The Insider

Populism is rearing its head again

Another Trump victory could embolden populist politicians throughout the west

January 10, 2024
 Image: Puffin's Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Puffin's Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

A year ago, with some relief, I noted that populism was on the wane and we had perhaps worried ourselves too much. But I spoke too soon. We clearly need to start worrying again, big time.

When I wrote a year ago, Trump seemed to be headed for jail, Putin was plausibly heading to defeat in Ukraine, Macron had recently been triumphantly re-elected, Scholz was doing OK in Germany, Erdoğan and Bolsonaro appeared to be headed for defeat, and there was hope that the same would happen to the Polish far right. Oh, and Labour was doing OK in Britain against the successor to Truss and Johnson.

Well, Bolsonaro and the Polish populists copped it. Sunak is sinking. But I was too optimistic about the rest, and completely missed the resurrection of Trump which throws everything else into the shade and energises populists everywhere—including those in the Kremlin, who pray daily for Trump to tilt the balance decisively in Ukraine and save Putin and Putinism.

Of course, the kaleidoscope will keep shifting and there are 10 months until the US election. But we need to understand why Trump is back and prepare for the possibility that he actually wins.

Trump isn’t back because Biden has failed in any conventional sense, which makes the situation even odder. On the contrary, measured by the strength of the US economy and the scale and impact of his policies, Biden is one of the most successful presidents of modern times. He also did well—for an incumbent president—in the Congressional midterm elections just 14 months ago, not least because of his resolute defence of women’s rights to an abortion in the face of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v Wade. 

But the Supreme Court epitomises a large part of Biden’s problem. Trump’s stacking of the court with highly partisan Republicans—a populist takeover of one of the key institutions of American democracy—gives him a huge and possibly decisive advantage as he fights for re-election this year in the face of 91 felony charges. Trump obviously needs to make it through to November on the ballot and out of jail, and thanks to the Supreme Court he may well succeed in both. The damage that populists inflict on democratic institutions lives long after them, as Tusk is also finding in Poland.

Then there is the craven right-wing US media, and the Trumpified Republican party, progressively writing the 6th January 2021 insurrection against the 2020 election result out of the historical script. Post-truth politics and the Big Lie didn’t end with Trump’s first defeat. And they are thriving across much of the rest of the west too.

But above all, there is Trump himself, whose resilience and will to power are simply amazing. The 81-year-old Biden has all the arguments but looks increasingly old, wooden and doddering, whereas Trump doesn’t seem to have altered much in his decade at the top of politics despite being only a few years younger than his opponent. Again, this may suddenly change and Biden—if he isn’t replaced—could win even despite his handicaps, but there it is for now. Elections depend on messengers as much as messages, and Biden is the one most visibly faltering.

So we are in for a desperate year of American politics. And if it goes the wrong way, populists will be emboldened throughout the west, not least Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany. Even without Trump, they are advancing at the moment on the back of more conventional economic woes.

I forgot to mention that Putin is also up for re-election this year, already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin. With his opponent Navalny in a labour camp in Siberia, that won’t be much of a contest.

Democracy is in for a tough ride.