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.”