Europe’s Far-Right Is Still Hoping for a Trump Miracle
The continent’s populists have run out of momentum—and are looking for an unlikely boost from across the Atlantic.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
The trans-Atlantic relationship has been declared dead many times, but Europeans’ behavior this week would suggest otherwise. While the Chinese indicated they had other preoccupations, Europeans have had the U.S. elections foremost in their minds. Glued to their screens, they have meticulously followed every move in this nail-biting election. Rightly so: The result greatly matters for European politics.
While most Europeans want Joe Biden to become president, Europe’s radical right is putting its cards on Donald Trump. On Wednesday morning, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa congratulated Trump right after the president had declared himself a winner—despite the fact that millions of mail-in votes, which could tilt the balance, had yet to be counted. And a far-right candidate in the Dutch elections next spring tweeted that Trump was the “moral winner.”
It is clear what Jansa and others are waiting for. Four years ago, Trump’s election gave Europe’s far-right a tremendous boost. And they want one again.
Together with the Brexit referendum, which happened months earlier, Trump’s victory totally changed the political mood in Europe. Then-UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage called it a “global revolution.” Frauke Petry, who led the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) at the time, said his win changed “the USA, Europe and the world.” This was the time when insulting on European Twitter really took off. By the end of 2016, centrist parties in Europe were pushed so much in the offensive that many pundits predicted the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer to win the Austrian presidential election in December 2016 and Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen the Dutch and French elections, respectively, in the spring of 2017.
None of this happened. Alexander Van der Bellen became president in Austria. Emmanuel Macron easily beat Le Pen. Wilders didn’t get the high scores some had predicted. These three losses for the far-right lifted the mood for many in Europe. Citizens marched through cities with European flags. Young activists set up new centrist parties. The Greens took off.
Trump’s methods didn’t seem to work in Europe, either. Steve Bannon’s ultra-conservative training academy for upcoming politicians in Italy flopped. A think tank in Brussels he was associated with went nowhere.
By the time European elections were held, in mid-2019, Brexit-related political chaos had erupted in the United Kingdom. Most Euroskeptic parties stopped calling for more exits. They started talking about “changing Europe” instead. Thanks to this change, their results were reasonably good. But the breakthrough that some had foreseen it was definitely not.
Then came the coronavirus. Devastating Europe, it rallied citizens solidly behind the flag. Even those critical of their governments mostly abandoned populist slogans and put their trust in the government. They had a concrete problem and wanted the competent authorities to solve it. Many governing centrist parties did extremely well during the first wave of COVID-19: The German Christian Democratic Union reached 40 percent approval. The governing Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the ruling Danish Social Democrats shot up in the polls, too. The radical right suffered. The AfD sunk below 10 percent. Voters also punished the Lega in Italy, until it stopped criticizing the government.
But the second wave has now arrived. The tide is turning again. Farage has set up a party to lead the political fight against the government’s deeply unpopular coronavirus measures. The AfD, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Brothers of Italy, and others are all trying to surf on a growing wave of discontent, too. This may force many governments into the defensive once more.
This is why, at this very moment, it matters greatly for Europe who wins the U.S. elections. If Biden becomes president, the European radical right has nothing to boast about. If anything, centrists all over Europe will breathe a big sigh of relief. But if Trump returns to the White House, far-right populists will feel part of his victory—just as they did four years ago. Actually, it will give them a boost they haven’t had since November 2016.