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Trump: Not the ideal poster-boy for European populists

A Trump association risks squandering hard-earned respectability.

Trump: Not the ideal poster-boy for European populists

Sometimes luck can be so timed as to give an impression of genius. So it seemed with Angela Merkel’s announcement last week that she would stand as the German Christian Democrat Chancellor candidate for a fourth time in 2017.  The announcement itself was no surprise: Merkel’s apparent equivocation over her candidacy pivoted simply on the internal machinations of her conservative alliance, while the timing was conditioned by her party’s national conference in early December. And yet, in a global context, her candidacy seemed heralded by the election of Donald Trump and the emboldened right-wing populists of Europe. The last defender of the liberal world had issued her clarion call.

One figure who greeted the announcement with enthusiasm was Frauke Petry, federal spokeswoman of the Alternative für Deutschland party. For Petry, as for the leaders of other right-wing populist parties in Europe, Merkel personifies the old guard of the self-interested liberal, globalist elite, to whose hubris and self-interestedness is attributed the decline of western civilization itself. Energised by Trump’s election, Petry and her ilk perceive themselves in the ascendency, promising what France’s Marine Le Pen calls a 'global revolution'. But the political earthquake across the Atlantic has also exposed some of the fundamental divisions and anxieties running through these parties.

Trump's win

Trump’s win was greeted throughout European halls of power by gritted teeth. Amidst the hollow formalities, the European Union forewarned of the risks of isolationism. Martin Schulz, President of the EU Parliament, called it a 'very difficult moment'. French President Francois Hollande, who once stated that Trump makes one 'want to retch', received the victory with caution. ‘Some positions taken by Donald Trump during the US campaign contradict values and interests we share with the United States’, he said, and called for a united Europe in the face of a ‘period of uncertainty’ ahead. Figures who had spoken out against Trump during the campaign, such as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Norwegian counterpart Børge Brende, have not walked away from their comments.

Predictably enough, populist leaders gushed. For Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, the election signalled the advent of a ‘patriotic spring’ sweeping through the west. Florian Philpott of France’s National Front tweeted that ‘Their world is collapsing, but ours is being built’. Hungary’s strongman leader Viktor Orban proclaimed the win as proof that ‘democracy is still alive’.


The proliferation and accomplishments of these figures and their parties throughout Europe has been amply documented. They are in power in Poland and Hungary, share in governing coalitions in Finland and Norway, and in 2017 threaten the Netherlands, France, and possibly Italy. Many commentators have been quick to tie them to phenomena like Trump and Brexit. By this account Trump, like Brexit, Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin, is but one manifestation of the same fundamental anti-liberal, anti-global, anti-elitist and even authoritarian surge to destroy the West’s brittle and decadent democratic institutions. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has designated them collectively a 'chauvinistic and authoritarian Internationale'. Any differences between them, then, are merely peripheral.

Yet populism and anti-establishment sentiments alone do not explain everything. Indeed, they might not explain very much. A common narrative of Brexit holds it as an irrational and emotional middle-finger to the establishment, galvanised by cynicism, misinformation, ignorance and racism. These aspects of the referendum are not insignificant, of course, but as a collective interpretation they neglect a basic truth: that millions of British voters, a majority of whom would never even dream of voting for UKIP, simply desired to leave the European Union. After all, the Conservatives - Britain’s party of the establishment – commanded an improbable majority in last year’s general election, and maintain an ever-greater lead in polls today.

If, instead of lumping the 'Euro populists' together with Brexit and Trump, we switch our vanishing point to their national and historical contexts, another picture emerges, one characterised by diverse grievances, diverse histories, diverse audiences, diverse enemies, as well as diverse attitudes to Putin, Nato, and the USA. In cases like UKIP and the AfD, common antipathies belie a division between neo-liberals and protectionists. Law and Justice, Poland’s ruling party, is fiercely conservative and nationalist but, in contrast to Viktor Orban’s Fidez in Hungary, also sternly anti-Russian. It strongly supports a Nato presence in Poland and, by extension, close relations with the US. In some respects, like attitudes to Russia, some of these movements have more in common with those of the left than other members of the 'Internationale'. Some rely on a central charismatic figure; others have a strong institutional base. Some are more opportunist and incendiary; some have comparatively sophisticated policy platforms. Some claim a civilizational responsibility to defend ‘the West’ from Islamist peril; others tend towards the unapologetically nationalistic or even fascistic. Some are conservative; some are radical. Some are resolutely statist; others are libertarian. Most represent an uncomfortable constellation of all of the above, with their inherent contradictions papered over by the luxury of opposition.

Euro-Populism and Trump

Given these assorted interests and audiences, it is easy to see why Trump is far from an ideal poster-boy for the European populists. Ostentatious wealth, glamour, celebrity, outlandishness and untrammelled political aggression do not sit easily with the European style, while the President-elect’s coarseness and iconoclastic rage jar with the more subtle approach that many parties have recently sought to adopt. A Trump association thus risks squandering hard-earned respectability. For many of these parties, the path to electability has been considerably more tortuous than the ‘populist explosion’ narrative would have one believe. Germany’s AfD has consistently (and predictably) had to deal with numerous revelations of neo-Nazis in its midst. The Austrian Freedom Party – whose presidential candidate Norbert Hofer may well become the country’s President next month – has fought to extricate itself from the shadows of Jörg Haider, its former leader, stained by accusations of pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views. In France, Le Pen argues she has shed the Front National of its former oppositional character and transformed it into a 'party of government'. Much of this, of course, is propaganda, but in Europe there remains an existential peril in radicalism. To this end, casting off extremism and generating a sense of normalcy and predictability has been critical. All of these parties contain even more extremist wings which have hitherto been sidelined in the pursuit of electoral gains. By and large, the goal of their leadership is to provide a new oppositional voice within national parliaments. The path of extra-parliamentary agitation leads to extremism, unpredictability and an irreparable loss of legitimacy.

Trump’s policies and source of support are less a problem than his erratic, egocentric, aggressive and unpredictable style. As such, many of the European populist leaders have sought to distance themselves from him personally, while maintaining that his positions on certain issues are essentially correct. In an interview with Foreign Affairs (conducted before the US election) Le Pen was quick to bundle Bernie Sanders in with Trump when asked if she shared commonalities with the latter. While defending Trump’s statements about Putin, meanwhile, AfD European Parliamentarian Beatrix von Storch said that 'much of that which [the Present-elect] said during the campaign should be viewed critically'. The parliamentary leader of the Swedish Democrats – a party which too has often struggled with neo-Nazi elements – put it simply: 'Trump’s personality and character have not impressed me'.


We cannot ignore the impact of Trump’s election on European politics: an event of this magnitude will send shockwaves everywhere. On the other side of the fence, his election may help to supply the European left with a rallying point, though the degree to which it can unify upon it is questionable. The biggest impact will naturally be on the right, which now claims the political ascendency. But it may not provide the narrative we expect. Populist responses to Trump have been peppered with qualifications and caveats. For some, naturally, he is a hero of the anti-establishment values they espouse. For others, though, he is a demonic force within their movement, who threatens to debase, trivialise and delegitimise what they have fought to present as authentic concerns. Tethering their movement to his success or failure carries an incalculable risk.

So much for Trump the oppositional candidate. For those European parties that do aspire to govern within a democratic institutional framework, Trump the President will provide a telling example of what responsibility looks like. For better or worse, these parties will be measured against him. Two possible outcomes – catastrophic failure or post-election moderation – will demand a response. Should Trump moderate his approach, this will only embolden denunciations of a biased system. Should he fail as a populist President, however, a loss of electoral credibility beckons. Populism feeds off two fundamental ideas: the need for an enemy, and the perception that ‘the system’ is corrupt, dysfunctional and exclusionary. These factors supply populism with its revolutionary character. They place at its core a dynamism that threatens to push the movement beyond even its own goals. Donald Trump, too, stands to be sacrificed on the populist altar.

Photo: ARNO BURGI/AFP/Getty Images

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