A Warning From Europe: Trump May Be Leaving, but Right-Wing Populism Is Not

The saying goes: "When America sneezes, the world catches a cold." The election defeat of U.S. President Donald Trump, the current flag-bearer of national populism, is a loud sneeze heard worldwide by his political kin.

But one sneeze does not make a cold. The hard right are an entrenched, long-lasting force across the world, particularly in Europe, and will continue to shape the politics of societies in which they remain strong.

Matthew Goodwin, a professor at the U.K.'s University of Kent, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank and an expert in populist movements, told Newsweek these right-wing movements were "the very opposite of a flash in the pan."

"Almost all of the big, successful populist movements that we've had—the Le Pen family in France, the Northern League in Italy, the Swiss People's Party, the UK Independence Party—many of these movements have been present and campaigning not just for years, but for decades."

Those hoping for a quick and clean end to Trump's presidency will be disappointed. Their leader may be leaving the White House, but Trump voters are not ready to give up the fight.

Whether economic, political or social, U.S. convulsions often ripple outwards into the rest of the world. Developments in other countries and regions are still shaped primarily by domestic realities, but such is the dominance of American culture and the unrivaled reach of American arms and money that the rest of the world cannot help but be influenced by U.S. goings-on.

Foreign observers are also always keen to glean any lessons from America's presidential elections, which are unparalleled in their significance, scale, cost and coverage.

This year is no different. Trump's defeat—which he has still refused to accept despite allowing the transition to go ahead—has been touted by some as the possible beginning of a period of decline for right-wing populism, a curtain drop on a wave that has dominated the political conversation in many countries in recent years.

Trump is certainly part of this trend. Brexit and the Conservative Party's shift to the right in the U.K., President Jair Bolsonaro's victory in Brazil, the success of anti-establishment parties in Italy, the entrenchment of xenophobic authoritarianism in Hungary, the strengthening of socially conservative power in Poland, the nativist drift of politicians in Israel—the list goes on.

But rather than Trump's loss setting the scene for what the rest of the world might see in their next elections, Americans should perhaps look abroad where there is a more pronounced history of far-right populism. This might temper liberal expectations and give hope to defeated conservatives.

Trump, who before 2016 had a small political footprint, has come to represent reactionary American nationalism; to be seen as a demagogue around which America's isolationists, evangelicals, white working class and others—including white supremacists—can coalesce. These groups and their electoral clout pre-dated Trump and will remain long after he has left the White House.

Americans did not deliver the rebuke of Trumpism that the Democrats were hoping for. Far from it—Trump won the second most votes of any presidential candidate in history, second only to Joe Biden. The president won higher vote shares than expected among Hispanic voters, Black voters and white women. He made ground in key states such as Texas that Democrats had hoped to flip.

There was no Republican wipeout and this means the GOP will struggle to break away from Trumpism. The president lost, but could yet define Republican national electoral strategy for a decade or more.

"I think that will inevitably dictate the future direction of the Republican Party," said Goodwin. "I don't think the Republicans can ditch Trumpism. I think it's going to cast a very long shadow," he told Newsweek.

Trump is rumored to be considering another run for president in 2024 or giving his blessing to one of his children to start their own electoral careers.

"It's ultimately down to Trump as to who secures the 2024 nomination," Goodwin said. "If it isn't him, then whoever it is will almost certainly require his approval."

Biden won by creating a broad coalition of voters and bringing the various strains of the Democratic Party behind his effort. He won from the center, but did so with the help of progressives who had raised concerns over whether his platform was ambitious enough.

It helped, of course, that Biden was running against the most controversial and divisive president in modern history. The two men could hardly have been more different and Americans ultimately chose the candidate who presented himself as a safe pair of hands rather than an aggrieved culture war fighter.

Still, the months and years to come will feature plenty of internal Democratic sniping and backbiting, not least because the party performed worse than expected in the House and the Senate.

The January Senate runoffs in Georgia will renew the debate as to the direction of the Democratic Party—disagreements the GOP will hope to turn into a schism.

Ruth Wodak, author of The Politics of Fear: The Shameless Normalization of Far-Right Populist Discourses, told Newsweek that broad electoral coalitions can be vital to defeating right-wing populists.

She cited the example of her native Austria, where Green presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen marshalled a liberal coalition to defeat Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party in 2016.

A similar situation put the centrist Emmanuel Macron in office in France's 2017 presidential election. His tight lead over the National Front's Marine Le Pen in the first round became a landslide victory in the second, as voters mobilized to keep the far right out of office.

Wodak said Biden's ability "to cross over and not be dogmatic" is a valuable skill that helped him carry the election.

But his being in office won't stop the populist right. On his way out the door, Trump is supercharging baseless claims of electoral fraud and authoritarian conspiracy theories such as QAnon. His allies in Congress and the media are fanning the flames. The majority of Trump voters do not accept that he lost.

What Wodak calls the "politics of provocation and scandalisation" will survive in opposition and right-wing populists will draw on the concept of the brave resistance to win votes—much like their opponents on the left have done since 2016.

Biden, the Democrats and more moderate Republicans will need to find ways to engage with voters beyond elections every few years, Wodak said, and increase participation. Otherwise voters will continue to feel removed from the halls of power and ignored. "Basically, politicians are really quite far away," she added.

The GOP, like so many European political parties, shifted to the right to accommodate a leader wildly popular among its base. Consciously or not, Republicans long ago surrendered their party—which had already pivoted right thanks to the Tea Party movement—to Trumpism.

It would be brave for Republicans to come out against the MAGA movement even now. Only a few prominent members have done so and most hold their tongue until they no longer need re-election.

"The far right can never really succeed if the conservative parties don't support them," Wodak said, noting that Trump had benefited from established party support in the same way as right-wing populists in Italy, Austria and elsewhere.

"I don't like to draw analogies to the past, but the fascists would never have come to power if they wouldn't have been supported by big business," Wodak added, referring to the rise of fascism in 20th-century Europe.

"I think that that is a lesson to be learned," Wodak said. "It is very important to oppose such neo-authoritarian, law-and-order politics, and not to fall into this trap because of possible power gain."

Whether Trump runs again or contents himself with a GOP kingmaker role, the ideology and grievances that drove his rise to office will remain.

"The lesson from Europe over the last 30 to 40 years is that while populists may ebb and flow at elections, they do generally tend to remain as fairly resilient players in the political system," Goodwin said.

Although careful not to draw direct comparisons between Europe and the U.S.—"There are some fairly unique factors at work from one country to the next," he said—Goodwin noted the sticking power of right-wing populism. Wodak described European right-wing populist movements as "very stable parties with a huge electorate and a very broad kind of agenda."

Those who write off the Trump presidency as an aberration or a blip are perhaps missing the true direction of the GOP and the American right.

This article has been updated to include the title of the latest edition of Ruth Wodak's book.

Donald Trump, populism, right-wing, election, Europe, GOP
Supporters of President Donald Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on November 14, 2020. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images/Getty