Trump and the Myth of Chaos in Europe

The United States government has long defined itself as a bastion of freedom, contrasting American stability with the ”chaos” of the Middle East and Africa. But Trump’s administration has distinguished itself from previous administrations by contrasting its vision of America with a warped idea of the current situation in Europe. At a rally in Florida on March 18th, President Trump repeated a claim made frequently during his election campaign: To keep America safe, borders need to be re-enforced and certain people kept out. In justifying this policy Trump has repeatedly drawn parallels between the United States and the ”crisis” across the Atlantic. Europe forms an example of what happens when borders are opened. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” Trump stated.

This was not the first time Trump has stirred up supporters with the ominous spectre of Europe. On January 29, President Trump re-enforced his commitment to the executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority states, tweeting that “our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting. NOW.” In justifying the policy Trump continued by saying: “Look at what is happening all over Europe.”

Trump’s idea of Europe does not match with what is happening on the ground. Nothing nefarious happened in Sweden on February 19th. Government statistics do indicate that immigrants in Sweden are more likely to commit crimes, but this is not the case across Europe. In Germany, where over a million refugees were welcomed in 2015, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than German-born citizens. In America, study after study has demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to become criminals than the native-born population.

In the wake of attacks in France and Belgium, many have stoked fears that the wave of migration will usher in a wave of terror. Many studies have challenged this link. An October 2016 UN report found “little evidence” that terrorist groups use refugee flows to send attackers. “While there is no evidence that migration leads to increased terrorist activity,” the report concluded, “migration policies that are restrictive or that violate human rights may in fact create conditions conducive to terrorism.”


Economies in Europe are not lagging behind the United States. In fact, the macroeconomic indicators remain similar. Where economic growth was 1.9 percent in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2016, the average in the EU was 1.8 percent. The average in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – the group of 35 leading economies – was 1.7 percent. Despite taking in a million migrants, Germany’s unemployment rate sunk to a record low of 6 percent in 2016. Sweden has an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent. The average in the OECD was 6 percent, with the United States matching Sweden’s figure of 4.7 percent. Report after report has found that fears that immigrants will take jobs away from local citizens are overblown. Such fears are built on the flawed assumption that there are a fixed number of jobs in the labor market. In reality, increasing immigration can help create new employment opportunities. Immigration often benefits the economy, especially in the long run.


Photo Credit: Michael Gaida, Pixabay.

But the truth of these claims is in many ways immaterial so long as millions of Americans, and Europeans, believe Trump.  Using Europe as a justification for “extreme vetting” is not just about security, it is about American identity too. Twenty-five years ago political scientist David Campbell wrote in his book, Writing Security, that foreign policy and national identity are interlinked; how a country identifies its enemies tells us about its own self-identity. Campbell showed how the United States portrayed itself as protector of freedom and democracy, contrasting itself with the Soviet Union. More recently, Islamic terrorism has become the enemy against which the United States has defined itself. As President George W. Bush stated numerous times, the War on Terror was a “conflict between good and evil.”

With Trump’s presidency, Europe has become a political model that America needs to avoid emulating. Trump’s portrayal of Europe as a crime-ridden place overrun by migrants supports his own vision of America. For Trump, Europe forms an example of what happens when left-wing liberal governments impose their values on society. Unlike Europe, in Trump’s vision America should be closed to most outsiders, with protectionist policies putting “America first.”

Trump’s recent statements reflect a broader set of xenophobic tropes about the dangers of migration that circulate in Europe as well. Trump’s victory and the Brexit upset in Britain have emboldened right-wing populist parties. Tabloid news agencies continue to link migrants to crime and terrorism. And it is working. A recent poll by Chatham House found that 55% of those surveyed in ten European countries supported banning further immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

The myth of a Europe in turmoil having been overrun by non-white, Muslim migrants helped sweep Trump into power and contributed to Britain voting to leave the EU. With elections scheduled in the coming months in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, this myth will continue to strengthen the populist right in years to come.


About the Author /

Dr. Edward Lemon is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University. His research focuses on security, migration and Islam in Central Asia.


  • Claude Forthomme

    March 10, 2017

    I totally agree with this analysis and the prospects it delineates are dire, to say the least. I keep hoping that Europeans will “see through” the Trumpian myth. It is a fact that populists in Europe are great fans of Trump. Geert Wilders describes himself as the “Dutch Trump”. Marine Le Pen sees Trump as her hero. After Brexit, Trump’s victory couldn’t have been more welcome, populists across Europe are convinced their time has come.

    I just hope that the coming elections will turn out the way the presidential elections in Austria did last December, with the younger, dynamic-looking populist unexpectedly losing to the social-environmentalist, an older man, perhaps not very exciting, but with unassailable ethics (something sorely lacking in all populists).

    But then, he lost by a very small margin so, yes, indeed, these are dangerous times and it is difficult to predict the outcome of all these elections.

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