Perhaps the biggest story of the American Presidential primaries has been the rise of Donald Trump. The billionaire candidate has made headlines by leading the Republican polls while espousing a number of xenophobic and racist policies that have many concerned for the Republican Party and for American politics. Trump is being cast as a new type of candidate who the more conventional Republican candidates cannot figure out how to deal with. Candidates like Trump are not new to liberal developed democracies though. Trump’s mix of nationalist xenophobia and populist distrust for mainstream politicians mirrors the politics of the far-right parties that have been gaining popularity in Europe over the past two decades. Trump’s policies and rhetoric look very similar to those of the French Front National, the UK Independence Party, The Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Sweden Democrats. Like those parties he can build a substantial base of support by relying on xenophobic voters alienated by mainstream candidates and parties, but also like those parties, Trump’s likelihood of being able to grow his support to the extent needed to win a national election is limited.
To a large degree Trump is the beneficiary of multi-dimensional politics. In a Washington Post article Doug Ahler note and David Brookman note the difficulty of trying to place Trump on the left-right political spectrum. On immigration and foreign policy Trump is a candidate of the far-right, but on issues such as taxation and social spending Trump is actually quite moderate (especially when compared to the rest of the Republican Party). This mix of policies is strikingly similar to those of far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats or Dutch Party for Freedom that wrongly argue that voters face a choice between well funded social programs and accepting immigrants. Trump’s policies underline the extent to which politics can be more complicated than the left-right spectrum that candidates are often placed on makes it out to be. There are several different dimensions (or political spectrums) on which candidates can be organized, and being an extreme candidate on one political dimension does not necessarily mean being an extreme candidate on another. It is not clear that candidates or voters that are supportive of high levels of government spending, for example, will always be supportive of liberal immigration policies and multiculturalism. Conversely, it is not clear that supporting low taxes and limited government intervention should mean that a candidate or voter should favour restrictive immigration policies. On immigration issues the views of welfare chauvinists’ (who support a strong welfare state but want to limit immigrants’ access to it) and social conservatives’ views are likely to align. On the other side of the immigration spectrum, the views of economically left-wing social liberals and economically right-wing neo-liberals (to the extent that many neo-liberals support open immigration policies in order to create a freer labour market) are likely to align.
Traditionally parties and candidates in the United States and in Europe have competed on left-right issues. They may have positions on immigration issues, but they often are less prominent in their platforms and in their rhetoric than their positions on taxes, social programs, or foreign policy. This is important to traditional parties because they often have voters who favour more liberal immigration policies and voters who oppose such policies. Moving too far to one side of the immigration spectrum risks costing the party supporters on their side of the left-right spectrum. This is something that far-right candidates like Donald Trump are able to take advantage of. The need for mainstream candidates to take moderate positions leaves many voters on both the left and right at odds with their parties’ immigration positions. By taking extreme positions on immigration and moderate positions on other issues candidates like Trump or parties like the Sweden Democrats and Dutch Party for Freedom are able to win the support of xenophobic voters on both the left and the right of political spectrum. This gives them a substantial base of support from which they can compete in elections.
The same extreme positioning of immigration that allows far-right candidates and parties to win a substantial portion of the vote also limits their growth potential. Extreme positions may appeal to significant numbers of anti-immigrant voters on both the left and the right, but they also alienate significant numbers of voters who are have moderate views with respect to immigration. A large number of voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum are willing to vote for pretty much anyone other than a far-right party or candidate because of the party or candidate’s extreme positions on immigration. This was most apparent in the 2002 French Presidential and 2015 French regional elections. In 2002 far-right Front National Presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen finished second in France’s first round of elections just 3 percentage points behind centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac (Le Pen won 16.9% of the vote to Chirac’s 19.9%). In the second round of elections Le Pen increased in vote share to just 17.8% while Chirac’s share of the vote jumped to 82.2%. The same thing happened in regional elections this month in France. In the first round of elections (in which all candidates run) the Front National finished first, ahead of both the centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists. In the second round of elections (in which only regional President candidates winning at least 10% of votes in the first round are allowed to run) the Front National fell to third. The Front National gained only 800 000 votes from the candidates that dropped out between the first and second round of elections, going from 6 million votes to 6.8 million votes. By contrast the Socialists went from 5 million votes to 7.2 million votes, which was good enough for a second place finish in the second round of elections. The Republican almost doubled their number of votes, going from 5.7 million to 10.1 million and a first place finish. When faced with a strong far-right challenger in a Presidential race, non-far-right voters will tend to consolidate their support amongst whichever party looks most likely to defeat the far-right. Far-right parties in the Europe can win concerning numbers of votes, but they have yet to demonstrate enough growth potential to challenge mainstream left and right parties for government.
The same is likely to be the case for Donald Trump. There is good reason to believe that his ability expand his vote share beyond his current numbers is quite limited. Trump lacks the endorsements which are often strong predictors of primary success, his net favourability numbers are at best middling, and he has less support in the polls than candidates from past elections that have been able to gain the same amount of media coverage as he has had in this election. As with far-right parties across Europe there is a ceiling on the support that Trump can win, and he is likely getting close to it (or has even reached it). Trump’s ability to win the Republican primary is likely contingent on other candidates splitting the non-Trump Republican vote (it is worth noting that vote splitting played a major role in Jean Marie Le Pen’s second place finish in 2002) and he certainly is going to have difficulty expanding his appeal enough to gain the close to 50% of the national vote needed to win a Presidential election. Trump is far more likely to be the United States’ version of Jean Marie Le Pen than he is to be President.
The success of Trump in the early stages of the Republican primary has been a surprise, but it should not have been. Trump’s success looks much like the rise of the far-right in Europe. It is likely that if the United States had a multi-party system or Presidential primaries that were less permissive to candidates with a broad range of opinions that Trump would be running as part of his own American version of the Front National, Party for Freedom, or UK Independence Party. These parties have had an important (and concerning) impact on politics in their respective countries, but they have yet to demonstrate the ability to win the kind of support needed to lead a government. Like the European far-right, Trump is unlikely to be able to build the kind of support needed to win a Presidential election.