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An expert on the European far right explains the growing influence of anti-immigrant politics

May Day Protest in Paris
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front National.
(Franck Prevel/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In the past year, something scary has been brewing in Europe. The radical right — a group of extremist parties united mostly by their deep hatred of immigrants — has been surging in popularity.

Just last week, Austria's Freedom Party came within a percentage point of winning the country's presidency. France's Front National has a shot at winning the next round of presidential elections, and the Netherlands' Party for Freedom is topping the country's polls. It just goes on like this, in countries as diverse as the UK, Italy, and Hungary.

The rise of these parties is one of the most important stories in the world today — and one that Americans should really pay attention to in the age of Donald Trump. So to understand the European far right better, I got in touch with Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and specialist on the European far right.

The current crop of radicals, Mudde explains, aren't like old-school European fascists; their ideology isn't about toppling democracy. Nor is it primarily focused on the economy. Instead, it's about xenophobia: about marking Europe as a place for (mostly white) Europeans and keeping out the (mostly Muslim) foreign threats. And the past year — marked by a refugee crisis, a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe, and a failure of the traditional European elite to solve the country's persistent economic problems — created what Mudde calls a "perfect storm" for the radical right's rise.

What follows is a transcript of our chat about the European radical right, from what ideas they stand for to where they stand, politically speaking, today. It's been edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: Here's the really basic, "European Far Right 101" question — what makes them different from normal conservative parties?

Cas Mudde: The core of the ideology of the radical right includes three features: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism.

Nativism is a xenophobic form of nationalism, a belief that the state should be inhabited only by members of one nation. Everyone and everything that's non-native — that is, alien — is threatening.

Authoritarianism means you believe society should be strictly ordered, which means that any infringement on order should be severely punished. That generally leads to law-and-order policies, but also seeing almost every major issue as first and foremost a security issue. So, for example, drugs are not a health issue that has to be dealt with from that perspective. They must be cracked down on.

Populism means that you see society as constituted of two homogeneous and antagonistic groups. On the one hand you have the elite, who's all corrupt. And on the other hand you have the people, who are pure.

Authoritarianism is the one [the radical right shares] with conservative parties. But nativism and populism set them apart.

The economy is secondary to radical right parties. The economy is used to emphasize other parts of their ideology. [So] they've never supported a global free market; what they stand for is economic nationalism. The economy should always be at the service of the nation. That means a kind of national capitalism where the state plays an important role to protect the national economy from foreign influence, which means they tend to be skeptical toward multinationals. They're very supportive of tariffs.

And more recently, they've become more outspoken supporters of the welfare state. But it's a kind of "welfare chauvinism": They support the welfare state, but only for the native people.

Their argument is that the welfare state is good but it needs reform. While other [conservative] parties want to reform it by taking away certain things, they want to reform it by kicking non-natives out of the welfare state system. They often have slogans like, "Our own people first," which means giving "national preference" in benefits; the non-natives can get [them] if there's still something left.

ZB: How do they understand "native" in this sense? Americans tend to see this through the lens of race, but do Europeans? Would far-right parties in Western Europe see an immigrant from, say, Algeria in the same way they'd see an immigrant from Eastern Europe?

CM: There is no discourse of "race" in Europe. Outside of Britain, the word is so tainted that you do not use the term. We use terms of "ethnicity."

That said, as far as the parties are ideological about it, they have a hierarchy of the possibility to "integrate," by which they mean assimilate. Overall the parties are very tolerant toward Western Europeans. They argue that a Dutch person can become French pretty easily, because they share a "higher" European culture.

They're not very tolerant toward non-Europeans, and argue that they will have a lot of problems in becoming native. East Europeans tended to be kind of included in the European group, until they came in large numbers — at which point various parties in Western Europe became almost as hostile toward Eastern Europeans as they were toward non-Europeans.

So there is an aspect of color in it. But the key enemy has become Islam. That's done some good for some other minorities. If you look in the Netherlands, for example, Moroccans and Turks are perceived as Others, while Surinamese — who are black but not Muslim — have disappeared from the "Other" category. Today you can see some nonwhites among radical right parties, but they tend to be Christian or at the very least non-Muslim.

ZB: You do hear this rhetoric of European civilization, or Christian civilization, a lot from these parties.

CM: Very often Judeo-Christian.

ZB: I was about to ask about anti-Semitism. You see that in some of these parties but not others.

CM: Mostly in the East.

Eastern European radical right parties are different, for a broad variety of reasons. They have a different relationship to the Second World War, because in between [then and now] there was communism. They have much less political correctness, so they'll say things in ways that you'd never hear in Western Europe. And they didn't have mass immigration until 2015, so they were much busier with domestic minorities — most notably Roma, the most disliked minority in all of Europe.

And there's quite a lot of anti-Semitism in the East, even in countries that have very few Jews (like Poland). By contrast, anti-Semitism is almost absent on the radical right in Western Europe. If it comes from the right, it tends to be neo-Nazi groups, not radical right parties.

ZB: So that's another important point — radical right parties try to distance themselves from the heritage of fascism, at least in Western Europe.

CM: Yes, completely.

There are three more or less neo-Nazi parties that are currently represented in European parliaments: in Slovakia, Greece, and Cyprus. That is quite remarkable. But the parties we normally talk about, the parties that get into the 20 percent vote level, those parties tend to stay far away from fascism and open anti-Semitism.

I make a distinction generally between the extreme right, which opposes democracy as such, and the radical right, which accepts democracy but challenges some of the fundamentals of liberal democracy — particularly pluralism and minority rights.

By defining "global Islam" as the enemy, they present themselves as the defenders of democracy and even of some liberal values — like general equality, separation of church and state, and, increasingly, gay rights.

ZB: So when did these parties start cropping up in Europe? Obviously it's post-1945, given that fascism dominated Europe beforehand.

CM: The first group that's really been successful and widespread emerged pretty much in the mid- to late 1980s. That is when the contemporary parties kind of emerged as a group. The prototype of this wave is Front National [in France].

It's important to note that some of these parties emerged much earlier. The Austrian Freedom Party emerged in the 1950s. The Swiss People's Party emerged even earlier. But these two parties were transformed: They were initially not radical right, but then they were taken over by a radical right leader who pushed them in that direction in the late 1980s.

ZB: So what happened then? Since this was a Europe-wide phenomenon around that time, it suggests that something around the continent happened to lead to the radical right's rise.

CM: I think one of the things that happened was that multiculturalism became a reality. In Europe, immigrants came as so-called "guest workers" in the '50s and '60s. They were not politicized, because the understanding was that they were going to go back.

After the [1970s] oil crisis, economic immigration was by and large stopped. Guest workers got a choice: stay or go back. And they stayed, and brought over their families.

It wasn't until the 1980s that they [joined] the general population. Until then, they were mostly secluded; it was mostly men who worked in factories, all together, and [lived] quite close to where they worked. When the families came over, they started to move into residential areas, working-class areas in particular.

That was one of the key developments — the visibility of multiculturalism, which was not addressed by the mainstream parties.

ZB: So since then, these parties have grown and persisted, but not in every European country. France and Austria have strong radical right parties, but Spain doesn't. Why some countries and not others?

CM: That's unfortunately not that easy [to answer]. One of the things that plays a role, for sure, is what kind of other parties are available, in combination with electoral systems.

For example, in Britain you have an electoral system that makes it difficult for parties to emerge. On top of that, the Conservative Party has at times had a relatively strong discourse on immigration. Not so much policies, but discourse.

It also partly has to do with when the immigration came. Scandinavia only really saw significant nonwhite immigration in the 1990s. And Spain and Portugal have seen much less, outside their former colonies.

ZB: We've seen truly astonishing growth in the radical right in the past several years particularly. Is that a result of the 2008 crash and subsequent euro crisis?

CM: I think that's partly true.

What the crisis has done is weakened other parties. One of the things we've seen as a consequence of the crisis is a sharp decrease in support for the other parties, including the mainstream center right. That's made the radical right stronger. When you have a party that's getting 20 percent of the vote but others have above 40, you have less influence than when you have 15 percent but others have 20.

But the economic crisis didn't help the radical right all that much. It is important to note that the financial crisis hasn't created many new radical right parties. [And] Austria's Freedom Party got almost 30 percent of the vote in 1999, so without the crisis they've also done well.

It only started to become profitable for the radical right when the economic crisis was linked the perceived incompetence of the EU leadership, and when there was a connection to, of course, the refugee crisis.

The perfect storm emerged in 2015. You had the refugee crisis, which went together with the nativism. The terrorism attacks, which go together with the authoritarianism. And the European crisis goes together with the populism. This is absolutely the perfect storm for these parties; all the three features at the core of their ideology are triggered.

ZB: We've seen this in Western Europe, with surging poll numbers for Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party, the rise of AfD [Alternative for Germany] in Germany, etc. But the radical right's rise in Eastern Europe has been perhaps been even more pronounced.

CM: Until 2015, roughly, the radical right was particularly weak in Eastern Europe. Jobbik in Hungary was really the only successful party, and other parties were on the decline — they peaked in the 1990s.

2015 has created an orgy of Islamophobia. The interesting part of it is that it comes almost exclusively from the political establishment, which includes traditional conservative parties like Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, as well as social democratic politicians like Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, or Miloš Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic.

ZB: Fidesz in particular, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, seems to have tacked really far to the right since the refugee crisis.

CM: I personally consider Orbán, and Fidesz since 2015, as a radical right actor. Their propaganda tends to be a more Christian conservative thing, but you cannot ignore the constant barrage of nativist arguments.

Orbán has become the most important voice of radical right ideology. His opposition to immigration is not just Hungarian anymore — he's now saving the whole Christian European homeland. [The rhetoric] comes straight out of radical right propaganda, including seeing the refugees as a "Muslim army" and seeing some kind of conspiracy on the left to allow refugees in to artificially increase their electorate.

He's not so much increasing the radical right as he's saying what they've been saying all along. The radical right loves him, perhaps even more than they love Trump. They're endlessly praising Orbán as the only one who actually stands up; they consider him completely as one of them.

But Orbán's influence is on the mainstream. Now he's actually pretty popular within the European People's Party [a Europe-wide confederation of conservative parties] and is actually challenging [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel.

Orbán is now very much not just the voice of the radical right but of the most conservative parts of the center right.