Trump’s Growing European Base

Attitudes toward the United States are improving across the Atlantic—but only because the right wing is getting stronger.

A pro-Trump message on a house in the village of Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland, on the main road to Trump International Golf Club on June 6, 2019.
A pro-Trump message on a house in the village of Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland, on the main road to Trump International Golf Club on June 6, 2019. Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last year, European anti-Americanism has ebbed somewhat, thanks in large part to the sentiments of right-wing populists enamored with U.S. President Donald Trump. Their fond feelings have created a surprising opportunity for Washington to repair the trans-Atlantic relationship that it has recently done so much to dismantle.

If there is one unifying sentiment among supporters of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Italy’s Lega Nord, the Sweden Democrats, the National Rally in France, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it is that they all increasingly approve of Trump. That’s rooted in the extreme right’s soft spot for authoritarians and Trump’s own anti-immigrant stance.

To be sure, among the general public, Trump is still extremely unpopular in most of Europe. Just 13 percent of Germans, 18 percent of Swedes, and 20 percent of the French have confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. These numbers are a fraction of Europeans’ support for U.S. President Barack Obama in his last year. Only in Poland do half of those surveyed back Trump. Overall antipathy to the U.S. president has been prevalent since Trump was elected. As a senior German official told me in 2017: “It took George Bush eight years to become this unpopular. It took Donald Trump four months!”

Even so, the same poll shows that support for Trump is up 11 percentage points in France, 14 points in Spain, and 16 points in Poland from 2018. (The most recent survey was conducted before the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani on Jan. 3.) And that boost is largely due to a rise in Trump’s approval by supporters of right-wing populist parties.

Over 40 percent of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally supporters in France have confidence in Trump, more than three times the approval given by those who don’t support the party. Trump’s backing among the National Rally is up 15 points in just a year.

Similarly, in Germany, AfD adherents are four times more confident that the U.S. president will do the right thing than others (37 percent compared with 9 percent), and their confidence in Trump is up 12 points over last year. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Sweden Democrats voice confidence in Trump, more than five times the level expressed by everyone else in Sweden. That approval rate is up 13 points.

When it comes to their reasons for backing Trump, half to two-thirds of supporters of right-wing parties in Europe approve of the administration’s efforts to limit immigration. (Only a fraction of the rest of the European public supports such constraints.) Support for Trump’s anti-immigrant stance among right-wing populists is particularly prevalent in France and Germany, where it is three times higher than found among the rest of the public.

Trump’s European support may stem from the appeal of his authoritarianism. In a 2017 Pew survey, 41 percent of Italians who self-identified as being on the right of the political spectrum said they preferred a political system in which a strong leader could make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts, as did 29 percent of those on the right in the United Kingdom and 13 percent in Germany. (Notably, 27 percent of right-wing Americans also yearned for a strong leader, which may help explain much of Trump’s backing at home.)

Across the continent, the right’s enthusiasm for Trump has helped boost European support for the United States overall, which is up from historic lows.

Annual European surveys over the last two decades by both the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Pew suggest that European views of the United States are, in large part, driven by public sentiment about the U.S. president. It is thus not surprising that as pro-Trump sentiment has grown, the United States’ favorability has improved in Europe: up 10 points in France, Italy, and Spain and up 9 points in Germany.

Rising support is again largely driven by the right. About 80 percent of UKIP supporters hold a favorable view of the United States, up 20 points since 2018. Around 70 percent of Lega backers and Sweden Democrat adherents are also favorably disposed toward the United States, up 11 and 16 points respectively.

For Trump, this is an opportunity; the rise of right-wing populist parties and their growing parliamentary strength in Italy, Germany, and Sweden means that many European governments can ill-afford or politically sustain prolonged confrontations with Washington. He may use the changing circumstances to begin to repair trans-Atlantic relations after a disastrous three years marked by growing tensions over trade, defense spending, Iran, and climate change. The problem is that while supporters of right-wing populist parties in Europe show some approval of Trump’s tariff policy—and those on the right are more supportive than the general public of his announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accord—most Europeans oppose such initiatives. Around 80 percent disapprove of his climate stance, and two-thirds oppose his trade policy.

So using the president’s appeal among right-wing populists in Europe as the basis for reviving trans-Atlantic relations in general will require moderation of some, but not necessarily all, of Trump’s foundational policy initiatives. But this would risk undermining support among his “European base.” To date, the president has shown no such inclination. And it would require the skills of a much more subtle politician. Yet it is an opportunity that his successor (or he in his second term) may wish he had seized.

Bruce Stokes is the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force: Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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