What Lessons Can European Leaders Learn from Trump’s Victory?

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13.12.2016

The US presidential electoral campaign was characterised by the “Europeanisation” of the American politics – something that never happened before. Discarding some obvious differences between the American and European political domains, Bernie Sanders appeared a typical European social democrat, Hillary Clinton – a European pro-establishment centrist, and Donald Trump – a European anti-establishment radical right-wing populist. Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign was notorious for anti-immigrant and racist statements, so it was only natural that European right-wing politicians such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the former leader of Britain’s UKIP Nigel Farage or the president of Front National Marine Le Pen overwhelmingly supported Trump during his campaign.

Data from the exit polls published by the New York Times, which gives a sociological overview of Clinton’s and Trump’s voters, further proves the affinity between the electorates of Trump and the European far right. Whites prevail (58%) over people of other ethnic origins among Trump’s voters, as do men (53%) over women and Christians (58%) – over the faithful of other religions. Moreover, whites without a college degree (67%) and residents of small cities and villages (62%) particularly stand out among Trump’s voters. For his electorate, immigration and terrorism are more important issues (64% and 57% correspondingly) than foreign policy (34%) and even economy (42%).

This picture differs little from the electorates of the majority of European far right parties, but there are interesting differences as well. Academic works on the European far right have long noted the overrepresentation of the working class among their supporters, but this seems not to be the case with Trump’s electorate, as it is almost evenly distributed over different income-based social categories. However, another important factor, again, brings Trump’s electorate close to that of the European radical right-wing populist parties: economic insecurity.

While major scholars of the far right do not consider economic conditions as the main driver for far right support, it is important to take into account not the economic situation in a given country as such, but rather its perception by the population and their views of the future. The vast majority of Trump’s supporters (63%) believe that life will be worse for the future generation of the citizens of the country, and this particular view is prevalent among the electorates of the European far right too.

This is also where lessons for the European leaders begin. Despite the relatively stable – especially if compared to other regions of the world – economic conditions in Europe or, at the very least, the strengthening economic recovery and improvement of labour market conditions, in most European countries citizens are pessimistic about the future. Older people generally believe that their children will be worse off, younger people think the same about themselves compared to their parents. According to the 2014 Pew Research Center survey, as many as 56% of the respondents in Germany, the largest economy in Europe, said that the next generations would be worse off; the figures for the UK and France, the second and third largest European economies, were 72% and 86% correspondingly. The same survey suggests that Europe and the US are equally the most pessimistic regions in the world.

When European mainstream political leaders say that economies are recovering after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which is true, these words are no longer sufficient for the majority of the population across Europe. The most arrogant establishment figures may even ask: “Our economy is doing great, why are you unhappy?”. They seem to fail to realise that the global financial crisis dramatically undermined economic optimism of European societies, but coupled with the declining trust towards the political elites, general European pessimism may result in a political catastrophe.

The far right are well positioned to exploit the pessimistic perceptions of economic security, and are able to appeal to publics across generations. Younger people are the least attached to the political establishment, so the anti-elite rhetoric of the far right (and, obviously, the far left) may gain further traction with them. Older people, who are more conservative, may abandon their established political affiliations and increasingly follow the far right in believing that the ills of modern Europe are underpinned by globalisation, multiculturalism, immigration, individualism and liberalism, and therefore adopting a belief that the only “way out” is a truly conservative return to the utopian old days: a homogenous nation state, isolationism, low or no immigration, law and order, patriarchal society, etc.

Trump’s victory in the US, as well as the Pyrrhic triumph of the Leave campaign at the Brexit referendum in the UK, conveys yet another message to European leaders: identity politics has become one of the most important issues for the American and European societies, and cannot be ignored by established politicians any further. According to Eurobarometer, immigration was seen in 2015 as the most important issue facing the EU; moreover, immigration and terrorism (most important problems in the eyes of Trump’s supporters) were the only significant issues the salience of which had increased for Europeans in comparison to 2014.

Ethnic and cultural identity issues, when raised by members of European majorities, were frowned upon for several decades as there was a social consensus that raising these issues amounted to xenophobia and racism. In different European societies, this consensus either no longer exists or is crumbling fast – a development that many European leaders still fail to comprehend. By shying away from discussing openly difficult questions about ethnicity, culture and religion, mainstream European politicians have surrendered a broad political field to the far right to exploit in the most efficient and, indeed, authoritarian and illiberal way.

Another problem is that when some mainstream politicians do try to talk about these issues, they adopt the language of the far right, rather than developing a new liberal-democratic language about ethnicity and culture taking into consideration that the old liberal-democratic narratives about identity politics have largely lost their moral authority among many Europeans. Liberal-democratic leaders need to re-engage with social reality, but while taking identity politics seriously, they need to thread a fine line between far right, far left and old liberal-democratic conceptions. It may be extremely difficult but anything less will eventually lead European liberal democracy to defeat. For European societies, the issues of immigration, culture and religion have deeper political significance than these phenomena as such: these are questions about what constitutes demos (people) in modern demokratia (rule of people). Without re-identifying this notion, without re-establishing clear-cut boundaries between those who are part of demos and who are not, one cannot expect revival of political trust towards the rulers.

Finally, Trump’s victory tells European leaders that political establishment can no longer take its power for granted. Anti-establishment populist rhetoric is powerful, and politicians who employ this rhetoric not only can cause headache for the ruling elites but can actually prevail over them through the normal electoral process. As the election of Trump has shown, all the psychological barriers preventing people from voting en masse for those who adopt the language of hate have been erased.

There is a huge popular demand for new political agendas in Europe. The Austrian presidential elections in 2016 provides a good example for this trend: for the first time in the Austrian post-war history, neither a representative of the social-democratic party nor that of the conservative party – these parties were the strongest in Austria for decades – made it to the second round of the presidential election. Instead, the second round saw Alexander Van der Bellen backed by the Greens and the far right politician Norbert Hofer compete for the presidential post. Their success indicates a growing social demand for non-establishment new politics.

Despite Trump’s vicious anti-establishment statements during the electoral campaign, he is the establishment’s own flesh and blood, but European far right politicians are not. Their rise to power will be a disaster for Europe and will most likely dismantle the institutions that allowed European nations to co-exist peacefully for several decades and to become a shining example of the economic, political and cultural advantages of liberal-democratic order for the entire world.

But the quite feasible rise to power of the European far right can happen not because radical right-wing populists are strong, but because too many European mainstream leaders ignore the fact that socio-political environments are changing fast and, thus, fail to adapt to the new conditions by developing a new logic of communication with citizens, elaborating new powerful ideas about the future of Europe, and tackling the root causes of economic, political and cultural insecurity.

Anton Shekhovtsov is Visiting Fellow at the IWM and Fellow of the Legatum Institute (UK). He is also General Editor of Explorations of the Far Right book series at ibidem-Verlag.

First published in Norwegian on VG

© Author / Transit Online

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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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