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Trump's Anti-Immigration Platform Is a Loser

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Donald Trump likes calling people "losers." So he should be aware that when he calls German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy "insane," he enters political territory where winners don't go.

One case in point: Sunday's election in Vienna (the Austrian capital, not Vienna, Iowa, or Vienna, West Virginia). Even amid an acute immigration crisis, a far-right party calling for the construction of a wall around the European Union couldn't muster enough votes to win. 

Austria's anti-immigrant Freedom Party has a history of electoral success. It won a plurality in the 1999 national election under the leadership of Joerg Haider, now best remembered for bankrupting Carinthia, the Austrian region where he served as governor and was extremely popular until his 2008 death in a car crash. Its leader and candidate for the Vienna mayorship, Heinz-Christian Strache, was polling head to head with Michael Haeupl, the incumbent from the Social Democrats, who have been running Vienna since 1945. 

Coupled with the photogenic Strache's popularity, especially among younger people, Europe's refugee crisis should have offered the far right a valuable opportunity. Last weekend, more than 15,000 people arrived in Austria, largely hoping to move on to places such as Germany and Sweden, where they are more welcome. The small, idyllic country expects to process 80,000 asylum requests of its own this year, equal to about 1 percent of its population and only slightly fewer per capita than Germany is forecast to handle. Much of the influx goes through the capital city, where about 12,000 have remained this year.

Nonetheless, Strache lost to Haeupl, who had said he considered himself "responsible for the people who come to Vienna and ask for help." He won 31 percent of the vote, compared with 39.5 percent for the Social Democrat -- the far-right party's best election result ever in the capital city, but still second place.

People just aren't xenophobic enough for anti-immigrant politicians to win big. That's true of the U.S. as well as of European countries. The World Values Survey, for example, shows significant but politically insufficient levels of discomfort in the presence of immigrants:

Trump is talking about a border wall in a country where asylum seekers are not nearly as big a deal as they are in Europe, and where people have little experience of being governed by the far right. Only 13.6 percent of Americans wouldn't like to be neighbors with immigrant workers. Perhaps the share of voters willing to support xenophobes is actually higher than the survey indicates, as it has proved to be in Sweden. That said, 13.6 percent fits with Trump's polling figures: He has 27 percent support among Republicans, who tend to win about half the votes in a typical election.

Xenophobia is a severely limiting political platform. It scares away people who like other people regardless of their background, color or religion. Yet here's Trump, a political beginner, lecturing Merkel, who has been running Germany since 2005: "I always thought Merkel was, like, this great leader. What she's done in Germany is insane. It's insane."

Merkel, of course, is taking a huge risk with her increasingly unpopular stand on asylum, but she doesn't need lessons in winning. She got where she is by taking only calculated risks. Despite Germans' fear that the refugee situation is getting out of control, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, was polling 39 percent last week, well ahead of everyone else including its archrival and coalition partner, the Social Democrats. The most anti-immigrant of German parties, Alternative fuer Deutschland, has 7 percent support -- high by its standards, but negligible in winner-takes-all terms.

This is not to say xenophobic politicians will always be losers. The World Values Survey indicates that anti-immigrant sentiment has increased in many Western countries:

At this rate, however, the current generation of political leaders will die out before the extreme right has a chance to run nations. Not even riots, which Trump predicts for Germany, will help a hardcore xenophobe win an election. Sweden, which saw disturbances with burning cars and angry mobs in immigrant areas as recently as 2013, is still run by politicians who cringe at the thought of building border walls.

So when Trump falters -- at whatever stage in the U.S. electoral process -- he should remember the silent lesson Merkel is giving him in response to his loud criticism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net