To understand the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump, you need to understand that this isn’t just an American thing.
Sure, Trump himself may be a uniquely American character. His brand of uber-capitalist nouveau riche charlatanry feels tailored to a country that sees upward mobility as a sort of gospel.
But focusing too much on Trump himself, as a person, risks missing the real force behind his rise: a wave of cultural anger — mostly, though not exclusively, as a result of mass immigration — that is sweeping the Western world.
Across Europe, right-wing populist parties sounding themes very much like Trump’s have soared in the polls in recent years. The Brexit vote is only the latest victory for these movements; some far-right parties actually serve in their country’s government.
Understanding what Trump means — both why he’s gotten this far and how he might reshape American politics — requires moving away from thinking of America as unique. Instead, we need to understand what’s happening in the Western world writ large. That means figuring out why an increasingly large segment of the West’s white voters feel besieged — and what to do about it.
Why Europe is turning right: immigration
To understand Trump, you need to understand the European far right’s rise. And to understand the European far right’s rise, you need to go back to the mid-1980s.
Around then, for a number of different reasons, immigration to Europe increased sharply. Migrants from places like North Africa, who had previously come as guest workers, began bringing their families and moving out of heavily migrant neighborhoods. At the same time, a series of wars sent refugees into European borders. These two developments led to both an increase in permanent immigration and an increase in the visibility of non-natives across the European continent.
Many native Europeans didn’t take kindly to the growth of immigration. They saw these migrants as a threat to European culture, a drain on the welfare state, and a threat to their own safety.
As a result, European politics began shifting to the right. Some new parties formed, like France’s National Front, while other older parties, like Austria’s Freedom Party, were taken over by fringe-right factions. These new or remade parties had diverse opinions on issues like the welfare state, taxes, and foreign policy. But there was one core belief they all shared: hostility to mass immigration.
“What unites the radical right in Europe is their focus on immigration,” Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, an expert on the radical right at the University of Bergen in Norway, explains. That focus on immigration, she says, explains why these parties began taking off around the same time — the mid- to late ’80s.
This was not, it’s important to note, a reaction by white Europeans to their declining economic fortunes — particularly, as some suggest, due to job losses caused by globalization.
“If you look at the pattern of where the populists have done really well, they’ve actually done really well in the relatively richer countries of Europe,” Ivarsflaten says. She continues:
In the countries where they’ve done regionally, they’ve done well in the richer regions. Think about Italy, where they’ve done well in the north, or Belgium, where they’ve done well in the north — or the fact that the populists are in government in in my country, Norway, which is [one of the] richest countries on the planet.
Another key point, according to Ivarsflaten, is that these parties’ constituencies are disproportionately male. This matters because European women generally make less money then men, and work in sectors like health care where they’re more likely to compete with immigrants for jobs. If this were principally about economic anxiety, you’d expect women to be more attracted to radical right parties than men are. But you actually see the reverse.
The real core appeal of these parties is cultural rather than economic. When some European countries were first confronted with large-scale immigration from non-European countries, they saw it as a threat to their traditional way of life. These mostly white, mostly not-well-educated voters experienced the change as threat, which manifested in support for hard-line anti-immigrant parties. It’s a mix of fear of change and xenophobia.
“Xenophobia plays a bigger role than people realize,” Ivarsflaten says. “That’s what you see when you do survey experiments.”
Muslim immigration, in particular, has played a key role in the radical right’s rise. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of Europe’s population that is Muslim increased by 50 percent (from 4 percent to 6 percent). Muslim immigrants feel very alien to these uneducated white Europeans; they look at women in hijabs and people with darker skin tones and see threats to “traditional” European society.
The European far right capitalized on this, growing stronger particularly over the course of the past decade. They’ve positioned themselves as the only politicians willing to say that Muslim immigrants are a “fundamental threat” to European society — in terms of not only physical safety but also threats to Europe’s liberal values.
“The key enemy has become Islam,” Cas Mudde, a European far-right expert at the University of Georgia, explains. “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.”
As a result, 2015 was a watershed year for the far right. (The 2008 financial crisis, interestingly, didn’t help them nearly as much.) The European refugee crisis, where huge numbers of people from mainly Muslim countries fled to Europe for safety, intensified European fears of immigration. Ditto jihadist terrorist attacks, like the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January of that year and the massacres at the Bataclan theater and other locations around Paris in November.
As a result, the poll numbers of European far-right parties shot up. The Austrian Freedom Party came within a percentage point of winning the country's presidency in an election last year. France's National Front has a shot at winning the next round of presidential elections, and the Netherlands' Party for Freedom is topping the country's polls.
Most importantly, the UK voted to leave the European Union, a vote that was supported by its far-right party and principally driven by the same sort of xenophobia that’s fueled the radical right’s rise across Europe.
The bottom line, then, is that this is a widespread backlash, driven by decades of skepticism about a changing Europe. It’s powerful, and it’s here to stay.
Trump supporters are lot like European far-rightist supporters
Much of Trump’s hardcore support — not the lukewarm “I’m a Republican, and I guess he’s better than Hillary Clinton” stuff, but the real thing — comes from exactly the same source of the European far-right’s support: white resentment about a changing society.
Trump, unlike traditional Republican candidates, isn’t ideologically hostile to the welfare state. He doesn’t get particularly incensed about same-sex marriage, and he lacks anything resembling a coherent foreign policy doctrine.
What he has offered most clearly and consistently is a deep hostility to immigrants, particularly to Mexicans and Muslims. He calls Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists. His two most famous policy proposals are building a wall on the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the country.
In other words, Trump is tapping into the same vein of xenophobia that has proven so rich for the European far right. His voters share roughly the same demographic profile as European far-right voters: white, male, and relatively less educated.
Survey data suggests these voters are attracted to Trump for the same reason that, say, French voters are attracted to the National Front: fear of immigrants.
“The results of a FiveThirtyEight and SurveyMonkey poll conducted in June found that one of the most indicative variables in determining Republican identification this year was agreement with the statement that the ‘number of immigrants who come to the United States each year’ should ‘decrease,’” FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone writes. “The election has taken on a distinctly racial tinge, and in doing so, has clarified the motivations of voters somewhat.”
You also see this in the pattern of primary votes. During the GOP primary contest, Trump performed strongly in the Northeast and South, but not as well in the West and Midwest. The pro-Trump regions score much higher on a test of racial bias than the anti-Trump ones, according to data from Harvard University — suggesting that hardcore Trump support is linked to racial attitudes more than purely economic ones.
More broadly, the sources of anti-immigrant anxiety appear to be cultural, centering on crime and American identity rather than on economic grievance. Anti-immigrant attitudes in the United States, like in Europe, aren’t well-correlated with economic concerns. What they do track with, quite strongly, are xenophobia and ethnocentrism.
“General ethnocentrism seems to be a powerful antecedent of immigration opinion, typically displaying larger effects than economic concerns,” a group of scholars at the University of Michigan write in a 2013 paper. "Evidence about the role of economic concerns in opposition to immigration ... has been inconsistent. On the other hand, symbolic attitudes such as group identities turn up as powerful in study after study."
A Vox/Morning Consult poll released in early July found that white Americans are far more comfortable with immigration from Europe than they are with immigration from Latin America or Africa. This is the opposite of what you’d expect if their concerns with immigration were economic: White Americans, according to economic research, are more likely to compete for jobs against European immigrants than against any other group.
Trump’s appeal, then, is not entirely unique. His appeal is very similar to what we’re seeing across Europe: anti-immigrant politics serving as a vehicle for whites to express their displeasure with changes in social status.
Now, these parties represent a minority of Europeans: None of them has outright won a parliamentary or presidential election in Western Europe, even in fragmented European political systems.
But the European far right’s tide has been rising for 30 years, buoyed by fundamental shifts in the continent’s demographic makeup. Country after country has seen right-wing parties rise, and they’ve gotten increasingly successful in recent years. The fact that they haven’t won an election may only be a matter of time.
So whether or not Trump wins the national election, he has proven that European-style demagoguery has a real constituency in the United States. Other Republican politicians looking for lessons on how to succeed now have a blueprint other than traditional conservatism: a form of far-right populism rooted in xenophobia and deep-running anxiety about cultural change.
There’s a real chance that Trump isn’t the end of Trumpism — but rather the beginning.