The rise of right-wing populism in the West is the story of our time. In the United States and western Europe, recent years have seen antiestablishment parties and candidates win unprecedented electoral victories by casting themselves as defenders of their nations against the twin threats posed by foreigners and a corrupt elite. The two major shocks to the international order in recent years—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president—were both manifestations of this larger trend.
The populist story is primarily one of culture and identity, in particular the fear among white voters across the West that their cultures and identities are under threat. The current populist wave began with the 2014 elections to the European Parliament, in which the Danish People’s Party, France’s National Front, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), all right-wing populist parties, came in first in their respective countries—results driven in part by a significant increase, beginning in 2012, in the number of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians seeking asylum in the EU. Then came the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than one million immigrants and refugees, most of them Muslim, entered Europe.
The migrant crisis was a boon for right-wing populists. In 2015, Trump, then the Republican nominee for U.S. president, took a hard line on Syrian refugees and promised a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. In 2016, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, used a poster featuring a column of marching refugees to warn Britons what lay in store if they failed to leave the EU. That same year, Norbert Hofer of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party nearly won the presidency after running on an openly nativistic platform. Almost everywhere, right-wing populist parties received record numbers of votes and forced parties in the center to tack right on immigration and Islam.
Despite the momentous impact of this populist revolt, public discussion of it has been mired in confusion. The rise of populism stems, first and foremost, from ethnocultural anxiety. Members
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