TEN and a half million votes and over one third of the total cast: that was the support for the candidate of the far right, Marine le Pen of Front National, in the second round of the French presidential election. One in three of registered French voters who turned out (and one third did not) identified with a party directly descended from Nazi collaborators who connived with four years of servitude in World War II. There has long been a strong neo-fascist component to French politics, but this is hard to credit.

It is part of a general trend in the Western world towards right wing nationalist populism. Trump in the United States, Brexit and the depressingly inevitable forthcoming Conservative landslide in Britain, and right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary all reflect a trend that has gained a hold on electorates. France and the Netherlands have not followed suit, nor will Germany, but all are vulnerable a few years down the line. Populist nationalism is now deeply embedded in mainstream politics, unimaginable at the turn of this century.

The chance that the financial meltdown of 2007–8 would avoid extreme political consequences was always slight. But in fact nothing much materialised in the major economies when logic anticipated a left-wing backlash against globalisation, the cavalier behaviour of the banks and the grossly disproportionate reward system of their top officials. Only in Greece, which had its particular problems with the Euro, was this evident. Elsewhere, the Occupy movement staged worthy but largely ineffectual protests against global capital and the growing suppression of worker interests.

But in the last few years an alliance of seemingly disparate groups has found common cause in right wing populism and its target is neither globalisation nor unregulated capitalism (indeed, many of the far right’s supporters are unrepentant capitalists), but the so-called Establishment. This is a useful catch-all for a range of target institutions. First are politicians from established parties, some of whom have been caught in acts of corruption, although arguably no more heinous than those widely prevalent in the world of business. Second, are experts – in other words people who argue in measured, reasoned tones on the basis of carefully acquired knowledge and reject the sloganeering and prejudice that now constitute much that masquerades as public debate. Third, and closely related, are professionals such as judges who often have to make unpopular decisions for the greater good. And, fourth, is a favourite target – most of the media, print and electronic.

None of these institutions is flawless; all require on-going reform. But they are the bedrock of liberal, democratic societies that are now under sustained assault from right wing populism. The use of the term Establishment is an act of deceit designed to cast an illusion of organised obstructionism of the ‘will of the people’. What is under attack is the judiciary, parliamentary democracy, the universities, the rule of law, all of which support and underpin the hard-won civic and human rights that make the world a more civilised place.

There is a strong temptation to look back to the 1930s, the last time Europe was afflicted by such extremism, to draw comparisons. The similarities are few, but the exercise is not without value. Inter-war fascism was fuelled by the punitive settlement imposed on Germans who felt they had been betrayed, not defeated; the Great Depression that had no cushion in modern social security systems; anti-Semitism; anti-Communism; and a quasi-religious veneration for pre-modern nationalist roots in the very soil of the nation. In different measures these drove fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Romania with active parties in many other European countries. In most, fascists were keen to make themselves highly visible, strutting around in menacing uniforms, singing martial songs and indulging in violence where and when they could.

Today this thuggery is largely invisible except at rallies of the blatantly extreme. Apart from economic stagnation, which has different origins from that of the 1930s, and anti-Semitism, the foundations of the far right of the twenty-first century are very different. And here the comparison is useful because modern fascism is far more subtle, insidious and indeed respectable than its forebears. The source of the anger that fuels it seems to be a sense of neglect, marginalisation and victimisation. Its supporters have of course been affected by the austerity of the last ten years, but by world standards they are well off. One of the factors provoking estrangement may be entitlement and materialism, an assumption that life for each successive generation will necessarily improve. Another factor may be generalised as the narcissism of the modern age in which the greater good is subordinated to individual well-being.

So, in many countries of the Western world there is an army of the bitter and disaffected that is a profitable recruiting ground for the shadowy figures of the alt-Right that lurk behind the personas of Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, May (the British Conservative Party is now hard right, has betrayed its one nation heritage and should rename itself) and Farage.

Ten years ago trendy opinion held that social media was the future of democracy and the Arab Spring was presented as evidence. The spring turned to bitter winter in most Arab countries and social media, far from the tool of democracy is now fertile ground for racists, demented trolls – and the populist right. A superficially obscure, but highly significant, data mining outfit portentously named Cambridge Analytica may have influenced the Brexit referendum via a technique known as micro-targeting that identifies voters with particular characteristics and bombards them with online propaganda and fake news.[1] This technique is based on military psychological operations and seems to have come as a shock and surprise to British investigative journalists. South Africans recognise it only too well: this is the winning hearts and minds (WHAM) strategy of the National Party government targeted at the townships in the 1980s. In those days it was a matter of pamphlets, megaphones, strategically spent funds and vigilante action aimed at the anti-apartheid opposition. Now it is empowered by highly sophisticated informatics.

The agenda is one of turning back the clock on women’s and children’s rights; promoting xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; rejection of multi-culturalism; and the imposition of extremely conservative values. From jackboots to Facebook: it seems a leap too far to believe, but the agenda is consistent – a sustained assault on much that the supporters of modern liberal democracy recognise as the characteristics of civilisation.

[1] See the Guardian and Observer for details.