Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr/2016. Used under the Creative Commons image license.

A Unified Theory Of Trump: Why America’s New Radical Right Is Here To Stay

All the rich donors and all the businessmen won’t put the Republican Party back together again.

In 2002, after more than two decades spent as a political outcast, 
Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the Front National, edged out the mainstream left-wing candidate in the first round of France’s two-round presidential voting system. The French public was shocked: this was a man who made no bones about his nativist-nationalist message of “France for the French,” whose reference to the Holocaust as a “detail of history” was just one in a sea of anti-Semitic statements, and whose party’s extreme-right roots extended into a foundation of racist philosophy that runs as deep as Vichy.

The response from both the political class and public was to create a cordon sanitaire, or “sanitary barrier,” around Le Pen, a political Maginot Line that has never been taken down, but at which the National Front has never stopped chipping away. In the second round, voters surged to support the center-right Jacques Chirac and deny Le Pen a chance at the presidency.

In the decade and a half that has elapsed since, not only has the National Front continued to increasingly normalize and grow under Jean Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, but its counterparts elsewhere in Europe have as well. Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Jorg Haider’s FPÖ in Austria, the Danish People’s Party — each has been successful through a mix of elevation of the “nation,” a harsh focus on identity and immigration, and also, to a large extent, bucking traditional right-wing orthodoxy on neoliberal economics and globalization.

Certainly the European and American contexts are different. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Freedom Party has presented itself as a defender of cherished social liberties in the face of immigrants with culturally conservative values, and in France the National Front has done the same thing with laïcité, France’s particular conception of secularism that is more about protecting the state from religion than religion from the state. Neither approach would likely be applicable in an American context, where an appeal to the far more American belief in exceptionalism and “greatness” has exerted its own efficacy.

But even if Trump has accelerated the European playbook and added a quintessentially American element of bombast, the rise of his movement isn’t fundamentally a function of his own narcissistic pomp. It’s the arrival of an American radical right, full of sound and fury, signifying something.

Cas Mudde, a political scientist from the Netherlands, proposes three criteria to identify what he calls “radical right populist” parties. These are 1) nativist-nationalism, 2) authoritarianism, and 3) populism, which he defines as a division of society into a dichotomy between the virtuous “people” and a corrupt elite. Since the 1980’s, this elite has often become synonymous with progressives and the politically correct. “In the following decades,” Mudde writes, “populists from all ideological persuasions would attack the dictatorship of the progressives…‘the Church of the Left’.”[1]

The movement that has arisen in the Republican Party and which has currently coalesced around Trump clearly meets Mudde’s three criteria. His supporters have clear links with preferences for authoritarian leadership. Their nationalism is characterized by a racialized, nativist idea of what it means to be American. In nearly every primary thus far exit polling has shown that Trump does extraordinarily well with voters who want to elect an “outsider” and not a member of the traditional political elite. And the way Trump communicates with them uses ‘disgust’ to trigger authoritarian desires through an ‘in-group, out-group’ response.

In addition, Trump’s vocal proposals to expand libel laws to crack down on the media, to go “beyond” the law with regards to torture and potentially killing the families of terrorists, and incitation of violence at his rallies corresponds with another observation that political scientist Shaun Bowler makes about radical right parties. Often skeptical of minority rights and hostile to compromise, they aren’t necessarily committed to liberal government in the form of more direct or more participatory democracy, rather they want a strong leader to intuit, reflect and bring about “the will of the people.”[2]

For a while, most of the research into radical right movements assumed that these parties also espoused neoliberal economic policies, and that this, or at least mainstream parties’ convergence to a neoliberal mean, was part of what Duke professor Herbert Kitschelt once labeled their “winning formula.” But what happens when a radical right party inverses the traditional right-wing economic formula, combining a nativist, anti-immigration platform with anti-globalization protectionism and an acceptance of some role for government in the economy?

An even winning-er formula, it turns out. And to understand why, we need to re-examine how we think about political ideology, through something often referred to as the GAL/TAN chart.

We have a tendency to think about politics along a left-right axis, where Democrats are socially liberal and support left-wing economic policies, and Republicans are socially conservative and opposed to government involvement in the economy — that’s the diagonal line in the middle of the chart, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Expert Survey has spent years studying to what degree European parties fall along it. But real political orientations are more two-dimensional than that (three dimensional, even, if we were to add a third axis for foreign policy ideology). Here, GAL stands for ‘Green-Alternative-Libertarian’, and TAN for ‘Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist’. Essentially, it’s a way to visualize the split possible between economic and social political views.

Chart for conceptual purposes. No statistical significance.

In 2013, Zoe Lefkofridi, a political scientist at the University of Salzburg, co-authored a paper, Left-Authoritarians and Policy Representation in Western Europe, with two colleagues examining the surprisingly little-studied “left-authoritarian” voters.[3] These voters who “blend left-wing economic with traditional/authoritarian socio-cultural views” often find themselves without a political party that corresponded to both their economic and social desires, forcing them to privilege one or the other when they vote. There are practically no parties in Europe that occupy the Economic Left-TAN quadrant.

By coding voters based on their concern for immigration (those who said that it had increased and that this was a bad thing) and the economy, Lekofridi and her colleagues found that when choosing who to vote for, these left-authoritarians are more likely to choose a right-authoritarian party when they are concerned about immigration, and split equally between Economic Left-TAN and Economic Left-GAL quadrants when concerned about the economy. Economic-Right parties remained “relatively unattractive” to left-authoritarian voters, regardless of which issue concerned them more.

As European radical right parties have moved further away from neoliberal economics and embraced anti-globalization positions, they have become more and more successful. The National Front is an emblematic example of a radical right party that has expanded its coalition far beyond the domain of the traditional extremist right — Tony Judt remarked in his authoritative tome Postwar that “it was not by chance that the Front National often got its best results in districts that had once been bastions of the French Communist Party.”[4] At the same time as the French Socialists were converging towards a neoliberal consensus, the National Front’s share of the working class vote increased from 1% to 26%.[5] From France to Belgium to the Netherlands, the countries where the radical right has succeeded the most are all countries with a significant of voters that could be described as “left-authoritarians.”[6]

The Republican establishment spent weeks criticizing Trump for not being a “true conservative,” but with little to no effect. That’s because it’s an entirely misplaced attack — a significant portion of the Republican coalition aren’t “true conservatives” who believe in free trade, deregulation, supply-side economics, and less and less government action in both society and the economy. Congressional Republicans may sleep hugging copies of Atlas Shrugged, but in the larger party, economic libertarianism is more niche than they imagined.

Rather, a large chunk of voters are to be found in the lower-right-hand quadrant, which marries social conservatism, a desire for “strong leadership,” and the in-group/out-group dichotomy of nativist nationalism with widespread disaffection with globalization and a general satisfaction with popular government programs (remember the “get your government hands off my Medicare” signs?). And why shouldn’t they? Their real incomes have stagnated or declined over the past 35 years; these are voters and communities who have been on the losing end of the promised benefits of globalization.

It’s why there are lawns in the United States seemingly incongruously displaying Bernie Sanders signs alongside “Make America Great Again” signs, and also why Sanders — for the moment — leads Trump by the biggest margins in national polls. His connection with left-authoritarians on an economic level is the one thing that can entice many of them to prioritize that message over Trump’s social one.

The structure of the American political system is responsible for both delaying the emergence of a radical right party and making it more dangerous now that it has arrived in force. European parties were always phenomena exterior to the traditional political process, and they could be because parliamentary systems allow for more pluralist party representation. As they have surged from the outside, mainstream parties have often cordoned them off or marginalized their influence once they have entered governments. In the United States, this was never necessary, because the two-party system largely prevents the rise of vote-splitting third parties. As a result, the radical right never emerged as a unique political faction and challenger to elite politics, but as a movement within the Republican Party itself, which drifted much further right than any comparable mainstream right-wing party in a comparable advanced democracy.

That’s also what makes the rise of an American radical right so dangerous, and it presents the Republican Party with two potentially disastrous options, both of which likely lead to the same outcome: its fracture and split into two irreconcilable factions.

First, the Republican Party could choose to completely reject the Trump movement, its authoritarian proposals regarding the press and mass deportations, its violence, and its undeniable inherent racism. In the long term, this might give the party a relatively slim chance to rebuild its appeal to more socially liberal younger voters and minority communities. But if it does this, the Trump coalition will likely revolt, either checking out of the process, or potentially forming a third party — the United States’s first modern radical right-wing populist party.

The way that national politics are configured, it would currently split votes and help the Democrats, but could probably make inroads at a state and local level, particularly in the part of the country where “American” ethnicity is a popular Census choice. As the Democratic Party is drawn further left by Millenials and the Sanders coalition, this could open up the possibility that the Republican Party could reconfigure itself as a more centrist party, both socially and economically. But in the short term, rejecting Trump and his supporters will likely cost them at least one presidential election.

Second, the party could decide to more fully embrace its radical right contingent, abandoning its free-trade, neoliberal economic orthodoxy. It could transition more fully into a radical right populist party under a candidate Trump that pursues a path of “normalization,” much in the way that Jean Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, has done with the National Front. We’ve already begun to see some of this happen with Trump, particularly in the last Republican debate, though continued violence at his rallies could jeopardize such a strategy. If the Republicans follow this route, they may stand a chance at winning this election, but in the long-term it will no longer be a party that serves the economic interests of businesses and the wealthy, who might choose to themselves coalesce around centrist Democrats.

The fundamental problem — for the Republican Party, but also for the long-term health of our democracy — is that Trump has shown that radical right politics isn’t just possible in the United States, but popular. If the Republican Party succeeds in keeping the coalition together for this election, the fractures will very likely just erupt again during the next one.

American politics is living in a time of Yeats. The falcon has fled the falconer and the Republican Party has already fallen apart, leaving the rest of America to deal with the new radical right’s passionate, angry intensity. Whatever happens, our political system is at the beginnings of a pendulum shift, portending a more left-wing Democratic Party, a more centrist mainstream right-wing party, and a radical right populist one. In short, in more ways than one, and whether Bernie Sanders gets his way or not, the United States is going to start to look a whole lot more like Europe.

[1] Cas Mudde,”The Populist Zeitgeist.” Governance and Opposition, 2004, p. 561

[2] Shaun Bowler et al., ‘Populist Parties and Support for Direct Democracy’, paper presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, Hobart, Tasmania, 29 September–1 October 2003, p. 36.

[3] Zoe Lefkofridi, Markus Wagner, and Johanna E. Willmann. “Left-Authoritarians and Policy Representation in Western Europe: Electoral Choice across Ideological Dimensions”. West European Politics, Volume 37, Issue 1, 2014. pp. 65–90.

[4] Tony Judt, Postwar. Pimlico: London, 2005. p. 742.

[5] Nonna Mayer, “What Remains of Class Voting?” in Perrineau, Pascal and Luc Rouban, ed. Politics in France and Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. P. 175

[6] Zoe Lefkofridi et al., 2014.