About 2,000 Germans gathered in the market square in this elegant old town to denounce Angela Merkel as a traitor — and to cheer Britain on for deciding to leave the European Union.
They were taking part in the regular Monday demonstrations of Pegida, the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamacization of the West. The Pegida crowd was waving the banners of Germany and the free state of Saxony along with signs saying “Thank you, Brexit.”
I asked a group of middle-aged men in polo shirts, slacks and sandals, all workers in a machinery plant, why they were there. One said firmly, “We are against globalization in the world.”
There you have it, the essence of the populist appeal to Brexit voters and members of nationalist parties across Europe, not to mention the Donald Trump wing of the GOP. Globalization, the technology-driven destruction of borders, has changed the Western world so dramatically and so fast that many ordinary people are desperate to halt, or reverse it.
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Populist leaders know just how to play on these fears and to make promises to stem the global tide. The grungy Lutz Bachmann, Pegida’s founder, who was just convicted in a German court of “inciting racial hatred,” played booming music as he led chants of “Merkel must go” and shouted for Germany to quit the EU and break with the United States.
Then he focused on the main enemy: the roughly 1 million migrants and refugees whom Merkel allowed to enter Germany last year. Integrating the genuine refugees (and sending back the rest) will indeed be a challenge.
From Bachmann’s rant you’d never know the numbers entering Germany have dropped dramatically this year and that city officials and nongovernmental organizations are doing a good job of housing and helping around 5,000 who remain in the Dresden.
“There is an assault on our borders,” Bachmann declared. The machinery workers who spoke with me (none would give their names) said fear of migrants was the main reason they were in attendance. “We don’t know what the refugees will do,” he said. “Maybe there will be no more Germans, only migrants.
“We will lose what is good in Germany. The European Union wants us all to be seen as one.”
The size of Pegida’s parade has dwindled since its high point in early 2015 as Syrian refugees and others were flooding into Germany. Dresden no longer permits the gathering to take place in front of the iconic Semperoper opera house because it harmed the city’s tourist image. (The opera house had mounted an LED screen in front that proclaimed, “We’re not a backdrop for intolerance.”)
Yet the fears of these demonstrators reflect similar emotions that I heard from voters in Britain — and have heard from Trump supporters in the United States. These same worries are being whipped up by populists in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.
In Germany, the AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) party is trying to capitalize on these fears at the ballot box. The party has won seats in eight out of 16 state legislatures and is expected to win seats in the Bundestag in the next federal elections in 2017.
“You have a certain feeling in the population that something is going on and they have no control over their lives any more, so people become more nationalistic,” says Georg Pazderski, the leader of Berlin’s AfD chapter, who will probably be elected to that city’s legislature in September.
“The people don’t feel comfortable in an open world,” he told me in his modern Berlin office. “We say we are the people’s party. You have people from the right and the left who have joined us. We also have protest voters who don’t feel comfortable with other parties.”
Pazderski is an interesting case, a nationalist conservative and former career German army officer who worked for several years at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. He says he regrets Brexit and seeks EU reforms, which are certainly needed.
However, the AfD envisions a “Europe of nations,” not a united Europe, which basically means the breakup of the EU. It appeals to those who dream of the past. (Among other things, the AfD also encourages women to stay home and raise kids.)
Indeed, as he notes, the AfD appeals to those “who fear for the future of the country and their kids.” Yet its average voter, Pazderski says, is 40, married, has a good income and a good job.
In other words, those who endorse AfD and Pegida — the fearful voters — are not losing jobs because of migration. Similarly, the depressed economic regions in England that voted heavily for Brexit did not lose jobs to migrants. (Their industry and coal mines were no longer profitable and shut down.) On the contrary, those struggling British regions often received heavy economic subsidies from the EU that they will now lose.
So here we come to the nub. The appeal of populism is based on emotions more than facts, on fear of the future because the world seems out of control. “Take back control” was the motto of Britain’s “leave” campaign.
But the populist and nationalist parties that are fanning those fears cannot roll back globalization. The “leave” campaign leaders are already walking back their promises to stop immigration and provide more money for the British health system.
The populist pledge to “take back control” is a sham in Britain and elsewhere. But what makes it so scary is that, politically, it works.