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