Why populism in Europe will survive Trump’s defeat

There are three reasons European populists may still thrive in the post-Trump era

Image by Gage Skidmore

Joe Biden’s presidential election win is powerfully symbolic – in many ways. It shows the resilience of democracy and the rule of law, which together allow people to get rid of incompetent leaders who do not want to leave (compare and contrast Belarus where people do not have that comfort). It shows that conspiracy theories, xenophobia, nation-first approaches, and disrespect for established norms can boost one’s chances to win once – but may then backfire as new voters mobilise against this type of politics. It also shows that a real crisis – such as the pandemic – will sooner or later test to destruction the leadership skills of purported saviours. In such moments, playing a strong Twitter game is not enough – and distrusting science or spending one’s time lambasting ‘deep state’ could even be a hindrance to effective crisis management.

These are useful warnings for those politicians in the democratic world who may still be tempted to copy Trumpian methods to reach their electoral goals. The US 2020 election also matters to them because it deprives them of either an ally or, at least, a useful reference point on the global political map; one that, more than anyone else, has contributed to the shifting of the range of what is or is not acceptable in the public discourse. Trump’s legacy in this area may well outlive his presidency – and he will likely continue to make trouble wherever he is. But he should at least pose less harm now that he is no longer on the winning side.

Other than that, the result of the American election is not necessarily detrimental to the political prospects of populist parties and leaders across the European Union. There are three main reasons for this.

Firstly, their popularity always has localised roots and varies from one EU member state to another. Some parties – like Italy’s League, or France’s Rassemblement National – stand out in their aversion to migrants from the EU’s southern neighbourhood. Others – especially in the north of the EU – are anti-migrant too, but they are also reluctant to share their money with other member states, advocating the return of competences from the European to the national level (even if they do not necessarily want to follow in the United Kingdom’s footsteps).

For populists in Europe, Trump has been a ‘nice to have’, but is surely not a must.

Yet others – especially in the east – position themselves as defenders of traditional values against the rot of the West; this often implies levels of misogyny and intolerance towards sexual minorities that would be unacceptable to their west European peers. There are also those – like Vox in Spain – whose nationalism is directed not so much against Europe but rather against the country’s own regionalisms (although they are certainly anti-migrant too). Finally, there are very different constellations in which Europe’s populist parties flirt with either the anti-vaccine movement, or the Catholic church, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

This heterogeneity of political drivers, and their local adaptation, makes Europe’s populists largely immune to Trump’s electoral defeat. He has been, for them, a ‘nice to have’, but is surely not a must.

Secondly – Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia aside – in most EU countries populists have not been in government during the covid-19 crisis; usually, they have never been in power at all. Many will have hoped that the epidemic would prove a windfall for them. But for the moment this has not materialised. Ruling parties – from the Christian Democrats in Germany and the Liberals in the Netherlands, to the Social Democrats in Denmark and Finland – have usually risen in the polls. This happened either because people valued their competent crisis management or appreciated the large sums of money they injected into the economy to avoid layoffs and bankruptcies. Or voters have simply concluded that this is not the right moment to experiment with populism.

However, while populists have not yet benefited from covid-19, their popularity has not necessarily suffered either. In France, Marine Le Pen polls at a stable 25 per cent, level with the president, Emmanuel Macron. Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party has risen from 15 per cent in June to almost 25 per cent today, with the Dutch general election scheduled for March next year. The Finns Party and Sweden Democrats are also able to rely on a steady 20 per cent support, Vox regularly polls at 15 per cent, and the decline of Alternative for Germany has levelled off at a base of 10 per cent. As the second wave of covid-19 has only started recently, and there is plenty of room for new social discontent due to very gloomy economic prospects for next year, Europe’s populists may still hope to reap political benefits from the pandemic.

Poland’s Law and Justice party is a special case. It has been in power during the crisis, but has governed incompetently. Its candidate for this year’s presidential election, Andrzej Duda, hung on in July but came close to losing. The party’s popularity is falling. With Trump out, Law and Justice will no longer be able to present itself domestically as a cordial ally to the greatest leader of all. To be sure, Joe Biden will not question the strategic importance of cooperating with Poland within NATO. But he is expected to support the international pressure on the Polish government to step back from its assault on judicial independence, private media, women’s rights, and LGBT people. And still, if Law and Justice loses power in the next few years, it will be because of the party’s own mistakes – and not so much because Trump’s defeat represents a ‘winds of change’ moment.

And this leads to the third and final reason why the outcome of the presidential race is no fatal blow to populism in Europe. Trump’s questioning of the election results – and the ongoing clash of two Americas – may even allow some populists to claim that fighting against the liberal elites is now more important than ever. To mobilise voters, they could present themselves as a part of a global fight with the technocratic forces that are capable of stealing election from the people everywhere, in their countries and the US alike. In many cases, such a conspiracy theory will probably not become a crucial element of their platform (and it remains to be seen whether Trump and his supporters will go all out on it). But they may try to weaponise it nonetheless for electoral goals.

In light of this, however, the very fact that Trump once won is still more important for European populists – making them more electable or giving them hope that one day they, too, could win – than the fact that he eventually lost. It will be giving them hope for years to come.         

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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