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Culture

Why Trump was elected and what can be done to stop populists in Europe

After the US election, political scientist Hajo Funke tells DW what's special about the country's political culture and what's needed to restrain the "Trump phenomenon" in France and Germany.

DW: On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will become the president of the United States. How did he manage to gain so much support?

Hajo Funke: It was a double protest. First, against what is called "the system," the lack of transparency in the major parties and the fact that they do only very weak concrete political work at the local level. Additionally, many people feel overrun by globalization and de-industrialization, particularly in the white part of the population. They've adopted Trump's radical views and found specific scapegoats - "the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Muslims" - for supposedly endangering or even destroying America's well-being.

Is this somehow related to American culture? Is the US more vulnerable to populists than other countries?

Hajo Funke Politikwissenschaftler Rechtsextremismus Experte Archiv 2013 (picture-alliance/dpa/T. Brakemeier)

Hajo Funke is a political scientist and expert on right-wing extremism

They are vulnerable, as we see. It also has to do with the political system, where the presidency is very important and where only two candidates can realistically compete. That makes it easier for populists.

Someone like Bernie Sanders - whose ideas are completely different and more concrete, yet also populist to a certain degree - could have conceivably claimed that the political system and Washington's policies are not enough; that we need to get closer to the people and change the course of economy and society. This is what Trump promises too - but without substance so far.

I wouldn't say that Americans or US culture or the political system are particularly suited to right-wing populism. Instead, this has to do with the disintegration of the Republican Party. First, it was partly seized by the Tea Party movement, and now Trump has directly taken it over. As president, however, he should return to the Republicans. That would be wise and rational. Anything else would be a political and cultural disaster. But it's impossible to tell how rational Trump is.

You've lived in the US for many years and researched the country's political system. Where does the majority of the US population's extreme aversion to the political establishment come from?

Ronald Reagan also successfully led his electoral campaign against the Washington establishment. The US comprises nearly half a continent. It is a huge country, and the conditions for democratically forming public opinion are completely different there. Many people feel that Washington has moved too far away from their concerns.

The much bigger problem, however, is that social policies end up being neglected in the US. Those who tried, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for example, confronted immense resistance. This social dimension, which obviously concerns the people, is not really part of the political culture in the US, and those who address these issues need to work incredibly hard to be successful. Social issues are largely left to the states or the municipalities. The social security system in the US is not anywhere near anything that exists in western Europe. That is a problem, because every democracy needs social balance.

Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry (Getty Images/AFP/L. Bonaventure/J. MacDougall)

The next right-wing populist candidates: Marine Le Pen presides over the Front National in France, and Frauke Petry heads the Alternative for Germany

The US is not the only country where populists are gaining ground. Do you see parallels between the Trump phenomenon and the rapid rise of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD)?

There are similarities of course, but they are limited to how their arguments are framed. The two countries' political systems and political cultures are very different. The AfD wouldn't be wise to imitate Trump, because they'd lose. Fear of Trump's foreign policy is so huge that it would probably open a gap between the party and its voters. Polls in Germany indicate that an estimated eight to nine percent of voters favor the AfD, so it's still just one party among many. The party system in Germany is different and, considering the economic and social situation overall, remains much better established and more secure than in the US - despite the AfD.

Germany and France are holding elections next year. How can candidates reach out to people who are considering voting for right-wing populists?

If we don't have social change of course, it will come through aggressive right-wing populists. This is particularly true in Europe. Le Pen currently has high approval rates; we saw the outcome of Brexit. Social change seems to be more important now than ever. Europe needs social democracy and a credible turnaround. We don't have that yet. Everyone is saying they know what to do about the AfD, but there are no real solutions. Along with a clear opposition to violence and resentment, we need a greater sensitivity to social issues, a sense of "We are taking care of you," and "We won't let you down." If the political class does not deal with people and their needs, they shouldn't be surprised that they have to pay for it in the end. They'll become the target of their own desensitization.

 

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