Trump’s defeat hits populism but doesn’t topple it

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Governments and parties in Europe and Latin America, which welcome the departure of their great reference with frustration, continue to enjoy a considerable level of popularity

Donald Trump’s departure from the White House has left populist movements without their most visible head in world power. A handful of leaders and governments were enthusiastic about the re-election of the US president, with Hungary, Poland and Brazil as the most prominent countries. It did not go as expected. But their defeat is far from being the end of electoral trends that in recent years have placed the far-right parties in command of several executives or at the head of the opposition.

Trump’s victory in 2016 was a gift for leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The president of the most powerful country in the world joined a club with diffuse contours made up of national-popular leaders. “It complicates their lives a bit because they lose their idol,” says Brazilian analyst Oliver Stuenkel but immediately adds: “It is obvious that they are going to analyze the mistakes that Trump made and that they will do whatever it takes to avoid them. Trump did not have the discipline to stay in power. With a little more discipline, tenacity, pragmatism, he could have won the elections ”.

In Europe, in particular, both the formations born before the victory of the US president in 2016 and those that have grown behind his mandate continue to enjoy an important share of popularity, as is the case of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And although the drama of the covid-19 has placed its identity and xenophobic proclamations in the background, analysts warn that the tremendous economic and social hangover that the pandemic will leave can revitalize the electoral pull of parties such as the National Regrouping in France, the League in Italy, Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Vox in Spain.

The victory of a politician with the profile of Trump four years ago had more impact among populisms than the defeat now of the Republican. Pawel Zerka, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), believes that the momentum of 2016 will survive the withdrawal of the current tenant from the White House “because Trump has shown that there are no taboos and that makes Europe’s populists more eligible or from any other part of the world ”.

The populist hydra, moreover, now has many more heads, both visible and buried. And their influence is no longer limited to the extremes of the political arc but is also at the heart of traditional formations on the right and left. Both the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists (S&D) and the Liberals (Renew) host groups and leaders clearly identified with the world populist current that between 2016 and 2018 took power in the US, Brazil or the Philippines. it was left on the doorstep in the Netherlands or Italy and managed to leave the United Kingdom out of the EU.

“They have taken a heavy blow with Trump’s defeat but Trumpism and populism are still alive,” agrees Shada Islam, analyst and founder of New Horizons Project, a Brussels-based strategic services and consulting firm. Islam believes that traditional parties would make a mistake if they declared populist electoral bids defeated. And it recommends that the presence of Joe Biden in the White House be taken advantage of “to establish a progressive transatlantic current that counteracts the international agreement that populism has organized during Trump’s term.”

Populist pressure on the Old Continent reached its peak between 2016 and 2019: Brexit was imposed in the UK referendum, the extreme right of Marine Le Pen seemed at the gates of the Elysee in France and that of Geert Wilders was seen with the possibility of taking over the government in the Netherlands. The leader of the Italian extreme right, Matteo Salvini, achieved the vice-presidency of the Government of his country. In addition, Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, now disgraced by his problems with the law, landed in Europe with the intention of encouraging a populist wave that would sweep in the European Parliament elections.

But the most catastrophic predictions did not come true. Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France marked a turning point in the advancement of the populists, who also failed to become a key force in the European chamber. Bannon went on retreat. And Salvini fell from the government due to an electoral miscalculation. Trump’s reelection would have spelled the end of the sequence of mishaps. But the tide of Democratic votes has impeded his second term despite the good result obtained by the outgoing president.

“One of the positive consequences of populism is that it provokes a great mobilization on the part of the rest of the electorate,” says Zerka. And remember that the large turnout in the US also occurred in the July presidential elections in Poland, where the nationalist populism led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski continues to win the elections but is increasingly met with more popular resistance.

Central and Eastern Europe has become one of the main granaries of populist voting within the EU. And the only one where the leaders closest to Trump are in power, either in an entrenched way, like Orbán in Hungary, or in an unstable way, like Janez Jansa in Slovenia. Both Orbán and Jansa belong to the PPE. But his political strategies are much more akin to Trump’s populism than to the traditional conservatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Without a doubt, Biden’s victory will complicate the future political attitude of leaders like Orbán or Jansa,” predicts Boris Vezjak, a philosopher and professor at the University of Maribor, in Slovenia. Vezjak believes that Hungary and Slovenia and other central European countries will find it more difficult to continue with policies that, in the opinion of this philosopher, “advocate new forms of authoritarianism and so-called illiberal democracy, with individual freedom limited and subordinate to a national culture and tradition ”.

The European populists will lose, from the outset, the encouragement that the Trump Administration gave them through its ambassadors and envoys in the Old Continent. “Trump’s ambassadors were dedicated to propagating populism, insulting the EU and trying to erode the democratic system in general,” Islam accuses. Perhaps the most belligerent of all diplomats from Washington was Richard Grenell, strategically stationed in Berlin and a special envoy in the Balkans to mediate between Serbia and Kosovo. Grenell came to be described in Germany as “a biased propaganda machine.” As soon as he arrived in Berlin and in the midst of the rise of the far-right AfD, Grenell assured that part of his task as a diplomat was “to empower other conservative forces in Europe”, alluding to the replacement of traditional parties like Merkel’s.

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