Alex Fine, JHU:
As establishment Republicans come to terms with the very real possibility that the authoritarian, populist, and pseudo-fascist Donald Trump will be their party’s nominee for the 2016 presidential election, many in the United States are struggling to explain how such a brash and divisive figure was able to gain traction in their country. These same people would be surprised to learn that Trump’s rise is not an anomaly in the developed world. Since the 2008 Great Recession, many advanced capitalist economies have seen increased public support for populist policies as disenfranchised ethnic majorities lash out against globalization and their own nation’s minorities.
Across the Atlantic, a fractured European Union and the largest wave of refugees and economic migrants since the Second World War have given rise to a wave of xenophobic ultranationalist parties in many European nations. Earlier this month, Slovakia’s far-right nationalist party, Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia, gained seats in parliament for the first time with eight percent of the popular vote. Both France and Germany have seen their anti-immigrant and euro-skeptic parties, National Front and Alternative for Germany (AFD), respectively, rise in popularity in the past eighteen months. In Poland, the nationalist conservative Law and Justice party won a majority in last autumn’s national elections and have unilaterally taken over the country’s government. It was the first time since Poland adopted democracy in 1989 that a political party has won an absolute majority in parliament.
Although their specific political aspirations and goals may differ, each of these right wing parties has seen a surge in popularity due to a seeming lack of economic opportunities that can be blamed on foreigners both at home and abroad. In general, European right wing populist parties are anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic, anti-internationalist, socially conservative, and in favor of austerity. Since 2008, growth in European countries has slowed to a crawl while unemployment rates have skyrocketed. In Greece and Spain, for example, youth unemployment has broached 50%, leaving the majority of potential workers disenfranchised and resentful. While economic prospects have been better in Northern Europe, wealthier countries such as France and Germany have been forced to bail out their Southern counterparts to preserve the Eurozone, much to the frustration and outrage of the former countries’ populaces.
Simultaneously, strife in the Middle East and North Africa has led to an unprecedented number of refugees and migrant fleeing to Europe in search of better economic opportunities. While United Nation member states are required to offer asylum to political refugees, the same does not hold true for economic migrants, and many nations have struggled to differentiate between the two categories. To further complicate the situation, recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere have further divided Europeans with regards to finding a solution to the influx of migrants, and many fear further attacks will come if immigrants are let in.
Nationalist parties are not a new phenomenon in Europe. Unlike the recent rise of Donald Trump, the successes the aforementioned European parties are only the latest in a string of victories for political machines that date back decades. Marine Le Pen, the president of France’s National Front, is a career politician who inherited the position from her father, Jean-Marie, who himself led the party for nearly 40 years starting in the 1970’s. Hungarian prime minister and autocrat Victor Orbán has presided over the conservative Fidesz party since 1993, and has strictly closed his country’s borders to the refugee wave claiming that they “[look] like an army.” Since the end of World War II and the fall of Nazism, far-right wing politics have slowly crept back into Europe, despite many former moderate governments previously banning them and declaring them illegal.
While right wing populism is a new fad in the United States led by the likes of Donald Trump, it is by no means unique in the world. Trump’s messages of “Making American Great Again” and “building a wall” to keep out immigrants are ideologically similar to many far-right European parties who wish to bring about a resurgence of national pride and prosperity in their respective home nations. Trump may look at the decline in manufacturing and loss of skilled blue-collared jobs as indicators of economic woes while Le Pen and Orlov may point to the hordes of people fleeing the Middle East and the flaws of the European Union as causes, but their messages are in tandem: appealing to a disenfranchised ethnic majority and blaming issues on foreign forces are key to their respective appeals.