Last month, Europe would have seen its first populist, far-right head of state elected since World War II had an anti-immigrant, anti-EU Austrian presidential candidate not been defeated by a hairs-breadth in run-off elections on May 22. Although Vienna can breathe a quick sigh of relief, nativist populism still threatens to hijack elections and referenda across the Continent over the next year.
As life imitates art in this chaotic election year, a recent satirical German film helps illuminate the trend, demonstrating how easily hateful ideas that should have been discredited decades ago can be cleaned up, repackaged, and slipped back into a country's national discourse. It is unclear exactly what role right-wing extremism played in inspiring the senseless murder of UK Member of Parliament Jo Cox on June 16. Nevertheless, at a minimum, the harsh tenor of today’s political debate in Europe risks provoking violence. Tackling this crisis requires the European center to mount a robust first-principles defense of the liberal international policies and institutions that rebuilt postwar Europe and won the Cold War, while acknowledging where tough reforms are needed to address the genuine societal discontent at the root of these movements. At the same time, popular media must resist mainstreaming xenophobia and nationalist rhetoric, and instead challenge outrageous statements from the far-right, however slyly they may be packaged.
Reality TV Replaces Riefenstahl
The premise of David Wnendt’s "Look Who's Back" ("Er ist wieder da") -- a 2015 German film based on Timur Vermes’ 2012 satirical novel of the same name -- is that a shell-shocked Adolf Hitler inexplicably wakes up in present day Berlin. (Note: before anyone protests, your author assumes there is an exemption clause to Godwin’s Law when discussing actual far-right politicians from Austria.) After an anachronistic fascist-out-of-water comic first act in which Hitler orients himself to the changes of the past 70 years, the character becomes a national media sensation on the German reality TV and talk-show circuit by striking all the right(-wing) chords of postmodern European societal insecurity. Cynical German TV producers seize on Hitler's unexpected popularity to drive up ratings, mistaking his actual odious views for an edgy comic routine. Novelty, spectacle, and scandal ensure snowballing media coverage, which gives his dangerous beliefs a national platform.
That half of the movie alone would be worth watching as interesting, if rather disquieting, satire. But more powerful is Wnendt’s threading of unscripted footage throughout the film of the Hitler character interacting on the street with real Germans and tourists of today. Many ordinary people react to him exactly as one would hope: shunning or shaming a man walking around German public squares in a Hitler costume. But others engage him and open up their feelings of disaffection on unemployment, immigration, and so on. Some eventually nod their heads in agreement with his honeyed, extremist prescriptions for the ails of modern German society, whether they be reinstituting labor camps or selective breeding. “Look Who’s Back” thus artfully poses the question of what is more unnerving: that so many people in one of the best educated, most prosperous, and most tolerant nations on the planet could still harbor simplistic, reactionary, and hateful sentiments; or that a garrulous and offensively charismatic TV personality could uncover them so easily.
Understanding and Responding to Discontent
Unlike in populist rhetoric itself, there are no easy scapegoats or silver bullets for this crisis of a resurgent far-right. The West must of course be vigilant against the malign foreign actors that quietly benefit from and support its rise and the fracturing of the political center in Europe. Yet, while a country like Russia can be viewed as opportunistically helping fan the flames (e.g. through loans funding Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France or Twitter trolls in St. Petersburg), it did not set the kindling or light the spark. The discontent at the heart of these movements is genuine among many people in Europe who do feel unmoored and vulnerable. For various reasons, these people do not feel or recognize the benefits afforded by a liberal postwar order anchored by open societies, free trade, social progress, institutions such as the European Union, or alliance structures such as NATO. A large part of the problem is that many of those who work within this system hold those benefits as a given. They take the progress Western societies have made for granted. In truth, recovery from the global financial crisis of eight years ago and ensuing eurozone crisis has been slow in coming and reached various European national economies and individuals unevenly. This lost decade comes on the heels of years of cumulative growth in Europe and has thus created a sense of inequality and unmet expectations akin to the socioeconomic conditions in which right-wing extremism flourished in the 1930s.
Some European centrist parties have responded by tacking sharply right toward populist positions. This tactic appears to have backfired in several countries, boosting far-right parties (as in the case of Slovak parliamentary elections in March), mainstreaming xenophobia in the public debate (as in France), or teeing up a wholly avoidable strategic blunder in the United Kingdom’s upcoming vote on whether to remain in or leave the European Union (a political own-goal in this year of Euro Cup). The European center would do better to define and mount a robust defense of its core values rather than shamefully (and apparently ineffectively) parrot those of the far-right.
This crisis presents a chance for those in the system to challenge their assumptions so that they can appropriately modernize and improve the postwar system. On the economic side, this means better understanding the various structural, technological, and demographic roots of declining productivity and rising income inequality, as well as the strengths and deficiencies of our current policy toolbox to address them. On the security side, it means redoubling efforts to reinvigorate NATO to address the threats emanating from its Eastern and Southern flanks and bolstering the credibility of collective defense in the eyes of jittery transatlantic citizens and calculating adversaries. A hard scrub and earnest reform of the policies and institutions that have served most of the West well for the past 70 years will help us ensure benefits are more broadly felt for the next 70 and help update and strengthen the public arguments in their defense.
Part of making this argument also means inculcating in today’s generations a proper sense of historical perspective and an appreciation for “what could have been” had their Atlanticist forebears, surveying the global wreckage of two World Wars, not put forth an international system that rejected isolationism and is guided by the values and norms of liberal democracies and multilateralism. This does not mean falling into the trap of the “End of History” triumphalism of the immediate post-Cold War 1990s, but instead giving a sober, basic-principles defense of the best parts of the liberal international system and contrast them to what the past century has shown are the dreadful alternatives.
Finally, a new rigor is required in the policy analysis and broader societal conversation on these topics in the West to encourage audiences to ignore the spectacle of the messenger and keep focused on the content of the message. Voters must look past the slick packaging and smart suits of Europe’s new extreme right-wing parties and instead see their disgraceful heritage. And, as “Look Who’s Back” warns, the media must avoid embracing the sound and fury of these far-right populist campaigns as ratings-driven television or click-bait headlines (these are no harmless tales told by an idiot), but rather relentlessly fact-check and hold manipulative, nationalist politicians accountable for every claim they make.