Donald Trump’s Far-Right Feedback Loop Is Shaking Europe to Its Core
At risk are the very foundations of the international order.
Last week, Frank-Walter Steinmeier made his last visit to Paris as Germany’s foreign minister (he is about to become president) in order to issue a plea to the French people: “Please do not surrender to the siren song of populism.” His meaning was plain: Do not elect Marine Le Pen, leader of the nativist National Front, in the presidential election this spring. If France falls, Germany, which votes in September, could be next. And if Germany turns against Chancellor Angela Merkel, “it is Europe itself that will founder,” as Le Monde editorialist Sylvie Kauffmann put it.
There is one crucial player missing in this dire feedback loop; that, of course, is President Donald Trump. The announcement last weekend that the United States was blocking all refugees from Syria, temporarily suspending all other refugee admissions, and blocking entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, while roundly condemned by world leaders, has been welcomed by the populist forces of whom Steinmeier warned.
Geert Wilders, the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, which is currently leading polls ahead of the Netherlands’s pending parliamentary election in March, tweeted jubilantly: “No more immigration from any Islamic country is exactly what we need.… For islam [sic] and freedom are incompatible.” Trump’s decision was also cheered on by Le Pen, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, Italy’s Northern League, and others. (See this Breitbart piece for a helpful compilation of far-right celebration.)
For the one-half or so of Americans who believe that welcoming immigrants as well as refugees advances America’s national interests and affirms its core principles, Trump’s executive orders have provoked painful questions about America’s role as the leader of the democratic world. We have not given much thought, however, to the damage that those orders, and a Trump presidency generally, will inflict upon the allies who share our values. In fact, it is all too possible that Trump will push Europe over the edge.
Is that a self-centered exaggeration of American influence? During the Cold War, American leaders were deeply convinced that the example they set at home was itself a crucial weapon in the war of ideas with the Soviet Union. For “Cold War liberals” like Arthur Schlesinger or Hubert Humphrey, civil rights legislation not only served the cause of justice but offered a demonstration project in the virtues of democracy for people in poor nations who might otherwise be attracted to the communist vision of salvation. As John F. Kennedy said in the closing days of the presidential race against Richard Nixon, “If we don’t provide an example of what freedom can do in the 1960s, then we have betrayed not only ourselves and our destiny but all those who desire to be free.”
Since that time, Americans have become far more jaded about their supposed moral leadership. Yet the rapturous response to the election of Barack Obama, in Europe as well as in much of the developing world, shows how much the world continues to want the United States to serve as an example. Obama himself capitalized on that feeling by telling audiences abroad that if a man like him could become president of the United States, they should not abandon their deepest hopes — say, for a nuclear weapons-free world — simply because they seem too improbable.
Perhaps if Obama had been able to move opinion at home on denuclearization or closing the military prison at Guantánamo Bay or ramping down the war on terror, he might have been more successful in changing it abroad. Because he couldn’t, his deeds never matched his words. So far, Trump is not having that problem: He has spent his first week in office making good on his most awful promises. Indeed, in an appearance Saturday on the French news channel TF1, Le Pen gushed that “what galls the media and political elites is that Donald Trump honors his promises and implements his program.”
Trump has persuaded people who fear the forces that drive the modern world that those forces really can, in fact, be put back in a bottle. All you need do is elect the man who is prepared to do it. Trump is the Barack Obama of the other half — the “yes, we can” of the “no, we won’t.”
I can hardly contemplate what it would mean if the feedback loop continues to gain velocity. If Le Pen wins, she has said she would submit a referendum for France to leave the EU, as Britain has done. The EU can live without Britain; it did so for 20 years. It cannot live without France. The French might well vote to stay, but the EU would suddenly feel terribly fragile. If Wilders wins in the Netherlands — a country deeply proud of its European identity and of European values — it would become, like Poland or Hungary, an outlier on core issues of refugees and immigration, on free speech and the free movement of people and tolerance of minorities. But an outlier in the heart of Europe. Should Merkel lose, she would be replaced as chancellor not by the far-right, which remains far too weak to win a national campaign, but by a surprise challenge from a conservative who has pledged to scale back Merkel’s commitments on refugees and perhaps her willingness to stand up to both Vladimir Putin and Trump. The disintegration of the EU might be the least of the damage. The Europe that would founder would be the community of values, not just the administrative apparatus.
I am leaving this week for Paris, where I will spend the next three or four months. (We foreign-policy columnists have to make terrible sacrifices for our craft.) I will be writing about what looks like the enclosing darkness. But I will also be searching for impediments to the negative feedback loop. We have seen how, simply by carrying out his promised agenda, Trump has sparked a wave of dissent not seen in the United States since the 1960s. Whether it will carry beyond the elites and the blue states against which Trump has rallied his supporters remains to be seen. The question for Europe will be whether voters will have to elect right-wing leaders of their own in order for liberals to bestir themselves or whether, in a strange reversal of America’s erstwhile role as a beacon of liberal democracy, Europeans will rally to liberals to forestall Trumpism at home.
I see a few hopeful signs. The election in France remains wide open. François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, has been hounded by allegations that he put his wife on his payroll for a no-show job. And Emmanuel Macron, leader of his own faction — known as En Marche! — has been moving up on the outside lane. Macron is a self-described liberal, typically a term of abuse in France. (See this excellent profile in Foreign Policy.) Macron favors stronger ties with the EU and reminds the French of their obligations to refugees. He seems, in short, to be committing political suicide, yet recent polls show that his support is growing rapidly, not only among urban professionals but among retirees and the less educated. Polls currently show both Fillon and Macron beating Le Pen in a final, two-person round.
Liberalism is under siege, and the change has been so abrupt, and so deep, that we cannot help but feel that the game is over. Perhaps it is; perhaps the social and economic forces that made liberalism the consensual politics of the postwar period have changed in such a way that liberalism will survive only as the tattered standard of a discredited elite. But it’s not only impersonal forces that matter. Had 80,000 or so votes gone another way, and Hillary Clinton won the presidency, we would be having a very different conversation. And come this spring, if Macron wins, or — still more likely — Fillon, France, Europe, and the West itself will be in a very different place. This is a frightening moment, but let’s not despair just yet.
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