Mein Trumpf, Brexit, and Europe’s Rising Right: Letter from Berlin

By Stan Persky | June 28, 2016

The “afterlife of totalitarianism” is an idea, or maybe a potential meme, with a haunting quality. It’s a notion I first ran into in the subtitle of Yale University historian Marci Shore’s 2013 book about post-communism, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. It’s also a useful catchphrase that informs and underlies much of the rise of right-wing politics in Europe today. It doesn’t cover everything, of course. Even in European countries that directly experienced fascism or communism (or, in several places, such as Hungary, that had both in succession), the degree of “totalisation” was different, and differed at various historical periods. Staying alive during the time of the lethal Stalinist show trials in Hungary, c. 1950, was quite different from life during the Janos Kadar regime’s period of “goulash communism” in the 1980s, just to take one of  dozens of examples.

The Donald Trump phenomenon.

The Donald Trump phenomenon.

The current burgeoning of far right movements and parties in Europe can be found in both the former Soviet bloc eastern European countries and what we like to think of as the more traditional democracies of western Europe. Nor is Europe alone. Similarly worrisome conflicts over governance and democracy are unfolding around the world, whether we’re talking about China, Russia, the Middle East, much of Africa, or the Americas, not excluding the United States (and its Donald Trump phenomenon).

Since terms like fascism and totalitarianism tend to get tossed around rather carelessly, it helps to keep in mind Hannah Arendt’s distinction, which she makes in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; 1958), between all-encompassing, ideologically-driven totalitarianism that seeks to control the totality of human life (the sort portrayed in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eight-Four), and simply authoritarian regimes that seek a monopoly of political power. If that distinction isn’t made, there’s a danger that the notion of totalitarianism itself, as well as its “afterlife,” will be reduced to little more than a facile meme. It’s  also worth noting that in some of “the dark places of the earth” (to recall Joseph Conrad’s memorable phrase in Heart of Darkness), dictatorship has either given way to “failed states” (Libya, Somalia, Yemen… ?) or has had no “afterlife” only because absolutist rule never ceased (North Korea, Belarus).

Berlin Wall, 1989.

Berlin Wall, 1989.

In post-Cold War Europe itself, where it was expected that the afterlife of fascism and communism would lead directly to straightforward liberal democracy, the actual historical outcome has been far more complex and disturbing. And, again, we’re not just talking about the former Soviet and Yugoslavian countries in Europe. Much the same is occurring throughout the 28 member states of a currently severely disaffected European Union. More than a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the spectre that is haunting Europe today is the appearance of new forms of incipient totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Suddenly, the rise of the right has become, as they say on Facebook, a “trending” topic in summer 2016. At the same time, it’s important to avoid alarmist generalizations, as though right-wing politics represents a kind of destiny.

It’s true, however, that a slew of right-wing parties and conservative movements has achieved unexpected prominence throughout Europe in this decade. It’s not only the afterlife of totalitarianism, but the future of authoritarian movements and possibly even governments that Europe is currently fretting over. These groups and parties are characterized by a deep conservatism that features virulently hostile attitudes toward refugees, immigrants, Islam, and the European Union itself, as well as a corresponding resurgence of old-fashioned breast-thumping nationalism.

Austria's Norbert Hofer.

Austria’s Norbert Hofer.

The May 2016 presidential election in Austria provides a cogent example. The far right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) candidate, Norbert Hofer, came within a whisker of becoming the first European extreme-right head of state since World War II. After Austria’s long-time mainstream governing parties, the Social Democrats (SPO) and the right-of-centre Austrian People’s Party (OVP), were eliminated in the first of the two-round 2016 presidential contest — the decline of major traditional parties is itself a feature of the current discontent — Hofer became the front-runner, and voters opposed to the extreme right had to coalesce, willingly or not, around the independent candidate who placed second in the initial round.

Austrian president Alexander van der Bellen.

Austrian president Alexander van der Bellen.

Fortunately, the rather charming and sensible Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, a retired economics professor and former Green Party leader, defeated Hofer. But it was by the thinnest of margins, 50.3 to 49.7 per cent, and that only after more than 700,000 postal ballots – about 10 per cent of the total vote – were counted the following day. The electoral difference between the two contenders was a mere 30,000 votes. As Van der Bellen noted in post-election interviews the day after, in capitals throughout Europe, one could almost hear prime ministers and presidents breathing a sigh of relief. (The FPO has since sought a legal recount, which is before the Austrian courts.) (Update, July 1: the Austrian high court decided there were sufficient grounds to void the results and ordered a re-run of the election in fall 2016… As cable news likes to say, “Stand by.”)

Many Austrians seem to be suffering from (or perhaps enjoying) a kind of historical amnesia, having forgotten both the past of the Austrian right as well as the fate of the country prior to and during World War II. The FPO’s most notorious leader was the late Jorg Haider (1950-2008), a more or less open Nazi acolyte, who led the party not only to more than a quarter of the vote, but into Austrian government in 2000 (in a coalition with the right-of-centre OVP). Haider’s far-right FPO quickly foundered once in office, and internal disagreements led to a splintering by 2005. The mysterious and conspiracy-minded Haider died in a car crash in 2008 (which inspired its own conspiracy theories). Now led by Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPO chose the more publicly acceptable Norbert Hofer as its presidential candidate. Hofer is someone who, according to a current bitter quip, is “the friendly face of fascism”; however friendly, he campaigned armed with a Glock pistol to protect himself, he said, in the “uncertain times” of the refugee crisis.

Friendly or not, the FPO is a major player in the music-box discordance of Austrian politics. The inescapable message of the recent Austrian election is that half of the voting inhabitants of the country (population, 8.6 million) cast their ballots in 2016 for a party historically rooted in neo-Nazism. Austria, for those unfamiliar with its past, is a country that likes to bill itself as “the first victim of Nazism,” recalling Nazi Germany’s takeover of the country in March 1938, while conveniently forgetting that much of the Austrian population offered substantial and enthusiastic support for Hitler’s annexation, or Anschluss.

Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Next door to Austria, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany last year adopted a bold refugee-welcoming policy. A million fleeing victims from the Syrian civil war were admitted to the country in 2015. Germany did something similar during the Yugoslavian wars of the early 1990s, taking in more refugees than any other European country. Once again, in the case of Syria, while Germany fulfilled international and historical obligations to refugees, most of the rest of the European Union (EU) balked at taking in the endangered foreigners from the Middle East. What’s more, in Germany itself, there’s been a growing backlash. An anti-Islamic movement that goes by the unwieldy moniker of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), based in the former East German city of Dresden, has been demonstrating against refugees for the last two years.

When an ideologically similar political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) ran in provincial elections in March 2016, it scored a troubling enough 12-15 per cent share of the vote in two prosperous western German provinces but, worse, this right-wing party rolled up a genuinely alarming 24 per cent of the tally in the former East German province of Saxony-Anhalt, where it finished second to the incumbent right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party that Merkel heads federally.

The regional election result, which represented a rebuke to the liberal refugee policy, was enough of a shock to Germany’s political balance to be a factor in Merkel’s (and the EU’s) subsequent deal with Turkey. The latter has its own authoritarian leader, Recep Erdogan, who heads a regime that recently stripped elected members of the Turkish government of the traditional democratic right of parliamentary immunity. The EU-Turkey pact has in effect temporarily staunched much of the Middle Eastern refugee flow, and thoroughly undercut Merkel’s once-daring humanitarian policies. But she had little choice other than to backtrack, given the German anti-refugee election results, and the recalcitrance of other EU member states to recognize and act on the refugee crisis.

Similar rise-of-the-right stories can be found in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and other countries that had little experience of democracy in their histories before or after World War II, and where totalitarianism took fascist and/or communist forms. Certainly, democratic “deficits” and uncertainties might be expected in countries like Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, given their histories. But Poland’s recent descent into nationalism and clericalism represents one of the more striking disappointments in the enlarged EU (Poland became an EU member in 2004).

In Poland, the trade union-based Solidarity movement toppled the four-decade rule of the Communist Party in the country’s first free elections in June 1989. At first, post-communist Polish democracy leaned toward moderate left-of-centre governments populated by the dissidents who made the Polish transition. Well-known opponents of the regime such as Jacek Kuron and Jan Litynski became ministers of government, and others, such as Adam Michnik, became editors of the country’s most important newspapers.

However, from the beginning, Solidarity was a broad coalition that ideologically included everyone from anarcho-syndicalists to fervent nationalists and groups loyal to the Polish pope, John-Paul II. That coalition of convenience gradually morphed into a pro-nationalist, pro-clerical right-wing regime in the succeeding quarter-century.

(l.) Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski; (r.) Hungarian PM Victor Orban.

(l.) Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski; (r.) Hungarian PM Victor Orban.

For the past decade, Poland has been mostly governed by the nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by a pair of twin brothers, the Kaczynskis, Lech and Jaroslav. The former was president of Poland from 2005 to his death in a plane crash in 2010. The latter served as prime minister of Poland during part of his brother’s presidency, unsuccessfully ran for president after his brother’s death, but in fall 2015, as party head, led PiS to a thumping parliamentary victory. The subsequent majority government moved quickly to increase its grip on state institutions. Its policies have undercut judicial independence, hobbling the nation’s Constitutional Tribunal, placed state-owned media under more direct government control, and increased police surveillance powers, while hewing to the views of the Catholic Church (for example, on such issues as abortion).

The centre and what remains of a left in Poland have been reduced to public demonstrations against the incipient authoritarian regime. On the first weekend of June 2016, the 27th anniversary of Poland’s first post-communist elections, more than 50,000 people took to the streets of Warsaw to protest government policies, not for the first time. While the number of demonstrators is not inconsequential, the protest nonetheless has the feel of a rearguard action. If Poland was a hopeful example of popular democratic possibilities a quarter-century ago, today it’s a much diminished, politically cramped state, its ideological atmosphere poisoned with more than a whiff of xenophobia and anti-semitism (notwithstanding the general absence of Jews and refugees in its population).

Once again, it should be underscored that it’s not just in the former Soviet bloc and neighbouring Eastern European and Balkan lands where the right is surging. In France, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere in “old Europe” there are burgeoning rightest parties, and certainly Britain’s “Brexit” referendum vote in June 2016 on whether to exit the European Union or not was a backlash debate fomented by the right-wing, Nigel Farage-led United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) and rightest segments of the governing Tory party.



There’s one common thread running through conversations I’ve had with friends over the last few months. It’s that there is a befuddled recognition that the present “conjunction” (as we used to refer to such situations) is one of the most puzzling moments in recent political history. Accompanying that recognition is stubborn disbelief that something like a right-wing political redux could be happening here and now. While Islamist terrorism may strain credulity in terms of beliefs and brutality, there’s a sense in which it’s comprehensible. For baffled liberals and those to their left, the return of the repressed right in Europe seems unreal. One notable feature of the discussion in spring 2016 is how many observers, pundits, journalists and scholars have joined an alarmed chorus sounding a mutual warning on present dangers.

Typical of those sounding the alarm, Simon Tisdall, writing in the Guardian on the heels of the Austrian presidential campaign, noted that “it was clear that regardless of who won, Austria’s voters had handed a resounding triumph to the advancing legions of far-right political parties whose disturbing shadow is once again stalking the haunted byways of Europe.” Tisdall’s stew of mixed cliches in the preceding sentence – “advancing legions,” “disturbing shadow,” “haunted byways of Europe” – is all code for “fascism,” in case you missed it. He adds, “The massive vote in support of the hard-right Freedom party… marks both a break with the past and, perhaps, a chilling return to it.” Across Europe, “the scale of the vote for the far right will be seen as a death sentence for familiar post-war, centrist politics-as-usual.”  (Simon Tisdall, “Far right surge in Austria signals end of centrist politics-as-usual,” The Guardian, May 23, 2016.)

Tisdall notes that the previous sharp criticism, up to and including sanctions, made by the EU in response to Austria’s inclusion of the Freedom Party in government back in 2000, “is not on the cards this time. This may be because all 28 member states now have their own far-right populist or nationalist parties to contend with. Some, like the True Finns party in Finland, have made it into government. Others, such as the Alternative for Germany and the Danish People’s Party have become influential power-brokers.”

Hungarian PM Victor Orban.

Hungarian PM Victor Orban.

In a thumbnail country-by-country survey of the burgeoning right, Tisdall notes that the “Polish defiance of European norms is hardly groundbreaking.” A more notorious precedent, he points out, can be found in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s majority right-wing Fidesz government has been joined by the even more extreme Jobbik movement to command more than three-quarters of the Hungarian parliament, producing a melange of policies, from anti-immigration barbed-wire fences, to cozying up to Vladimir Putin’s right-wing, nationalist Russia, to undermining the EU’s bedrock rule of law.

France's Marine Le Pen (l.); Netherlands rightest Geert Wilders.

France’s Marine Le Pen (l.); Netherlands rightest Geert Wilders.

In countries like France, which has been spared extreme regimes ever since the end of World War II when the Nazi-installed Vichy government fell, the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen is poised for next year’s presidential and legislative elelections, where, as Tisdall notes, it likely “will have a big say.” Novelist Michel Houellebecq’s recent political satire, Submission (2015), in which the writer imagines a near-future French election that sees Ms. Le Pen barely edged out by a moderate Muslim candidate (backed by the country’s mainstream parties) doesn’t seem so far-fetched these days.

Tisdall argues that “the motivating issues shared by these far-right and nationalist grouping includes fears over the migrant influx from Syria and elsewhere, economic insecurity and lack of jobs, increased public disillusionment with the established centre-left and centre-right parties, distrust of an elitist undemocratic EU, and a supposed crisis of identity — meaning the perceived loss of national, ethnic and cultural cohesion.” Among the many “enervating” factors that Tisdall identifies, a key one is “widespread political apathy and alienation, especially among young voters who, oddly enough, have most to lose from long-term political dysfunction.” He cites record low turnouts in recent European parliamentary elections.

Tisdall concludes, “The cumulative, corrosive results of these assaults on Europe’s ailing body politics were plain to see in Austria… It was not that the centre could not hold. The centre has all but disappeared.” Like most other analysts brooding over the current situation, Tisdall admits, “What may be done about the resulting political and social upheavals… is harder to say.”

Vienna, 1913.

Vienna, 1913.

Some analysts, like Croatia’s young leftist philosopher, Srecko Horvat, take a broader historical perspective, advising us to heed the lessons of 1913. Horvat recalls that in that pregnant year, living in the city of Vienna at the same time were “a worker from Croatia, one unsuccessful painter, two Russians, a guy who analyses dreams, and a young Austrian soldier” — namely, Tito, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Freud and Archduke-designate Franz Ferdinand. The latter was heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire until his assassination, which became the proximate cause of World War I. Certainly, it was an unusual set of neighbours in the empire’s capital, Vienna. Horvat could even have added philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to that roster, who on the death of his wealthy father in 1913 popped into Vienna to give his inheritance away to his siblings.

In its day, the Austro-Hungarian empire in some ways foreshadowed, with its multiple nations and large population, the current half-billion citizen, 28-member-nation European Union. And, just as Europe (and beyond) was on the brink of World War I then, Horvat warns, “We don’t know if some future Stalin or Hitler is living in Vienna, but the whole of Europe seems to be on the verge of an abyss.” (Srecko Horvat, “Europe veers to the right at its peril. We should heed the lessons of 1913,” The Guardian, May 20, 2016.)

Horvat points out that “right-wing governments in Europe are no longer an exception. It’s not just Hungary and Poland now; they are joined by Austria and by Croatia, where in only four months the new government has started a nationalist ‘cultural revolution’ … with explicit glorification” of the World War II fascist regime in Croatia. Today, says Horvat, “Europe is moving towards ‘the extreme centre,’ which is a new kind of authoritarian system.”

He sums it up this way: “In today’s disintegrating Europe, we are at a historical and decisive moment. It is our duty not to leave our present to some future historians, but to be aware that an Empire is about to collapse and its consequences are leading us into the abyss of a postmodern 1930s.” In the end, Horvat takes a last glance back to 1913, and wonders if any of those figures in Vienna that year ever met. “Were they drinking coffee at the same place? Would world history look different if Hitler had been psychoanalysed by Freud?”

In a similar vein, Jochen Bittner, a political editor at Germany’s liberal intellectual weekly, Die Zeit, asks, “Is this the West’s Weimar moment?” Although Bittner assures us right off the top that the U.S. presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is certainly no Adolf Hitler, “still, Germany’s slide into a popular embrace of authoritarianism in the 1930s offers a frame for understanding how liberal democracies can suddenly turn toward anti-liberalism.” Weimar was the social-democratic regime that emerged from the rubble of the First World War, only to be riven by economic collapse, loss of trust in institutions, political blunders, and the rise of populist demagogy, one that offered bizarre racialist theory to justify lethal policies. (Jochen Bittner, “Is This the West’s Weimar Moment?”, New York Times, May 31, 2016.)

Bittner argues that “in America and Europe, the rise of the anti-establishment is a sympton of a cultural shock against globalized postmodernity,” and that it’s “similar to the 1930s’ rejection of modernity. The common accusation is that liberal democracy has somehow gone too far, that it has become an ideology for an elite at the expense of evereyone else.”

Indeed, the complaints about “elites” by “ordinary” people, or their surrogates, featured prominently in the recent Brexit debate in Britain. In France, figures like Marine Le Pen offer themselves as champions of “the invisible and the forgotten,” Bittner notes. He recalls that in the 1930s, “The elites were blamed for the resulting chaos, and the masses were ripe for a strongman to return order to society.” Bittner suggests that today, as in the 1930s, “we are seeing the failure of the liberal mainstream to respond to serious challenges, even those that threaten its very existence.” It’s a grim prognostication.


3. England, Your England

“The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”

— George Orwell, “England, Your England” (1941).


If additional evidence of a rising populist right is needed, the Brexit referendum reveals a usually sober United Kingdom following its right-wing Pied Pipers into political and economic uncertainties.

We had been warned for weeks – both citizens of the United Kingdom and observers on the Continent like myself, watching from Berlin – that the British referendum on whether to remain a member state of the European Union or to leave the EU, the referendum known as “Brexit” (for “British exit”), was too close for the pollsters and gambling agency bookmakers to call. Yet when we woke up the morning after the vote on June 23, 2016, we were still utterly surprised to discover that Britain, after more than 40 years’ membership in the EU, had voted 52-48 per cent, 17 million to 16 million in a 72 per cent voter turnout, to leave. Even leaders of the winning pro-Brexit side in the referendum, such as Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Tory PM-in-waiting, Boris Johnson, admitted that they, too, had expected the Remain side to eke out a victory, and thus allow the U.K. to totter on as before. We hadn’t believed the warnings. We thought that the UK would muddle through, as it had done so often in the past.

CNN's Richard Quest touring England.

CNN’s Richard Quest touring England.

In the often acrimonious debate leading up to the referendum, the one moment that stood out for me was a televised vignette about “ordinary” folks in the U.K. heartland. The gravel-voiced CNN financial correspondent Richard Quest had been kitted out in a sort of milkman’s delivery truck which he drove over hill and dale to gather the opinions of the non-politicians, non-experts, non-partisans, stopping in the marketplaces of obscure English towns to record “streeter” interviews.

And there, in some green and pleasant place that might be called Twix-on-Styx, Quest would buttonhole a late middle-aged couple to quiz them on their voting intentions and motives. They were invariably perfectly sweet, and they didn’t have a visibly cruel bone in their bodies. With few exceptions, they were voting to leave. And why is that?, Quest queried. And she would perfectly sweetly say, “Well, we don’t want Them telling us what to do, do we now?” Them, meaning, of course, those fabled faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, the European Union’s headquarters. And he would add, shaking a jowl, “And there’s the immigration, isn’t there?”

Media reaction around the world noted that complaints about “immigration” might be code for something uglier. For example, a dismayed Toronto Globe and Mail editorial later characterized the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Leave side, including sincere “streeter” observations like the one above, as simply “veiled racism.” The Globe’s international affairs columnist, Doug Saunders, underscored the paper’s editorial, saying that the referendum outcome “marks the first time that the xenophobic politics of the far right have managed to win a majority national vote in a major Western country.” Somewhere in all that English heartland sweetness and light, I found myself wondering not only about how many such Boomer generation couples there were, but I also experienced an eerie frisson of recognition that these were the selfsame earnest Volk one could find in similar marketplaces in 1930s Germany saying, “Well, Herr Hitler has some good policies, no?” (Globe editorial, “The Brexit vote is complete folly, but there is still time to reverse it,” Globe and Mail, Jue 24, 2016; Doug Saunders, “Remember the Brexit as the moment when xenophobia won,” Globe and Mail, June 24, 2016.)

In the immediate aftermath of the unexpected referendum result, the amount of reportage, commentary, and theorising (to which I’m adding one more straw, but hoping not to break the camel’s back or exhaust the reader’s patience) was so voluminous as to be more than any one aggregator can digest. Granted that no single analysis can pretend to produce that aha! now-it’s-perfectly-clear illumination of the meaning of the vote, nonetheless there are a couple of things that are less murky than the big picture.

One of them is the voter profile of those who cast their ballots for Remain and Leave. The winning Leave side was driven by older, white, less educated, small town dwelling, Englishmen and women, and they voted in large numbers. For example, over 80 per cent of eligible voters aged 65-plus turned out and a sizeable majority voted to Leave. The Remain-in-the-EU-side voter was characteristically younger, better educated, cosmopolitan in attitudes, and the inhabitant of big cities. However, a correspondingly lower proportion of the 18-24 demographic showed up to vote. Oh yes, there was one other variable that differentiated the two sides: the possession of a passport; Remain voters were more likely to have a passport and use it, while Leave voters tended not to have a passport and to be, both literally and figuratively, more insular. As well, citizens in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the pro-globalization business class voted to Remain. So did a goodly chunk of other groups described as “elites,” who work in the media, the arts, and academia. The two variables most predictive of voting behaviour were age and education, and unsurprisingly, those variables tend to overlap.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put the same point this way: “The strongest single predictor was education. Those who had been university educated opted overwhelmingly to remain; those who had only made it through the British equivalent of high school or less wanted to leave… The young voted to remain – 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voting ‘in’ … while the old were adamant in heading for the exit.”

This “generational divide has an educational dimension,” Freedland points out, noting that the number of Britons attending college has increased from less than 10 per cent to almost 50 cent in the space of two generations. “Put bluntly, in the UK the old and the less educated are overlapping categories.” Freedland also notes parallels to events in the U.S., namely, the “older and less educated” account for many of the millions of people who voted for Donald Trump in the recent presidential primaries. (Jonathan Freedland, “From Brexit to Trump?” New York Review, June 25, 2016.)

It’s only fair to note that the question of whether the demographics-and-lack-of-education combination is detrimental to political judgment is one of the fiercer threads in the post-mortem debate. I’d be inclined to say, at least in the case of Trump and his supporters, that the “ignorant angry-old-man” thesis is more than slightly plausible. However, there’s a strand of analysis, most frequently found on the left, that argues that the Brexit decision represents a sound rejection by the “people” of “globalization,” international capitalism, and especially smug “elites” (in business, the media, politics, and academia) who have been subjugating the popular masses for decades now.

Advocates of the anti-elitist thesis are easy to locate. One of the most prominent of them is journalist Glenn Greenwald, author most recently of “Brexit Is Only the Latest Proof of the Insularity and Failure of Western Establishment Institutions,” (The Intercept, June 25, 2016). This isn’t the place to argue Greenwald’s piece, but after I’d counted the first 25 pejorative uses of the term “elite” in a single article by him, I must admit that I was tempted to put in a kind word for elites. Like, maybe they often know something that the much-romanticized “ordinary folks” don’t know? Or, perhaps a Platonic reminder that if you need to fix a waterpipe or a leaky heart valve, it’s a good idea to call in, respectively, an “elite” plumber or doctor. I do notice that in Greenwald’s excoriation of elites and his corollary reading of the Leave vote as a popular repudiation of globalization, that any suggestion of racism or ignorance as motivators is distinctly subdued.

In addition to voter profiles, one other bit of clarity is that a key issue for Leave voters (confirmed in survey after survey) was “immigration.” It was more important than questions of economics, distaste for Brussels bureaucracy, and repudiation of globalization and/or elites. The unsettled question is, What did the rejection of immigration mean? Was it, as the Globe editorial (cited above) put it, “veiled racism” and an expression of xenophobia? Or is there a case to be made that immigration, especially from the EU, has been detrimental to Britain? If that issue hasn’t been settled by months of heated pre-referendum debate, you can be assured that it won’t be settled here either.

Nor will it necessarily be settled by Brexit. The largest source of British immigration is the Asian sub-continent: people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a legacy of both British colonialism and the existence of the British-led Commonwealth. Even so, out of the UK’s estimated 65 million population, only about 2.5 million, less than 3 per cent, are from the Indian sub-continent, and their presence won’t be affected by Brexit. The UK’s membership in the EU, which mandates a free flow of citizens among its members, has brought some 3 million other Europeans to live and work in Britain (Poland, Ireland and Germany are the three leading sources of such migration), while a corresponding million-plus Brits have settled or retired in parts of Europe outside the U.K. The latter categories, obviously, will be, in some way, affected by Brexit, even if not immediately.

Nigel Farage's anti-immigration poster.

Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration poster.

Beyond the facts, there’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence and action. It ranges from blunt ugly remarks delivered by “perfectly sweet” late middle-aged citizens; to a referendum poster titled “Breaking Point,” featuring Ukip head Nigel Farage and in the background, a hoard of brown-skinned Syrian refugees presumably heading for England, Your England; to, worst of all, the murder, a few days before the referendum, of 41-year-old Labour MP Jo Cox, a Remain campaigner and mother of two young children, by an extreme right-wing, “Britain First,”  and likely deranged, assassin. In the days immediately following the vote, there was also a noticeable uptick in racist incidents throughout England. As I say, there probably isn’t a definitive answer to the question of what “immigration” means, but I think the case for xenophobia and dislike of “others” has more substance than any of the competing explanations.

Several observers have pointed out that there’s a great deal more to the referendum and its analysis than to the factors I’ve so far ticked off the list. As researcher and Guardian contributor John Harris puts it, “Of course, this is about so much more than the European Union. It is about class, and inequality, and a politics so professionalised that it has left most people staring at the rituals of Westminster [Parliament] with a mixture of anger and bafflement.” (John Harris, “‘If you’ve got money, you vote in… if you haven’t got money, you vote out’”, The Guardian, June 24, 2016.)

George Orwell.

George Orwell.

One of the reasons I like Harris’ piece, in addition to his on-the-ground reporting, is that he’s interested in the same stretch of George Orwell’s writing as I am (in the epigraph at the top of this section). Harris recalls the encomium, “The gentleness of the English civilisation is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil.” Orwell wrote that in 1941. Harris adds, “Not now, surely?”

There are real reasons for the present ungentle fury, says Harris: “a terrible shortage of homes, an impossibly precarious job market, a too-often overlooked sense that men (and men are particularly relevant here) who would once have been certain in their identity as miners, or steelworkers, now feel demeaned and ignored. The attempts of mainstream politics to still the anger have probably only made it worse.” Harris cites “oily tributes” to “hardworking families,” and the trope of “social mobility,” “with its suggestion that the only thing Westminster can offer working-class people is a specious chance of not being working class anymore.” Still, the equally specious promises of “minorstream” politics aren’t much of a solution.

David Cameron.

David Cameron.

I think Harris is also good on the political blunders that led to the referendum. One other clear thing about the Brexit debate is that British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative leader, called the referendum for primarily political reasons. He wanted to fend off the attractions of the right-wing Ukip party, and especially the possible revolt within his own party.

“The Prime Minister evidently thought the whole debate could be cleanly started and finished in a matter of months,” Harris writes. Cameron’s chief Conservative political rival Boris Johnson “opportunistically embraced the cause of Brexit in much the same spirit. What they had not figured out was that a diffuse, scattershot popular anger had not yet decisively found a powerful enough outlet, but that the staging of a referendum and the cohering of the leave cause would deliver exactly that… And so it came to pass: the cause of leaving the EU, for so long the preserve of cranks and chancers, attracted a share of the popular vote for which any modern political party would give its eye teeth.” Among the casualties of the vote was Cameron himself. Although he proposed the referendum as a sort of election gimmick in the 2015 contest (a gimmick that worked), he also put himself at the head of the Remain camp, and once he lost the referendum vote, he promptly did “the honourable thing” and announced his resignation.

In the end, Harris returns to Orwell and The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), his booklength essay (of which “England, Your England” is the first part.) England, wrote Orwell, “resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kowtowed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income.”

“With the under-25s having so obviously supported one side,” says Harris, “and older people the other, the next line [in Orwell’s essay] is prescient beyond words.” Orwell said, “It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts.” Harris also recommends Orwell’s final word on the matter: “A family with the wrong members in control – that perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”

Although Orwell repeats the common trope, “England will be still be England… stretching into the past and future,” the same cannot be said for the United Kingdom. With both Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU, the possibility of a break-up of the UK may be part of the collateral damage of the referendum.

Finally, there is the problem of the EU itself. As the headline on Jim Yardley’s piece puts it, “Regardless of Brexit Vote… EU Must Rethink Status Quo.” The difficulties of the EU in recent years are well-known: the Euro currency crisis, support for reform in Ukraine, the Greek fiscal catastrophe, and the handling of the refugee crisis. Yardley says, “Even among top officials, there is a growing recognition that Europe’s political mainstream has misjudged the public appetite for rapid European integration.” He cites the warning of Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and current president of the European Council, “The specter of a breakup is haunting Europe.” (Jim Yardley, “Regardless of ‘Brexit’ Vote, Experts Say, E.U. Must Rethink Status Quo,” New York Times, June 18, 2016.)

Maybe Yardley’s most important point in the litany of problems is the reminder that “it is easy to forget that the European Union is an audacious political experiement to wash away the antagonisms of World War II and build a new Europe. Unity required putting aside the ancient rivalry between France and Germany, and binding together countries with different languages, cultures and economies.” The EU is one of the great utopian ideas of the second half of the 20th century.

Europa and the bull.

Europa and the bull.

Yet, one of the topics that attracted little discussion during the Brexit debate was the idea of Europe – the concept of a diverse political, cultural, economic entity that superceded the parochial loyalties of nation, tribe, and kin. The sector that most “got” the idea was youth. “Generations growing up between the 1980s and the 2000s,” says Yardley, “saw how an expanding Europe brought tangible benefits – borderless travel, job and educational mobility with the bloc, rising prosperity.” What’s more, “poorly governed countries came under pressure from Brussels to improve.”

Critics could say that the embrace of the European idea was mainly limited to a privileged segment of a social class rather than to all of youth. If you were young, poor, and more or less trapped in a jobless outback, you weren’t waxing enthusiastic about “Europe.” That’s true, but it’s also the case that the cosmopolitan young who embraced the vision of a multicultural Europe are not dissimilar to the young people who gathered in civic squares throughout the Middle East during the “Arab Spring,” or the youthful protesters of the “Euromaidan” movement in Kiev, Ukraine in 2014. Unsurprisingly, at this sour moment, the idealism of the  young is underrated.

Perhaps the most prominent figure who is attempting to retain youthful idealism is Pope Francis. At his acceptance speech this spring for the Charlemagne Prize, awarded for service toward European unification, Francis asked, “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?” And again, “What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”


By the Monday morning after the Brexit vote, UK inhabitants were adjusting to the shock – bitterly, soberly, or gleefully, as the case may be. Prime Minister Cameron had honourably declared his intention to resign; the leader of the Labour Party opposition Jeremy Corbyn was in hot water with his party for having been too tepid during the referendum campaign; stock markets in London (and around the world) had predictably and precipitously sunk, and it was announced that they would be “volatile” for the next while; the value of the British pound had declined to a 30-year low as Britain’s credit rating was being cut by the rating agencies; and what in America are known as “Monday morning quarterbacks” were in the middle of the media’s All-Brexit-All-the-Time “breaking news / rolling coverage.” A day later, there was a second Brexit. All the while the referendum vote was on, so were the European soccer championships, a matter of probably as much or more importance to the victims of globalization as globalization itself. Improbably enough, England was bounced out of the tourament by losing 2-1 to, of all countries, Iceland. If nothing else, a bit of poetic justice.


4. Mein Trumpf

It just so happened that Donald Trump arrived in the UK the morning after the Brexit referendum. Jonathan Freedland (in the article cited above) described it this way: “It was grimly appropriate that the first major international visitor to the new, post-Brexit Britain was Donald Trump. At dawn on Friday June 24, the presumptive Republican nominee’s Trump jet touched down in Glasgow, Scotland, from where he hopped into a Trump helicopter that ferried him to the christening of the Trump Turnberry golf course.”

Trump in Scotland.

Trump in Scotland.

Freedland doesn’t report the christening events at this piece of Trump property, but I happened to catch The Donald on CNN. Surrounded by an entourage that consisted of bagpipers, muses in diaphanous gowns and sporting gear (wives and daughters and secretaries, I think) and meaty security guys, Trump proceeded to give a 13-minute speech about improvements to the sprinkler system, the putting greens and other  amenities, to the consternation of reporters who expected that Trump would have something to say about the momentous political event that had occurred the night before. He did. “It’s a great thing,” he said, and then returned to the fine points of sprinkler systems and other matters of interest to landlords.

Eventually, prodded by press and staff, Trump applauded the “great victory” that had been achieved by the Brexit crowd. As Freedland reports, “They had, he said, exercised their ‘sacred right’ to independence, taking back control of their economy and their borders.” Within a day or two, he was predicting the demise of the European Union. “Naturally,” continues Freedland, “he brought the subject back to himself and his own candidacy for the US presidency. ‘I think really people see a big parallel,’ he said. ‘A lot of people are talking about that.’” Added Freedland, “He was right, even if he’d made a mistake by delivering his congratulations in Scotland – whose voters had emphatically opted, by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, to remain inside the European Union.” Thus, Trump joined figures like France’s Marine Le Pen, various right-wing party heads in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, as well as governments in Russia and Iran, in praising the Brexit outcome. Whether he knew it or not, he was in the right company.

Trump and pipers.

Trump and pipers.

Trump’s bit of fortuitous travel, despite the tone-deafness of congratulating pro-EU Scots on departing the EU, is a reminder that looming over all these recent events – whether relatively small ones like the Austrian presidential election, or the German provincial contests, or fairly major ones, like Britain’s Brexit referendum – is a very large, very loud spectre named Donald Trump.

It’s no doubt bad manners to mention Trump in relation to the leader of the Nazi Third Reich, but I notice that my Facebook feed has lately frequently carried the phrase, “Mein Trumpf,” a play on the title of Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), and columnists have not been hesitant to haul out this skeleton from history’s closet.

As Jochen Bittner said (in his New York Times column cited above), “The elites were blamed for the… chaos, and the masses were ripe for a strongman to return order to society. Some people today imagine that Hitler sneaked up on Germany, that too few people understood the threat. In fact, many mainstream politicians recognized the danger but they failed to stop him. Some didn’t want to: the conservatives parties and the nobility believed the little hothead could serve as their useful idiot, that as chancellor he would be contained by a squad of reasonable ministers.” One of the movers and shakers who imagined himself pulling the strings said, “We’ve hired him.” He was surprised when Hitler told him, “You’re fired!” Or is “You’re fired!” merely the tag line of a Reality TV show host named Donald Trump?

Bittner adds, “At the same time, even the imminent threat of a fascist dictatorship couldn’t persuade the left-wing parties to join forces.” The German Communist Party branded their ideological closest allies, the center-left Social Democrats as the “moderate wing of fascism.” It was something like the more fervent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, the “Bernie or Bust” gang, declaring during the Democratic Party presidential primaries that the frontrunner and presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton was surely “a war criminal” (and much else).

There have now been several articles and essays and op-ed pieces comparing Trump to Hitler, or seeing him as a harbinger of American fascism. It seems appropriate, in any discussion of the international rise of right-wing politics, to at least cite at least one of these characteristic speculations. Peter Baker’s article about Trump and the debate over global fascism, in a recent New York Times piece, is one such survey. (Peter Baker, “Rise of Donald Trump Tracks Growing Debate Over Global Fascism,” New York Times, May 28, 2016.)

Baker begins with a recent comparison by former Massachusetts Republican governor William Weld of Trump’s anti-immigration program to Kristallnacht, “the night of horror in 1938 when rampaging Nazis smashed Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and killed scores of Jews.” The analogy may be provocative, Baker observes, but it’s not uncommon. Baker acknowledges that to Trump’s “supporters, such comparisons are deeply unfair smear tactics used to tar conservatives and scare voters.” But then again, the name-calling, bullying Trump, is not exactly a paragon of fairplay or good judgment. He seems to have no sense whatsoever of the classic admonition to bullies, Pick on someone your own size.

The odious comparisons come, says Baker, “as questions are surfacing around the globe about a revival of fascism, generally defined as a governmental system that asserts complete power and emphasizes aggressive nationalism and often racism.” Baker then surveys potential candidates and governments for the fascist label. “In places like Russia and Turkey, leaders like Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan employ strongman tactics.” He cities the Austrian elections, where the “nationalist candidate came within three-tenths of a percentage point of becoming the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.” Furthermore, “In Hungary, an authoritarian government has clamped down on the news media and erected razor wire fences to keep out migrants. There are worries that Poland may follow suit. Traditional parties in France, Germany, Greece and elsewhere have been challenged by nationalist movements amid an economic crisis and waves of migrants.”

Trump, reports Baker, dismisses the fascist label used by Weld in typical Trump fashion. “I don’t talk about his alcoholism,” Trump said through a spokesperson, “so why would he talk about my foolishly perceived fascism? There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump.” Bakers remarks, “Americans are used to the idea that other countries may be vulnerable to such movements, but while figures like Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic radio broadcaster, enjoyed wide followings in the 1930s, neither major party has ever nominated anyone quite like Mr. Trump.” In his campaign, Trump frequently promised to put “America first,” and seemed to be referring to the quasi-fascist US movement of that name, but when challenged on the matter, pleaded historical innocence. (That, at least, is a plausible defense, given that it’s fairly obvious that Trump is definitely “history-challenged.”)

Baker also cites the historian Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, who says, “This could be one of those moments that’s quite dangerous and we’ll look back and wonder why we treated it as ho-hum at a time when we could have stopped it.” Kagan published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, “This Is How Fascism Comes to America” (May 18, 2016), that attracted wide attention, in part because Kagan is thought of as a neoconservative himself.

“We’re supposed to believe,” writes Kagan, “that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies – his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: they provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of ‘others’ – Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees – whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.” It’s a fairly complete indictment, and not inaccurate.

This is what leads Kagan to declare: “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence), but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party – out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear – falling into line behind him.”

One last anecdote from Peter Baker. “At one point, Mr. Trump retweeted a Mussolini quote: ‘It is better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep.’” Trump was asked by TV interviewer Chuck Todd about the retweet. Trump brushed off the source of the quote. “I know who said it,” he said, “but what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?” “Do you want to be associated with a fascist?” the interviewer asked. “No,” replied Trump, “I want to be associated with interesting quotes,” and then triumphantly added, “And certainly, hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?”

As I noted at the outset of this gloomy meditation, we nonetheless have to be careful not to issue alarmist generalizations as though the continued rise of the right is a kind of destiny or determinist future. It’s true that nobody, at this time, knows exactly what to do. Personally, I prefer the old solution, namely, more education, to the current solution, which is apparently, more Tweets.

In any case, not all is lost. In Austria we dodged a metaphorical bullet, not one from the gun-carrying right wing candidate’s weapon of choice. Many of the right-wing parties and movements, such as the Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland, may remain minority irritants rather than actual imminent threats. Though Brexit may focus our attention on the considerable flaws and failings of the EU, it’s also the case that there’s considerable support and energy for the “European idea.” Brexit may have passed, but half of British voters cast a ballot for remaining in the EU. Still, Europe has had plenty of the afterlife of totalitarianism. It could do without any more. That said, we’re deeply split, in much of Europe, and certainly in Britain and the U.S. As for Trump, although anything can happen when we’re contemplating electoral events that are several months off, there’s reason to think that Hillary Clinton has a solid chance to become president, and that Donald Trump simply represented a temporary high water mark in American populism during an especially confusing political era, and that he will quickly sink to the appropriate level – perhaps that level is gutter runoff after a flash flood.


Berlin, June 28, 2016. 







  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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