Political parties on the far right are today enjoying a surge of support that they have not experienced since their heyday in the 1930s.
This phenomenon is particularly striking in Europe, where massive migration, sluggish economic growth, and terrorism have stirred up virulent nationalism, hatred of immigrants, and Islamophobia. Trumpeting these sentiments, parties like France’s National Front (led by Marine Le Pen), Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP, led by Nigel Farage), Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (led by Geert Wilders), Italy’s Northern League (led by Matteo Salvini), Austria’s Freedom Party, Alternative for Germany, and others have become major political players.
Only one of these rising right-wing parties is usually referred to as fascist: Greece’s Golden Dawn. Exploiting Greece’s economic crisis and, especially, hatred of refugees and other migrants, Golden Dawn has used violent nationalism and the supposed racial superiority of Greeks to become Greece’s third-largest party. Its spokesman, Elias Kasidiaris, is known for sporting a swastika on his shoulder and for reading passages from the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to parliament. The party also employs gangs of black-shirted thugs who beat up immigrants.
Although the other far right parties strive for greater respectability, they also provide reminders of past fascist movements. Addressing a Northern League rally, Salvini wore a black shirt while supporters waved neo-Nazi symbols and photos of Benito Mussolini. Alternative for Germany has revived words and phrases once employed by the Nazis.
Around the globe, this right-wing trend is evident. In the United States, Donald Trump won a startling victory in his run for the presidency, employing attacks on Mexican migrants, Islamophobia, and promises to “make America great again.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party solidified their grip upon power. Defending “traditional values,” Putin promoted an authoritarian nationalism, attacked multiculturalism, and aligned himself with the reactionary Orthodox Church.
Europe’s right-wing parties have been enthusiastic about Putin. Unlike most other European political groupings, they applauded his war against Georgia, military meddling in Ukraine, and annexation of Crimea. Hailing Russia’s president as a true patriot, Le Pen lauded him for defending “the Christian heritage of European civilization.” Farage, asked which world leader he most admired, responded without hesitation: Putin! Indeed, Europe’s far right parties blame the European Union and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine, support lifting sanctions on Russia, and back Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
In turn, Russia has assisted these parties in their struggle for power. In 2014, the National Front received an 11 million euro loan from a Russian bank to help finance its successful municipal election campaign. During the current French presidential race, Russian media outlets are promoting Le Pen, and Putin has received her in Moscow with the kind of buildup usually accorded a head of state. Russian media and social networks have also aided the political fortunes of Alternative for Germany. Meanwhile, the youth group of that party has forged an alliance with Putin’s United Russia party, as has Austria’s Freedom Party.
No one, however, has inspired the rising far right more than Donald Trump. In late April 2016, Salvini traveled to Pennsylvania to participate in a Trump rally. Here he held a “Trump: Make America Great Again” sign and afterward had a 20-minute meeting with the Republican presidential front-runner. Farage took part in Trump’s presidential campaign that August in Mississippi, where he shared the rally platform with him and praised him fulsomely. In October, Golden Dawn endorsed Trump on the floor of the Greek parliament, hailing the “patriotic wind” sweeping through Europe and North America.
Naturally, Trump’s election victory sent a surge of euphoria through the far right. From France, Le Pen lauded it as “a sign of hope,” showing “that people are taking their future back.” Addressing a victory party near the White House, Farage declared: “Brexit was great, but Trump becoming the president of the USA is Brexit plus, plus, plus.”
When Trump announced his Muslim ban, it sent right-wing parties into ecstasy. In Greece, thousands of Golden Dawn supporters surged into the streets, carrying torches and waving their Nazi-like flags. “Well done,” President Trump, exulted Wilders; “it’s the only way to stay safe and free.” Addressing a National Front rally brimming with nationalist fervor, Le Pen praised Americans for having “kept faith with their national interest.”
Viewing Trump as a kindred spirit, the parties of the far right are eager to secure an alliance with him. Upon Trump’s election, Alternative for Germany informed him that it was a “natural ally.” Farage met with Trump three times during the first weeks of his presidency. Salvini announced that his party was a logical ally, for it shared many of the policies of the new administration. “We see eye-to-eye with President Trump,” he said, “and we look forward to partnering with his administration.”
The admiration is mutual. When Trump first spoke with Salvini, he told him: “Matteo, I hope you become prime minister of Italy soon.” In addition, Trump, a fan of Farage, has publicly suggested that the right-wing leader be appointed British ambassador to the United States. Political observers have also been struck by Trump’s consistent affection for Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s aides have been equally outspoken. For years, Steve Bannon―the president’s top political strategist―ran Breitbart, a right-wing news service. Under his leadership, Breitbart worked assiduously to provide favorable publicity for UKIP, Alternative for Germany, the Party for Freedom, and their ilk.
In this fashion, political forces around the world have been coalescing into a far right international. Although its future remains uncertain, especially if Putin and Trump part ways, it certainly has plenty of political momentum. “Long live Trump, long live Putin, long live Le Pen, and long live the League,” proclaimed Salvini in early 2017. “Finally, we have an international alliance.”
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.