Why Fear of Foreigners and Change is Changing Politics in Europe and the US
• Right-wing parties in the UK, France and Germany are gaining ground
• Voters’ concerns about immigration and national identity are growing
• The trend is mirrored in the US by Donald Trump’s focus on Mexico and Muslims
- Angry citizens who feel betrayed by the main parties are turning to new ones for answers
- Loss of jobs, crime, potential terrorism and cultural differences are all ingredients in this cocktail of discontent
- As war continues in the middle east refugees are likely to face harder times in Europe
What have Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Frauke Petry and Marine Le Pen got in common? All of them are or have been figureheads for political parties or movements which focus on immigration, foreigners and perceived threats to their countries’ identities.
And in each case this has been successful, leading to strong poll results, surprise electoral success for Mr Trump and a vote for Brexit in the UK, as supported by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and former leader Nigel Farage.
Large numbers of voters in the US, UK, France and Germany – often but not exclusively working class – have been attracted by views which address their concerns and say what many fear or previously feared to say in public. For the mainstream media and most of the major parties these views are unpleasant at best and racist at worst. But for those anxious about immigrants and in many cases left behind by economic success, a message of hope, sympathy and understanding is bound to be attractive. And in countries which have seen high levels of immigration and competition for poorly paid jobs, particularly the UK, pointing the finger of blame and finding a scapegoat is a simple formula.
Whether you are an unemployed coal miner in West Virginia suffering from global environmentalism or an unemployed person in eastern Germany wondering what the Syrian refugees around the corner mean for you, the fear of outside forces you do not control and the sense of impotence this creates are part of a wider picture. One thing all these “angry natives” want is an answer to their problems, some light at the end of the tunnel, a return to norms, standards and a sense of security they grew up with.
The difficult question is how far we go to address the concerns of marginalized groups before we collude in an ugly game of blame and condone a kneejerk reaction to the outsider, the foreigner, the otherness of others. Naturally there is a world of difference between the legitimate concern of someone forced out of work and suffering poverty and the sometimes unrealistic fear some people have of their country being taken over, swamped, overrun and all the other emotive words used to justify these fears. What does unite many of these people across borders, in a loose way, is the sense of being marginalized and left behind, whether economically or culturally. Their views about national identity or their anger about their poverty have been ignored by many of the mainstream parties and politicians, resulting in a gradual loss of hope in the parties they once supported.
Failure to address concerns about resources, employment, living standards and the integration of immigrants will inevitably lead to dangerous tensions. To dismiss them as racism or ignore them, as happened in the UK for many years under the last Labour party government, is a recipe for disaster.
Most people now agree that this failure to be honest about immigration from eastern Europe, in particular Poland, and failure to provide resources to cope with extra pressure on schools, hospitals and housing, led to support for UKIP and formed part of the groundswell which built a Brexit vote. Much of the leave campaign focused on the number of people coming to the UK from the rest of the EU, “taking” jobs and putting pressure on housing. Since the vote to leave statistics show an increase in physical attacks on those perceived to be foreign.
Donald Trump has won the race for the White House, despite a brief dip in some polls following his universally condemned views on how to treat women. Although offensive to many, his call for a ban on Muslims entering the US and a wall to keep out immigrants from Mexico was very popular with his core supporters. In previous elections the thought of such proposals would have made the candidate’s spin doctors and advisers break out in a cold sweat. In this new era of non political correctness in the US there was only one question which mattered to Trump and his team: is there an appetite for the harsh truth, as they might see it.
The angry poor and not so poor seemd to have a large appetite for the finger pointing and threats which were his daily bread on the campaign trail. Nigel Farage of UKIP actively supported Trump and appeared with him on the campaign trail, having had success in the UK with a similar message about jobs, foreigners and returning power to the people.
In common with the post-Brexit situation in the UK and heated debates in France and Germany about right-wing parties, there has been bitter disappointment and anger about Trump’s victory in some parts of the US. Some protests, including those over the last two nights in Oregon by thousands of people, have become violent and led to vandalism and arrests.
— William Gagan (@WillyFoReal) 11. November 2016
In Germany parties such as the AfD are becoming stronger, particularly in parts of eastern Germany where the number of foreigners and people with foreign roots was minimal until the recent arrival of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. The Pegeda movement in Dresden has also been a focal point for weekly marches over the last couple of years, where feelings about foreigners, particularly Muslim foreigners and their impact on German society, run high and are freely expressed. Thousands of middle-class and middle aged people participate in these marches, not just the young males from working class backgrounds traditionally associated with right-wing groups.
Although Germany has absorbed up to a million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the last year or so, there has not been widespread unrest or violence, but the next few years will be testing times as attempts to integrate this huge number meet resistance from such political groups. In Germany the concerns seem to be driven much more by questions about identity and culture, as the economy is very healthy compared to the rest of Europe and most of the world. That said, the cost of absorbing so many people could ultimately challenge this success story.
In France the right-wing Front National party, led my Marine Le Pen, has gradually been growing stronger, supported by some elements of a divided society, in which many French citizens of north African origin feel alienated and discriminated against. The riots which have taken place in the outer suburbs of Paris in recent years, coupled with the horrific terrorist attacks this year and last year, have created a lot of anxiety and anger in French society. Muslims living in France have become the focus of a national debate on their role in and impact on French society, particularly when it comes to the hijab and issues around how Muslim women dress.
A multi-cultural society with a large Muslim population is bound to face difficult questions at a time when the war in Syria, the rise of IS and the ongoing conflict in Iraq is sending refugees and terror attacks to Europe and young disaffected European Muslims in the opposite direct. All the ingredients for a lethal cocktail are swirling around Europe but countries which already had integration problems are that much nearer to ignition point when these extra problems are added to the mix.
The Front National does not just focus on immigration though. Much like its counterparts in the UK and Germany, it wants to resist the European Union’s influence on national governments’ policies and sovereignty.
In a similar vein across the Atlantic the Donald is Trumpeting his Donaldisation of America, with manufacturing jobs returned to the US, Mexicans pushed back to Mexico, Muslims stopped at the border and a so-called “draining of the swamp”. There is a parallel in the way the suggested corruption and cronyism of Washington DC, big media and big government is blamed for much of the country’s ills, while UKIP, the Front National and the AfD point the finger at EU meddling and mismanagement, albeit in a less extreme and inflammatory way. Wrestling control away from elites sounds appealing but the practical details and real benefits are thin on the ground in each case.
As the reality of a Trump victory sinks in in the US, the raging debate about what Brexit means and when it will happen continues in the UK, the Frexit option is promoted by Marine Le Pen and the AfD looks likely to continue to increase its support in Germany, there is one common factor which unites the ostracized and angry groups of citizens across these countries. They are all turning their backs on established parties or established politicians and looking for new channels to focus their discontent and disgust with the changes in their societies.
Following the “Trumpit” on Wednesday, the planned start of Brexit next March, a possible Frexit in the foreseeable future and a continued rise of the new right in Germany, the world could well be an even more unsettled and divided place this time next year. At a time when Europe and the US face increasing challenges from the middle east, and from within in the European case, this disharmony is potentially very dangerous.