All quiet on the populist front? by Jan-Werner Mueller
Jan-Werner Mueller says liberals would be “naive” to be optimistic and believe “Trump’s disgraceful exit from the political arena will chastise authoritarian populists elsewhere.” It is important to note that nativism – the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants, and not populism – is the defining characteristic of both far-right parties in Western Europe and of the adoption by Trump of his “America First” agenda.
According to the author, âliberals often claim to appreciate the world in all its complexity, while populists are great simplifiers. But it was the liberals who pushed the very simplistic account of a global populist wave, as if there was no need to consider particular national contexts very carefully. Unlike the Socialist International – a global organization of political parties that seeks to establish democratic socialism across the world – there is no such thing as a âPopulist Internationalâ.
Despite the popular âclichÃ©â of a populist âwaveâ that has swept the world in recent years, the author believes that âthe rise and fall of populist leaders generally does not have significant transnational effects. Just as there is no honor among thieves, there was no solidarity between the so-called Populist International when it really mattered. Despite the British Brexit vote in June 2016 and Trump’s unexpected victory later that year, the âdomino theoryâ that populists longed for has not come true.
The two disruptive events of 2016 did not âtrigger victories for right-wing populists in Austria, the Netherlands and France. In fact, the opposite has happened. In Austria, Norbert Hofer, the presidential candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, lost after adopting Trumpist antics that made him appear non-presidential. In the Netherlands, far-right demagogue Geert Wilders was endorsed by Trump but ultimately underperformed.
According to the author, the defeat of Marine Le Pen to Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French presidential election “confirmed what had already become clear: Euro-Trumpism is perhaps not such an effective strategy. after all”. Although Trump has been âomnipresent, he has never been a typical populist. Right-wing populists in government tend to be more cautious when it comes to maintaining a facade of legality and avoiding direct association with street violence.
Unlike Trump, who instigated his supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan.6, the authoritarian populist leaders – India Narendra Modi and Hungarian Viktor Orban – learned from his mistakes and avoided them. Trump’s “sign of desperation” to retain power “does not necessarily herald the fate of populist (and radical right-wing) movements elsewhere. The only real point to remember is that other populist kleptocrats could also resort to violent street mobilisations if ever they are really cornered.
Populism is believed to be a misleading lens to see some of the major disruptions in liberal democracy that have sent shock waves across Europe and the United States over the past decade. Yet the author asserts that âwhat works in one political culture may not work in others. Much also depends on the decisions of actors who are not themselves populists: in the American case, Trump has benefited from the collaboration of established conservative elites and the Republican Party “in exchange for tax cuts and deregulation.
Elsewhere, âwith the possible exception of Italy, no right-wing populist party has come to power in Western Europe or North America without the conscious help of supposed center-right actors (including the most have never been held accountable for their role in integrating the far right). âIn the event thatâ the parties and styles of governance associated with right-wing populism end up being alike, âtheir ascent cannot not necessarily be attributed to the âsame root causes everywhereâ.
The danger is that “if cornered, any populist could resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploy right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it’s important to note that most Republicans still haven’t disowned Trump even when faced “with his blatant disregard for the Constitution.
Although Trump is not a typical populist, his blatant behavior had encouraged other right-wing populists to emulate him. The sad truth is that – given recent events in the United States – “the elites who are prepared to collaborate with the authoritarians will tolerate quite a bit in the end.”
It also encourages populists to be “smarter” than Trump, slowly undermining democracy “through legal and constitutional machinations. But right-wing populist kleptocracies based on a fusion of big business and bigotry … too much to lose and do everything possible to defend their interests, to the detriment of their country.