In politics, the far right used to be the stuff of comedy. Sure, it was good for a laugh, but it wasn’t a serious contender for public office. That’s all changed, as cultural critics start to wonder whether the West is descending into an age of extreme politics.
In North America and Europe, the far right has become increasingly synonymous with anti-immigration policies. This brand of politics also appeals to people who feel ignored by the “elite” in the government and media.
Donald Trump’s campaign to become the next US president is an example of this trend. But for many months, his candidacy wasn’t taken seriously.
Comedians celebrated Trump’s campaign as a source of infinite jest. Satirist Jon Stewart called it a “gift from heaven”. And news organizations responded in kind, dismissing the billionaire’s campaign as a joke. The Huffington Post limited its Trump coverage to the entertainment section.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the extreme right was getting similar treatment. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National party, had become a favorite target for comedy shows like Le Petit Journal. Even other politicians had a hard time taking her seriously.
“The xenophobia of [Le Pen] verges on folly,” one French lawmaker wrote on social media.
But now the laughs have died down. In the past week, skeptics have been forced to see far-right politicians less as clowns and more as serious threats.
“We are no longer entertained,” The Huffington Post announced. The Post decided to move Trump coverage back to its political section after he unveiled a plan to ban Muslim immigration into the US. That move, Arianna Huffington wrote, was evidence of “an ugly and dangerous force in American politics”.
But it hasn’t slowed Trump’s climb in the polls. A survey conducted in early December by The New York Times and CBS News found Trump leading the Republican race, with 35 percent support.
Likewise, in France, the Front National scored a historic victory in the first round of regional elections on Dec 6. Voter turnout was low, but of all the votes cast, one in three went to the Front National. Le Pen and her niece each scooped up over 40 percent of their regional votes.
The US and France are hardly alone in facing the growing influence of the far-right. The Economist reports that a party formerly linked to neo-Nazis has become a top political force in Sweden. Far-right parties have also gained power in the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary.
Their anti-immigration rhetoric has hit a peak in recent months. Le Pen, for instance, blamed immigrants for spreading disease and has called on France to close its borders.
For politicians like Trump and Le Pen, these kinds of policy statements aren’t racist. They’re simply common sense. “We have no choice,” Trump told US audiences.
But a backlash is mounting among moderate and left-leaning groups. Some have gone so far as to label Le Pen and Trump as fascists. The New Yorker summed it up simply: “Like France ... America stands at a perilous political moment.”