Searching for Somewhere: My Cosmopolitan Lover’s Affair with Far-Right Populism
SACHA’S FLIRTATION with the European Far-Right began in a Californian town full of French bakeries and poodles. He had signed up for a life drawing course and might have felt lonely in the overwhelmingly geriatric group of art lovers, had it not been for one other young participant: a beautiful young brunette, who wrote and self-published steampunk novels with her twin sister. They didn’t stay in touch afterwards, but he occasionally saw videos cross his Facebook feed of the twin, Brittany Pettibone, speaking at universities about the importance of traditional values. Brittany gave her lectures under police protection in the face of student protests.
A decade later, she popped up on Sacha’s newsfeed again, this time lecturing not about traditional values, but about a project called Defend Europe, a boat filled with young, far-right activists whose mission was to patrol the Mediterranean and turn back migrant boats.
Defend Europe was organized by the Identitarians, a group of lumberjacksexual white nationalists intent on preserving “true” European culture. Despite this emphasis on Europe, the Identitarians stand for reasserting “authentic” national identities, which they pit against a homogenized global culture. They consider immigration an existential threat to local customs, and a destabilizing phenomenon that turns people into strangers in their own communities. It was not exactly surprising to see Brittany align herself with this crowd. She was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, and had become an internet sensation by ranting against immigrants and feminists. Brittany and the Identitarians saw eye to eye on all the important topics: tradition, homeland and the glory of white Christian civilization.
Though Defend Europe was a failure on most fronts, the extensive media coverage it garnered thrust the Identitarians into the spotlight. Brittany got something out of the experience as well: Martin Sellner, the identitarians’ well-groomed Austrian leader, began to appear in her videos with increasing frequency. Together, they enlightened viewers about the importance of preserving both the ethnic and cultural aspects of European identities in order to keep European countries “as they’ve been 30,000 years before,” or why eating a croissant is an insult to Islam. In no time, Brittany’s videos were filled with comments imploring the couple to have as many babies as possible.
When I met Sacha, Brittany and Martin were not yet in the picture. The way our romance began was far more prosaic and old school than for Brittany and Martin; we met at university. Sacha—I’ve changed his name for his privacy—was famous in our class for being unable to take off his sweater without it peeling off his T-shirt as well, and so every seminar began with him flashing his bare torso. We were not united by a burning belief in the superiority of European culture, but by our infatuation with Chris, our dreamy yoga instructor.
Sascha first told me about Brittany, the Identitarians and Defend Europe while brainstorming potential thesis topics. He thought that studying the far-right would be suitably trendy and relevant. Some time after that, he sent me a few of Brittany’s videos to give me an idea of his research. I remember my bemusement transforming into discomfort as I watched the videos on my phone in the dark, right before going to sleep. It was difficult to know what to make of their disturbing mix of the ridiculous with the malicious. I couldn't tell whether Brittany and Martin were just internet crackpots, or the power couple destined to bridge the European and American far-right.
INITIALLY, IT SEEMED LIKE they were just crackpots. Sacha and I used to joke about how the Identitarian activists—most likely social outcasts because of their views—must have drooled over Brittany and her friend, Lauren Southern, when the two arrived to report on the Defend Europe campaign. Sacha’s own infatuation with Brittany was another recurring joke; he would supposedly trade me, a troll-looking Nordic feminist with basic lefty views, for a traditional, conservative beauty like Brittany if the opportunity arose.
However, Sacha began to follow Sellner and Pettibone’s social media accounts with increasing fervor. Their views began to seep into our conversations. “Multiculturalism threatens unique national cultures and social cohesion, and will destroy European democracies,” he would say. Echoing the Identitarians, Sacha also helpfully repeated that “unrestricted immigration is undemocratic,” as if unrestricted immigration were the status quo.
At first, I thought that he was playing devil’s advocate for the hell of it, at most motivated by his frustration with people on the left who fetishize refugees and whose belief in a better world of open borders tends to be more naive than it is well-considered. Obviously Sacha saw through the Identitarian arguments as textbook examples of the culturalization of race, and a deliberate misrepresentation of European history by presenting national cultures as timeless and unchanging—didn’t he?
I told myself that he was surely reacting in part, to the increasingly aggressive, virtue-signaling nature of university politics that had irritated him in North America. That he didn’t really mean the things he said, but had merely become absorbed by his research. Sacha’s interest in the Identitarians was academic, his appreciation aesthetic. As someone passionate about ideas, he could certainly see how cleverly the Identitarians updated historic far-right rhetoric, linked their message with the broader themes of the anti-globalization movement, and fought for cultural influence rather than political power. There were Brittany’s looks as well. Wholly unappetizing views tend to become more digestible when delivered by such an attractive couple. Brittany looks like an alabaster doll. Martin wears turtlenecks.
But then we found ourselves having these arguments more frequently, and still Sacha would not admit that he did not agree with the Identitarians. The lines between mockery, playing devil’s advocate, ironic endorsement, and genuine appreciation began to blur. Determined to bring Sacha back to the right side of history, I joked about ethnically pure nations and asked again and again what could possibly attract him to the Identitarians. In response, Sascha would snap that he was not keen on genocide, and proceeded to invoke the usual arguments about free speech, and how we were all ignoring some tough, clear problems that had come with immigration. Nobody emerged victorious from those conversations.
What bothered me the most was that none of it made sense coming from Sascha. He has American Jewish-Chinese and Lebanese parents, and French and American citizenship. He had grown up in New York, Paris, Montreal, London, and Prague. He had an alarmingly intense man-crush on Emmanuel Macron, Europe's shining ambassador of multiculturalism. We were even both pursuing a Master’s degree in European Culture, which required a much deeper examination of terms like “European” or “culture” than the Identitarians were capable of. It went against all reason that the partner I loved was suddenly threatening to take me on a guided tour of Aubervilliers, a supposed no-go zone in Paris, to prove that France had lost its identity.
I BEGAN MY SEARCH for explanations with David Goodhart. A British journalist and author of The Road to Somewhere, Goodhart’s main thesis is that the most significant political divide in the world today is not between the right and the left, but between “the Anywheres,” an educated globe-trotting elite, and “the Somewheres,” whose sense of identity is tied to (an often geographic) rootedness in a specific community. It should be obvious where along this divide the Identitarians and Sacha would fall. Sacha, with his multicultural background and host of international experiences should immediately place him at home among the Anywheres, and not with the Identitarian worldview of coherent ethnic identities neatly assigned to different nation states. Sacha knows that cultural difference is no obstacle to friendship, trust or feeling at home. And yet, it was not so simple.
I later realized that the incongruity between Sacha and the Identitarians was one of the key reasons they appealed to him. He didn’t want their solutions, he wanted what they had.
For all his privileges—education, travel, exposure to other cultures—Sacha still craved a sense of belonging, rootedness and identity. The Identitarian argument that mass immigration disturbs communities resonated with him precisely because he felt uprooted, lost, and longing for community himself. Though I, like Sacha, had moved around internationally, I had little empathy for this sense of longing because, unlike him, I had spent my entire childhood in Finland. It was only in my late teens that I found myself in a stronghold of peace-and-love cosmopolitanism.
In any case, there was something about the Identitarians’ diagnosis of Europe’s ills that spoke to Sacha far more than it ever did to me. While the political solutions the Identitarians advocate come from the familiar far-right populist toolkit, they mostly talk about alienation, loneliness and community—not about what jobs the immigrants took. Perhaps Sacha sided with them not because he thought they were right, but because he also felt like our globalized world had taken something from him too.
Sellner claims that our contemporary malaise and alienation are the result of no longer living in small, homogeneous communities where everyone knows each other, or in his words, that globalization and multiculturalism have produced “this new man who is de-rooted, who has no identity, who is atomized.” The problem with that thesis is that it sees belonging as a warm, fluffy feeling and not as a political decision, when in reality it is both. The group of people with whom we naturally feel belonging can indeed be quite limited, which is precisely why philosophers like Hannah Arendt—whose term “atomization” Sellner misappropriates—celebrated the artificiality of political communities. At the same time, it’s often easier to point at a physical somewhere as one’s place of origin and belonging, and find there some sense of security. It makes it easier to tell stories about who we are, who accepts us, and who, in turn, we accept.
On the surface, our debates had been about multiculturalism and immigration policy. But at their heart was a tension between the two kinds of identities: the local Somewheres and cosmopolitan Anywheres. My educated, mobile partner, with his cosmopolitan heritage and upbringing, understood the Identitarians because where Martin rages against an Anywhere society, Sacha bemoans his own Anywhere background.
The sociologist Richard Sennett has studied what he calls successful individuals’ “corrosion of character.” These winners of global capitalism frequently change workplaces and move around to stay on top of the food chain, and so their identities rely on achievements rather than a community, or a place. For Goodhart, these identities are portable, and thus more resistant to a change of environment. According to Sennett, however, portability might as well mean fragility. Achieved identities crumble, the moment you stop achieving, an increasingly high-stakes and difficult task in contemporary societies where a Master’s degree qualifies you for an unpaid internship. Sacha felt this keenly, because while all of my friends are starving artists, most of his had become lawyers and consultants. We were finishing our studies and he had no plan.
Our real argument was not about what was wrong with multiculturalism. It was about whether we should want to be Anywheres or Somewheres.
MAYBE, AS GOODHART SAYS, European societies are run by and made for Anywheres. Still, I cannot stop thinking that while Sellner’s network financed his NGO trolling boat trip, my network barely gives me restaurant tips in foreign cities. Anywhere identities have been idealized in countless “15 things you only learn if you live abroad” articles, but I doubt that local identities are quite so powerless as the post-Brexit, post-Trump soul-searching would have us believe. Both events were interpreted as the fury of disadvantaged populations who had been left behind by globalization and ignored by liberal elites; while this explanation has resonated with many, it is not the whole truth. While education levels correlated strongly with people’s votes, correlation with other factors that would support this theory, such as income, were weaker.
That explanation also assumes that educational level and income predict how people relate to place. Particularly the idea that Somewhere identity and values are the prerogative of the poor, while an Anywhere identity and worldview makes someone an automatic winner in the global capitalist system seems simplistic. Cristobal Young’s research on millionaire tax flight shows that this phenomenon is not nearly as common as people believe, because it is precisely the local community that enables people to become successful. And if Anywheres were automatically successful, Sacha would not currently work seventy-hour weeks on minimum salary, teaching history in a disadvantaged, underfunded school in England. The importance of place might distinguish the Anywheres from the Somewheres, but not the rich from the poor, the successful from the losers, the powerful from the powerless.
This is not a whining contest. This is important, because the Identitarians’ story gains most of its force from the supposed betrayal of the Somewheres by the Anywheres. But if there was a betrayal, it has nothing to do with an individual’s national belonging. An American-Chinese-Lebanese Frenchman in the UK, a dashing French president, and an almost equally dashing Austrian far-right leader all come from somewhere. All live somewhere. All want to belong somewhere. Cosmopolitan Sacha’s affinity for the far-right couple may seem absurd, but it tells us that not having a somewhere can lead to inner conflicts and confusion as easily as a seemingly high-flying, Instagrammable existence.
There are many reasons for feeling adrift in the world. Maybe you don’t feel at home in the country you were born in, or maybe you found a job in another country, or maybe you’re an American woman about to marry your Austrian boyfriend. Maybe the factory that provided work for your community has closed down, or maybe a wretched civil war racking your homeland has made distinguishing the government from terrorists tricky. Those who do not have the luxury of straightforward belonging might find their Somewhere in other people or in meaningful work, much like Brittany might find belonging with Austrian people who espouse similar political views, should she someday follow Martin to Europe. There is no one-size fits all solution to these problems. Hysterically policing national identities is certainly not the one I would vote for.
Sacha and I never solved our differences. His romance with the Identitarians began about a year and a half ago, and we last argued about whether Europeans can talk about the problems of immigration last month. While he would still not admit that I was right, I thought that I was beginning to understand. We do not disagree on the issues. Innocent people should not drown. Major changes in society must have democratic legitimacy. A feeling of belonging usually makes societies healthier. However, we see the world in opposite ways. He sees a Europe where governments have been hijacked by a cosmopolitan elite that wants to implement its values and vision without consent from the population. I see a Europe where liberal nation-states nevertheless compete for ever more strict definitions of “conflict area,” in order to justify sending migrants home. If we had realized that the world is both of those things at the same time, we might have wasted fewer sunny days insisting that our own side had lost.
Martin and Brittany, on the other hand, see a Europe where the “Great Replacement,” a hidden white genocide, is taking place. What scares me the most about the Identitarians is to see their delusional premises taken up by a whole cast of actors. When Emmanuel Macron used the word “protect” 13 times in his pre-election Facebook note to citizens, calling for stricter protection of Europe’s borders, I thought Martin and Brittany had won. However, their other fans are less presentable than Macron. The Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant, entitled his manifesto “The Great Replacement” and shared an Identitarian infatuation with Charles Martel. The Identitarians naturally deny responsibility and accuse the media of hypocrisy. Then the authorities discovered that Tarrant had donated $1,500 to Sellner. Naturally, a donation does not equal collaboration. But Martin can’t claim that the ideological similarities between himself and Tarrant were purely coincidental.
I wish Brittany and Martin every happiness together, but zero political success. I like to imagine that one day, we’ll go on a double date and they will teach us how to be a rooted, community-based, transnational and mobile power couple, just like them.
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue