The unrelenting rise of Donald Trump's electoral ambitions (see Tuesday's poll numbers for evidence) has led many observers to look outside the United States' borders for an explanation for what seems to them to a confounding political story. For many, the closest political kin for Trump is in the modern far right parties of Europe and their populist, anti-immigration policies.
It's a persuasive and obvious comparison. What's surprising, however, is that some of these far right parties seem just as confounded by Trump's proposals as anyone else.
Marine Le Pen, for example, has become a poster child for the modern European far right after leading the French National Front to unprecedented success over the past few years. Many see her as the most obvious European counterpart for Trump. And yet, despite their perceived kinship, Le Pen has personally criticized Trump's proposal to ban almost all Muslims from entering the United States.
"Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?" Le Pen said during one television interview, according to the New York Times. "I defend all the French people in France, regardless of their origin, regardless of their religion."
In Scandinavia, powerful far right parties who strongly oppose immigration have also come in opposition to Trump's policies. “It is just stupid. He says the most crazy things, but this must be one of the craziest things he’s ever come out with,” Søren Espersen, a foreign affairs spokesperson for the Danish People's Party, told an interviewer last week, also adding that Trump's rise was "becoming quite concerning."
"If Donald Trump won… I don’t think he will, I hope he doesn’t," Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson told Breitbart "He is very good at making speeches, but as a politician and a world leader? No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party (Ukip), has also come to distance himself from Trump. “I think with this comment he’s gone too far," Farage said last week of Trump's proposed Muslim ban, adding that "what you would be doing is punishing a lot of very good people because of the actions of a few."
Even some supporters of Germany's Pegida movement, a group that organizes protests against what it calls the "Islamization" of Germany, have suggested they want to take a different approach to Trump. “We don't want to ‘make Germany big and great.’ That's too aggressive,” protester Dieter Tartz told Public Radio International. “We only want to preserve Germany and to keep it the way it is.”
This doesn't mean that no-one in the far right in Europe approves of Trump's approach, of course. This week, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League party in Italy, described the American billionaire's approach as "heroic" and said that he would like to shake his hand. Geert Wilders, a prominent Dutch politician known for his plainly anti-Islam message, has endorsed Trump on Twitter. Some fringe far right parties in Britain have expressed support for Trump's message. And, as my colleague Ishaan Tharoor has noted previously, there is some significant overlap in the support of Trump and the support of the most obviously neo-fascist of the larger European far right parties, Greece's Golden Dawn.
Instead, the diversity of opinions about Trump among European far right wingers reflects an under-acknowledged diversity among the continent's far right parties. These parties may all be driven by the same core grievances, but they are also shaped by other local factors and systems. A relatively mainstream party like Ukip would no doubt balk at the idea they would be lumped in with Golden Dawn, for example (and perhaps vice versa).
The more subtle anti-immigration stance taken by a seasoned European far right leader like Le Pen can partly be explained by local factors. First, it's simply unrealistic to pursue policies that openly target France's Muslim population, which is proportionally far larger than the small Muslim population in the United States (in fact, Le Pen has actively tried to court Muslim voters and had some success). Second, France's two-round voting system disincentivizes her from taking openly extreme policy positions, even if her base supports them. The National Front's poor showing in France's regional elections is evidence of how Le Pen's extreme reputation ultimately hurts her in elections.
Likewise, Trump's support may well be motivated by largely the same grievances as Le Pen's, but he is ultimately a product of the modern U.S. political system – a system which allows money to play an unusually prominent role and has election cycles that take eons compared to most democracies. Perhaps this is why Trump has become, as political scientist Cas Mudde has put it, an "anti-establishment elitist" whose best counterpart in Europe might be former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
For now, Trump's far right peers in Europe seem to be watching his rise with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment – and perhaps more than a little jealousy.
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