As the European Union tries to figure out how to cope with – and ultimately defeat – extremists, nationalists and populists, there are all kinds of theories as to what’s driving far-right radicalism. It’s immigration. It’s Islam. It’s nostalgia for a time before mass immigration. It’s Trump. It’s Putin. It’s EU policies themselves. (“What? We can’t sell chicken drenched in chlorine? Worse than Hitler!”)
My own insight is that if you want to feel better about this, don’t ask how extremism begins … ask how it ends. The answer is always, “Badly.” Because from Trump to Salvini to Putin, the only common denominator is ineptitude …. the inability to actually govern.
In Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom, the Far Right has replaced competent non-ideological technocrats by selling nostalgia for a past that often never existed, and history – as anyone can tell you – never repeats itself.
Russia is the most interesting example, because Vladimir Putin has used his KGB skills to create a cult of personality that obscures one of the most dysfunctional economies – and indeed societies – in the world.
Long before Trump became president, Putin was talking about making Russia great again by restoring the Christian culture eradicated by the Communists. And to make his point, he recently declared western-style liberal democracy is now “obsolete,” about to be replaced by ruthless Russian-style authoritarianism.
Problem is, Putin has taken his eye off the ball. When his rockets aren’t blowing up and killing his scientists, he’s focused outside Russia, dedicating his resources to riving apart the democratic West like there’s no tomorrow. And for him, there might not be a tomorrow as Russians become more restive.
Putin’s instincts favor brute force over finesse. He wants to reunite the Soviet Union, so he does things like invading Ukraine, which leads to painful international economic sanctions. Which leads to shrinking government revenues. Which leads to cutting Russian pensions and raising the retirement age. Which leads to growing opposition, which leads to demonstrations. Which leads to Putin putting every potential challenger in prison.
Unlike European countries, Russia’s economy is built almost exclusively on extracting and exporting raw resources such as oil and gas as well as strategic metals and minerals. If the world economy goes tits up in the ditch and oil and commodity prices plummet, Putin has few other cards to play because Russia literally doesn’t make anything the world wants other than vodka and weapons.
Fascinating data point:
Russia’s gross national income per capita is $9,232. That’s one-eighth of Norway’s at $75,900. Greece, considered the “Sick Man of Europe” when it comes to its economy, has a GNI of $18,000, twice as large as Russia’s. Good job, Puti. Russia’s national motto should be “Thank God For Albania,” which has a GNI of $4,320, the lowest in Europe.
Victor Orbán is one of Europe’s most “anti” leaders, riding a wave of anti-Islam fervor and anti-semitism. He’s shut off Hungary from highly skilled internationals even while the out-migration of Hungarian talent to successful liberal EU economies such as Germany and the Netherlands has cut the country’s workforce.
So, instead of liberalizing his economy, fighting rampant corruption and welcoming highly skilled internationals, Orbán passes what Hungarians call the “slave law” to force them to work as many as 400 hours of overtime per year, with pay deferred for up to three years. Which inspires the best and the brightest to leave.
Still, you have to give Orbán credit for limitless chutzpah when it comes to playing the EU against itself.
Hungary gets tens of billions of euros in economic-development aide from the EU, yet Orbán successfully uses the liberal EU as a boogey man and internationalists such as George Soros (always referred to as “socialist billionaire Soros” … there’s a concept!) to keep power.
Soros is funding roving bands of predatory homosexuals. Hungary is being overrun by Muslim invaders. Recently, the Orbán controlled media started attacking Finland, which holds the EU presidency, warning that Finland is a dictatorship with state-controlled media and judiciary. Yes, Finland.
Finish leaders responded by pointing to Reporters Without Borders and World Justice Project reports ranking Finland tied for second place in the 2019 Press Freedom Index rankings.
Hungary ranks No. 87 and Human Rights Watch states that its judiciary is now completely controlled by Orbán.
Once wary of Putin, Orbán has moved closer to the Russian. Russian security forces operate with impunity in Hungary.
Like Putin, Orbán is no ideologue, with both starting out as liberal socialists. Orbán converted to full-blown fascism relatively recently, declaring Hungary an “illiberal democracy.” No, Orbán is the ultimate apolitical nihilist who couldn’t care less about anything other than his desire to keep power.
So far, the economy has stayed strong and the opposition is weak. But with Hungary bleeding talent while its population ages, the long-term outlook is negative.
Fascinating data point:
As many as 600,000 Hungarians – about 9 percent of the working-age population – work outside of Hungary, and the total number of Hungarians who have left is about 1 million. Good job, Orby.
A yuge Putin fan, Matteo Salvini promises to stop Italy from becoming an “Islamic State” by blocking immigration including skilled expats at the very time Italy’s workforce is shrinking along with its population.
And, of course, Italy’s economy and government are teetering on the verge of collapse. Of all the Teeny Weenie Mussolinis springing up around Europe, Salvini is probably the least consequential because Italy’s economy is always teetering on the verge of collapse and no Italian government lasts more than about 20 minutes.
Look for Green parties to surprise the world and become the dominant players in future coalitions.
Fascinating data point:
Italy population is shrinking at a rate not seen since the period between 1917 and 1920 when World War I and Spanish Influenza decimated the country.
The United Kingdom
Nowhere does nostalgia play a bigger role in the rise of the Far Right than the United Kingdom. Which is actually England, when it comes down to it.
Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have been drifting right for some time now. And, of course, the Tories have their own Far Right in the European Research Group, led by MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, Honorable Member for the 18th Century.
Nigel Farage, who founded first the United Kingdom Independent Party, then the Brexit Party, is even farther right. Somewhere way out on the fringe is poor Tommy Robinson, who no one likes, mostly because his real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.
But they’re all selling the same gimmick – a nostalgia for the British Empire of serfs and lords, viceroys and maharajas. In the 21st century of hyper-interconnected global economies, it has not occurred to them this might be a bit of an outdated economic model.
Before Brexit, the United Kingdom was doing exceedingly well. Sure, it lagged behind Germany, the US and China in advanced manufacturing and technology, but London was the financial capital of Europe and had the most successful startup ecosystem.
England still had a robust automotive sector and the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world. Was.
The pound has dropped to near parity with the dollar and euro, something that hasn’t happened in 30 years, and the British economy is shrinking fast.
Brexit chaos has led to a number of financial firms relocating to Frankfurt, Luxembourg City and Amsterdam so they can continue doing business with the remaining 27 EU countries. Much of the auto sector has left or is leaving. And even Brexit cheerleader James Dyson has moved his consumer tech empire lock, stock and barrel to Singapore.
Fascinating data point:
Whether Putin played a direct role in Brexit is still unclear because the Brits are still investigating ties between Brexit financier Arron Banks and Putin. It’s only been three years, right? The British are also a bit more skeptical of Putin because he keeps sending his assassins to eliminate Russian dissidents on British soil.
Well, most are. Boris Johnson is pals with Alexander Temerko, a former Russian spy with questionable ties to Putin.
If Donald Trump is anything, he’s nostalgic for … something. His inability to actually articulate what that is is a bit of a stumbling block.
It’s not exactly that he’s against immigrants – he’s married two, one from the Czech Republic, one from Slovenia – so it’s not that. It’s the Mexicans and the Muslims that really get him and his nativist base worked up.
Of course, that doesn’t keep Trump’s companies from employing undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Come on … it’s just business.
What he seems to miss most is that glorious time when men were men and women were nervous … when white folks were in charge and black folks were in chains. Trump’s steadfast but aging white working-class base loves Jesus, guns and opiates in that order.
Of all these “leaders” on this list, Trump is the most dangerous because he’s the most erratic and ill-informed. But just because he doesn’t understand a trade war with China could blow a hole in the world economy doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.
Oh, and Trump’s gotta wild man crush on Putin. This is a dynamic that could end in a crisis even worse than Brexit simply because Trump is in charge of the world’s largest economy and most lethal military.
And he owes it all to Vladimir Putin.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands along with his wife, Cheryl Lee Boyd.
Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.