Ideologues can parody themselves more effectively than any satirist. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, is sipping sparkling water in a hotel lounge and comparing himself to Mahatma Gandhi. The BNP aims to send nonwhite Britons "home." At private BNP rallies, Griffin, convicted in 1998 of incitement to racial hatred, warns adherents that Muslim men are plotting to defile underage British girls, peppering his invective with concocted statistics such as this one: "The average racist murderer in this country is 40 times more likely to be a member of an ethnic minority than the other way round." It's safe to say that a resemblance to India's icon of peaceable nationalism isn't immediately obvious. The link turns out to be distributism, a philosophy opposed to big government and big corporations alike and a formative influence for both men, according to Griffin. "[Distributism] took Gandhi in a very similar direction mutatis mutandis obviously," he says. "I'm not going to wear a loincloth, you'll be pleased to hear."
The floppy-haired 50-year-old looks every inch the country gent as TIME sets out to photograph him against the picture-pretty backdrop of Welshpool, a market town near his home in rural Wales. Hardscrabble neighborhoods are the BNP's core recruiting grounds, but Griffin also finds a hero's welcome in this green and pleasant land. "Good on you, mate!" bellows an admirer, craning dangerously from a top-floor window as an old man sprints over to glad-hand his idol and motorists honk their appreciation from passing cars.
Far-right parties are attracting applause in many corners of Europe these days. Almost a million British voters honked their horns for the BNP in June's European elections, giving the party its first two seats in the European Parliament and a corresponding boost to legitimacy and funding. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) elbowed aside centrist rivals to grab second place in the Netherlands' Euro poll. Around Europe a ragbag of extremist parties, as varied as the countries that produced them yet united by a vehement nationalism that singles out minority groups as a growing threat, scored in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia. Confronted with sliding economies and disappearing jobs, voters kicked the mainstream parties they held most responsible.
This wasn't a simple protest vote, even if bruised centrist politicians were quick to dismiss the results. Over the years, far-right fortunes have surged, only to ebb as the parties have shot themselves in the jackboot with internal feuds and rickety organization. Now outfits such as the BNP are learning from past mistakes: they're slicker, and combine old-fashioned grassroots activism with Internet campaign techniques borrowed from the Obama playbook. They're also well placed to exploit the disillusionment with traditional politics that has seen voter turnouts in European and national elections plummet, and membership of big parties dwindle. As the global economy limps along and Western nations struggle to balance the needs of longtime citizens and newer immigrants, nobody should doubt that the far right is well positioned to attract yet more followers.
For those who believe that this would be a catastrophe, the urgent question is how best to contain the surge. Deny far-right leaders the oxygen of publicity? Tricky they have a democratic mandate. Confront them? That risks casting them as martyrs, victims who tell unpalatable truths. Expose the racism that often underlies professions of patriotism? Well, yes, but that assumes voters choose far-right parties in ignorance of their views, rather than because they strike a chord. Steal their nationalist thunder by taking tough lines on issues such as immigration? This smacks of capitulation to the very ideas critics seek to defeat.
To help cut through this muddle, TIME looks at four parties the BNP, France's Front National (FN), Hungary's Jobbik and the PVV their sometimes clashing ideologies and policies, and the misjudgments of mainstream opponents that have helped boost their extremist appeal.
Last December, Wilders addressed a Jerusalem conference called Facing Jihad. "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present," he intoned. "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion." If these phrases seem familiar, that's because they're borrowed from Abraham Lincoln, who framed them as civil war raged in the U.S. a century and a half ago.
These days Wilders, 45, charismatic, shock-haired and articulate, warns of a different sort of conflict between Dutch Muslims and the rest of his country's citizens. Many of his arguments begin with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing "war on terror," which have helped create a toxic alchemy that has given a new focus to far-right politics in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
The Dutch, who pride themselves on their tolerance and inclusive attitudes, have been shocked to discover that many Muslims in the Netherlands feel dispossessed and discriminated against, and that some even empathize with jihadis. As in Britain, where English-born bombers have planned or carried out a series of attacks over the past few years, the sense of alienation in the Muslim community is reflected not just in the terrorists' rage but also in moderate Muslims' readiness to believe conspiracy theories that pin blame for 9/11 and other attacks on Western governments. Dutch citizens, in turn, have become more suspicious of Muslim neighbors, resentful that Dutch hospitality has seemingly counted for nothing.
It's tough to build bridges across such a chasm of mutual suspicion and much easier to exploit it. Wilders has long played on fears of the enemy within. Only 5% of the Dutch population around 850,000 people is Muslim. But Dutch Muslim communities are highly visible, being concentrated in urban areas, and their birthrates outstrip those of the wider community. "Islam wants to dominate every part of life and society," says Wilders. "It does not want to integrate or assimilate."