The year is 2024. It has been nearly a decade since Donald Trump lost his bid for the White House, and the party that nominated him has moved on.
Overt white supremacists like former senate candidate David Duke are no longer welcome to carry the party’s banner. Republican officials caught making racist statements are swiftly punished. The party’s official platform still bears all the hallmarks of Trump’s candidacy — hostility to undocumented immigration, reflexive anti-internationalism, support for more aggressive policing of the “inner cities,” and broad indifference to social issues — but the presentation is glossier.
And the party has a new face: Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, is now the Republican nominee to succeed President Clinton. While the younger Trump’s platform is remarkably similar to her father’s, she has far more message discipline and none of his penchant for confrontation. In fact, when Trump senior declined to relinquish his habit of making statements embarrassing to downticket Republican candidates, Ivanka expelled him from the party.
Under the Ivanka Trump campaign, right-wing nationalism has a kinder, gentler face. And it is gaining in the polls.
If the above scenario sounds far-fetched, consider that it is already happening in France. Fourteen years ago, far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it past the first round of voting in France’s presidential election, only to be smashed by incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second round. Eight years after that, Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, succeeded him as leader of the party he founded: the National Front.
Marine Le Pen promptly went about overhauling the party’s image, distancing herself from the party’s overtly racist and anti-Semitic old guard while continuing to take a hard line against immigration and multiculturalism. In 2015, after Jean-Marie referred to the Holocaust as a mere “detail of history,” his daughter had him booted from the party. The National Front is now once again favored to place in the first round of next year’s presidential election.
Across Western Europe, far-right parties are winning historic victories. In Germany, the most recent regional elections saw Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) pull ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Merkel’s own home state. In Sweden, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats hold the balance of power between the center-left government and the center-right opposition in parliament. And in Great Britain, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), in partnership with with the right wing of the Conservative Party, has engineered an unprecedented vote to secede from the European Union.
Right-wing nationalists in the United States are poised to mimic these successes and deepen their ties to the new European right. The Trump campaign has already imported former UKIP leader Nigel Farage to serve as an adviser. On September 18, as AfD Germans headed to the polls in another regional election, prominent Trump surrogate Rep. Steve King (R-IA) tweeted a photo of himself palling around with AfD head Frauke Petry and Dutch Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders. Breitbart Media, which already has a branch office in London, could soon open more bureaus on the continent.
“Wishing you a successful vote,” King tweeted, addressing Petry. “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.”
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) September 18, 2016
Early this year, when it became apparent that Donald Trump was a serious contender for the Republican nomination, multiple news outlets published articles asking whether he could be considered a fascist. The consensus: “No, but.”
Fascism is a revolutionary ideology. It is explicitly anti-democratic and anti-individualist. And while Trump may violate basic democratic norms with alarming frequency, he is neither of those things.
The same could be said of European far-right parties like the National Front and the AfD. Marine Le Pen is not a fascist. But.
“These parties are very critical of how the democratic system functions and they’re very critical of the elites that are seen as running it,” said Sheri Berman, a scholar of European politics at Barnard College. “But they don’t advocate a whole political — much less social or economic — revolution.”
Instead of setting themselves up in opposition to individual liberty, some of these parties portray themselves as its defender. Wilders, for example, advocates banning Muslim immigration on the grounds that Islam would compromise the Netherlands’ progressive, secular culture.
Granted, not all right-wing nationalist parties are so socially libertarian; the AfD and National Front both oppose same-sex marriage. “The general argument that these parties represent, or claim to represent, a defense of traditional values is clearly a part of their appeal,” said Berman.
The new European right is also outflanking the center-left on social policy. Unlike in the United States, where economic populism has traditionally been the province of the progressive left, Western Europe has a number of right-wing parties that advocate for a robust social safety net and other egalitarian economic policies. The National Front is sharply critical of free trade and the financial sector; it has also called for “strategic planning of re-industrialization” in France. Similarly, UKIP claimed Brexit would free up more funding for the United Kingdom’s universal health care system, the National Health Service. (This was a lie.)
Because parties like UKIP and the National Front have rejected free market orthodoxy, they’ve been able to reap a surprising number of votes from traditionally left-wing constituencies. As Le Pen recently told the Guardian, a significant chunk of her party’s supporters “used to be socialists, but they aren’t any more.”
But the European right’s support for economic populism comes with a major caveat. UKIP, the National Front, and similar parties have embraced a doctrine that its critics call “welfare chauvinism”: support for policies that benefit the working class, provided the benefits only reach European, non-immigrant households. To many of the continent’s right-wing nationalist parties, poor immigrants are a drain on the welfare benefits that could instead be going to their countrymen. That is why, in 2014, the head of the right-wing Sweden Democrats tweeted: “The election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose.”
The Republican Party isn’t there — at least not yet. Although Donald Trump has never fully embraced the laissez faire orthodoxy of House Speaker Paul Ryan, his platform still calls for a slash-and-burn approach to government regulation, taxation, and spending, except on infrastructure. And even though Trump is hardly a traditional evangelical conservative, his running mate Mike Pence — a man who has endorsed gay reparative therapy and gutted Planned Parenthood funding as governor of Indiana — certainly is.
But Trump’s victory in the Republican primary nonetheless suggests that a different kind of GOP is possible.
The new dividing line
Donald Trump has invented a new formula for Republican primary candidates, according to Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Unlike his opponents in the 2016 primary, Trump never showed much interest in socially conservative pieties and said he opposed sweeping entitlement cuts. Although he has since drifted closer to mainstream Republican thinking on both those subjects, Trump has nonetheless altered the dynamic of future intra-party contests.
“It seems we are likely to have a politics dominated by race and identity for the near-term future.”
“He’s provided a playbook to win the Republican primary,” said Drutman, “which is to go hard on the white identity, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, protecting Americans stuff, but also talk about how government is actually going to help people again.”
Drutman doesn’t believe that Trump’s innovations emerged from a vacuum. Instead, they’re symptomatic of a political realignment that has been decades in the making. Since the civil rights era, he says, the central ideological fissure in U.S. politics has been changing. Instead of splitting along class lines, the two major parties are “internally divided by class but held together by identity,” as Drutman said in a recent essay for Vox.
“In other words, it seems we are likely to have a politics dominated by race and identity for the near-term future,” wrote Drutman.
Speaking to ThinkProgress, Drutman said this realignment opens the door for an internal Republican shift away from the economic doctrine of the Paul Ryan wing.
“At some point, I think what will happen is that the Donald Trump nationalist, populist style will take over the Republican Party,” said Drutman. That takeover would isolate the party’s economically libertarian wing, but it could draw in some white Democratic voters.
That hasn’t happened on a significant scale in this election cycle. Trump has routinely struggled to extend his appeal beyond a fervent core of supporters. In part, that’s because his most vehement fans include groups that are politically toxic, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which this week endorsed Trump through its official newsletter.
A similar problem afflicted the European hard right until recently. For decades before UKIP entered the British political mainstream, the fascist British National Party (BNP) hovered on the margins of the electoral system. The National Democratic Party of Germany, a neo-Nazi party, has similarly remained visible enough to be alarm non-racists without ever turning into an electoral force.
“There’s not a potential majority for overtly racist, anti-democratic parties,” said Berman, the expert in European politics. “So if you want to actually compete in elections and win, you have to find ways to maintain this populist core while getting rid of the more extreme elements.”
Enter figures like Marine Le Pen, who purged the National Front of its obsolete racist figureheads — including her father — and created a movement that speaks to white racial anxiety in softer tones. If a post-Trump Republican leader pulls off the same trick in the United States, “it seems like it could be a really viable electoral alternative,” said Berman.
In other words, the 2016 presidential election might just be a prelude to a European-style, nationalist, populist, Republican reformation.
Trump himself has occasionally drawn parallels between his success and the rise of the new European right. On multiple occasions, he has referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit.” In at least one other instance, he has said that his ascension to the presidency would be “Brexit times five.” And for what it’s worth, former UKIP head Farage warmly approves of the “Mr. Brexit” moniker.
But if Trump fails to win the presidency this year, that would suggest the self-selected nickname isn’t quite accurate. America’s Mr. Brexit is still on his way; Donald Trump is just the warm up act.