In the aftermath of the Second World War, we told ourselves: “Never again.” In the rubble of London and the ashes of Hiroshima and the division of Berlin, we swore that a war on this scale would not spread across Europe a second time. The generation that had seen the rise of fascism and genocide, of dangerous nationalism and xenophobia, vowed that we would not stand by and do nothing in the face of the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the world.
They promised. And now, their children and their children’s children are breaking that promise. I am going to tell you why.
In the second half of the 20th century—which brought about the new threat of nuclear Armageddon—Western countries began to unite. First with the United Nations in 1945, then soon after with NATO in 1949 and the European Economic Community in 1958. These organizations stabilized international communities and advanced political progressiveness.
At the same time, social progress began to rapidly develop. In 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States decriminalized sodomy, and only 12 years later, same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), passed in 1990, has enfranchised disabled people. Organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU have protected minorities from injustice; protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have challenged the establishment and sought to make change; and non-profit groups such as Planned Parenthood, the Innocence Project, and the Trevor Project have helped individuals in need.
Progress against oppression has always felt threatening to those who have not been oppressed. And the fear of diversity and change has bred something very ugly—and very familiar—in the Western world.
In the past five years, this fear has caused many “impossible” things to happen in international politics: the first being British citizens voting in a referendum to leave the European Union, by a margin of 52% to 48%. “Brexit” (“Britain’s Exit”) happened because older British voters—driven by fear of immigration and economic unrest—showed up to the polls on June 23rd and voted for conservatism; voted against the establishment; and voted against “otherness”.
For most Americans, Brexit was either a footnote in their local newspaper or a non-issue entirely. For those who followed it closely, however, it was incredibly shocking—and it signaled a very dangerous and very scary shift in Western politics. Only four months later, we saw a similar phenomenon happen in the United States.
In the early morning of November 9th, 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. Just 24 hours earlier, almost every media outlet in the country had predicted that the election would go to Clinton. So in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, American political experts were left scrambling for answers. Why were they so wrong about their election predictions? How could they have missed this silent electorate that came out to vote for Trump in overwhelming numbers in all of the key battleground states?
The answers to both of these questions can be found in the Brexit referendum results.
In the U.K., Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay, by a double-digit point difference. And in England and Wales, urban areas like London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester, and Cardiff all voted to remain, by an average margin of 33.8%. But despite the overwhelming “remain” lead in these regions, the U.K. still voted to leave the EU—contradicting predictions polls conducted only a few days before the referendum which indicated that most Brits wanted to stay.
These results can be attributed to a number of factors. One: turnout in the more liberal, urban areas of England were surprisingly low when compared to the more rural, conservative northern countryside. Two: young people (ages 18-25), who were largely centered in these urban areas, also had low voter turnout overall. And three: a silent electorate stayed silent.
Many people never told pollsters their intention to vote “Leave” because they were scared of being judged and shamed for their decision. The British media’s blindness to this electorate allowed for this “upset” in the Brexit referendum that wasn’t really an upset at all.
Many supporters of Brexit either excused or supported the racist and islamophobic rhetoric by the “Leave” campaign, and many were motivated by economic interests. They thought that the EU was “taking their jobs”, and that the influx of Syrian refugees in Europe had led to an increase in crime and terrorist attacks. The “Leave” campaign appealed to those fears.
Do these characteristics seem familiar? They should. Because the rhetoric and results of the 2016 American Election are almost exactly the same as those of the Brexit vote.
Traditionally blue states like New York, California, Illinois, and most of the East Coast voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. And traditionally red states of the Midwest and the South—in addition to the crucial battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio—voted for Donald Trump.
Why did the battleground states go to Trump? Because turnout was low amongst millennials and high amongst the middle-aged and elderly in those states; because turnout of voters in minority groups was low while turnout of rural white voters was high. And just as in Brexit, we saw a silent electorate stay silent.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Americans in battleground states—primarily white, married men and women—did not post their intention to vote for Trump on Facebook; they did not tell their friends or family; they did not even tell the anonymous pollsters who called their homes, but instead, they stayed completely silent. And when the time came on November 8th to vote, the oblivious media preemptively cheered a Clinton victory while millions of white voters went into the ballot box, looked over their shoulders, and bubbled in the circle for Donald Trump.
They, too, were motivated by dissatisfaction with the economy and the government. They, too, had felt patronized by the liberal and political elite. And most importantly, they, too, were threatened by racial, sexual, and religious progress.
This election has shown us that people who view themselves as “traditional” Americans have felt threatened: by Muslims and Syrian refugees; by Hispanic immigrants; and by the rapid social change that has shaped the 21st century.
61 million people felt angry, dissatisfied, and threatened enough to have voted for Donald Trump, despite (and in some cases, because of) his fascist rhetoric. Know that I do not use the word “fascist” lightly; however, the truth is that Trump’s rhetoric in 2016 America and Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric in 1930s Germany are eerily similar.
Both rose to power amidst economic unrest and racial hatred. Hitler became chancellor because Germans at the time were struggling under extreme inflation and poverty. Christians in 1930s Germany were looking for a scapegoat, and Hitler gave them one in the “Jewish illegals” who were “taking their jobs.” Now replace the word “Jewish” with “Mexican”, and see how close you get to a typical Trump speech.
Both have promised to round up “illegals.” In WWII, the world watched in horror as Hitler and the Nazis put millions of “undesirables” (including Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and “social deviants”) into concentration and extermination camps. Last year, Trump announced his plan to “round up and deport” 11 million undocumented immigrants. He also wants to “register” every Muslim in some sort of national database.
Both have promoted their self-image as the sole “savior” of their country. In Mein Kampf, Hitler famously wrote that only a “genius and energy of a great personality” could save Germany from destruction, and eagerly placed himself in that category. At the RNC in July, Trump proclaimed that he, alone, could fix America.
Both have used loud and passionate rhetoric to excite large crowds into a frenzy. In the 1930s, Hitler “gave [Germans] heaps of vague promises while avoiding the details. He used simple catchphrases, repeated over and over.” Hitler had a specific rhetorical technique, in which he began each speech with a low, consistent tone, and gradually rose his tone in pitch until he exploded in a “climax of frenzied indignation.” By the time he finished his speeches, the crowd was often a “wide-eyed, screaming, frenzied mass that surrendered to his will.” Compare this to any of Trump’s speeches that you’ve seen on CNN, and the similarities are indisputable.
Both have been underestimated and defended again and again by the media. From the day that Trump announced his candidacy to night that he won the election, the American press gave him $2 billion of free media coverage. Since then, his supporters have periodically defended him by saying that he doesn’t “really mean” what he says: that he isn’t being islamophobic, he’s just concerned about terrorism; that he isn’t a rapist, that was all just “locker-room talk.” But do not be fooled by false platitudes, which claim that Trump will become more presidential and less threatening; because the same thing happened in 1922, when the New York Times ran an article claiming that “Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers.”
It is clear that whether or not you are a Democrat or Republican, Donald Trump’s presidency should be something of which we should be wary. His dangerous rhetoric excludes a majority of Americans simply because of their ethnicity, religion, and sexual and gender orientation. He appeals to a part of America that idealizes “white purity.” He rejects otherness, and promotes war instead of peace. We must be vigilant, and not only of Donald Trump—but of his counterparts in Europe as well.
The leader of the “Leave Campaign” for Brexit was a man named Nigel Farage, who is a member of the alt-right British party “UKIP” (the U.K. Independence Party). Farage not only helped UKIP achieve Brexit and 4 million votes nationally in 2015, but he also has had sordid allegations of blatant neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism. UKIP may only have one seat in Parliament, but they won 12.6% of the vote and are powerful enough to have ousted then-Prime Minister David Cameron after Brexit.
France’s “Front National” party—an anti-Europe, far-right faction led by Marine Le Pen—won 27.36% of the national vote in their December of 2015 regional election. And now, only four months away from the French presidential election in April, polls show that Le Pen is the frontrunner; although François Fillon (a moderate conservative) and Emmanuel Macron (a liberal socialist who follows in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders) are close behind.
This September, the AfD—Germany’s alt-right nationalist party called the “Alternative of Deutschland”—won 21.9% of the vote in the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania election. The elections in this state have been widely used as a bellwether for German public opinion, and the AfD led by Frauke Petry (who believes that German police should shoot illegal migrants on sight) beat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU. A year from now, Angela Merkel will fight to win her fourth term against Petry, the AfD’s probable candidate, and that election may decide the future of the EU.
The Brexit vote and our own presidential election have shown other Western leaders that alt-right, white nationalist sentiment is on the rise. And if the French and German media is wise, they will not underestimate the FN and AfD as we underestimated UKIP and Donald Trump.
Because the truth of the matter is that fascist, nationalist, and white supremacist power is growing in the West. Fueled by hatred of social progress, and of new foreign powers in the Middle-East and Asia, the last decade has spawned powerful alt-right parties in not only the U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany—but also Greece, Italy, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden.
Our defense against fascism now rests upon the edge of a knife, and it could fall into peace or into extremism. And if we are not careful—if we let down our guard and let ourselves think that this sort of rhetoric is normal—history will repeat itself.