Recently Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ of Muslims entering the United States. Support for such ideas is growing and he is not alone. Right-wing populists are pulling ahead in Europe, spreading fear and hatred through their rhetoric. Recent instances of Jihadist terrorism in Paris played into the hands of politicians like Marine Le-Pen, while the European failure to deal with the refugee crisis helps Victor Orban and Co gain support in Eastern Europe. Creeping into the Western world is a threatening mentality in which tolerance and openness are not taken for granted.
Formerly considered a voice for the discontent, neglected working class, the ‘ordinary people’, populist parties have long left behind the role of the angry outcast and spread their appeal to the broader population. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which has experienced unprecedented electoral success in recent regional elections, has broadened out to cover young people, white-collar workers as well as disillusioned left-wing voters. What shifted political alignments in such large proportions of the population? The main reason is a perceived growing threat to security.
In a puzzling act of Jihadist violence, a Muslim couple recently carried out a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, killing fourteen people. The massacre, being the deadliest act of terrorism since 2001, provided the rationale for Trump’s proposal to prohibit the entry of Muslims into the United States. ‘It’s going to get worse and worse’, he declared, almost drowned out by the cheering of his supporters at a rally in South Carolina in early December. The unrealistic policy proposal is supposed to offer an alternative to reluctance on behalf of the leadership to go on the offensive and meet extremists on equal terms. What Trump denounces as merely political correctness resulting from an overly tolerant lead of Barack Obama, is indeed the only response that won’t give the Islamic State what they are hoping for: a society weakened by giving up its values and governed by fear.
A similar rhetoric is echoed across Europe, where far-right parties are in power in Poland and Hungary and in the governing coalition in Switzerland and Finland. Fear of job-stealing, criminal immigrants, refusing to adapt to our society has been around for as long as I’ve been alive, especially among the elderly. Recent European crises however bring new dimensions to the already existing European xenophobia. The influx of over 1 million refugees across European borders has brought the European Union Law to the verge of collapse. In a vacuum of clear action, right-wing policies for stricter border control and the abandonment of Schengen is appealing to many. Against the backdrop of high unemployment after economic crisis, it would be foolish of moderate politicians to underestimate the grip right wing ideas have on the European electorate.
A pre-World War 2 scenario however can be prevented if the Western world does not betray its own values. And much points to the fact that voters are still reasonable. Although the level of support for Trump and less obviously extreme Republicans Ted Cruz and Ben Carson is worrying, it’s only half of the 25% that identify with the Republican party. Also, Marine Le Pen did not secure any seats in the final regional elections in France thanks to tactical manoeuvring by the mainstream left and right. While for Trump, discrimination based on religion prejudice is ‘common sense’, for many it is common sense to avoid just that and focus on cooperation with Muslims around the world. The struggle with the populist right will be tougher than many leaders would like to think but offering an optimistic alternative will be the key to success for liberal politicians.