International affairs columnist and author Gwynne Dyer readily acknowledges that populist demagogues pose a serious threat to western democracies.
But in an interview with the Georgia Straight, the veteran Canadian historian maintained there's a distinct difference between European populism and that espoused by U.S. president Donald Trump.
"Trump really has two major grievances he claims to solve," Dyer said in advance of his appearance at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's on Wednesday (March 22).
The first is immigration.
According to Dyer, this manifests itself in Trump's pandering to white Americans' fears that within a decade, they will no longer be an absolute majority in their country.
Dyer said that Trump's second sales pitch has been to solve unemployment, particularly for working class whites in America.
In responding to the threat of populism in America, Dyer said it's important to understand what motivated those to vote for Trump's brand of populism.
"Were they concerned about jobs or were the worried about race—ethnicity—including Muslims?" he asked.
European populists zero in on immigration
Dyer said that in Europe, the answer to this question is fairly straightforward.
Populists like Dutch politician Geert Wilders, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and advocates for Brexit focus far more attention on race and immigration than they ever do on unemployment.
Wilders, in particular, "didn't even mention unemployment" in the recent Dutch election, according to Dyer.
"The gap between the announced unemployment levels, which tend to run around 10 percent in places like France, and the real unemployment level isn't that huge—economically inactive people of working age may be 15 percent in France," Dyer said. "There is not a vast unemployment level."
Moreover, he said that countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands have good social-welfare systems.
While people in these countries still resent being unemployed, Dyer said that European populists focus far more attention on fears and dislike of foreigners—and what feels to them like a sudden surge in immigration. And these politicians pay particular attention to Muslim immigration.
"After all, in the areas within 1,000 miles of the European Union's borders, the bulk of the population in the south and east is Muslim," Dyer noted. "So where do you expect the immigrants to come from?"
Dyer has lived in the United Kingdom for many years. He recalled that Brexit advocates switched their emphasis to immigration because their initial appeals around unemployment fell on deaf ears.
"Noticeably, the people who actually live in the high immigration areas all voted to stay in the European Union," he said. "The cities with low immigration and little contact with foreigners—and the rural areas even more—voted Brexit because they were terrified of the foreigners, but they had never met any."
Trump talks about jobs
Dyer made the case that the situation is different in America, where people are more accustomed to immigration. He acknowledged that in areas lacking in immigration, many people are "panicked about race".
But he declared that this isn't their top-of-mind issue.
"It seems to me that in the United States, there is a greater concern about the decline of good jobs for working class people, in particular, than there has been in any of the European cases," Dyer stated. "They really have lost a lot in the States. The offshoring has been much more vigorous and unheeding of the damage done to employment at home. American industrialists exported lots of jobs."
He pointed out that other U.S. jobs are being lost to automation at a far greater rate than is taking place in Europe.
These job losses have left areas in several cities completely devastated.
And this is why Trump's message differs somewhat from the election rhetoric of his populist European counterparts.
According to Dyer, Trump never fails to link the issue of employment to his racist comments about immigration.
"Where did the votes that finally pushed him over top come from?" Dyer said. "The answer is they came from former Democratic voters who flipped in that election last November in the Rust Belt states—Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin, and so on. He wouldn't be president without them."
And he suggested that any effort to counter Trump must recognize and address this central grievance—unemployment in the working class—that drove so many voters to support him.