Europe Is Horrified by Trump, but He’d Fit Right In

His mix of nativism and protectionism has proved a winning formula for far-right parties across the continent.

Photo Illustration: 731; Photos: Bloomberg (1); Getty Images (6); Reuters (5)

From the volume of the outrage, you’d think Europeans had never dealt with the likes of Donald Trump before. The French newspaper Libération called him “the American Nightmare.” The German newsweekly Der Spiegel slapped his face on its cover in front of flames crawling up an American flag. (Online, the fire was animated.) Wherever one looks in the continent, there’s rising alarm in the media about the possibility that Trump could become president of the U.S.

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, March 7, 2016. Subscribe now.
Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, March 7, 2016. Subscribe now.
Source: Bloomberg (1); Getty Images (2); Reuters (2)

And yet, as much as the headlines make him out to be an American phenomenon, in Europe, Trump would fit right in. His mix of nationalistic nativism and economic protectionism has proved a winning formula for far-right parties across the continent. Trump’s rise is reminiscent of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s, which stunned the French media and political class when he made it to the second round of his country’s presidential election in 2002. A former paratrooper who’d questioned the historical significance of the Holocaust, he was widely considered far too unconventional, far too crude—and, frankly, far too racist—to ever be granted a shot at the country’s highest office.

Voters decided differently. By the time the ballots were counted, the candidate dismissed as a joke by the establishment was one of two presidential contenders. “I kept saying, ‘Be careful, he could win,’ ” recalls Christiane Chombeau, who at the time covered the far-right political movement for Le Monde. “But nobody believed me. They would say, ‘Don’t worry. It’s not going to happen.’ ”

Le Pen lost the election, but his party has only gained in popularity since—especially after he was replaced as its leader in 2011 by his media-savvy daughter, Marine Le Pen. (She kicked him out of the party last year after he became even more incendiary.) The elder Le Pen likes what he sees across the Atlantic. On Feb. 27 he tweeted what amounted to an endorsement of the New York developer-turned-reality-TV-star: “If I was American, I would vote for Donald TRUMP … May God protect him.”

The emergence of what might be called the Euro-Trumps has been driven by the growing importance of immigration as a political issue, nurtured by a feeling that the European Union has become unresponsive to the will of the people. These nationalist politicians have been pushed into prominence by the long economic stagnation that’s followed the 2008 financial crisis.

Trump’s European counterparts draw their support from globalization’s losers—working-class voters who feel squeezed between an elite that doesn’t have their interests at heart and a growing class of immigrants they worry doesn’t share their values. “It’s people who feel that liberal democracy has failed them,” says Duncan McDonnell, a professor of political science at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and co-author of Populists in Power. “They feel abandoned, and they’re ready to explore other options.”

So common are positions like Trump’s in Europe that it might be easier to count the countries that haven’t seen Trump-like politicians than to list the ones that have. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League is an important power broker; its Senate leader, Roberto Calderoli, once publicly and unapologetically likened Cécile Kyenge, the country’s first black cabinet member, to an orangutan. In Finland, the Finn Party’s soft brand of Nordic nationalism has elevated its leader into the government as foreign minister. Austria’s Freedom Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, the U.K. Independence Party, and the Swiss People’s Party are all fanning the flames of xenophobia into electoral success.

The European politician to whom Trump is most often compared is former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But while the two men share a similar style of presentation, the comparison falls short when it comes to policy proposals. Personal behavior aside, Berlusconi is—in his messaging, at least—a traditional, free-market conservative. Trump is fuzzily moderate—if not altogether left-wing—when it comes to the economy, opposing cuts to Social Security and pledging to protect American jobs from free-trade agreements even as he lumps Mexican immigrants together with rapists and promises to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

Trump’s place on the political spectrum is more similar to that of Geert Wilders, a Dutch parliamentarian who’s built his career on attacking immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. “Trump’s strategy is exactly the same as Wilders’s. He never retreats. He never apologizes,” says Meindert Fennema, who’s written a biography of the Dutch politician. “Journalists give them a lot of attention because they would like to kill them.” Like Trump among Republicans, Wilders’s party is far ahead in the polls. With elections expected to take place in the Netherlands within a year, it could receive twice as many votes as its nearest rival.

Wilders’s political history is instructive. He entered politics in 1997 as a rabid champion of the free market. But as the years progressed, he swung to the left economically, realizing that the voters he was courting were more interested in protecting their pocketbooks than ripping up regulations. Most recently, Wilders has begun to cast the Dutch welfare state as something to be defended against immigrants.

He and Trump share a mastery of gutter politics and a gift for the well-timed insult. Wilders once described the head of the parliamentary opposition as “a corporate poodle … yelping and peeing on a tree, but when the prime minister arrives he jumps up in his lap.” In a Dutch political culture usually characterized by courtesy, he’s dismissed speeches in Parliament as “diarrhea” and described mosques as “places of hate.”

And then there’s the hair. Wilders sports an immediately recognizable bouffant, with curly blond waves that look as if they were painted by Vincent van Gogh. “It’s a really smart political tool for him,” says Tom-Jan Meeus, a political columnist at NRC Handelsblad, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “It brands him as a political outsider. He’s one of the longest-serving members of Parliament in the country, but because of his haircut, nobody is going to notice.”

Wilders, too, has endorsed Trump. On the day after the Republican presidential candidate proposed a temporary halt to Muslim immigration, Wilders tweeted: “I hope @realDonaldTrump will be the next US President. Good for America, good for Europe. We need brave leaders.”

Europe may also offer a peek at what a Trump presidency could look like if he makes it to the White House and delivers on his campaign promises. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has become increasingly authoritarian. Recently, he’s positioned himself as a defender of Christianity against an influx of Muslim immigrants, responding to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II by building a fence along the border with Serbia and passing a law that makes illegal immigration punishable by three years in jail. Once a champion of democracy—he called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Orbán has swung far to the right. As prime minister, he’s curbed press freedoms, undermined his country’s checks and balances, and decried the failure of “liberal democracy.”

To be sure, the political systems in the U.S. and Europe are very different. The system of proportional voting in many European countries, for instance, makes it easier for a small party to coalesce and survive. (As in a crowded presidential primary, proportional voting favors the emergence of strongly held minority views.)

And yet, the lesson for Americans from across the Atlantic is clear. Even if Trump doesn’t win in November, the political ideology he’s unleashed—or perhaps exposed—is unlikely to shrivel away after the votes are counted. If, of all places, the nations of Europe haven’t developed antibodies to the radical right, no country can expect to be immune. Should Trump’s bid for the presidency fall short, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll continue to campaign for decades, waiting for another shot. But the constituency he’s building is likely to stick around.

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