Donald Trump’s victory on November 8th has sent shock waves around the world. But they are false shock waves because political observers in Europe have seen the signs prior to Trump even considering a run for President. The rise of populism in Europe presaged that in the United States by a few years. And the election of Trump coupled with the Brexit vote in Britain has only energized European populists more.
We should soon see signs of whether this populism is on the rise or can be abated soon enough on December 4th when Austria will hold a presidential election. As it stands now, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria whose campaign is straight out of the Trump playbook is the front runner. In March, parliamentary elections will be held in Holland where Geert Wilders’ populist Freedom Party is poised to make substantial gains. In April and May, French voters will choose a new president where Francois Hollande faces a severe challenge from populist Marine Le Pen of the National Front. In the fall, Germans will vote on the composition of their legislature where the populist AfD party will likely gain seats.
And in Europe parliamentary elections, sometimes gaining outright control is not a central goal. For example, Nigel Farage’s UKIP party holds one seat in Parliament, yet it was instrumental in the Brexit vote.
There are many things that unite the populist Left and Right in Europe and they have their analogies here in the United States. What unites them is their rage against the political establishment, the financial world and globalization while demanding a stronger, more caring central government. Trump fought the political establishment, has railed against Wall Street, threatened businesses, and proposed protectionist trade policies. His reluctance to reform entitlement programs also indicates he has much in common with his counterparts in Europe.
What separates the Left and Right in Europe and domestically are two factors, but they mesh closer and are more visceral in Europe: immigration and Islam. What is spurring a right wing populist revolt in Europe is the belief that countries are becoming “Islamicized” through liberal immigration policies emanating from Brussels. Although Trump’s “extreme vetting” proposal overlaps with some of these European fears, a vast ocean between Islamic countries and the US makes Islamic immigrants and refugees less of a problem. Yet, there is no denying the fact that populists on the right in Europe want individual countries- not the EU- to control their borders, while the leftist populist in Europe want more open borders.
Immigration policy, despite the overlap between left and right populists in the United States in other areas, will likely keep the two forces- exemplified by Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left- apart more so than Islamic influences. Mexican “rapists, drug dealers and gang members” are the US equivalent to the European Muslim.
There is another similarity- the politics of simple solutions. For Trump, to stem the flow of illegal immigration across the southern border, the answer is simple: build a wall. To Trump, the solution to domestic companies outsourcing or building plants in other countries is simple: slap a tariff on their products. To Trump, the solution to terrorism on US soil is simple: just ban Muslims from entering the country. There are similarities in the solutions from the likes of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer, Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Frauke Petry in Germany, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland.
This must also be understood in the context of another similarity- the influence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. What the Soviet Union achieved with tanks, Putin is achieving with propaganda. Viewing the Czech Republic as a weak link in the NATO/EU alliances, it has become important in Russian attempts to influence politics elsewhere in Europe. Former president Vaclav Klaus usually does the bidding of Russia and works for Germany’s AfD in his spare time.
Putin put his faith in European populists in 2007 and has been using them to his benefit for years now. He has successfully promoted a new conservatism and a shift towards a “non-liberal democracy” highlighted by anti-globalism and advocacy of “traditional values.” In reality, there is little difference between those leaders in countries that have adopted this posture- most of Central Europe- and Donald Trump. That does not necessarily mean that Trump is a dupe of Putin (although Putin supporters are now declaring “Washington nash,” or “Washington belongs to us”), but Trump certainly used the European populist play book to win the presidency. “Make America Great Again” is no different from the slogan of Germany’s AfD- “Courage to stand up for Germany” or any other party’s slogan throughout Europe that intends to make that country first, great, or the best.
Perhaps, this populist wave- which not only involves the United States and Europe, but also Latin America- can be arrested, thwarted, or killed. But, momentum appears to be on the side of the populists. The same dynamics that catapulted Trump into the White House- a fear that the nation was “changing” not for the better, the angst over economic opportunity, jobs or wage stagnation, etc.- are all in play in Europe, only more vividly. Compare the visuals of the illegal immigrant population in the United States spread over a huge geographical area against the Muslim populations in European countries packed into a smaller geographical area.
If the populists in Europe succeed as most polls indicate they will, then it will be a self-propagating monster feeding upon each successive success. If there was a fear of a “new world order” or of a “world government,” these successes, if they come to fruition, will lay those fears to rest unless they end in epic failure. If European right wing populism can develop and grow so quickly, it can die an equally quick death and usher in an era of brash socialism and if the United States thinks it is immune from such forces, we must think that through again. Today’s Donald Trump may be tomorrow’s Bernie Sanders.