In the United States the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary has surprised many. Though there is still some uncertainty over whether Trump will win a majority of delegates, he is all but certain to enter the Republican convention with more delegates that remaining candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Trump’s rise, however, is not unprecedented. Anti-immigrant nationalist parties have been gaining support across the developed world. Far-right parties across Western Europe, including in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France are all taking significant shares of the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections. In Switzerland the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has won more seats than any other party in the last three elections. Trump’s success in the Republican primary mirrors the rise of the far-right in Western Europe. Both his rhetoric and the share of the vote that he has won are very similar to the rhetoric and vote share of Western European far-right parties.
Trump’s policies and rhetoric are very similar to the policy and rhetoric of other far-right parties. Like most of the European far-right, he takes extreme anti-immigrant positions and defends them with strong and largely offensive rhetoric. His claims that immigration leads to crime and unemployment echo similar claims by parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom or the Swiss SVP. When it comes to globalization and trade, his concerns about free trade are very similar to the concerns that many far-right parties, particularly the UK Independence Party (UKIP), express over European integration and the European Union. Additionally, like most of the European far-right, Trump does not take extreme right economic positions. Although he favours large and likely unfeasible tax cuts, he is also unique as a Republican who opposes cuts to social security or medicare. In doing so Trump is trying to court anti-immigrant nationalist voters on both the right and the left of the economic political spectrum. This is not unlike efforts made by parties such as the French Front National and Sweden Democrats to do the same. In 2010 a Sweden Democrat ad that was banned from television for its racism, tried to suggest that Swedes had a choice between accepting Muslim immigrant and providing adequate funding for retirement pensions. Finally, like much of the the far-right, Trump’s success is built on his personal appeal. The identification of Trump with the far-right is not unlike the high profile that Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen had as leaders of far-right movements in the Netherlands and France. The Sweden Democrats were so reliant on their leader Jimmie Åkesson that he had to take sick leave as a result of exhaustion after the 2014 election. Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination, thus, looks a lot like the campaigns of far-right parties in Europe.
Given the similarities between Trump’s and European far-right parties’ campaigns, it is worth comparing Trump’s poll support to far-right parties’ vote support. The graph below shows Trump’s late March poll numbers along with the trend in support for a number of far-right parties in Western Europe. To estimate Trump’s support I multiplied the support that the Trump has been receiving in national level polls (found at Real Clear Politics) by the number of individuals identifying as at least leaning Republican (found in this Gallup poll). This is not a perfect measure, but it provides a ball-park estimate of the level of support that Trump has within the broader American electorate. It is better than estimates of hypothetical races between Trump and Clinton or Trump and Sanders because those polls compare only two candidates, and most European far-right parties run against multiple parties. A primary where Trump has to compete with moderate Republicans as well as with Democrats is a closer approximation of the electoral circumstances of far-right parties than polls examining a hypothetical Presidential contest between Trump and either Clinton or Sanders. A list of parties with their acronyms and the country they are from is also included below the graph.
The graph shows that Trump’s support falls in line with the general rise in far-right party support occurring across Western Europe. The estimated 17.2% of national support that Trump has is right on the trend line for far-right support, very close to the level of support that the True Finns won in the most recent Finnish election. His support is higher than support for parties such as the Sweden Democrats and UK Independence party, but is lower than for the Danish People’s Party and the Swiss People’s Party. Trump’s appeal to American voters is no greater than the appeal of many far-right parties to Western European voters. Trump does do better than the Western European far-right parties have when he is paired against either Clinton or Sanders in a hypothetical Presidential race. This suggests that Trump may be able to use the Republican brand to gain support that extends beyond the far-right parties in Europe have, and may as a result make him a greater electoral threat than most of Western European far-right parties.
Trump is not original, and his success should not be surprising. It fits into a disturbing trend of growing support for far-right anti-immigrant parties and candidates that is occurring across Western countries. He is capitalizing on concerns over immigration and disaffection with elites on the right on the political spectrum in much the same way that far-right parties across Western Europe are. Given that there is a vote block willing to support the far-right in most countries it should not be surprising to see a Republican candidate for President running such a campaign. The similarities between Trump and the European far-right also suggest that it is likely that the United States will see candidates like Trump in the future, even if he loses this election. Trump has demonstrated that there is a far-right anti-immigrant voting block in the United States that is as capable of sustaining a far-right candidate as many of the far-right groups of voters in Western Europe are.
It is important to note, however, that the electoral and party institutions in the United States will treat Trump as very differently than most Western European electoral institutions treat far-right parties. The fact that the United States is a two party system with primaries gives Trump a unique opportunity to co-opt a major party and launch a Presidential bid that takes advantage of that parties’ resources and its brand. The 17% of the vote that Trump has nationally would not make him much more of a contender for power than his Western European counter-parts, but it does make him competitive in primaries. 40-45% of the support of Republican voters is enough to win a primary even if that equates to only 17%-25% of the American electorate nationally. This means that, unlike many of the Western European far-right parties, Trump can co-opt one of the existing major parties in American politics and use its resources and brand in order to grow his support. Few far-right parties or candidates in Western Europe have the ability to co-opt a party like the Republican party and use its resources to try to win power. The far-right Front National managed to make it to a run-off in the 2002 French Presidential election, but in that race it was competing against a well-established centre-right Rally for the Republic. As a result, the Front National lost the run-off in a landslide. The polling comparing Trump to hypothetical Clinton or Sanders Democratic campaigns suggests that Trump could use the Republican party to expand his support well beyond the support won by most Western European far-right parties. The American primary system may, as a result, makes American politics more vulnerable to a far-right challenge than the Western European multi-party and largely parliamentary systems are. This may have very troubling implications for the future of far-right anti-immigrant politics in the United States.