Many Europeans see Donald Trump, the next president of the United States, as an example of the stereotypical American rude loudmouth. But the roots of his style and success might lie closer to home.
During the US election campaign, Eugene J. Dionne at the Washington Post wrote that “Trumpism” was ultimately a European import: Trump’s inflammatory anti-immigrant rants had their roots not in the American tradition but much more in the demands of extreme rightwing parties in Europe which have made advances in recent decades.
In fact, the question for Europe – and Switzerland in particular – is how billionaires manage to convince voters that they are credible opponents of the Establishment and the political class.
How did a billionaire such as Christoph Blocher, a former Swiss justice minister and still the figurehead of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, succeed in changing the country’s political landscape so much by declaring himself to be the voice of the people? How did Silvio Berlusconi hang on to power for so long in Italy?
For his part, Christoph Blocher said there were “no parallels” between him and Trump. “But I maintained 25 years ago that our political class was intent on abandoning Switzerland’s independence.”
In an interview he said he was surprised by the result, which he put down to Trump fighting not against the Democrats but against the Establishment. “He talked about a corrupt elite and he hit a nerve.”
Blocher, 76, added that Trump’s win was a warning to current world leaders not to go over citizens’ heads on issues including immigration.
“People feel powerless against those who rule them, and for them, Trump is a release valve.”
Blocher said Europe’s responses to immigration amid violent Islamist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany have helped populist political parties gain traction.
“They stand out because they are taking on problems the Establishment refuses to tackle. One big question that you have to speak openly about is the immigration from Islamic countries. You can’t just tear down everybody who is critical of this.”
The success of the rightwing populists is largely because they portray themselves as people who say what previously no one dared say.
In 1993, the People’s Party campaigned with a poster showing a knife fight. The caption: “We have the left and do-gooders to thank for this.”
Who dares wins?
The 1990s saw German-speaking rightwing parties start using the word “do-gooder” in an increasingly pejorative sense. The word combines contempt both for respect and decency towards political opponents and for tolerance towards minorities and marginalised groups.
These values were deemed to be dangerous symptoms of politicians’ habit of making taboos, which, according to the logic of rightwing extremists, would lead to chaos and murder.
This was why the People’s Party, at the beginning of its ascent after the Cold War, was frequently attacked for putting forward arguments in a totally exaggerated and, above all, ill-manned and indecent way.
However, these accusations of impropriety ultimately only helped the People’s Party to strengthen its dissociation from its political opponents.
The rightwing populists in Europe preceded Trump with the strategy of claiming to be the only person or party who would say what was considered publicly unacceptable.
The issue of migration, in particular, had over the years become a problem that only the populists dared talk about openly – or so they said. Is it a case of who dares wins?
Trump is also fully aware of the language he uses, even though a lot of what comes out of his mouth sounds as if it bypassed his brain. He frequently generates incomplete sentences – not exactly a badge of honour for an orator.
But this incompleteness allows his audience to fill in the blanks themselves.
One immediately thinks of his speech in which he repeated his view that Hillary Clinton would abolish the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said. “Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Many people interpreted this as Trump suggesting gun supporters take matters into their own hands, i.e. assassinate Clinton.
With Trump, it’s more about breaking taboos than content. His campaign pledges included getting Mexico to pay for a wall between the two countries and throwing Clinton into prison. No one expects him to follow through on those promises, but he showed his followers that he dared cross the line of political decency.
Berlusconi, too, was repeatedly re-elected prime minister because of – not despite – his contempt for the state, accusations of corruption, his sexual escapades or verbal gaffes. The billionaire was seen as an “average guy”.
Ultimately, Trump’s constant clangers – the cause of so much incredulous laughter in recent months – only made him stronger.
David Eugster is a cultural commentator and linguist.
He is working on a book about the Swiss advertising industry and the consumer society.
He writes regular articles about the highs and lows of contemporary culture.