Over the past 75 years, many Western nations moved steadily toward cooperation and interconnectedness, as their shared economic and political interests converged during this period called globalization. But the political winds are shifting, and there are signs of a new age of populism and nationalism emerging in Europe, a development that eventually could undermine post-war security and unity.

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in part by promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., of political elites and to “Make America Great Again,” a broad-brush populist slogan that supported a more isolationist, protectionist, “America First” posture toward the wider world. His campaign rhetoric criticizing some Muslims and Mexicans and his recent efforts to limit immigration and trade have left many analysts wondering whether his presidency could effectively move the country toward a period of ethno-nationalism.

Trump’s surprise election has proved a political windfall and an inspirational template to far-right candidates in Europe, as some countries prepare for major elections. These include the Netherlands (March), France (April and May), and Germany (September). These rightist groups predate Trump politically and tie themselves more tightly to nationalism, but they are also happy to ride on the coattails of his victory.

Marine Le Pen, the National Front party leader running for president of France, embraces antiglobalization and anti-immigration policies. Both Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie, the former party leader, lavishly cheered Trump’s election on Twitter, while other European nationalist party figures in the Netherlands, Hungary, and Greece touted his win as a positive sign of things to come. She has promised to “take back” France by withdrawing from the European Union (EU), a move that Trump has applauded, as he did when Britain voted last year to leave that body, rocking the EU to its core. Lately, Le Pen has been rising in the polls as her mainstream electoral opponents have faltered.

Other figures on Europe’s far right, including Geert Wilders, founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which spearheaded Britain’s break with the EU, have met with and supported Trump. Farage dined with Trump last week in Washington, appeared at Trump’s inauguration, and also made several appearances with him during the campaign. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Northern League, has reportedly offered to help Trump expand his support in Europe.

Indeed, some in the Trump administration have embraced the value of a far-right coalition between the United States and Europe. Leading the way is Trump’s chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon M.B.A. ’85 , the former chairman of Breitbart Media, a pro-Trump online news outlet. Breitbart has been something of a safe harbor for white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and other digitally savvy right-wing fringe groups. It’s an assertion Bannon appears to agree with, once referring to Breitbart as the “home of the alt-right.” Shortly after the election, Breitbart announced it would expand to France and Germany to help bring Trumpism to audiences there. During a rare public appearance last week, Bannon, widely-seen as Trump’s ideological compass, said their victory made clear that there is a political “movement” afoot, one in which the administration’s “economic nationalist agenda” will help galvanize the Republican Party, and the nation, into “a new political order.” 

A new salience

Although the words populism and ethno-nationalism are often used interchangeably, they actually are distinctly different.

“Populism is a way of making political claims that oppose ostensibly ‘corrupt elites’ with ‘the virtuous people,’” said Bart Bonikowski, a Harvard associate professor of sociology who studies populist and nationalist movements.

The left often labels big business and banking executives as elites, while the right typically targets the state itself and those who keep it running, like civil servants, bureaucrats, and elected officials, along with academics and other intellectuals, “whereas ethno-nationalism is … a definition of the nation that excludes various ethnic, religious, and racial out-groups,” he said.

Because populism is less an ideology than a form of political discourse, it is often attached to a variety of political ideologies, including nationalism.

“It’s basically a strategy for mobilizing political support for whatever politicians’ objectives might be,” said Bonikowski. “It so happens that in Europe and the United States and elsewhere … populism attached to ethno-nationalism has gained traction. But that doesn’t mean the two things are the same or that they only occur with one another.”

Nationalism can be ethnocentric or primarily civic in focus. Some strains are more inclusive than others, often based on political principles and respect for institutions that rest on subjective identification with a nation. Ethnic-driven nationalism is often about a shared ancestry, religion, and language and a common dissent, said Bonikowski, a resident faculty member at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES).

Despite some public perceptions, populism and ethno-nationalism have not suddenly surged in the United States and Europe since Trump’s ascendancy. Many European nationalist parties have been around for decades, with varying levels of success. In 2015, Hungary and Poland installed hard right, antiglobalization governments.

During the The Second Annual Summit on the Future of Europe, "Fortress Europe? Issues of Migration & Citizenship" Chair: Bart Bonikowski, (from left) Assistant Professor of Sociology speaks inside the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
“There’s a good portion of the population that does … have a particular understanding of what America is: a white, Christian America,” says Bart Bonikowski. File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

“I think what’s changed is the salience of these ideas given the … contextual factors: economic crises, persistent inequality stemming out of neoliberalism, demographic change, anxieties associated with terrorism, along with political developments like obstructionism in Washington, [and the] perceived corruption or non-representativeness of the EU governance system,” said Bonikowski. “All of these things have generated some level of anxiety among particularly white, native-born populations and a perceived status loss at the group level among these folks, which then makes both nationalist and populist claims — and, especially, nationalist-populist claims — more resonant and more salient than they had been in the past.”

Indeed, Trump first found his political footing in 2011 after he pushed an unfounded, racially tinged accusation popular on the far right that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus was not a legitimately elected president. Trump appeared to stoke divisiveness among his predominantly white supporters and was slow to reject endorsements by white nationalists, including the Ku Klux Klan, critics contended.

Yet Trump was backed by 63 million voters in the presidential election, and the vast majority were hardly extremists, but Americans with traditional values who wanted change.

“There’s a good portion of the population that does … define the nation in ethno-cultural terms. They’re not all members of neo-Nazi groups, by any stretch of the imagination. They just have a particular understanding of what America is: a white, Christian America.”

While well-organized fringe groups wishing to remake the country as a white, nationalist state have long existed on the periphery of American politics and society, the Trump campaign’s advancement of an agenda that sometimes aligns with theirs brought some extremist groups into the mainstream. “They’ve been allowed to be part of the conversation, which they hadn’t before, and they have, in Bannon, an advocate pretty close to power.”

Europe emboldened

Trump’s election and Britain’s exit from the EU are “very encouraging” to nationalist groups across Europe, “because for the first time, there’s a shift away from international cooperation, sharing sovereignty, building international relations and organizations, to addressing the sovereign rights of specific countries,” said Grzegorz Ekiert, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government and director of the CES.

Both events represent the biggest victories for the populist-nationalist right in many years.

“They demonstrated that what most people thought was impossible is actually possible,” said Bonikowski.

Rarely have groups on the radical right advanced so far in recent decades.

“They’ve certainly been present, and they have won seats in parliaments in national elections, but they have not been in control of governments, they have not been in control of presidencies, they have not made massive impacts on national policies until Brexit and Trump,” he said. “And so I think that certainly emboldens politicians on the far right across Europe, but also across the world. It also gives them some degree of increased legitimacy among their supporters.”

Politicians on Europe’s radical right are now looking to Trump to see which tactics and messages work for him and then testing those in their home nations, adding to the sense that there’s a broader nationalist wave rippling around the world.

There was enthusiasm in 2004 when the EU opened its doors to 10 additional countries, most from the former Eastern bloc. But it wasn’t long before some in these new member states began stoking an anti-EU, nationalist agenda.

“In every country, you have always had people who didn’t like the European Union,” said Ekiert. “In every country, you had people who worried about traditional values, who worried about national sovereignty, who didn’t like the bureaucrats making some decisions, who didn’t like people in their country cooperating with the European Union. But they were lying low for years because, for them, the impetus of the EU enlargement and this liberal vision for the entire continent seemed invincible.”

But the global economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 laid that notion to waste.

“Now, the crisis for the first time showed that this is not an invincible project, that there is possibility, really, to fight against it. And this was the moment when you saw in many countries in Europe, both West and East, nationalistic, populist forces emerging,” Ekiert said.

The reverberations of Trump’s rise to the presidency have been acutely felt in France, where global attention is now focused on a spring presidential election that has seismic implications for the future of the EU, particularly after the decision by British voters to leave provided its own momentum.

The National Front’s Le Pen has made no secret of her support for Trump and his antiestablishment message. Although they do differ in some areas, Trump and Le Pen share several populist-nationalist impulses. Both are protectionists who want to tighten the borders, both oppose immigration and criticize Islam, and both seek to restore “law and order,” which many analysts take as an embrace of a more authoritarian society, said Nonna Mayer, a French political scientist, a leading authority on the National Front, and an emeritus director of research at CES.

“For her, the victory of a populist leader like Trump is the proof that her ideas are going to win, can win,” she said. “She’s going to use Trump, she’s going to use it as an argument … not only for her own party members, but for the people with whom she wants to make alliances, to say, ‘Look, we are respectable, our ideas have won. They have elected a president of the United States.’ So in that sense, it’s good for her.”

Nationalism in France has been on the rise since the 1980s, when the party’s founder, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, won a seat in European Parliament in 1984. Since then, the National Front has tried to position itself against globalization and as the champion of those who seem themselves as the movement’s losers.

Le Pen’s growing mainstream success owes much to the affirmative case the party makes to voters, Mayer contends. “At a time where most people don’t believe very much in the capacity of mainstream political parties to do something, they say, ‘Yes, we can. … You just need the guts to do it, and we can do it.’ In a way, they are selling a political dream, wherein all the other parties have failed.”

Populist leaders, including Le Pen, tend to oversimplify issues, mislead and exaggerate and sometimes lie about problems and conditions, like the number of immigrants entering France, in order to justify easy solutions, added Mayer, echoing tactics that have proven useful to the Trump camp.

Additionally, terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the flowing stream of refugees, particularly from Syria, offer useful pretexts for anti-immigration policies and regressive sentiments. “All of that justifies, legitimizes parties that say, ‘We must erect walls and then everything will be as it was before,’ she said. “They always sell a golden age of a society that never existed. But it’s also their strength.”

“What the French have witnessed, especially since the attacks over the last two years, [has left many feeling] ‘we’re not at home anymore, and these people who are here in our country as guests are totally destroying our quality of life,’” said sociologist Michèle Lamont, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies.

As with Trump, Le Pen’s constituents are often blue-collar voters who’ve seen their earning power decline and feel threatened by the growing diversity in France. They believe the new arrivals, particularly Muslim immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, are leapfrogging over them economically by “‘coming in and stealing our resources,’” said Lamont.

“So, for me, the question is more a sense of social displacement and state pecking order, which is manifested both in how people interpret how much the state will distribute and access to material resources in France.”

In the United States, where government largesse isn’t as central to daily life, nationalist sentiments among the white working class centers more on “the dynamics of recognition: how much place those various groups are given in social and cultural debates” about things like sexual orientation and public bathrooms, said Lamont. “That’s really viewed as totally out of proportion.”

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Trump’s election and Britain’s exit from the EU are “very encouraging” to nationalist groups across Europe, noted Grzegorz Ekiert, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government and director of the CES. © 2016 David Elmes

Look to the east

Trump’s reception in Eastern Europe has been more “mixed” than in Western Europe largely because of his seeming admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and apparent comfort with Russian expansionist interests in a part of Europe that the old Soviet Union controlled for decades, said Ekiert.

Still, populist-nationalism on the far right has blossomed in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Croatia as resentment of the EU’s power brokers in Brussels has grown.

“The paradox of this is that these were the most advanced countries in Eastern Europe. Poland, for the last 25 years, was considered to be an incredible success story,” said Ekiert. “So what this tells us is … this is not about the ‘losers of globalization.’ There are no losers of globalization in Poland. The Polish society benefited across the board from enlargement in quite incredible ways … so this is not about economic pain, this is not about marginalization, and so on. This is clearly about country” and cultural modernization.

“The last 30 years was a period of very dramatic cultural change, and the traditional societies of Eastern Europe were not really ready to embrace that change, and we see the reaction to it now. It was too much, too soon,” said Ekiert.

“It was much easier to get used to iPhones and good cars and all those other things that go with material modernization. But it was much more difficult to really make sense on the cultural level how far those societies” had evolved, he said. “So, the questions of what’s going to happen with religion, what’s going to happen with traditional families, what’s going to happen with traditional curricula in schools, how do we think about the history of our country” left many feeling unmoored.

Powerful forces like the Polish Catholic Church have opposed the EU, viewing the increasingly empty churches in an increasingly secular Western Europe as an existential threat, Ekiert added.

After decades of Soviet domination and little internal ethnic diversity, nationalist sentiments in Eastern Europe center mostly on notions of patriotism and national identity. It’s only in the last two decades that anti-immigration has emerged as a significant part of nationalist discourse, said Ekiert.

An influx of immigrants and a later quota plan from the EU that refugees should be evenly distributed among member states set off a “hysterical” reaction across Eastern Europe. Countries normally at odds banded together and refused to comply, offering aggressive language that reinforced old prejudices and stoked violence against foreigners, as well as students and tourists in Poland and Hungary.

What’s likely next

Whatever happens in the elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, the broader “dangers” that the success of Europe’s far right parties pose are “just vast,” said Bonikowski. The biggest worry is the potential erosion of democratic laws, and shared norms and beliefs.

“It really changes what’s acceptable, it changes geopolitical calculations, it creates all kinds of risks that have not been there previously. You don’t need every single country to be controlled by a nationalist-populist politician for us to be in some serious trouble,” he said. “It’s enough to have a couple, and especially the powerful ones.”

A win by Le Pen would “create chaos” because she has promised to take France out of the EU, whose three strong stool legs have been Britain (leaving), France (in question), and Germany. “If she wins, we’re all in trouble,” added Ekiert.

But even if she loses, that is not the end of the story. Other events threaten to further destabilize the EU.

“Europe is at a critical point in this game today, and the trans-Atlantic relations between Europe and the U.S., and then the relations between Europe, Russia, China, and Turkey, are at the center of everything,” said Ekiert.

The first and foremost danger is if Putin, under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians living in the region, takes action in Estonia or the Baltic republics as a test of NATO’s commitment, and especially the U.S.’s willingness, to defend all of its members.

Additionally, the war in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war, unrest in North Africa, and Turkey’s rapid move away from Europe could prompt Turkish President Recep Erdogan to release a million Syrian refugees in Turkey into Europe and put the EU on thin ice.

“That kind of ‘burning neighborhood’ is a very significant destabilizing factor,” said Ekiert. “If the European Union were as strong as was the case several years ago, we would probably see much more aggressive action, with a lot of economic aid, to stabilize those countries. But now the European Union is in survival mode and not ready for any adventures outside the EU borders.”

In addition to the geopolitical crises, a likely shift in trans-Atlantic relations under the Trump administration, Europe’s lingering economic and banking woes, questions about fundamental European institutions — including the entire EU project itself — are swirling about just as the radical right political parties are rising in nearly every country, said Ekiert.

“It looks like a perfect storm in all possible dimensions.”