Power to the people: Year of the populist revolt

World review of 2016: Across the globe a darker new world order is coming to pass

"Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built." Donald Trump had won, and Florian Philippot was exultant. Their world, as the vice-president of France's far-right Front National saw it, was the established political order: the system of global alliances, trade and pooled sovereignty, underpinned by liberal internationalism, that had developed in the postwar era but was now squarely threatened like never before. Ours was the vision of its insurgent challengers. Nigel Farage, the ex-banker whose fringe project went mainstream and culminated in a shock decision by UK voters to leave the European Union. Marine Le Pen, Philippot's leader, whose once-toxic party was running far ahead of the ruling Socialist Party less than a year from a presidential election.

The list went on: Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Norbert Hofer in Austria. And now had come the most spectacular upset of all: Trump, the madcap celebrity businessman turned dark, populist demagogue, had set off a political earthquake in the United States.

Aftershocks

The aftershocks are still rippling across the world. In every major capital, assumptions that have underlaid global diplomacy for 70 years are suddenly in doubt. Never in the past century have America’s allies feared more or known less about a new arrival in the

White House

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. Three weeks before inauguration day, his intentions in many policy areas appear mysterious even to himself.

Amid the uncertainty, however, some things are clear. This was the year of the populist revolt. Around Europe, right-wing anti-establishment parties are on the march. Their policy platforms may vary – the Austrian Freedom Party's anti-globalisation platform is at odds with that of its namesake in the Netherlands, for example, while the UK Independence Party is implacably opposed to the EU, whereas Alternative für Deutschland is not – and local factors as much as global ones have driven their success.

But what they share is a broadly protectionist economic agenda, nativist social policies and a simple, well-honed message that pits a corrupted metropolitan elite against the ordinary, forgotten citizen.

Terms of debate

Even where they have so far failed to win power, these parties have succeeded in setting the terms of debate. In

France

, the presidential candidate of the centre-right, François Fillon, regarded as a socially minded moderate in the five years he served as Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister, has positioned himself as a hardliner.

“France is on the brink of revolt,” he said recently. He seems to have calculated that only by painting himself in Front National livery can he assuage that anger and block Le Pen from being its beneficiary. A similar dynamic is at work across the continent, where debates on migration, trade and budget deficits have been shaped by populist pressures.

Matteo Renzi, who resigned as Italian prime minister after the rejection of his referendum on constitutional change in December, pleaded for room for manoeuvre on euro zone budget-deficit limits by pointing to the threat he faced from the Five Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo.

Part of the reason for EU governments' hard line in the upcoming Brexit talks is a fear that a good deal for the departing Brits could embolden Eurosceptic voices elsewhere in the bloc. In Berlin, where she launched her re-election campaign with an acknowledgment that the world was "weaker and less stable" as the year drew to a close, Angela Merkel vowed to speed up deportations of rejected asylum seekers and endorsed a ban on face-covering veils.

Responsibility

If the populist right can chalk up such victories from the outside, their leaders would be forgiven for preferring to stay where they are, setting the agenda without having to jeopardise their popularity by taking the responsibility of power.

How to account for the success of the populist right? Those who voted for Trump or for Brexit were branded globalisation’s losers – victims of elite-driven trade liberalisation and technological change that hastened the decline of western manufacturing and the good jobs it provided. Some of the highest votes for Trump and Brexit were found in former industrial heartlands – regions where uneven access to education, opportunity and power was most acute, and where mainstream parties have struggled to come up with a persuasive political offer.

The Trump and Brexit votes were powered by a core of white, older men who never went to college.

"There's a vast expanse between New York and LA where it's everyday middle-class America," said Rick Berry, a florist in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, which recorded the biggest swing from Obama to Trump in that vital swing state. "It was time we spoke up. And that's what happened."

But on its own the economic argument only went so far. In the US, Trump's supporters in the midwest included business owners and rich retirees. Closer to home, as Daniel Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies has pointed out, the share of low-skilled workers in Europe is in rapid decline. At the turn of the last century, there were over 50 per cent more low-skilled workers than university graduates. Today, graduates almost outnumber low-skilled workers.

Blue-collar anger

If blue-collar anger over globalisation alone drives right-wing populism, support for these parties should be shrinking, not increasing. In Austria, where Hofer, the leader of the

Freedom Party

, won 46 per cent of the vote in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in December, the economy is relatively strong and the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Europe.

Another ingredient in the right-populist recipe – an embrace of identity politics – is vital to its appeal. Concern about immigration was at the heart of the Brexit result. In the eyes of his fans, Trump’s outrageous claims about Muslims and Mexican immigrants burnished his reputation for straight talking. Similarly, immigration is central to the pitch of Le Pen’s Front National, Finland’s True Finns, Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, each of which casts itself as the lone voice willing to take on one of the last political taboos.

For each of these parties, as well as for Farage and Trump, the “real people”, for whom they purport to speak, is above all a rhetorical device used to exclude religious and ethnic minorities, urban elites, the media or those who advocate any of the isms they despise: feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism or social liberalism. Against that background, the dismissal of these voters as racists, cranks or, say, deplorables, only plays into the populists’ hands.

Veered sharply

For their part, mainstream parties have differed on how to respond. Some, like Fillon’s Les Républicains or the Tories in Britain, have veered sharply to the right. Others, including

European Commission

president Jean-Claude Juncker, say the solution is more cross-border cooperation, not less. Those who resist fatalism argue that voters reward those willing to take on the populists, refuse to pander and make a better case. After all, Hofer was defeated by a candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, who stood for inclusion and tolerance; Le Pen is a long way off the 50 per cent she would need in a run-off; and Merkel, the most generous-minded leader when faced with the refugee crisis, is hugely popular and remains on course for a fourth term in office.

While the rise of the populist right convulsed the west in 2016, the phenomenon was not confined to Europe and the US. In the past 12 months, nationalist strongmen tightened their hold on power in Turkey, the Philippines, China, Egypt and India. But few had a better year than Russian president Vladimir Putin, who today surveys a world more amenable to his ideas than at any point since he first took power 16 years ago.

Intervention

In

Syria

, his intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad tipped the conflict firmly in the regime’s favour, while the ferocious bombardment of

Aleppo

went unimpeded and unsanctioned by the international community.

In Europe, key Kremlin aims, both short-term (the lifting of economic sanctions) and long-term (the break-up of the European Union, the weakening of Nato) have moved closer to fulfilment with the Brexit vote and the success of the populist right parties, many of whose leaders enjoy good relations with Putin’s government.

This year, pro-Russian parties won elections in Bulgaria and Moldova. The two people most likely to fight it out for the French presidency, Fillon and Le Pen, both describe themselves as friends of Moscow. To cap it all, the US has elected a man who sounds lukewarm on Nato, cheered Brexit and speaks more admiringly of Putin than of any other foreign leader.

That Trump was elected in a tight contest after what American intelligence agencies say was Russian state intervention, in the form of the hacking and public release of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton, puts an even more darkly surreal complexion on a year that could reshape the global order for decades to come.