Trump & democracy: liberal order shaken

Where next? Anti-establishment groups across Europe could benefit from Trump’s win.

First came Brexit. Then, last week, Donald Trump won the US presidency. Now voters’ anger could propel anti-establishment right-wing candidates to power across Europe. Should we be scared?

‘The world is crumbling in front of our eyes.’

This was the stark warning last week of the French ambassador to the USA. After the vote for Brexit and the American people’s decision to elect Donald Trump, Gérard Araud said, ‘anything is possible’.

Two seismic political shocks have already rattled Western democracies in 2016. And they may offer an insight into what is to come over the next year, as more than a dozen elections take place in Europe.

By Christmas, voters in Italy could force the prime minister to resign, and in Austria elect nationalist Norbert Hofer as president. And Tom Van Grieken, of Belgium’s Flemish Interest party, expectss 2017 to bring more surprises. ‘US election shows again how far politicians are from the people,’ he tweeted last week. ‘In Europe too, more and more voters want real change.’

Polls suggest right-wing insurgents stand a good chance of winning power in France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic next year. Elsewhere, similar leaders are further behind — but gaining strength.

Like Trump, they are united by their opposition to mainstream politicians, economists and media outlets. They also criticise mass immigration, multiculturalism and the influence of Islamism. They have tough policies on crime and protectionist views on economics.

The significance of these issues has soared since the financial crisis of 2008 and the start of Europe’s migrant crisis last year. Concern has grown about social problems related to the influx of millions of people. Similar sentiments helped Trump: for example, 95% of his voters said illegal immigration was a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ serious problem.

But there are fears this signals a far-right takeover in Europe. Serbian presidential candidate Vojislav Seselj went on trial accused of crimes against humanity this year. Dutch politician Geert Wilders is now on trial for inciting racial hatred. And Hofer has said: ‘Islam has no place in Austria’, drawing parallels with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims. Should we be worried?


This is a power grab by dangerous, intolerant groups, say some. These nationalists will turn people against each other within their countries and outside them. When they inevitably fail, they will blame external enemies — creating even more intolerance. And they will encourage an illiberal backlash from their political opponents.

This is a chance for ordinary people to speak, others retort. An arrogant ruling class has assumed progress is inevitable, enriched themselves and shouted down public concerns for too long. Many of the policies being proposed are more reasonable than powerful people pretend. This messy process will force them to respond to reality.

You Decide

  1. Which matters more to you: democracy or tolerance?
  2. Will Donald Trump’s win have a positive or negative impact on politics in Europe?


  1. In pairs, write a list of five interview questions which you would ask one of the European leaders named in this article. Explain your choices to your class.
  2. Choose a country in Europe where an ascendant right-wing party is making electoral gains. Write a two-page memo explaining who the party is, what they stand for and why they are gaining popularity.

Some People Say...

“No political goal is more significant than defeating racism.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the people in charge of Europe could change. Will it matter?
The people who could take over are likely to have a very different approach to running things. If they win, they will probably attempt to restrict the movement of people and money. This could have an important impact on your chances of getting a job in the future or on the community you live in. It may mean that problems you care about are more — or less — likely to be dealt with. But some fear you could see increased intolerance and racism around you as a result.
I do not live in Europe. Does this matter to me?
Europe is often regarded as the birthplace of liberal values — many Enlightenment philosophers were European, such as Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. If Europe can turn against liberalism, it can happen anywhere.

Word Watch

Matteo Renzi has said he will resign if he loses a referendum on proposed reforms.
The coexistence of several cultures in the same country.
Particularly in Germany and Sweden, which have seen the largest numbers of arrivals. For example, reports have suggested the emergence of ‘no-go zones’, dominated by gangs divided along ethnic lines, in some German cities.
According to a YouGov survey in September.
Seselj was accused of atrocities during the Yugoslav war of the 1990s. He was acquitted but The Economist called the verdict ‘a victory for the advocates of ethnic cleansing’.
Wilders told a rally in 2014 that he wanted to see ‘fewer Moroccans’ in Holland. He says the trial is an attack on free speech; polls suggest his support has increased since it began.
For example, Germany’s AfD party has defended its proposal to limit asylum applications to 200,000 per year. But this may mask more intolerant policies — with some AfD politicians appearing to suggest police should be able to shoot migrants trying to enter Germany.

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