With the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, many of us hoped that the European far right would suffer a similar decline. In office, Trump had endorsed the post-fascist French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, sent U.S. diplomats to the U.K. to intercede on behalf of the jailed racist and far right activist Tommy Robinson, and inspired the growth outside the U.S. of an army of conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters, similar to the movement he led at home.
In Italian elections this September, the Brothers of Italy (FdI) won 26 percent of the vote and have since been able to form a coalition government. The party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, is now prime minister. A key Meloni backer is Roberto Lavarini, a real estate baron in Milan and a fascist who was exposed during the elections as having funneled covert donations to FdI. In 2014, Lavarini claimed on TV that “Mussolini’s only true mistake is that he was too good.”
During the Trump administration, Republicans in the U.S. maintained ties with the Italian far right: Steve Bannon traveled to Italy to back Meloni’s coalition allies, the League. The FdI promises a familiar Trumpian program: bans on LGBTQ+ people adopting children, the criminalization of migrants and restrictions on abortion.
But Meloni’s popular support is weaker than it at first looks. At 12 million votes, the total support for right-wing parties (i.e., FdI and the League and Forza Italia) is barely higher than it was in previous election in 2018 when the parties won 11.7 million votes between them; what has happened is that right-wing voters have defected to the FdI, enabling the FdI to dominate the right-wing vote, and increasing its share of all votes from 4.4 percent to 26 percent.
Almost all that growth took place in a single year between March 2020 and March 2021, during which time voters ditched what had been Italy’s largest party (the League) for the FdI. The former had been in government, where it was seen to have failed to deliver. It then responded to the first signs of COVID (at the start of the pandemic Italy had one of the worst death rates in Europe) by denouncing lockdowns — making the party seem dangerous. The FdI may have in its parliamentary ranks politicians who are the children of fascist leaders who promoted armed terrorism; yet it successfully presented itself as more competent than its rivals and better equipped to rule.
Sweden’s September elections saw a similar trend of voters shifting from the political center to the far right. The far right Sweden Democrats (SD) increased their take to 20.5 percent of the vote, moving the party ahead of its center-right competitors, the Moderates. SD leader Jimmie Akesson is, like Meloni, a former teenage right-wing activist. When he joined the party in 1994, skinheads managed its security and SD meetings ended with fascist salutes. The party drifted for many years in the polls, before being boosted in 2015 by press fears around migration. Ever since, it has been one of three contenders for power.
This autumn, a coalition was announced in which three center-right parties will govern without the involvement of the SD but with their votes. The center-right has promised to introduce SD policies: bans on immigrants obtaining welfare benefits and longer sentences for criminal gangs (a dog whistle for immigrants). The mainstream right-wing parties have accepted the SD’s message that all foreigners are criminals.
Elections earlier this year in France showed the far right consolidating its position and becoming further normalized. Thirteen million people voted for Marine Le Pen in the second round of presidential elections, in the largest vote for any party of fascist origin anywhere in Europe since the end of World War II. Le Pen failed to win the presidency but increased her vote take from 33 percent in the 2015 elections to 41 percent this year. Meanwhile, in the parliament, Le Pen’s party increased its seats from eight to 89. When a Black member of the French Parliament, Carlos Martens Bilongo, spoke about shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean, one of Le Pen’s deputies interrupted him, shouting, “Back to Africa!” The French center-right is now promising new laws to speed up the deportation of migrants.
Political theorist Ugo Palheta has written of a “new fascist international” to describe the way in which the parties of the international far right organize together, using the legitimacy gained by a breakthrough in one country to enable victory in another. For examples of that alliance, we might think of Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., or the visit by Carlo Fidanza of the League to the same event in 2021. Or of the role in which Russian leader Vladimir Putin has tried to play, as a funder of the National Rally in France or patron to the League in Italy; a relationship reciprocated by League leader Matteo Salvini who visited Russia to express support for that country at the start of the Ukraine war.
But the far right is not advancing everywhere. Elections to the German Parliament in 2021 saw the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lose votes. Its performance in 2022 has been mixed. Far more noteworthy has been the way that country’s far right has taken to the streets, where a mass movement against COVID-19 restrictions has given way to acts of individual terrorism, and even plots toward an intended far right coup. The four dozen arrested leaders of that conspiracy included lawyers, former members of German special forces and members of state legislatures. “Right-wing terrorism is still the biggest threat to German democracy,” warned German MP Nils Schmid, the foreign affairs spokesperson for the ruling Social Democrats, in an interview in December.
At first sight, Britain is an exception to these processes. Elsewhere in Europe, the center-right is losing ground to parties further to the right. Here, by contrast, the Conservatives dominate right-wing politics. They have, effectively, no competitor to the right. An attempt by Britain’s one fascist party, Patriotic Alternative, to break out of their isolation by attacking drag queen reading hours in libraries has received some, albeit modest, press coverage. Its main consequence has been to splinter the anti-trans networks with which Patriotic Alternative had been hoping to ally.
Politics here are still shaped by the legacy of the 2016 referendum on European Union membership which resulted in Britain leaving the European Union. The idea of leaving the EU had originated in the far right, and the “Leave” campaign was to a considerable extent a convergence of the center and far right.
However, in the British political system, where power correlates to parliamentary seats, there was no mechanism by which the far right (which was outside Parliament) could keep on influencing politics after the referendum victory. One answer discussed on the right — to offer Nigel Farage (previously the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and then the Brexit Party, and the politician most clearly associated with Brexit) a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords — was blocked by Conservatives.
Up until October 2022, politics in Britain felt much like they do in Sweden — in that far right voters were helping to keep a center-right government in power. They were rewarded with policies to their liking but all meaningful power was held by people from different traditions, closer to the center-ground and keen to return to what they considered business as usual. (There isn’t really a U.S. equivalent, but it would be something like if Mitt Romney won the next Republican nomination, and then moved so far to the right that he persuaded Donald Trump to spend his days sending messages of support to the people he used to consider “the swamp.”)
Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership from September to October 2022 marked the end of a period of tacit right and far right alliance. Her budget would have passed too much money to rich people too quickly, and the sums did not add up. Finance turned against her. She was left able to draw on the support of Farage (who called Truss’s “the best Conservative budget since 1986”) and no one else. Her replacement, Rishi Sunak, has ever since been struggling to impose himself. He presents himself as a throwback to pre-Brexit Conservative politics, neoliberal rather than populist, obsessed with finance and cutting welfare, at a time when the right internationally has moved on to different politics.
The European far right has been the beneficiary of certain long-term processes: the disappearance of the Second World War into distant memory, and the end of a long period in which fascism was stigmatized; as well as the left’s refusal to make the case for redistribution at a time when inflation and cuts are eroding living standards. Political change is more popular than ever, yet only half of the political spectrum (the right) is fighting for real changes.
Looking at the different parties on the far right, their electoral breakthrough was, in most cases, the work of a few months which took them from the margins of political life to the center: The French far right grew in 12 months from spring 1983; the Sweden Democrats took off in response to six months of favorable press coverage in 2015; the FdI grew in a year from spring 2020.
Once a political tradition has become a contender for state power, however, its opponents have to work incredibly hard to force it back into the margins. The right’s success may take years to reverse.