Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election confirms the ascendance of conservative politics in the world. Figures like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been around for more than a decade but the shift to the Right in major countries has been more perceptible in recent years. Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister of Israel since 2009, Conservatives have been in charge in the UK since 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt won both parliamentary and presidential election in 2011-12 (before being ousted in a coup), Shinzo Abe’s second stint as prime minister of Japan started in late 2012 and Narendra Modi was elected in India in 2014.
Trump continues this trajectory but his victory signifies something different. By prevailing despite being a hate figure for much of liberal America, Trump underlines that right-wing populism is now a credible political response to the inequalities generated by globalisation. Put differently, the unnerving aspect about Trump’s election is that his clones can now be elected or gain influence in any democracy in the world. Trump has shown that if a leader consistently panders to a majority that believes that it lost out in terms of job and opportunities as the world has globalised, and focuses his critique on liberals who allegedly control the establishment, and targets migrants and Muslims who are accused of changing a country’s character, it is possible to rally support – regardless of what the debate is about a candidate’s character.
The Big Win
Trump’s victory thus promises to embolden right-wing forces in countries that are grappling with the downside of globalisation. It is little wonder then that far-right leaders were among the first to congratulate Trump. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders who wants to shut down mosques in his country, ban the Quran and tax women for wearing the hijab, hailed Trump’s victory as a “patriotic spring” and tweeted “the people are taking their country back, so will we”. Florian Philipott, a senior strategist for France’s National Front, tweeted, “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built”. Matteo Salvini, the Italian far-right leader of the Northern League, tweeted, “Americans, thank you, thank you and thank you!”
Europe will be the continent to watch as the crisis of the Eurozone and the waves of refugees from West Asia are provoking heated debates about national identity and immigration in countries and bolstering conservative parties. It is worth clarifying that conservative parties in Europe are not of one stripe but span across the spectrum – from classic right of Centre formations to far-right, anti-Semitic groups, but in the current moment, hardline nationalists are prospering.
Eye On Europe
Netherlands, to begin, goes to the polls in March. Wilder’s Party for Freedom is anticipated to come first or second, notwithstanding his inflammatory views. France will also see heated debates on cultural issues during presidential elections due in April-May next year, with the National Front’s Marine Le Pen making a bid for the presidency. Le Pen secured 6.4 million votes in 2012; she is expected to come first in the first round this time and her competitors are not ruling out her chances of an ultimate win. Le Pen wants France to leave the European Union and has stood trial (but was acquitted) for comparing Muslims praying in the street to the German occupation of France in World War II. Harvard professor Theda R Skocpol has called Trump’s election “a crisis comparable to the [US] civil war” – a Le Pen victory would be seen in similar terms as a catastrophic repudiation of the French revolutionary tradition.
The far-right has done well elsewhere too. Austria, which added 90,000 migrants last year to its population of 8.6 million, has seen the Freedom Party make big strides. Its candidate Norbert Hofer, who likes to carry around a pistol and says Islam has no place in Austria, lost the presidential elections in May by less than one percentage point but is due for a re-run on December 4, after a court upheld his party’s appeal about election irregularities. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a fan of Putin’s Russia; he prefers an “illiberal democracy”, has firmly told Muslims they are not wanted in his country and has built a 100-mile long razor wire fence along the border with Serbia. The far-right, anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, is Hungary’s third-largest party in Parliament. The Danish People’s Party secured 21 per cent in the 2015 general election and is the second largest party in Denmark’s parliament. One of its rising stars told an applauding audience that foreigners “spread filth, they cheat, they steal, they rape and they kill”.
Germany is the other major country where the far right is gaining ground through a party called Alternative for Germany. Its leader Frauke Petry, described as the country’s most talked about politician, wants to reverse Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration and refugee policies. AfD seeks an end to EU’s internal open borders policy and opposes the “Islamification” of Germany. For a party that began only in 2013, the AfD has done well in regional elections and is polling about 15 per cent nationally, making Merkel concede that it poses a “challenge to us all”. Right-wing parties are also gaining prominence in Italy, Greece, Sweden and Finland.
The Right Influence
Europe, to be sure, is not about to be entirely overrun by the far-right, even though it has made steady gains. For instance, France’s National Front is yet to win a majority in any of the country’s 13 regions even though it tripled the number of its regional councillors. What such parties are able to do though is push mainstream parties further to the Right – as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) did by forcing the Conservatives to commit to the Brexit referendum.
The anti-minority, anti-immigration rhetoric of the far-right is also shaping how other mainstream parties imagine the social contract. Speaking at her party conference in October, UK prime minister Theresa May spoke of a spirit of citizenship that would entail “a commitment to the men and women who live around you, who work for you, who buy the goods and services you sell”. That spirit, she said, “means recognising the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas”. May decried people in positions of power who behaved “as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.” And to reiterate the nativist point, May said, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
This then is what a world of want has done to conservatism. It invokes grand conceptions but shrinks them in application. Conservatives talk up the idea of community without allowing the word to breathe and envelop the world. They also do not have a rounded view of globalisation, despite bemoaning its effects. They do not generally direct their critique on structural factors like the disproportionate influence the financial sector has on the world economy and how it generates consequences like loss of jobs, inequality and the gaming of the political system (that sets up favourable tax regimes etc). Right-wing politicians would rather take the easy route and focus their attack on minorities, migrants, other vulnerable groups and enemies abroad.
That regressive trend just got a boost with Trump’s election. As said, the next phase of nationalist churning is bound to be in Europe. How the Right will fare there may depend, to an extent, on how Trump starts out as President. If he is able to address white working class concerns without too much disruption domestically and internationally, then that would add to the Right’s appeal. But if the internal climate in the US worsens with more racist rhetoric and instances of vigilante violence, then that could serve to rally liberals in Europe to avoid the w eak voter turnout in the US that helped Trump win narrowly. In that sense, Trump is both an opportunity and a threat to conservatives elsewhere.