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Opinion


How America is turning Swiss


By Michael Hermann, political scientist


In 1971, fights broke out in Geneva over the Schwarzenbach initiative, which aimed to limit the number of foreigners in Switzerland. (Keystone)

In 1971, fights broke out in Geneva over the Schwarzenbach initiative, which aimed to limit the number of foreigners in Switzerland.

(Keystone)

Fear of an excess of foreigners and isolationism: Donald Trump’s political profile is a Swiss invention.

By Michael Hermann

Whenever the US election campaign lurches into new extremes – as is the case at the moment – people often ask: “Will this American trend engulf us, too?” The US is something like the centre of the world and is often ahead of the times. New topics and debates that cause a furore over there often find their way across the Atlantic to Europe and Switzerland.

Should we now expect “Trumpification” to reach us? It is actually the other way round. This megalomaniac mogul embodies the American oversize-culture with every fibre of his being. His political agenda, however, dances to a very European tune. He has unwittingly created a political profile in the US that is a Swiss invention.

Back in 1970, James Schwarzenbach showed how explosive the immigration question was with his “excess of foreigners” initiative. It has taken almost half a century for this message to arrive in the US. There are historical reasons for this. In a melting-pot country of immigrants, the fear of an excess of foreigners was long considered un-American. Many saw it as a characteristic of cowardly, stagnating Europe. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, still took a relatively liberal stance on the issue.

The most emotional debates in the US in recent years flared up over social issues: What do you think of abortion, gay marriage, gun rights or the death penalty? These are, or to be precise, were, America’s burning questions.

It is about exclusion, not morality

But suddenly Donald Trump has placed constructing a wall at the Mexican border and the battle against free trade at the top of the agenda. Obviously, these issues are touching a nerve. For despite his ignorance and excesses, Trump isn’t disintegrating in the opinion polls. And this in a country where conservatives have always had to keep up the appearance of piety. Now even prudish evangelical Christians are willing to vote for a self-confessed groper and adulterer. Clearly, morality is ultimately a much less significant issue than excluding outsiders.

Let’s return to the question of who invented it. Decades before Trump, the Swiss People’s Party settled on his key themes: restrictive immigration policies and the campaign against an open foreign policy. What NAFTA is to Trump, the European Union has always been to Christoph Blocher – namely the misconceived invention of a detached, internationally-minded elite.

Trump is now holding back with public demands for cuts in the state sector, just as the Swiss People’s Party has done for years. They both know this is not such a popular plea. But why did the Swiss find this out so much earlier than the Americans?

An ear for the “man on the street”

It is because of direct democracy. Plebiscites have a similar effect to social media but were in operation long before the digital revolution. Referenda allow the wider public to get involved directly and anonymously in debates on concrete issues – the Schwarzenbach initiative of 1970, for example. Like online comments sections and click-rates on news sites, they give a voice to the “man on the street”.

For that very reason, Switzerland has become the conservative avant-garde. And the Swiss People’s Party recipes for success are increasingly spreading across the entire western hemisphere via new media. The embodiment of an online commentary-writer, Trump has soaked up the mood of the rightwing media. He knows which subjects push emotive buttons. Just as Blocher and his crew have known for a long time.

For once, we are not threatened by Americanisation. If anything, the US is turning Swiss. For progressives who were once proud of liberal Swiss drugs policies or innovative environment policies, the label “conservative avant-garde” may not be one to rejoice at. But even so, this country has taken some steps to provide balance and realignment that others have yet to take.

This article first appeared in the Tages-Anzeiger on October 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission of the author, Michael Hermann.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

Opinion series

swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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