Don’t relax, Europe — the US hard right isn’t finished yet

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The writer directs the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution

At the weekend, Congress finally unblocked the $61bn Ukraine aid bill, and sighs of relief were heard across European capitals, where anxious policymakers had for months been reading up on arcane details of congressional procedure. But they should not relax just yet. And not just because those dollars still have to be transformed into weapons and a path to victory for Ukraine on the battlefield.

This remarkable vote was accomplished via an intelligence-assisted Pauline conversion in House Speaker Mike Johnson, a determined push by less than half the Republican caucus and support across the aisle from almost the entire Democratic side of the House. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive presidential candidate, was distracted by his legal entanglements.

Yet Europeans should not delude themselves that this is a return to Republican sanity, bipartisan comity or transatlantic harmony. In retrospect, this alignment of the planets will almost certainly appear as a rare anomaly.

To be fair: unlike in 2016, when they refused even to countenance the possibility of an electoral victory by what their preferred candidate called the “deplorables”, Europeans have not just been wringing their hands lately. They have been spending a lot of time plotting out survival techniques in case of a second Trump victory.

Their two big ideas — burden-sharing and bilateralisation — are perfectly sensible. Europeans have been intoning pieties about taking on more of the weight of their continent’s defence since time immemorial, but fear is a highly effective driver of policy: at least 18 of Nato’s 32 states now spend or are on track to spending 2 per cent of their GDP on defence. It’s an extremely safe bet that even higher spending will be required.

A number of European countries possess bases, transport hubs and harbours that are strategically useful to their US partners and thus provide a basis for a stable bilateral relationship. For the transactionalists in the Trumpian camp — the candidate himself is known to think of Nato as a cross between a country club and a protection racket — defence spending and real estate are attractive value propositions.

Yet most Europeans have been paying far less attention to the ideologues around the Republican candidate: the nationalist conservatives for whom philosophy trumps power. They lost Saturday’s aid vote, but they will be recharged by this defeat in their battle for dominance in the GOP.

Many of the ideologues of the so-called New Right are single-mindedly focused on turning America’s constitutional order into an illiberal democracy on the model of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The American historian Charles King has described this as “the most radical rethinking of the American political consensus in generations”.

But the ultras’ transformational goals don’t stop at the water’s edge. Much like France’s second world war hero and president Charles de Gaulle who had a “certain idea of France”, they too have a certain idea of Europe. It isn’t one most Europeans would recognise or like.

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America’s ultra-conservatives take a dim view of Europe’s supranational institutions. But they see natural allies in Europe’s surging hard right, which has a European project of its own: rather than exiting the supranational EU, it seeks to remake it.

Europe’s extreme-right parties are hoping to increase their seat share from 20 to 25 per cent in June’s European parliament elections. This might put top executive jobs in the European Commission in their grasp and increase their sway over conservative politics in their own countries. Some of them see linkages between their culture war framing and the class war thinking of the extreme left. Germany’s hard-right Alternative for Germany and the new hard-left Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance are a case in point.

The NatCon (national conservative) conferences organised by Yoram Hazony have been working to build bridges between the US and European hard right. One regular speaker is Ohio senator JD Vance, a New Right rising star. He likes to say that the “culture war is class warfare”, works across the aisle with leftwing Democrats and opposes support for Ukraine. He cites de Gaulle as inspiration because he rewrote France’s postwar constitution.

Europeans stocking up their defence budgets and refurbishing their bases would do well to study this new ideological vanguard of the American right, its generational shifts, its cross-aisle alliances and its friends in Europe. Whether it will prevail in November’s US election remains to be seen. But if it does not, this will be the opposition.

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