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December 16, 2016

Trump Win Encourages Europe’s Far Right

A few weeks after the U.S. election, I was in Berlin to discuss a report we are writing on xenophobia and extremism in Germany. In parallel, we watched with alarm as violence driven by racism, antisemitism, and anti-Muslim bigotry erupted against vulnerable citizens in the United States.

Next year will be pivotal, with the transition to a new U.S. administration and important elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and maybe Italy. It’s hard to overstate the urgency with which we need to rally to protect liberal democracy and multilateral alliances. As Larry Diamond opined recently in the Atlantic, “We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II….The greatest danger is the alarming decay of liberal democracy in Europe and the United States, accelerated by escalating Russian efforts at subversion.”

To ascribe this increase in racial, ethnic, and religious hatred simply to ideology would be to miss the broader populist, societal upheaval. The past year has exposed a deep-rooted, widespread, tribal sense of fear, which nimble populist politicians have instrumentalized for political gain. The political establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, unable to assure their populations that an inclusive, rights-respecting democracy enhances security and opportunity for all, have been bruised and weakened by the resulting backlash from furious citizens.

Populist political forces in Europe, primarily on the right, feel hopeful that Trump’s surprising win and Brexit will boost their chances of winning top positions in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. It also gives hope to other fringe parties and movements trying to enter the political mainstream. Recent results in Italy against the referendum that triggered the resignation of the Prime Minister add credence to this possibility. Marine LePen, for her part, could barely contain her “I told you so glee” after Trump’s win. Emboldened against opponents who call her anti-Islam, anti-refugee, and anti-EU views fringe, she said, “I feel less isolated today because of the multi-polar world defended by Donald Trump but also by Theresa May and Vladimir Putin."

As Germany gears up for important national elections in 2017, the leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party, cheered Trump’s win, saying this is “a victory of ordinary people over the political establishment.” The AfD’s platform encompasses opposition to refugees and the Eurozone and a hostility toward Islam (including the burka ban).

In 2016, these political voices found solace in one another and opportunistically consolidated fears into votes. The American election has indirectly helped mobilize forces abroad around common themes of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism—and against alliances. Their fearmongering strategies impact voters and fuel a frightening rise of hatred on the streets and on the Internet. They manipulate the legitimate emotions of citizens, in part because governments have not successfully conveyed an understanding of these emotions.

The effect has been to pull the center outward. Recently Angela Merkel, who has been heavily criticized for her welcoming refugee policy and whose party has suffered significant setbacks in recent elections, demonstrated how the rhetoric of far-right parties is pulling more mainstream parties to the extremes, when she recently advocated a ban on full-face veils “wherever legally possible.”

Next year looks to be a volatile, unpredictable one in Europe. This is good news for Geert Wilders, the far-right leader of the Netherlands Party for Freedom, who saw his popularity rise in the polls at the same time as he was convicted for inciting racial hatred. He could become the next Prime Minister. “I’m telling you, the genie will not go back into the bottle,” he ominously said, “the process will continue, and will change Europe forever.”

The  Euro-Atlantic ability to hold together a unified vision of liberal democracy hangs in the balance. We have to hope that a levelheaded pragmatism will resurface in the United States, one which remembers to value and protect its commitments to human rights and democracy, upon which the past 70 years of peace, partnership, and collective security have been based.