The Real Story Behind the Far-Right's Rise in Europe | Crooked Media
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June 15, 2024
What A Day
The Real Story Behind the Far-Right's Rise in Europe

In This Episode

We’ve been hearing that the far-right is on the rise in Europe for a decade now. And yet, with a few exceptions, these parties are nowhere near taking power. Even in the EU Parliament, where the far-right made gains for the third election in a row this week, nationalist parties are STILL expected to end up marginalized and powerless. What’s driving them and what’s stopping them? Max and guest host Josie Duffy Rice take a look at the rise of the German far-right AfD party to illustrate what’s going on across the continent and how we got here.



Germany’s AfD Rises to 2nd Place in E.U. Election – The New York Times

Far-right AfD appears as strongest German party on TikTok – DW – 06/04/2024

Germany’s AfD: Euroskeptics turned far-right populists – DW – 03/11/2024

A Far-Right Dilemma for Europe’s Mainstream: Contain It or Join It? – The New York Times

Why Europe Could Melt Down Over a Simple Question of Borders – The New York Times

Germany’s Extreme Right Challenges Guilt Over Nazi Past – The New York Times

European Union: False Hopes and Realities | Foreign Affairs

Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash | Harvard Kennedy School

Germany’s AfD: How right-wing is nationalist Alternative for Germany? – BBC News

Islam in Germany: Facts and figures –  Deutsche Islam Konferenz

High Tide? Populism in Power, 1990-2020

Perceived ingroup disadvantage, collective narcissism and support for populism

A New Stress-Based Model of Political Extremism – PMC





Max Fisher: Josie, in honor of today’s episode, can I play you my number one favorite joke about the modern European far right? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Sure. Though I am kind of disturbed by the implication that you have multiple favorite jokes about the European far right. 


Max Fisher: [laugh] Here you go. It’s from John Oliver’s HBO show. 


[clip of John Oliver] Did I hear that right? There was a surge of far right parties in Europe. [laughter] In terms of phrases you don’t want to hear. That is right up there with it’s malignant and we’re losing cabin pressure. 


Josie Duffy Rice: [laughter] Okay, that one’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. 


Max Fisher: Right. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m assuming that joke is about the elections that were held all across Europe this week for the European Union parliament, and that ended with the far right making um how do you say worrying gains?


Max Fisher: Mm hmm. So this is the other reason I wanted to play you that joke. It’s actually from 2014. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Oh!


Max Fisher: The same thing happened then as happened this past week. Elections throughout Europe for the EU Parliament, big wins for the far right. Everybody’s freaked out. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And if memory serves, it also happened in 2019. So that is three EU elections in a row. 


Max Fisher: Which seems concerning. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It certainly does. But it also seems like kind of strange, right? Because for a decade now we’ve been hearing that the far right is on the rise again in Europe. 


Max Fisher: Yes. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And it’s threatening the foundations of democracy in Europe. 


Max Fisher: Mm hmm. Yes. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And yet with like a couple of exceptions, the far right is not anywhere near taking power in most of Europe. And even in the EU Parliament, after the far right made gains again for the third election in a row, those far right parties are expected to end up marginalized and powerless. 


Max Fisher: All true. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay, Europe, what’s going on? I need you to explain yourself. [laughter] [music break]


Max Fisher: I’m Max Fisher. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, filling in for Erin Ryan. 


Max Fisher: This is How We Got Here, a weekly series where we explore a big question behind the week’s headlines and tell a story that answers that question. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So our question this week is, why is the far right on the rise again in Europe? 


Max Fisher: It’s a question we’ve certainly seen posed a lot since that rise started almost a decade ago. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But a lot has changed since then. 


Max Fisher: And we’ve learned about both what actually seems to be driving this big political change and also where it’s headed. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Because, look, John Oliver is right. 


Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The rise of the European far right is scary. But it’s also played out a lot differently than I think most of us thought it would. And there’s been some surprising twists and turns along the way. 


Max Fisher: Our story that we want to tell you this week is about the rise of one far right party, in particular the alternative for Germany or AfD. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay, Max, so we should spell out for listeners what these people believe. 


Max Fisher: The AfD wants to effectively zero out immigration, mass deport minorities, and says that the country’s Muslim population of 5.5 million is basically not welcome. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And they’re climate change deniers. 


Max Fisher: Who have ties to Vladimir Putin. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Just win after win after win here. The party’s leaders have also played down Nazi atrocities. They’ve adopted Nazi slogans like the word Lügenpresse, which means lying media. In 2017, one of their leaders denounced the Berlin Holocaust Memorial as a, quote, “monument of shame.” 


Max Fisher: So this is a weird thing to brag about, but I was actually at the AfD rally where he said that. I was in Germany reporting on the far right and just happened to be there. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That is not where I want to happen to be personally. [laughter] I’m picturing you standing there. You have a little notepad, there are all these like very pasty skinheads and fascist salutes going on around you, is what it was like?


Max Fisher: Honestly, that was almost the most disturbing part was how different the crowd looked than you might expect. I mean, yes, completely white, of course, but a lot of suits and ties, a lot of college kids, mostly men, but more women than you’d think. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That is scary. And that is disturbing. But it’s not totally shocking. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 had a lot of that, too, right? 


Max Fisher: Oh. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Polo wearing, middle class college kids carrying torches, chanting Jews will not replace us. 


Max Fisher: Yes. Good point. Which speaks to the fact that the AfD is part of that same far-right authoritarian populist wave that rose across the US and Europe all around the same time. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Which is to say the AfD are a German story and a European story, but they’re also uh emblematic of something much larger. 


Max Fisher: Yes. And that is part of why I think this is a really good moment to talk about the rise, everything we’ve learned in this last decade, and when and why a society like Germany. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Or like America. 


Max Fisher: Yes or America will give rise to a far right movement that is both a callback to the fascism of the ’30s and ’40s, and also something much more modern and new. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay, Max. So the Alternative for Germany, the new German far right. Talk to us about them. Tell us where they came from. 


Max Fisher: Here’s a Euronews interview from 2013, the year that the party was founded with its founder and then leader, a guy named Bernd Lucke.


Josie Duffy Rice: Let me guess. He’s a corrupt, ultra wealthy businessman who’s obsessed with scaremongering about immigration. 


Max Fisher: Actually, he’s an economics professor. Anyway, here’s the interview. It’s dubbed over with English translation. 


[clip of English transaltion of Bernd Lucke interview] Only states which fit together economically should share the same currency. When it turns out this can’t be managed. Or that we’ll have to guarantee the debt of other states. Then it would be better to return to national currencies and to reintroduce the Deutschmark. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay. Uh. So he’s like a Eurosceptic. He doesn’t like the EU. That’s the impression I’m getting. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. The AfD was really just founded as a single issue party in favor of Germany leaving the EU. Like right wing for sure, but not, you know, total fascist. 


Josie Duffy Rice: This was, I take it, part of the backlash to the EU that swept a lot of Europe in the years after the global financial crisis, which had led to various financial crises within the EU. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, there’s an irony to this. Like today, the AfD is one of the most successful far right parties in Europe. But back when it was just a euroskeptic party, it was one of the continent’s least successful. The year that it was founded, 2013, the AfD ran in national German elections and got less than 5% of the vote, which is not enough to win a single seat in Parliament. And the year after that, when it ran in the 2014 European Union elections. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And this is the same 2014 election we heard John Oliver being alarmed about at the top of the show. 


Max Fisher: Yes, that’s right. That time the AfD did a little better, got 7% in Germany. So fifth place. Euroskeptic parties in other European countries did a lot better though. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So for comparison, in this week’s European Union elections, the AfD came in second place in Germany with 16%, and they’ve gone from zero seats in Germany’s national parliament to 67. 


Max Fisher: So what changed? Well, there was a specific moment when the politics of the AfD, really the politics of a lot of Europe, took this sharp, sudden turn. 


[clip of CCTV interviewer] More than one million refugees and migrants have entered Europe in 2015, fleeing the war in Syria and other conflict zones, as well as crises in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. 2015’s influx has been the largest migration episode since the Second World War. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That was a 2015 clip from the network CCTV. 


Max Fisher: Josie, I’m sure you remember this. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. This was a really intense time, right? There were these long lines of refugee families walking hundreds at a time, down rural roads or along train tracks, traveling thousands of miles on foot halfway across Europe, trying to make it to a country where they basically thought they might find safety. 


Max Fisher: About a million made it to Germany that year, which for a country of 80 million is a lot. 


Josie Duffy Rice: A number of European governments imposed extremely harsh measures to turn away or deter asylum seeking. Some countries in southern Europe with borders on the Mediterranean later had their navies push crowded refugee boats out to sea. This contributed to thousands of refugees drowning on the journey every year. 


Max Fisher: A lot of people expected Germany’s center right leader at the time, Angela Merkel, to respond in her usual cautious, conservative fashion and join other European leaders in pushing the refugees away. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But that’s not what she did. Technically, EU rules said that Germany had to deport all those refugees to the EU country where they’d first entered the eurozone, like Greece or Hungary, which is what a lot of European leaders did. But Merkel said she was going to throw out those rules and accept the asylum seekers. About a million that year and another million in the next few years to follow. 


Max Fisher: There’s a famous 2015 speech where Merkel announced this policy, and it’s famous mostly because of just how German she was about it. The main part of her speech was three words, Wir schaffen das, which means we will manage it. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s like painfully, painfully German. 


Max Fisher: It’s so German. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I can make this actually even more German for you, Max. Her speech became such a big deal on German social media that users remixed it into techno and dance tracks. So I’m going to uh, play the dubstep Wir schaffen das for you okay? 


I love that. 


[clip of dub step song including Angela Merkel’s voice plays] Wir schaffen das. 


Max Fisher: Josie, I knew there was a reason I brought my glowsticks and MDMA to the studio today. 


Josie Duffy Rice: [laugh] I just love the idea of being in a club like we will manage it. [laughter] We’ll manage it.


Max Fisher: That’s Germany baby. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I appreciate you uh taking out the dayglo pacifier for recording. 


Max Fisher: Look. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s very, nice touch.


Max Fisher: I try to keep it professional for you. Um. Anyway, in polls, most Germans did in time support this. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And why not? Like deploy all that German efficiency and infrastructure for good, you know?


Max Fisher: But not all Germans liked it. 


[clip of 2015 Euro news reporter] Not all Germans are welcoming refugees with open arms. And as thousands marched in Dresden in support of the anti-Islam movement Pegida, Angela Merkel was slammed as the most dangerous woman in Europe. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Pegida?


Max Fisher: These are the skinheads you were asking about earlier, and that was from a 2015 Euro news clip. Pegida is an out and out white supremacist group in Germany. They were founded in response to the refugee crisis and got a lot of attention, including from some people in the AfD. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The AfD, which was at this point still mostly just a euroskeptic party. 


Max Fisher: There was a big power struggle within the AfD, which ended with the Eurosceptics getting pushed out, including the group’s founder Bernd Lucke. And they were replaced by a faction of hardcore, anti-immigration, Islamophobic extremists. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So what kind of extremist are you talking about? Is this like the fist pounding hooligan brand of fascist? Is this like white collar paper pushers? What are we, what are we working with? 


Max Fisher: It’s mostly the latter, with a touch of the former. Here’s another Euro news clip. It’s an interview with Frauke Petry in 2016, not long after she seized control of the AfD. 


[clip of Frauke Petry] The Islam um the foundations of this religion are not compatible with democracies, and that’s nothing any of the AfD says. Now that we started the discussion, you find lots of politicians admitting exactly that, but they have been ignoring the problem for years. So I think our duty in Germany is to make the problem become apparent in order to find a solution. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Well, I can’t think of a single thing problematic about a German far right politician using the word solution with regards to a religious minority they consider to be an alien threat within. 


Max Fisher: I actually interviewed Frauke Petry once and she was not very nice. I know it will surprise you to hear that a German far right leader, who uses the Nazi term Lügenpresse to refer to the news media, was somewhat frosty towards a foreign Jewish newspaper reporter. 


Josie Duffy Rice: There’s really no worse company to keep, Max. We’re we’re zero for two on the company you’re keeping on this show. [laughter] Anyway, I’m afraid you’re going to tell me that this is when the AfD started its rise. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. In early 2016, Germany held its first election since the start of the refugee crisis. And it wasn’t a nationwide vote, just for a few state legislatures. But the AfD cleaned up. They came in second or third in most places, and one state they came within a few percentage points of first place. 


Josie Duffy Rice: We should be clear that these are multi-party elections. So first place means like 30% and second place means like maybe 20 or 25. It’s different than here. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, true. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I want to stop you here because I understand that the conventional wisdom here is that the AfD rose as a backlash to the rapid rise in immigration, and nationally that is like what the timeline shows. But if that’s all that was happening here, then you would expect to see the AfD do best in places with lots of refugee arrivals, worst in places with fewer arrivals. But that’s not what happens, right? The AfD does best in places with fewer refugee and migrant arrivals. And so what do we think is actually going on here? 


Max Fisher: Yeah, that’s a really important observation because this is something we see over and over and not just in Germany. The relationship between migration and far right backlash is fuzzy. It’s fuzzy in terms of when those two things coincide and to your point where they coincide. 


Josie Duffy Rice: This is also what it’s like here in America, right? People are much more scared of what they don’t see and what they hear about, right, than what’s around them, right? So you can kind of tell the same story about Europe as a whole in 2015, 2016 too. There was an uptick in far-right politics across the continent during the refugee crisis, but the far right saw some of its biggest gains in the countries with relatively fewer refugee and migrant arrivals. 


Max Fisher: There are a couple of theories as to what’s going on here, and I think some truth to all of them. 


Josie Duffy Rice: You don’t think just simple bigotry isn’t enough of an explanation? 


Max Fisher: I have no question. But on some level, what we’re asking is like, what are the conditions under which a group of people reorient their politics around bigotry? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. 


Max Fisher: As happened for about one in six Germans in 2016. And why and how does that bigotry get channeled in the way that it does? 


Josie Duffy Rice: So I looked into this a little bit, and one explanation is called the halo effect. And it says basically that in communities that experience rapid immigration, there’s generally not much of a backlash in the areas where the immigrants settle. 


Max Fisher: Huh? 


Josie Duffy Rice: But areas nearby will see a backlash. 


Max Fisher: Oh, like on a map. If you draw a halo. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Correct. 


Max Fisher: Around the town or neighborhood that saw the increase in immigration, than the halo represents the areas where you expect a backlash. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly. The idea is that people who actually live alongside immigrants and refugees will meet them, encounter them around town, and come to accept them more readily. 


Max Fisher: Whereas people who live a few towns or neighborhoods over might see signs of cultural change when they drive through, and they might find it disorienting to see, quote unquote, “their community” changing, but they won’t have the benefit of direct social contact to teach them that, hey, this is okay and fine. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And this is, of course, not to say that bigotry is acceptable or an understandable way to respond to cultural change. 


Max Fisher: No, I think we can safely say that it is the position of this show that everyone has both the capacity and responsibility to treat all people with dignity and respect. We’re just trying to understand diagnostically what sorts of factors have, more often than not, been associated with people choosing not to observe that basic responsibility. [music break]




Josie Duffy Rice: Are there any other potential triggers that we should note? 


Max Fisher: One that seems to have been particularly important to the rise of the far right across Europe was terrorism. 


[clip of unnamed NBC news anchor] Good evening. We start with the breaking news out of Paris. And what, at least at this moment, looks to be a city under terror attack on several fronts. What we can piece together so far, the Associated Press reporting, there have been two suicide attacks and one bombing outside a soccer stadium. There have also been shootings, and a large number of people have been taken hostage. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That was an NBC news report on the 2015 Paris terror attacks. You may remember them. They killed 131 people. 


Max Fisher: This is a time when the Islamic State had seized control of parts of Iraq and Syria, but it was losing ground to an international intervention. And in retaliation, it launched terror attacks across the Middle East and Europe. 


Josie Duffy Rice: There was, we should say, no connection between those attacks and the refugees who had recently migrated. Many of those refugees were, after all, fleeing the Islamic State. Right?


Max Fisher: Right. There has been a lot of research over the years into what effect terror attacks have on a society. And what that research has consistently found is that terrorism causes people to turn pretty hard to the right in their politics. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Sure, I remember I mean, we were here 2001, 2002. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right uh here in America. But what is it about terrorism that makes people respond that way? 


Max Fisher: A study by the social scientist Daphna Canetti concluded that it has to do with how people experience the intention of the attack. If people feel they could personally be targeted for some aspect of their identity, like their race or religion, for example, it makes them less supportive of pluralism or democracy, and more inclined to support policies that punish or coerce members of other identity groups. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Wow. So in other words, they see the world as more us versus them. They feel threatened. They want to protect their in-group by hitting out at whatever out-group they see. Um. However wrongly, as a threat. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, it’s pretty dark. And this is part of why, after this wave of attacks in Europe, some number of people in the continent begin to cling ferociously to their identity as they understood it. And for people who were already experiencing or indulging feelings of racial backlash to immigration, the perceived threat from terrorism supercharged that. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But that still doesn’t explain why some parts of Germany saw bigger, far right upticks than other parts. 


Max Fisher: The answer there seems to be economic, but like, not in the way that you typically hear it described. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, like not the old economic anxiety made me do the Nazi salute defense.


Max Fisher: [laughing] Yeah. Yeah, definitely not that because there is no correlation between, say, income levels and far right politics or employment rates and far right politics. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And like you said, a lot of people at that AfD rally you went to were dressed like middle class recent college graduates. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. The economic factor that seems to be correlated here is rapid and unwelcome economic change. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I feel like the trope is that someone embraces political extremism because they lost their union factory job. But it feels like you’re saying that’s not quite how it works. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. It’s close. Um. Economic hardship is not predictive of far right politics. Rather, it’s having your community rapidly transition from one kind of economy to another, even if you personally do okay in that transition. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay. So I feel like I’m seeing a pattern here. When people feel that their community around them is being changed against their will and in a way that feels uncontrolled, they can sometimes freak out in a way that makes far right politics much more attractive. 


Max Fisher: Bingo. And this is also key to understanding the politics of anti-immigration backlash too. Something that makes people much more prone to that backlash is when they feel that immigration is uncontrolled. So if they see photos from the border that make them feel it’s in a state of chaos or it’s being overrun, that triggers some deep lizard brain fear that makes people want to clamp down and mash the fascism button. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And in 2016, you have this perfect storm in Europe of all of this happening at once. 


Max Fisher: Right. Britain voted to leave the European Union. Poland elected an ultra conservative government. Hungary was tilting into authoritarianism and the AfD had these shock state level wins we mentioned, as did far right parties in a bunch of other countries. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Americans elected Trump.


Max Fisher: I remember that. Uh. I think back to something I heard at an AfD rally in early 2017, a party leader named Bjoern Hoecke. He was the guy who denounced the Holocaust memorial, told this cheering crowd, quote, “they are liquidating our beloved German fatherland like a piece of soap under warm running water. But we patriots will close this open tap and we will win back our Germany.” 


Josie Duffy Rice: The soap analogy is just like, [laughter] can you picture anything like less sturdy to begin with than soap? 


Max Fisher: That’s a that’s a great point if your nation is soap, like go for some rocks. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. 


Max Fisher:  You know? You go for some flint. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 


Max Fisher: Um. Anyway, all of those psychological triggers that we mentioned around economic change, culture change, terrorism, they all make people cling more tightly to their national identity as almost a kind of safety blanket, partly because they feel that that identity is under threat. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I just also want to say soap is meant to be run under water, [laughter] but I’m I’m just. I’ll let it go. Okay. But–


Max Fisher: You’re making some good points. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay. 


Max Fisher: I, Bjoern Hoecke was was wrong in his analogy and also was wrong in his politics. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. But I do see where you’re going. Uh. But the European Union is founded on this idea that, like, nationalism didn’t actually work out so great for Europe. Right? So everyone is better off if they sort of soften their national identities and they embrace this new, broader identity as Europeans. 


Max Fisher: One of the architects of the European Union, a Norwegian politician named Halvard Lange wrote in a famous essay in 1950, quote, “the keen feeling of national identity must be considered a real barrier to European integration.” 


Josie Duffy Rice: So fast forward to 2016, and a subset of Europeans started to want that old feeling of national identity back. 


Max Fisher: But they felt like the centrist, pro-EU political establishment wasn’t letting them have that old identity. It was making them be just European, and it was allowing all this immigration and all this economic change and cultural change. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay, so now, I mean, it does seem like they still got to have their national identity, but I see–


Max Fisher: They did. 


Josie Duffy Rice: –the point, right? Like it makes more sense how a little German political party founded on opposing the EU could become this vehicle for the far right. Because for people who become inclined to those far right grievances, the European Union makes for a good culprit to blame. 


Max Fisher: That’s a great point. Yeah, and the AfD kept rising. In 2017, Germany had national elections and the party won nearly 13% of the national vote. Like, I cannot tell you what an earthquake that was. 


[clip of unnamed Euro news reporter] Following an historic election in Germany, the AfD is set to enter parliament not only for the first time, but as the third strongest party. It’s also the first time a far right political party has entered the Bundestag since the end of the Second World War. 


Max Fisher: That was from a Euro news report. And this wasn’t just Germany. Across Europe as of that year, far right parties won on average, 13% of legislative seats. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s too many seats. But they [laughter] but they still weren’t in power, right? 


Max Fisher: No thanks to this thing in Europe called the cordon sanitaire. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. That’s the term for the informal agreement among mainstream political parties in Europe to never form a government that includes the far right. 


Max Fisher: In a multiparty system like Germany. You have lots of parties and they each win, you know, ten or 20 or 30% of the vote. So after every election, some critical mass of those parties have to form a governing coalition together. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But you don’t want to let the far right into your coalition, because then they’ll be back in power. And everyone remembers just how well that did not work out the last time. 


Max Fisher: Ironically, though, the cordon sanitaire just fed into the far right’s narrative because the AfD were able to say, look, these centrist parties are conspiring to suppress the voice of the people. Here again is Frauke Petry, who is the head of the AfD as of the 2017 election. 


[clip of Frauke Petry] I think this is why many citizens don’t believe in the established parties and politicians anymore, because they simply don’t feel taken seriously by the politicians um firstly, and secondly, because they feel basically betrayed by these politicians because they don’t tell the truth. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So, Max, I get what you’re saying about how and why certain people can become more sympathetic to the far right. But I do think that the story here is, like, more complicated than terrorism or immigration or economics, even, because by 2018, the number of refugee arrivals in Europe was way down. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The Islamic State was mostly gone. Right? Which, you know, meant no more terror attacks. And European economies, by and large, were not facing terrible turmoil, but the far right was just as popular as ever basically. 


Max Fisher: There is a famous political scientist who noticed that too. It’s a guy named Ronald Inglehart. He died a couple of years ago, but before that he did some fascinating research going through many, many elections in many countries looking for trends in when people vote for the far right. Here’s a talk he gave in 2018 at the University of Toronto about what he found. 


[clip of Ronald Inglehart] So we have a kind of complicated picture. I would say at the individual level, the individual choice to vote for Trump or Clinton or the National Front or Macron, or the Alternative for Germany or the Christian Democrats or social Democrats. The empirical evidence is overwhelmingly decided by the cultural issues. This backlash or support, depending on how you feel about immigrants, xenophobia, re– rejection of same sex marriage, rejection of the environmentalists, etc. this whole same longstanding generational cleavage. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay, so he’s basically saying that it’s all backlash to cultural change. 


Max Fisher: Yes, the backlash to the EU and the feeling of lost national identity, the fear of change amid immigration, the fear of economic change, all of these are just different forms of a larger, wider, ongoing, slow rising cultural backlash. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But I guess, like, why has that been getting steadily worse and worse in Europe, regardless of whether the economy is better or worse, or whether immigration is up or down? 


Max Fisher: Inglehart, the political scientist we just heard from, looked into that with another political scientist, a British woman named Pippa Norris. 


Josie Duffy Rice: A very British name, incredibly.


Max Fisher: And deeply deeply British. Um. But they did something kind of wild. They tracked every election in Europe, going back to World War II, national elections, state, municipal, and then for every year, they calculated the average vote share that went to far right parties all across Europe. And what they found is that that number started around zero in the early 1960s, and then it started to go up and has continued to steadily rise every year ever since. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay. So in other words, something happened in the 1960s. The far right became a thing in Europe. And every year since, they get, on average, just a little bit more popular. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, with some ups and downs along the way. But if you chart this out, what you see is a straight line going gradually up, irrespective of things like economic booms or downturns. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay. So what happened in the 60s? I mean, I know what happened here in the ’60s in America, but what happened everywhere else? 


Max Fisher: It was actually pretty similar in Europe too like basically 1965 is the year that Western countries all became what we now describe as liberal democracies. They all generally adopted some form of civil rights. They liberalized immigration. Like no one thinks, of course, that they became fully equal, multicultural societies, but they started to treat social and political equalities as at least the ideal to strive toward. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And that’s what triggered this kind of rise of a new breed of far right politics. 


Max Fisher: Basically, not everybody was on board with liberal, pluralistic democracy. Most people like being in a society that is becoming more open, tolerant and diverse. But in pretty much every country where that’s happened, there is a set of people who experienced that change as threatening and scary and respond to it by embracing the far right. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Especially if it coincides with destabilizing economic changes or physical threats like terrorism. 


Max Fisher: Here’s Pippa Norris, the political scientist who worked with Ronald Inglehart on that study tracking the far right’s rise. She’s speaking at a political foundation called the Carnegie Corporation a few years ago, addressing whether economic hardship explains the far right. 


[clip of Pippa Norris] But the other explanation is different. And this is in some ways, um even gloomier than the economic explanation. The other explanation that we came to is that what’s been happening is a cultural change, and it’s a change which, again, is rooted right back to the 1960s, when there was progressive values taking over many affluent societies and it changed the values that people held, especially amongst the young and young and the well-educated. And these were issues towards women, gender equality, towards LGBT rights, towards issues of cosmopolitanism, where young people felt very connected with the rest of the world. What we think has been happening is a backlash against those progressive changes, and it’s a backlash which is there amongst [?] the older generation who grew up with a different set of values in the 1950s and ’60s, and who feel that what’s around them is no longer America, that it’s become more secular, it’s become more international versus patriotic. It’s become more tolerant of diversity when they want to have an America that harks back to a white picket fence of the 1950s, a nostalgic vision. 


Max Fisher: When I first heard this, so much clicked for me because every country I looked at had the same slow, steady progression in the far right’s rise. 5% of the vote around the year 2000,  then 7%a few years later, then 10%. Those numbers might be a little higher or lower, depending on things like the economy or migration. But the general trend held regardless of the country. And around 2016, yes, all those events that we discussed accelerated things, but the far right’s numbers have been growing toward that point anyway. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay, I see what you’re saying. So that year just happened to be the tipping point when a lot of far right parties like the AfD won enough votes to hold seats in the national legislatures, and that’s why it suddenly felt like the far right had just, like, suddenly taken over everywhere in Europe. 


Max Fisher: Right. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But they had actually been basically slowly growing towards that point for 50 years. 


Max Fisher: The good news is that a perpetual rise for the far right isn’t inevitable, and it’s actually been faltering somewhat in recent years. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I mean, that’s not too different than what happened in the US either, right? I mean, Trump won in 2016. Uh. But when people were kind of confronted with the reality of a Trump presidency, a lot of voters turned on the GOP in the 2018 midterms. And then obviously, he doesn’t win reelection in 2020. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, kind of the same thing happened in Europe. Starting in 2018, European far right parties faced dropping poll numbers and electoral setbacks. The far right lost power completely in Poland, which was a big deal because that was one of the few places where they actually were in charge, as opposed to just being an opposition party. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And the same thing happened in Brazil too, voters swept in the far right President Jair Bolsonaro. Panicked, swept him right back out. 


Max Fisher: Germany had its last big election in 2021. The AfD expected to go from the country’s third biggest party to its second biggest, but instead they dropped to fifth and the stodgy old center left party sprang into the lead. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It feels very U.S. election 2020, but now they’ve bounced back. This week’s EU Parliament election is not the most important thing in the world, but the AfD did come in second among German voters, which is a bad sign for Germany’s national elections next year. 


Max Fisher: Not every place in Europe saw that same swing back to the far right. In a number of countries, the far right continued the same decline it’s been on for a few years, but in others and France like it really did see a big rise. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So let’s dig into who in Germany voted for the AfD this time around, because I think these numbers are going to tell you a lot. 


Max Fisher: There was a big geographic divide between Germans who live in the part of the country that used to be West Germany, and people who live in the part that used to be East Germany. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Which is wild because they reunited more than 30 years ago. 


Max Fisher: Right. It really speaks to this stew of economic turmoil and social change that all together can pull people far right. East Germany is economically better off than a lot of Europe, but its economy was badly damaged by reunification. A lot of good jobs and healthy industries migrated to wealthier, stabler West Germany after 1991. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s not necessarily impoverishing for people in that part of the country, but it is destabilizing and it’s a lot of rapid change. 


Max Fisher: What those regions have not seen is a big surge in immigration. Most recent refugees went to West Germany. And yet in polls, when asked why they voted for the AfD, Germans overwhelmingly say because of immigration. 


This is the halo effect in action. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, the AfD also did best among younger Germans. They were the number one party among Germans aged 16 to 24. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s probably not a coincidence that this is at a time when, due to inflation, real wages are contracting in Germany more than they have in decades. And economically it is a scary time to be coming of age. 


Max Fisher: I think what all of this points to is that we’re in a tentative moment in the rise of the far right in Europe and maybe beyond Europe. It’s got just popular enough that it could just barely win power, but that popularity is very contingent on how secure people feel. When things feel okay. The far right dips back down a tiny bit, which is often just enough to push them out of power. And when things feel scary or out of control, they tick up just enough to make themselves felt again. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And that explains why every global election nowadays, I feel like I’m being pulled between hearing that the far right is on the march or it’s in retreat. 


Max Fisher: I do have one last piece of good news to leave you with, Josie. 


Josie Duffy Rice: This better not be another story about you hanging out with a German far right psycho. 


Max Fisher: [laugh] Okay, in this week’s European Union parliament elections, the vote share for the far right went up. Not by a lot. They’re still a minority with no power. But it went up. Still, the far right parties are infighting and refuse to work together. So the size of the far right bloc in the EU Parliament will actually get smaller. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I wouldn’t say that’s like the best good news I’ve ever gotten, but I do love it. Let’s go out on the smooth sounds of another dance remix inspired by Angela Merkel saying, Wir schaffen das, or we will manage it. Made by the YouTube user stylez with a Z 85 for the 2018 World Cup. [song starts playing]. 


Josie Duffy Rice: This is a hit.


Max Fisher: It’s pretty good. I like it. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s good. 


Max Fisher: Yeah it’s a smooth jam. [song keeps playing then fades out] [ show theme music break] 


Max Fisher: How We Got Here is written and hosted by me, Max Fisher, and by Erin Ryan. 


Erin Ryan: It’s produced by Austin Fisher. Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. 


Max Fisher: Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show. 


Erin Ryan: Jordan Cantor sound engineers the show. Audio support from Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes and Vasilis Fotopoulos. 


Max Fisher: Production support from Adriene Hill, Leo Duran, Erica Morrison, Raven Yamamoto, and Natalie Bettendorf. 


Erin Ryan: And a special thank you to What a Day’s talented hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family. [music break]