The Return of the Far Right

Posted March 17, 2024

Categories: Europe, Featured

Panic does not produce prudent politics. Panic produces provocative populists. And it reduces pundits to Seussian spluttering.

How can voters choose such…panic-peddling panderers?!

The defeats of Donald Trump in the U.S. elections in 2020 and Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian elections in 2022 were supposed to prove that the wave of right-wing politicians had crested worldwide. Brazilians wisely barred Bolsonaro from running again for office until 2030.

Trump, on the other hand, is on the rebound and leading the polls in the lead-up to the presidential elections in the United States next year. Even more troubling, the recent electoral victories of Javier Milei in Argentina and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands suggest that the world has not yet reached peak populism.

Brace yourself for the next potential tsunami. In 2024, elections will take place in 50 countries and engage up to 2 billion people. The Economist calls it the “biggest election year in history.” Voters will go to the polls in the United States, Russia, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, and the European Union, among other countries.

The far right sees 2024 as its greatest opportunity since the 1930s to push the needle toward fascism. If the recent victories of Milei and Wilders are any indication, they ain’t just whistling Dixie.

Something Different?

When I was studying Russian in Moscow in 1985, my fellow students complained about the food. It was your basic Soviet fare of meat and potatoes. It was rather monotonous, to be frank, but it was filling and plentiful.

After the semester was over, we all took the train to Helsinki. After checking in at the hotel, I went down to the city’s famous Harbor Market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, which had been in short supply in Moscow. I had difficulty persuading my fellow students to come with me. A large number of them couldn’t wait to have their first, post-Soviet dinner at McDonald’s. That’s right: after all those Moscow meals of meat and potatoes, they immediately went to the Golden Arches to have…meat and potatoes.

“But it’s different!” they said, salivating over a Big Mac and French fries.

Voters in democracies across the world are tired of what’s on the political menu. They’re rejecting the “same old, same old” policies of Joe Biden even though the U.S. economy, by all standard measures, is doing pretty well. They’re souring on the European Green Deal of the Socialists and Greens even though the continent is at the forefront of addressing climate change.

Instead of supporting candidates who promise truly transformational change, voters are backing fast-food populists who advertise options that are even unhealthier than what’s currently on offer.

The desire for profound change is surely understandable. The conditions that generated victories for the far right that I describe in my 2021 book Right Around the World have not changed in any substantial way. Economic globalization, after all, continues to benefit the few and burden the many. As Zia Qureshi writes at Brookings:

Over the past four decades, there has been a broad trend of rising income inequality across countries. Income inequality has risen in most advanced economies and major emerging economies, which together account for about two-thirds of the world’s population and 85 percent of global GDP. The increase has been particularly large in the United States, among advanced economies, and in China, India, and Russia, among major emerging economies.

Note that the far right has prospered in precisely the countries that have experienced this rising income inequality: Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, and Vladimir Putin in Russia, as well as Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and now Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Voters have been disgusted by how parties of the center-right and center-left have done little to address this inequality. And they’re worried that an influx of immigrants, the very embodiment of globalization, will only make matters worse (and there’s evidence that immigrants do indeed exert a downward pressure on wages).

This is the triple whammy that helps the far right: increased economic inequality, increased disgust with conventional parties, and increased fear of immigration. It’s also the perfect storm that has put Geert Wilders so close to becoming the next Dutch prime minister.

Have the Dutch Gone Crazy?

Geert Wilders has been a platinum-haired presence on the Dutch political scene for two decades, chiefly as a mischief-maker on the margins. But in elections this month, his party won 37 seats in parliament, the most of any party and 20 more than in the last election.

If these were ordinary times, the informal prohibition of mainstream parties in Europe against working in coalition with the far right would hold and Wilders would remain in the wilderness. The former ruling party led by outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte has indeed refused to partner with Wilders’s Party for Freedom. So, too, have the coalition of socialists and Greens led by former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans and the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

Only the centrist New Social Contract party and some minor parties are available for the wooing. But cobbling together a coalition out of these disparate elements will not be easy. Indeed, the first negotiator to attempt this sausage-making on behalf of Wilders resigned in the wake of charges that he engaged in bribery and fraud in his previous job as director of Utrecht Holdings.

The real sticking point, however, will be Wilders himself and his wilder-than-wild political proposals. Most potentially destabilizing has been his support for Nexit, a withdrawal of the Netherlands from the European Union, about which he has promised to hold a referendum. This is as impractical as it is unpopular. According to the last major poll, the leavers could count on only 25 percent support. Dutch voters are well aware of what a mess the UK stepped in after voting for Brexit. According to one estimate, leaving the EU has cost the UK $100 billion a year in lost output.

Then there’s Wilders’s enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin and his channeling of Kremlin propaganda (such as his noxious notion that Ukraine is led by “National-Socialists, Jew-haters and other anti-democrats”). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reduced some of his fawning, but Wilders will undoubtedly try to cut back on Dutch aid for Kyiv.

On immigration, Wilders calls for “borders closed” and “zero asylum seekers.” The first is going to be hard to push in a Europe of open (internal) borders—thus his support for Nexit—while the second would violate international law. On Islam, he wants to ban the Quran, Islamic schools, and mosques. Ever the political opportunist, however, Wilders has offered to put those bans on hold in order to achieve his cherished dream of leading the country.

Finally, on the economy, Wilders has no patience for Green policies. His party backs the traditional, meat-and-potatoes positions of more drilling for oil and gas, no solar or wind farms, and a withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change. Add to that the restriction of government assistance to immigrants and the far right promises to take the Netherlands one giant step backward.

The Dutch live in one of the richest per-capita countries in the world. But poverty has been projected to increase substantially from 4.7 percent of the population in 2023 to 5.8 percent in 2024. “Fear of falling” can easily slip into fear of immigrants.

Then there’s the rural-urban divide that has fueled the rise of the right in so many countries: Poland A versus Poland B, red state versus blue state in America, and countryside versus prosperous cities in the Netherlands as well. The industrial-strength nostalgia that the far right sells has appeal for farmers, unskilled laborers in rural factories, and pensioners in deserted villages. The past might not have been a golden age, but many things really were better back then for folks outside the big cities.

But let’s not overstate Wilders’s surprise victory. He won less than a quarter of the votes. The party of the even crazier Thierry Baudet—yes, as in Russia, there are even worse options lurking on the margins—actually lost more than half its seats in parliament. And the toxicity of Wilders’s persona and positions may well make him coalition-proof. Dutch common sense—on display in the expression meten is weten (measuring things brings knowledge)—may prove too large an obstacle for Wilders to overcome.

Meanwhile in Argentina

Unlike the Netherlands, Argentina truly is an economic mess. Annual inflation is more than 120 percent. The peso has given way to the dollar as the everyday currency. The government is perpetually at risk of debt default.

Economic polarization in Argentina is severe. The richest families have concentrated the wealth of the country into their hands, and this inequality only deepened during the COVID pandemic. Seven Argentinians are on the Forbes list of richest entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of Argentinians live in poverty.

Then along comes economist Javier Milei who promises to fix everything. As a newcomer to politics, he has no track record to criticize and can safely rail against corrupt insiders. As an economist, his off-the-wall proposals have a veneer of credibility. Anyone else who would propose to eliminate the central bank, replace the peso with the U.S. dollar, and whittle the government down to the merest nub would be dismissed as insane within the Argentine context. But the average voter can easily be fooled into thinking that this “anarcho-capitalist” must know what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t. Get rid of the central bank and Argentina would no longer have any control over its own economy. Even though the dollar has become the de facto currency, making it the official one would require the government to have sufficient dollars at its disposal (it doesn’t). And taking an axe to the government would effectively take an axe to the poorest of the poor, who need government assistance.

Milei is globalization on steroids. He liked to campaign with a chainsaw in hand. And now he’s on the verge of turning the Argentina Chain Saw Massacre into reality.

However, as with Wilders, Milei doesn’t really have the political support to govern as he pleases. True, he won the presidential run-off by a convincing margin of 11 percentage points. But his party won less than a quarter of the legislature, leaving it in a distinct minority. It won’t be easy for Milei to push through his most radical suggestions.

Here’s what’s more likely to happen. Milei has already sent his “shock therapy” plan to an emergency session of the Argentine Congress, which is set to convene shortly after he takes office next month. The stabilization, which consists of rather conventional fixes to reduce inflation and government spending, has already won Milei favor in international financial circles.

“Our approach is fiscal and monetary shock from day one,” says Luis Caputo, the head of Milei’s economic team and likely to be the new economy minister. “The roadmap is orthodox and without crazy things.”

Whether they succeed or not, Milei’s team will push through painful reforms that will eventually get them voted out of office, just like the political victims of “shock therapy” in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. In other words, the so-called populist will ultimately be tripped up by the very unpopularity of his economic plans. Unless, of course, he manages to fix one thing in Argentina: elections.

The Institutionalization of the Far Right

The far right is able to stay in power only when it games the system. It does so not so much by outright vote-stealing but by restructuring government in its favor. Vladimir Putin turned the chaotic and ineffectual democracy of Boris Yeltsin into a petro-oligarchy. Viktor Orbán created a powerful patronage system that privileged members of his Fidesz party. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pushed through a referendum that concentrated power in the hands of the executive. Putin has been in charge since 1999, Erdoğan since 2003, and Orbán since 2010.

That’s the model that Donald Trump wants to emulate. He didn’t want to leave office in 2020 but hadn’t prepared sufficient institutional power to launch a coup at that time. If he returns to office in 2024, he is determined to remake American politics so that his MAGA project will outlive him. To do this, he will depend on Project 2025—a plan hatched by right-wing thinktanks in Washington—to seek out and destroy opponents. He will attempt to use the Insurrection Act to deploy the military against domestic opposition. And he will not bother, in a second go-around, to appease his critics by appointing “compromise” figures in his administration. He wants nothing less than an all-out power grab.

Neither Wilders nor Milei will likely achieve such lasting influence. They will be undone by the very populist politics that have brought them to the top. Ruthless populists know that the very People that they laud are ultimately fickle; they manage to safeguard their positions from the winds of politics by cutting the People out of the loop and turning elections into farces.

That’s what separates the men from the monsters in the world of the far right. Unfortunately, on a planet in panic mode during an election year that will function as a stress test for global democracy, much damage will be done by men and monsters alike.

FPIF, November 29, 2023

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