PARIS — Have we already passed “peak populism”? The question is posed quite seriously by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think tank borrowing the expression from “peak oil,” the point in time when extraction reaches its maximum level and starts to decline.
This theory assumes that Donald J. Trump’s election on Nov. 8, 2016, could be the highest point of the populist wave, as he turns out to be a pitiful president, a kind of anti-model. It points to the number of controversies marking the beginning of his mandate, his political U-turns, and the fact that his speech to Congress was applauded because it meant the beginning of a return to “realism.”
“In the battle between reality and populism, reality is now winning,” wrote Peter Kellner, the author of the Carnegie paper.
His analysis also points to the fact that the expected populist victory in the presidential election in Austria in December 2016 didn’t occur; that the British populist party UKIP didn’t manage to turn its Brexit referendum victory into success during a significant by-election last month; and, finally, that populist forces don’t have such an easy path to victory in the forthcoming Dutch, French and German general elections.
This theory is tempting, but probably premature.
First, mainly American-based commentators imagined a domino-like victory parade for European populists thanks to the success of the American “big brother.” Even if it is true that Donald Trump’s election made a similar triumph by France’s Marine Le Pen and her European counterparts more credible than ever before, there is a lack of nuance and of local political logic in this analysis.
Its other weakness is the idea that President Trump’s bad image and difficulties would make the populist pitch less attractive and credible in Europe.
Marine Le Pen continues to praise Donald Trump at her election rallies, and gets her followers to applaud decisions like the infamous “Muslim Ban,” the anti-immigration presidential order targeting predominantly-Muslim countries, or his “economic patriotism” forcing U.S. corporations to produce in the United States.
Populist leaders in Europe have no difficulty convincing their supporters that the “system” is responsible for all the pains and difficulties of the Trump administration, and they are on familiar ground when he clashes with justice and the media. Marine Le Pen even promised a purge among defiant civil servants, in a speech on Feb. 26, presaging the decision by President Trump to fire 46 Obama-era federal prosecutors.
For hard-core populist voters, Donald Trump remains, at this stage, the best living proof not only that victory is possible, but that their nationalist program can be implemented. They don’t pay attention to “details” and remain focused on the symbolic dimension of his actions and permanent defiance, most often expressed through tweets.
To assess if “peak populism” really has come and gone, we’ll have to see the results of the Dutch vote on Wednesday this week, followed by France’s presidential election on April 23 and May 7. These involved two of the most emblematic figures of what is called the “populist wave”: Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. More tests will be coming with German general elections in September, involving the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) led by Frauke Petry, as well as possible early Italian elections with the rise of the 5 Star Movement (M5S) of humorist Beppe Grillo.
In the Netherlands and France, the early tests, it is likely that the populists will reach very high scores without necessarily gaining power.
In France, despite strong showings, no opinion poll has yet proclaimed a likely Marine Le Pen victory in the second round of the two-round election. But polls misread the rise of Trump as well, and Le Pen will gain the support of traditional right-wing voters in the second round if their candidate is eliminated in the first round, as seems to be the case according to current polls.
This will the most significant development of the vote: in 2002, the one and only time a far-right candidate made it to the second round—Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen—his final score was almost the same as in the first round: less than a 1 percent gain. This time, polls predict that Marine Le Pen could increase her score by 10 to 15 percent between the two rounds, depending on her adversary. A mental dam has been broken.
These factors don’t point to an automatic “populist wave,” as was predicted after Donald Trump’s victory, but neither do they allow us to claim that “peak populism” is already passed.
There are very strong national differences, but we are nonetheless living an era in which historical government parties are seriously weakened. Germany remains an exception where the election fight still pits Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party against her Social Democratic challenger, Martin Schultz, who revived the old and tired SPD; and not against the marginal AfD nationalist party.
But in the Netherlands, voters have the choice between a dozen parties, an unprecedented fragmentation; while in France, according to the polls, may see a second round in which neither of the two parties that have dominated political life for the past 60 years make an appearance. For now, it looks like the final fight will be between Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! Movement, which was launched only last year.
More than the rise of populist ideas, Europe shows the exhaustion of old traditional political parties and their inability, with “software” stuck in the old industrial world, to reinvent themselves. Their failure to deal with inequalities produced by globalization has pushed voters, particularly from the poorer sections of the population, into the arms of those who, rather than offer real alternatives, best express their anger.
Populism feeds on the failure of others. “Peak populism” will be reached when convincing new political offerings are made—when citizens feel they are voting “for” and not only “against.”
This article was published in French in L’Obs.