As the 2016 election draws to a close, one of its biggest storylines remains unresolved: Why were Americans drawn to someone as dangerous, as manifestly unqualified, as Donald Trump?
The conventional wisdom, spelled out in gallons of digital ink, is economic. Trump's rise, the story goes, is the product of economic losses suffered by the white working class. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are estimated to have been lost due to globalization in recent decades, with industries like manufacturing absorbing much of the pain.
That’s created an ocean of angry and frustrated people — primarily blue-collar and primarily white — who are susceptible to the appeal of a nationalist leader promising to bring back what they feel has been taken away.
"In the nineties, President Bill Clinton embraced globalization as the overarching solution to the country's problems," the New Yorker's George Packer writes in a recent feature. "But the new century defied the optimistic predictions of elites, and during this election, in a nationalistic backlash, many Americans...have rebelled."
Most of the stories like Packer's focus overwhelmingly on Americans: They go to Trump rallies, visit post-industrial towns, and profile Trump voters. But this approach misses a critical global context. It's tempting to think of Trump as something uniquely American, but the truth is that his rise is being repeated throughout the Western world, where far-right populists are rising in the polls.
In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party — which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans — is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.
These politicians share Trump’s populist contempt for the traditional political elite. They share his authoritarian views on crime and justice. But most importantly, they share his xenophobia: They despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.
These parties’ values are too similar, and their victories coming too quickly, for their success to be coincidental. Their platforms, a right-wing radicalism somewhere between traditional conservatism and the naked racism of the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, have attracted widespread support in countries with wildly different cultures and histories.
And it is this anger, this fear of difference and social change, that drives them — not, as the conventional wisdom would have it, some kind of backlash to globalization. A vast universe of academic research suggests the real sources of the far-right's appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance. That conclusion is supported by an extraordinary amount of social science, from statistical analyses that examine data on how hundreds of thousands of Europeans look at immigrants to ground-level looks at how Muslim immigration affects municipal voting, and on to books on how, when, and why ethnic conflicts erupt.
This research finds that, contrary to what you’d expect, the "losers of globalization" aren’t the ones voting for these parties. Hardcore supporters of Trump and his global peers are not the people profiled endlessly in the Rust Belt, who lament the loss of factory jobs. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia — and not economic anxiety — are their calling cards.
The ongoing surge of immigrants — especially those who venerate a different prophet or have a darker skin tone — is triggering a fierce right-wing backlash around the West. In the US, the anger about Latino immigration has linked up to another racial anxiety: Many white Americans believe their privileged status is being eroded by the past half-century of moves toward treating African American as truly equal citizens.
Donald Trump is a manifestation of this backlash, as are Brexit and the surge of support for far-right European parties. They show the extent of white Christian anger — the privileged who are furious that their privileges are being stripped away by those they view as outside interlopers.
It is that fury over social change that offers the best explanation we have for why the forces of intolerance are currently on the rise in the West. If we want to understand the world we live in today — and the one we’ll be inhabiting for years to come — we need to understand how immigration and intolerance are transforming the way white Christians vote. We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century. And we need to understand that Donald Trump is not an accident. He’s a harbinger.
At the beginning of World War II, the small Baltic country of Lithuania saw two major shocks. First, in 1940, it was invaded and conquered by the Soviet Union. Just the next year, in June 1941, it was invaded and conquered by the Nazis.
In the city of Kaunas, the Nazi invasion triggered a spontaneous wave of attacks against Jewish residents, who had gained an unusual amount of power under the Soviets. The perpetrators weren’t the Nazis, who hadn’t had time to set up yet. It was the people of Kaunas themselves.
Prior to the Nazi invasion, Kaunas had a reputation for tolerance; one Jewish resident called it a "paradise." Yet afterward, the "tolerant" citizens of Kaunas tortured, humiliated, and slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. Roughly 3,800 Jews were murdered in just four days.
Just 65 miles away, in the capital of Vilnius, things were different. The city had seen pogroms in the past, so you would have expected something like the horrors of Kaunas. Yet the citizens of Vilnius mostly left the Jews alone. Why?
As recently as the early 2000s, scholars didn't have a good answer to the question of why ethnic violence tore through one city without hitting the other.
Roger Petersen, a political scientist at MIT, decided to try to find one. A year after arriving at MIT he published a book, 2002’s Understanding Ethnic Violence, that contained the first truly solid framework for understanding the difference between Kaunas and Vilnius — and, as it turns out, the right-wing backlash we’re seeing across the world today.
Prior to Petersen, scholars often thought of ethnic violence in terms of threat (one group turns to violence when it feels threatened by another) or in terms of "ancient hatreds" (long-simmering resentments that have left the groups wanting to kill each other). Petersen argued that while these explanations were correct in some cases, they were incomplete. Clearly, neither theory can explain the difference between Kaunas and Vilnius. Nor did they fit several other case studies in Petersen’s book.
In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, he argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn't previously held it. Drawing on social psychology, he theorized that one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.
According to Petersen, that change in status comes from a sense of injustice. Members of dominant groups simply believe they deserve to be the dominant force in their societies, and resent those challenging their positions at the top of the pyramid.
"Any group that’s been dominant — well, it’s not that easy for them not to be dominant anymore," Petersen tells me.
This helped explain the puzzle of Kaunas and Vilnius. In Kaunas, the Soviet invasion in 1940 had politically empowered local Jews, who had occupied leadership positions in the Communist Party prior to the invasion and ended up with plum Soviet jobs as a result. This sparked intense feelings of resentment on the part of Kaunas residents, resulting in the vicious pogrom. In Vilnius, by contrast, non-Jewish ethnic Poles held most leadership positions. The Soviet invasion didn’t empower Jews on a large scale, and thus failed to create any resentment toward them.
In his book, Petersen argues that his theory helps explain the causes of other cases of ethnic violence in Eastern Europe, including the carnage in the Balkans in the 1990s. Other scholars have since found that it could be used to understand communal violence elsewhere in the world.
A 2010 paper published in the journal World Politics tested Petersen’s theory, looking at 157 cases of ethnic violence in nations ranging from Chad to Lebanon. It found strong statistical correlations between a group’s decline in status and the likelihood that it turns to violence against another group.
What does any of this have to do with Donald Trump?
Petersen predicts that ethnic struggle should play out differently when governments are weak, as in the wake of a Nazi invasion, and when they’re strong, as in modern France. In nations with strong and legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group is extremely unlikely to produce large-scale ethnic slaughter.
But "resentment" on the part of the previously dominant group doesn’t just dissipate; it is simply channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies.
"Dominance," Petersen writes, "is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence."
Several case studies support his theory. Later in the book, he examines post–Cold War politics in Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia (which had been retaken and annexed by the Soviet Union later in World War II). In Latvia and Estonia, the ethnic Russian minority was large and had been politically elevated above local ethnic majorities; in Lithuania, the Russian minority was small.
Violence, for a number of reasons, was not a feasible option. So after attaining independence, democratic governments in Latvia and Estonia passed a raft of discriminatory measures against Russians. This included stripping ethnic Russian citizenship, booting Russians out of the police force, and changing language policies to reduce the use of Russian in official government transactions.
Notably, you saw little of this in Lithuania. That’s because there was a much stronger sense of resentment toward ethnic Russians in the other two Baltic states. The status reversal under the Soviets — empowering the Russian minority at the expense of the previously dominant majority — led the ethnic majority to crack down on Russian rights as soon as they could.
While Petersen’s book focuses on Eastern Europe, his framework applies to all different kinds of countries. So when post–World War II Europe experienced a massive wave of immigration, in large part from nonwhite countries, Petersen’s work would predict a major backlash.
What you saw in many of these countries was a nonwhite, heavily Muslim population moving in and occupying social roles that had previously been reserved for white Christians.
This was the ultimate change in social hierarchy. Nonwhites, who had historically been Europe’s colonial subjects and slaves, were now becoming its citizens. They weren’t just moving into Europe; they were changing its society.
The question wasn’t whether there would be a massive electoral backlash. It was when.
For Jean-Marie Le Pen, arguably the father of Europe’s far-right political movement, the backlash began in earnest in 1984. His political party, the Front National (FN) won about 11 percent of the French national vote in the 1984 elections to the European Parliament. It was the first major electoral victory for a party of its kind.
Le Pen had founded the party 12 years earlier. It was a populist party, one that argued that ordinary people were being exploited by a corrupt class of cosmopolitan elites. They were also authoritarian, constantly warning of the dangers of crime and the need for a harsh state response.
But above all else, the FN was xenophobic. Its members believed the postwar wave of immigrants threatened the French nation itself; stopping more from coming in was the only thing that could save the country from being overrun.
"Immigration is the symbolic starting point for the debate of the future of the French nation," FN politician Jean-Yves Le Gallou once said.
It had a clever strategy for masking its true beliefs. FN’s leaders knew that overt appeals to white racial superiority and opposition to democracy had become taboo. The FN chose a different route, positioning itself not as defenders of the white race generally but instead as protectors of French values specifically. Its slogan was "France for the French."
Everyone knew what the dog whistle meant, of course. The FN’s rhetoric functioned almost exactly like Trump’s claims that Mexicans are "rapists" who are "bringing crime" to the US — that is, to signal to xenophobes that it stood with them without overtly espousing white supremacy.
In fact, the FN’s rhetoric is often quite similar to Trump’s. "Tomorrow the immigrants will move in with you, eat your soup, and they will sleep with your wife, your daughter or your son," Le Pen famously warned in 1984.
The party’s triumph that year proved that a new kind of far-right politics, with an electoral strategy rooted in xenophobic populism, could succeed in the postwar era. According to Matthew Goodwin, an expert on right-wing extremism at the University of Kent, others who shared the FN’s views raced to form their own versions of the party, either by creating entirely new organizations or by launching hostile takeovers of old ones.
In 1986, Jörg Haider — a firebrand who once praised Hitler for having a "proper employment policy" — took over Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), transforming it to a xenophobic party along the FN’s lines. In 1999, the FPO came in second in Austria’s parliamentary elections, joining a government led by the center-right People’s Party.
In 2001, a Dutch sociology professor named Pim Fortuyn launched a new political movement — oriented entirely around opposition to Muslim immigration. "I don't hate Islam," Fortuyn once said. "I consider it a backward culture."
By 2002, Fortuyn’s new party, the Pim Fortuyn List, was second in the national polls. He was assassinated by a far-left activist that year but was succeeded by another charismatic populist, Geert Wilders.
Wilders, who declared in July that "I don’t want more Muslims in the Netherlands and I am proud to say that," leads the third-largest bloc in the Dutch parliament. Wilders’s party, the ironically named Party for Freedom, is consistently leading the polls ahead of the March 2017 national elections.
These are just a few examples of FN-style parties finding success. You can list many others, from Norway’s Progress Party (currently a member of the governing coalition) to the Sweden Democrats (leading in the most recent poll for the 2018 election) to Germany’s Alternatives for Deutschland (which in May local elections won the highest vote totals of any German far-right party since the Nazis).
In France, meanwhile, Le Pen’s daughter Marine has shed many of her father’s most controversial statements — his denial of the Holocaust, for instance — and turned herself into the kinder, gentler face of the party he founded decades earlier. A recent poll found her running neck and neck with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, beating the former by 2 points, 29 percent to 27, and trailing the latter by just 4 points, with Juppé notching 33 percent to her 29.
Far-right party platforms differ from country to country, including on major social issues like feminism and economic issues like the size of the welfare state. The one issue every single one agrees on is hostility to immigration, particularly when the immigrants are nonwhite and Muslim.
"What unites the radical right is their focus on immigration," Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway who studies the far right, told me in a recent interview. The widespread popular unease about those migrants is a key source of their appeal.
Start with the timing. The 1980s were a critical time for European immigration. It’s when immigrant families came over in large numbers, rather than just the guest workers who had been allowed under previous laws. That brought white Europeans in contact with nonwhite, heavily Muslim immigrant populations for the first time.
"Until then, they [the immigrants] were mostly secluded; it was mostly men who worked in factories, all together, and [lived] quite close to where they worked. When the families came over, they started to move into residential areas, working-class areas in particular," Cas Mudde, a University of Georgia scholar, told me. "That was one of the key developments [for the far right] — the visibility of multiculturalism, which was not addressed by the mainstream parties."
A 2012 paper by a group of Swiss and Austrian researchers found direct support for this hypothesis. After poring through decades of local demographic statistics from across Austria, they found that the increase in support for the country’s leading far-right party was strongly correlated with a community’s increase in immigrant population.
"Our results suggest that voters worry about a changing ethnic and cultural composition in their neighborhoods and schools," they write.
Ivarsflaten’s research came to similar conclusions. In a 2008 paper, she looked at data on vote shares for seven European far-right parties, to try to figure out why people voted for them. She found that a person’s support for restricting immigration was "close to a perfect predictor" of one’s likelihood of voting for a far-right party.
By contrast, people’s views on other political questions — like economics or trust in government — didn’t have nearly the same predictive value. You can see this in the following chart from her paper. The Y-axis is the probability of voting for a far-right party; the X-axis is the level of support for restrictive immigration policies, right-wing economic views, and the like. The difference between immigration policy preferences and the others is striking:
"This study therefore to a large extent settles the debate about which grievances unite all populist right parties," Ivarsflaten concluded. "The answer is the grievances arising from Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis."
Eight years later, after running tests on newer data for a forthcoming paper, Ivarsflaten believes the thesis still holds.
Now, the fact that immigration is the leading driver of the far right’s rise doesn’t explain why Europeans resent immigrants so much. Luckily, scholars have also looked at that question. What they found was fairly conclusive: European whites believe that immigration poses a threat to "traditional" European culture.
They express the exact kind of grievances that Petersen’s "resentment" theory would predict: a sense of anger at the social order being overturned by immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries.
George Washington University’s John Sides and UC Berkeley’s Jack Citrin combed through data on 20 European countries, a sample of 38,339 individual people, to see what best predicted negative attitudes toward immigrants.
Economic factors didn’t seem to matter much. They found little association between the national unemployment level and the prevalence of negative attitudes toward immigration, or an individual’s income and their likelihood of holding such attitudes.
But when they tested measures of cultural resentment — people’s evaluations of statements like, "It is better for a country if almost everyone shares the same customs and traditions" — the results were very different. White European Christians opposed to multiculturalism were overwhelmingly more likely to be immigration skeptics.
When you get into the details, the link between anti-immigrant sentiment and cultural anxiety becomes even clearer.
A group of Belgian researchers examined support for their own country’s far-right party, Vlaams Blok, at the municipal and national levels. Instead of just looking at the impact of the presence of "immigrants" in a particular area, they looked at different types of immigrants.
Specifically, they separated out immigrants from Turkey and Africa’s Muslim-majority Maghreb region, which includes such countries as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. They found that the presence of Muslim immigrants correlated well with increased support for Vlaams Blok, but the presence of non-Muslim immigrant populations didn’t.
"It is not so much the presence of foreigners, but rather the fear of the Islamic way of living that leads to extreme right voting," they write.
What happened in Europe is straightforward: An unprecedented wave of nonwhite, heavily Muslim immigration made many European whites uneasy. Le Pen, Haider, Fortuyn, and the rest developed a mode of politics designed to weaponize this backlash — to take inchoate anti-immigrant sentiment and turn it into votes through heated nationalist and anti-Islam rhetoric.
If that sounds like the rhetoric of Campaign 2016, it should.
For most of this time, the United States seemed immune to the rise of European style-nationalist populism and all of its bigoted and Islamophobic overtones. Nativists like Pat Buchanan found some electoral success but never came close to winning national elections.
It was easy to believe that America was, for some ideological reason, immune to the fever raging in Europe. But the truth was that America was sheltered more by an accident of political institutions than anything else.
America’s electoral system strongly favors a two-party system, more so than any European country. For one thing, American states have ballot access laws that make life tough for third parties. For another, the US doesn’t do proportional representation, where a party gets seats in the legislature proportional to its national vote percentage. It’s a lot harder for a third party to win a majority in specific congressional districts or states than it is to for them to win a reasonable percentage of the national vote.
So when the FN won 11 percent of the national popular vote in the 1984 European election, that translated to 10 of France’s seats in the European Parliament. But when US presidential candidate Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote in 1992, that translated into exactly zero votes in the Electoral College.
Trump has proved that these institutional differences were suppressing only the symptoms, not the disease. Beneath the surface, the same white revolt we saw in Europe was brewing in the United States — at more or less the same time.
The American story dates, roughly, to 1964. That year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act — and the Republicans nominated an opponent of the legislation, Barry Goldwater, to the presidency.
The Johnson-Goldwater race cemented a long-running transformation of the Democratic Party into a multi-ethnic party of civil rights, forcing out the white Southerners who had been the party’s base since the 19th century.
These white Southerners defected to the GOP. This had a critical effect on American politics: It concentrated the nation’s most racist voters in one party.
University of Michigan’s Nicholas Valentino and Berkeley’s David Sears looked at 40 years of election data in the US, starting in the 1970s and running until 2005, focusing on "racial resentment" scores — a test political scientists use to measure racial bias. They found that whites living in former Confederate states scored consistently higher on this test of racial bias than whites in other parts of the country.
Moreover, they write, "racial [resentment] has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South, while its impact has remained constant elsewhere." As the years have gone on, voters with high levels of racial resentment have become more and more likely to pull the lever for Republicans in the South — but not in other parts of the country. That suggests the post-1964 move toward the GOP in the South really was motivated by the parties’ shifting stances on race.
Mass Latino immigration intensified this "racial sorting." Between 1980 and 2008, the foreign-born Hispanic population quadrupled — from about 4.2 million to 17.8 million. Democrats, the immigrant-friendly center-left party, were better positioned to take advantage of the growing Latino vote.
The white Americans most hostile to Latino immigration, by contrast, switched to the GOP — driven in part by negative media coverage of immigration like stories about violent crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants.
"When media coverage of immigration uses the Latino threat narrative, the likelihood of whites identifying with the Democratic Party decreases and the probability of favoring Republicans increase," political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal write in their book White Backlash. "As immigration’s impact on the United States has grown, whites have fled to the Republican Party in ever-larger numbers."
And so the Republican Party changed. Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, charted Republican and Democratic feelings of "warmness" toward blacks (rated on a 1-100 scale). He found a consistent gap, one that has widened considerably in recent years:
Drutman’s results were similar for feelings toward Hispanics:
That meant the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover. While the country was getting more diverse and tolerant, the GOP was getting whiter and more intolerant. The more that voters with negative views of Latinos and African Americans concentrated in one party, the more clout they had inside that party — even as more and more of the country rejected their beliefs.
All it took was an American Le Pen: someone who could rearticulate American bigotry in the post–Jim Crow era in the way the Front National rearticulated French bigotry in the post-Vichy era.
That someone, it turned out, was Donald Trump — who, almost certainly unintentionally, adapted the FN model for an American audience. His celebrity and personal wealth allowed him to circumvent the barriers that usually prevent insurgents from taking over established parties; his distance from the GOP leadership freed him to articulate a new kind of message that turned out to be quite popular with the GOP base.
Like his European counterparts, Trump has eschewed overt discussion of racial superiority. He claims to have "a great relationship with the blacks" and tweets things like, "I love Hispanics!" He also claims to be an American nationalist standing up against a corrupt elite in hoc to "the false song of globalism." One of his favorite descriptions of his worldview is "America First," a slogan coined by World War II–era isolationists and anti-Semites.
Protestations aside, the bigotry that runs through Trump’s rhetoric is pretty blatant. Trump first became a major political figure as leader of the birther movement — the people who questioned whether Barack Obama was really a natural-born US citizen — in 2011, taking advantage of racial anxieties about a black president to turn himself into a GOP power broker. He has claimed that a Mexican judge shouldn’t hear a case involving him because of the judge’s Hispanic background, described life in black communities as an unending hellscape of crime and poverty, and implied that all Muslim immigrants were potential terrorists.
Trump’s signature policy proposals on these issues echo the European far right. Ban Muslim immigration? Fortuyn first suggested it more than a decade ago. Build a wall to keep out migrants? Hungary’s Orban started construction in July 2015 (though he isn’t making Syria pay for it).
This rhetoric was deeply, deeply appealing to the white nationalist wing of the GOP base. Michael Tesler, a professor at the University of California Irvine, took a look at racial resentment scores among Republican primary voters in the past three GOP primaries. In 2008 and 2012, Tesler found, Republican voters who scored higher were less likely to vote for the eventual winner. The more racial bias you harbored, the less likely you were to vote for Mitt Romney or John McCain.
With Trump, the opposite was the case. The more a person saw black people as lazy and undeserving, the more likely they were to vote for the self-proclaimed billionaire.
Tesler found similar effects on measures of anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim prejudice. This shows that Trump isn’t drawing support from the same type of Republicans who were previously picking the party’s winners. He’s mobilizing a new Republican coalition, one dominated by the voters whose political attitudes are driven by prejudice.
"The party’s growing conservatism on matters of race and ethnicity provided fertile ground for Trump’s racial and ethnic appeals to resonate in the primaries," Tesler wrote in the Washington Post in August. "So much so, in fact, that Donald Trump is the first Republican in modern times to win the party’s presidential nomination on anti-minority sentiments."
Multiple other studies have supported Tesler’s findings. An April Pew survey looked at whether Republicans had "warm" or "cold" feelings toward Trump and how they felt about the census projection that the US would be majority nonwhite in 30 years.
It found that 33 percent of Republicans thought this shift would be "bad for the country." These people were also overwhelmingly likely to feel warmly rather than coolly about Trump, by a 63-to-26 margin.
By contrast, the majority of Republicans who had positive or neutral feelings about a "majority-minority" future were more split: 46 percent described themselves as having warm feelings about Trump, while 40 percent described themselves as feeling coolly.
In other words, Trump did overwhelmingly well with Republicans who were scared of a multi-ethnic future, while performing at a pretty low level with other Republicans even as he secured the party’s presidential nomination. His primary campaign disproportionately drew people who fear the demographic trends that would further erode the foundations of white privilege.
This holds true in the overall population as well. Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at New York’s Hamilton College, found that factors like economic pessimism and income were statistically insignificant to Trump’s rise. Instead, his research found that the leading driver was party identification, followed closely by racial resentment.
"Moving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 percent of all Republicans) are 24 points more favorable to Trump, and those who think the word ‘violent’ describes Muslims extremely well are about 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn’t describe them well at all," he writes.
Now, it’s true that Trump has some uniquely American characteristics. For one thing, his reality TV stardom and decades in the public eye give him a celebrity enjoyed by no European far-right leader. Moreover, he didn’t need to import xenophobia from Europe: As scholars like Mudde argue, Trump’s rhetoric draws on a long history of particularly American xenophobia (like Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee of the early 1940s, which sought to keep the US out of World War II).
But it’s not an accident that Trump and the European far right surged at roughly the same time. Both of them, in different fashions, figured out a core fact of the world: There are a lot of white people in the West who blame distant elites for allowing — or accelerating — their loss of economic and political power.
Trumpism, in other words, is much bigger than Trump.
Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary, as well as the various far-right electoral successes in Europe, showed that white resentment had political power. But their ability to gain actual political positions has been limited. No far-right party has outright won a national election in Western Europe; Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton.
That doesn’t mean far-right parties can’t move their positions into the mainstream — and see them win at the ballot box. Britain’s June vote to leave the European Union was driven by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Britain’s leading anti-immigration party. While not all Brexit voters were UKIP members, the party was responsible for putting the previously unthinkable idea of Brexit on the docket.
What’s more, UKIP’s xenophobic rhetoric played a critical role in marshaling support for Brexit. Brexit commanded majorities in poorer places like Hull and wealthier ones like Runnymede, suggesting the key factor wasn’t the economy.
Instead, it was culture — specifically, the decline of "traditional" white British culture. Sixty-two percent of "Leave" voters, according to a poll of 12,000 Britons, said that immigration was "a force for ill" in the UK. While large majorities of both black (73 percent) and Asian (67 percent) Britons voted to stay in the EU, a majority of whites voted to leave.
Voters under the age of 34, who research suggests are the least racially prejudiced group in the UK, supported staying in the EU by margins similar to those seen among racial minorities. Sixty percent of voters over age 65, who harbor the highest levels of prejudice, supported leaving.
UKIP’s anti-immigration stance tapped into one of the darkest strands in British society. A 1964 poll found that more than 80 percent of Britons believed there were "too many immigrants" coming to their country. In 1968, Conservative Member of Parliament Enoch Powell gave a now-famous address, known as the "Rivers of Blood" speech, warning that the UK would collapse into American-style racial infighting if immigration weren’t contained. One subsequent poll found that 82 percent of Britons shared Powell’s views.
Those sentiments haven’t gone away over time.
For elderly Britons and other Leave supporters, the common thread was immigration; an IPSOS/MORI poll a week before the Brexit vote found it to be the most salient issue for Leave voters. "Immigration," the poll found, "has now surpassed the economy."
A post-vote analysis, by University of London professor Eric Kaufmann, supported that. Kaufmann attempted to correlate support for Brexit among white Britons with factors like income and political affiliation. Economics played only a small role: He found "almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor." Conservative cultural attitudes, like support for the death penalty, were more significant in Kaufmann’s research.
Torsten Bell, director of the UK economic think tank Resolution Foundation, separated out the regions of the UK by their change in average income between 2002 and 2014. If Brexit were mostly about economics, people who live in areas with stagnant or falling wages (due to globalization or government policy) would be more likely to have voted for Leave.
Except that’s not what Bell found. As you can see in the below chart, his data showed no correlation between a region’s change in income and its share of votes in favor of Brexit.
Alasdair Rae, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK, took a different angle on the regional data. He attempted to correlate support for Brexit with the deprivation index, a comprehensive UK government measure of disadvantage that factors in low income, high unemployment, and low levels of education (among other things). He couldn’t find a link:
The conclusion of these researchers, then, is that the Brexit story cannot be told in purely economic terms.
"[T]his isn’t just about the numbers — it’s about culture, outlook, lifestyle and what we feel a sense of belonging to," Bell writes. "That might not be the normal thing for an economic research organisation to say, but it’s true."
At the same time that Europe and the United States dealt with profound social change, the global economy went through a fundamental transformation. Branko Milanović, a leading economist and expert on global inequality, calls it "the greatest reshuffle of individual incomes since the Industrial Revolution" — and many believe it’s the biggest single cause of the rise of the West’s new far right.
To understand why some people find the economic explanation so compelling, take a look at the following chart of Milanović’s (commonly referred to as the "elephant chart" because it resembles an elephant with its trunk raised). The chart shows changes in income worldwide at different income percentiles, covering the 1988–2008 period. For the global middle class — formerly poor people in China, most prominently — and the global 1 percent, things look good.
But the American and European working and middle classes, the high 70s to mid-80s on Milanović’s chart, have seen no gains — or even seen their income shrink.
In the West, this reversed decades of progress. The following chart, made with data from Thomas Piketty’s magisterial Capital in the 21st Century, shows the amount of wealth concentrated among the American and European upper classes over time. Between 1910 and 1950, inequality fell rapidly. But starting around 1970, wealth inequality began to rise again. Wages for most American workers during that period were stagnant.
However you explain these shifts — and there’s huge debate over that — the result is clear: In the developed world, the rich are getting much richer, while a huge chunk of the working class is being left behind.
For some analysts, this change in the economy is directly linked to the rise of the radical right. They argue that white voters are attracted to racist parties because of their economic problems, that hard times make them look for someone to blame for their problems. Minorities and immigrants are easy scapegoats, leading to an increase in racism and support for the far right.
The Washington Post’s Jeff Guo rounded up a number of studies linking economic stress to surging support for conservative and anti-immigrant parties. One such paper, by political scientists Peter Burns and James Gimpel, looked at American polls from the 1990s and found that hard economic times correlated with increased expressions of racism.
"The effect of economic hardship is to activate prejudices that are latent, adding fuel to the fire of preexisting views," they write.
In the broad brush, the theory that economic anxiety, and not a breakdown in status hierarchies, could be driving the radical right makes sense. The only way to find out which is more important is to test the two theories: to match up their predictions and see which ones better fit the data we have about Trump, Le Pen, and the rest.
The most systematic effort to do this, to date, comes from Harvard University’s Pippa Norris and the University of Michigan’s Ronald Inglehart. Norris and Inglehart looked at 12 years of European Social Survey data, surveying a whopping 294,000 respondents, to figure out the relationship between economic and cultural grievances and support for the European far-right.
They found something startling: Earlier research suggesting the European far right draws support from globalization’s losers was simply wrong.
"The strongest populist support," they write, "remains among the petty bourgeoisie — typically small proprietors like self-employed plumbers, or family owned small businesses, and mom-and-pop shopkeepers — not among the category of low-waged, unskilled manual workers."
Only one of the five economic variables they tested — employment status — correlated well with support for the populist right. That held true even when they controlled for variables like age, sex, ethnic identity, and minority status.
Then they set up an alternative model, one that tested whether five distinct cultural factors — like anti-immigrant attitudes and authoritarian values — would predict support for the far right. Every single one did.
In short: There was no good evidence that economic anxiety was driving cultural resentment. Economics played some contributing role, but it seems much more likely that the far-right backlash is about what the far-rightists say it’s about: immigration, race, and culture.
"[Populists’] greatest support is concentrated among the older generation, men, the religious, majority populations, and the less educated — sectors generally left behind by progressive tides of cultural value change," they write.
The Norris and Inglehart study is not an outlier. In their paper, they discuss a number of other studies that have come to similar conclusions about the priority of cultural concerns over economic ones. When you talk to experts on this topic, they tell you something similar: Most media accounts overstate the role of economic trouble in the far right’s rise, and understate the role of cultural change.
"If you look at where the populists have done well, they’ve actually done well in richer countries, and in the countries where they’ve done well, they’ve done well in the richer regions," Ivarsflaten, the University of Bergen scholar, told me.
She also points to a gender gap — men are much more likely to support the far right than women — as a major problem for the "left behind" thesis.
"If you think of women as workers who usually have lower-paying jobs, and are also in competition with immigrants in, say, the service sector or health care sector ... it’s an interesting thing that you don’t see women voting for these parties much," she says. "Xenophobia plays a bigger role than people realize."
That brings us to Donald Trump. Perhaps no issue has been more debated — or more politicized — in the US than the question of whether Trump’s support comes from economic anxiety or racism.
In its purest form, the economic anxiety argument holds that working-class white men have lost economic ground relative to women and other racial and ethnic groups over the past several decades, sparking feelings of anger and resentment that lead them to support Trump.
"White males aren't the most sympathetic victim group — especially because they still earn more money and have more wealth on average than any other demographic," Tim Carney writes in the Washington Examiner. "But since we tend to judge our well-being relative to others and relative to the past, white working-class males naturally see themselves as the victims of the new economic order."
This, again, is testable. If the economic anxiety argument were true, then measures of support for Trump should track with measures of self-reported concern about the US economy. The more one is concerned about the economy, the theory goes, the more likely one should be to support Trump.
Klinkner, the Hamilton College scholar, examined exactly this in a study published by Vox. He set up an interaction variable between measures of economic pessimism and "racial resentment." This tests whether people who were pessimistic about the economy were more likely to be racially resentful and support Trump.
Klinkner found bupkis. People who were racially resentful were more likely to support Trump regardless of their views of the economy.
Someone who was not very economically pessimistic but quite racially resentful was as likely to support Trump as someone who was equally resentful but much more pessimistic about the economy. Economic stress didn’t appear to be "activating" racial resentment.
This tracks with a long history of research on the prejudices Trump is activating.
Take immigration. A number of scholars have examined whether the recent rise of anti-immigrant attitudes in the United States is caused by economic angst among whites or cultural panic about a changing face of America. The consensus, as described by my colleague Dara Lind, is the latter.
"Evidence about the role of economic concerns in opposition to immigration ... has been inconsistent," three University of Michigan scholars write in a review of the literature. "On the other hand, symbolic attitudes such as group identities turn up as powerful in study after study."
You can say the same thing about anti-black prejudice.
"Multiple studies, using several different surveys, have shown that overall levels of racial resentment were virtually unchanged by the economic crash of 2008," UC Irvine’s Tesler writes at the Monkey Cage. "Some data even suggests that racial prejudice slightly declined during the height of economic collapse in the fall of 2008. The evidence is pretty clear, then, that economic concerns are not driving racial resentment in the Obama Era."
Tesler’s own research confirms this. He looks at data from the same people, interviewed in 2007 and again in 2012, and examined the relationship between racial resentment and their evaluations of the economy. There was no relationship in 2007; in 2012, there was suddenly a strong correlation.
If the Great Recession didn’t cause this, there’s only one obvious explanation: America’s election of a black president. That means we need to turn the "economic anxiety causes racism" theory on its head: It’s racism that causes a certain group of Americans to say the economy is doing badly. Concern about the economy has become, for some, an outlet for anxieties about the country being led by a black man.
It’s not that the tectonic shifts in the global economy have played no role in the rise of the Western far right. That would be difficult to prove — and, moreover, is probably wrong. There are doubtless some people who are attracted to Trump or the FN as a result of their own economic pain.
But it’s telling that in study after study, economics plays so much less of a role than racial and cultural anxiety. It suggests that of the two biggest shifts in Western society in the late 20th century, the move toward genuine multiculturalism is playing a far bigger role than growing inequality in giving rise to a new kind of far-right politics.
A lot of people, especially in the Western cultural elite, find this explanation baffling. They find it genuinely confusing that people could be motivated by status anxiety alone, and look for a "deeper" explanation.
"It may or may not be accurate to attribute the political behavior of large groups of people to racism, but it is not very useful," as economics writer Steve Randy Waldman puts it. "Those people got to be that way somehow. Presumably they, or eventually their progeny, can be un-got from being that way somehow."
But the truth is sometimes uncomfortable. Cultural attitudes aren’t always "caused" by anything else in some immediate or obvious sense. To explain how people "got" to believe in racist and xenophobic status hierarchies is to explain hundreds of years of Western history and the complicated story of how race and national identity were made in the West.
As a result of this history, many people value their culture and identity as much as they value economic security. When their vision of the way the world should work is threatened, they see it as a personal threat. They’re racist because race and hierarchy and group identity have come to play integral roles in how humans understand the world.
To deny that is to deny that both identity and the past matter, to assume everything is reducible to some kind of material or economic ultimate cause. History has shown, conclusively, that this is a mistake.
It’s not clear just how high the far right’s ceiling is.
On the one hand, the far right has never taken power in Western Europe or the United States (the "far right" here referring to post-World War II FN-style political movements, not dictatorships like the one that ran Spain). Donald Trump is down in the polls, and could lose so spectacularly that he discredits the entire right-wing populist approach. The United States will be a majority minority country in 30 years; younger generations on both sides of the Atlantic are less attracted to the far right’s racial dog whistles.
So it’s possible that the far-right wave peters out over time. But it’s also possible that the opposite is true. We could be at the very beginning of an era defined by a battle between the far-right, racist nationalists and the kind of liberal cosmopolitanism that transformed the world after World War II.
Norbert Hofer, the FPO’s candidate, is ahead in Austria’s October presidential election. Current polling suggests Vlaams Belang, a spinoff of Vlaams Blok, is likely to quadruple its share of seats in Belgium’s parliament in the next election. And that’s only two examples; you can see these parties rising, particularly in the past year, across the continent.
In the United States, the presidential race appears to be tightening. There's also no evidence that Republican voters are getting less racist.
Trump’s favorability among Republicans remains quite high, even after he was caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault and then a number of women credibly accused him of actually doing it. Influential right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News aren’t just embracing Trump — they’re embracing Trumpism, denouncing "globalists" and expressing solidarity with the far right. One Breitbart article termed the far right’s surge in Europe the "Patriot Spring." The structural factors are there, in the US, for a kind of Trumpism without Trump.
And the events giving rise to these parties aren’t going away. The past year of strong polling for the far right is the result of a one-two punch: a surge of refugees trying to get into Europe and a spate of high-profile terrorist attacks. These two factors made cultural change, particularly Muslim immigration, even scarier, activating prejudices and turning Europeans to the right.
No one has a good solution for the refugee crisis or for Islamist terrorism. Longer term, immigrant populations in Europe will continue to have children, and it’s quite a while before white voters in the US can simply be outvoted. The issue of how to integrate ethnic and religious minorities will never entirely disappear, which means xenophobic politicians may continue to find fertile ground among whites concerned about ongoing cultural change.
Western governments can’t simply ignore the far right. Brexit proved its ability to destabilize major Western institutions and the global economy. Most importantly, these parties threaten the most cherished values in Western society: our all-too-recent embrace of equality and tolerance.
If we want to protect the idea of Western societies as fundamentally open and tolerant places, then Western governments need to do something. One possible path forward can be found in the Western country that’s proven most immune to the rise of right-wing populism: Canada.
You might be tempted to think Canada has always been this way. Far from it: For most of its history, Canada was every bit as bigoted and intolerant as its peers. The Canadian immigration system prior to the 1960s was known as the "White Canada" policy because of explicit ethnic and racial quotas.
A half-century later, Canada has become an entirely different type of society.
In 1982 it passed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a major anti-discrimination law that enshrined multiculturalism as an essentially constitutional value. Ottawa now provides funding for communities and individuals to run citizenship and language classes for new immigrants, and sometimes even help them find housing. It eschewed the guest-worker programs used in much of Europe and emphasized to new immigrants that they would be a welcome and permanent part of the Canadian populace.
Canada also works to inculcate pluralistic values in its youngest citizens. By one estimate, public schools receive more than $1 billion a year to pay for teaching aids and videos with pro-immigrant messages.
The result? Today, 20.6 percent of Canada’s population is foreign-born, one of the highest such percentages in the developed world. While other countries have tried to limit Syrian refugees, Canada has welcomed them — letting in tens of thousands of Syrians and clamoring for more.
"Compared to the citizens of other developed immigrant-receiving countries, Canadians are by far the most open to and optimistic about immigration," Irene Bloemraad, the chair of Canadian studies at UC Berkeley, writes in a 2012 study published by the Migration Policy Institute.
The Canadian immigration model is not a blueprint for ending racism. Canada still has serious problems with structural discrimination, particularly when it comes to its First Nations population. It also experiences occasional bouts of xenophobia — see the recent controversy over Muslim women wearing niqabs (face veils) during citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.
Even if other Western countries copied large parts of Canada’s immigration system and multicultural ideology, they could have a hard time staving off the growing political strength of the far right. Divisions over race caused the American Civil War; in Europe, centuries of ethnic supremacy culminated in the Holocaust. What we’re experiencing today, thankfully, is far less dangerous — partly because the open racism that the Confederates and Nazis stood for has been utterly delegitimized.
This is a testament to a basic truth, underscored by the Canadian model: Things really can get better. The forces of reaction, of ethno-racial supremacy, have been defeated in the past, and can be defeated again. The key to doing it is to refrain from surrendering on core values — to reaffirm Western societies’ basic commitment to tolerance and to craft policies that promote that commitment rather than back away from it.
The future shouldn’t belong to the Front National and its ilk. It should belong to the people they’re afraid of.