The very European flavor of Donald Trump

Donald Trump signs an autograph for a supporter in Dubuque, Iowa. Ben Brewer | Reuters

Donald Trump signs an autograph for a supporter in Dubuque, Iowa. Ben Brewer | Reuters

Yes, you read that right. European.

Journey with me, dear reader, across the pond to the European continent and her various nations, because believe it or not, the phenomenon of Donald Trump is not unique to our American shores.

That may sound unlikely. After all, Europeans are famous for their advanced (some would say snooty and elitist) culture, and Europeans, particularly French and British citizens, frequently look down on their American cousins as boorish, outlandish rubes.

But in many ways, Europe has been ahead of the curve when it comes to aggressive, divisive populist anger, and bombastic candidates who reflect it.

Consider, for example, the National Front in France — a far-right, nationalist political party in a country widely (and inaccurately, I might add) viewed as a socialist haven. It advocates a platform that sounds very similar to the message of Trump: economic protectionism, a renewed and aggressive focus on law and order, opposition to the European Union, and rabidly anti-immigration (legal or illegal) sentiments.

France has a two-round presidential election, whereby dozens of parties field candidates in the first round, and if no candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers move on.

The National Front’s first leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, stood atop the party for decades, always firmly on the outside of French politics. But in 2002, his unified and energized populist supporters managed to shock French politics, and Le Pen came in second place, beating the much more established and respected Socialist Party by nearly 200,000 votes (though Le Pen was crushed by the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second round).

Flash forward to today and Le Pen’s far more articulate and politically savvy daughter, Marine Le Pen, heads up the party and according to polling, is a real threat to the old political establishment in the next French presidential election. A French Trump, if you will.

Or consider the UK Independence Party in Britain.

Like its French brethren, the UKIP is focused heavily on British nationalism, opposition to high levels of immigration and skepticism about the European Union. In the most recent parliamentary election, the UKIP increased its level of support in nationwide polling from its historically consistent numbers in the low single digits to nearly 20 percent.

Or we could, perhaps, talk about the Sweden Democrats, rooted in, you guessed it, populist right-wing politics, nationalism, and anti-immigration sentiments. A poll out of Sweden last week put the Sweden Democrats in the lead for the first time in its history.

The list goes on and on. And in most cases, the movement is growing, and growing significantly.

But the characteristics are always the same. These movements place a heavy emphasis on populism, which claims to represent the interests of “the people” against “the elites.” They appeal to a feeling of collective loss of identity, which is why the nationalist and anti-immigration messages work so well, as they specifically address those fears and concerns.

In Europe, however, these parties have been more readily apparent, even if they haven’t been as politically powerful, for years. And the simple reason for that is multi-party democracy.

Across the Atlantic, while there are always typically two “large parties” that function as the “acceptable right” and the “acceptable left,” differing election systems have allowed many other parties to flourish. Thus, divisions naturally crop up, and more extreme, hard line voters have the option to form their own, often single-minded political parties.

In the United States, we have (for a variety of reasons) a two-party system, and if either of the two parties broke itself into pieces, it would be guaranteeing elective success to its mortal enemy. Thus, extreme nationalists, populists, moderates, libertarians, Christian conservatives and a number of other groups all have to coexist under a single tent if they want a realistic chance of winning.

But whether you like Donald Trump or you don’t — and I’m on record firmly opposing his brand of authoritarian, anti-conservative populist rhetoric — he has emerged and finally given a voice to an increasingly unhappy group of people within the Republican Party.

To his supporters, being on the “right-wing team” has gotten them nothing, so there is no longer any reason to play for that team. The elites (of both parties) have failed them, and along comes a figure that perfectly encapsulates their frustration with the system.

It is no surprise, then, that Trump has risen, and that his rise has been durable. Looking to Europe, I don’t expect him to go away.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.