From A Sidewalk In Madrid: Fear Is The Right Wing's Best Friend

In Europe and America, democracy is under siege from worries about ISIS and refugees. Spain’s history shows reason for hope.
A march in Madrid on the 40th anniversary of Francisco Francos'™ death.
A march in Madrid on the 40th anniversary of Francisco Francos'™ death.

MADRID -- Spain was ruled by a fascist dictator for 35 years until 1975. The last thing Spaniards want is another one -- here or elsewhere.

The media “celebrated” the 40th anniversary of Francisco Francos’ death on Friday, as editors of The Huffington Post’s 15 international editions arrived for meetings at the offices of El Pais.

The point of El Huffington Post’s excellent Franco package was clear: Kids, you don’t know who this guy is, but take it from us, never again.

So in Spain, and everywhere else in Europe where fascism once ruled -- which was pretty much everywhere -- there is curiosity and amusement, but also a tinge of angst about an egotistical, billionaire American real estate developer and television star by the name of Donald Trump.

Should he be taken seriously? Could he win the presidency? Is he buffoon or caudillo -- harmless clown or ruthless chieftain?

My answer, of course, is that he is both: an only-in-America combination of TV jambon and scary demagogue.

Interest in Trump here is not academic. Spaniards care about his anti-immigrant, racist, strongman rhetoric for a reason.  If he can rise in the U.S., with its supposedly durable democratic institutions, maybe someone like him can arise here.

The flood of refugees from Syria, and the ISIS attacks in Paris and threats elsewhere, have grave potential to create a new wave of hard-right governments -- not just within the borders of the European Union, as well as the U.S.

Those with a sense of history are worried they have seen this newsreel before.

The more apocalyptic analysts see and hear echoes of the 1930s, when Hitler arose from a witch’s brew of economic depression, Germany's resentful sense of humiliation after World War I, Soviet Communist militancy, anti-Semitism and weak, “progressive” European governments.

The more realistic yet still troubling concern is that the ideal of Europe -- a unified, confident group of nations acting as a humanitarian beacon for the world -- is in danger.

Germans and Greeks, already at odds over loans from the former to the latter, now are struggling with the issue of border controls, or lack of them, since Greece is one of the most porous entry points on the outer edge of the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, lionized by admiring outsiders (in America) as a heroic champion of welcoming, decent values, is less popular here, and isn't trusted as much.There is a growing sense that the ideal of a borderless, one-country interior of the continent may not survive, as each nation faces pressure to re-impose old frontier controls.

Some worry that governments -- as embarrassed and perhaps shocked at they were by WikiLeaks revelations -- may follow France’s lead in seeking to impose vast new surveillance and investigative tools.

In France, that requires a change in the constitution. But there and elsewhere, constitutions don’t have the stone-tablet Mosaic sanctity and permanence that they do in the U.S. (We get around that problem with a ragingly political Supreme Court.)

Conservative and hard-right parties are emboldened, and may do better than expected -- perhaps starting next month in national elections to be held in Spain.

Merkel’s own poll numbers are more dismal than ever; and she is not just the chancellor of Germany but, in effect, the leader of Europe.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is making a show of beefing up the military. Since his country does not have the money to build much -- he recently was reduced to essentially begging the Chinese to increase investment -- the Conservative PM’s real aim was to look Churchillian.

The aim in the UK is to join France, the U.S, Russia and others in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq from the air. The result will be death on the ground and more recruitment footage for Daesh.

So the overall mood is one of rising fear, xenophobia and talk of military action.

But there is as yet no panic and, as HuffPost editors saw it, no need for it.



Madrid, in its life and history, offers two reasons why. People want to live their lives. And they have shown that they can survive events far more dire that what we face now.

Europeans in general and Madrillenos in particular remain determined to enjoy the streets and cafes of their cities. And Madrid today is a lovely place to do it: a spacious well-tended city where a new generation of foodies is at work and where the clubs empty only at sunrise.  The national unemployment rate remains 20 percent, but the fear of total collapse of a few years ago is gone, and the main Spanish stocks are trading at 52-week highs.

Spain (and all Europe for that matter) has a history so full of strife that it prompts two conflicting emotions: a stoic, you-can’t-scare-me sense of history, and a salving,  cultural amnesia.

Beginning in the eighth century, Christianity and Islam fought here on an epic scale that makes the notion of a modern “clash of civilizations” seem tame, sophomoric or both. Everyone knows that history, but everyone participates in the act of forgetting it.

A manicured park between the royal palace and the opera is framed by rows of statues of kings. On one side are the early Christians; on the other are the later Christians. Nowhere to be seen are the invading, conquering Muslims who presided, after and before the others, for seven centuries.

Nor do they note that the Plaza del Sol in the center of town was once best known as the dramatic staging area for the Inquisition, which condemned Jews, Muslims and other “non-believers” to death or torture for their faith.

Nor is there much talk of Franco, whose murderous Nationalists won a civil war with the aid of the Nazis and ruled Spain -- and kept it from Europe’s mainstream -- for decades.

On Madrid streets Friday night, a parade formed to protest Franco’s memory. I spoke with demonstrators, who said that they worried the Spanish government would veer much farther to the right if it wins new power next month.

It wasn’t much of a crowd -- perhaps 300 -- and quickly was swallowed up in the throngs in the Plaza del Sol.

“We are protesting the new fascism here,” one of the marchers told me. “The big corporations and government are the same.”

I asked if he had heard of Donald Trump.  Yes, he said. “He’s the rich one with the hair who hates everybody.

“I hope he stays over there.”


Also on HuffPost:

The World As Seen By Donald Trump