By Sakke Teerikoski
The politics of fear. Eighteen months ago this was Donald Trump’s ace in the sleeve. It was the strategy behind a successful campaign that had just made him the Republican party’s candidate for the US presidency – and that would soon make him president.
That was 2016. Time passes fast and one more year just went by. The political year of 2017 saw several European elections with populist agendas getting lots of attention from voters and the media alike. There was the Dutch election with Geert Wilders. There was the French presidential election with Marine Le Pen. Later, there was the German election with AfD stirring up the German political landscape. In the beginning of last year, just after the election of Trump, it was correctly predicted that some European politicians would adopt his politics of fear in the then upcoming elections. Now, one year later, we can analyse the outcome.
Let us first define the politics of fear. It is a political strategy which makes people feel that their society, their identity or their way of life is in danger, and then presents solutions to the problem in a manner which appears simple and achievable. Fear will stimulate our primitive needs for protection and activate another part of the brain than what is normally used when making decisions and casting votes. Trump’s example was to spread the fear of immigrants and the Muslim population by pointing at terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist terrorists and to promise his voters that he would ensure law and order.
An article in The Atlantic outlines this example succinctly; “Trump has combined the fear of foreign ideology with the fear of foreign immigration in a novel way, with his twin emphases on Islamist terror and Mexican migrants.” By persistently drawing parallels between hostile ideologies from abroad and immigrants in the US, Trump succeeded in escalating the emotions of the American people, playing on their fears of terrorism and crime. His promises to solve the problem by building a wall on the border to keep immigrants out and by taking back control over the country appealed to the people and he garnered support. Trump successfully made the world feel more chaotic and, by offering an easy solution, people took to him for comfort.
Over the pond, while Trump was pointing at terror attacks and painting a picture of Muslims posing a systematic threat to America, European populists exaggerated the concept of Islamisation in Europe. According to them, Europe is at risk of becoming Islamised by the invading Muslim culture, arguing that the recent terror attacks just drum to the beat of this development. Dutch Geert Wilders frequently used the fear of Islamisation in his campaign. He has been heard to vow to ‘de-Islamise’ his country by closing down all Islamic schools and mosques. Wilder’s campaign in early 2017 was seen as a very Trump-influenced campaign with hate speech against Muslims as a central element.
From Germany, Deutsche Welle reported after the parliamentary elections that “popular anxiety about foreigners in general and refugees in particular” was behind the success of the populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). They claimed that this was thanks to the media attention gained by “conscious usage of controversial, often offensive remarks” and the fact that media eagerly reported about the provocation of AfD. Indeed, the campaign of AfD used posters with texts like “New Germans? Make them yourself” and a picture of a pregnant woman in the background. After the election, statistics showed that the AfD support was large in areas with less immigrants, so one could say that in one way or another the fear rhetoric did its job.
In Europe, the election that got the most attention last year was the French presidential election. Marine Le Pen from the National Front party – ‘The High Priestess of Fear’ as she was called by Emmanuel Macron – made it to the second round with a clear campaign of anti-immigration, anti-terrorism and border closure. That this had potential to work well in France was no surprise, as the country had been badly hit by terrorism during the past years. However, the similarity to Trump’s rhetoric of fear is remarkable. This rhetoric has been the running line for her party for a long time, though. It could be that Trump also copied a lot from Madame Le Pen.
That was 2017. What is next? Will the politics of fear again make a return in 2018? Time will tell. There are hints that the dialogue has matured. Voters have been more aware of the politics of fear. Yet, this does not mean we can drop our guard. For example, the Czech Republic just re-elected a president who portrayed muslim immigration as a severe security threat. Furthermore, there is one interesting example to take from the Finnish presidential election. Trump-supporting candidate Laura Huhtasaari used an upgraded 2018.0 version of the fear strategy by portraying herself as the enabler for citizens with fears to discuss their fears with others – most notably to raise critical opinions of immigration without getting them judged as hate speech. Her approach shows an evolution of how fear is used in politics. An interesting development for Trump to follow perhaps, if he intends to use the strategy of fear again in 2020.
By Sakke Teerikoski