Echoes of Trump

Trump’s election raises a number of questions for Europe, particularly around the extent to which his victory will impact the politics of the continent.

Published : Nov 23, 2016 12:30 IST

Donal Trump greeting U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage during a campaign rally at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 24.

Donal Trump greeting U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage during a campaign rally at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 24.

ON AUGUST 24, NIGEL FARAGE, THE INTERIM leader of the UK Independence Party, joined Donald Trump on stage at a political rally in Mississippi to rapturous applause. Bringing what he described as a “message of hope” to the “little people, the real people”, he drew parallels between Trump’s campaign and the British campaign to leave the European Union, of which he was one of the primary faces. “There are millions of ordinary Americans who feel let down, feel the political class in Washington are detached from them… you can beat the commentators… you can beat Washington,” he proclaimed to loud cheering.

The parallels between the British Brexit campaign and his own is a theme that Trump returned to over and over again in his campaign. “It’s going to be Brexit, plus, plus, plus,” Trump declared just days before his surprise triumph over Hillary Clinton on November 9. Both the Leave campaign’s central slogan “Take Control” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sought to portray the movements as anti-establishment ones, going up against the forces of globalisation that had left behind many citizens of their respective nations, while at the same time railing against migration and foreign workers. Critics of the two campaigns would also point to the two campaigns’ questionable deployment of facts and promises (the Leavers have faced much criticism for a pledge that there would be £350 million extra for the National Health Service (NHS) in a post-Brexit Britain, while the United States President-elect’s relationship with the truth was so fickle that The Guardian ran a weekly blog in the run-up to the election listing the biggest lies of the week).

Trump’s election in early November raises a number of questions for Europe, particularly around the extent to which his victory will impact the politics of the continent. The next 12 months are riddled with potentially significant milestones—from if and when Britain will trigger Article 50, the clause that would see it exit the E.U., to next year’s French presidential election, which will see an emboldened Marine Le Pen of the National Front mounting a challenge like never before. Will the Right in Europe continue to gain ground, spurred by the developments in the U.S., or could the European Left also make headway?

The Leave campaign in Britain certainly believes the U.S. election result is news for the movement, even aside from the morale boost it provides its proponents in the wake of the High Court ruling in October that will require Parliament to have a say before Article 50 can be triggered. “Trump Boost for Our E.U. Exit,” declared the steadfastly pro-Brexit Daily Mail on November 10, while the equally pro-Leave Daily Telegraph pointed to the opportunities that Trump would afford a post-Brexit Britain, such as potential associate membership of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has singled out for reform. While ahead of the referendum President Barack Obama famously warned that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” for trade deals should it leave the United Kingdom, Trump has insisted the country would be better off and a contender for strong partnership with the U.S.

Anxiety over future

Still there is clearly much anxiety within the British government over the future relationship, with a heated, if somewhat petty, media debate on which should count more: the fact that Prime Minister Theresa May was at the earliest the 10th leader to be called by Trump, or that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was the first foreign politician Vice President-elect Mike Pence spoke to. Another one has been raging too about whether Farage will play an intermediary role between the two administrations. While Farage’s critics have been castigating the government for missing a golden opportunity, given his links to Steve Bannon, the Far-Right Chair of Breitbart News, who is now Trump’s chief strategist, No 10 has responded furiously, pointing to the potential of a relationship along the lines of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, without the need for a go-between.

The U.K. government has been particularly sympathetic in its overtures to Trump, with Boris Johnson criticising the “whinge-o-rama” taking place across Europe (the former Mayor has displayed a chameleon-like ability to change his colours, having previously ridiculed Trump’s suggestion that there were no-go areas in London). And though not quite as extreme, there has also been a certain resemblance between the rhetoric employed by the British government and Trump in the run-up to the election in its appeal to anti-immigrant nationalist sentiments. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” Theresa May declared in October to the glee of the right-wing tabloids, which hailed her as the champion of ordinary Brits.

Nevertheless, the extent of appeal for a major trade deal with the U.K. may be questionable, given the strong anti-free trade stance that Trump campaigned on, says Adam Quinn of Birmingham University. One thing that could aid the U.K. in these ambitions, however, he adds, is the fact that unlike other nations it would be unlikely to pose a major challenge to the U.S. manufacturing industry—the loss of jobs from the manufacturing sector to other countries had been a major vein of Trump’s campaign.

Britain’s ability to establish a special relationship will depend on what happens in the rest of Europe too. On the continent there is clear concern about the U.S. outcome, with Foreign Ministers of states holding a meeting on November 13 to consider a response (it is notable that Britain’s Johnson did not attend). Overall, leaders have held back from strong criticisms with one exception: German Chancellor Angela Merkel predicated her administration’s cooperation with Trump on the values of “democracy, freedom, as well as the respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation or political view”—a stance that led The New York Times to label her as the “Liberal West’s Last Defender”.

Europe and Trump

The lack of willingness of other European leaders to be more pointed in their reaction to Trump is unsurprising, with many facing an imminent challenge from Far Right parties. Enflamed by the refugee crisis—and their portrayal in tabloids across the continent—the recent terror attacks in Europe, lacklustre economic growth, and cuts to public services and welfare entitlements, the Right has been gaining ground like never before. “It’s at record high levels, but it can still go higher,” says Cas Mudde, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia who specialises in the study of extremism and populism in Europe. “There are many countries that don’t have strong radical Right parties such as Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, but in countries where there has been a successful radical Right, they have higher levels of support than ever before and their message dominates the public discourse. There has been a decided shift to the right—less belief in solidarity and working through the state collectively, while the translation of socio-economic anxieties through sociocultural issues such as immigration, Islam, sovereignty in the E.U. has mobilised people.”

The extent of that mobilisation will be put to the test in the coming months, starting with the rerun of the Austrian presidential election that could see a Far Right leader, Norbert Hofer, elected head of state (he was narrowly defeated in the election that is now being repeated because of alleged irregularities in postal voting).

In the New Year, Marine Le Pen will stand in the French presidential election, where she is widely expected to reach the second round at the least. The extent to which she had propelled her party from the fringes and widespread derision (her father, a former party leader, once described the Holocaust as a detail of history) to being a very real electoral contender was highlighted by the decision of the BBC’s popular Sunday morning programme the Andrew Marr show to air an interview with her on November 13. Marr insisted the programme would not be doing its job if it did not recognise the challenge that Marine Le Pen and other populists posed to the European mainstream.

“Until recently people were sceptical about politicians who set aside the normal rules of politics—that norms existed and that if you spoke in a certain way about race and immigration that you’d be shut out of the electoral success but its clearly not the case,” says Quinn.

The parallels between the language embraced by the Trump campaign and on the continent are striking—attempting to rouse voters with the promise of a new and better nation, for its nationals at least. “The people are taking their country back and so are we,” Geert Wilders tweeted on November 9, following the U.S. election result. On the Marr programme, Marine Le Pen spoke of the evils of “unfettered globalisation” and a fight back by the “people against the elites”.

However, despite their similarities there has been little sign of coordination of the Right across Europe, notes Mudde, pointing to the fact that many of the parties belonged to different groupings in the European Parliament, one of the key forums for coordinated action. He is also sceptical of Trump’s willingness to work through such a network, no matter the similarities in rhetoric. “Trump is a loner and he has occasional collaboration, but he’s not going to build an international alliance of radical Right parties,” says Mudde. “He works alone and will work with anyone he can use—he will work mostly with establishment forces and only reach out to non-establishment forces when the establishment forces don’t cooperate.”

Of course, while the most dominant, the Right has not been the only force gaining ground on the anti-establishment agenda. In Italy it has fallen to the populist Five Star Movement to challenge Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reform agenda for the country, and call for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro. The party’s poll ratings are close to those of Renzi, who could quit as leader should he lose a referendum on constitutional reform in December.

In Spain, the anti-austerity Podemos Party had a strong showing in a general election last December, before losing a sizable share of the votes in the election that was held in June.

In other parts of Europe socialist parties have tapped into the anti-globalisation agenda: for example, in Belgium it was the socialist-dominated legislature that temporarily blocked the trade deal between Europe and Canada. Writing in The Guardian on November 14, Paul Magnette, the head of government for Wallonia, explained their decision. “Our citizens increasingly doubt the virtues of international trade, not just because they are close-minded protectionists,” he wrote. “Brussels must understand that if we want to reconcile the E.U. with its citizens and avoid another Brexit, we must listen to this desire for a world where not everything is left to trade.” It is also notable that in the Austrian presidential election, it was Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green Party-supported independent candidate with a strong pro-refugee stance, who won by a narrow margin.

Corbyn’s response

The recognition that the desire for politicians beyond the establishment could also mean the Left is one being considered in Britain too. Since Trump’s victory Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been vociferous in his opposition to the racism, sexism and discrimination of Trump’s campaign while recognising the disenfranchisement he tapped into. “Trump tapped into real problems: stagnating or falling wages, underfunded public services, insecure work and housing, years of being left behind and neglected, frustration that your children’s prospects look bleaker, and anger at a political elite that doesn’t listen,” said Corbyn. “But instead of offering real solutions or the resources to make them work, he offered only someone to blame–everyone, that is, apart from those who are actually responsible for a broken economy and a failed political system.”

Some within Labour have begun to ask the question of whether the similarities between Britain and Trump’s victory apply to the Left as much as to the Right, pointing to the failure of the Hillary Clinton campaign to enthuse disenfranchised voters. “Why did the Democrats not beat him? For many on the British Left this morning, the answer is clear: they needed a candidate who was less establishment and more left wing. But it is in times of crisis that true political leaders create opportunity. Last night compounded a growing feeling: Jeremy Corbyn’s time is either now, or he does not have one,” wrote Conor Pope, often a critic of Corbyn, in the party publication Labour List . Corbyn has also recognised the importance of allying with other socialist parties in Europe and is set to host a conference in the U.K. for like-minded parties across Europe in early February.

Much remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: whichever direction the continent’s politics takes, it is clear that the appeal of Western European liberalism —already under assault since the 2007 financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn—is under pressure like never before.

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