international affairs

The Threat Posed by Europe’s Far-Right Surge Is Much Bigger Than One Election

Sweden Democrats supporters display a signed picture of the party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, before a campaign meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 8, 2018. Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

When Swedish voters headed to the polls on Sunday, the far-right Sweden Democrats party fell short of its own predictions, failing to emerge as one of the top vote-getters in the general election. This quickly became a new talking point for those who argue that right-wing extremism in Western Europe, while unpleasant, is nothing to get too worked up about.

It would be awfully nice if that were true, but it isn’t. If anything, the actual threat in Western Europe — the collapse in support for the mainstream political parties that dominated the last 70 years, and the space for extremism that opens — is under-appreciated, not overblown. And what’s wiggling under the blanket in Europe should concern Americans who are focused on the midterms, seeing a blue wave as the solution to many of their problems.

Take Sweden. Sure, the Sweden Democrats only finished third, not first or second. But the party, which has neo-Nazi roots, still won 17.6 percent of the vote, up from 12.9 percent in the last election four years ago. With most districts reporting, Sweden Democrats had gained 14 seats, while the prime minister’s Social Democrats lost 13 — their worst showing in a century, with the main center-right opposition party also showing significant losses. Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson crowed that his party would gain “huge influence over what happens in Sweden during the coming weeks, months and years.”

There are equally worrying trend lines emerging elsewhere in Europe. The German state of Bavaria holds elections in October, and its long-ruling Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, has been pushing Merkel’s government to the right for months, demanding that the border with Austria be closed and newly arriving refugees be put in camps. CSU is trying to fend off the threat posed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose latest campaign ads show grinning, leaping, right-arm-raising children celebrating their “Islam-free schools.” In the 2017 federal election, CSU’s support dropped 10.5 points compared with four years earlier, with many of those votes going to AfD. Though the far-right party’s policies and rhetoric have drawn condemnation from officials and organizations across Europe, AfD appears likely to make more gains the fall, finishing second in Bavaria’s elections. Across the country, public support for the “grand coalition” of centrist parties that governs under Merkel’s leadership fell to an all-time low in a poll released last weekend (though the 46 percent may not look that low to American eyes).

All of Germany is still feeling the reverberations from last month’s demonstrations in the eastern city of Chemnitz, following the fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old German, for which two immigrants were arrested. Thousands turned out during a weekend of far-right protests and riots, and there were allegations of an attack on a Jewish-owned restaurant and mobs targeting minorities. This aspect of the riots has again exposed the divisions within Merkel’s government; while her personal office said video footage showed protesters had singled out people who “looked different,” the head of German internal security, Hans-Georg Maaßen, suggested on Friday that the allegation was a “deliberate misinformation” effort to “distract the public” from the murder of an ethnic German. On Sunday, a fresh round of anti-migrant protests broke out in the small German city of Köthen after a 22-year-old German man died following an altercation with two Afghan nationals.

In neighboring Austria, where a far-right party with Nazi roots is actually in government, foreign minister Karin Kneissl flaunted her right-wing geopolitics by inviting Vladimir Putin to her wedding last month and calling it a “working visit.” Putin — whose government has been accused of covertly funding and mounting information campaigns for right-wing parties across Europe — arrived with a Cossack choir to serenade the couple and danced with the bride.

Meanwhile in France, where Emmanuel Macron’s election last year was supposed to set the standard for how the center-left can save the day, the president’s approval rating hit a record low of 31 percent in a poll released last week. As is the case elsewhere, Macron’s disaffected supporters are turning not to establishment forces, but to the political fringe. Longtime standard-bearer of the far right Marine Le Pen, who lost to Macron in a landslide, is not seeing her numbers rise, but more of her party’s positions are being adopted by mainstream figures on the right — and left.

Establishment parties are also collapsing in the Netherlands and Italy, while the U.K., which one might call a two-and-a-half party system, is seeing both its major parties flounder internally. The names and histories differ in important ways, but Europe’s political turmoil shares three antecedents – all of which should make Americans think about whether our troubles began, or will end, with Donald Trump.

First, there’s the staleness of the European political establishment. The same left-right coalition, installed as an anti-communist fixture after World War II, had ruled Austria for 50 of the last 70 years. In Germany, a so-called “grand coalition” comprising the largest two parties has been in power for much of the last decade as well. In France, by contrast, party names and governments change frequently, but the key players do not. Voters have felt that they have few opportunities to effect change through the ballot, and they’ve gone looking for outsider voices to do it.

But what exactly are these voters so upset about? One thing we know for sure: Far-right voters in Europe (like their U.S. counterparts) are disproportionately likely to be male. The professor and columnist Cas Mudde points to another trend economists think they see emerging: Voters hard-hit by the 2008 global recession are the most likely to move to extremist parties — though that tendency is not necessarily most pronounced in the countries that took the worst economic blows. That sense of relative, rather than absolute, deprivation should sound familiar to Americans as well.

Then there’s the matter of discomfort with diversity, and specifically with the perceived strain immigrants and refugees place on social institutions. As Foreign Affairs observed after the Swedish elections, “Practically all Western countries now have some 20-odd percent of the voting population who, for one reason or another, don’t like immigrants… Sweden joined the club.”

It seems profound anxieties about gender, economics, culture, and race — in other words, about winners and losers in traditional versus postmodern worlds — are at the root of the energy that is spinning up old hatreds and assaulting norms from Charlottesville to Chemnitz. No one election should put anyone at ease, not Sweden’s — and not the U.S. midterms.