Psychological Nationalism, Historical Discourse, and the Far-Right

Spain, Patriots, Vox, Flag, Popular Party, Citizens

In 2017, the attempted separation of Catalonia shattered Spanish national consciousness. Although independence is central to Catalonian politics, Spain has long suppressed the question of Catalonia’s status. Thus, when Catalonia declared full separation in 2017,  many Spaniards faced a nationalist psychological crisis and turned to the far-right. The mythically united Spain they’d learned about was a farce. Despite prevalent independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque Region, memories of the Reconquista and national unification still exert significant influence over how many Spaniards see Spain. 

When I visited my family in Asturias, my tios urged me to visit Covadonga, the nationally recognized site where Christian Iberians started to push back the Muslim Moors. To my extended Spanish family, this sight was central to how they viewed not only their region but how they conceived of Spanish history. Although Spain has secularized and adopted liberal policies since the end of the Franco regime, most of Spain still conceives of itself through the lens of Reconquista, Catholicism, and unification. These national visions have embedded themselves in Iberian discourse and the Spanish psyche.   

File:Basilica de Covadonga.JPG
Photo by Grushina. ©
Picture of the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.  

Because of this historical memory, it is understandable that many Spaniards faced a psychological crisis. Confounded by a migrant crisis, Spaniards—including myself—felt as though their nation was falling apart at its seams. Numerous politically moderate and left-leaning Spaniards moved to the far-right political extreme: the Vox political party. Although relatively delayed, many Spaniards succumb to the far-right reactionary, ethnonatiolist politics that swept Europe and North America during the 2010s. Because of the globalized economy and international immigration crises, nationalists within these states experienced historiographical dissonance: the twenty-first century challenged their national myths and cultural hegemonies. 

Literally meaning “voice” in Latin, Vox claims to voice the concerns of culturally dissatisfied Spaniards. Vox fuels itself through ethnonationalist rhetoric to retain the cultural unity of Spain. Unsurprisingly, they seek to “Hacer España Grande Otra Vez” (Make Spain Great Again). Similar to the US Republican Party, Vox is anti-immigration, anti-separatist, anti-feminist, and plebiscitary. Further, its agenda is oriented around preserving Castilian Catholic traditions and identity. 

Within recent years, the separatist crisis and wave of African immigration have posed a threat to this cultural discourse. Especially amongst Spain’s older generations, Spain’s unified nationalist culture feels attacked by African immigrants and Catalan nationalists. Similar to other European states, Vox feeds off this discontent as a part of a larger reaction to Spain’s growing multiculturalism and internationalism. 

Despite these far-right movements exalting nationalism and anti-internationalism, they can’t be seen as separate; inherently, they’ve grown together and stemmed from a similar cause: national myths. Describing themselves as efforts to make their countries “great again” should be warning enough that, often erroneous, historical memory is guilty of inspiring far-right ethnonationalism. Therefore, how we see ourselves, how we educate our children, and who we see as deserving of historical remembrance has real political and humanitarian implications. 

Like Spain, the US’s education system emphasizes, romanticizes, and whitewashes particular time periods, like the American Revolution and Civil Rights Movement. White Revolutionaries are elevated to demigod status and Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. are modified to be palatable to white audiences.

Both the United States and Spain grant local governments autonomy regarding education. Similar to how Catalonia teaches its own anti-Spanish history, the American South’s Lost Cause narrative regarding the Civil War dictates Southern historical curricula. The Lost Cause myth glorifies the Confederate mission to protect slavery as a noble cause that would have won if it weren’t for the North’s industrial power. Although Catalonian historical education doesn’t veer into this level of racist historical revision, their method of schooling seeks to vilify Spaniards and glorify Catalans. 

Therefore, it’s no surprise there are internal divisions within the United States and Spain. The historiographies and national myths upheld through education and ethnonationalism propagate blind national pride and division. For instance, the Spanish Reconquista was not a concerted, national effort to push out foreign invaders—labeled as Muslims and Jews by Spanish ethnonationalists. Similarly, the US founding fathers were not enlightened beings beyond human flaws. These distorted visions intentionally glorify a circumscribed nation that excludes religious and ethnic minorities.

Most importantly, these narratives have political and human impacts. Even though being proud of your country isn’t in itself harmful, national myth easily slides into ethnonationalism and hatred when the “nation” is threatened. In the case of Spain, many Vox supporters feel threatened by Catalonia’s cession and an increase in African immigrants. Catalonia’s attempted independence threatens perceived Spanish unity, and the Reconquista narrative inherently identifies Africans as both foreign and anti-Spanish. Thus, these distorted national discourses both exclude and vilify cultural minorities in theory and facilitate social antagonism in real life.

Acto de Vox en Vigo con Santiago Abascal | Contando Estrelas | Flickr
Photo by Contando Estrelas. ©
Picture of Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox. 

For instance, Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Vox party, posted a video of himself riding a horse with the caption “La Reconquista comenzará en tierras andaluzas” (The Reconquista will start in Andalucian lands) in 2018. This image clearly conveyed that the Vox party would reconquer Spain again but this time from Andalusia, where Vox has the most support, and end the influence of progressives, immigrants, and Catalans. 

This is dangerous rhetoric. Despite Vox’s lack of wide public support, if other parties were to bring Vox into a coalition government, Vox could degrade Spanish democracy and threaten women’s and immigrants’ legal protections. Even if Vox hasn’t secured policy influence, Vox party members have threatened Spain’s democratic process, started (re)glorifying the Franco regime, and posed a social threat to immigrant populations. They aren’t implementing their proposed regressive reforms, but they are legitimizing hatred latent within Spanish historical discourses. Since the start of the pandemic, this normalized rhetoric has invariably contributed to an increase in racial profiling, police brutality, anti-Asian hate, and anti-immigrant discrimination. Therefore, Vox has abused historical rhetoric to normalize racialized hatred and transformed nationalist psychology into violence.

Unlike Vox, Trump’s bloc has garnered Republican co-optation and policy “success.” Not only have they altered the Republican party platform but they have reconfigured the party into a democratic threat. The glorification and whitewashing of America’s past pose a real humanitarian threat within America too. Similar to Spain, the Republican party has normalized anti-immigrant sentiment. Moreover, hate crimes are up against Jewish, Asian, and Black Americans—the highest in a decade. Further, Trump’s policies led to the “Muslim Ban,” immigration detention centers, and the rollback of numerous social protections. 

These far-right populist movements don’t form in an economic vacuum: people aren’t driven to Vox or Trump purely because of economic conditions. Rather, ethnic antagonism is implicitly or explicitly encouraged through our national myths and history curriculums. Bringing back the glorified past forms the core tenant of many far-right movements, and through the exploitation of historiography, they justify oppressive systems and other minorities and women. 

It’s paramount to decolonize and demystify history so it’s less white, less simplistic, and less glorified. History curricula ought to teach multiple stories because historiography has consequences beyond the classroom. Only by reconstructing our historiographies, we can prevent the growth of far-right ethnonationalism, decrease support for oppressive systems, and delegitimize racialized violence. Not only would this change take away the footing for demagogues but it would do historical justice for the people excluded by history.