BERLIN—Shortly after Joe Biden clinched the electoral votes needed to win the U.S. presidency on Saturday, the co-leaders of the populist far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party released a statement wishing him well—sort of. “We accept the democratic decision of the American citizens and are confident that possible irregularities in the vote counts will be resolved quickly through the rule of law,” they said.
Compared with the swift, heartfelt reactions of many world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the AfD’s response was decidedly lukewarm. Still, even that ambiguous statement was too much for many of the party’s rank-and-file elected officials. In the hours that followed, many took to social media to air grievances and insist, like President Donald Trump himself, that the election wasn’t yet over.
“Not in my name,” one AfD member of parliament replied. “Really now?” a regional-level official wrote. “It would be news to me if the election were actually decided,” a third responded. Around the same time, deputy party leader Beatrix von Storch tweeted out a statement of her own: “It’s far from certain who won,” she wrote, saying there had been “massive evidence of election fraud.” Later, Jörg Meuthen, one of the party’s two spokesmen, said, “Perhaps it would be better to wait for the result of the legal battles that are now beginning” before congratulating Biden. The party has since deleted the tweet linking to its congratulatory statement online.
Four years ago, Europe’s far-right leaders were quick to congratulate Trump on his surprise victory, seeing his ascendence to the White House as a harbinger of good things to come for their own political aspirations. Back then, Meuthen called the election a “good signal for the world” and “a turning point,” including for parties like his. And Florian Philippot, then vice president of France’s National Front, had an even bolder reaction that captured the energy on the far right: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.”
At the time, they had good reason to be optimistic. The year following Trump’s election was full of electoral successes for Europe’s far-right parties. That April, France’s Marine Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential election, garnering twice the votes her father and former party leader Jean-Marie did in 2002. In September, the AfD became the first far-right party to win seats in Germany’s parliament since World War II. And in December, after winning more than a quarter of the votes in neighboring Austria, the far-right Freedom Party entered government for the second time in recent history.
But things feel different these days, not least because of Trump’s loss: Many far-right parties have lost support over the course of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic as well as, in some countries, their own scandals and infighting. The movement’s storyline is far more muddled now than it was four years ago—and those same leaders who quickly trumpeted the 2016 result are struggling with how to react, some of them engaging in the same kind of conspiracy thinking that’s kept Trump from conceding the race.
For populist leaders who currently hold elected office, the pressure to congratulate Biden is somewhat stronger. They chose their words carefully, saying just enough to pass muster on the world stage while letting their supporters spread disinformation and conspiracy theories. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán reportedly sent Biden a letter this weekend congratulating him on a “successful presidential campaign.” “I wish you good health and continued success in performing your exceedingly responsible duties,” the prime minister wrote. Meanwhile, pro-Orbán news outlets and state TV were spreading conspiracy theories about voter fraud and suggesting the United States was in chaos.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, from the populist right-wing Law and Justice Party, or PiS, tweeted similar congratulations on Biden’s success. “As we await the nomination by the Electoral College, Poland is determined to upkeep high-level and high-quality PL-US strategic partnership for an even stronger alliance,” he wrote. (Two days earlier, a former Polish foreign minister and current PiS member of the European Parliament had said in an interview “irregularities” in the U.S. election could undermine Biden’s credibility as president.)
Meanwhile, Janez Janša, Slovenia’s illiberal prime minister, took to Twitter last Wednesday morning—three days before the race was called—to congratulate Trump. “It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears,” he wrote. “More delays and facts denying from #MSM, bigger the final triumph for #POTUS.” Twitter quickly slapped Janša’s tweet with a warning, noting the race had not yet been called; Janša insisted his words had been misinterpreted and has since tweeted that he looks forward to a close relationship with Washington “no matter which party the US president is from.”
Other far-right leaders were more circumspect, declining to say anything publicly since the race was called Saturday. Instead, they posted more general statements while vote counting was still underway on Wednesday, calling the closer-than-usual race a testament to the staying power of Trump’s message. “A great victory for Biden was promised in all the newspapers … as usual, they didn’t get it right,” wrote Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League party. “@realDonaldTrump has an advantage, and however it goes it was a great demonstration of democratic participation.” France’s Le Pen had a similar message: “The election is close: After four years, many Americans support @realDonaldTrump and consider his record good,” she said.
But the news for the far right on both sides of the Atlantic hasn’t been good as the coronavirus has taken the wind out of populists’ rhetorical sails. Voters seem to be seeking steady leadership through the crisis, and right-wing criticism of anti-pandemic measures is apparently finding a limited audience.
In Germany, support for the AfD went from about 14 percent before the pandemic to around 9 or 10 percent today. In Vienna regional elections last month, the Austrian Freedom Party won just 7 percent of the vote—a drop of more than 23 points since the last vote in Vienna in 2015. Both parties have also lost backing due to self-inflicted scandals or infighting. But support for populist parties has declined noticeably across Europe, with the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project finding a significant drop in all eight of the countries it surveyed.
The fact that 70 million Americans voted for Trump knowing full well who he is and how he operates is a clear sign Trumpism is alive and well. The extreme polarization in the U.S.—like in many European countries—won’t simply disappear now that he’s on his way out. Still, with Trump’s looming ouster, Europe’s populist, nationalist leaders have lost their highest-profile ally on the world stage at a time they are losing momentum themselves.
Things could still easily turn around for Europe’s far right in the coming months. As more people begin to feel the economic effects of the pandemic, arguments about mismanaged or unfair restrictions could find a more sympathetic ear among voters. Conspiracy theories, including the QAnon movement, are on the rise in many European countries. And a series of recent high-profile Islamist terror attacks, including the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in France and a shooting spree in the heart of Vienna that left four dead last week, may feed far-right parties’ anti-Islam rhetoric.
But for now, Tino Chrupalla, another AfD leader, pointed to what’s probably about as close to good news as such politicians can see in the aftermath of the U.S. vote when he tweeted on Wednesday. “What’s already clear: Trump has again given a voice to the unheard and improved the economic situation of many Americans,” he wrote. “He brought new life to democracy and unlike his predecessors, didn’t start any wars. And all of that despite opposition and censure from the establishment.”
Chrupalla hasn’t tweeted about the election results since then.