Make Denmark Great Again?
By Daniel Béland and Klaus Petersen. The victory of Donald Trump at the recent presidential election surprised many observers both at home and aboard. Although it is tempting to see the Trump phenomenon as a uniquely American mix of nationalism and populism, it is clear that his discourse is very much in sync with the right-wing, anti-immigration populism that has become so influential across Europe. This means that, paradoxically, populist nationalism is a transnational reality that is spreading across national borders. Taking this into account is helpful to both understand better the phenome of national populism. In the United States, it is common to associate Trumpism with the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom or the enduring popularity of Marine Le Pen and her Front National in France.
Yet the Trump phenomenon has also a lot in common with the rise of anti-immigration populism in Denmark, a small, social-democratic country that apparently has relatively little in common with the United States. Created in 1997, the Danish People’s Party has become one of the most successful populist parties in Europe. Turning to its rhetoric and policy prescriptions can help us grasp what is both unique and surprisingly common about Trumpism.
In the 1990s, the Danish People’s Party was a marginal party in the Danish multi-party system but, between 2001 and 2011, it became an influential parliamentary supporter of the Centre-right governments and, most recently, in the 2015-election, it was the second largest party gather more than 21 percent of the votes. The Danish People’s Party was originally a single-issue party focusing almost exclusively on immigration, as it promoted highly restrictive policies to control the number of foreigners living in the small country of less than six million inhabitants. In the 1990s, immigration was the only topic it used to frame all the other policy issues ranging from social policy to law-and-order. Gradually, however, the focus of the party has broadened. For instance, beyond immigration per se, the party has developed an anti-establishment rhetoric, heavily criticizing Denmark’s political and cultural establishment such as the publicly funded Danish National Broadcasting Corporation which was labelled as a problematic cultural-liberal institution. Furthermore, anti-European Union discourse emerged as a natural extension of the nationalist, anti-immigration rhetoric of the Danish People’s Party.
Yet, interestingly, a key factor for understanding the durability of the party and its continuously growing support among the Danish electorate is the combination of anti-immigration and pro-welfare state discourse. Over the last 10 to 15 years, the Danish People’s Party has effectively branded itself as a main defender of social rights – especially the rights of the elderly – and a foe of neo-liberal welfare state retrenchment. Parallel to becoming an integral part of the political system and arguably the most influential party in Denmark since 2001, the Danish People’s Party has skillfully portrayed itself as being the defender of a “lost paradise”.
Elaborating on the anti-establishment rhetoric, the party has claimed to represent ordinary people vis-à-vis the establishment and the specter of globalization. That the party de facto has supported center-right governments pursuing social policy retrenchment has been covered-up with the help of effective political communication and the branding of the Danish People’s Party as defending the Danish welfare state as it was in the so-called Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s – in other words, before the era of mass migration that the party describes as an elite-sponsored attack on “our Denmark”.
This means that, like Donald Trump in the United States, Danish People’s Party has developed an anti-establishment discourse that idealizes its country’s past. In both countries, such an idealized past is one characterized by a more homogenous, whiter society. The key difference here is that, in Denmark, a generous, social-democratic welfare state is understood as a key component of the Paradise Lost, which is not the case in the United States, where such a comprehensive welfare state has never existed. Instead, Donald Trump idealizes industrial, white middle-class prosperity of a post-war era, which is not associated with the idea of a generous, European-style welfare state.
In other words, populist nationalists in both Denmark and the United States have developed an anti-establishment and anti-immigration rhetoric that idealizes the past even though the past they idealize is dramatically different because these two countries have dissimilar historical trajectories and popular memories they can draw on to appeal to voters, especially older voters who love the idea of making their country great again. Although this idea remains vague, it is grounded in a shared historical and political experience that remains nationally distinct. Alongside anti-immigration and anti-establishment sentiments, this idealization of the past is one of the key characteristics of populist nationalism in both Denmark and the United States.
Daniel Béland holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. Klaus Petersen is Professor of Welfare State History at the University of Southern Denmark.