As recently as a couple of years ago, when Max Geishüttner was in his second year of law school in the Austrian city of Linz, he tended to avoid talking about his support for the country’s Freedom Party. It wasn’t exactly taboo, but a lot of Austrians still associated the party with racism, even neo-Nazism. Its first two leaders, from 1956 to 1978, were former SS officers, and their successors in the years that followed were implicated in a series of scandals over anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. In the homeland of Adolf Hitler, who also went to school in Linz, such a reputation seemed an impossible obstacle to popular acceptance in a Europe that was supposed to have left such prejudices behind.
“So you would feel, like, a bad conscience if you say, ‘I vote for the FPO,'” Geishüttner told me at one of the party’s campaign rallies in mid-September, using the Freedom Party’s German abbreviation. But 2016 is different. Thanks to a broader shift to the right in European politics, the FPO has become the most popular party in Austria, with its support growing fastest among voters younger than 30. Its presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, is well positioned to win a runoff election in December, which would make Austria the first country in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since the fall of Nazi Germany. “Now it’s normal,” said Geishüttner.
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The Freedom Party’s rise is not an anomaly. Across the once placid political landscape of Western Europe, right-wing upstarts have created what Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, recently termed “galloping populism.” He was referring to movements like the Sweden Democrats, the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and other voices on the far right calling for their once open countries to close up and turn inward. But the insurgency is not limited to Europe. All the rising rightist parties are aligned with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in what they encourage voters to fear: migrants taking your jobs, Muslims threatening your culture and security, political correctness threatening your ability to speak your mind and, above all, entrenched elites selling you out in the service of the wealthy and well-connected.
In the case of Austria, the man responsible for harnessing this formula is Heinz-Christian Strache, a fast-talking, telegenic former dental technician who took over as FPO chairman in 2005. Back then, the party’s approval ratings were in the single digits, weighed down by claims of anti-Semitism that had dogged its upper ranks for years. But Strache changed the party’s image. Support for the state of Israel became part of its platform, and its new leaders renounced the aversion that their predecessors had expressed toward Jews. Instead, Strache focused his party’s hostility on a different minority group: Muslims.
“Political Islam,” he told TIME in an interview in his office in Vienna, “is the fascism of today, and that is what we have to fight.” Such claims would have once been met with outrage in Europe, but no longer. Amid the political backlash to the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers from around the Muslim world came streaming into the E.U., a patchwork of populist movements have begun to call for Europeans to shut their borders to Muslim migrants, close Islamic schools and ban Muslim women from covering their hair or face in public. And they’re winning.
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In recent months, the resurgence of nationalism across the E.U. has become so powerful that parties from the political mainstream have been forced to tilt sharply to the right as well, often retreating from their core principles of tolerance, openness and diversity. In France, some municipalities have banned Muslim women from fully covering themselves with so-called burkinis while swimming or lounging at certain beaches. The Danish parliament approved a controversial “jewelry law” in January that allows the government to confiscate valuables from arriving asylum seekers to help finance their accommodation.
Even the most seemingly far-fetched electoral upsets have begun to seem plausible, especially after the U.K. shocked the world by voting in June to leave the E.U. Brexit was driven in large part by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the U.K. Independence Party, which has long called for Britain to shut its borders. The result cost then Prime Minister David Cameron his job, and the impact on E.U. integration–and on the British economy–is expected to be severe. But Trump, notably, has voiced his enthusiastic support. He has even linked himself to the insurgent forces that drove the Leave vote by saying on Twitter that he would soon be known as Mr. Brexit.
It won’t end with the U.K. Right-wing parties in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere have called for their own Brexit-style plebiscites on E.U. membership. Faced with pressure from the E.U. to accept their share of refugees, officials in Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Poland have said they want to take only Christian asylum seekers or none at all. The nationalist government in Hungary even called a referendum on the issue for Oct. 2, and the results are practically a foregone conclusion: Hungarians are sure to reject the E.U.’s plan for refugee resettlement, further eroding the union. Even in Germany, where shame over the Nazis has long provided resistance to the pull of nationalism, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has broken into the mainstream. In a local election in early September, the AfD got more votes than the conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel in her own electoral district (both finished behind the Social Democrats). In another local election, held in Berlin on Sept. 18, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union recorded its worst result in the capital ever.
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Merkel has acknowledged that unhappiness over her refugee policy has helped drive some of her recent electoral losses, but she has also warned about the rising threat on the right. “The AfD is a challenge for all of us in this house,” she told a session of the German parliament on Sept. 7. Ahead of national elections scheduled for next fall, when the AfD is almost sure to enter the federal parliament for the first time, Merkel urged her fellow lawmakers to resist the “easy solutions” that the party is offering. “I am quite certain,” she said, “if we bite our tongues and stick to the truth, then we’ll win back the most important thing that we need, the trust of the people.”
But that approach has not worked out so well in Austria. The FPO, which took about a fifth of the seats in parliament during the 2013 election, has begun routinely winning state and municipal votes. Strache, its leader, has set his sights on the position of Chancellor, the nation’s top post, and has a good chance of taking it if his party maintains its popularity ahead of the next parliamentary vote in 2018. This past spring, before the ballot to elect a new President of Austria–a largely ceremonial role–Strache chose Hofer, his more mild-mannered protégé, to run on behalf of the party. The choice, Strache told me, was geared toward winning sympathy from voters who might otherwise balk at supporting a nationalist. Endowed with a disarming smile and an almost boyish earnestness, Hofer, 45, likes to pad his speeches with stories of the paragliding accident that nearly left him paralyzed in 2003. “That personal history gives him legitimacy,” Strache says. And among the FPO’s base, so does the fact that Hofer carries a pistol for self-defense, one made by the Austrian company Glock.
In the first round of voting in April, Hofer came out on top in a field of six candidates, winning 35% of the vote, the FPO’s best result ever in a presidential ballot. He narrowly lost in the runoff, but the Constitutional Court annulled the result because of vote-counting violations. Opinion polls suggest that Hofer is likely to win the revote, scheduled for December.
More surprising than a far-right President in the heart of Europe is the fact that so many Austrians are nonplussed by the prospect. “Most people just don’t associate the Freedom Party with the far right anymore,” says Günter Haunlieb, a senior director at Gallup International, a leading pollster in Vienna. “The Nazi label doesn’t stick.” Voters do, however, associate the mainstream parties with the period of economic stagnation that took hold after the global financial crisis of 2008. Unlike Greece, Spain and other debt-wracked E.U. members, Austria came away from the crisis relatively healthy, and its economy has returned to growth. But as in the U.S., the crisis has left Austrians feeling unmoored, fearful of losing what they still have. “A steady job previously guaranteed a comfortable life here,” says Haunlieb. “But that’s finished. People have stopped believing they can move up the social ladder.”
There is hardly a democracy in Europe where that same sentiment would not ring true. Countries in the formerly communist East have been hit especially hard by factory closures, high unemployment and an exodus of young workers to the wealthier states of Western Europe. Trump and his doppelgängers along the Danube have been able to capitalize not only on fears of migration but also on angst over economic inequality, often with what seem like the same slogans in different languages. On immigration: Send them back! On Muslims: Keep them out! On the media: Full of lies! On the Establishment: Crooked! On the elections: Rigged! Even their tactics seem to run in parallel, especially when it comes to the politics of fear.
During a recent campaign event in Berlin, Georg Pazderski, one of the leaders of the AfD, was asked why Germans feel so afraid of mass migration even though, according to official statistics, the influx of asylum seekers has not led to a substantial increase in crime or poverty. He replied with a famous line from the Republican strategist Lee Atwater. “Perception is reality,” Pazderski said in English before expanding on the maxim in German: “What people feel is what they perceive as reality. And at the moment, our citizens feel unwell, insecure.”
It hardly matters that such feelings may not be grounded in fact. The influx of refugees slowed to a trickle in recent months after Europeans closed their borders to transiting migrants and reached a deal with Turkey to keep refugee boats off European shores. But that has done little to calm public fears of being overrun. In a 2015 survey titled “Perils of Perception,” the British research group Ipsos MORI found that Europeans tend to grossly overestimate the number of foreigners who are actually in their countries. In Germany, respondents said, on average, that 26% of the population was born abroad; the actual number is 12%. The discrepancy was about the same in France, Belgium, the U.K. and the Netherlands.
For European elites, such chasms between feelings and facts are frustrating. “We come from the tradition of the European Enlightenment, the Age of Reason,” says Michael Häupl, the elder statesman of Austria’s ruling party, the Social Democrats, who has served as mayor of Vienna since 1994. “So we find it extremely hard to face down the emotional force of right-wing populism using rational arguments.” That is what gives the FPO its power, he says: “It lives off the emotion of fear, and it’s a lot harder to take these fears away than to create them.”
Häupl should know. At the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, the mayor faced off against Strache in the re-election fight of his career. With his usual flair for street-level politics, Strache dispatched activists to protest the settlement of refugees, and he made a Trumpian promise to build a barrier along the border with Hungary to keep any more asylum seekers from getting in. Even in Vienna, which has been governed by the left-wing Social Democrats since the city was left in ruins after World War II, such rhetoric struck a chord. Strache secured 31% of the vote, more than the FPO has ever won in the Austrian capital. But Häupl still managed to hang on to the mayoralty–if not his commitment to rationalist politics.
Reflecting on the race in his office, the mayor made a surprising admission: he was also forced to base his campaign on emotions. Last fall, in the heat of Vienna’s elections, a photo of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach after drowning, grabbed the world’s attention. One week before that, 71 migrants suffocated to death on a highway in Austria after smugglers sealed them inside a refrigerated truck. Four children were among the dead, including a baby girl. “These are tragedies,” said Häupl. “No one wants to see these images. But they did help our campaign.”
Yet if the vote had taken place after New Year’s Eve, when gangs of asylum seekers were accused of sexually assaulting scores of German women in Cologne and other cities, Strache might be the mayor of Vienna today. It is a sobering thought for Europe’s generation of old-school liberals and integrationists. The values always invoked as pillars of the European project–open borders, open minds–are losing ground to what Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, recently called the “demons” of the 20th century. “We brought these demons under control through European structures,” he told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. “But if we destroy those structures, the demons will return.”
The structures in Austria are looking decidedly unstable. During a campaign rally in mid-September, supporters of the Freedom Party gathered in a giant beer hall in the town of Wels, many dressed for the occasion in traditional folk costumes–lederhosen for the men and dirndls for the women. Making his way through the crowd, Geishüttner, the law student and FPO supporter, helped distribute cardboard masks printed with the face of their presidential front runner, along with the slogan I am hofer.
The candidate launched into his talking points against the biased media and corrupt political elites, the same kinds of grievances Americans have been hearing throughout their own election season. “The more they fight me,” Hofer said of the Establishment, “the stronger I become.” As he smiled from the stage, thousands of copies of his face stared back at him, a sea of identical likenesses.
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.
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