How to defeat demagogues: lessons for Europe from Hillary Clinton
Hillary is going for Trump in a big way. Since it was clear that she had effectively won the Democratic nomination, Clinton has turned her fire on the businessman and it burns.
Kicking off with a speech on 2nd June describing Trump’s foreign policy ideas as “dangerously incoherent”, she proceeded to rip apart his rambling proclamations on national security. More recently she forcefully called out his racist attack on the judge presiding over the Trump University case.
And then yesterday Clinton laid into his hate-filled response to the Orlando shootings. What was most striking about that intervention was that it specifically focused on policy pointing out that Trump’s flagship proposals of building a wall on the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the USA would not have saved a single life in the Pulse nightclub. Instead she reiterated her support for the US Muslim community and re-emphasised the need for controls on gun ownership — a policy that is deeply provocative to the American right and the all-powerful National Rifle Association.
It is a forthright approach that seems to be doing her no harm in the polls. It is also completely right. Clinton knows that the sort of chauvinistic authoritarianism that Trump represents cannot be given any quarter. Compromise or wavering in the face of populist demagoguery only makes it stronger and ultimately damages the country you aim to make better and stronger.
How sad then it is to watch politicians on this side of the Atlantic taking the opposite approach. For years now mainstream European leaders have sought to quell the rise in right-wing populism by aping their chauvinism, adopting their policies and even welcoming them into coalition governments (although there are honourable exceptions). It has done nothing to stop the rise of the populist parties, has polluted public debate with racist sentiment and worse resulted in illiberal and inhumane policies towards minority communities and refugees.
Nowhere is the detrimental consequences of this weak-willed strategy clearer than in the UK. Fearful of the rise of UK Independence Party, David Cameron committed himself to a referendum on UK membership of the European Union despite the fact that opinion surveys consistently showed it to be an issue of little concern to the British people. The result of that referendum will now be known next week and if the polls are right it hangs in the balance.
A remarkable consensus among economists suggest that “Brexit” would be a deep and painful self-inflicted wound. While the clique likely to take over the Conservative Party if the vote is to leave the EU are rumoured to be ready to welcome the chauvinists into government giving them greater influence and credibility than they have ever had. Cameron’s gamble could soon stand as the most calamitous example of the wrong-headed compromise strategy with populism.
There is also now a real risk that should the UK vote for Brexit that populists all across Europe will only grow in stature and popularity. Under such circumstances it is even more vital and urgent for Europe’s leaders to stand up unequivocally for the values of tolerance and internationalism that defeated fascism seventy years ago. In short, they need to look across the ocean and show some of the grit of the former First Lady,
My book ‘Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over’ is published on 30th June. You can follow me on Twitter here.