Has Right Wing Populism Hit a Snag in the West? By Joshua Turner
Turn the clock back just a few years and the headlines of many journals and newspapers were heralding the rise of a right wing populism that was pushing back against the entrenchment of the globalist elite and the liberal world order. People were said to be so frustrated that they were ready to tear the whole system down; it now appears that some are changing their minds.
U.S President Donald Trump is facing low poll numbers and an impeachment inquiry. U.K Prime Minister Boris Johnson has managed to lose his majority in parliament just two months into the job with twenty one conservatives expelled or resigned (including his own brother and Winston Churchill’s grandson). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks likely to fail in his attempt to form a government after coming up short in his bid to secure a majority in the Knesset. In Italy, Matteo Salvini lost his position as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior after a failed attempt to force out Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and force new elections. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government collapsed after a corruption scandal involving his far-right coalition partners. While Kurz’s party was able to win a snap election, he will find his mandate diminished with new, more moderate leaning coalition partners.
Meanwhile, some leaders once thought to be struggling have found their footing; French President Emmanuel Macron has been able to successfully navigate fierce protests by the yellow-vest movement, which had painted him as an out of touch elitist, as well as host a successful G-20 summit where he emerged looking very much like the leader of the free world. During said gathering Macron picked a fight with the right wing President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro over the fires raging in the Amazon which galvanized the global community on the issue and backed Bolsonaro into a corner over accepting aid. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to be fending off multiple scandals and remains competitive in polls that show his Liberal Party likely to win a minority government in the upcoming election. German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains popular in Germany and will likely stay on as Chancellor until the end of the 2021 legislative session.
What then do we attribute this seeming reversal in a relatively short amount of time to? I would argue there are a number of important factors at play:
In the U.S Donald Trump has failed to deliver on most of his promises despite a two year period of unified Republican rule. There is no wall. There is no infrastructure bill. The Affordable Care Act was not repealed. The tax-cut for the wealthiest Americans he did pass is largely unpopular. Even if one were to be happy that Trump has failed to do many of the things he promised, his failures contribute to the narrative that he is not very good at his job. Not be outdone in this regard, Boris Johnson has yet to win a single vote in parliament and looks likely to face a vote of no confidence in the coming days. The point here is that campaigning on a populist agenda can sound good in theory to some voters but proves much more difficult to enact. Many of these politicians made grandiose promises and then failed to deliver; the stagnating effect this has on a country is not likely to be tolerated for long.
While Donald Trump’s legal issues have been widely documented, perhaps lesser known is Benjamin Netanyahu’s struggle to stay out of jail; only by staying in office can he hope to hold off indictment on charges of corruption while in office. Boris Johnson has also run into legal issues involving his relationship with a U.S businesswoman while he was the Mayor of London. Kurz’s government in Austria was brought down by the actions of his coalition partners. What is to account for all this; are right wing governments simply more corrupt? Not likely; it is much more probable that a combination of inexperience and contempt for the systems they were elected to upend explains these legal issues. I believe it is fair to assume that Donald Trump was not concretely aware of the seriousness of his actions in soliciting help from foreign governments in our electoral processes (though ignorance is no excuse for his actions). Kurz, being all of thirty three years old, is not used to having to hold together coalitions or policing their behavior. Johnson has never been accused of being overly detail oriented. In addition it is also fair to assume that, to the degree they did understand what they were doing, the contempt for the systems that helped bring them into power also contributed to their willingness to flout them or feel that it was not a legitimate constraint.
Perhaps there is nothing that ties leaders like Trump, Johnson, Salvini, or Netanyahu together more than their willingness to bend the truth or outright lie as means to achieving their ends. The Brexit campaign is a perfect example of how blatantly lying or distorting facts can be an effective campaign strategy that simultaneously makes governing all the more difficult; Johnson was able to convince people that leaving the European Union would be both easy and an eventual benefit to the U.K. Now that that has been shown to in no way comport with reality, the country’s political system is gridlocked. Trump has told thousands of lies about all manner of things, from the mundane (crowd size) to the more serious (election interference). Netanyahu has long shown a willingness to exaggerate make misleading claims about the Iranian nuclear program in order to gin up domestic support for his government.
Whether it be denying migrants entry from the Mediterranean Sea, separating children from their families at the border, or continued illegal expansion of settlements into Palestinian territory, the policies that have been enacted have shocked the conscience of many voters who theoretically would have supported them. It is one thing to talk tough on the campaign trail but to see policies like those mentioned here put into practice is another thing entirely.
What does all of this mean? Are these right wing populist movements in serious trouble or is this just a momentary setback while they figure out how to better navigate the political landscape? Coming elections will be a good indicator, not just for whether or not these parties and their leaders can stay in power but who ultimately replaces them. Will we see a shift towards more left wing populist movements, which espouse many of the same goals of disruption and large scale change but in a ‘nicer’ package or will we see a return to a more centrist, globalist approach that seeks retrenchment of the global liberal system? While the Democratic Party in the United States is currently struggling with this question to the most fanfare, it is something that is occurring in varying degrees across the West. Look to the upcoming Canadian elections, the final chapter in the Brexit saga, what coalition emerges in the Knesset, and the stability of the Italian and Austrian governments as important events that will likely portent what is to come.
Joshua Turner is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at SUNY-Buffalo