Ideas

Evan Horowitz | quick study

Donald Trump blazes a European path in American politics

Donald Trump continues to be the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary despite comments that many expected to derail his campaign.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images/file 2015
Donald Trump continues to be the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary despite comments that many expected to derail his campaign.

Despite near-daily assurances to the contrary, the Trump bubble has not burst. One reason for his unexpected endurance may be that there’s more to Trump than just charisma, celebrity, and heterodox straight-talk.

Alone among the candidates — Democrat and Republican — Trump is forging a new path in American politics, combining a right-wing approach to immigration with more left-of-center commitments like strengthening Social Security and protecting American jobs.

His nativist vision — call it social welfare for real Americans — may be unfamiliar in modern US politics, but it’s quite popular with voters, and it has found some real success in Europe.

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So behind the question everyone is asking — can Donald Trump win? — stands another question of at least equal importance: Does Donald Trump represent the emergence of a new force in American politics, a right-populist movement that could reorganize the American political spectrum, peeling labor away from the Democrats and anti-immigrant folks out of the grip of Republicans.

Joe Mathieu for The Boston Globe

What is Trump’s platform?

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No issue has been more central to the Trump campaign than immigration. He rarely misses a chance to talk about the damage he thinks immigrants are doing to America, and his first official policy document laid out plans to get undocumented immigrants out of the country, strip their US-born children of citizenship, and compel Mexico to pay for an impregnable wall along the southern border.

Note, though, that it’s not all about Trump’s much-criticized belief that Mexico is sending the United States rapists and criminals.

Trump is also opposed to high-skilled immigration, including programs like the H1-B visa, which is designed to help business hire talented workers from around the world, for jobs in places like Silicon Valley. He argues that these immigrants, too, take jobs away from Americans.

What that suggests is that Trump’s immigration policies aren’t just designed to keep Hispanics out. They are to keep everyone out, so that we can build an economy that supports only American workers.

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A similar ideal seems to underwrite his call for new trade rules. For instance, rather than defend Apple’s decision to make iPhones overseas — on the grounds that it’s good for the company (which is American) or that letting trade flow freely ultimately helps everyone — he has called out the company for shipping jobs abroad.

And because Trump seems driven by this idea that American policy should serve American people, he’s less antigovernment than many of his Republican opponents. Among other things, he firmly opposes cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

To be sure, Trump is not a political philosopher, and his views often feel quite slippery. But if there is a governing vision, it seems to come down to this: Use the levers of power to keep non-Americans out while providing the trade and welfare supports needed to help “real” Americans thrive.

How is Trump’s platform like the European far-right?

While Trump’s “Americans first” approach is relatively unfamiliar here in the United States, it has analogs across Europe, where right-populist parties have made inroads by joining xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment with calls to refocus government on the needs and struggles of the native-born.

Once upon a time, the argument goes, Europe was a great place, with growing economies and government policies that protected vulnerable citizens. In recent years, though, immigration has siphoned off the money needed to make the social welfare state work.

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Perhaps the best example of this is Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France, which has evolved from a fringe movement to a fearsome political competitor by leaving behind its more overtly racist past and reconstructing an anti-immigrant platform atop a foundation of left-leaning economic ideas, like increased benefits for workers and a trade policy that favors French industry.

Some aspects of the European far-right are harder to import. Among European politicians, anti-immigrant sentiments sometimes bleeds into an attack on multiculturalism per se, but Trump hasn’t turned against the American melting pot, a distinction noted by Cas Mudde, a University of Georgia professor and expert on the far-right. In that sense, Trump isn’t aping the European far-right so much as he’s adapting right-populist approaches for the US context.

Can Trump win with this brand of right-populist politics?

Trump’s seemingly endless ability to defy expectation is a reason to be cautious about making predictions. But even if Trump the candidate doesn’t win, his ideas just might.

One way to understand Trump is to see him as the vanguard of a new movement to bring right-populist politics into the United States, bending the whole political spectrum in service of an agenda that is anti-immigrant and also pro-American-worker.

His ideas are getting serious traction. A large bloc of American voters really does want to reduce immigration and also strengthen Social Security, even if this combination is rarely reflected among options at the voting booth.

But building a wedge movement like this is a daunting undertaking, certain to attract fierce resistance from the Democratic and Republican parties, who have held a monopoly on power for the last century.

One thing to watch then, as the campaign unfolds, is whether Trump starts to attract ambitious top lieutenants and disaffected party activists, the kind of people who might be able to build a durable party around the idiosyncratic Donald.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.

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