Trump’s win may be just the beginning of a global populist wave

The biggest prize yet for a movement built on grievance could be a catalyst for more triumphs

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The Independent US

Not long before Americans shocked the world by selecting Donald Trump to be their next president, a wealthy Brazilian businessman who played a reality-star boss on television became mayor of South America’s largest city. 

On the other side of the globe, in Southeast Asia, a gun-slinging vigilante who vowed to kill all criminals and dump their bodies until the “fish will grow fat” was elected to lead a nation of 100 million.

And in Britain, voters with a centuries-long streak of moderation and pragmatism opted to ignore the overwhelming advice of experts by leaping into the abyss of life outside the European Union.

The populist wave of 2016 that carried Trump to the pinnacle of international power and influence didn’t start in the United States. And it certainly won’t end there. 

Instead, the biggest prize yet for a global movement built on a seemingly bottomless reserve of political, economic and cultural grievance is likely to be an accelerant to even more victories for people and causes bent on upending the existing world order. 

“Success breeds success,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Right now, everyone is susceptible to it. The drivers seem to be universal.” 

And unless something dramatic changes to curb the populist appeal, a scattering of surprise victories this year could soon turn into a worldwide rout - the triumph of those who preach strong action over rule of law, unilateralism instead of cooperation and the interests of the majority above the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

“Their world is collapsing,” tweeted a jubilant Florian Philippot, senior adviser to French far-right leader Marine le Pen, following Trump’s victory. “Ours is being built.”

With French presidential elections due next spring, Le Pen is well placed to add Paris to the list of world capitals that have fallen to the populist tide. She is seen as a lock to make it to the final round of voting, and although her chances have long been discounted among political prognosticators in France, that changed after Trump’s victory.

Well before France votes, Austria could become the first country to elect a far-right head of state in Western Europe since 1945 when it picks a president next month. On the same day, December 4, Italians will vote in a constitutional referendum that could bring down the centre-left government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - while boosting the fortunes of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

More shocks looming

Although the exact causes of the populist surge vary from country to country, the broad outlines are similar across national boundaries. 

Anxiety over economic gains that accrue to the few and leave the rest stagnant or sinking. Unease with the cultural implications of an increasingly interconnected world. And alienation from a self-serving political class that aligns with the wealthy at the expense of the working class.

That the populist leaders are often wealthy sons of privilege who bear little relation to the masses they claim to speak for doesn’t matter.

“People feel they need a powerful champion to blow the establishment to smithereens,” Leonard said. “Whether the leaders are the same as the people they represent matters less than the fact that they have the intent to disrupt.” 

That was certainly the case with Trump, an Ivy League-educated billionaire urbanite who won biggest in rural areas and among less-educated voters.

It was true, as well, when Britain voted in June to get out of the EU. The voters who backed that cause were predominantly from England’s small towns and struggling, postindustrial cities - well outside the booming, cosmopolitan metropolis of London. Voters who wanted to jettison the Brussels bureaucracy ranked immigration atop their list of concerns and tended to be less educated than those who wanted Britain to maintain its ties across the English Channel. 

Yet the movement was led by well-to-do politicians with pedigrees from the nation’s fanciest schools. Together, they championed a once-fringe idea and, by urging voters to “Take Back Control” of their own affairs, turned it into a cause that a majority of the country’s voters could back.

One of them, former commodities trader Nigel Farage, later became Trump’s most outspoken overseas backer - appearing with him at campaign stops and urging the New York businessman to follow the Brexit model to victory.

Trump did just that, promising “Brexit times five” - and delivering. 

Farage has pledged to help replicate the electoral success of Brexit and Trump across the West. The longtime leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party on Saturday became the first British politician to meet with the president-elect, spending an hour with him at Trump Tower and later posting to Twitter a photo of the two men smiling broadly in front of a set of gilded doors. “Please don’t for a minute think that the change ends here,” Farage wrote Friday in Britain’s mass-circulation Sun tabloid. “Voters across the Western world want nation state democracy, proper border controls and to be in charge of their own lives. Further political shocks in Europe and beyond are coming.”

Tides beyond Europe

Those sorts of shocks are a new feature of the post-World War II order in the democracies that ring the North Atlantic. They’re more familiar in the developing world. But there, as well, the populist tide is resurgent - and for some of the same reasons that it is rising in the more affluent West.

In May, Filipinos elected as their president Rodrigo Duterte, a man who spent 20 years running a city in the southern Philippines as a mob boss runs a block.

Duterte, once nicknamed “the death squad mayor,” was famous for patrolling the streets on a motorbike, weapon at the ready. He bragged about taking justice into his own hands. 

As a presidential candidate, Duterte promised violence. He vowed to rid the nation of crime in a matter of months with a vividly apocalyptic vision that involved eliminating “all” suspected criminals. Thousands of people identified as drug dealers and users have since been killed. 

As the first president from the southern island of Mindanao, he said, he would challenge Manila’s political class, end politics-as-usual and protect the poor.

That vision resonated among Filipinos who were fed up with the crass corruption of the country’s feudalistic ruling families and outraged by ineffectual police and courts.

Duterte, the son of a governor, cast himself as their street-smart savior. He talked like the overconfident older kid on the block, joking about rape, threatening to shoot people and salting his speeches with curse terms, such as “son of a whore.”

The bloodshed and tough talk are fueled, in part, by nostalgic nationalism. When Duterte rails against US colonialism, he appeals to a wounded patriotism, promising to make the country more independent - to make the Philippines great again.

Anti-establishment political upheaval has also been a prominent feature of Brazilian politics in recent months - most dramatically in the controversial August impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff, whose Workers’ Party had run Brazil for 13 years before her ouster. 

Stained by accusations over corruption and its economic mismanagement that many blamed for Brazil’s recession, the Workers’ Party took a hammering in last month’s municipal elections. Unconventional politicians were in many cases the beneficiaries.

In Rio, an evangelical bishop was elected mayor. In Sao Paulo, João Doria, a millionaire businessman campaigning as a nonpolitician, won South America’s biggest city and its economic powerhouse. Cementing the comparisons to Trump, Doria had starred in Brazil’s version of the reality TV show, The Apprentice.

The morning after Trump’s victory, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right lawmaker with presidential ambitions, took to Twitter to congratulate him and promise a similar upset in Brazil’s 2018 elections. #Bolsonaro2018 began trending on Twitter.

Oscar Vidarte, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said Trump resembles a classic Latin American type of populist, the caudillo, a Spanish term that translates roughly to “strongman” or a leader with authoritarian tendencies.  

“Trump fits the bill,” Vidarte said. “But in Latin America, the rise of caudillos is enabled by weak institutions. In the US, you have to look for different reasons.” 

Although outsiders continue to be elected in Latin America - a TV comedian, James Morales, recently won the presidency in Guatemala - longtime strongmen have struggled. 

If anything, there is now a backlash against them. Argentina last year voted for an end to a decade of governance by Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. A referendum in Bolivia blocked the re-election of President Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Chavismo, after 17 years in power, appears to be on its last legs.  

Indeed, the most effective way to defeat the populist wave, said Leonard, is often to let them govern. “They don’t do very well,” he said. 

Troubles in Germany

The most extreme example, of course, is Germany, where the country’s election of a charismatic populist proved catastrophic for the world.

Because of the country’s Nazi history, its postwar political system has been designed to defend minority rights and prevent a majoritarian takeover.

But terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals and a record wave of Middle Eastern migrants are now testing the national will.

The fast-growing Alternative for Germany party, founded in 2013, has galvanised the anti-Islam­ ranks. The AfD unveiled a scathing denunciation of the faith this year, warning against “the expansion and presence of a growing number of Muslims” on German soil. Adding fuel to the party’s campaign, German authorities have arrested more than a dozen suspected extremists, many of whom entered Germany by masquerading as migrants. 

 With national elections next year, the party is now supported by nearly 1 in 6 voters and has staged startling gains this year in local elections.  

Jürgen Falter, a political scientist and expert on the far-right, described the party’s leadership as “not real neo-Nazis, but rather close.” Its voter base, however, is larger - an amalgamation of Germans fearing everything from foreigners to globalisation.  

“They managed to get some more moderate and less moderate people supporting them who feel threatened by modernisation, by refugees, by Islam,” he said. “And now we are talking about some Trump voters, as well.”

Even in Germany, the political unthinkable can no longer be so easily discounted.

The Washington Post

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