Even in a time of grim political news around the world, the past few days have seemed particularly grotesque. It’s tempting, as the New York Times’ Mark Landler does here, to read a global pattern in the madness:
I don’t mean to single out Lander. This kind of analysis is very common, and I’ve engaged in it plenty of times myself, but trying to shoehorn disparate global political events into a Trumpian framework can distort what’s really going on. It’s true that the past few years have been a golden age for far-right populism and that political institutions and traditional centrist parties everywhere have been struggling to respond. There are also global trends undoubtedly driving this dynamic, including record levels of migration and its attendant backlash to multiculturalism, skyrocketing economic inequality, and the proliferation of social media. But the particular causes of each of the above events are quite specific to each country. Viewing them as “wins” for Trump obscures more than it illuminates.
Taking these examples in reverse order, Viktor Orbán’s sustained assault on the George Soros–founded Central European University, which this week said it would move most of its courses to Vienna if current Hungarian policies continue, is a disturbing attack on academic freedom from his increasingly authoritarian government. Soros-phobia also serves as a connective tissue for the global far right. But Orbán has been in office since 2010 and has been working to cleanse Hungary of Soros’ supposedly malign influence for years. And Hungary’s border fences and detention centers for asylum-seekers demonstrate how Orbán has often served as the lead innovator of the international anti-migrant backlash. (No less an authority than Steve Bannon has referred to him as “Trump before Trump.”) If anything, one could say that the links recently drawn by Trump and his allies between Soros and the Central American migrant caravan take (probably unintentional) inspiration from Orbán’s rhetoric rather than the other way around.
As for Merkel, who announced this week she will step down as head of Germany’s ruling CDU in 2021 and won’t seek re-election as chancellor, it’s certainly tempting to read this as a “win” for her antagonist Trump, even though she may still be in office for a while. The two have frequently clashed, particularly on refugee issues and trade, and the current U.S. ambassador to Germany has spoken openly of cultivating ties with the European right. On the other hand, the recent setbacks for Merkel’s party have benefited the left-wing Green Party as much as the far-right AfD. And Merkel has already been in power for 13 years, the longest of any sitting democratic leader in Europe. With or without Trump in the White House, her tenure was destined to end sooner or later. Counting on an effective but not particularly popular or charismatic head of state to remain in office until death does not seem like a very sustainable strategy for the long-term defense of liberal international order. As Griff Witte of the Washington Post writes, by announcing her plans now, Merkel gives her party, and Germany’s political establishment generally, “a shot at a managed transition to a fresh face.”
In Bolsonaro’s case, his blatant authoritarianism and sinister attacks on the media make the “Trump of the tropics” comparisons inevitable. But there are problems with attempts to position his victory as part of the wave that has brought right-wing populists to power in the U.S. and Europe. For one thing, those victories would have been impossible without the nativist backlash to increased levels of migration. In the Brazilian election, migrants—particularly the growing numbers of refugees from the political chaos in Venezuela—weren’t a nonissue, but they were much less of a factor. According to U.N. figures, Brazil had only 736,000 international migrants in 2017, compared with 49,770,000 in the U.S. and 12,165,000 in Germany.* Its foreign-born population remained steady and low at 0.4 percent between 2000 and 2017. And as Yascha Mounk points out, Brazil is already a majority-minority society, the scenario that nationalist supporters of Trump, Orbán, and the AfD are trying to prevent in their countries. The circumstances that enabled Bolsonaro’s rise have more to do with the very specific political events in Brazil in recent years, which saw the controversial impeachment in 2016 of President Dilma Rousseff and the imprisonment this year of its most popular politician, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Whatever you think of those leaders, it’s understandable that the country’s voters lost faith in the political establishment and were more open than normal to radical alternatives.
Looking at all of these events as part of a contiguous assault on liberalism led by Trump can cause international observers to overlook the nuances of each episode. For instance, most of the foreign coverage of Sweden’s recent election focused on immigration and the far-right Sweden Democrats, but the SD underperformed expectations, and voters seemed to be more motivated by concerns about education and health care.
Oversimplification can also lead us to overlook countervailing trends, such as in Poland, where the moderate opposition is showing some signs of life. The factors prompting voters to support, or reject, the far right around the world are often quite local and specific, and usually have little to do with the current inhabitant of the Oval Office.
Correction, Oct. 30, 2017: This post originally implied that the U.N. migrant figures referred to arrivals in one year. They represent the total immigrant populations in each country.