We deride chances of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump at our peril

Gideon Rachman

The rise of political extremists says something disturbing about liberal democracy in the west



I have a nightmare vision for the year 2017: President Trump, President Le Pen, President Putin.
 
Like most nightmares, this one probably won’t come true. But the very fact that Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are running strongly for the American and French presidencies says something disturbing about the health of liberal democracy in the west. In confusing and scary times, voters seem tempted to turn to “strong” nationalistic leaders — western versions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
 
In Washington recently, I found most mainstream political analysts dismissing the idea that Mr Trump could win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. This struck me as complacent. If Mr Trump were a normal candidate he would be regarded as favourite for the nomination. He is ahead in the crucial early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
 
Outrageous remarks about Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled and women have not dented his popularity.

Many Democrats chortle that if the Republicans are mad enough to nominate Mr Trump, he would certainly be trounced by Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. But even that cannot be assumed. The most recent national poll on a Trump v Clinton contest had Mr Trump winning by five points.
 
Some of Mr Trump’s statements are so openly racist that they make Ms Le Pen look like a moderate.
 
The leader of the French far right has been carefully softening her image in preparation for a run at the presidency in 2017. Even before the terrorist attacks in Paris, almost all surveys showed her reaching the final round of the election. This month her National Front may make a significant breakthrough by winning regional elections, making it look more like a potential party of government.
 
The rise of the political extremes is not confined to the US and France. Ultra-nationalist parties are in power in Hungary and Poland, both members of the EU. Nationalist parties are on the rise in Scotland and Catalonia, threatening the survival of the UK and Spain as nation states.

A sense of crisis is growing in Germany with the expected arrival of more than 1m refugees this year, leading to a backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. With recessions and debt crises in southern Europe, “fringe” parties have moved into government in Greece and Portugal.

So what is going on in western politics? The overarching development is a loss of faith in traditional political elites and a search for radical alternatives. Behind that, it seems to me, there are four broad trends: an increase in economic insecurity, a backlash against immigration, a fear of terrorism and the decline of traditional media.
 
The US has now experienced several decades of declining or stagnant real wages for the majority of Americans. In many European countries, including France, double-digit rates of unemployment have become the norm. The financial crisis of 2008 has resulted in an enduring loss of trust in the competence of elites and the fairness and stability of western economic systems.

Economic insecurity has been supplemented by a sense of social instability, linked to rising immigration. The influx of Hispanics into the US and of Muslims into western Europe has allowed the Trumps and Le Pens to argue that feckless elites have allowed fundamental social changes to take place without consulting ordinary people. Mr Trump has called for the deportation of 11m illegal immigrants from the US and Ms Le Pen once compared Muslims praying in the streets of France to the Nazi occupation.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, who is likely to run against Ms Le Pen in 2017, has joined in the assault on “multiculturalism”. This kind of rhetoric about Muslim immigration and elite betrayal is also now commonplace in Germany.
 
In the wake of the Paris attacks, fear of terrorism is merging with hostility to immigration. The shockwave from the French capital was felt across the Atlantic — where Mr Trump, along with most of the Republican field, has been quick to claim that admitting refugees would increase the risk of a terrorist attack.

For populists, nationalists and extremists across the western world, a common theme is that the mainstream media are suppressing debate and are controlled by an untrustworthy elite.
 
Republican candidates have learnt that chastising reporters is an easy way to win applause. In France and Germany the argument that the politically correct “lying media” have suppressed debate about immigration is increasingly popular. Meanwhile, the rise of social media has allowed alternative narratives to flourish. Those Americans who want to believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim find like-minded souls online or in the echo chamber of talk radio.
 
Conspiratorial talk is flourishing on social media in Europe.
 
The late senator Daniel Moynihan said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” In the age of social media, that is no longer true. For the likes of Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen and Mr Putin, anything can be labelled “true”. In this climate, against a backdrop of economic, social and physical insecurity, extremism flourishes.

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