The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has shocked Americans and people around the world. Many question how a candidate who was so far beyond was thought to be acceptable in American politics could end up winning an election. Two things are important to remember when reflecting on Trump’s victory. The first is that he is not unique. Far-right parties are present in almost every European democracy and they take substantial numbers of votes. Second, is that partisan loyalty can be a powerful force, it is often the case that when voters find out they disagree with their party that they change their views instead of changing the party that they support. The election of Trump offers an important lesson to Brits and to Canadians about the dangers of allowing a mainstream conservative party to be co-opted by far-right leadership.
During the American primary I wrote about how Trump’s candidacy was not particularly original. The extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the cult of personality are all things that are strikingly common amongst Europe’s far-right parties. The opposition to globalization (for the European parties this comes in the form of opposition to European Union integration, while for Trump this ends up being opposition to trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) nor the anti-elitism set Trump apart either. While there are certainly some differences between Trump and the European far-right, Trump is more socially conservative than a number of European far-right parties, his campaign looked very much like an Americanized version of a European far-right one.
Trump’s primary win also fits with success of far-right parties across Europe. Trump won about 45% of the vote in a Republican party which between 40% and 45% of Americans identity with. That’s the equivalent of winning somewhere between 18% and 20% of the vote, not a stretch at all for a European far-right party. Indeed, when I wrote my earlier post on Trump’s likeness to the European far-right I noted that his poll numbers were right where one expect them to be, given the rise of other European far-right parties over the last 20 years. Up until the end of the American primaries there was little that was unique about Trump. He was running the same kind anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-globalization campaign that is common in Europe and was winning about the same percentage of the vote with that campaign.
The crucial difference between Trump and the European far-right, however, is that Trump was not leading his own party, he was running as a candidate for leadership in an already established party. This gave Trump two major advantages over most far-right candidates. The first is that he could use the resources of the Republican party when running in the general election. Even though he did not have the support of the entire Republican establishment he could count on many of established Republican campaigners to help him to run his campaign. This gave him a level of election expertise that most far-right parties simply do not have. As my colleague, Adam Coombs, points out in his piece on voter turnout, Trump was able to benefit both from the Republican party’s get out the vote efforts and from voter suppression laws that Republican governors put in place to provide an advantage to Republican candidates. Unlike most far-right parties, Trump was able to take advantage of all of the work that mainstream conservatives had done to try to give their party an advantage in elections.
Second, and more importantly, Trump was able to use the Republican brand. There is an extensive literature in American political science that shows that Americans have a high level of partisan loyalty. There is also a great deal of work, summarized in Achen and Bartels’ recent book, Democracy for Realists*, that shows that when voters find out they disagree with their candidate on an issue, they change their views on the issue not on the candidate that they are supporting. The confluence of American partisan loyalty and voters’ tendency to adopt the views of their candidate meant that as soon as Trump became the Republican nominee he had access to voters that no European far-right party does. Because voters tend to fall in line with their candidates, many of the Republicans who remained loyal to their party were likely to adopt the kinds of far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization views that Trump campaigned on. The fact that Trump ran as a Republican and not as third party candidate meant that he could reach loyal Republican voters who are willing to accept the views and arguments of a Republican candidate, but who may be reluctant to consider those same views and arguments when offered by someone running under a different party banner. No European far-right party has been able to take advantage of mainstream conservative party loyalties in the same way.
This is not to suggest that Trump did not win the support of some Democrats and independents, or that some Republicans did not vote against Trump. Far-right parties in Europe have demonstrated an ability to win the support of traditionally left leaning working class voters who oppose immigration and are fearful of globalization. There were also certainly some Republicans who voted against Trump, not all voters are blindly loyal to their parties. Trump was able, however, to build a coalition of far-right anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters (Republican or otherwise) and loyal Republicans unwilling to desert their party. Most European parties cannot build the same coalition because they are only able to win the first group voters- those who hold anti-immigrant or anti-globalization views strong enough to lead them to desert one of the mainstream parties. To get the support that Trump needed to win the American election he needed both strongly anti-immigrant and anti-globalization voters and loyal Republicans.
Trump’s ability to co-opt the Republican party should worry moderate conservatives and progressive in Britain and Canada. In both countries, like in the United States, a first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for the kind of far-right party that is common in Europe to succeed. It is notable that while the UK Independence Party now holds a single seat in British parliament, it took them over 10% of the vote nationally to win it. It is not the emergence of far-right party that these countries have most to worry about, it is the co-opting of one of the mainstream parties by far-right movements. In the UK there are a growing number of Conservative MPs that hold views of immigration and globalization strikingly similar to UKIP. In Canada the Conservative party has two leadership candidates, Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney, who hold anti-multicultural views that are similar to the ones found in far-right parties in Europe. Leitch, in particular, has made efforts to associate herself with Trump’s success. There is a serious danger that the far-right may become significant to British and Canadian politics not through the emergence of a far-right party, but rather through the take over of a mainstream conservative party.
The election of Donald Trump in the United States shows that far-right candidates can be particularly powerful if they can co-opt a mainstream party. Like in most of Europe, there is a constituency in Britain, Canada, and the United States that will support candidates opposed to immigration and globalization. British and Canadian conservatives should take careful notice of what happened in the United States. There is a real danger that their parties can be turned into vehicles to put prejudiced and once thought unacceptable candidates in power.
*Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels. (2016). Democracy for Realists: Why American Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.