BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
A year ago, Western democracies were reeling from the biggest political shock in decades. American voters had just made a reality-TV star the most powerful person in the world. A presidential candidate who had campaigned on a divisive platform cheered on by white nationalists was now going to lead the world’s most venerable democracy. An anti-establishment neophyte would soon be in charge of the American nuclear arsenal. Leading European statesmen struggled to contain their bemusement.
Among those celebrating, though, were members of Europe’s far right. President Trump’s unlikely triumph was, for them, a dramatic repudiation of a liberal status quo they had long reviled. Trump’s right-wing populism was a validation of their own anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ultranationalist agendas. As various far-right parties geared up for a series of national elections in 2017, they hailed Trump as a harbinger of things to come.
“Their world is crumbling,” Florian Philippot, then the vice president of France’s far-right National Front, tweeted a day after Trump’s election win. “Ours is being built.”
One year later, however, the establishment in Western Europe hasn’t quite crumbled. Far-right parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany won unprecedented vote shares in their countries’ elections, but are no closer to taking power — and are possibly bumping their heads on the ceiling of their political potential. Moreover, the past year has also seen many of the same European politicians who exulted in Trump’s victory now trying to distance themselves from an American president who has become staggeringly unpopular on both sides of the pond.
While Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders heaped praise on Trump in the aftermath of his win, he grew more quiet around the time of his own country’s national elections in March. There were early fears that his anti-Islam, anti-E.U. Freedom Party might emerge a winner, but Wilders finished behind a center-right ruling party that cast itself as a bulwark against Trumpism.
“Voters have now become negative about the measures taken by President Trump,” a Dutch pollster told Bloomberg News in mid-March.
In France, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who cast himself as an outsider, trounced the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the presidential election. The French far-right party performed better than it ever had, but still remains firmly in the minority. Just as they had during France’s 2002 presidential election, when Le Pen’s father made the final round, the country’s constellation of conservative, establishment and left-wing parties declared a Le Pen victory a threat to their republic, and endorsed Macron. What momentum Trump’s success may have given Le Pen has long since dissipated.
Nor is Trump much of a hero for the French far right. In a recent interview with HuffPost, Cécile Alduy, a French politics expert at Stanford University, suggested that Trump’s targeting of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad with a missile strike, as well as his chummy summer visit with Macron, would have won him little sympathy from the National Front’s base.
“Since he’s been president, Trump has disappointed on some issues ? including strikes in Syria. Marine Le Pen’s party is a noninterventionist party, they were supportive of Assad and their policy is that nations should keep to themselves,” said Alduy. She added that “there’s also this sense that Trump, for all his bravado, could be seduced and calmed down by a young 39-year-old president. That undermines his image for National Front supporters.”
Meanwhile, factional infighting has taken its toll on the party. Philippot, who gloated about the “crumbling” liberal order, was sidelined and compelled to quit the National Front in September. Speculation looms still over Le Pen’s fitness to lead after two failed presidential campaigns.
In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, delivered a shock to the nation’s politics by entering the German Bundestag as the country’s third-biggest faction after elections in September. Critics of the far-right, xenophobic AfD link it to the country’s dark Nazi past. But even its senior figures see Trump’s behavior as occasionally being beyond the pale.
Trump’s equivocating response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., was “completely unnecessary,” said Alice Weidel, a leading AfD politician, when asked about it in August by German reporters. She also suggested that Trump “should focus more on policies and less on tweeting and Twitter,” adding that “if I had a wish list, then I would wish that Donald Trump would focus … more on cleaning up his own house, and being a little more devoted to his governing responsibilities.”
But while Trump’s appeal may have dimmed thanks to his chaotic first months in office, the influence of Europe’s far right has not. Anti-establishment populism — on both the left and the right — is reshaping politics across the continent. Meanwhile, center-right establishment parties are veering further to the right, adopting more of the hard-line nativism of the xenophobes on their flank. In Austria, for example, the far-right Freedom Party has formally entered coalition talks to form the next government.
Cas Mudde, an expert on European populism at the University of Georgia, warns that such accommodation may only lead to their demise, gesturing to the existential war consuming the Republican Party in the United States.
“By pushing politics more and more to the right, [center-right parties] will have only one choice left: stay somewhat true to their [own] ideological core, and face the rage of the radicalized electorate, or give them what they want and become a radical right party,” Mudde wrote in the Guardian. “We can see how that looks currently in the U.S. It is imperative that European mainstream rightwing parties do not make the same mistake.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.