When Donald Trump was elected US president four years ago, Florian Philippot, a French National Front apparatchik and – at the time – a close ally of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, tweeted: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.”
Now that Biden has won the presidency, European populists have lost the most visible champion of their worldview. In many ways, the outgoing US president’s politics – his unabashed style, overt distaste for multilateralism and multiculturalism, his unsubtle appeals to the politics of white resentment – were trialled by European leaders such as Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie decades earlier.
But where Trump won the Republican nomination by trampling on norms and precedents – “saying the quiet part out loud”, as the quip goes – European populists more commonly pursued power by cultivating an aura of polite respectability. They promised that they had changed; that they were no longer the parties of skinheads and goose-stepping thugs; that they could be trusted with the keys to sacred institutions. Marine Le Pen’s long dédiabolisation (de-demonisation) campaign was intended to signal just that.
In most cases, they never quite succeeded – witness the consistent, though narrowing, electoral repudiations of Le Pen and Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader – but they did get closer to the levers of power. In a few cases they made it into government, such as in Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party served in Sebastian Kurz’s coalition until it spectacularly imploded following a corruption scandal. Most visibly, in Hungary, Viktor Orbán holds an unassailable grip on power and revels in positioning himself at the forefront of what he views as a Manichean battle between Christendom and Islam.
The crucial distinction here is between the populists who have made it into government, such as Orbán, and those who have experienced power only fleetingly, if at all. For the former, Trump turned out to be mostly a boon. The president was happy to deal with eastern European leaders, such as Orbán, those who have long been unpopular in western European capitals. Trump’s election served as vindication in view of their electorates that the backlash against globalism was a worldwide phenomenon. Orbán said before the election that a Trump win was his “plan A”.
However, for the populists yet to grip the levers of power, such as Wilders, Trump was more a curse than a blessing. They didn’t so much disagree with him on the substance of his ideology, and many spent years railing against the EU, Nato, immigration – all preferred targets of the last White House incumbent. But his chaotic style, trampling over decorum and norms, turned off cautious European electorates from the politicians who hitched their wagons to the Trump train. Trump was historically unpopular among Europeans: just a fifth of French and 13 per cent of Germans expressed confidence in the president to “do the right thing” in a poll published earlier this year.
Few European voters, observing the chaos across the Atlantic, wished to replicate the spectacle in their own countries. Le Pen herself recognised this: having lost yet another election months after Trump came to office, she moderated her support for the incumbent four years later. Even among her voters, Biden is more popular than Trump.
Many European populists spent years cultivating an image of respectability, without significantly moderating their politics, only to tarnish that image by cheerleading for Trump. With the defeat of Trumpism – relatively narrowly in electoral college terms, resoundingly by the measure of the popular vote – those populist leaders will have lost the most visible champion of their worldview. But some must have breathed a sigh of relief as the result was called for Biden – a temporary setback while they build their world.