What Can Europe's Moderates Learn From the U.S. Election?

Marine le Pen
Supporters mounting a poster of Marine Le Pen, France's National Front leader, on a wall in the city of Frejus in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, southeastern France on March 18, 2014.March 18, 2014. Le Pen has to tread carefully on the issue of Europe. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election marked a major national electoral victory for the populist right in the most powerful country in the world.

But it may not end up looking so unique. Across Europe, electoral battles with the populist right are approaching; in Germany, where the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is gearing up for its first run at the federal parliament; in France, where the far-right National Front leader Marine le Pen has an unlikely but plausible shot at the presidency; in Austria, where a candidate from a hard-right party could take the (less powerful) presidency; and elsewhere.

America's politics, like any country's, are distinctive. Its electoral map is its own. But that doesn't mean there aren't some more general lessons to draw.

Here are four lessons that mainstream parties looking to take on the populist right can heed from the U.S. election.

Make people care

One important change between the 2012 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections was a collapse in the Democratic vote, with particularly large drops among white men and black women, neither of which was made up by gains on the Republican side.

It's a reminder to mainstream candidates that you need to enthuse voters, not just scare them about what will happen if you don't win. Clinton and Obama when did a good job of highlighting the risks of a Trump presidency. But people either didn't believe them or care. Clinton also had a detailed policy platform with plenty of fresh ideas, but clearly they weren't well communicated or exciting or convincing enough.

Obama's personal story could well have been a factor in securing him two of the largest Democratic votes in modern times. Creating a similar surge of excitement could be vital, and there's various ways to try and do it: parties could be less nervous about giving untested or unusual candidates a chance; in France, many candidates have grassroots "movements" attached to them—it will be interesting to see if that proves helpful.

In any case, moderates can't be seen as only the sensible choice, or the non-scary one. They need a positive reason to win voters' support.

Enthuse the young

This is a problem facing liberal politicians across the West. In Britain's Brexit vote, young people turned out more than they normally do, but not as much as the old, and that proved fatal for the "remain" campaign. In the U.S. elections, millennials overall broke heavily for Hillary, but white millennials plumped for Trump, and Clinton lost support from the youngest age groups compared to Barack Obama.

Every country is different, and different young populations are more or less susceptible to hard-right arguments. But, in general, younger people tend to be more diverse (and happier with that diversity), and easier about ideas like open borders. They are an important constituency for anyone looking to combat a populist campaign.

Clinton made some inroads. The Feed, a mock-news site that dispensed viral Clinton campaign messages like a Pravda for the BuzzFeed age, was written in a modish, shareable style and was an interesting, ambitious attempt to speak to younger voters in their own language, bypassing traditional media and its focus on older readers. It wasn't a perfect success, but someone else could take the concept and run with it.

But anyone facing off against the populists needs to address the internet's radical right spaces. Reddit threads and facebook groups proved breeding grounds for a certain kind of motivated young Trump supporter. Creating equivalents for the left or the center will be a crucial tactic for Europe's moderates.

Don't engage

When Clinton was at her best, she was able to wind up her opponent and then step back and let him fly off on tangents for days on end.

This was particularly true of the presidential TV debates that saw Clinton widely praised for a strategy that can only be described as "don't feed the troll." Polling guru Nate Silver has pointed out that Clinton's lead in the popular vote grew from 1.5 points before the first debate to 7.1 points just before the third.

A big part of her winning strategy involved staying extremely calm while gently riling Trump, for example by calling him "Donald," and waiting for him to explode. Contrast this with the U.K.'s Remainers, who spent much of their TV debate appearances desperately going after their most popular opponent, Boris Johnson.

If a politician's appeal to voters is that they're the stable one, they need to demonstrate that. Many of Europe's populists (especially the focused, disciplined le Pen) are considerably more professional than Trump. But they tend to campaign on narrow sets of concerns; there's always an opportunity to knock them off track.

Forget the celebrities

Both Britain's Remain campaign and the Clinton campaign made heavy use of celebrities. You can understand the reasoning: young people love celebrities more than politicians, and politicians need young people. But in both cases it seemed to have little impact among the relevant groups.

What's more, populists base many of their arguments on the idea that an out-of-touch "liberal elite" conspire to run the country in way that suits them and their values, but does not work for ordinary working people. Parading millionaire actors and musicians with pet liberal causes is not the best way to refute that message.

For those looking for better supporters, the Clinton campaign also offers examples. It may not have proved enough, but she made good use of her erstwhile opponent Bernie Sanders, ensuring his backing early on with a backroom deal. And the choice of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in action, to speak at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), was inspired. The speech was graceful, the couple's backstory was a perfect marriage of patriotism and diversity, and it led to one of Trump's unforced errors, in which he insulted Ghazala for staying silent and spent days clearing up the mess.