The election of Donald Trump in the November 2016 election came as a surprise to many, and I couldn’t help but think of how the issues were similar to those I had been tracking for many years in Europe. In particular, there were echoes of pronouncements from the 1990s by France’s Jean Marie Le Pen saying “French first” or the Austrian Freedom Party vilifying ethnic minority migrants as taking jobs from hard-working natives. However it was clear that by 2016 these sentiments had made their way into mainstream party discourse.
In October of 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in a speech that multiculturalism had failed in Germany. In February of 2011, her remarks were echoed by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in separate remarks declaring the failure or “death” of multiculturalism. These remarks were clearly coordinated, and in many ways were a harbinger of recent events. These speeches came when mainstream right politicians were concerned about the rise of populist far right parties, and the development of a backlash against anti-discrimination measures that had been promulgated in the wake of the success of the Austrian Freedom Party in 1999. I describe those developments in my book Legislating Equality.
I began following the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties in Europe in the early 1990s. What I have come to realize in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, is that my research was tracking a phenomenon that is culminating in an undermining of democratic institutions not only in Europe, but in the U.S. Van Jones famously called it a “white lash” although there is evidence that other forces were at play. It’s a phenomenon that I referred to as the “losers of globalization” supporting anti-immigrant parties in my first book on the radical right. Although alarm bells have been ringing, it’s not clear that there has been a decline in support for democracy (article), but support for far right parties does seem to be increasing, as noted in this chart from the New York Times:
I have also argued that it is important that mainstream politicians play closer attention to those who are voting for and supporting far right parties. Much has been written in the U.S. media about the need for the Democratic Party to connect with Trump voters who feel left out, and it has been clear in France, for example, that many former left-wing voters have shifted to supporting the far right. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the impact of technology, and the shift to a more service oriented economy have had an impact, and it’s also clear that race and immigration are playing an important role in attitudes. Many white voters feel that they are losing out to immigrants, or that they are being discriminated against in favor of other ethnic groups. They see the economy as a zero-sum game, and as women and minorities begin to play a more visible role, they see themselves losing out. Rising inequality, a declining middle class, and stagnant wages are objective signs of a decline that leads them to worry that their children may end up worse off than they were. They also rebel against what they see as a “political correctness” that requires them to police the way the speak about women and minorities, religion or LGBTQ issues.
Mainstream politicians like Merkel have responded to the far right by often taking on the issues or rhetoric in areas such as immigration. Although Angela Merkel has been a supporter of Syrian refugees in Germany, she recently announced support for a headscarf ban in Germany. It has been clear that positions that the far right were taking in the 1990s have moved into the mainstream, as politicians attempt to gain back support from voters who were attracted by the anti-immigration, nationalist and frankly racist positions of far right parties.
Recent reports that Trump’s National Security Advisor has met with representatives of the Austrian Freedom Party are worrying. I argue in my book that one of the factors that has kept far right parties from being more successful in Europe is the fact that people would vote against them strategically because the mainstream parties would make it clear that they could not be part of government. This is often referred to as a cordon sanitaire or a barrier to the far right making their way into government. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) did become part of the Austrian government in 2000, but the party has been through many changes since then, which complicates an analysis of where they are now. Being part of government seemed to moderate at least the leaders of the party at the time, but it has shifted back to a more strident tone in recent years.
The fact that the FPO candidate, Norbert Hofer, was defeated by independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in the Austrian Presidential Election in December is a sign that support continues for the EU, but Brexit and support for far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France indicate that there is much work to do. Mainstream candidates on both sides of the Atlantic must find a way to support the growing ethnic minority populations in their countries, while acknowledging the concerns of voters who see those groups as threats. Although we have clearly taken a step backwards on these issues in the U.S., it is not a given that European countries like France and Germany will inevitably move in the same direction. It will take smart leadership and grass-roots support for progressive policies that will help all, like healthcare and economic development that supports the lower and middle classes. Unfortunately, in the U.S., the incoming administration appears poised to increase disparities that have led to high rates of inequality. How this will impact voting behavior remains to be seen.