American elites have watched with increasing nervousness as Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has continued to ratchet up his fascist rhetoric, most recently with a call for banning all Muslim travel to the U.S. (even prohibiting the re-entry of Muslim American citizens currently abroad). But we're not the only nation with an alarming rise in hard-right politics — in French regional elections on Monday, Marine Le Pen's National Front cruised to a substantial victory.
As with any political development, there are many idiosyncratic reasons for the rise of Trump and Le Pen, from the increasingly deranged bigotry and paranoia of conservative media for the former to the legacy of the French-Algerian War for the latter. But another explanation common to both America and the entire EU is poor economic policy. Research shows that economic problems, particularly financial crises, tend to increase the support of far-right parties.
Paul Krugman recently pointed to a study of fascist vote share and the Great Depression from a few years ago, conducted by Alan de Bromhead, Barry Eichengreen, and Kevin O'Rourke. They found that economic crises had a pro-fascist electoral effect pretty much everywhere, but it was "greatest where depressed economic conditions are allowed to persist." More recently, Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch studied both pre- and post-WWII electoral results, and found that financial crises led to a large increase in the far-right vote share for up to five years afterwards.
It's not hard to imagine why this might be the case. A recent article by Allison J. Pugh explored how working-class men tend to react during times of pervasive economic insecurity and chronic unemployment:
When I interviewed laid-off men for my recent book on job insecurity, their anger, or more often a wry bitterness, was impossible to forget. By and large, like Gary the laid-off tradesman, they were not angry at their employers. At home, however, they sounded a different note... On his third serious relationship, Gary talked about the "hurt that's been caused to me by a lack of commitment on the part of other people," and he complained that "marriage can be tossed out like a Pepsi can." In the winds of uncertainty, Gary's anger at women keeps him grounded. [Aeon]
Pugh argues this is different from traditional patriarchal values, by which certain relationship rights were seen to be earned by virtue of a man providing for his family. But with quality work out of reach, ideas and politics curdle. Importantly, this is not to say that misogynist reactions are morally justified. They clearly are not — the question is how to react.
The overall problem, which crops up in many different circumstances, is that people tend to look for scapegoats when their lives take a turn for the worse. This isn't often seen in the truly poor, who are so bludgeoned down they mostly suffer in silence, not even bothering to vote. But for those just above the economic floor, or who have recently suffered a blow to perceived social status, the rage can be powerful indeed. And what do you know, polls show that Trump voters are generally the less educated (and hence poorer) part of the GOP electorate.
That brings me back to economic policy. After a laudable but brief turn towards Keynesian stimulus, starting in about 2010 and continuing through 2013 or so, the entire American and EU policy elite was absolutely obsessed with austerity. Right smack in the middle of the worst economic crisis in 80 years, utterly egregious deficit cutting was priority number one for the world's most powerful policymakers. The result: A bad economic performance in the U.S., and something arguably worse than the Great Depression in Europe.
When great swathes of people find the traditional route to a respectable place in society — employment — closed to them, when wages have been stagnant or declining for 40 years, and when the major function of the state seems to be prisons and the cops, one should not be surprised when political alienation and radicalization is the result. Is it any wonder these legions of disaffected and disgruntled people are turning to a fascist promising to protect "us" from "them," and to make "us" great again?
Next time economic disaster strikes, rather than a manic all-consuming focus on making a deficit number go down for no reason, perhaps policymakers ought to give some consideration to jobs and broad economic security. If they don't, they may find the alienated masses they have so long ignored carrying a fascist into the White House.