These days, it is difficult to avoid talking (or hearing) about Donald Trump. The famous multi-billionaire surely has no difficulties getting America to talk about him, with his promise of “Making America Great Again”. His political style seems to provoke strong reactions: while his followers often blindly support him regardless of what he does or says, a number of Democrats and more moderate Republicans are scared that Trump will bring the country back to the Middle Ages .
If the content of Trump’s message is often discussed, his political style is similarly at the center of media attention. His personal life and his family were known well before his political ideas. His ability to use the media in a way that seems to consciously avoid “political correctness” makes him a fully mediated character. His rise in the political world has been connected to the mythic culture of celebrity, because his behavior seems to be a lot different from that of other politicians.
These characteristics of Trump certainly make him rather unique. He has been compared to other “eccentrics” in the political world, such as the Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, famous for being the richest man in the country, for owning a substantial percentage of Italian media, and for his ability to distract public attention from the not-exactly untarnished sources of his patrimony and his passion for underage girls. An Italian, recently circulated an ironic Facebook post in which he thanks Donald Trump for running for president: nobody will ask Italians “why Berlusconi?” anymore. “With Donald Trump you will receive from us the Olympic Torch of political silliness”, he continues.
However, Trump is not a lonely political eccentric politician holding certain extreme ideas. If his style might appear unique, his strategy to win popularity is not unheard of. In his effort of “Making America Great Again,” Trump widely employs the fears of migrants allegedly invading the U.S. Trump’s war against immigrants, which clearly does not take into account his Slovenian-born wife, is aimed at preventing non-Americans from changing the culture, the society, and the job market of the nation. Trump’s creation of this “fear of the other” passes through religion. Indeed, he identifies Muslims as threats for Western democracies, as exemplified by his strong anti-Muslim stance after the Paris attacks, when he said that the U.S. should not accept Syrian refugees .
Trump is not alone in using this strategy. In Europe, where recent terrorist attacks and an increasing migration flow from North Africa and the Middle East are forcing countries to re-think their cultural and religious identity, a number of political leaders employ similar strategies. Europe is profoundly divided by what is perceived as a migrant “threat,” and xenophobic and racist political parties are employing anti-migrant and anti-Islam discourses in a populist way that resonates well in the media. The recent burst of violence in Cologne is an example of how refugees are often blamed and used as scapegoats for existing social issues. The fear of the “otherness” of different religions and cultures causes a sense of uncertainty that compels many Europeans to embrace ideas that are very similar to Trump’s. Two examples of this political trend are the Italian Matteo Salvini, leader of the party Lega Nord (Northern League), and the French Marine and Marion Le Pen, important characters of the Front National (National Front).
Matteo Salvini represents the new face of the Italian Lega Nord. Founded in the 1990s, the party initially focused on the idea of creating an independent state including only the richer and more industrial regions in Northern Italy. The recent rise of Salvini as leader of the party marks a shift from discourses against Southern Italy to a firm anti-migrant and anti-Muslim stance. Salvini often expresses on his Facebook account the need to destroy refugee and Roma camps with a bulldozer. As a result, the Italian word “ruspa,” which means “bulldozer,” became a sort of neologism for Salvini’s followers as an incitement to metaphorical (and, hopefully, only metaphorical) violence against Muslims.
On his Facebook page, Salvini exhorts Prime Minister Renzi to resign
Salvini explains he would like to drive a “Ruspa” to destroy a Roma camp where violence and rape against Italians allegedly occurred
Lega Nord previous leader, Bossi, invoked druid rituals to celebrate the uniqueness of Northern Italy, historically inhabited by Celts. Salvini, on the contrary, firmly protects Catholicism as the basis of the Italian culture. For example, last Christmas Salvini engaged in a strenuous fight to protect the presence of nativity scenes in public schools. When an Italian school principal proposed avoiding Christian symbols in sign of respect for non-Christian students, Salvini made it a national case to exemplify how Islam is a threat to Italian traditions, even if no Muslim family formally made any request against Christmas celebrations.
Marine and Marion Le Pen are part of the Le Pen political dynasty. Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the xenophobic political party Front National during the 1980s, and quickly gained popularity. Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine took the leadership in 2010, starting a transformation of the image of the party, which was losing support. This process culminated in the expulsion of her father from the party he founded. While the core ideas of the Front National remain the same, Marine employs a communication style which is more politically correct, avoiding ,for example, the anti-Semitic comments that made Jean-Marie notorious as a Nazi-sympathizer . Marine still symbolically refers to the Holocaust, but with a different target: she faced trial for hate speech by comparing Muslims to Nazi.
Marion Le Pen, whose real last name is Maréchal, will probably soon have a prominent role within the Front National. After posing with her grand-father Jean-Marie for political posters at age two, Marion, now twenty-six, is currently reaching political success in the Marseille region, a highly multi-cultural part of France. Marion is more traditionalist and religious than Marine, and often employs her Catholic background to defend France against an alleged Muslim invasion. It is not so surprising, therefore, that Sarah Palin compared Marion to a “new Joan of Arc who will save France.”
Marion Le Pen dressed as Joan of Arc in an Internet meme
Trump, Salvini, and the Le Pen ladies have very different characteristics. Salvini, often dressed with an informal hoodie and speaking in a very colloquial style, appeals to his working-class elector-ship as “one of us.” On the contrary, the two Le Pens present themselves as good-looking, well-dressed blond ladies with polite manners. They also have a different communication style: while Salvini took the Paris attacks of November 2015 as an occasion to violently criticize Islam as a whole, especially on Facebook, Marine Le Pen diplomatically refrained from making comments.
However, the similarities of these political characters are definitely stronger than their differences. Salvini and the Le Pens, especially Marion, have strong media presences both on national media and on social networks. This happens because their messages are straightforward and catchy for a public that does not necessarily spend much time following political debates. Reiterating the importance of Christian values for Europe, they implicitly state that Christianity is compatible with Western democracies, while Islam is a violent, backward, and non-democratic religion. For as problematic this message is, it is appealing for a part of the population who fear an external threat.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Salvini and the Le Pens showed interest, support, and admiration for Donald Trump. While the slogan “Make Europe Great Again” does not exist yet, these politicians do have the aim of “bringing Europe back” to a past without Islam. These discourses exemplify how Trump is not a lone, eccentric politician, but rather part of a trend in Western democracies of instilling a fear of “otherness” in the elector-ship. Great attention should be accorded the rise of media discourses that identify a minority as a “threatening other”. Politicians that promote the marginalization of a part of the population would do much more harm than just passing along the “Olympic Torch of political silliness”.
Jean-Marie Le Pen and Salvini show support for Trump on Twitter and Facebook. Le Pen writes: “If I were American, I would vote for Trump… God bless him”