Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: The nightmare of right wing populism

Letter From New York


NEW YORK — Arguably the most significant and most ominous European political story of the 21st century is the rise of the populist right. In nation after nation, to varying degrees, the populists have either taken power or made political inroads threatening the democratic process and the rights of immigrants, minorities and women.

For every country ruled by the populist right — Hungary by Viktor Orban, Poland by Mateusz Morawiecki, and Italy's powerful Lega led by the racist authoritarian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini — there are countries like Denmark where the Social Democrats and their coalition partners have just taken over the government from the conservatives. Though even in a country usually invoked as a model of social democracy, nationalist parties with nativist tendencies are growing in strength.

Still, Denmark and Spain aside (Spain's ruling socialist party strengthened its position in the government in April's election), the populist right has eaten into support for traditional center-right parties while dealing an even more powerful blow to the center-left. The venerable German SPD's support continues to shrink, the Socialists, France's ruling party under Francois Hollande, received just 7 per cent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election when Emmanuel Macron's new centrist party won, and in the Netherlands, the Labor Party's parliamentary representation was reduced from 32 to 9 in the 2017 election. In addition, center-right parties have felt under pressure to shift toward populist rhetoric and policies. In Austria the center-right chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, had been governing in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party until Heinz-Christian Strache, the far-right leader of the party was caught trying to trade public contracts for party donations from a woman he believed to be the wealthy niece of a Russian oligarch. The Freedom Party's ministers were forced to vacate their cabinet posts and a new election has been called.

It's clear that the upsurge of right wing populism has been shaped by more than economic difficulties. I would say that public antipathy to immigration and, cultural liberalization, the resentment of urban elites, and the feeling that national sovereignty has been encroached upon by distant bureaucratic international organizations play a much more significant role in the rise of right-wing populism.


In Germany, traditional Christian Democrat Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to welcome nearly 1 million migrants and refugees as part of what she had christened Germany's "Willkommenskultur," or culture of welcoming, sparked the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany. It was an admirable, principled act by Merkel, but a terrible political mistake because that level of immigration was very difficult to absorb. Merkel tried to remedy the political blowback in 2017 by taking a harder line on immigration, but as a lame duck leader her power has waned. Still, she remains the embodiment of a clear and courageous anti-Trumpism in Europe.

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Right wing populism has obviously arrived in the U.S. with a vengeance. It's not only Trump, but also the Republican Party itself that has become an ideological right wing organization, whose traditional conservative voices have either left Congress or cravenly provided obeisance to Trump.

In Asia and Latin America it's the populist, nationalist, and murderous drug warrior Rodrigo Duterte who has taken power in the Philippines, and in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a far right, homophobic, racist, amd misogynistic populist, was elected president this year. Petra Costa's documentary "The Edge of Democracy" (Netflix), trenchantly using original and archival footage, conveys Brazil's descent into right-wing populism and the fraying of its fragile democratic fabric. Costa is the granddaughter of privilege and daughter of Marxist opponents of the military junta who spent time in prison during the 21 years of their tyrannical rule. The film depictthe two Left political figures that had brought hope of real change to the mass of Brazilians, the beloved, eloquent Lula and his prot g , Dilma Rousseff.

Lula was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption while Dilma was impeached, with both denying their guilt. Costa's film shows street demonstrators and hypocritical politicians opposed to Dilma joining forces with some of the people who had once supported her and are now shifting to the right and shouting for her impeachment.

Democracy itself has had a checkered history in volatile Brazil, and as Costa darkly intones, "I fear democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream." The film concludes with the Trump-admiring Bolsonaro taking office, supported by the business elite, but also by some of the populace who once adored Lula. But the public is nothing but fickle, with Bolsonaro's approval ratings falling sharply over his first six months in office.

As Costa states we need the "strength to start anew" when, as they will, the Bolsonaros and Trumps disappear from the scene and the nightmare of right wing populism is, for the moment, defeated.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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