Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), arrives at Republican president-elect Donald Trump's Trump Tower in New York.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Those feeling left behind in a globalized world are striking back where they can through the ballot box, using liberal democratic election systems to power illiberal aims.
The trend is undeniable: Far-right parties are on the march from Eastern Europe to the United States, promoting nationalism as a front for turning their countries inward, away from an increasingly interconnected world.
The Freedom Party in Austria, Jobbik in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, the National Front in France, the Danish People’s Party and Britain’s movement to leave the European Union, have all gained substantial ground – if not secured governing majorities – over the past two years. The rise of President-elect Donald Trump is simply an extension of that movement, where populations across the Western world are rejecting immigration, freedom of trade and global integration, in favor of nativism, protectionism and disengagement.
Because this trend is global, we can compare and contrast the situations in which these countries find themselves, and identify which factors are consistent throughout. One factor that is not consistent can be found in the economic woes of working-class white people.
While America’s Rust Belt manufacturing communities – white men without a college education – barely experienced a recovery following the Great Recession of 2008. That has not been the case in France, where the middle class is well protected; in Germany, where manufacturing has remained robust; or in Denmark, rated one of the happiest nations on Earth.
What does appear to be consistent is the resurgence of anti-immigrant nativism, in an age that witnessed an unprecedented movement of people – mostly of those who are not white to places traditionally inhabited by white Christians.
There is a paradox within the democratic process that, by prioritizing popular rule, democratic nations allow for a majority of their populace to deny rights of the minority – or to willfully erode the very institutions that provided them with those rights in the first place.
Law and Justice, for example, was democratically elected before swiftly proceeding to alter Poland’s Constitutional Court and campaign for a new presidential power to create laws by decree.
Nationwide protests against Trump are not over his free and fair election to the presidency, but rather over fears that he will abrogate democratic norms and institutions that have long protected journalists, religious minorities and ethnic groups within the US.
As he traveled from Washington to New York on his second day as president-elect, Trump chose not to inform the press of his whereabouts – an unprecedented move after five decades of agreement from presidents to travel with a protective pool of reporters.
Later that day, he blamed media outlets for growing opposition against him in the streets. Trump campaigned on tightening libel laws so that he and his administration will be able to target news organizations more freely based on their coverage.
Asked last week on Capitol Hill whether he still plans to ban Muslims from entering the US, Trump declined to respond.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a confidante of Trump and a likely senior member of his upcoming administration, said on Sunday that Trump is likely to ban immigration from specific countries, as opposed to enforcing a religious test on those entering the homeland.
Since Tuesday, Trump has not specified what he will do with children of immigrants born in the US – American citizens – should he seek to deport their family members. And the president- elect has yet to outline whether he will make good on his campaign promise to surveil Muslim-American communities for extremist sympathies – a policy described as unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The Constitution – there’s nothing like it,” Trump said in a CBS interview in July. “But it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide as a country, okay?” This is driving liberal fears upon entering the Trump era.
Americans do not yet know whether their next president has a basic understanding of, or respect for, the democratic institutions that facilitated his rise, yet came under his verbal assault during the course of the campaign.
Several of Trump’s most controversial policies – those that fed his populist surge to victory – will require participation from his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, themselves divided between a base eager to raise America’s drawbridges together with the rest of the world, and those who remain in old-school conservative thought, committed to free trade, global leadership and the protection of civil liberties.
“This isn’t a dictatorship, this is a democracy,” Sean Spicer, communications director and chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.
“He’s going to work with the House and the Senate.”
Trump’s dynamic with the legislature and judiciary will determine the fate of his individual policy proposals. That is the case with all presidents.
But Trump’s victory will also test fundamental uncertainties felt by Democrats throughout the 2016 campaign: Whether democracy itself was on the ballot, and whether America’s constitution can withstand significant trials of its institutions.