Last week, as Donald Trump was sweeping the Acela primaries and beginning to campaign in California and Indiana, I was taking a long-planned family trip to England and France. Everywhere we went, people asked about Trump, who is receiving a lot of media attention abroad. What is his game? Who are his supporters? Does he have any chance of becoming President?
Of course, Trump doesn’t get quite as much coverage or occupy as much mental space in Europe as he does here. The biggest news stories during our brief stay in England were the upcoming referendum on whether Britain should pull out of the European Union and a long-awaited jury verdict finding police responsible for the deaths of ninety-six soccer fans at a stadium in Sheffield, twenty-seven years ago. Paris, which we visited at the end of the week, is still looking inward after November’s terrorist attack. Near our hotel in the Bastille district, heavily armed soldiers were patrolling the streets; not far away, at the Place de la République, the monuments were adorned with pictures and tributes memorializing the victims of the November 13th attacks. Yards away, an Occupy-style collective had taken over part of the square to express support for migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and other trouble spots.
In other words, Europe has plenty of its own problems to deal with. But with these problems has come the rise of a number of Trump-style right-wing populists. Indeed, one of the things you realize when you cross the Atlantic is that Trumpism isn’t as purely American a phenomenon as it appears from up close. Save perhaps Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced former Prime Minister of Italy, there is no exact European equivalent to the brash New York billionaire, but the larger forces that have propelled Trump to the brink of the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination—nationalism, nativism, disillusionment with the economic results of globalization, fear of terrorism, cynicism about career politicians—are just as strong in Europe, perhaps stronger.
From the Irish Sea to the Carpathian Mountains, right-wing anti-establishment movements are on the rise. In the U.K., their objective is “Brexit,” on June 23rd, when the country votes in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union. In recent weeks, Nigel Farage, the beer-swilling leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party, has been joined in arguing for an exit by Boris Johnson, the towheaded mayor of London. Johnson has thrown off his liberal-Tory mask to lead the anti-E.U. forces inside the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party, against the wishes of Prime Minister David Cameron—and of President Obama, who made it patently clear, just prior to my family’s arrival, that the U.S. would prefer Britain to remain a member of the E.U. Obama’s intervention may have cheered the pro-E.U. forces, but it doesn’t appear to have affected public opinion much. Two polls published over the weekend suggest that the referendum is still too close to call.
In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, is busy preparing to challenge the embattled François Hollande in next year’s Presidential election. Much as last December’s gun massacre in San Bernardino generated support for Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., the ISIS attack in Paris has hardened French attitudes and played to the National Front’s advantage. Since December, Hollande’s government has adopted a number of illiberal counterterrorism measures, authorizing raids of mosques and other Islamic buildings without court warrants, and placing suspects under house arrest before their cases reach a judge. But Le Pen continues to claim that mainstream French parties are incapable of defending the country, and many people appear to agree with her call for still-harsher measures. As I was having my morning croissant on Friday, I came across an opinion poll in Le Figaro suggesting that almost half of the French public now views the country’s large Muslim minority as “mainly a threat.”
In eastern and southeastern Europe, where the Syrian-refugee crisis is a huge issue, the far right is enjoying even more success. Last month, Norbert Hofer, the leader of Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party, finished first in the initial round of voting in that country’s Presidential election. (Like Trump, Hofer boasts of carrying a gun to protect himself.) Three weeks from now, he will face the Green Party-backed Alexander Van der Bellen in a runoff election. Should Hofer win, it will be the first time since 1945 that Austria has had an overtly nationalistic and far-right President. Although the position is largely ceremonial, it affords the power to dismiss parliament and call fresh elections, which Hofer has threatened to do if he is elected.
In Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, two avowedly nationalistic governments are continuing to strengthen their grip on power. Viktor Orbán, a self-styled strongman, has been the Hungarian Prime Minister for six years now, and in the past couple of years, as refugees have passed through Hungary on their journeys north from Greece and Turkey, he has ruthlessly exploited popular fears of a deluge of newcomers. Unlike Trump, Orbán hasn’t just talked about building a wall to keep out unwanted migrants: his government has gone ahead and built fences on its borders with Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia. Now it is planning to put up another one, this time on Hungary’s eastern border with Romania.
Poland, further north, is less immediately affected by the refugee crisis. But the reactionary Law and Justice Party, which gained power in elections last October, has seized on the issue to help justify its agenda of purging Poland of liberal and cosmopolitan influences. (The government has already eliminated liberals and other opponents from state-run media and other powerful institutions.) After the March terrorist attack on the Brussels Airport, the Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, appeared to renege on a deal with the E.U. to take in about seven thousand refugees, saying that she didn’t see “any possibility” that her country would accept migrants from Syria and other countries. Subsequently, the Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said that his government would honor the agreement as long as the refugees were given a proper security check. The details remain unresolved, however, and public opinion appears to favor a Trump-style lockout.
To be sure, the parallels between what is happening in the United States and in parts of Europe shouldn’t be pushed too far. The United States isn’t dealing with a refugee crisis, and, mercifully, it hasn’t had any recent terrorist attacks as spectacular as the ones in Paris or Brussels. And few, if any, of its citizens are intent on seceding from the union. Trump, although he clearly has substantial support, also has very high disapproval ratings, and a majority of Americans oppose his controversial policy recommendations, including his proposed ban on Muslims.
But, despite these qualifications, Trump’s brand of right-wing populism clearly shares some attributes with its European cousins. In an era in which traditional party loyalties are decaying, economic expectations have been disappointed, and outsiders are increasingly seen as potential job-stealers, or even terrorists, Trump, Le Pen, Hofer, and Farage (not to mention other right-wing European politicians, such as Denmark’s Kristian Thulesen Dahl and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders) are all fishing in the same fouled waters, with the same lures: immigrant-bashing, jingoism, and the prospect of populist, or faux-populist, economic policies.
In an essay in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, Mark Mazower, a historian at Columbia University, argued that we are witnessing a revival of nationalism as a reaction to heightened insecurity. Citing the work of the late Benedict Anderson, especially the 1983 book “Imagined Communities,” Mazower wrote, “Under the globalisation juggernaut, we all feel small now, even the US, and this is perhaps the main difference between Reagan-era Republican tub-thumping and Trump’s.”
That is an arresting thesis, even if it somewhat understates the extent to which previous promoters of American nationalism—from Teddy Roosevelt to Reagan himself—also played on fears that the United States was falling behind or otherwise diminished. And it provides ample reason for everyone, not just Americans, to worry about the potential of Trumpism. It is disturbing enough to see rabble-rousing, authoritarian mountebanks holding positions of power in places like Budapest, Warsaw, and, potentially, Vienna—places where it had been hoped that the nightmares of the twentieth century had been left behind. But for such a figure to get anywhere near the Presidency of the world’s leading democracy, biggest economy, military hegemon, and sole superpower would be a tragedy of a different order. As the next six months unfold, many in Europe and the rest of the world will be watching nervously.