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US elections 2016

Just how far will the nativist vote get Trump and the AfD?

Donald Trump's anti-foreigner campaign has US voters wondering - and worrying - just how far he might go. The Alternative for Germany is banking on similar sentiments to score it several seats in the Bundestag next year.

As the US winds up its most unwound presidential campaign in modern history, Germany is preparing for the 2017 Bundestag battle to unspool. The rise of Donald Trump as a major-party presidential candidate in the US and the likelihood that Alternative for Germany (AfD) will enter parliament show that nativism remains an effective election strategy. Advocating for "the people" but preferring policies that exclude large segments of the population, nativist candidates and parties exploit insecurity to steer the political conversation in directions that had no longer been politely permissible.

"What used to be considered racist is now mainstream," said Gustavo Arellano, the editor of the OC Weekly newspaper in California and the author of the nationwide syndicated "¡Ask a Mexican!" column. "Trump is normalizing racism and fascism," he added.

Like Trump in the United States, the AfD is letting everything ride on German voters' distrust of foreigners. And, so far, enough of the electorate has been willing to gamble on the party's lack of a track record. In many ways, it is the AfD's very inexperience that appeals to its voters. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is three-quarters of the way through her third term, and her Christian Democrats (CDU) have chosen to form coalitions with their primary rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), for two of those terms, with another round of joint governance looking increasingly possible after the 2017 elections.

"People have the impression that it doesn't matter whether it's a conservative government or the SPD or a grand coalition," said Cornelia Hildebrandt, a researcher in social analysis with the Left-linked Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (RLS). "Everything is the same politics," she said of the revolving door of regimes. "Everything is the same logic."

The 'middle' moved

About 20 percent of voters display xenophobic tendencies, according to "The Disinhibited Middle: Authoritarian and Extreme Right Disposition in Germany," a study by the Leipzig researchers Oliver Decker and Elmar Brähler released during the summer. The researchers found that 52.6 percent of AfD voters demonstrate prejudice against foreigners. But the population more broadly has xenophobic tendencies. The study found that one-third of Germans believe that migrants come only for social benefits. Another third say the country has too many foreign influences. A quarter want migrants deported in times of low employment. The study found anti-foreigner sentiments in 16.6 percent of SPD supporters, 14.6 percent of CDU voters, 13.7 percent of Free Democrats (FDP), 8.4 percent of Left voters and 7.2 percent of Greens.

Deutschland Hamburg Plakat der AfD Ausschnitt (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt)

The AfD is often accused of trafficking in offensive cultural stereotypes to lure voters

Painted as political outliers, Germany's right-wing voters don't really lie that far out. "The AfD is not like Trump," said Peter Siller, director of domestic political education at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a research foundation connected to the Greens and a co-sponsor of the survey, along with the RLS and the Otto Brenner Stiftung. "They're not freaks like Trump. They're completely normal people."

With 13 percent support, the AfD is ahead of the Greens and the Left and well ahead of the FDP. It appears that the formerly Euroskeptic party picked a ripe time to put forth its anti-immigrant and anti-Islam agenda. A solid 35 percent of the population pines for a "strong national feeling" - perhaps in line with the Trump-supporting Americans who want to make their country "great again."

Trump also counts a great deal on mainstream racism. According to a Reuters survey, his supporters overwhelmingly view black Americans negatively. So do many supporters of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. And, the study found, so does a significant portion of the general population. Half of Trump's supporters call African-Americans more "violent" and "criminal" than whites, and 40 percent say they are "lazier." Over 30 percent of Clinton voters said African-Americans were more "violent" and "criminal," and a quarter believe that they are "lazier."

USA White Lives Matter Anhänger in Houston (picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Guillen)

White Lives Matter is a US neo-Nazi group that was founded in 2015

Trump's nomination on the strength of increasingly outrageous statements about migrants, minorities and Muslims had no modern precedent. (Nativists often seek the party's nomination, but Republicans tend to send someone milder into the head-to-head campaign against the Democrats.) And then, staying true to the more than 13 million Republicans who favored him over 15 other candidates, Trump doubled down on the strategy. Trump's refusal to meet Clinton in the ideological middle and battle for a relatively small and improbably mighty group of voters known as "moderates and undecideds" has meant several more months of verbal attacks on excluded populations.

The moderates and undecideds appear ready to reassure members of those communities that they won't legitimize Trump's words with a presidential seal for the next four to eight years. But the lengthy picking process and the opportunity it gave the candidate for new attacks on old targets have taken an emotional toll in the United States.

Redefining the extreme

When confronted by Reuters with the survey's results this summer, a representative said, "Mr. Trump is an egalitarian who believes in supporting and protecting all people equally"; the Clinton campaign declined to comment at all. In the winner-take-all system of the United States, the former secretary of state has merely had to present herself to migrant communities and voters of color as not Trump. She has neither been forced to answer to voters of color about her own political record nor had to traffic in cultural stereotypes in order to meet Trump in the "middle."

Leipzig Frauke Petry bei Conflict Zone (DW/M. Martin)

AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry lends a middle-class face to politics that once belonged to hard-looking young men

In Germany, on the other hand, the AfD's challenge from the right has not only brought unthinkable policy proposals into the mainstream, but has even succeeded in conscripting the big centrist parties to do some of the heavy lifting. The AfD has taken the "extreme" position of opposing Islam entirely, which makes CDU members' desire to ban religious garments worn by some Muslim women relatively tame by comparison.

"I think Europe is going through much the same crisis as the United States," said Mark Potok, the editor-in-chief of the Southern Poverty Law Center's quarterly Intelligence Project, which chronicles the activities of hate groups in the US. "We're seeing the rise of right-wing populism - the idea that the elites are selling out the masses and that there are dangerous 'others' also threatening the masses: Muslims, nonwhite immigrants and so on."

It looks like that strategy will only get Trump so far, with voters appearing set to stop him just at the door of the White House. But, in Germany, which has a multiparty system of proportional representation, the AfD will more likely ride its anti-immigration message all the way into the Bundestag.

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