While we here in the United States ponder how it came down to a choice between Donald Trump, a charlatan, and Hillary Clinton, a criminal, it may be wise to look at recent world events, especially in Europe.
The rise of so-called right wing populist parties and leaders has been fueled by three factors. Before discussing this, however, we have to determine if Trump is “right wing” in the American or the foreign context. European right wing parties are defined by a certain level of isolationism, xenophobia, and nativist national pride. In that respect, Trump would likely find a fitting home in many right wing populist parties in Europe. Further, many of them have adopted some socialist ideals like a welfare state and Trump breaks from American conservative orthodoxy in this area also.
It becomes quite obvious that Trump shares a lot with these and it should not be surprising that this phenomena has reached our shores. It takes on added importance because, unlike other countries, the United States is a two-party political system. Under the parliamentary form of government in many other countries, incremental gains by parties that adhere to a certain ideology are amplified here in the United States.
The three factors fueling their political rise elsewhere (and here) are terrorism (specifically Islamic terrorism), concerns over immigration changing their national character, and economic anxieties and a rejection of globalization. This has led to a backlash against Muslim immigrants in European countries. In Europe, the immigration crisis facing that continent is fueled by the influx of Muslims, many of whom are actual rapists and murderers that Trump rails about with regards to illegal Mexican immigrants. And just as the European populists denounce international agreements like NATO, the EU and other free trade pacts, so too does Trump. It is almost as if Trump looked to Europe for a winning strategy and copied it.
Consider the following facts: In March, 2016 the Alternative for Germany Party made huge gains in regional elections and now pose a serious threat to the leadership of Angela Merkel. In neighboring Austria, recent elections forced the president to resign after the right wing populist Freedom Party made substantial gains. Previously, populist right wing leaders seized the reigns of power in Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Scandanavia is almost ground zero (after Germany) for the influx of Muslims into Europe. As a result, the right wing group, the Danish People’s Party secured 37 seats in their 179-member parliament after getting 21% of the national vote. The Swedish Democrats have seen an increase in popularity from 5.7% to over 25% today. And in Finland, the Finns Party is now the second largest and fast growing party in the country.
Italy and Greece are interesting cases since both have socialists leaders, but that has not stopped right wing populist parties from making substantial gains. In Italy- which stands on the front line against immigrants from Africa- the Northern League had their best year ever electorally and won the regions of Veneto and Lombardy. In Greece, the referendum on remaining in the EU won out, but it a created an opening for the radically-right Golden Dawn to surge in popularity.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is poised to win the presidential elections next year. And in Holland, Gert Wilders’ Party for Freedom has an 18-point advantage over its nearest rivals. Even tiny, independent and neutral Switzerland is not immune as the populist right wing Swiss People’s Party won 29.4% of the vote in the October, 2015 elections.
In Peru, the emergence of a populist right wing party led by Kiko Fujimoro is headed to a runoff and right wing law-and-order strongman with wide popular appeal- often compared to Trump for his bombastic and crazy campaign trail rhetoric- Rodrigo Duterte recently won their presidential election in the Philippines.
And last but certainly not least, Great Britain will vote next month on whether to remain in the European Union. The impetus for withdrawal from the EU centers on immigration policies and terrorism and the belief that Britain can make better trade deals if they go it alone.
As stated earlier, the phenomena is amplified in the United States because of the two-party system. In Europe, these parties may enjoy about 30% of the popular vote. Because there are so many viable parties often leading to coalition governments, the phenomena becomes very important in the parliamentary system of government. In the United States, finding a home in either major party only makes it that more potent since they are realistically the only major actors. A truly viable and sustainable third party could be a check on left and right wing populism. But that takes time.
Some of these European parties have changed over the years since having their roots in neo-Nazi movements in the 1970s. They have rebranded themselves and dropped some of the most incendiary language, but their philosophy is rooted in those past beliefs. Some are blatantly and openly anti-Semitic. Others are blatantly anti-immigrant regardless of ethnicity. The Northern League in Italy opposes the native Roma gypsy population.
It is easy to dismiss the members and supporters of these parties as a bunch of racist, bigoted xenophobes, as some do with Trump, but that is not the whole story. The racist, the bigot and the xenophobe will naturally be attracted to these leaders just as KKK members and white supremacists are attracted to Trump. But, the problem runs deeper.
In Europe, it is people looking around and seeing their national character is under attack and they blame the ruling class. This likely explains some of the Trump phenomena also as people see gay marriage being forced upon the country by judicial fiat, a porous southern border which, although a problem, in no way approximates the situation in Europe. They see their wages stagnating, and some countries have high unemployment rates and they blame it on the influx of immigrants and the outsourcing of jobs to other countries made easier by international free trade agreements. They blame the overt extreme liberalization of institutions and inept political leaders in power. Is this political season in the US really any different from what has been happening in Europe for the past three or four years?
This election season is not so much defined as the rise of Donald Trump so much as it is the spread of European-style right wing populism reaching our shores. A weak Republican Party and a complicit media allowed this to happen.