Salon meets Breitbart: Matthew Rozsa and Raheem Kassam discuss Brexit and the EU

Salon talks with Breitbart alumnus Raheem Kassam on global nationalism and the future of European politics

By Matthew Rozsa
Published August 6, 2018 12:05PM (EDT)
Raheem Kassam (Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore)
Raheem Kassam (Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore)

I must confess: When I was presented with the opportunity to interview former Breitbart writer Raheem Kassam, I was instantly intrigued.

For one thing, Kassam remains an outspoken proponent of Brexit, the referendum decision from 2016 in which the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union. As reports trickle in of possible food shortages due to Prime Minister Theresa May struggling to come up with a sound deal for leaving the multinational organization (May herself is continuing to deny that this is the case), it is clear that Brexit is emerging as one of the major geopolitical events of the early 21st century. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, it will reshape politics in Britain for decades to come — and serve as an example, for good or ill, that other European nations will have to observe and then decide whether or not to follow.

There is more to interviewing Kassam than that, however. The Breitbart alum has also been talking about running against Sadiq Khan to be London's next mayor, a campaign that he described to me as being very much motivated by a desire to advance policy ideas he believes are important (hearing him talk about it reminded me of William F. Buckley's famous 1965 campaign for mayor of New York City). He is also on good terms with Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive and erstwhile chief strategist for President Donald Trump — and another man who could be accurately described as a "global nationalist," the term that Kassam uses to sum up his own ideology.

Whether you agree or disagree with Kassam's political views — and I write for Salon and recently interviewed one of my political heroes, President Jimmy Carter, so it should be obvious which category I fall into — he has unquestionably emerged as one of the key intellectual voices behind an important worldwide movement. All it takes is a quick glance at the electoral outcomes in nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, or in Hungary and Poland, to see that this is a movement which needs to be better understood and explored.

Plus, let's face it: This is Salon meets Breitbart. That clash of the titanic media brands practically sells itself.

Is there a contradiction between members of the right denouncing globalist and internationalist agendas even as leaders like Steve Bannon work to influence the governments of other countries, like the United Kingdom and Italy, in order to weaken the European Union?

These sort of thoughts have occurred to me for quite some time, and a lot of my friends and colleagues and even some liberal academic observers who agree with me sometimes have said, "What are you? Are you a global nationalist?" I sort of think about it, and I say, "Yes, actually." It's not a contradiction in terms, because the difference, I think, between globalism and what we're trying to do, which is populist nationalist uprisings and revolutions around the world, is that we're not trying to take away people's power, their sovereignty, their policy-making decisions, their local decisions.

We're not trying to take them and centralize them in a foreign capital somewhere. We're trying to give it back to them. I don't think it's a contradiction, and so if you're actually trying to localize control again, if you're trying to give the power back to the ordinary people in their own countries, that's the other side. That's why I don't think it necessarily had the same connotation.

Here's the other thing as well. I'm never going into a country and saying, "Hey, ideologically, this is what you should do. This is how you need to do it. This is what your tax rate should be." Again, that's the other side. We just say, "Hey, best of all, power back to you guys, and you guys make the decisions for yourselves." In some cases, I'm going to agree with the decisions I make, and in some cases, I'm going to disagree, but that's up to them.

Would you say that your philosophy of global nationalism is philosophically analogous to the states' rights movement among conservatives in the United States?

Yeah, I think that's probably right. I think that that's one of the best ways to look at it from a European perspective. The problem is, when you do start looking at it like that from a European perspective, you’re almost de facto accepting that the European Union is the United States of Europe, which I would push back on as much as possible.

Are you concerned that the dissolution or weakening of the European Union could encourage further imperialist activity by Russia, such as their meddling in American and British elections, or their military actions in the Crimea or Ukraine?

I mean I'll take the second part of that first. I'll put it this way: I was in Kiev during the protests, right? I went there and was flying back, because I just thought, "Hey, a revolution happening on my doorstep. How often do we get to see that? I want to figure out what's really going on here." And seeing the different side, it's really familiar. It was really not what was being portrayed. There were bad guys on both sides, believe me. I interviewed some of the hardcore, like literal card-carrying Neo-Nazi party members who were on the side of John McCain during that whole thing. For me, it wasn't a click out thing, but where it stems from, what I always try and get across to people is that the whole thing started really with the EU's association agreement with Ukraine, drawing them away from being a buffer state between Europe and Russia and into being a sort of European Union proxy.

As far as I'm concerned — and I know this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people — but as far as I was concerned, it was a provocation from the EU that led to that whole thing. Now I don't believe that it justifies what the Russians did, but I don't think it was... Here's the thing: the European Union is a baby in terms of policy and in terms of its structure. I don't think it quite realized that its own grandiose method of trying to expand its sphere of influence was going to cause an actual physical backlash. The United States would have known that, and the United Kingdom would have known that, because they have dealt with this for hundreds of years, but the EU didn't get that. So I think actually the EU has been the opposite of sort of a peace-keeping force. It's actually been a force that has caused friction and war on the continent, and with Crimea in mind specifically.

Having said that, I also think that when you look at the way that the European Union is constituted with its commission and the parliament and all that stuff, it's highly anti-democratic. I often feel like anti-democratic forces tend to be the most — not violent, but tend to be the most sort of fragile, and that fragility can lead to a thing like what happened in Crimea.

What was the first part of your question? That was the Russia . . . You're talking about the stability, right?

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Well, I'm talking about specifically the concern that it might encourage Russia to engage in more aggressive acts against eastern and then eventually central and western Europe.

Let's look at it this way. Did the European Union existing — for all the joined military and intelligence exercises and foreign policy statements and denunciations and everything — did they stop that happening? Did they stop Crimea being invaded? No. The nuclear umbrella and the NATO thing is far more important to Europeans than a strong European Union is. That can differ from person to person, but by and large you'll find on the whole across the continent, people value NATO more than they value the European Union, because it has actually delivered peace. It has a record of that, juxtaposing with the United Nations and the EU. It's a truism at this point. No, I don't think that.

But, here's the other part of it: I'm not going around Europe — I'm Brexit guy, but I'm not going around Europe, telling people they need to leave the European Union, right? Again, that's up to them. What I'm telling them is, "Hey, you've got a centralized authority in Brussels. It is predominantly run by bureaucrats that don't have the level of accountability that we would expect in our own national governments, and you need to start taking powers back." That doesn't mean the end of the European Union. There's still going to be trade. There's still going to be defense cooperation, intelligence cooperation. You can't solve the migrant crisis just single-handedly with one nation-state. That's why we were happy when the US signed this new strategic dialogue with Italy two days ago, because you need US assistance in the Mediterranean as well to make that happen.

What are your thoughts on about Vladimir Putin ideologically and in terms of the "leadership" he has provided?

I think he's a tyrant. He's a dictator. There aren't free elections in Russia. But here's the thing: You're going to figure out the difference between the method of governance and the political philosophy. The political philosophy, the reason that the left were happy to be pro-Soviet, but not pro-Russia today, is because they see Russia now as a Christian conservative nation with the Orthodox Church in its core. That's why I say the people of Russia are no different from the people of the United States as far as I'm concerned or anywhere else, but getting to that point where the message that he’s used to get to that point, I entirely disagree with. I think it's the sign of a weak leader or a weak economy. I should imagine that's kind of obvious to everyone at this point.

What caused your departure from Breitbart in May, and are you still thinking of running for Mayor of London in 2020?

Every couple of years, I get antsy and I have to move on and do other things. I realized that I was far more useful at putting... Well, firstly, I like to write, but not short-form news articles. I like to write longer-form stuff and I like to write books, and I just couldn't combine those two things anymore. This has freed me up to do more of that and when I get antsy I just have to do other things for a while. This stuff that we're doing now with the movement, and other things across Europe and the United States that I'm working on and with, they're much more my speed. I prefer to do things not necessarily always with my bottom line on the brain, right? That was the main motivating factor for me leaving.

The London mayor thing: If you go to my website, which is maybe like a repository of my articles and videos and things like that, I've actually changed it recently to look and feel more like a campaign site. I had the decision to make a couple of months ago, "Hey! If I did this, will I go for it under the Conservative ticket, which makes it winnable, or would I do it under the UKIP ticket, which effectively makes it just a big sort of protest campaign?" I mean we'll get a lot of attention, no doubt about it. Then you'll probably be able to tell by the color of the site that I've decided to go the UKIP route on it, which means the actual mayoralty is probably out of reach, but it means that we also have the opportunity to raise awareness on a whole lot of things.

I'm working on a book at the moment, which I plan to publish as an e-book. The working title is "Sadiq’s Shithole: The Tragedy of London." Now, I'm not sure that I like to publish it under that name...

I was going to say, it lacks a bit of a subtlety.

I've never been a subtle kind of guy, to be honest with you, but it may be a bit too much. I'm probably going to call it something like "Carnage," a play on Sadiq Khan and London's crime rates, but it's effective. We don't have this tradition, like you guys have in the US, where political candidates put books out before they run for things, but I'm back and forth between the US and the UK all the time. I've been doing that now for nearly 15 years, so there's some things that I've picked up and that's one of them. It's effectively going to be a manifesto, not just how Sadiq has ruined London in my estimation — it is my home city, so I feel strongly about it — not just how he's done that, but how to actually fix it. Look, it'll come down to UKIP membership decision, because it'll be a primary I believe, but when I throw my hat in the ring, I think at this point the answer is probably yes.

Okay, so the answer's probably yes?

Yes. All indicators, for me, point to do it. I'm guessing there is a compelling case not to do it. So yes, at the moment, I'm 80 percent sure.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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