Looking beyond the far right’s rise in the West
There is justifiable fear, domestically and internationally, over Donald Trump’s presidency. However, had he been defeated this time, something even more virulent and extreme would have likely been fomented in time for the next US presidential election, feeding further on the sense of alienation and anger, particularly among the white working class that helped bring him to power.
That sense was not born during this last election campaign. Its political manifestation can be traced back to the Tea Party movement, established in 2009 on the far right of the Republican spectrum. Amidst widespread jubilation at the time over President Barack Obama’s election, the alt-right movement’s growth was largely overlooked and underestimated until Trump’s victory.
With the incoming president and the way his administration is shaping up, the alt-right has attained the highest political office in the United States and the most powerful office in the world. That is truly frightening, but Trump’s presidency provides an opportunity for it to fail, rather than to grow and radicalise further in another four years in opposition.
The movement can no longer play victim. It is one thing to make grand promises during an election campaign, but quite another to implement them, particularly because Trump has no prior political experience. The alt-right may be celebrating, but his victory might represent the beginning of its eventual demise.
Just weeks since the election, Trump’s transition team is reportedly already in disarray, and there have been U-turns on policies that were key parts of his campaign. They include amending rather than repealing Obamacare (despite previously saying it “can’t be reformed, salvaged or fixed. It’s that bad”), conceding that the “great wall” he pledged to build along the border with Mexico could be “part fence” and dropping his repeated threat to jail Hillary Clinton (“lock her up” became a favourite chant among his supporters).
There are also the difficulties and costs of implementing a host of major and controversial policies on trade, immigration, taxes, spending and security, details of which remain vague.
It is normal for candidates to soften and alter positions once elected. However, Trump whipped up such fervour and anger among his supporters that changing course on major policies could alienate his support base, adding to the very disillusionment with the establishment that got him elected.
Such anti-establishment sentiment — mixed with the kind of xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism and nationalism that were out in the open during the US election campaign — is also on the rise in Europe, contributing to electoral gains and victories by parties at extreme ends of the political spectrum. Buoyed by Trump’s victory, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen could be among the two main contenders to be president of France in elections in the spring.
Given the rising popularity of such parties, perhaps what Europe needs too is for them to achieve electoral success, if only to show that after years of grand promises and alarmist claims in comfortable opposition, they too will struggle with the realities and complexities of national governance.
Parallels can be drawn with the Middle East post-“Arab spring”, where long-repressed Islamist parties achieved electoral success in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco on the back of resentment and frustration with the old order.
To various extents, and under different circumstances in each country, those voted into power showed that they did not have all the solutions to people’s grievances that they had promised, leading to disillusionment with such parties.
Tectonic plates are shifting in American and European politics, but the more wildly the pendulum swings, the more grandiose statements will jar with realpolitik, and in democracies, what is voted in can just as easily be voted out.