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The American Right’s Deep Ties to Reactionary Europe

Why some U.S. conservatives are praising far-right extremists Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and Nigel Farage this week


The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has often served as an acute barometer for the state the American political right, which is why the invitation of European extremists Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, of France, and Nigel Farage, of England, is provoking fear among centrists and conservatives in the U.S. Maréchal-Le Pen is a particularly divisive figure because she does little to distance herself from her grandfather, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. “I am the political heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Maréchal-Le Pen told The Washington Post last week. “At the Front National, we all are his heirs. He was a visionary.” He was also an unabashed fascist.

Maréchal-Le Pen’s appearance at CPAC on Thursday “dismayed some establishment Republicans, who were not eager to associate with a political faction linked to the dark remnants of European fascism,” reported the Post’s Ishaan Tharoor. The “acceptance” her and Farage, who is speaking on Friday, “seemed to underscore the hard-rightward drift of the Republican Party.” Conservative columnist Matt Lewis complained on NBC News that “these are not conservatives. These are members of an international ethno-nationalist populist movement.” The New York Times’ Bari Weiss expressed similar concerns:

But not everyone on the right regards Maréchal-Le Pen as a dangerous figure who should be rejected outright. Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has earlier written with measured but real admiration about Maréchal-Le Pen’s aunt Marine Le Pen, suggested that the younger Le Pen can be seen as a “Reaganite” figure:

National Review columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty found much to admire in the Maréchal-Le Pen’s speech at CPAC, calling attention to how her criticism of multiculturalism, globalism, and gender theory were rooted in a sense of France as a Catholic civilization. “Perhaps Le Pen’s heart is with her grandfather, who founded the National Front as a vehicle for just about every mid-century French villainy,” Dougherty concluded. “But her speech today was the speech of a modern right-wing French Catholic.” Rod Dreher of the American Conservative was enthralled by Maréchal-Le Pen’s “dynamic speech,” especially that she grounded her arguments in Catholic natural law traditions.

Maréchal-Le Pen’s warm welcome by some writers on the right belongs to the long tradition of American conservatives, especially those who are Catholic (like Douthat and Dougherty) or Orthodox (like Dreher), looking to European sources for inspiration because they feel the American political tradition is too infected with liberalism and protestant individualism.

Since the great age of ideology initiated by the French Revolution, politics has rarely obeyed borders. Just as there is a Socialist International and transnational human rights organizations like Amnesty International, there has also been a reactionary international, an informal brotherhood of right-wing nationalists. Maréchal-Le Pen’s CPAC spotlight is a sign that the reactionary international is alive and well.

The reactionary international flourished during the Cold War, when the sense that Western Civilization was under siege caused American conservatism to turn toward European models, including figures like Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. As George Nash noted in his authoritative study The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, the traditionalist revival led by figures like Russell Kirk was noticeable for “its extraordinary orientation towards Europe.”

The figure who best encapsulates this tendency is L. Brent Bozell, a founding editor of National Review and ghostwriter for Barry Goldwater. A convert to Catholicism thanks to his brother-in-law William F. Buckley, Bozell came to feel increasingly alienated from American society, which he saw as irrevocably liberal due to its founding by protestant deists like Thomas Jefferson. The Founding Fathers, Bozell bemoaned in a 1968 essay in the journal Triumph, “built a house in which secular liberalism could live.” The alternative to decadent America, Bozell felt, was Franco’s Spain, which he saw as an authentically Catholic civilization. Bozell and his wife ran a camp in Spain for American Catholic conservatives where they could experience the true joys of Christendom.

Bozell went farther than most American conservatives in acting out his beliefs, but his love of Franco was not unusual. When Franco died in 1975, National Review eulogized the fascist dictator as “our century’s most successful ruler.”

National Review also had a soft spot for the far-right French military leaders who tried to overthrow the Fifth Republic and assassinate President Charles De Gaulle. The magazine wrote in 1961 that Maurice Challe, who led the failed putsch against De Gaulle, “has been, for France, the highest living embodiment of the ideal of the soldier: absolute in courage, skill, dedication, loyalty, self-sacrifice.”

For the European far right, the feeling was mutual. Archduke Otto von Hapsburg, pretender to the Austrian throne and anti-communist activist, praised National Review as the only magazine that talked sense to the American people. Maurice Papon, who as head of the Paris police oversaw the 1961 and 1962 massacres of anti-war activists that left more than 100 people dead, was profoundly influenced by the writings of National Review editor James Burnham. As historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster argued in their book Paris 1961, “Papon, drawing on Burnham, put forward a proto-fascist model of a corporate state.”

If Maréchal-Le Pen is reviving the reactionary international, it’s worth noting that this movement only encompasses a minority of American conservatives. Her extreme politics, infused with Catholic social teaching about the dangers of uncontrolled individualism, doesn’t speak to the corporate-dominated right. Even though Maréchal-Le Pen makes noises about “economic liberalism,” she is still far friendlier to the welfare state than most American conservatives. Protestant-tinged individualism remains the dominant language of the American right, which means the reactionary international will remain the politics of an elite minority, which is sometimes influential but rarely in control.