Since his ouster from the White House a year ago, Steve Bannon has been barnstorming across Europe, meeting with figures like the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage; the French Rassemblement National head, Marine Le Pen; and the far-right Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. Last month Mr. Bannon announced plans to establish a foundation to support right-wing populist movements on the continent.
Mr. Bannon isn’t driving Europe’s ever-growing xenophobia. But his ability to plant roots there and the potential that he and others see in tying together country-level anti-immigrant sentiment into a continentwide movement are both alarming and, for those of us in the United States, a reality check.
Despite the rise of Donald Trump, views around immigration in the United States seem to favor the left. The president may want to build a big beautiful wall, but most polls show that around 60 percent of Americans oppose the idea. In a 1994 Pew survey, 63 percent thought that immigrants were a burden, while only 31 percent said they were strengthening the country. When asked the same question in 2016, just 27 percent see immigrants as a burden, while 63 percent think immigration is a good thing. The trend holds in 2018. In June, only 24 percent said the amount of legal immigration into the United States should be decreased. The situation is different in much of Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, 48 percent of Europeans believe that migration should be reduced. In Finland, Greece, Sweden and Italy, among other countries, it ranks as the top concern of voters.
There are several factors at work here, but one is clearly the continued relevance of the civil rights movement and anti-racist struggles, which won a more diverse and inclusive America. That’s no excuse for complacency or discontent about how far that progress has gone. But it does remind us that as scary as Trumpism is, right-wing ideas on immigration haven’t penetrated as deeply here as in Europe. The Trump administration is in power, already causing a great deal of harm, and it has a strong base of supporters, but it hasn’t won over the majority.
The danger, of course, is that it could. For a generation, liberals have been content to marry neoliberal economic policies with the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion. They’ve declined to push legislation to counteract growing inequality and have even administered austerity. When your policies don’t help the people who’ve been voting for you, it doesn’t take the machinations of Russian hackers to lose elections.
If Democrats don’t build an economic message for the working class, black and brown voters won’t turn out for elections, and enough white ones who do might drift toward the siren call of right-wing populism. And then the Steve Bannons of the world won’t have to look to Europe to fulfill their political dreams.