POLITICS

Trumps Of The World

Nativist demagogues around the globe are trying to seize this as their moment.

20/06/2016 8:01 AM AEST | Updated 21/06/2016 12:52 AM AEST
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WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump was not the first. Nor is he alone. Nor will his message fade, even if he loses big in November.

In the U.K., he’s pro-Brexit Nigel Farage; in France, he's the Le Pens. In Austria, he’s Norbert Hofer. In Germany, he heads a movement with a deceptively bland name, “An Alternative for Germany.” In Hungary, he is Viktor Orban. And in Russia, of course, there is the original Trump template, Vladimir Putin.

In country after country, Trumpians have risen by tapping the same fears: that financial, digital, logistical, political, ethnic and religious globalization will destroy the “homeland’s” power to protect local jobs, culture and even lives.

What good is a “nation,” the Trumpians ask, if it can’t protect workers, citizens and traditions against tsunamis of immigrants, ISIS-loving terrorists, Wall Street capital, Silicon Valley code, social media networks and Chinese goods?

If the late 15th century saw the rise of nation-states in Europe, the early 21st century is witnessing an inevitable crisis of confidence in them -- and a desperate attempt to preserve their relevance in a newly emerging order.

In countries around the world -- especially Western democracies -- nationalistic, anti-globalist sentiment is on the rise.

U.S. pollster Frank Luntz, who has polled extensively throughout Europe, found that voters there and in the U.S. increasingly are looking at politics as a zero-sum choice between global engagement and isolation.

"More and more people have come to reject traditional theory and party orthodoxy," he wrote earlier this month, "wreaking havoc on the politicians and political structures standing in its way."

That orthodoxy, the object of their scorn, has a name: the Washington Consensus, a set of political and economic beliefs that gained traction among elite and ordinary Westerners alike after the end of the Cold War.

Global trade and social integration were seen as win-wins worldwide, producing rising prosperity though the shared creativity unleashed by new democratic freedoms.

From Davos to Downing Street to Cannes, elites still feel that way. But the “consensus” is dying on America's Main Street, and in many European towns and neighborhoods.

Economic growth is stagnant. Foreign-born job competitors are everywhere. The rich are richer than ever. New arrivals look different, speak in strange tongues and worship in ways that strike many locals as ungodly or even dangerous.

Locals in these places urgently wonder: Who will protect them?

Trump, and others of his species, offer a clear and comforting answer: It’s all the foreigners’ fault. And this country is your country, first, last and always.

While their policy proposals (such as they are) differ, the leaders have certain methods and characteristics in common: a lust to amass power through division, not addition. A gift for crude but effective sound bites. Shrewd and obsessive use of social media. A claim to a purist “outsider” status of some kind, often based on family, wealth or both. Disdain for intellectuals and contempt for journalism and free speech. An authoritarianism born of their own raging egos. And the ability to cynically wield nostalgia for a simpler time -- one that never really existed outside the minds of their followers.

The content of their messages varies somewhat. Anti-immigration sentiment is a constant worldwide, but the rest is shaped by microclimates of economics, demographics and history.

The end of empires

Alastair Grant/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party stands at the podium during applause from his supporters at the launch of his party's election manifesto in Thurrock, England, April 15, 2015.

Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center because it, as much as the Capitol or the Pentagon, was the symbol of American empire.

No nation -- including the United States -- ever was or ever will be entirely in control of its own destiny, resources, economy or even borders.

But in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, the U.S. came close, bestriding the world as did China in the ancient (and now modern) East; as did Rome two millennia ago; as did Great Britain in the 19th century.

Now a convergence of factors -- from 9/11 to the decay of political ethics to the maldistribution of wealth to the economic recrudescence of China -- have Americans abandoning their faith in the future. For many of us, it is the very first time.

Even though many of the world's most valuable companies are based in the U.S., polls show that Americans themselves largely doubt their children will benefit.

Enter Donald Trump, with his vows of easy riches and his salesman’s knack for making good things sound simple and bad things sound like some foreigner’s fault.

When Trump declares his intent to “make America great again,” he’s really expressing a wish and a fantasy: to return the U.S. to a time when it was certain it had absolute control over its national destiny.

His toxic stew of racism, xenophobia and populist economics is held together by (white) Americans’ hysteria at losing their place, not only in the world, but within the culture of the U.S. itself.

Voters in Great Britain, America’s mother country, no longer have such imperial illusions to lose. But long after the sun set on their empire, the most fearful among them think they are fighting to save a remnant of the old ways.

In a familiar irony of history, immigrants from the far reaches of a faded empire -- Pakistan and India in particular -- are rising to power in the old imperial city, London.

Its power once derived from the might of its navy, the island nation remains wary of continental Europe, yet increasingly bound to it.

All of which is fueling the movement to take the U.K. out of the European Union, and boosting the profile of the previously obscure Nigel Farage, who heads the UK Independence Party.

Farage spent 10 years banging on about how the U.K. was actually run by the European Union -- and no one really listened.

Then, in 2004, he started talking about immigration, and millions of voters sat up and paid attention.

Farage, a member of the European Parliament who has failed seven times to get elected to the U.K. Parliament, believes the EU's policy of freedom of movement for workers is the clearest sign yet that Britain's lawmakers no longer have control of the country.

The tactic of constantly talking about immigration moved Farage's party from the fringe, where it had appealed solely to disaffected former Tory voters worried about sovereignty, into the spotlight, sweeping up large numbers of working-class people who feel the established politicians aren't addressing concerns over increasing migration.

With pint in one hand and cigarette in the other, Farage has cultivated an image of himself as the ordinary man in the pub, one who's not afraid to say what "ordinary people" are thinking.

He is not afraid to talk about the U.K.'s role in World War II or the alleged dangers of living in a "German-dominated Europe." He's happy to claim, on the basis of no evidence, that HIV-positive migrants are coming to Britain to use the health care system.

Pressures on housing, schools and the National Health Service are all put down to uncontrolled immigration, and even when confronted with the fact that migrants contribute far more to the U.K. economy than they take out, Farage does not shift from his position.

He doesn't hesitate to use controversial topics to advance his agenda. Farage claims there will be an increased risk of mass sexual assault on the streets of the U.K. if Turkey is allowed to join the EU, pointing to the attacks in Germany by migrants on New Year's Eve.

While many are angry that Farage is playing with the dark side of politics for personal gain, there are those who feel he is a breath of fresh air shaking up the elite.

Almost 4 million people voted for UKIP in last year's general election, and it was only the quirks of the U.K. election system that left the party with just one member in the House of Commons.

Ideals vs. reality

France and Germany are the twin engines of the “European project,” an effort to forge a prosperous democratic entity of 500 million people reaching from Ireland to the shores of the Black Sea.

In many ways it’s worked -- the EU is the largest economic trading unit on the planet -- but governments in both France and Germany are beset by the consequences of their own idealism.

The French consider themselves the custodians of the ideals of human rights, and the Germans for the most part remain determined to prove to the world that Hitler was an unspeakable aberration among a people whose artistic and scientific achievements all but created modernity. (Though Hitler was born in Austria, Germans know that theirs is the country he'll forever be associated with.)

But the worthy project to built the EU on the highest moral ground is now challenged by a voter backlash against immigrants and refugees.

In France, that has meant the rise of the National Front, or FN, a reactionary party that has become a major force, winning the allegiance of more than one-fourth of all voters in a country with a fragmented array of opinions.

The FN supports Donald Trump's "anti-establishment" campaign. But its president, Marine Le Pen, who's currently moving toward the center to try to reach the second round of the 2017 presidential election, refuses any comparison with the billionaire.

"I'm not American... I defend all French people, whatever their religion," Le Pen has said, offering up a contrast between herself and Trump, who has been openly hostile to Muslims.

Jacques Brinon/ASSOCIATED PRESS
French far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen gestures during a meeting at their headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris, May 27, 2014.

Trump and his provocations are more associated with the former president of the National Front -- Marine's father, Holocaust-minimizer Jean-Marie Le Pen (who has said he'd vote for Trump if he could).

But others are seeking to assume the Trumpian mantle, chief among them former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The underdog in the upcoming right-wing primary, Sarkozy hopes to overcome the more Clintonian Alain Juppe. He'll aim to close the gap by leading a campaign on immigration and French identity.

Though he might disapprove of Trump's boorish conduct and incendiary ideas, Sarkozy does see value in the businessman's overall strategy.

"Look at the U.S. candidates supported by the establishment and the media: they are swept by the candidates of the people," he's said. "You will see in [the November primaries] how it goes in France."

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has staked her career -- and the future of the EU -- on the moral obligation to admit refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged countries.

The backlash, inevitably, took root in the German state of Bavaria, and with the likes of Joachim Herrmann, a member of the state Parliament who wants to shut the door on immigrants in general and refugees in particular.

Rather than a single Trump, Germany now features a smattering of state-by-state Little Trumps, and they've made historic gains in state elections this year. Their media strategy is one that will seem familiar to anyone who's been following Trump's innuendo- and equivocation-laden campaign: First they say something provocative, to grab headlines, and then they de-escalate.

In neighboring Austria, which has its own virulent Nazi history -- but no leader with the stature of Merkel -- things have gone farther down the Trump Track. The anti-immigration Freedom Party has rocketed to the top, and last month its leader, Norbert Hofer, astonishingly came within a percentage point of winning the presidency.

What now?

Ronald Zak/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria's Freedom Party, at left, congratulates Norbert Hofer, candidate for Austria's presidency, at right, during a party in Vienna, May 22, 2016. Hofer would go on to narrowly lose the presidency.

Despite their rapid rise, the Trumpians won’t necessarily succeed.

In Britain, those who want to remain in the EU seem increasingly likely to prevail, especially after the shocking murder last week of one of their leading proponents, popular Labour MP Jo Cox of Northern England.

In France, Le Pen, Sarkozy and others may not be able to advance unless they move so far to the middle that they end up losing their Trumpian qualities.

And in the U.S., Trump’s own egomaniacal disregard for decency and even the rule of law finally seems to be taking a toll.

Over a disastrous 10-day span, Trump squeezed in an astounding amount of unforced errors. He accused an American-born federal judge of bias simply because he was of Mexican heritage. He added The Washington Post, one of the most respected newspapers in the country, to his growing media blacklist. And after a heinous massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Trump failed his first true test as a presidential nominee, attempting to sow further division rather than speaking in soothing or unifying tones.

When the history is written, Trump and his ilk will likely be seen as the coda, not the overture -- a cry of despair rather than a portent of things to come.

Technology has made it both clear and inevitable: We are, after all, inescapably one planet, and one human race.

But the history of the transition hasn’t been written yet, and so far, the Trumps of the world will not stop talking about themselves.

With reporting from Owen Bennett in the U.K., Geoffrey Clavel in France and Reuter Benjamin in Germany, and contributions from other HuffPost international editions.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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