Americans aren’t the only ones reeling from Donald Trump’s surprise win of the presidential election last week. While offering their congratulations to Trump, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both expressed concern over the effects his presidency will have on international relations and security.
According to Hollande, at stake is “the fight against terrorism, the situation in the Middle East, economic relations and the preservation of the planet.” But what’s also at stake—what he and Merkel won’t say explicitly—are the elections in their own countries.
A revolution against the political establishment is sweeping the globe, from the U.S. to the Philippines, where strongman Rodrigo Duterte was elected early this year. Authoritarianism and populism are on the rise. While these kinds of leaders have come to be expected in other parts of the world, in Europe and the U.S. the movement represents an upheaval of the post-WWII order, and it seems to be gaining momentum.
Nationalist Parties Are Taking Over Europe
Europe has seen the rise of far-right nationalist parties over the past few years. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pursued a strong anti-immigrant policy, and in a recent referendum, 98 percent of Hungarians voted against European Union-mandated migrant quotas. In France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, far-right parties have exceeded expectations in regional elections and national polls.
This resurgence of nationalism has many causes, some deeply rooted in the history of the continent, while others are the result of more recent events. After years of centralized decision making from the EU, some member states are anxious to steer their own economic path forward, especially in light of continuing economic stagnation.
Growing nationalist factions in these countries want to reassert national sovereignty, hearkening back to the pre-WWII era. A renewed desire to maintain and protect a national identity based on ethnicity and language is growing in the face of a rapidly rising Muslim population from North Africa and the Middle East. The migrant crisis, and the EU’s refusal to acknowledge the inherent security risks, has only sped this process along. And as often happens, economic concerns have been projected onto fears about immigration, creating a perfect environment for the reemergence of European nationalist politics.
Brexit and Trump Signal Change On the Horizon
But up until this summer, the trend hadn’t affected national politics in a serious way for larger EU countries. Then in July, Britons voted to leave the EU. What seemed like a small leak in the faucet began to gush.
Much like Trump’s victory, Brexit was not anticipated by Britain’s political class, media, or even many ordinary Britons. Few saw the underlying discontent and desire for national autonomy.
Trump’s ascendance over the past 16 months, which included knocking out several well-groomed GOP primary contenders, was seen as analogous with the increasing popularity of far-right politics in Europe. His campaign successes were a sign that even America was susceptible to murmurs of nationalism. It was thought that someday, if the trend continued, the America might elect its own populist. But few in Europe thought that moment had arrived.
Then Trump won. Instead of following a trend, America was leading the movement. And in that moment, the leaking faucet became a flood.
For the anchor states of the EU, France, and Germany, Trump’s election brought to life the possibility that a far-right political party could really gain power in the heart of Europe. Now that Trump has been elected, European leaders are no doubt fearful that this is an omen for their own countries and for the EU. And they have reason to be worried.
Could the Trumps of Europe Gain Control?
Several European nations face national elections in the next year, including Austria, France, and Germany. In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party is topping presidential election polls and is expected to do well in the primaries this month, potentially going on to the national election in May. Austria’s far-right leader Norbert Hofer is also expected to perform well in the presidential elections there in December.
Trump’s win is encouraging these European populists, convincing them that a radical change in power really is possible, that the political climate might finally be right for them. And they are hailing Trump’s election, with Le Pen celebrating what she called the “collapse” of the political order and the “victory of freedom.” Vice-President of the FN, Florian Philippot, wrote on Twitter, “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.”
This is precisely what political elites across the globe fear. That their time is passing and a new era is being ushered in. And it’s not just about losing power. If the Trumps of Europe gain control, the progressive vision for Europe could be rolled back. For more than half a century, the leftist multicultural dogma that Europe’s elites have championed has been dominant on the continent.
France May Be Next To Pull Out of the EU
If Le Pen were to win the national election in France, a “Frexit” would soon to follow, giving France political, and in some sense, cultural autonomy. This would deeply affect the economy of Europe and beyond. It would also shake up the state of security on the continent. The EU, after all, was originally envisioned as a way to bind European countries together in order to ensure they never go to war with one another again. France pulling out of the EU would be one more step toward its demise.
But Europe’s ruling class isn’t just worried that Trump’s election will bolster far-right party leadership. The spectacle of 60 million Americans voting for an underdog outsider, who defies political correctness and dominant political orthodoxies, legitimizes European voters who’ve thought about voting for a nationalist candidate but thought it futile or socially unacceptable. After Trump and Brexit, they see that it’s possible to bring about political change, and that many people think like them. This will certainly have an effect on voter turnout in upcoming European elections.
Rather than being a sign of things to come, Trump symbolizes that which is already here. He proved how possible it is to make radical changes in the political trajectory of a country and a continent—and how fed up average voters are with the status quo. European leaders have reason to worry that they might be next up on the chopping block.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the FN and the father of Marine Le Pen, may have said it best: “Today, the United States. Tomorrow, France.”