Donald Trump’s supporters may say they want to “make America great again.” Yet they are just the American version of the xenophobic tendencies that have surfaced in European politics. In some ways, this American right-wing is even more dangerous than its counterparts across the ocean.
On Sunday, Austrians narrowly rejected the European Union’s first-ever hard-right head of state. Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Green Party, defeated Norbert Hofer of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, by less than one percent of the vote.
First it was Hungary and Poland that moved sharply to the right. To be expected, many said, because Hungarians and Poles had long suffered under communism and had little experience with democracy. Yet the two countries are not quite the pacesetters they have been labeled. Denmark, of all places, underwent a profound rightward shift 10 years ago, though it is a curious one, certainly to American eyes. The Danish right has managed to combine a commitment to the country’s vaunted social welfare programs and support for individual liberty with a strong and ever intensifying anti-immigrant stance. Le Pen’s National Front has been a force in French politics for over 20 years, and since 2014 the German Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) has been holding major demonstrations that attract tens of thousands. Golden Dawn, the Greek neofascist party, received 7 percent of the vote in 2012, and upwards of 20 percent in particular electoral precincts.
And now, in the United States, we have Trump as the presumptive Republican candidate for president. We don’t know yet whether Paul Ryan will come around and support Trump (my bet is yes). David Brooks will not. For weeks now he has been making the case that Trump is completely unfit to be president. Brooks and a few others call on conservatives to take the long view and, essentially, sit out the election and build a more responsible Republican Party for the future.
However, the dominant trend in the two weeks since Ted Cruz and John Kasich bowed out is of Republicans dancing their way toward Trump, some at high speed, others twisting and turning, wishing to delay the embrace of their partner as long as possible. To someone who has studied xenophobic movements of the past, this sets up some disconcerting echoes – even though historical analogies are always fraught. Often they simply denote the poverty of political thinking, an inability to find new words and ideas to capture the moment. The vapid “Islamofascism” is a case in point.
Nonetheless, there are two notable points about right-wing populist and nationalist movements, whose emergence in the West goes back to the 1870s. First, their leaders tend to mean what they say. Voters and other supporters sense the honesty and directness, and the leaders are not hemmed in by the prevailing discourse. In fact, they thrive on the radical challenge they pose to the existing system. So all those Republicans who hope for or claim to already see a kinder, gentler Trump are, at best, living in a cloud of self-deception or, at worst, being consciously deceitful.
With Trump, what you see is what you get. He is racist and misogynist, thinks all of economics amounts to a real estate deal and believes in winner-take-all politics. Were he to be elected president – and it is certainly a possibility – he would be constrained by the institutions of American democracy, which, hopefully, are stronger than any one inept and dangerous individual who might occupy the Oval Office. But Trump could still wreak enormous havoc in all realms of life – foreign policy, economic policy and the always-fragile fabric that holds Americans together.
The other point is that right-wing populists never reach power solely on their own. That’s the lesson from Mussolini’s takeover in Italy in 1922 and Hitler’s in Germany in 1933. Both the Italian Fascist Party and the Nazi Party had attracted widespread popular support – no question about it. But neither ever had close to a majority. Mussolini’s fabled March on Rome was more of a fiasco than anything else (Il Duce himself taking the train from Milan to Rome). And the Nazis’ support had actually waned in the months prior to January 1933. In the end, both leaders were given power by the respective elites of the two countries. Those elites reaped great rewards from the bargains they struck with, in their minds, those uncouth, low-class demagogues, and some later became disillusioned. Nonetheless, in the first instance, the vast destructiveness wrought by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany was the work of army officers, aristocrats, large landowners, businessmen and bankers, and, in the Italian case, the monarch — all of whom had been worn down by economic and political crisis and sought desperately to maintain their privileges and power. In their hour of need, they turned to Mussolini and Hitler.
Turkish democrats talk incessantly about the “deep state,” the one no one sees but which has managed to keep its hands on the levers of power beneath the sheen of democracy (though even the sheen in Turkey is now gone). We may or may not have a deep state in America. But one of the lessons of Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s extraordinary book on the Koch brothers, is that we certainly have a “deep network” composed of fabulously wealthy, highly conservative individuals who exercise an inordinately powerful influence on our political system. Some will back Trump, some may keep their distance. Whatever happens to his bid for the presidency, the deep network will remain, always ready to move huge amounts of money to its chosen candidates, always determined to direct American politics in a radical right-wing direction. That network poses the real danger to American democracy, and its reverberations will be felt around the globe, far more so than the right-wing parties and movements in Europe.
(This story has been updated to reflect the outcome of the vote in Austria.)