Even amid the spectacular information glut that is life today, provincialism remains the normal human attitude, and perhaps especially for citizens of the world’s superpower. American exceptionalism is not merely a matter of regarding our national character and moral standing as unique, but our history and politics as well. Thus we instinctively tend to view the election of Donald Trump as an entirely homegrown phenomenon. For Never-Trumpers the president is our own bad American karma, a crass capture of politics by our entertainment culture; for Ever-Trumpers, he’s our brash American tycoon-hero, and possibly our rescuer.
But it’s worth keeping in mind the larger, global picture, in which Trump figures as emblematic of a particular historical-political moment—and movement. His election parallels an upsurge in populist nationalism across any number of countries, expressed in resurgent national pride, anti-immigrant animus, a preference for bellicose and authoritarian leadership styles, and what Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol calls the increasing prevalence of “raw nativism.”
I’ve written before about the German backlash against the generous immigration policies of the Merkel government, and how it has spurred right-wing activism, most notably in the rise of Alternativ für Deutschland, the party that captured 13 percent of the popular vote in elections last September, placing ninety-four representatives in the Bundestag—the first rightist party to do so since Hitler’s. My German friends reassure me that the AfD will be marginalized and ignored, and certainly never invited into governance. That may be. But it has already created havoc; the presence within the German polity of an undigestible 13 percent has stymied the metabolism of governance, vastly complicating the task of forming a governing coalition. And what happens if the AfD goes to 20 percent? At some point, some other party will have to partner with them.
The situation in Germany merits a closer look. A front-page article in the New York Times profiles a forty-eight-year-old coal miner named Guido Reil, an ex-trade unionist and longtime Social Democratic Party voter who now follows what the writer calls “the new siren call of the far right.” The article notes that the prospect of a far-right party drawing votes from a traditional bastion of the left “goes directly to the heart of the emerging threat the AfD presents to Germany’s political establishment.” Significantly, Guido Reil lives in the Ruhr, a depressed industrial region in Germany’s heartland, where mines have closed, industry has moved away and economic stagnation has set in —and with it, widespread political disaffection. The article tells how one AfD representative boasted in the Bundestag of his party as “a new people’s party that cares about the little people;” when SPD lawmakers guffawed in derision, he pointed at TV cameras and warned, “Go ahead and laugh, your voters are watching.”
The AfD appeals to what the Times calls “Germany’s left-behinds,” and does so by taking a hard line on immigration. The idea is that the German welfare state is worth saving—for Germans and Germans only. Immigrants, in this view, are an insidious presence draining away benefits from Germans. “You need to manage who is coming into your country,” an AfD representative in Berlin comments. “Open borders and the welfare state don’t go together.” Two leading female members of AfD, meanwhile, recently achieved notoriety with a Twitter rant about “barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men.” And German progressives remain torn between those who advocate shunning the right wing, because of such racist comments, and others, the Times reports, who “warn that the reflex to ostracize the AfD could backfire.”
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