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The all-American Donald Trump: why Trump's rise could only happen here

French Far-Right National Front President Marine Le Pen Is At Henin Beaumont For North Regional Elections
Trump shares some interests with the French far-right party the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen.
Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Many smart analysts across the political spectrum have rightly situated Donald Trump’s run for president in the international context of the ethno-nationalist parties found throughout Western Europe. In the UK, the Independence Party (UKIP) just led the winning referendum campaign — Brexit — in support of Britain leaving the European Union. In late 2015, the anti-Muslim French National Front (FN), received 27 percent of the vote in local elections around the country.

Like Trump, these and other European rightist parties have made the limitation of immigration their most salient issue. They also claim to defend their country from forces like economic and political integration, which might dilute national sovereignty.

This embrace of a comparative perspective is a welcome development — a turn away from the lens of "American exceptionalism" that views European or other international developments as irrelevant to those in the United States. Yet while it’s important to note that both Europe and the United States are witnessing potent new strains of nativist and nationalist politics, there are also sharp discontinuities between European nativism and the American variety.

There are indigenous reasons why Donald Trump — a demagogic, incompetent, racist ignoramus — is one of only two people who have a chance to become the next president of the United States. Trump’s rise, for example, can certainly be linked to the lazy American veneration of "practical" knowledge that the successful "self-made" businessman is alleged to provide. (Such men were seen even in the early 19th century as … "an overwhelming counterpoise to reflection in this country," as Richard Hofstadter put it in his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) But it is really the unique structure of our political system and the historical development of the Republican Party that has converted Trump from a cheap pop-cultural laugh to a national menace. And Trump has made the most of his chance. As the song says, "Only in America, land of opportunity…"

In the United States, the ethno-nationalist candidate heads a major party

It’s true that all over Europe, ethno-nationalist splinter parties have taken increasingly larger percentages of the vote in recent elections, a development correlated with an increasing influx of noncitizens to these nations. But none of these parties have come close to gaining even a large plurality, let alone a majority of voters, in any one country. (See the chart accompanying this article in FiveThirtyEight.) The Swiss People’s Party, for example, has been numerically the most successful of the ethno-nationalist parties in recent national elections, and has been part of coalition governments, but its highest vote total was 29 percent in 2015 — and its position to oppose easing of rules regarding asylum was recently overwhelmingly defeated in a national referendum.

European nations, of course, are mostly governed by systems of proportional representation, which encourage the creation of multiple political parties that can have some influence in parliament, but must join with larger parties to exercise state power. Even parliamentary systems with first-past-the-post election mechanisms — that is, the candidate with the most votes in a legislative district wins the seat and other parties receive no representation — like those in the UK and Canada, provide more space for robust secondary parties than does the American combination of first-past-the-post and a presidential system with separation of powers.

This means that while it is easier in Europe than the United States to create reasonably successful secondary parties with extreme anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist views — parties hostile to liberal values — at the same time such parties tend to remain subordinate to major parties. Yes, ethno-nationalist parties have growing influence on the political culture, especially in France, the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands. But it is difficult, although not impossible, for European ethno-nationalist parties to construct coalitions that would allow them to dominate a national government.

Conservative mainstream parties sometimes try to co-opt some of their rhetoric, but they, along with media and economic elites, often attempt to isolate the ethno-national parties, framing them as being outside the national consensus and agreeing that they will not cooperate with them. This has happened both to far-left and far-right parties: In postwar Italy, the Communist Party — the largest in Western Europe — had for a time the support of about one-third of the electorate and controlled several local governments, but it was never permitted into a national governing coalition.

In the United States, however, there is no place for the sizable minority of racist and ethno-nationalist voters to go except within a major party. And there is also no place for elites of that party to go. If this were Europe, Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell might accept some tactical support from an interloping right-wing party but vigorously distance themselves from that party’s more noxious views and its leading politicians. Here, they can’t renounce Trump without renouncing the muscle and bones of their own political organization and its nominating convention.

Unlike European ethno-nationalists, Trump supporters are also hostile to the welfare state.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Thus when an extremist movement is paradoxically under the conventional auspices of a major party, there is a strong possibility that, with the help of millions of more "typical" major party voters, these marginal views can control the wide center of a political culture. The vociferous support for Trump from white nationalists — and the prevalence of racist shouts and taunts at Trump rallies — underscores the observation that while all Republicans are, of course, not racists or nativists, the party is now the preferred political home for the millions of Americans who are.

In short, the idea that Trump is actually the Republican nominee for president — the nominee of a 160-year-old major American political party that is, yes, the party of Lincoln — rather than, like George Wallace or Ross Perot (or, for that matter, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein) a candidate of an ephemeral minor party, is a very big deal.

American historians and social scientists have often observed (with a bit of smugness) that the rough and ready United States was more successful in resisting extremism of the right or left during the 1930s than was much of Europe. Yet now, the most famous racist and nativist in the land — though he trails in the polls and depends almost entirely on white voters — is only a few unknown unknowns away from taking the oath of office next January.

The Republican Party is unlike any other major or minor conservative party in the advanced world

The Republican Party is not only a major party — which, in fact, controls most of the state governments in the United States — it is also sui generis in its ideology. Ethno-nationalist parties in Western Europe, and also the mainstream conservative parties there, do not oppose the large welfare states in their respective nations. Rather, members of the ethno-nationalist parties tend to be what political scientists have called "welfare chauvinists": They endorse full public services and social insurance for native-born citizens only, seeking to cut off new immigrants.

The Danish People’s Party (DPP), for example — which bluntly states in its platform that it will "not accept" Denmark becoming a multi-ethnic society — actually proposes more public spending and increased unemployment benefits compared with the nation’s venerable center-left Social Democratic Party. The Danish People’s Party couples that big-government proposal, however, with a corresponding decline in resources provided to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Even those European parties that wish to lower taxes and reduce services and benefits somewhat (as the major center-right parties do) would still leave government spending and taxes, in almost every case, at a far higher level than that of the United States — or, in most cases, even that proposed by Bernie Sanders.

None of the ethno-nationalist or mainstream conservative parties in Europe, for example, support fundamental transformations and reductions in their nation’s national health insurance programs that would result in the elimination of universal coverage for citizens (Even the Swiss People’s Party, while advocating market revisions in the national health care system, supports universal coverage for every Swiss citizen.)

In the United States, the Republican Party continues to fight to prevent universal health insurance from occurring in the first place. In stark contrast, Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party made the case that savings from the UK’s membership in the European Union would be applied to shoring up the National Health Service. Farage was lying, as it happens — there will be no such windfall for the health service — but he understood that voters supporting Brexit would find the lie appealing.

Ethno-nationalist or not, European rightist parties accept the central tenets of the mixed economy. By contrast, following the juridical collapse of the white supremacist "solid South" of the Democratic Party and the dramatic cultural and economic changes forged by the Civil Rights and feminist movements, the Republican Party, over time, came to encompass racially and culturally anxious white Southern voters. These voters joined with the party’s existing anti-"big government" and anti-union business class that had vehemently opposed the New Deal.

In short, those in opposition to the federal government’s regulation of the economy and defense of workers by labor unions combined in a single party with those who feared the end of racial and gender norms and hierarchies in social and family life. While elderly white Republicans came to enjoy the Social Security and Medicare of their own dedicated welfare state — a kind of welfare gerontocracy, as opposed to the European right’s welfare chauvinism — they resisted the expansion of similar programs to others deemed less deserving.

The result is thus unique in the history of the United States and also not found anywhere else in the advanced world: a major conservative party that combines the ethno-nationalism of the European splinter parties plus a religiously grounded concern about changing gender roles, and a libertarian fealty to its plutocratic donor class — an elephant one part George Wallace, one part Jerry Falwell, and one part Ayn Rand. The donors favor a drive for the lowest possible tax rates on the wealthy, opposition to consumer, environmental, and labor regulation, and a wish to reduce the social insurance that, in a chronic tension, the party’s older white base relies upon (In this regard, Trump chose the side of GOP voters over its donors in his support for maintaining programs for the elderly.)

And for all the talk about Trump representing a challenge to Republican policy orthodoxy, he mostly embodies it. This has been muddled by his penchant to rapidly contradict himself and, well, lie (or, if you prefer, bullshit) and by his obvious lack of knowledge about public policy of any kind. He has sounded more liberal on some issues in the past and thus conventional conservatives don’t trust him. Still, with the exception of his attacks on the "bad deals" that define our trade policy — which fits nicely into the revanchist fear of American national weakness that many of his supporters feel — and his intermittent remarks about supporting Social Security and Medicare which he might or might not believe, Trump’s current policies are quintessentially Republican and aren’t anything like those proposed by secondary ethno-nationalist or major center-right parties in Europe.

He affirms the Party’s positions on abortion rights, firearms regulation, and climate science, in addition to health insurance — all issues that, for better or worse, generate little or no controversy in Western Europe or Canada, even among the rightwing. Trump absurdly alleges widespread election fraud, underscoring the concerted and cynical GOP effort in states around the country to pass voting restrictions tailored to non-white citizens.

His abusive remarks about women stimulate not only current supporters (who shout "kill the bitch" about the nation’s first major party female nominee); they also evoke the 1970s GOP whose conservative wing, led by the brilliant Goldwaterite organizer Phyllis Schlafly, defeated the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

His list of prospective Supreme Court justices is the standard one that the Federalist Society would produce. His recent speech in Detroit was a more formal effort than he usually undertakes to make his economic positions plain: It neatly summarized a typical litany of Chamber of Commerce and Heritage Foundation approved policies that should bring a smile even to the GOP high theorist Paul Ryan’s recently pained visage: reduction of marginal tax rates, reduction of corporate tax rates, elimination of the estate tax, reduction of current regulations, moratorium on new regulations, repealing Obamacare with no specifics as to what would replace it.

And in case libertarian doctrine might actually damage the prospect of fellow plutocrats, Trump’s own dependence on the cronyist rent seeking of the commercial real estate industry is a reminder that "freedom" for the wealthy includes the right to receive subsidies from the state, too.

Thus what Trump has done is to simply, yet profoundly, foreground the pre-existing ethno-nationalism, racism, misogyny, and paranoid suspicion of media elites of the Republican Party. That makes Trump’s campaign a logical evolution of what has been standard Republican extremism — yet, simultaneously, a perverse and significant refinement of it. This refinement appalls principled party intellectuals, but they have little more influence on the party’s base and its political class than would Russell Kirk were he to return from the dead.

So yes, Trump is an anti-immigration ethno-nationalist like the leaders of UKIP, the French FN, or the Danish People’s Party. But pretty much every other policy Trump endorses lacks broad support from voters in Europe or Canada. In the United States, he has captured the commanding heights of one of the two major parties and also, if polls are to be believed, the vast majority of its voters.

Most of those voters will sustain the Republican Party in subsequent elections too. So there are important similarities between European ethno-nationalism and the American version. But Donald Trump’s signature home brew, composed of the GOP’s libertarian and crony capitalism mixed with its racism, nativism, and misogyny, is, unlike Trump’s clothing line, made in the USA.

Richard Yeselson is writer living in Washington, DC. He worked in the labor movement for 24 years.


The political science that predicted Trump's rise

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