Nationalist, populist, protectionist and right-wing; US President Donald Trump is all these things. Across the pond, the political mainstream has grown to include these values after a string of electoral gains for right-wing parties in power.
The rapid rise and national electoral success of populist right-wing parties have led to their emergence as established political forces in more and more countries in Europe. Their support has soared across Europe.
Demonstrating the success of right-wing populism, one needs to look no further than Holland and France. Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV) is the second-largest party in the Dutch House of Representative, despite the policy of marginalising and avoiding working with the PVV by the rest of parliament for its extreme anti-Islam views. Marine Le Pen in France has scored victories in the French 2017 Presidential Election under the nationalist right-wing party, National Front. Le Pen beat 10 other candidates to reach the second run-off against Emmanuel Macron, which she eventually lost with 33.9% of the vote. This was the strongest showing for the National Front in the Presidential Election since its inception.
Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States, therefore, is just one example of a series of electoral victories for right-wing nationalist, extremist and populist parties. His election was not just a fluke that coincided with the success of populist politics. In countries like Poland, the right-wing and populist Law and Order (PiS) are already in power, whereas in Germany, the far-right, Alternative for Germany (AfD) have secured representation in the Bundestag for the first time on an aggressively anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform, the general tenor in the campaign and rallies was not too dissimilar from Trump on illegal immigration from Mexico.
Donald Trump is no unique phenomenon, populist parties are growing in strength and in light of these recent events, many right-wing commentators now have high-profiles and huge followings across multiple social media platform.
Popular assessments documenting the rise of right-wing populism typically centre on the disenfranchisement of the working class, but the recent trends reveal that the reality is much more nuanced. While it is true that working-class people with secondary school education who live in the outskirts of cities, among rural communities (the people most affected by the impacts of globalisation and free trade), form the bulk of the demographics who voted for Donald Trump and voted for Brexit, this is by no means the only group that are attracted to the sweet allure of populism, nor even the biggest group.
Contributing to their success, the populist parties marshall their votes from a confederation of supporters who cross economic and social boundaries.
Dissatisfaction with establishment politics is growing, especially as the establishment are consistently cast in a negative light by the media. Negative press coverage of Hillary Clinton left bitter feelings for the many that supported her, possibly explaining low turnout for the Democrat Party and why so many left for other options, whether during the primaries for Bernie Sanders, or third-party candidates like Jill Stein.
In fact, the media has had a significant role in the ascent of populism in recent years. The media has at times exacerbated tensions with immigrant families and their local communities and most recently the media coverage of refugees has led to the public perception of a “crisis”, transferring sentiments of commiseration to fear. Refugees are victims of a media narrative depicting them as unskilled migrants who pose a cultural threat and a danger to the welfare system, many people just eat up this shameful dehumanisation, too many are both ignorant and totally apathetic towards the condition of refugees and migrants to think differently.
Also, political commentators can profess wide followings online. Their followers, who are deceived into thinking they hold the solutions to many of the problems they “identify” are easily influenced, and can successfully convert people from any background into believing what they say is true. Influenced by impassioned and fiery rhetoric, as well as victim blaming, populist parties can claim a wide share of the votes. To conclude, they take from every demographic: age, economic and social.
Reasons for this trend have been attributed to frustration with the political establishment and immigration, in particular, Muslim immigration. More generally, the transformation of communities and demographics shifts engendered by immigration contributes to a tense atmosphere of insecurity and intolerance for others. Support for stricter immigration reform coincides with support for something called “New Nationalism”, a nativist, anti-globalisation and modern variant of nationalism popular with authoritarian right-wing populists.
Incidentally of the Great Recession the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2007/08 had left much of the world population poorer, but those who are fortunate enough to occupy the top threshold in income distribution, namely the infamous 1%, did not face the massive losses in employment and diminishing real income growth like the many people employed in manufacturing industries. In fact, three-quarters of all income growth in the United States went to the top 10%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and since the financial crisis, half of the world’s wealth is now held by the wealthiest 1% of the global population.
This is hardly helpful news to the many hard-working people who have found themselves made redundant or even losing their homes because of the crash.
Working-class and middle-class families continue to struggle in the face of adversity as the global financial elite seem to be making money from the crisis. This explains why a significant number of voters for Donald Trump favour more taxes on the rich, and why many (including Trump himself) were receptive to Bernie Sanders.
One way the financial crisis drew people to right-wing populism was the new-found popularity for protectionism in response to the neoliberal reforms of former governments; as a result, protectionists believe they hold the solutions for the economic failures brought on by neoliberalism.
The rise of populism comes at the same time as we disavow elitism in our political institutions, but it is also other factors ranging from the European Union and the impacts of globalisation to surfacing cultural insensitivities which play a large part in their uprising.
In spite of all that the populist parties have in common (various forms of economic protectionism, concern for “mass immigration” and the subsequent concern for the preservation of culture), they do differ and err on the size of the government and the welfare state. Some positions can only be described as libertarian, others less so – but certainly nativist.
The chronicles of right-wing populism do not require financial resources, in fact, for the lack of financial capital they make up with monopolising and disseminating political information and news on the internet.
There is a large number of news media based online supporting the cause of populism across the world, the low cost of setting up online media and the ease in distributing content to reach people taps into the public consciousness the same way as grassroots-political campaigning. Even the people who are not politically active or who hold diametrically opposing views are scooped up and it doesn’t take long for the right-wing populism to force its roots into the minds of the unsuspecting and the curious.
The impact of right-wing populism will eventually be felt, until then, figures like Donald Trump and Viktor Orban may well become the staple of global politics for the foreseeable future. The right and left-wing dichotomy may not be the division which separates us in politics, increasingly, political rhetoric is compounded by arguments against or in support of globalisation, free trade and/or the free movement of people.
Each of these things bears a great deal of influence on populism, and even greater is the perception that the politicians and political institutions which have allowed these things to happen have failed. Populism is nothing if not the dismantling of the political establishment to restore the “will of the people”.
It’s hard to define populism and it’s no consolation that I haven’t offered a definition yet. Populism, when not being used pejoratively, is most aptly expressed by its adherents. Retrieved from the comment section of The Economist, a user emphatically named “bampbs” offered this account for populism: “When a relatively large group of people are aggrieved and angered by the actions of a relatively small and more powerful group, and are publicly organized to seek redress of those grievances”. however the right wing populism we face today blames migrants and foreign powers, not a ruling powerful elite. Populism remains the policy of scapegoating, nothing more.