Commentary: In U.S. and EU, illiberalism in full bloom

It was a good week for illiberalism. In seven days, the following things happened.

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In Slovenia, birth country of the American first lady, a right-wing, anti-immigrant group called the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) topped the poll in weekend parliamentary elections, with 25 percent of the votes. Though far from a majority, the SDS is still way ahead of any other party. The centrists and liberals are presently keeping their distance, but the country’s president, Borut Pahor, offered the mandate to form a government to the SDS’s victorious leader, Janez Jansa, because Pahor “strongly believe(s) in democracy.”

In this same week, the just-named deputy prime minister and interior minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega (League) party, flew to Sicily to tell the Sicilians – and Italians as a whole – that the waves of immigrants who have come ashore (or drowned trying) over the past three years would be stopped – and those who had come and remained illegally would be sent back. "The good times for illegals are over – get ready to pack your bags,” he had said before his trip. More measured when in Sicily, he nevertheless made clear his view that "Italy and Sicily cannot be Europe's refugee camp."

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, put in place by Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5-Star Movement, the larger partner in the populist new government, told the Italian senate that the other main priority besides immigration will be ending some of the increasing number of European Union sanctions against Moscow. These sanctions signal distaste for Russia’s sponsorship of separatism in eastern Ukraine, its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and, most recently, for its assumed responsibility for the poisoning in March of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. Italy is now indicating that it wishes to break ranks, and to forge a closer relationship with Russia.

This week, too, the alt-right website Breitbart News trumpeted its interview with the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, boasting that the “Trumpian” ambassador had “expressed great excitement over the wave of conservatism in Europe” and wanted to “empower” its leaders. (Grenell later tweeted that he would not endorse specific candidates or leaders.) One of these groups, (though he did not name it, or any other) is the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which has been vocal in its criticism  of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and won enough seats in the general election last September to become the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.

Merkel, the EU’s liberal anchor over the past decade, now finds herself under strong attack from the AfD, which a February poll put ahead of the Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partners. In this past week, the party excoriated the chancellor for admitting more than a million migrants in 2015-16, castigating her for “importing Islamists . . . rapists, murderers, knife-wielders and terrorists,” adding that she should “re-start talks with Russia” – an agenda almost identical to that of the new Italian administration.

In the United States this week, in this week, President Donald Trump asserted via Twitter that he had “the absolute right” to pardon himself – adding “but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” The legal status of a presidential self-pardon is debatable, though in 1974, a few days before President Richard Nixon resigned, the Justice Department argued in a three-page memo that a president could not exercise clemency on himself because "no one may be a judge in his own case." Trump may decide against invoking his putative pardoning power when under pressure from the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but the president’s belief that he is above the law remains clear.

One presidential power is beyond dispute: Trump’s right to pardon those convicted of a crime. He has pardoned the right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza, and may pardon (though she’s long out of prison for making false statements in relation to an insider trading scandal) the media entrepreneur Martha Stewart – together with more deserving cases. The pardons, rather than showing clemency, reveal a president looking for high-profile actions which will bolster his base. As the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin writes, “these pardon cases show that the president serves his friends and punishes his enemies — and we need to know, more than ever, who is who.”

The president’s erstwhile adviser, Steve Bannon, continues to visit European capitals, where, like Grenell, he sees encouraging signs of an advance of conservative nationalism. This week, Trump indicated that he would nominate a friend and ally of Bannon, Michael Pack, to lead the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal institution that controls various state-funded news networks which broadcast internationally, including Voice of America. Pack believes that U.S. filmmakers constitute a liberal monopoly, writing that “I have some bad news for this documentary establishment. Trump, with Bannon’s help, campaigned against political correctness and self-dealing elites. And they won.” Should Pack be confirmed, expect the United States to speak with a voice much changed.

Bannon, more clearly than any other political activist, sees in Europe both the disintegration of the European Union and, from its decline, the rise of strong sovereign nations resting on a bed of conservative, nationalist and often religious values. In a speech in Hungary in late May, he said that at stake were Judeo-Christian values in Europe, essential for its survival – and praised the recently re-elected Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, for his protection of these values, calling him “Trump before Trump.”

This is one week in the politics of the EU. It does not sum up the Union: most states continue to be run by centrist parties with broadly liberal approaches to both political and social issues, and none have followed the United Kingdom to head for the exit. But the forward march of liberalism, and of the Union, has been halted; the strength of the Merkel government reduced; and the wind behind the conservative nationalists much strengthened by the newly-installed Italian populist government. Democratic politics, long criticised for clustering round the center, with little difference between left and right, now has what the critics craved: a fight for principles, strategies and the allegiance of the electorates.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.