vicious: Within a few years, dozens of pamphlets appeared, warning of the fundamental threat Catholic immigrants posed to the democratic institutions of the United States and the fundamental liberties of its citizens. A new party emerged, the Know Nothings, riding on the wave of (and fueling) anti-Catholic hysteria, destroying one of the two major parties in its wake and threatening to capture the presidency. Only when the anti-slavery cause moved to the top of the political agenda did the nativist movement quickly collapse.

The Know Nothings charged that Catholicism was incompatible with the country’s democratic institutions. The party promoted itself as the only genuine defender of the American spirit capable of effectively countering the political establishment, charged with being corrupt and colluding with those bent on destroying the republic. In this way, it combined a nativist discourse with populist rhetoric — a winning formula, politically successful, yet ephemeral.

Nativist fervor erupted again in the 1880s and 1890s, once again primarily targeting catholic immigrants. This was a period of economic turbulence and widespread political distemper, which fueled a new wave of populist mobilization. This time, however, populism and nativism were largely unrelated. Nativist sentiments were rarely voiced by the Populists, a predominantly agrarian movement aligned with the incipient labor movement. On the few occasions that nativist anger erupted, it was directed against British investors and absentee landlords and, out in the Mountain and Pacific West, particularly against Chinese migrant laborers. Here it was particularly women in the labor movement who agitated against the Chinese, charging them with taking away job opportunities for women.

The 19th-century American nativist movements proved highly momentous. Although waxing and waning, they left as their legacy a potent repertoire of political contention and contestation. Central elements of it, such as the notion of cultural incompatibility and a strong focus on the question of national identity, inform nativist discourse and rhetoric until today, far beyond the American context. Take, for instance, the charge, advanced by prominent contemporary European radical right-wing politicians such as the Dutch Party of Freedom leader Geert Wilders and FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache, that Islam is fundamentally incommensurable with liberal democracy, women’s rights, equal treatment of gays and lesbians, etc.

The roots of contemporary European radical right-wing populism can also be traced to an “indigenous” instance of populist mobilization — the Boulangist movement, which, starting in the late 1880s, for a few years shook the political foundations of the French Third Republic. The movement started out as a disparate coalition of anti-establishment groups, united in their exasperation with the instability, stagnation and alleged corruption of the political establishment, which informed their demand for a fundamental transformation of the institutional system of the Third Republic.

Outmaneuvered by the political establishment and abandoned by their leader who fled into exile, the movement quickly collapsed. Its most dedicated militant wing, however, behind its standard bearer, Maurice Barrès, came up with an innovative programmatic amalgam. It pieced together disparate nativist ideas into a coherent “national-socialist” program designed to appeal to urban workers. Its ideational cornerstones were demands for national protection, particularly against foreign labor, and for national preference, manifest in the famous slogan of “La France aux français.”

In order to understand the appeal of contemporary radical right-wing populist parties, it is essential to return to the roots of the phenomenon, both abroad and at home. Today’s incessant verbal assault on Europe’s Muslim minority recalls the century-long campaign against Catholics in large parts of the United States, fed by fears of “invasion” and “subversion.”  Today’s identitarian politics, central to contemporary radical right-wing populist mobilization, is nothing but a rehash of the politics of nostalgia that has always been inherent in nativism.

If nativism strikes a chord with substantial numbers of the electorate, it is because it appeals to deep-seated human emotions — anxiety, fear, resentment. Countering the advance of radical right-wing populism means engaging the causes of these emotions — deindustrialization, rapidly progressing societal inequality, the growing loss of solidarity, individual self-worth and purpose. This entails solutions that go far beyond notions of economic compensation — the traditional way to compensate the losers of trade and globalization. Blaming the victims, along the lines of Hillary Clinton’s infamous harangue against the “deplorables,” is wrong and counterproductive.

*[Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Johanna Poetsch /

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