The rise of right-wing populists

The New York Times reports: Mass shootings by Islamist militants. Migrants crashing borders. International competition punishing workers but enriching elites.

Across the Western world, a new breed of right-leaning populists like Donald J. Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary are surging in popularity by capitalizing on a climate of insecurity rivaling the period after the First World War.

Many of them — as Mr. Trump did this week — have made headlines by railing against Muslim immigrants, calling them a threat to public safety and cultural identity. Left-leaning critics have compared the populists to the fascists of the early 20th century. Some riding the wave, like the Freedom Party in Austria or Golden Dawn in Greece, have specific neo-Nazi roots.

Unlike earlier right-wing movements, this generation of populists disavows the overt racism, militaristic rhetoric and associations with fascism that until recently scared away many mainstream voters.

Before the recent terrorist attacks or the European migrant crisis cast a spotlight on Muslim immigration, the populists had built support as trade protectionists or economic nationalists appealing to working-class voters who felt disaffected from established parties and political elites. And, for the first time in nearly a century, established parties across Europe and the United States are struggling to fend off or counter the populist insurgents as their competition pulls the mainstream to the right.

“What you are seeing here is quite a radical shift,” said Roger Eatwell, a political scientist at the University of Bath who studies right-wing parties.

Ms. Le Pen is the best-known figure from more than a dozen right-leaning populist parties across Europe that have scored big gains over the last two years. This week, her National Front party won the largest share of the vote in the first round of regional elections in France, with 30 percent, making her a contender for the presidency in 2017. She campaigns against what she calls the Islamization of France and has compared Muslims praying in French streets to the Nazi occupation.

But Ms. Le Pen fuses her cultural chauvinism with appeals to the economic anxieties of working or lower-middle class voters who — like their counterparts across Europe — have suffered from high unemployment, stagnant wages and growing income inequality, especially since the financial crisis of 2008.

“They are pulling out all the stops for the migrants, the illegals, but who is looking out for our retirees?” Ms. Le Pen asked in a recent campaign appearance. “They are stealing from the poor to give to foreigners who did not even ask our permission to come here.”

Mr. Trump on Monday evoked comparisons to Ms. Le Pen and her European counterparts with his call to close American borders to all Muslims “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Ms. Le Pen said that was too much for her, perhaps in part because she feared jeopardizing the progress she had made in shedding her party’s previous image as racist and anti-Semitic.

“Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?” she asked on Thursday when questioned about Mr. Trump’s comments during a television interview. “I defend all the French people in France, regardless of their origin, regardless of their religion.”

Others in Europe’s right-leaning populist parties, though, are applauding Mr. Trump for breaking with what they call the multiculturalist orthodoxy of dominant political elites. [Continue reading…]

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