The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, leader of the Party of Freedom. (Reuters Pictures)
When the hard right first regrouped under the Tea Party banner, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham met with them several times. The meetings, he told The New York Times, could be extremely contentious. During one session in Charleston he asked them,“‘What do you want to do? You take back your country—and do what with it?’…Everybody went from being kind of hostile to just dead silent.”
Earlier in 2010, Graham told the Times, “The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out.”
Three years later, it’s still very much alive. No longer such a force on the streets—dressed in period costume for the benefit of Fox News or disrupting town hall meetings with belligerent bunkum—but in Congress, where its outsize influence is primarily responsible for the government shutdown. The roots of the drama—the nation’s apparently endless flirtation with dysfunctional collapse on a scale that would qualify it as a failed state—is less the product of a partisan divide than an ongoing internal schism within the GOP. The Tea Party advocates and their allies who have led this and previous confrontations have been branded by their fellow Republicans as “wacko birds” distracted by “shiny objects” while chirping “Box Canyon, here we come.” These insults are difficult to translate, but the phenomenon is increasingly easy to understand. For in much of Western Europe the mainstream right is struggling to muster the support to govern effectively, either exclusively or with its preferred allies.
Pretty much every European country has its version of the Tea Party—albeit usually with a lot less guns and a little less God. Only in most places they no longer embed themselves within the mainstream but have struck out on their own. Most recently in Germany, there was the Alternative for Germany, an anti-tax party campaigning against bailouts for poorer European nations and for abandoning the euro and returning to the Deutsch mark. It won 4.7 percent of the vote (not enough to get into Parliament, but enough to rob Angela Merkel of a working majority and her former coalition partners of representation, too). In France, there is the National Front (18 percent) depriving the Gaullists of their right flank; last year in the Netherlands the government fell after Geert Wilders’s Party of Freedom (PVV) refused to back it over austerity measures; in Britain, Conservatives head the first peacetime coalition government for more than seventy years, while the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) keeps making gains.
Each is specific to its national context. The National Front and the PVV concentrate on attacking Islam and immigration; the UKIP is obsessed with the European Union. But they share basic characteristics with the Tea Party. They are generally pro-market populists who find their support primarily among lower-middle-class whites anxious about neoliberal globalization in all its forms and consequences—outsourcing, immigration, war, terror—and are retrenching into their nationalistic and racial laagers.