Once again there is a specter haunting Europe.
After a year which saw the UK vote to leave the European Union and the shock of Donald Trump emerging as the US president, the sea change threatens to lap at the shores of the Continent. Populist movements have emerged with zeal, a signal that now is their time, that Europe will resurrect their great states anew.
However, as much as the far right movements throughout Europe frame themselves as forecasting a new future for their constituencies, they do so with their not-so-distant pasts creeping steadily up in their rearview mirrors. For anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the 20th century, it is impossible to envision the rise of Le Pen, Wilders, or Petry without recalling the bogeymen of the past: Petain, Mussolini, Hitler. In the shadow of two major shifts in political alignment in the US and UK, Europe’s right has taken on the character of a slow moving tsunami. Inevitable, destructive, ominous.
But I wonder, all the same. As an American who has spent half my life outside of the United States, I have learned that American influence is a tricky thing, often ambivalent in the best of times. Sure, there are plenty of people who want access to new Nikes and iPhones and all of the consumerism that the American dream has to offer. But they don’t go in so much for following American political trends, for in the eyes of much of the world we are still a ‘young’ country. A country much like a little brother nipping at your heels: yes, you might like to borrow their new headphones, but no, you wouldn’t take life advice from them.
Europeans are very fearful of what a Trump administration will mean for the world, and while the Right seems to embrace his appearance, they don’t speak for a majority. While Frauke Petry might call Donald Trump a “refreshingly alternative apparition” in the early days after his election, her attempt at a popular consensus was a miscalculation. So too would it be misguided to hitch the wagon of any other country onto what is sure to be a profoundly transformed US worldview. For while the world seems to be steadily shifting towards the extreme right, any missteps in Washington could have serious repercussions for those party leaders in Europe (There is a splendid irony in the idea that someone who seems so opposed to the butterfly effect of globalization should be the one whose wings inevitably flap the loudest). Whether purposely or not, the European right has thrown its lot in with the success of a radical shift in US policy, as well as the uncharted waters of Brexit. The world is watching, along with their voting constituencies.
But the ascension of Donald Trump along with the rise of the right in Europe is a clear signal that the left/right distinctions that defined liberalism are outdated, perhaps to the point of extinction. The old system of believing that the left had exclusive rights to champion the common man while the right was the reserve of kingmakers is gone, replaced by something more visceral, more primal. It may be, as James Angelos writes so brilliantly, that the choice is now between parties who will uphold the current order versus those who will overthrow it. Seen this way it becomes more believable that French voters would be willing to support Marine Le Pen, a candidate whose party was for decades the very darkest of shadows of the past.
However, Europe is not, and will likely not, be overtaken by a wave of populism and extremism so quickly, nor is it uniform. Ireland, Portugal, and Spain have all faced the same economic hardships and immigrant waves that Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands confront, yet there is no indication of a rise in right-wing movements there. In the case of Spain, the shadow of Franco’s authoritarian regime still looms large on the horizon, and people are unwilling to stand behind anyone who threatens to return the country to those bygone days. Moreover, regional divides have always made Spain a more fractured state, and uniting the entire country either for or against something is a near impossible task.
And then there is Italy. Externally it must seem that the country is headed for a crash, indeed by many accounts, it is a foregone conclusion. The 4 December referendum that yielded a defeat for Matteo Renzi’s party and his leadership was seen as yet another victory for the right, as it meant that yet again the public had voted against the establishment. However, caution must be applied when looking at the Italian case as proof of anything beyond its own inherent muddiness. The Italian state’s best defense against chaos is chaos, and distrust for the government is the only sane response from people who have seen over 60 governments in 70 years. While the same apprehension towards refugee influxes, economic downturns and instability are felt in Italy as in other parts of Europe, the inherent difficulty of uniting the country is perhaps its greatest protection against radical populism. It is of course not impenetrable, particularly when organizations like Breitbart elect to set up camp down the road from the Vatican.
A dear friend recently said that Italians have old blood: they carry their history with them so deeply that they forget neither the good nor the bad, for both course through their veins simultaneously. I see it as I walk through the small Italian town where I live, not so blatantly of course, but I see it nonetheless. I hear it when I drop in on conversations at the bar as farmers pass by for their congratulatory grappa after a hard day’s work. I feel it when I ride the bus with a woman wearing a veil, and I feel my body tense in the hope that no one will choose this moment to declare that they don’t want her here.
For against all declarations that things should never again happen there is a specter still that haunts us all, waiting just around every darkened corner.
“But are there not many fascists in your country?”
“There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.”