By Natasha Lennard
Last week I received a rare email from my grandfather. “Not often that I contact you on a political matter,” wrote the 80-year-old British expat from his home on Spain’s southern coast. Aside from the odd dinner-table spat, the lifelong conservative had never before contacted me, his leftist granddaughter, on a political matter. But this was apparently a time of exceptional concern.
“I am increasingly alarmed by events in the U.S. primaries with the neo-fascist Trump,” he wrote. Hardly fluent in online memes, nor aware of the musings of Louis C.K., Grandpa wondered if he were alone in seeing “sinister connotations and memories of a certain Herr Hitler.”
Of course, he’s far from alone. Across the Atlantic, as on this site, an online cottage industry of Trump-Hitler comparisons has sprung up. Donald Trump cuts an unsurprisingly frightening form for modern Europe, constructed in the rubble of fascist regimes headed by hateful narcissists. Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain -- we learn these names as modern history’s baddies, benchmarks to point to and say “never again.” A would-be leader showing even a trace of similarity to these long-dead dictators triggers widespread alarm.
With bouffant, bluster, and bad politics, Trump has touched that frayed nerve. German weekly Der Spiegel proclaimed him “the world’s most dangerous man.” French left-liberal newspaper Liberation devoted an entire front page to a photo of Trump, and declared him a “nightmare” turned real. Conservative British prime minister David Cameron stated that Trump would “unite us all against him.” J.K. Rowling, basically a world leader in her own right, called him Lord Voldemort in a tweet. Europe is ready for and afraid that the name Trump will go down in history-shaking infamy.
But this is one of the problems with the Trump spectacle. We’re so busy fearing a coming fascist dictator -- another great monster in Western history -- that we forget to look around and see the other fascist feelings, movements, and parties gaining and securing ground in Europe and the U.S. right now. If we peel our eyes away from the vulgar Trump show for a minute (although cable networks would prefer that we didn’t), we can see that his popularity is not a phenomenon but part of an international uptick in xenophobic nationalism, authoritarianism, and right-wing anti-establishment sentiments. Comparing the tangerine-skinned windbag to the Worst Men In History might help end his election effort — but that’s a limited victory if less ratings-friendly fascist growths go unchecked and standard shitty policies and politicians look good by comparison. (As a British-born Brooklynite, I’m especially pissed at Trump for giving the Conservative British prime minister Cameron, who slashes welfare programs and calls poor kids “hoodies,” any reason to think I’d “unite” with him.)
A Trump defeat in the coming months would not constitute an end to the far-right extremism brewing in Western democracies, nor to the oppressions and cruelties of politics-as-usual. We didn’t need the threat of President Trump last year to take to the streets in the thousands to assert that black lives matter. Waking on November 9, even with a Trump defeat, there will remain every reason to fear the political landscape in the U.S. and Europe.
Before we delve into the delightful game of “what’s as worrying as Trump,” I should clarify a couple of terms. When talking about Trump, the labels “fascist,” “right-wing extremist,” and “nationalist populist” have all been put on the table, along with the Hitler and Mussolini comparisons. These are all related concepts, but more like close cousins than twins. Nationalist populism and fascism are both political outlooks in which arguments against immigration are veils for racism and xenophobia. Both claim to appeal to “the common man.” Both are all about elevating the strength of the nation. (Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is a slogan as nationalist as they come.) Fascism doesn’t have one clear definition, but it usually involves military force and ideological coherence, as well as nationalist fervor. The word “fascist,” like a Hitler analogy, also scares people more because of its historical resonance.
We don’t have to decide here whether Trump is a bona fide fascist, proto-fascist, or just a racist, nationalist asshole; any political group seeking the exclusion of peoples based on race and nationality deserves to be crushed — and the Trump movement is hardly alone in this.
Right-wing populism has been on the rise in Europe since the late 2000s, prompted by a vast debt crisis in the European Union. EU authorities enforced a system in which the indebted countries in the Eurozone (which share the Euro currency) had to enact fierce budget cuts to welfare protections in order to receive bailouts from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This enforced austerity totally failed to kick-start economies but massively succeeded in helping unemployment spiral, and in subsequently fostering popular anger at perceived “elites” in European government. Left- and right-wing populist parties gained broad support.
But it was right-wing groups like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Germany’s neo-Nazi Pegida that seized on the nationalist refrains that immigrants were the problem, taking jobs and wasting taxpayer money (accusations that, taken together, make no sense at all). This kind of xenophobic sentiment has since gained new fuel via the current refugee crisis, the largest of its kind on the continent since World War II, in which over a million displaced people, largely from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea, reached EU soil last year. Europe doesn’t need to gaze in shock across the Atlantic at Trump’s rise and forget his fascistic and nationalistic counterparts who are already endangering the lives of migrants and refugees.
In his most dangerous anti-immigrant, nationalist invocations, Trump is in the company, for example, of Hungary’s xenophobia-spewing prime minister, Viktor Orbán. While on both sides of the Atlantic there is shock and horror at Trump’s booming refrain to “Build the Wall” between Mexico and the U.S. (and at the thunderous rally applause this refrain induces), Hungary fenced off its frontiers with Serbia and Croatia nearly a year ago to block the flow of refugees. With razor wire and tear gas, Orbán’s right-wing government — elected to power in 2010 — has made every effort to keep out would-be asylum seekers.
“If we let the Muslims into the continent to compete with us, they will outnumber us. It’s mathematics,” Orbán said last September, if ever a phrase could fit into a Trump rally. The Guardian called the Hungarian leader “Orbán the awful,” but Hungary is not the U.S., and Trump presents as a global threat in a way Orbán, although already in power, doesn’t. Orbán doesn’t share Trump's ability to turn political events into lurid reality-TV spots. His face is less meme-worthy than Trump’s. But the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees is at stake, as is the future of Europe and whether it can live up to its supposed ideals as a humanitarian project. Orbán matters. And it matters that the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Britain, too, have expressed agreement with Orbán in wanting to reject a quota system for EU countries to share refugee settlement.
Britain’s Cameron, the same guy who said the whole U.K. would unite against Trump, even paid a visit to Orbán last year to seek his support on EU reforms that would limit welfare benefits for migrants. You don’t have to be Trump the terrible nor Orbán the awful to let nationalism dictate your policies.
Perhaps an even closer Trump counterpart is to be found in Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front (NF) party. After the terror attacks in Paris last year, Le Pen called for the immediate end of all immigration to France -- both legal and illegal. Sound familiar? Trump cited the same horrific attacks in his call for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” and has repeated the same demand in response to the deadly attacks on Brussels this week. (And for what it’s worth, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, a former NF leader so far right that he believes his daughter has made the nationalist party too liberal, backed Trump on Twitter in late February.)
The younger Le Pen’s recent electoral history took the path a number of pundits see as Trump’s destiny -- early surprise success followed by ultimate electoral defeat. The NF made troubling gains in the first round of France’s regional elections last year, but in the next round, major anti-NF voter turnout meant total defeat for Le Pen’s party. The NF may have lost the election battle, but the party -- along with the anti-immigrant, fiercely nationalistic sentiment it embodies — remains a dark force in France. And, crucially, this force has pulled the entire French political landscape to the right; centrist, liberal parties have shifted their platforms, especially on immigration, rightward in order to lure potential NF voters away.
This pattern exemplifies what we have to fear even with a resounding Trump defeat. That is, in attempts to capture his support base, both Republicans and Democrats maintain and further conservative stances, especially on immigration. The suggestion that any evil is a lesser evil than Trump -- like the thought that center-right policies are a lesser evil than the NF -- may be correct. But what a sad state of politics it is when we’re asked to choose between evils.
Recent electoral successes of right-wing populism in Europe are at least as unsettling as Trump having a super Super Tuesday. Last week, for example, the recently formed far-right, unabashedly xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) won nearly a quarter of the votes in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. This is particularly worrying given that Germany registered more than a million asylum seekers, predominantly from Syria, in 2015 alone. In the same year, there were over 1,200 attacks, including 100 arsons, on refugee facilities (doubling the previous year’s figures). Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has already backpedaled on an originally welcoming refugee policy by vowing to “markedly reduce” the number entering in 2016 and speed up deportations. Two hundred thousand asylum seekers are now being targeted by this policy.
There are parallels in the U.S.; Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has not only been linked to a rise in attacks on Muslims over the last year, but has also served to frame even conservative immigration and refugee policies as an open-armed welcome to Islamic State militants. Trump’s demand that all Muslim immigration to the U.S. be stopped was in rejection of the Obama administration’s plan to let in 10,000 more, highly vetted Syrian refugees over the next year. Trump’s deranged demand for zero Muslims made the offer of 10,000 look generous. It’s not. It’s pathetically small. But this is the Trump effect in action: Everything else looks rational and kind by comparison. This is already happening -- this isn’t just something to fear with the apocalyptic threat of the Trump presidency.
Trump, much to our collective delight, once claimed, “I knows words. I have the best words.” I doubt, though, that he’s aware of the German word Backpfeifengesicht. It translates broadly to “a face in need of a fist,” and so is, in fact, the best word for the grinning would-be president (perhaps after “Drumpf”). But while Trump has the Backpfeifengesicht of racist nationalism and surging fascism, the “never again” promise we make when we learn of the Nazis and the fascists of history isn’t just about beating cartoonishly evil bad guys. It’s about furiously protesting xenophobic nationalism wherever we see it, rejecting anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, and refusing to let any political system pat itself on the back for simply not being The Worst.
This post has been updated to correct an error: Saxony-Anhalt is not in southern Germany.