Far-right populist movements have joined governing coalitions in Finland and Norway. They influence the political agenda in Denmark and the Netherlands. In Germany, which seemed immune from that disease, the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany recently scored 12 percent to 24 percent of the vote in three state elections. In Croatia, the minister of culture is trying to rehabilitate the fascist ideas of the Ustashe.
Those developments have generally been seen as negative but marginal — the center was still holding. Then the “illiberal wave” swept Central Europe, following the model of the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban. Poland and Slovakia are now also ruled by populist, anti-immigration, euroskeptic parties. The election of a far-right Austrian president would add a new dimension, extending the phenomenon beyond the post-Communist space where populist governments could be seen as a transitional stage for young democracies. Austria is not new Europe. It is old Europe.
We struggle to explain the rise of the far right in its various guises. Immigration is important, but the dynamics predated the refugee crisis. The euro crisis has not helped. High unemployment is crucial in France and Austria, but not an issue in Britain. Chaos in the Arab world, following the fiasco of the American-led invasion of Iraq, fuels new Middle East wars and terrorist attacks in Europe, adding to feelings of insecurity. Globalization, the loss of middle-class jobs, the rise of inequality and anxiety over the European social model have left immense frustration. Everywhere, anger toward ruling elites and mainstream institutions is patent.
Sound familiar? Yes, this is a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. Here and there, surfing on this anger, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Marine Le Pen utter statements that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. By accepting daily verbal assaults on immigrants (“They bring disease”), the European Union (“like Hitler,” it wants to impose one authority over Europe), Islam (not part of Europe; Muslims should not be allowed into the United States), torture (bring it back), we are legitimizing a public discourse that may, one day, translate into political decisions.
Like most European center-right or center-left leaders, President Obama understands this. On the day after the first round of Austria’s election, he warned in a speech in Hanover, Germany, against “the creeping emergence of the kind of politics that the European project was founded to reject: an us-versus-them mentality that tries to blame our problems on the other.”
“Our progress,” he pointed out, “is not inevitable.”
And yet, we seem to be losing to precisely that mindset once again. We've had a relatively decent period of peace in the Western World at least, the Middle East and North Africa have not been anywhere close to "peaceful" and the blowback to that is absolutely fueling this movement here.
There are some real problems ahead for liberalism in general, and it will get far worse before it gets better.