COMMENTARY: Have populist politics reached ‘peak Trump’?

Whew! That was close.

I wasn’t expecting to be waiting on the edge of my seat for the outcome of this year’s Dutch parliamentary elections. But I wasn’t expecting Donald Trump to be America’s president, either.

After "Brexit," Great Britain's vote last year to leave the European Union, and Trump's upset victory, the whole world has been watching to see whether a wave of anti-immigrant populist upsets would win a trifecta in the Netherlands and keep rolling through upcoming elections in France, Germany and other European nations.

In the Netherlands, that movement’s champion in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections was anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders, a Trump fan with similarly interesting hair and xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants and refugees.

To give you an idea of where he stands politically by American standards, one of our own prominent xenophobes, Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, gave Wilders a shout-out on Twitter last weekend as one who “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

IDEAS & VOICES ROUNDTABLE: A closer look at gun crime, police solutions.

The backlash against King’s remarks was bipartisan. Among King’s Republican critics, for example, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a child of Cuban immigrants, immediately tweeted back, “Do I qualify as ‘somebody else’s baby’?”

But King also won praise — from David Duke. The former KKK leader and former Republican Louisiana gubernatorial nominee praised King's tweet as proof that "sanity reigns supreme" in King's northwest Iowa congressional district.

And King doesn’t sound far removed from Wilders, who is known for such comments as: “I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam,” and “Islam is not a religion; it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture.”

And Wilders sounds mightily close to the sentiments of long-experienced French anti-immigrant leader Marine Le Pen. She has been showing higher approval numbers than ever in in the run-up to presidential elections in May, in which she is campaigning for a French exit from the EU.

And Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel faces tough challenges in September elections from the right over her generous policies toward refugees.

MORE COMMENTARY: Questions for Supreme Court nominee Judge Gorsuch.

Against that backdrop, Holland’s record high turnout that left Wilders in second place offered a hopeful sign that the momentum of Le Pen and others might be stalled and even pushed back. Significantly, a number of experts are saying the chaos and confusion that followed Brexit and the rise of Trump’s unorthodox regime may have alarmed Dutch voters enough to raise a counter movement against radical populist change, at least for now.

Can we all get along? Until Trump's upset, we Americans usually provided a better model of how a vastly diverse society can work, despite our periodic clashes over race and ethnicity. Unlike Europe, our identity as Americans is not tied to our ancestral identity — regardless of what kind of outlandish ideas Rep. King may have about who is a "real American."

Yet as much as we call ourselves a “nation of immigrants,” we are also a nation of immigration debates.

The rise of Brexit, Trump and Wilders are not only about racism. Fears, suspicions and resentments about the ethnic future of Western civilization add fuel to the current fervor. This is particularly true in Europe, shaken in recent years by a flood of refugees from the Middle East, and in the U.S., where Trump made immigration and his proposed Mexican border wall his signature campaign issues.

OPINION: Religious pluralism and the mystery of faith.

But another similarity between Europe and the U.S. is the polarization of politics between left and right, made worse by a near-complete collapse of the center-left. Centrists like Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair helped keep the center-left alive in Europe — as Bill Clinton did in the United States — since the end of the Cold War and the decline of trade unions.

Into the power vacuum, some of Europe's disillusioned left-wing voters have drifted toward racial populists is much the same way some former Barack Obama voters switched to vote for Donald Trump. When things look bad enough, any sort of change looks better than the status quo.

Has the West reached peak-Trump? The populist rise in the Netherlands gave a wake-up call to the sensible political center. But traditional politicians in Europe and America can’t afford to hit the snooze button. They need to offer better alternatives to those who feel displaced and left behind by industrial and geopolitical change.

About the Author