Thursday, 17 November 2016

The election of Donald Trump is a final warning for liberal Europe

Liberal Europe has had quite a few warnings now – signals that all is not well and the populous are not content. The strong performance of hard-right parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The near victory of the Austrian Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer in the (to be rerun) Austrian Presidential election last May. And most spectacularly the Brexit vote which was registered on 23 June. Liberal Europe should have woken up by this point, and to some extent changed course, but it has failed to do so. The election of Donald Trump as President of America last week should be seen as another, perhaps final, warning. Mainstream European politicians need to start addressing their voters’ concerns on a number of issues, particularly related to identity and immigration, or they risk oblivion. And so far, with some exceptions, they show little sign of doing so.

Donald Trump’s victory has far bigger implications than a standard American Presidential election. It was a revolutionary event. And as a conservative I tend to be suspicious of revolutionary events. During the campaign Trump appealed, fairly openly, to white identity politics. Not necessarily white nationalism, or indeed racism, but certainly to a racialized discourse. And it worked, allowing Trump to secure the Republican nomination, and then helping, or at least not preventing, his election as President. He promised to build a ‘big beautiful’ wall along America’s Southern border, to keep out Mexicans and other Hispanics, many of whom according to Trump were rapists and criminals. He pledged to deport 11 million undocumented migrants, and to remove Syrian refugees from the United States. And, for a time, he said he would ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The subtext of Trump’s commitments was probably more important than their actual content. America has been undergoing significant ethnic and cultural change. In 2014 for the first time more minority babies were born than non-Hispanic whites. For some white Americans this is clearly a source of discomfort. And Trump’s unstated promise, when you combine his commitments, is to keep ‘traditional’ (read largely white) America strong. The mistake that liberals made, and I largely include myself in this category, was to assume that the economy trumps everything. This is usually the case, but not always. And in 2016 it wasn’t the economy stupid. Brexit and Trump’s election show that for many voters issues around identity can also be decisive. During the Brexit debate the ‘Remain’ campaign enjoyed a consistent poll lead on the economy, whilst the ‘Leave’ campaign was significantly ahead on immigration. And the ‘Leave’ campaign won. Liberals have underestimated the power of issues related to identity, and for our sake this needs to stop now.

The revolution which has taken place in America could easily be replicated in Europe. And considering that Europe is more divided, unstable and threatened than America the results could well be more destructive. There is a good chance that a far-right party will either form part of the Government, or provide the head of state, for a Western or Central European country over the next year. This could happen as soon as 4 December, when the hard-right Freedom Party candidate has a decent chance of winning the Austrian Presidential election. If not Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party is currently polling strongly for the Dutch general election on 15 March 2017, though it’s exceptionally unlikely to win outright. Most significantly Marine Le Pen has a real change of being elected French President in May 2017. If Le Pen wins it would explode the Western European post-war consensus. The EU and Eurozone would be crippled, perhaps to the point of disintegration, whilst NATO would be undermined. For the first time since 1945 France and Germany could plausibly become hostile powers.

So given the severity of the crisis we potentially face what should European liberals do? Firstly we should acknowledge that the impact of immigration is more than just economic. It’s also cultural, and for better or worse can have a significant impact on the feel and sense of community of an area. As immigrants tend to be poor they are more likely to settle in less wealthy areas, so we should also recognise that the cultural impact of immigration falls disproportionately on the working class. This is why the notion that Western states are dominated by an unrepresentative liberal elite has become so potent, and was used so effectively by Trump and Brexit campaigners. The image of liberals, who benefit from the way mass migration suppresses wages in certain professions, and whose experience of immigration is primarily more exotic restaurants on the high street, is an exaggeration rather than a fantasy. And, when combined with the way a section of the liberal-intelligentsia dismisses any concerns about immigration and/or cultural change as bigotry, it’s easy to appreciate why this has caused a backlash.

European liberals should look at the election of Trump, as well as the growing popularity of the radical right in Europe, and realise that they need to change. They need to be more responsive to concerns about immigration, and acknowledge that the impact of immigration is more than just economic. And they need to pray to God that it’s not already too late, and that the tidal-wave of public anger can be assuaged before it starts undermining liberal-democracy itself. 

If you found this piece interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter @JBickertonUK. 

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