Until the Trump administration’s audacious intervention on its behalf, the European far right had been doing just fine on its own.
In Italy and Austria, Poland and Hungary, national populists are now in power while they stock a quarter of the European Parliament with their own. A handful of peers, such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia, regularly latch on to the coattails of Central Europe’s strongmen, aping them in policy, though with less bravado. And of course every European state now has the extreme right in its midst, shifting debate to the right on issues from abortion to renewable energy and agitating to pull the EU apart. Germany’s incarnation, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), now polls 16 percent nationally, up from the 2017 election’s spectacular 12.6 percent result, the absolute highest conceivable tally that any of us could fathom—at the time, that is, nine months ago.
But now the rightists have the most powerful nation in the world behind them: Europe’s transatlantic ally from way back, the United States. The storied Atlantic partnership isn’t dead, not by any means, but it is being redefined by the White House, which apparently sees itself as headquarters of a xenophobic, right-wing International. With President Trump lobbing grenades at Paris and Berlin, Europe’s national populists now have the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in their sights—a prize more precious by far than any other to date. The far right won’t replace Merkel in Germany, at least not yet, but they could well topple her government, thereby plunging the EU into deeper confusion, or simply render her unable to act purposefully to address Europe’s acute political crisis.
The Trump administration’s utter disrespect for the EU and Europe’s liberal leaders was forcefully underscored last month when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, started a trade war, and then stomped off from the G7 summit in Quebec. Until very recently, though, the Europeans naively believed they could gain a little traction through obsequious ego-stroking and friendly pretenses. Trump may not like them, they figured, but the worst he would do was ignore Europe.
The past weeks have dispelled those illusions, effectively suspending the postwar transatlantic alliance as we knew it. The Trump administration sees European centrists, which includes Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as opponents whom he wishes harm. The new US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, announced as much by expressing his intention to boost the far right across Europe, which Trump followed up with abusive, erroneous remarks about Germany’s immigration policies. Their goal, like that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is to destabilize the political middle in Europe and unravel the EU.