We seem to have passed peak populism

Populists around the world enjoyed a wave of electoral successes—but then failed to govern properly

January 11, 2023
Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

2023 is unfolding with much national and international gloom and doom. But we may at least be past peak populism. The ejection of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, as well as the re-election of Macron, were defining moments. And the successor to Angela Merkel in Germany was… well, another Merkel, in effect.

The re-election of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and the dramatic return of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, have bucked the trend among major elections and changes of leadership over the last few years. But both leaders are ruthless realists as much as naked populists, and their rise pre-dated the Trump wave of congenitally anti-system politics.

Orbán was a constitutional liberal before he was a populist and has played a double game firmly within the non-populist EU, which has been resisting Putin and supporting Ukraine robustly alongside Biden and the US. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rallied democrats worldwide and severely weakened populism, not least by weakening—and hopefully soon removing—its most cynical and ruthless manipulator on the borders of Europe and the west. The Ukrainian resistance has also been a cautionary tale for Xi Jinping of China and his designs on Taiwan.

The new year opened with the farcical, protracted stand-off in the US House of Representatives last week between Kevin McCarthy and 20 rabidly MAGA populists, who even Trump struggled to control as his revolution devours its children (and maybe soon himself). This is manna for Joe Biden’s hopes of re-election next year, as the Republican coalition of libertarians and cult Trumpites fell at the first hurdle of taking charge of the one house of Congress they only narrowly won in November’s mid-terms.

Populist leaders are in retreat partly because, when obliged to govern after their electoral successes, their variously impossible, nonsensical, corrupt, contradictory, absurd, xenophobic and anti-democratic measures have collapsed and/or united non-populists from across the political spectrum against them with energy and passion. Meanwhile, the populists themselves have been further radicalised to new feats of desperation in the face of chaos—serving as a warning to other countries not to go down the same path.

Populism and good government don’t sit well together: and populism can’t survive unpopularity by definition, unless there are no elections—or they are successfully rigged. The insurrectionary weekend scenes in Brasília, a repeat of Trump’s 6th January 2021 insurrection but on steroids, are the symbol of where populists end up when they lose elections and don’t have a real army to launch an effective coup.

Another Orbán-style quasi-populist is Recep Tayyip Erdoan of Turkey, whose most likely re-election opponent, the mayor of Istanbul, has just been convicted on trumped-up charges and banned from standing. A defeat for Erdoan in this year’s presidential election would be a triumph for democracy in Turkey. But Erdoan, like Orbán, predated the recent populist wave. He came to power 20 years ago as a more mainstream insurgent with a religious twist, his canniness exemplified by his triangulation between Biden and Putin abroad and between the army and religious zealots at home.

Britain’s populism took the form of Brexit, an absurd and damaging project based on a host of populist lies, which has propelled Johnson and his Tory successors to power since 2016. It is unravelling as a project, and is undermining attempts by Rishi Sunak to present himself as a mainstream pragmatist. Johnson’s fall on a host of sleaze-related issues was quintessentially British, but the failure of his underlying populist policy is an insuperable obstacle to any return for him, even if he is able to stay in parliament.

But where there is severe economic dislocation and desperation, the scope for populism is always present. Since the 2008 financial crash, the would-be Trumps and Bolsonaros have stuck around, even in the most established democracies. When the global economy finally recovers from its multiple shocks of the last 15 turbulent years, they might finally disappear. But that happy day is not likely to come soon.