2017 is the year of high-risk elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, and all European eyes have turned to America. Donald Trump is the most obvious face of the danger that threatens us all. America is a Europe outside of itself, more powerful, but also more unjust and warlike, and therefore less close. The Europeans see themselves in the mirror of America and are shown their future nightmares.
Many write that Trump will be Europe’s vaccine, in an inversion of Henry Kissinger’s prediction that Portugal could be Europe’s vaccine if the Communist Party came to power. They think that in the face of the Trump risk, Europe, which is not American, will unite and realize the supranational utopia. The reasoning is simple: In the face of the double threat of Brexit and Trump, the European leaders will now join together, without disturbing Great Britain.
But there is nothing to suggest that the Trump threat is a sufficient condition. Trump cannot be the vaccine of Europe, just as Portugal would not have been if it had sunk into chaos. Portugal unleashed a democratic wave because it overcame the crisis and consolidated its democracy.
If Trump’s anti-immigration policy and his hatred of Islam are consolidated as the policy of the United States for four or eight years, I fear for the future of the Union. Anti-Muslim racism is the common ideology of the American and European nationalistic far-right. The vision of a white Europe confronting a war of civilizations is what brings the European extreme-right close to Vladimir Putin and his anti-Islamic crusade from Chechnya to Syria. It is the same vision as Trump’s, which explains, too, the support that Putin gives him.
It is probable that the results of the elections in France, the Netherlands and in Germany will not elevate the extreme-right to power. In the Netherlands, even though the extreme-right is the political formation most voted for, it will have difficulty forming a government; Marine Le Pen should not gain the French presidency, and in Germany it is even possible that the Social Democratic Party will return to power.
But it is also likely that in these three elections, the xenophobic parties will have significant votes, even in Germany, and that in France, Marine Le Pen will appear as an alternative to the president, who was elected by taking advantage of the fractures of the Socialists and the Republicans. The sigh of relief we may hear toward these results will be more a demonstration of the anxiety that has hit many European leaders. It was the same sigh that we heard when the extreme-right had “just” 46 percent of the votes in the Austrian presidential elections.
This sigh could be what one calls taking desires for reality, or “wishful thinking” in English. Examples of this in European history are numerous, but now we recall those connected to the eruption of nationalism between the two wars, such as the tragically ridiculous “peace in our time” declaration of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, after the signing of the agreement with Hitler in Munich.
If we learned anything about European history in the 20th century, it is that nationalism must be taken very seriously. We learned that its strategy is not to achieve power in just one blow, but yes, to proceed with advancing and testing resistance, sometimes backtracking to better spring forward, such as Trump is doing with his anti-Latino and Muslim immigrant measures, just as the governments of Hungry and Poland did.
During his speech to Congress, where he was “statesman-like” in that he neither threatened the press nor insulted any leader of a U.S. ally, Trump announced the creation of VOICE or Victims of Crime Engagement (providing support for the victims of crimes committed by immigrants) and took care to invite relatives of victims of crime by illegal immigrants to hear his speech, establishing a connection between immigrants and crime. After the failure of the first anti-Islamic executive order on immigration, he tried again, keeping the fundamental element: discrimination based on religion.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom calls for the expulsion of Muslims and affirms a desire to ban the Quran, criminal proposals which are now commonplace. If a new anti-immigration executive order triumphs, anti-immigrant election platforms could gain more credibility, starting with the Netherlands.*
If American civil society manages to stop the anti-immigration measures of the administration, then it is possible that the defeat of Trump will inspire Europeans. But Europe cannot once again be waiting for the Marines.
European politicians can, for example, start to reject demagogic speech against Muslims and immigrants, defending, as millions of Americans today do against Trump, that which unites what seems different, which is the real essence of democracy.
What many hope for now from their leaders is the political courage to defend the values on which the Union has based itself against the ideology of identity nationalism, but will that also be wishful thinking?
The answer to Europe’s problems is not in the return to tribes, to use the expression of Eduardo Lourenco, nor in a coalition of the most powerful tribes, which some call, candidly, hard core. It is in a project for all of Europe, reconciling citizens and nations with supranational institutions, in a new European democratic utopia.
*Translator’s note: Since the original publication of this article in Público, the Netherlands has concluded its general election. Mark Rutte has been confirmed the winner, defeating Geert Wilders, who came in second.