Government & Politics

How Conservative Is the European 'Right-Wing'?

Not very, but that won't stop the American Leftmedia from tying big government populists to the Tea Party.

Brian Mark Weber · Apr. 24, 2017

Since Donald Trump emerged as a viable candidate in 2016 and went on to win the presidency, other politicians in Europe have ascended in popularity including Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage in Great Britain. Typically, the media have lumped together Donald Trump with just about any non-establishment European political candidate. So, thanks in large part to Leftmedia mischaracterization, most Americans simply assume these upstarts to be in the same grain as American conservatives.

For example, in 2016 the Washington Post suggested that little separates Trump’s rise in the U.S. from the emergence of populists in Europe, and that one of the primary threads tying them all together is an uneducated, aging support base that fears social change.

There is certainly some truth to that — after all, Trump himself is definitely more populist and nationalist than conservative. But this narrative is a narrow oversimplification of what’s happening. Certainly, European populist candidates have latched onto Trump’s message by appealing to their own citizens' weariness over migrant populations and eroding national sovereignty within the European Union.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front party, is headed to a May 7 runoff for the French presidency after Sunday’s vote. She’s a 20-point underdog against globalist EU proponent Emmanuel Macron. Interestingly, neither establishment party advanced to the runoff. Le Pen regularly warns about the threat posed by immigration into France, saying, for example, “Mass immigration is not an opportunity for France; it’s a tragedy for France.” She promises to protect citizens from the dangers of unfettered immigration. But one issue alone is not enough to brand Le Pen a conservative.

Trump applauded her, saying, “She’s the strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France. Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders, will do well in the election.”

The issue of immigration alone seems to have forged an alliance between American conservatives and European nationalists, but there are more differences than similarities. Populist politicians in Europe are generally not in favor of deregulation or transferring power away from a centralized bureaucracy. Le Pen is all for big government. If anything her policies will result in France’s government being more powerful and influential in the lives of the French, not less. And despite the media tall tale, she is far more likely to form an alliance with Vladimir Putin than is Trump.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Atlantic, “European populist parties share a common set of priorities focused on restricting immigration, unwinding global economic and political integration (by renouncing the European Union, and, for some of these parties, NATO as well), taking tougher steps to fight Islamic radicalism, and, in most cases, opposing cultural liberalism and secularization at home. On all those fronts, they view Putin not as a threat, but as an ally.”

Nonetheless, the symbolic power of the immigration issue has brought American conservatives and European populists together for the time being. Bill Wirtz and Casey Given explain in the Washington Examiner, “American alternative media outlets have been taken by Le Pen for months. Breitbart News has written about her at least 224 times. The site’s editor-in-chief, Alex Marlow, even entertained the idea of establishing a Paris bureau for the website last November.” Yet, other than publicly criticizing unfettered immigration into France, there is little that Le Pen has in common with American conservatives.

And there’s a risk in making bedfellows of politicians in Europe who appear conservative due to their tough talk on immigration but otherwise embrace a very left-wing political agenda. Categorizing European socialists as part of a right-wing ideology raises false hopes of a global conservative tide and prevents conservatives at home from staying focused on those principles necessary for limited government.

Conservatives in the United States must be wary of getting caught up in any movement that doesn’t move us closer to our conservative objectives. Andrew McCarthy writes in National Review that these goals shared by American conservatives are founded “in a deep understanding of why the Constitution’s separation-of-powers framework and promotion of individual liberty are, in the long run, good for society. It is fantasy to believe these objectives will be helped along by populism. More reflective of a mood than a theory, populism is notoriously content to have big-government preening overrun limited-government caution.”

In short, the European “right” is nothing like the American right, in that we stand for liberty, constitutionally limited government, and truly free enterprise, while they stand for big government and the welfare state. The only reason they’re lumped in with us is because people confuse nationalism with conservatism. There’s plenty of overlap in interests, but the two terms are not synonymous. They like to tell us the Nazis (the National Socialist Workers Party) were “right wing,” so anything feeding that narrative gets play. It all depends on how you define your terms, and we don’t accept their definition.

American conservatives and constitutionalists should not expect a wave of limited government policies to sweep across Western Europe anytime soon. Nor should we put our time, energy and efforts into buttressing left-wing politicians simply because they wave the flags of nationalism or talk tough on immigration, or because our media derides them as “right wing.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support European politicians who are intent on tackling some of the same problems we have here at home, but we need to reject the notion that Europe’s supposed right wing is in alignment with American conservatism.

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