Can The Horseshoe Theory Explain the Push Against Globalization

Bernie Sanders (Scott P, 2016/ Flickr Creative Commons) on the left and Donald Trump(Skidmore,2016/ Flickr Media Commons)
Bernie Sanders (Scott P, 2016/ Flickr Creative Commons) on the left and Donald Trump on the right speaking to their respective constituencies in the 2016 election.(Skidmore,2016/ Flickr Media Commons)

After Bernie Sanders’ shocking challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Donald Trump’s overwhelming victory in the Republican primary, many were quick to point out similarities between the two candidates. Both were outsiders, anti-establishment, and, in their own ways, populists. But some pundits saw policy-similarities as well, especially in the realm of foreign policy.

Both candidates were quick to disparage conventional US foreign policy, disliked globalization and the myriad institutions that come with it, and (generally) railed against military intervention. Sanders and Trump were both, or so the punditry argued, isolationist, at least by American standards.

Sanders supporters, especially those on the hard left, and Trump supporters, especially those on the far right, avidly promoted their favored candidates’ isolationist rhetoric, leading some to suggest that this was a prime example of the “Horseshoe theory” according to which the political far left and far right, far from finding themselves on opposite sides of a linear political continuum, instead closely resemble each other. It is generally used to explain why far left and far right audiences seem more likely to support some form of authoritarianism and totalitarianism governance than any other constituency. The theory has recently regained traction as an attempt to explain why these two contrary political orientations have seemingly reached consensus when it comes to globalism, and its supposed defects.

However, those currently espousing this theory ignore a central point. Essentially, that while the far right and far left end up at a vaguely similar point, they reached their ideological conclusion for very different reasons.


I) Hatred of the Elites

There are indeed some similarities between far left and far right wing isolationism. At the forefront of these is a distrust of the “elite.” Both Sanders’ and Trump supporters distrust the corporate and commercial elite abroad and at home, and fear the globalization of their financial interests and decision-making. Consider the Daily Beast headline: “It’s Not Just Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — The Whole World is Turning On Its Elites.”

At a rally in Boston, Bernie Sanders roused the audience to its feet when he said: “We need a Democratic Party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class of this country.” On Truthdig, a leftist website, journalist Chris Hedges blamed “liberal elites” for Trumps election, and wrote that “the elites, who live in enclaves of privilege in cities such as New York, Washington and San Francisco, scold an enraged population. They tell those they dismiss as inferiors to calm down, be patient and trust in the goodness of the old ruling class and the American system.”

Similarly, on the other side of the political spectrum, at a rally that took place around the same time as Sanders’ above mentioned speech, Donald Trump had NRA president Wayne Lapierre introduce him. Lapierre earned one of the loudest applauses of the night when he said that America’s greatest domestic threat is the “three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites, and media elites.” Steve Bannon, of the far right Breitbart, wrote that “elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans.”

Yet the left and right have diverging ideas and notions of what being “elite” means, and are thus attacking vastly different ideas. For the left, being “elite” almost uniformly translates into being rich or politically powerful; rhetorically, it is interchangeable with the “1%”, another favorite leftist criticism. It’s why leftists scoff at the notion that Trump is against the elite; to them, he embodies the elite: a real-estate billionaire tycoon, who’s never known what it’s like to ever need anything, and who literally lived in a gold home on Fifth Avenue. To the left being of the elite means being of the economic elite.

So how can someone on the far right claim, in earnest, that Trump, is with them in their fight against the “liberal” or “globalist” elite? That’s because for them, being a member of the elite has very little to do with having money, and a lot more to do with personality and intellect. They are revolting against what they consider a cultural form of eliteness: college educated liberals, who supposedly bask in their intellectual superiority, and condescend to everyone else. In the words of far right darling Sarah Palin, the elite are simply those that “think they’re — I guess — better than anyone else.” The chair of the Iowa Republican party, a staunch Trump supporter, described elitist arrogance as what comes from “reading books, sitting at a desk and learning from reading, versus people out there building the roads.” The contempt members of the right have for academica cannot be overstated, and is growing: less than two years ago, 37% of Republicans said universities had a negative effect on the US overall; by June of 2016, that number had skyrocketed to 58%. In this sense, an economically disadvantaged person who has graduated from college, and who now might “talk down” to others about the reality of climate change, or the horrors of colonization, is more of an elitist than Trump, who eats his steak with ketchup, and generally refrains from using big words.  


II) Fear of Globalization

In large part because of this disdain for the elite, both the far left and far right rail against “globalists” and have thus found common ground fighting globalization.  Yet here too what they each view as globalization’s shortcomings and detriments varies widely from one to the another.

For the left, globalization’s issues stem from the free rein of capital, which contributes to economic inequality, specifically within the US. In Sanders’ words: “The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world. This is an economic model developed by the economic elite to benefit the economic elite.” The general fear is that powerful (read: “elite”) capitalists will, through globalization, garner more power than ever in adjusting the world’s economy to their own benefit, and that this will specifically hurt lower-skilled manufacturing workers in the US, who lose their jobs to workers in developing countries who themselves often work for far less than our own minimum wage.  

The far right clearly rebels against globalization as well: Trump’s most effective campaign slogan was “America First,” after all. However the far right often seem far less concerned about the economic globalization (though they do talk about this), and far more troubled by cultural globalization. The fear is that cultural globalization, especially through lax immigration laws and people’s freedom of movement, will erode cultural and traditional norms in the US. To be precise, the emphasis is often less about actual culture and tradition, and more about the changing demographics and ethnic composition of the US; the fear that whites will become a minority because of increased immigration is a recurring idea on the alt-right. So while Trump and his base agree with the left on TPP and the establishment of tariffs and quotas to decrease the offshoring of US production and jobs, they also hope to expel millions of immigrants from the US, and ban millions more from ever coming (i.e. the much-maligned and legally dubious “Muslim Ban”).


III) Military Intervention and Human Rights

In large part because of this disdain for elitism and globalization, both sides also seem to find themselves aligned politically and rhetorically on the topic of US military intervention. After Donald Trump’s military airstrikes against the Syrian regime this April, the political demographics criticizing him most were the far left and, more shockingly, the far right (his “base”). While members of the leftist ANSWER coalition took to the streets of New York the next day, chanting “US imperialist, number one terrorist,” and “Hands off Syria,” members of the far right were busy making their Facebook profile pictures a head shot of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, in a show of support for him and his regime. Again, this would seem to fit almost seamlessly into the horseshoe theory: those supposedly most opposite from each other on the political spectrum found themselves decrying Trump’s strikes — and US military intervention in general – in unison.

However, their shared consensus on the matter came and comes about for vastly different ideological reasons. For example, take the topic of human rights, generally the US’ political establishment main reason — or at least their main professed reason — for intervening militarily in a foreign country. When the US government evokes human rights as their reason for intervening, you can be sure to hear vocal criticism from both the far left and right; and yet their reasoning could not be more different.

The far left’s opposition to intervention on the grounds of human rights abuses is in large part because they collectively do not believe the US government genuinely cares about human rights. They believe the government picks-and-chooses when they care and when they don’t, and despise this apparent hypocrisy. As Todd E. Pierce, of the leftist website ConsortiumNews, writes, “Long before President Trump, the US government had made a mockery of “human rights,” condemning abuses by adversary states but silent when crimes were committed by US agents or US allies.” Stated otherwise, when the US gives billions of dollars to authoritarian and brutal regimes like Egypt, or backs a backward, monarchical despot in Saudi Arabia, and then insists that intervention in Syria or sanctions against Iran are needed because of human rights abuses, the left is skeptical, if not completely dismissive, of the government’s’ real intentions. They generally assume nefarious, ideological  and mercantilist intent, and thus stand in opposition to the intervention.

Though some on the far right share this conviction, most oppose intervention on the grounds of human rights for a different reason. As has been widely documented in Pew Polls and similar studies, many on the far right sympathize with authoritarian and quasi-fascist regimes, believing that leaders sometimes need to resort to extreme measures to keep their populace under control. Many don’t really care, if they care at all, about human rights abuses, so long as the population is kept in check. This seems to be especially true as it pertains to predominantly Muslim countries. It is no secret that many in the far right traffic in Islamophobia; in turn, many profess that authoritarian leaders are needed in these Islamic countries in order to prevent further terrorist attacks and thwart the rise of Islamism. For example, after the Syrian air-strikes, the far right figure-head Milo Yiannopoulos tweeted: “I’m as troubled by violence towards innocent children as the next sociopath, but those kids are only growing up to be oppressors of women and murderers of homosexuals anyway.” Similarly, Right Stuff founder Mike Enoch tweeted: “So Trump’s first forceful action as President was supposedly to defend the same people that mow down white children with trucks.”

The left also stresses the illegality of military interventions far more than the right. As leftist icon Noam Chomsky has stressed, for example, the Iraq War was illegal, and though almost every other aspect of the war troubled him, this illegality was at the forefront. The leftist website Informed Consent recently published an article titled: “The Real Problem with the Iraq War: It was Illegal.” When the left does speak out against the laws of multinational organizations, such as the UN or the ICC, they don’t begrudge the organizations for having too many laws; rather, they stress that the laws seem to only be enforced in developing or otherwise weaker countries, and never against Western behemoths.

This is not a complaint you will see coming from the far right. In the dozens of articles I have observed on Breitbart and the Reddit Alt Right page disparaging or criticizing the Iraq war, not once did I see it mentioned as “illegal”. It was a “mistake”, a “disaster”, “idiotic”; but never illegal. In fact, one is far more likely to find criticisms of international laws that prevent the US from comporting itself independent of any outside (global and foreign) restrictions. The far right does indeed begrudge those same multinational organizations for having too many laws, and want to ensure that the laws never encroach on US sovereignty in making their own decisions. According to Jack Goldsmith, from the blog Lawfare:

“Two months into the Trump administration, we are witnessing the beginnings of the greatest presidential onslaught on international law (…) in American history. The onslaught appears to be driven by a combination of economic nationalism, anti-cosmopolitanism, anti-elitism, (and) a belief that international law does not reflect American values but threatens American institutions.”

He mentions all the domestic agencies focused on the implementation of international laws that the Trump budget has already proposed to eliminate, including the African Development Foundation, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the International Food for Education program.

In short, while the horseshoe theory may seem to fit regarding the far left and the far right and their respective views on globalization and intervention, it is dishonest to claim this represents legitimate similarities between the two ideologies, or their ideologues. The motives and reasoning in rejecting globalization and intervention for both political extremes differ radically from one another. The far right seems to reject globalism generally for what it might do to them: a fear that immigrants will mean a shifting, less white-centric, demographic, a fear that a loss of authoritarian strongmen in the Middle East will mean more immigration and more Islamic terrorism, a fear that the rise of intellectual liberal elites will leave them ostracized in their own country. On the other hand, the far left seem to spurn globalization and intervention generally because of what they believe it does to others: a suspicion that our interventions don’t actually improve human-rights abuses abroad, that economic elites will manipulate the economy against the American workforce, and that international laws are meant only for developing countries.


The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.



Miles Malley

Miles Malley is an International Relations major at the University of Southern California, with minors in Political Science and French. His primary research interests include American foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East, geopolitics, and the ever-expanding role of nuclear weapons in international security. In 2016, Miles interned for both HSG Campaigns, a Democratic Political Consulting Firm, and the office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton — in both positions, he practiced the balance of maintaining firm ideals while dealing with the reality of an increasingly politicized world. Last summer, he worked as a Community Engagement intern for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), where he worked on promoting progressive grass-roots movements and candidates. He is currently in his fourth semester of TIRP (Teaching International Relations Program), where he provides under-privileged high-school students the students a glimpse into what IR-focused college classes might look like.