The hours, days and weeks following the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States of America have been defined by a sense of panic and utter incomprehension in centre to left political circles. His election provokes an unexpected identity crisis in those circles because it appears inconceivable to them that anyone who so openly used xenophobic and sexist discourse could be elected to such a position.
The far-right parties of course rejoiced: “We are president” the Berlin arm of the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) tweeted; the leader of France’s Front National (FN), Marine Le Pen, was the first to congratulate Trump on his victory; the on-again/off-again leader of Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, was the first member of a non-American political party to meet Trump after his election, and representatives of the USA “alt-Right” movement were filmed celebrating Trump’s election with Nazi salutes. What this amounts to is that those feeling insecure now feel secure, while those that felt slightly secure now feel insecure.
From a rational perspective, it is extremely difficult to feel insecure in the West. Unemployment rates are low as are the crime rates, and migration flows are under control. Those are all elements that should bolster a sense of security rather than the contrary. And yet, here we are, witnessing the growing support and success of parties and movements whose ideas and policies are based on fear. This post is not about the Trump election and what it means, a topic that is and will be over-analysed and dissected from every possible angle. It is rather about the self-fulfilling prophecy of insecurity and its real consequences.
Insecurity is not rational
Fear and insecurity are based on the interpretation of a situation as potentially dangerous and is of course highly subjective. It is a feeling that facts and figures can overcome only with great difficulty. Until experience provides the basis for a perception of security, a sense of security and insecurity will be based on one’s own imagination and interpretation of information. It is the latter that plays well into the hands of the far-right rhetoric.
I recently wrote an article called The Narrative is the Threat: Refugee Crisis in western Europe and Terrorism for the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), which showed that there is no link between crime and migration. The facts and the figures demonstrate that despite an increase in migration influx, crime rates stay steady and unemployment actually decreasesi. Moreover, 80% of terrorist attacks in the west since January 2014 – the moment considered to be the beginning of the refugee crisis peak in Europe – were perpetrated by individuals that were born and raised in the targeted countriesii and not by foreigners.
So if the facts suggest that societies are not more insecure than before spikes in migration flows and that unemployment rates are near the 5% mark – considered to be 0% unemployment rate – how do you obtain political success by using the fear card? By sustaining the impression of fear, which is something that is oblivious to facts and reason.
The “Age of Terrorism” and the hyperbole plays a huge role in fostering this impression. The very spectacular nature of terrorism combined with the potency of 24/7 news, social media and smartphone cameras makes for unforgettable images that sear themselves into personal and collective memory. The images of 9/11, Madrid 11/3, London 7/7 or of the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 played on a loop for weeks on end, terrorising and creating for many a sense of insecurity that facts cannot assuage. The same applies for attacks on beaches and malls across the world, which give the impression that certain areas are unsafe or “hotbeds” of terrorism.
The fact that there are security checks everywhere and that the list of security conditions imposed on travellers, shoppers or stadium visitors grows every year adds weight to the impression of insecurity. As a counter-terrorism adviser, friends and family are now asking me if travelling somewhere or attending a particular event is safe, something they had never done until recently. Such is the power of terrorism that despite attacks being a rare occurrence the impression it leaves – as a victim or not – is long-lasting and deep.
This is what far-right parties have tapped into for decades, whether its terrorism, foreigners or unemployment. And over the last ten years, they have become particularly adept at framing insecurity into a path to success.
What far-right parties do well – and clearly demonstrated in electoral terms – is to portray danger as coming from outside and being foreign in nature: If unemployment is up, it is because jobs are sent to other countries or given to foreigners; if crime is up, it is because migrants – often described by the millennia old term “barbarians” – “invaded” the country; and if terrorism occurs, it is because foreign enemies wish to destroy civilisation. Blaming Mexicans as Trump did, or Muslims as in France and Germany, or migrants in general as was the case during the British “Brexit” campaign for their countries’ ills is all about framing danger as an external factor. This portrays the hosts as victims, dismissing any responsibility they could have in generating and fostering insecurity. However, this discourse will be extremely difficult to sustain under the current circumstances.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: Surging far-right violence
The obvious statement is that playing the insecurity card is all about tapping into people’s fears, especially about self-preservation. I have discussed before how the co-option of the far-right rhetoric by mainstream parties legitimises the discourse and provides it with a platform that automatically extends its reach. Invariably, it puts insecurity at the heart of politics, a situation compounded by the volatile cocktail of terrorism and modern media mentioned above. As fear grows, so does the “need to do something” and act out on this fear by turning to violence.
Two cases embody this in its most extreme form: The knife attack on Henriette Reker, the current mayor of the German city of Cologne, on October 17, 2015 and the murder of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed on June 16, 2016. Reker was stabbed by a far-right terrorist who opposed her pro-refugee stance on the last day before the election, whereas Cox was killed by a far-right terrorist screaming “Britain First” while killing her one week before the “Brexit” vote. Stirred by a climate of fear brought about by a framing of security as a migration linked issue, both these men took matters into their own hands, fuelled by ideas that they had to defend their respective countries against outsiders.
The broader picture is not better:
Full statistics for 2016 are not available outside the UK, but reports hint at a surge in hate crimes in France, Germany and the USA for 2016. In Germany, the trend suggests an increase of about 20%, in France attacks on Muslims tripled, and the USA has experienced a dramatic surge in hate crimes since the election of Donald Trump as president.
The increase in far-right crimes (hate crimes) matches the increase in electoral support of such parties and movements and not only shares their peak, but also matches the peak of the refugee crisis in Europe. In other words, migration and foreigners played a role in a particular spike in crime and insecurity, but they are not the source: Advocates of insecurity are fulfilling their own prophecies of terrorism and violence.
With elections coming up in three countries with substantial far-right parties in 2016 (France, the Netherlands and Germany), the situation will not improve shortly. Trump’s election proves that there is important electoral support for the far-right discourse and potential success. This has four important consequences for security: The first, as the post-electoral situation in the USA and spikes in hate crimes prove, is that those harbouring such views feel comfortable enough to come out and act on them, violently or not. The second is that mainstream parties will now work even harder to tap into the far-right electorate. Clear signs of this can already be seen in Germany and France, where some parties (CSU) and candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy, described as being further right than Le Pen, now urges his supporters to vote for republican candidate François Fillon) are using the same discourse and tone as that of the AfD or the FN. As the elections draw nearer, it will only get worse.
The third is that terrorism will occur more often now that far-right terrorism is more active. More attacks like those that respectively injured and killed Henriette Reker and Jo Cox are to be expected, further evidenced by the increase in amount of threats made to politicians in 2015 and 2016 in Germany.
Finally, politicians pushing a far-right agenda should not believe that they are themselves immune to the anger and fear they exploit. Their success will incite others to act against them and if their voters feel let down by their policies, the violence they are fuelling will turn against them as well.
Stoking fear and insecurity for political reasons is a double-edged sword. While it may provide short-term gains, it has very dangerous, long-term consequences. By fuelling divisions and violence, far-right parties become the very source of what they claim to be against: Insecurity.