Here’s the irony of Donald Trump’s “America First,” immigrant-bashing, free-trade-averse, make-us-great-again nationalism: It is a European import.
The American right has typically been anti-government, reverent of the Constitution, suspicious of political strongmen and resolute in insisting that “American exceptionalism” makes us different from other nations.
But Trumpism is not an American original. Almost every plank in the candidate’s vaguely defined platform is derivative of the European far right. It is gaining ground on the basis of opposition to immigration, fears of terrorism and crime, economic nationalism, and promises of a government wielding a muscular hand against the forces of disorder.
While one would like to think that the copycat nature of Trump’s ideology will, in the coming months, make it increasingly less attractive to American voters, his rise is no less disturbing for being emblematic of what’s happening across so many democracies.
Trump’s emergence is a symptom of a larger democratic distemper roiling the world’s political parties on the center-right and center-left that have underwritten free government since 1945.
For all their differences, these parties have shared a commitment to institutions that combined liberty with welfare; created a reasonably well-distributed prosperity; respected the power of democratic government to do good but also accepted its limits; and embraced the need for compromise.
The weakness of these parties was brought home dramatically this week in Austria where Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party that has explicit roots in the Nazi past, nearly won the country’s presidency.
Yes, it was good news that Hofer was edged out by Alexander Van der Bellen, who was backed by the Green Party. But Van der Bellen’s margin was unsettlingly small — he won 50.3 percent of the vote to Hofer’s 49.7 percent.
The fact that the alternative to the far right came from the Greens reflected the decline of the two parties dominant in Austrian politics since World War II. The candidates of the center-right People’s Party and the center-left Social Democrats didn’t even make the runoff. Between them, they mustered only 22.4 percent in the first round of voting. Imagine a U.S. election in which Republicans and Democrats were, together, reduced to little more than one-fifth of the total.
The voting patterns in Austria closely resembled those visible on our side of the Atlantic. Polls commissioned by ORF, Austria’s public broadcaster, showed that Hofer (like Trump in the primaries and in the polls) led handily in rural areas, among men and among manual workers. Van der Bellen swamped the right-wing candidate in the big cities and among women, while also leading him among white-collar workers.
Mainstream parties, which can be infected by complacency, certainly bear some responsibility for what’s happening. The defection of working-class voters to the far right is a cross-democracy electoral phenomenon that reflects a serious failure on the part of social democratic and progressive parties whose historical task had been to represent citizens in blue collars.
At the same time, the moderate conservative parties have seen some of their own natural constituents drawn away by rising anti-immigrant feeling — this has hurt German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — aggravated by Europe’s refugee crisis.
Here again, the Trump analogy holds: Mainstream Republicans winked and nodded toward a hard line on immigration; Trump has embraced it whole with his calls for a border wall and a temporary ban on admitting Muslims to the country.
Thus another cross-Atlantic similarity: Opinions that were once far outside the normal political discourse on immigration and nationalism are now expressed routinely. Katya Adler, the BBC’s Europe editor, captured this trend by pointing to the German word “salonfähig,” which literally means “passable for your living room,” i.e., socially acceptable.
Trump’s relentless attacks on “political correctness” are intended to break the barriers against what had once been beyond-the-pale sentiments on immigrants and race. His crude approach to campaigning (on Tuesday, he called Hillary Clinton “this low life”) reflects an indifference to norms that reinforces popular contempt for politics and traditional politicians.
Standing up against the new far right should be a shared task across the old political divides in all democracies. But Republican politicians are falling in line one by one behind Trump, choosing to ignore the threat he poses to political decency and his challenge to democratic values themselves.
The United States should not look to the European far right as our model. The land of opportunity and freedom with a long tradition of welcoming newcomers should be leading the resistance to the new authoritarianism.