The Populist Resurgence Explained

This post was authored by Austin Henshaw

On December 7th, to the chagrin of many, Donald Trump was chosen as Time Mazagine’s “Person of the Year.” If the choice were up to me, I would have chosen “The Populist” to grace their cover. Between Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, the Brexit campaign winning out on Britain’s EU referendum, and the surge of the right-wing National Front politician Marine Le Pen as a favored 2017 French presidential candidate over the Socialist incumbent François Hollande, populism is sweeping the Western world.

Many commentators have framed Trump as a unique phenomenon, and it could be argued in many ways he is, such as his status as a reality TV celebrity… or his tenuous relationship with facts or social decorum. Outside of those unique qualifiers though, he is part of a populist blitzkrieg which can be seen in the United States with his successful Presidential campaign and the popularity of the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, and from prosperous countries such as Sweden or even Greece currently undergoing a financial crisis.

Populists of the modern age all generally have one thing in common- a revolt against “the elite,” “globalists,” or “the establishment” and a rejection of the status quo. In an issue of The Wall Street Journal from April 2016 Trump wrote “The only antidote to decades of ruinous rule by a small handful of elites is a bold infusion of popular will. On every major issue affecting this country, the people are right and the governing elite are wrong.”  During the debates Trump even questioned what Democrat Hillary Clinton had accomplished in her 30 years of public service and condemned nearly every action she had taken as Secretary of State.

Meanwhile, in light of the European migrant crisis where countries are seeing record numbers of sexual assaults from Middle Eastern migrants (with Sweden becoming the “Rape Capital of the West”) and terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, Berlin, and Brussels, politicians Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have seen a surge in support. Orban rejects German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s embrace of Wilkommenskultur, a “culture of welcoming.” The Eurozone debt crisis has seen a rise in left-wing, anti-austerity populists in struggling Spain and Greece as well.

Right-wing populists appeal to nationalist sympathies, reject globalism in the form of Euroskepticism and being critical of free trade deals (despite their economic benefits), and use rhetoric which could be perceived by many as anti-immigrant. That’s not to say all Donald Trump supporters or Brexit voters eager for Article 50 to be triggered as soon as possible embrace all of those things, but it does explain a significant part of their appeal.

Instead of Western politicians being concerned about right-wing or even left-wing populism, they should primarily be concerned with the modern problems of democracy. In the United States a higher degree of income inequality, stagnating wages, elitism from academics and the media (unsurprisingly, low-income working class whites don’t appreciate being called sexist and racist constantly; many of whom voted for Obama in previous elections), and crony capitalist’s influence on legislation and the political class, it’s little surprise Donald Trump’s message resonated with so many people.

In oversimplifying the issue, the rise of populism can be seen as a simplistic, illiberal response to decades of undemocratic liberal policies. If mainstream American and European politicians can’t do a better job connecting with the average citizen, the rise of populism can quickly turn into fascism, which would have grave consequences. 


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