Thoughts on the U.S. Election and the Far Right

Photo by Terri Givens
Despite union support in Philadelpia, Hillary Clinton lost the state of Pennsylvania

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.

Berlin Day 3: Of monuments and memory

I started rather late today, with breakfast at Schwarzes Cafe on Kantstrasse, a nice spot for eggs and hot chocolate:

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I then went for a walk through the Tiergarten on my way to the German Holocaust memorial.  The Tiergarten is a beautiful, peaceful space in the middle of a busy city. I discovered that they have refurbished several monuments that were badly damaged during the war, but you can still see bullet damage:

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Mozart, and Beethoven



















The next stop was at the Holocaust memorial, it’s a very large space and it was teeming with young people, as usual:

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I had heard about a new memorial to homosexuals who were also victims during the Holocaust, the monument was a little hard to find, but poignant, inside the box a video of same-sex couples kissing plays:

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I ended up at Potsdamer Platz and hung out for a bit before my conference started with a reception at the Canadian Embassy – had many interesting discussions about immigration, discrimination and the role of cities in integrating immigants. As I rode home in a taxi, I had an interesting discussion with my young Turkish driver who complained that despite his college degree he was discriminated against in Germany and that many of his friends were planning to leave Germany once they got their degrees…a story I have heard many times. Despite Germany’s history, there is little recognition of the issues of discrimination today…

Sony Center
Canadian Embassy
Old friend (Simon Woolley) and new friends
Sunset view from the top of the Circus Hotel – BBQ and brew


Berlin Day 2: Connecting with history

Since my first trip to France in 1986, and in particular visiting the Normandy beaches at that time, I have had a sense of the often overwhelming presence of history when visiting cities like Berlin, Paris or London.  With the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings being commemorated this weekend, the events of WWII are even more present. Germany has a particular history with the tragic and horrific discrimination which led to mass murder and genocide. It is something that can’t be avoided when walking through Berlin, but there is a much deeper history here which also needs to be understood as part of the broader context of this ever-changing city.

I started my second day in Berlin with a trip to the East…exiting the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz and into major construction.  It has been many years since reunification, but the city is still re/building some infrastructure and the U-5 U-Bahn line is a major project that will do a better job of connecting a once-divided city.



The skyline here is dominated by the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and also the cranes that indicate new construction.  However, I wanted to take a step into the past, and headed past the Berlin Rathaus (city hall)


and on to the Nikolaiviertel, which is an area that was badly damaged during WW II and rebuilt in the 1980s.  The area is full of quaint shops and cafes



The quarter is dominated by the St. Nicholas Church (Nicholaikirche) and I decided to do the tour of the interior for the first time. As I listened to the audio tour, I couldn’t help but be saddened, because the tour revealed more about what had been lost than anything else.  So many artifacts, were damaged and destroyed during the battle for Berlin, and although the restoration was admirable, it is a prime example of a historical legacy that can’t be replaced. I had a similar feeling visiting Dresden four years ago, where many of the historical buildings had only been replaced a few years earlier.


As I walked away from the area, I happened to pass by yet another protest.  This one turned out to be a group of refugees who have been taking refuge in a school in Kreuzberg and are hoping to get their papers and avoid deportation – since this woman spoke in English I include the video here:

They are part of a group called Refugee Strike Berlin.  I found it interesting and the blocking of a street in a tourist area in the middle of the day is clearly calling for attention.  I intend to do more research into what is happening with this group. They also had speakers from the Roma community.




















Next I walked towards the Berlin Cathedral, an imposing structure that will soon be joined by the Berlin Schoss (Castle) which is being built across the street – I had seen that this area was becoming a construction site and was interested to see the new development. My understanding is that there will be a new, large space for a German history museum.

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There was some interesting art along the way, as I walked near Humboldt University and back toward the West


I made a stop to enjoy a chai tea and look in a book shop – managed to leave with only one new book, but got lots of ideas of books I want to order when I get home, particularly on German history.  The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie, another reminder of the city’s history of division:

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I was getting tired, but saw the sign that I wasn’t far from the Topography of Terror – an outdoor exhibition in an area where many on the Nazi administration had been housed, as well as a documentation center. The focus of much of the exhibit was the impact of groups that were initially discriminated against and ultimately targeted for extermination, including Jews, Roma (gypsies), and homosexuals. The history is frightening when you realize that normal people were pulled into the evil that the Nazis perpetuated, that went well beyond the war.

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Behind the exhibits is one of the last existing parts of the Berlin wall — the place is haunting in its simplicity and impact… I expect I will write more later as I reflect on this history…the situation of the refugees I described above leaves me wondering how Germans reconcile their past with their present…


Berlin Day 1: An ever changing city

I have been visiting Berlin since I started focusing on German politics in graduate school in the mid-1990s.  I have gotten used to watching the city change, when I first visited Germany, the capitol was still in Bonn and the Reichstag hadn’t yet been refurbished. Parts of the Berlin wall still stood in their original locations. Over the years, each visit would bring major changes as construction cranes took over the skyline. The original Checkpoint Charlie became a fashionable shopping avenue. The Reichstag gained a glass dome. Four years ago I had spent 3 weeks in Berlin with my family, conducting research at the Free University of Berlin. I made a quick visit a year and a half ago, but I went straight to a conference and didn’t spend any time touring the city. I was excited to see what four years had wrought in a city that was in the middle of so much change.

I arrived in Berlin the morning of June 2nd after an uneventful flight. After a nap, I headed out of my hotel to enjoy the ambiance of the Ku’damm – a major shopping area in the heart of the city. Compared to my trip to the Netherlands a year ago, when most of the stores seemed in distress and were having major price reductions, things seemed normal, maybe even more expensive than I was used to. My first meal was a chai latte from Starbucks to wake me up, and the traditional curry wurst and pommes from a nearby outdoor stand.


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Ku’damm on a sunny afternoon…


Wittenberg platz – this is the station we used all the time the last time we were in Berlin


The last time we were here they were raising funds to refurbish the Gedachtnis-Kirche – a reminder of the tragedy of the war. It is clearly being refurbished now. Also, most of the fountains weren’t running four years ago – it was nice to see them working, although I did notice many more homeless people, particularly young people, hanging around the square. This was the first time that I visited this area and felt a bit uneasy.


After a bit of shopping for some World Cup gear for my boys (and a few cute items for myself from Desigual), I took a break. Later I headed off in the direction of the Tiergarten and eventually hoping to go into the Reichstag where the German legislature sits (the Reichstag fire led to Hitler and the Nazi’s taking control of the German Government, so it is a potent symbol). For the first time since i have been visiting Berlin the Siegessäule (victory column) was open – here are a few photos of that monument:


The view towards the Brandenburg gate.


I know Andrew, my military history buff, will be interested in the frescoes on the sides of the monument.

As I walked towards the Brandenburg gate, I noticed that the TIergarten gets it’s name for a reason – actually, a few years ago I was running through the park and saw a fox with a rabbit in it’s mouth, so these guys do have natural predators out there…



Germans are almost as much into cycling as the Dutch, so I was dodging a lot of bikes on my way to the Brandenburg Gate.

To my surprise, I ran into a peace protest which mainly seemed focused on the ills of capitalism, avoiding war in Ukraine and pushing for peace in general.


The protesters have been meeting regularly on Mondays and draw on themes from the Monday protests before the fall of the Berlin Wall – this is the first protest of this type I have seen in Berlin


Here’s a link to some video from the protest:

The next surprise for me was the new security at the Reichstag. Four years ago you could just walk up and get in if they were open – now there’s a registration process and security barriers. I guess I won’t be seeing the inside on this trip, luckily I’ve been inside before. Here’s a few pictures from around the Reichstag:


This is a memorial to legislators murdered by the Nazis.


These bricks mark where the Berlin wall was located.


These crosses are for people who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin during the Cold War.Image

a chalk tribute to currywurst


The Reichstag with newer, modern government buildings in the background.

Another new memorial is one to the Roma and Sinti who were part of the genocide during WWII

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As I walked back to the Brandenburg gate, I had to take a picture of the US Embassy, which sits in a very prime location. The UK Embassy is around the next corner, both require a lot of security.


Looking East, you an see the Fernsehturm (TV tower) which was a symbol for East Berlin

Image I saw another group gather down the street and went to take a look. This time it was a group of Spanish protestor, who were calling for an end to the monarchy in Spain, the Spanish King abdicated the throne to his son today.


This sign is referring to the large numbers of Spaniards who have migrated to Germany to find work.Image

The last set of pictures are just some interesting shots from the rest of my day, I’m sure I’ll have more tomorrow, and I’ll be talking about some of the political issues in my Europe blog –