What the rise of populism in Europe means for the U.S.
We should be alert, maybe even afraid. Even from thousands of miles away. Because Europe’s self-proclaimed populist parties are on the rise.
The National Democratic Party of Germany, Law and Justice in Poland, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the National Front in France, and others.
“National,” “Justice” and “Freedom,” in these contexts, are synonyms for “racist.”
And if you think the parties’ rising popularity has nothing to do with us, you’re wrong.
I don’t just mean wrong to miss the parallels to our politics with their incendiary appeals to people’s bigotry and racism — some covert, some overt, all odious.
I mean wrong if you don’t perceive their potential impact on alliances that European nations now have with us. Alliances that protect our prosperity, that ensure our security, that influence our independence.
What you should see is that Europe’s right-wing parties have several common goals. One is to diminish or even dismantle the European Union, which taken as a whole is our largest trading partner in the world. Another is to downgrade, maybe even disengage, from their nations’ traditionally warm ties to the United States and cozy up instead to Russia.
What you should comprehend is that when it comes to their principles and Russian President Putin’s, prejudice is a shared value. Which helps explain why Putin has been funding these parties with the almost conspicuous aim of propelling them toward power (see any parallels here?) and tilting their nations’ alliances in his direction, not ours. He’d like nothing better than to see Europe’s pro-American unity, or at least what’s left of it, unravel.
If these parties weren’t growing, it wouldn’t matter. In all the years I lived in Europe, most scored only single-digit support in national elections. France’s National Front sometimes claimed around 20 percent of the vote, but it never climbed higher.
That was then, this is now. Politicians peddling nationalism are playing on people’s fears (remind you of anyone we know?). The picture is changing. Fast.
Earlier this month in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands, the extremist Party for Freedom became the second-biggest party in parliament. Next month in France, the presumptive frontrunner in the first round of presidential elections is the National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of the party’s openly racist founder (who dismisses the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history”). Her recent message to illegal immigrants: “Play time is over.” After elections in Germany later this year, many predict that a newly right-leaning parliament will cast out Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most American-oriented leader in Europe.
Here at home, similar sentiments are sinking in. One offensive example: Iowa congressman Steve King, who once called immigration a “slow-motion Holocaust,” recently tweeted (in a message applauding the Dutch Freedom Party), “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
You know it’s a revolting remark when it produces plaudits from former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke and from the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
And judging from torched churches and toppled tombstones and people shot because they simply look Islamic, it seems that King is not the only one in this country who plainly feels newly empowered.
I will not draw a parallel to Nazi Germany. That would belittle the murders of millions. But I will say, people in pre-war Europe saw signs of peril in the polemics of Germany’s leader, but they dismissed them. They heard malevolence but didn’t know it was strategy. They saw revolt but didn’t know it was reckoning. They observed outrage but didn’t realize it was evil. Not until it was too late to matter.
Thanks to our beloved liberties and our constitutional protections and the simple goodness in our DNA, I don’t think we are going that way. Not toward tyranny, not toward totalitarianism. But then, neither did they.