Monday, 6 February 2017

Post-Truth Politics and Flirting with Fascism

by Philippa Noble

A few months ago this was the topic I chose to explore for a public speaking competition: “Is Europe in danger of returning to fascism?” It seemed, at the time, an easy question to answer – what with my narrow view of American politics, I must admit. I automatically drifted to the US as it has proved useful in past as a model for Europe.

Before even beginning, a clarification of what I mean by fascism is required. A nationalistic, authoritarian, intolerant right wing society is the commonly accepted definition. However, “fascism” is a wildly overused word – often as a way of degrading anyone speaking out against the liberal or idealistic view.

A brief description of what is happening in the US is all that is necessary and I doubt much of this will be news to anyone. As we’ve seen throughout the election campaigns, immigration was and still is a strong focus for Donald Trump. However Trump phrased his arguments, it was easy to see that intolerance is prominent – not only in him but in America as well. Although, it could be argued that this was put on to draw attention to himself, and it certainly worked. Furthermore, it must be said that parts of Trump’s campaign were designed to rouse the "forgotten" parts of the US into action and to pass on blame for any and all problems these Americans were facing. Nevertheless, as a model for Europe, the US should show us that, despite intolerance and provocative campaigns being used to get into power, fascism is still far in the distance while a balanced democratic government is in place – while the watchful eyes of the world are focused on it.

Going into more detail for Europe, the US model appeared to be fairly accurate: the issue of immigrants is certainly being harnessed by intolerant parties and personalities to gain support. For example, on one side of the scale, Marine Le Pen (for Le Front National) has been seen disagreeing with her arguably more controversial father, but still argues that immigration into France must be slowed. Yet backing leaving the EU (affectionately named Frexit) for many reasons gives her two out of the three important characteristics for a fascist leader. However, Le Pen seems set on a referendum and using public opinion to resolve the matter. Just as the US remains democratic, France seems to be following in its footsteps.

Contrasting this slightly, the NPD in Germany is a known descendant of the German Reich Party. It has raised worries about the return of fascism throughout the country. In fact, 16 out of the 16 states in Germany have tried to ban the party. Unfortunately the courts had to deny the ban, leaving the NPD the only party in Germany to be legally legitimised… twice. Despite their blatant Neo-Nazi political rallies, in the last election the NPD only achieved 1.3% of the vote and so has no representation. The US model is slightly harder to fit to this case, yet with the firm control democracy still has on the country I believe the existence of the NPD is negligible as its already minimal support is now declining.

Whilst the US model is fairly accurate for Western Europe, when turning towards Eastern and Central Europe, the situation is completely different. For example, Hungary is currently led by Orbán from the right wing Fidesz party. After liberal support fell, any left wing opposition was and is powerless in Hungary, with the only effective opposition being the Jobbik party (a far right, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma party). Now, the main two parties in Hungary are both right wing. Anti-immigration is a strong stance taken by both the Fidesz and Jobbik party, with Orbán falling in line with Jobbik policy when he began a campaign to alter the constitution over immigration laws. The Jobbik party is now the second largest party in Hungary and is the most popular with the youth. From mid 2015, Jean-Claude Junker had joked that Orbán was a dictator. Orbán has been quoted as wanting to “construct a new state built on illiberal and national foundations”. In 2015, Orbán also went on to rewrite the constitution and remove recognition and subsidies from many religious organisations. This all continued into 2016 and now shows no signs of stopping as Orbán’s largest opposition newspaper was allegedly shut down by the government – raising concerns over media control. With the tightening of control from Orbán, intolerance from both major parties, and no left wing opposition to prevent this from escalating, it seems clear to me that Hungary (as well as other countries in the same situation – Poland, for example) is in great danger of becoming a truly fascist nation. It seems, also, that many central European states that have directly felt the impact of communism and fascism are now gravitating towards the latter.

Some may argue that just the ideologies of fascism and the far right are what is responsible for this noticeable return of these parties. However, I would argue that it is, in fact, populism. Despite populism being a common aspect of fascism, I believe it is now endemic in both Europe and the US. Populism is the quality of appealing to the public and is often used with emphatic language or showing an understanding for people’s fears. Certainly in Western Europe and the US, populism is rife. 

Another term, “Post-Truth”, seems to sum up the issue perfectly. In the last few months of 2016 this term was used more and more to describe the lack of verified factual evidence used in political campaigns. Brexit and the US presidential election are clear sufferers of this – with probably the most notable case being the figure of £350 million to go into the NHS. 

Populism has always been present in politics; how else can you rally support? Yet, this “Post-Truth” era is a new and worrying aspect of politics. Some may ask why this has risen up. Perhaps politicians have realised the people’s dependence on campaigns to give them facts, or maybe they have realised how ignorant we are as a people. Some have suggested, quite reasonably, that the cause of this is our social media “bubbles”. In a time where we all have our own personalised feeds on social media, it isn’t surprising that we’ve lost touch with other people. We are no longer exposed to other views or to balanced news. This makes us too secure in our beliefs, able to be easily influenced, and unable to see faults in our arguments.

In conclusion, in the US and Western Europe we are clinging to democracy. We live in societies where politicians easily manipulate us with emotion and understanding. Our views can easily be changed with enthusiasm and perhaps even an altered social media feed. For now, at least, intolerance and nationalism are reigning – but power is not being moved, changed, or abused in any great way. However, the story for the rest of Europe is quite different. Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland must be watched closely if they are to stay clear of falling into fascism. Whatever will happen in the future is unknown, but it seems that, currently, Western Europe is safe from the threat of fascism. The rest of Europe, not so much.

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