Emboldened by Success Trump Election Boosts European Populists

Donald Trump's election has bolstered both right-wing and left-wing populist parties in Europe. Despite ideological differences, they share a rejection of the establishment and the liberal order. Are they about to change the world? By SPIEGEL Staff


It is the seventh day after Donald Trump's triumph, an election upset that set off a political earthquake around the world, and time for a visit with those far away from Washington who think like him. Members of France's Front National (FN) are meeting at the five-star Hotel Napoléon in Paris, not far from the Champs-Élysées.

The topics of discussion this evening include disadvantaged youth in the outer districts of the capital, known as the banlieues, and radical Islamists who are recruiting new members there. The mood is explosive in the banlieues, warns the speaker, a resolute blonde woman, who goes on to say it is a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment. "I am the only one who can defuse this bomb," she adds.

Her words are met with cheers and applause. Marine Le Pen has struck the right note, once again. Here, in the stuffy conference room at the Hotel Napoléon, people want to hear what they have long believed: That Islam constitutes a threat and that France's very future is on the line. Marine, the daughter of Front National co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been the head of her party for almost six years.

'We Want To Destroy this EU'

The Frenchwoman will soon enter the presidential election campaign under the slogan "Marine 2017." Within a few years, she has managed to garner the support of like-minded individuals, and not just in her native France. Le Pen also chairs the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group in the European Parliament. ENF brings together elected representatives from nine countries, people who share an unmistakable common goal. "We want to destroy this EU," says Le Pen.

Less than two weeks after the election of the new US president, Europe's anti-establishment parties are feeling the wind in their sails. "A Trump victory was considered unthinkable," says Le Pen, who sent the billionaire her euphoric congratulatory message on Twitter on the night of the election. "Our life has changed," Nigel Farage of Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP) says over a gin & tonic in the lounge of European Parliament in Brussels. In Vienna, Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) proudly reports that he has already reached out to Trump advisers in Washington. And in Dresden, Frauke Petry of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party is planning to announce her candidacy in the 2017 Bundestag election, which is likely to see AfD land seats in federal parliament for the first time.

Populist leaders, who see themselves as the only true representatives of the people, have long known and respected each other. But the days of backroom deals are now over. Le Pen is flirting with her fellow European populists on the open stage: here a kiss of the hand for Marine in Vienna, there a chuckle and a joke with Geert Wilders in The Hague and even a little dance with Matteo Salvini, leader of the separatist Lega Nord in Italy.

Graphic: Right-wing populists on the rise

Graphic: Right-wing populists on the rise

The British "yes" vote on withdrawing from the EU and the American "yes" vote for Donald Trump are supposedly merely the first stations on the road to a global political upheaval. The "democratic revolution" has only just begun, says Brexit propagandist Farage. "There are plenty more shocks to come." And the chief strategist of the Front National, Florian Philippot, tweeted on the morning after Trump's election: "Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built."

In two weeks, Austria will hold a re-vote of its 2015 presidential election, in which FPÖ politician Norbert Hofer stands a strong chance of winning. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for March in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders of the radical anti-Islamist Freedom Party (PVV) is ahead in the polls. The French will then vote for a new president in April and May, and Le Pen stands a good chance of making it to the second round of voting as the frontrunner. Finally, Germans will vote in the fall on the future composition of the Bundestag.

A G-7 summit in 2017 with Trump, Le Pen, Boris Johnson and Beppe Grillo -- instead of US President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande, former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi -- would be a "horror scenario," Martin Selmayr, the head of the cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted in May. Now, half a year later, Cameron and Obama are already history, Hollande is viewed as a defeated man and Renzi can be justifiably concerned about his political survival on Dec. 4, when Italians are slated to vote in a referendum on a planned constitutional reform.

The lesson from the most recent events is this: Even crass outsiders have the ability to fundamentally change the policies of a country. Farage's UKIP holds only one seat in the parliament in Westminster, and yet it played a key role in the Brexit with its warnings of foreign infiltration on a large scale. Trump, meanwhile, succeeded in winning the election even against substantial resistance within his own party.

Populist Explosion

Populists like Marine Le Pen pronounce their verdicts on the ruling elites with the words: "in the name of the people." The Internet and its social networks have helped shorten the path to voters. What unites the pied pipers on the right and the left, writes author John Judis in his recently published book "The Populist Explosion," is the rage against the establishment, politics and the financial world, as well as the simultaneous demand for a strong, caring government. And, of course, the fight against immigration and Islam.

In the days of neoliberalism and globalization, social democrats like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder failed to protect their classic clientele, writes extremism expert Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia. According to Mudde, populism is the "illiberal democratic response" to decades of "undemocratic liberal policies."

The proponents of simple solutions are now at work around the world. In addition to Le Pen and Wilders, Strache, Salvini and Petry, the roster of right-wing populists in Europe includes men like Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is steering the national conservative government in Poland. The leftist camp, which tries to tell the people what they want to hear, ranges from Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech President Miloš Zeman.

Zeman, a former social democrat and Czech president since 2013, wants his government to pursue a "foreign policy based on our own interests" rather than being "subservient in response to pressure from the United States and the EU." He is critical of the "organized invasion" by Muslims and calls EU sanctions against Russia "nonsense." Despite the Czech Republic's ties to the West, he prefers to look to the East. He is eternally grateful to the Russians, says the hard-drinking and confrontational president, for the fact that, since 1945, Czechs have no longer had to shout "Heil Hitler, Heil Himmler, Heil Göring."

Russian Influence

The Czech Republic is an important node in Moscow's intelligence network, says retired Brigadier General Andor Sandor, former head of Czech military intelligence, in Prague. "The Russians still have many friends here and use them to exert their influence; they apparently see the Czech Republic as the most vulnerable point within the EU and NATO." In addition to Zaman, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his predecessor Vaclav Klaus also serves as a tool for Moscow. In his free time, Klaus campaigns on behalf of the AfD.

Russia has been trying to influence political movements in Europe for years. Now fantasies of omnipotence are mixing with the euphoria over Trump's triumph in the United States. "Washington nash" ("Washington belongs to us"), Putin loyalists are now saying in Moscow -- an allusion to the slogan "Krim nash," coined after Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Unified Europe will also soon disintegrate, predicts nationalist author Alexander Prokhanov. "The European nations were in the hands of schemers and liars; their days are over."

Vladimir Putin prepared the closing of ranks with Europe's populists with his speech against a "unipolar world" at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. Putin has successfully promoted a new conservatism and the shift toward a "non-liberal democracy," shaped by anti-globalism, euroskepticism and the advocacy of traditional values, the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta recently wrote, concluding that "a revolutionary situation has emerged along the periphery of the Brussels kingdom."

At the first meeting of a group calling itself the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg in March 2015, attendees discussed the "national idea" in European countries. They included representatives of almost all euroskeptic movements in Europe, from Greece's Golden Dawn to Italy's Forza Nuova to Germany's far-right NPD party. France's Front National already maintains excellent relations with Moscow. The new head of the foreign intelligence agency, Sergey Naryshkin, has known Marine Le Pen for years. The First Czech-Russian Bank, owned by financial expert Roman Popov, provided her party with a €9 million ($9.5 million) loan back in 2014. Russian banks are also under consideration as possible financiers of the current election campaign.

The traces of Russian influence also lead to Vienna, where a secret meeting took place in 2014, at Liechtenstein City Palace, between arch-conservative fundamentalists from Russia and the West, sponsored by oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. Viennese far-right politician Johann Gudenus and FPÖ Chairman Strache were there to represent the Austrians. Strache has visited Russia repeatedly, but he denies allegations that his party receives any financial support from Russians.

Eyes on Germany

Strache is also on good terms with Marcus Pretzell, the domestic partner of AfD co-Chair Frauke Petry. Before Alternative for Germany appeared on the scene, foreign far-right parties were unable to find allies in Germany for decades. But now the FPÖ, Front National and UKIP are all the more energetically promoting the first right-wing populist party that is likely to clear the five-percent hurdle required to land seats in the Bundestag.

The AfD leadership is still divided over the issue of how closely to align itself with people like Le Pen and Strache. A group led by co-Chairman Jörg Meuthen and leading AfD politicians is hesitating about whether to develop close ties to these parties. For the two men, the Front National, in particular, is "too socialist." But Trump's victory in the United States is likely to invigorate the camp headed by co-Chair Frauke Petry, who, together with her domestic partner, plays a key role in creating a network of far-right groups worldwide.

High-profile meetings with the FPÖ, like the one in Düsseldorf in February where they proclaimed a "Blue Alliance" (named after their shared party color) or joint appearances by Petry and Strache, like the one in June at the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain, suggest increasingly close cooperation between the two parties. An official convergence with the Front National even appears to be getting more likely, after it was leaked that Petry and Le Pen met near Strasbourg in July.

Emerging on the Global Stage

The French politician leaves no room for doubt that if she becomes president, she will push for a referendum based on the British model. "I want to regain control over our currency," says Le Pen, "and our borders." British politician Nigel Farage also believes that his mission is far from fulfilled following Brexit. He appeared in the spin room to support the candidate after Trump's TV debates, Farage says, before heading off to his favorite Brussels bar.

Farage sees himself in a new role, a sort of international traveler on behalf of the common man. He was the first foreign politician to meet with Trump after his election and Trump repeatedly cited Brexit as a model, saying that he too aimed to win against the establishment, and against the polls. He succeeded.

Now Farage and Trump see themselves as pioneers of a movement. They embody the current feeling of intoxication following the victories of anti-liberal forces. After years of waiting, they now believe they are on the verge of their goal of changing the world.

By Melanie Amann, Julia Amalia Heyer, Marc Hujer, Walter Mayr, Christian Neef, Jan Puhl and Simone Salden

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Inglenda2 11/21/2016
1. When democracy is just a word.
The EU has the same problem as the USA, the established political system operates to the disadvantage of the electorate. As long as political parties serve lobbyists, rather than normal citizens, there is bound to be a movement away from the European self-complacency back to national patriosm. This must not necessarily be a bad matter, if hate can be avoided and national pride is not mistaken for ethnic or religious superiority.
wdavew 11/21/2016
2. Seems the politicians and media are the last to know
Yes, what is going to happen in Germany? - that is a very big question. Certainly the leaders of these populist movements have very strong ideas on foreign policy and the EU, but I think its pretty well understood that most people, supporting these right wing parties are just average people interested in local issues only. They are concerned about what is happening in their communities, schools, market places today. The crazy racists are a very small percentage. I would like to suggest to the author that the EU or any other large international or multinational organization is not necessarily threatened by this trend. These voters are in crisis mode, they can't see further than their own backyard right now. If the internationalists would just admit they have made some profound mistakes, and come up with some alternative policies for their futuristic global visions, then they might still save their international institutions. When these populist voters calm down, they will likely admit that the EU, UN, etc... etc... are indeed important institutions, and that there are global issues that need to be solved by global consensus. Right now, reality has caught up with the lofty dreams of the neo-liberals. Things are ugly out there. The world has been in crisis mode since 2001, and yet the politicians and media people seem to be the last ones to see what was right in front of their faces. What a strange contradiction. The internationalists need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan. If is a good one, you might be pleasantly surprised, everyone loves a good plan.
techno 11/22/2016
3. The EU might be a good idea, but...
The EU as a neoliberal experiment most certainly is not. Folks are enraged by the rule of the banksters. We just saw Donald Trump win an election in the face of six months of non-stop media slander. Poor Marie Le Pen—how could she know that it was possible to win a major election without an ideology and without a party structure—a billionaire who tweets. The elites may own the press, but no one is reading them anymore. It's over for their monster experiment. The only question is "how much blood must be shed to rid ourselves of those evil neoliberals.
pwells1066 11/22/2016
4. The Tide has Turned.
Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia who is an expert in extremism writes, 'Populism is the "illiberal democratic response" to decades of "undemocratic liberal policies." I think he has hit the nail on the head with this phrase, and I believe Brexit is likely to be seen by historians as one of those moments in history when the Tide Turned. My generation saw an earlier tide turn in the nineteen sixties, and we are seeing it turn again. In the future it will turn again but in the meantime, to mitigate the possible effects of a tidal change becoming a tsunami, it will need the current ruling elites to recognise this tide change and change their agenda. Should they fail to 'trim their sails' much of the good of the past forty years will be swept away along with all the things that caused the current burst of popular dissent. I fear however, that the silly reactionary talk by Hollande, Junckers et al to Brexit, and the hysterical reactions of the international Liberal elite to Trump, suggests that they have not realised that they are now on the 'wrong side of history.' I hope that Mrs May has understood this need, and let us pray that Mrs Merkel will come to this understanding. Although most Spiegel articles suggest she hasn't.
afrikaneer 11/22/2016
As the US pulls back parachuting the world......Western nations seem to be in a political free fall. The old adagio "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." has proven to be true. There is unrest with democracy because it hasn't work for everyone, but to think that right-wing populists would built a better world is a huge stretch of the imagination. They are without any exception vacuous hypocrites; Jaroslow Kaczynski in Poland is a laboratory test. Democracy is like a wave in the ocean, it goes up and down, and once in a while it lands ashore a stench corpse. Income Inequality, deregulation, tax cuts and loopholes, commercialisation of education, influence peddling, unfair legal system, lack of comprehensive immigration laws, political gridlock, discrimination and segregation, unfair globalisation etc. is the stench corpse. If citizens want a government for and from the people, first, we must mobilise, and participate actively in democracy; democracy cannot exist without participation. President-elect Mr. Trump was chosen under the premise that he will clean up the stench corpse. The initial signs he has sent from the Trump Tower is that he may be washed out by the ocean. Next election, we will have a bigger pile up of corpses to clean up. He will become another lab test just like Mr. Kaczynski, which bring us to the second point "citizens cannot give up on democracy".
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