In 2016, Donald Trump stormed Washington promising to “drain the swamp.”
Two and a half years into his presidency, he has one major legislative achievement to his name—a massive tax cut for the ultra-rich—and a cabinet packed with Wall Street insiders and libertarian billionaires.
Before he took office, Trump railed against the “handful of large corporations” that had “stripped [America] of its wealth”; after he took office, he systematically deregulated the US economy and presided over a boom in executive pay.
His strategy was never subtle: by presenting himself as a champion of ordinary, hardscrabble Americans, he would be free to implement a bespoke economic agenda for the one per cent.
And it worked—anyone who thinks the Democrats are going to cruise back into power next year is deluded.
But what if I told you precisely the same process was taking place right now, on this side of the Atlantic, as the European elections get underway?
According to a new report by a Brussels-based research group, Europe’s rightwing populists are playing the same elaborate political con-trick as Trump, only this time on a multi-party, pan-national scale.
In a new 30-page investigation, the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO)—an independent campaign organisation that works to expose business lobbying in the EU—has mapped the links between the European far-right and the private sector.
Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, and, of course, Britain’s Nigel Farage may market themselves as populist insurgents fighting to restore “economic sovereignty” to beleaguered national electorates, the report argues, but almost everything they do either benefits elite corporate power or bolsters the free-market.
To the extent that they advance “anti-establishment” policies, they do so for largely aesthetic reasons, as a means of channelling public discontent against our current, deracinated political class.
“None of these [leaders’] claims to reject the ‘elite’ stand up to close examination,” the CEO report states.
“Far from rejecting the ‘establishment’, these politicians are happy to cosy up to the rich and powerful or corporate interests, at home or abroad, for funding and political patronage.”
The report repeatedly—and starkly—illustrates its point.
Take Hungry’s ruling Fidesz party, one of the most extreme and authoritarian parties anywhere in Europe.
Its leader, prime minister Viktor Orban, is a hardline nationalist who peddles racist conspiracy theories and has played a central role in organising “anti-globalist” forces throughout Europe in recent months.
And yet, domestically, the Fidesz government has shamelessly courted foreign investment with a mixture of rock-bottom corporate tax rates, poverty wages, and draconian labour reforms.
Moreover, Orban has all but handed his legislative platform over to the hands of foreign and domestic business leaders.
“Industrial lobby groups, supported by the Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, have been directly involved in policymaking,” the report notes.
“[Businesses] have helped write many of the legislative drafts that meant to reform key policy terrains such as education, taxation, and labour.”
Then there’s the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which was in government until a few days ago when it was rocked by a corruption scandal and forced out of office.
The FPÖ has traditionally advocated a form of ethnocentric welfare nationalism that has deep roots in central and northern European politics.
But recently, the party has campaigned in favour of huge cuts to health and social spending, while its MEPs have voted against a range of progressive proposals at the European level, including an EU-wide corporate tax rate of 25 per cent.
This shift has been aided by the FPÖ-aligned economist Barbara Kolm, whose free-market think-tank, the Austrian Economics Center, “received thousands of euros in donations from tobacco giants Japan Tobacco International and British American Tobacco in 2018.”
Another eye-catching, if somewhat more familiar, case in point is Nigel Farage.
In 2014, Farage made an explicit pitch to the “lorry drivers and building site workers, butchers and bakers, farm labourers and security guards” who had been “dragged into hardship” by Britain’s political and economic establishment.
But as the report points out—and other media outlets, notably openDemocracy, have exhaustively documented—Farage has been bankrolled by a string of British private sector heavyweights, including “businessman Paul Sykes; Arron Banks; media mogul Richard Desmond; and Stuart Wheeler, who made his fortune in the gambling industry.”
Farage’s new electoral vehicle, The Brexit Party, is “funded by the multimillionaire financier Richard Tice” and “simply presents more of the same,” the report says.
(Right on cue, Brexit Party candidate Ann Widdecombe yesterday dismissed the looming closure of a Honda plant in Swindon, with the possible loss of 3,500 jobs: “Listen to your management,” she told the workers. “Factories close all the time. Or they move.”)
The report is littered with other examples of self-styled “populists” colluding with business elites or otherwise advocating policies that attack working people.
In 2015, for instance, Denmark’s hard-right Dansk Folkeparti—which claims on its website to maintain a “strong focus on welfare for Danish citizens”—took tens of thousands of euros from the shipping company Mærsk in order to promote “a new deal for Mærsk on tax revenue from North Sea gas exploitation.”
And during last year’s general election in Italy, Matteo Salvini’s extreme nationalist Lega party adopted pseudo-socialist language in an effort to broaden its electoral appeal: “Work does not mean making every last exertion,” it declared, “but to realise one’s talent with the right amount of economic satisfaction.”
Yet Lega has repeatedly opposed EU-wide attempts to improve working conditions for European workers, address the gender pay gap, and fight tax evasion.
To be clear, the CEO’s argument isn’t that—shock, horror—conservative parties hold conservative policy positions.
For one thing, the rightwing movements that have gained traction throughout Europe in recent years aren’t traditionally conservative: like Trump, they are often (ostensibly) opposed to key tenets of mainstream rightwing belief, including international free-trade, welfare reform, and even privatisation.
Instead, the report argues, leaders like Farage, Orban, and Salvini are exploiting the current groundswell of anti-establishment sentiment for almost exclusively cynical reasons; to promote their xenophobic ideology on the one hand, and to consolidate Europe’s pro-business economic status-quo—a status-quo many of them directly benefit from—on the other.
The far-right is likely to do well in this week’s European elections.
Europe, like America, seems to be moving in a strange and unsettling new direction—the same dysfunctional free-market capitalism, only now with a striking authoritarian twist.