This side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump tends to be portrayed as something of a unique event. He’s broken every rule, slaughtered every sacred cow, and defied every political prediction: He’s stronger than ever. To explain him, many American commentators, particularly his critics, have suggested that the Republican presidential contender has latched onto some specific quirk in America’s national psyche, or identified an inherent weakness in the U.S. political system or failing on the part of its current political parties.
“America’s elites deserve Donald Trump,” suggested an article in The Week, blaming the businessman’s rise on the inability of Democrats and Republicans to meet the needs of middle-class whites. BuzzFeed floated the notion that “America can’t stop watching Donald Trump” because he’s better than most American reality TV. A recent Washington Post piece explored “the uniquely American appeal of Trump’s favorite insult.” Then there’s Rolling Stone’s investigation into “how America made Donald Trump unstoppable.” (The answer, according to Matt Taibbi: The “flaw in the American Death Star” is that “it doesn’t know how to turn the cameras off, even when it’s filming its own demise.”)
But from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Donald Trump story looks very different.
From the perspective of many anxious op-ed writers in Western Europe, Trump isn’t an anomaly. Instead, he’s part of a dramatic populist surge occurring across Western democracies at the moment, on both the political left and the right.
“From Spain to Sweden to Poland, populist protest parties are spreading,” wrote Josef Joffe last month in the German newspaper Die Zeit. All that differs is the terminology: “In America the ‘mainstream media’ is the enemy. Here it is [called] the ‘Lügenpresse [lying press].’ Here they rage against ‘those at the top,’ there against the ‘elites.’”
“In nearly every European country they are on the move now, the little Trumps,” declared Evelyn Roll in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, warning against the dangers of nationalism.
“We have Marine Le Pen. They have Trump,” agreed Le Monde’s Alain Frachon. Le Pen, who heads France’s Front National, often draws these comparisons, given her similar nationalist and anti-immigration posture. But others point to Viktor Orban in Hungary or the politicians in Germany’s “Alternative for Germany” party, a group opposed to immigration and the European Union that is expected to gain ground in the next election.
Comparisons to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a similarly gifted improviser of shocking soundbites, abound. One British journalist additionally brought up “Italy’s second prominent political joke, [the activist and comedian] Beppe Grillo, [who] has also harnessed the appeal of comedy and the soothing attraction of outrageous simplicity to lead a movement.”
Another sees a Trump-like “bluff,” anti-establishment appeal to “angry publics” in London Mayor Boris Johnson. At this point, the conservative British daily The Telegraph practically has a cottage industry of op-eds comparing Trump to the outspoken Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose devil-may-care attitude toward traditional aesthetics led British GQ to describe him as “our first ‘normcore’ party leader”—and Prime Minister David Cameron to suggest, on behalf of his mother, that the opposition leader “put on a proper suit, do up your tie, and sing the national anthem.”
The Corbyn comparison points to something revealing, broadly speaking, about the European perspective relative to the American one: In this zoomed-out view of the Rise of the Trumps, the most relevant feature of Trumpism is not where he falls on the political spectrum—a question his opponents and frustrated Republican elites say shifts from day to day anyway. Instead, it’s his populism.
Trump draws his support, these observers argue, from transnational trends that also enabled the rise of Bernie Sanders and their many European analogues. Whereas “Trump constructs his messianism from fear,” theorized one column in the Spanish newspaper El País, “Bernie Sanders makes his from utopia.” But they are both establishing their “distance from the system” and responding to the “anxiety of a disillusioned electorate.”
Trump and Sanders supporters, several commentators in Europe assert, have basically similar complaints: frustration with out-of-touch, overly scripted technocrats; distrust of the establishment—whether represented by financial giants or the media; a feeling that the current economy isn’t working for them; and, some argue, a heavy dose of isolationism, whether that means building a wall on the Mexican border (Trump) or curtailing global free trade and studiously avoiding foreign military entanglements (Sanders). “Both [left and right populist] movements,” argued one German op-ed, “are on the same political pole against a world of open borders that [let in] refugees as well as global capitalism’s frigid air of competition.”
For populists, these commentators insist, substance is inevitably linked with style. And that’s one reason why Trump can break the rules and get away with it. As the British philosopher Julian Baggini has pointed out, much of the appeal of charismatic populists is that they “are plain-speaking people who may not be saints, but they get things done and don’t bow down before the gods of ‘political correctness.’”
“Modern politics is quite technical: the handling of a complex, globally engaged economy and the administration of all the myriad public services that an enlightened state is expected to provide are a matter for professionals,” observed the Corbyn critic Janet Daley in The Telegraph. That’s resulted in more attention to a candidate’s “qualifications” for governing. But it also means “the business of governing has become obscure and arcane, as well as uninspiring.” Being “in touch with the feelings of ordinary people” suddenly becomes a huge advantage to politicians who can pull it off.
More than plainspokenness, Baggini argued, signs of “amateurism” are a win for populist politicians: “It just goes to show their honesty and lack of spin. Gaffes that hurt other politicians only help populists, since they emphasize how much more human they are than the old guard of apparatchiks.”
But some see a threat to Western democracy itself in this populist upswing. “No matter where you look, people are turning away from the [usual] political institutions,” wrote Yascha Mounk, a German-born political-science lecturer at Harvard, for Die Zeit. “It’s too early to say with certainty where the crisis of democracy will lead. Perhaps it will find itself anew. … Or perhaps we stand at the beginning of a new era of violence and dictatorship.” In fact, even commentators who don’t think Trump will ever make it to the White House seem deeply perturbed by the phenomenon he represents. “Populists have always brought calamity to Europe,” declared one German op-ed.
Very few observers have explicitly hauled out the explosive Hitler and Mussolini comparisons. After all, dropping the name of a 1930s dictator has a way of making everything one writes in the first three-quarters of an article, no matter how perceptive, look like a prelude to gibbering lunacy.
But a keen awareness of populism’s patchy history in Europe haunts much of this commentary. And those who see similarities between popular frustrations in interwar Europe and the current moment can’t be dismissed out of hand. Recent historical works have emphasized just how disenchanted not just Germans and Italians, but also the French, Spanish, English, and others became with liberal, bourgeois democracy in response to the economic travails and plodding, technocratic, ineffectual government of the 1920s and early 1930s. The inability of traditional politicians to connect with voters and get things done—visibly, quickly—was part of what made populist authoritarianism so appealing. Many historians trace 1920s nativist hysteria in part to declining native birthrates—also a feature of present debates. And a rough parallel could also be drawn between the current refugee crisis involving Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian migrants and the influx of Eastern European Jews, fleeing pogroms, into Western Europe in the early 20th century. These less assimilated, more culturally distinct Jewish populations quickly became the targets of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic propaganda.
Some commentators have argued that today’s populist movements, like those in the 1920s and 30s, spring from a potent combination of broad dissatisfaction with political institutions and acute anxiety about a globalized future. Josef Joffe, noting populist complaints involving “values,” “foreign infiltration,” and so forth, even went so far as to suggest that Trump, Sanders, & Co. are offering their supporters nothing less than a “bulwark against modernity.” In the German magazine Der Spiegel, Henrik Müller, a professor of economic journalism at the University of Dortmund, cited survey results showing a minority of respondents in both the United States and European Union expressing trust in their political and economic institutions. “Functioning democracies,” he argued, need three things: “a broad consensus about what is important for a society”; “platforms where discussions can take place about which problems take priority and what solutions can be offered”; and “enough common values that they trust their institutions, that majorities and minorities respect one another, and that everyone generally deals fairly with one another.” These preconditions used to be taken for granted. Now they’re looking precarious in some countries.
If European commentators are more prone to building grand, pessimistic narratives around Trump, they’re also less likely than American commentators to see his rise as the result of strategic error, organizational deficiency, or flat-out insanity. Their perspective isn’t necessarily more accurate or clear-eyed than the American perspective, but it can be equally instructive. It de-emphasizes the specifics of party politics, and emphasizes the need for politicians and publics across the democratic world to think about more effective, less scripted ways of governing—to have more thoughtful discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of increased globalization. It’s very hard to sustain, with this perspective, the belief that Donald Trump is (a) pure entertainment, (b) somebody else’s mistake, or (c) somebody else’s problem—views that are in abundant supply in the United States and have further irritated Trump’s supporters. Insofar as Trump represents a problem, he’s the symptom rather than the cause—and it’s everyone’s problem.