Populism may run out of road in 2019
But as its rightwing variant flags, the leftwing version could surge
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after returning to the White House in Washington from a senior staff meeting at Camp David, Jan. 6, 2019. House Democrats moved to pressure Trump by vowing to pass individual bills to reopen targeted departments that handle critical functions like tax refunds and food stamps. (Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times)
Could this be the year that populism pops? In 2016, the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump stunned the political establishments in the UK and the US. But 2019 stands a good chance of being the year that the populist project crumbles into incoherence, as it becomes increasingly clear that bad ideas have bad consequences.
The optimistic claims made for Brexit in 2016 have already collapsed. Theresa May’s deal with the EU has been denounced as a betrayal by most of the erstwhile leaders of the Leave campaign. But a “no-deal” Brexit, which many Leavers now advocate, threatens to bring hardship and humiliation in its wake; while a decision to hold a second referendum would be an even starker retreat from the peak populism of three years ago.
The prospects for the American branch of the populist project look no more appealing. Mr Trump’s poll ratings are sinking again and the stock market - his chosen measure of success - has plummeted. The Robert Mueller investigation will report soon and could trigger impeachment proceedings. Perhaps most dangerously for the president, senior Republicans are getting restive following setbacks in the midterm elections and the resignation of Jim Mattis as defence secretary.
But while it is tempting to argue that populism has peaked, it is also premature. There are three main reasons for this. The first is that, although populist policies are running into trouble, the underlying economic and cultural forces that drove the movement are still there. Second, populism comes in both rightwing and leftwing forms. While the rightwing version is struggling in the US and the UK, the leftwing variant could gather force this year.
The third reason is that populism is now a global phenomenon. Populist politicians are in power from Brasília to Budapest and from Rome to Manila. The Italian and Brazilian elections of 2018 were particularly significant. The governments of the largest country in Latin America and of a major western European nation are run by populist parties.
Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, has adopted several of the rhetorical themes of Trumpism, including denunciations of China, “globalism” and cultural elites. But Mr Bolsonaro, unlike his North American role model, could have a honeymoon period in 2019, with business and consumer confidence rising, partly because of his promise of liberal economic reforms.
Matteo Salvini, the face of Italian populism, could also have a good year. Italy seems to have averted a confrontation with the European Commission over the country’s budget deficit, and many Italians relish having a government that takes a more aggressive stance towards Brussels. If Mr Salvini’s League party does well in the elections to the European Parliament in May, he could trigger an election at home, allowing the League to emerge as the dominant political force in Italy. The weakness of the country’s public finances means that Italian populism is vulnerable to a market-led backlash. But, for the moment, Mr Salvini’s stock is still rising.
Many populist leaders have heaped praise on Mr Trump. So the impeachment of the US president would certainly have an effect on the morale of populists around the world, as would the implosion of Brexit. But even if the Anglo-American advance guard of populism runs into trouble, the global forces driving the movement still look strong. Fear of migration, economic insecurity and cultural conservatism are still a potent cocktail. The appeal to a simpler-seeming past will continue to be made. Damares Alves, the minister for women in the Bolsonaro government, vowed last week that in the new Brazil “boys wear blue and girls wear pink”.
Cultural issues fuel the populism of the right. Meanwhile, the leftwing variant of populism will continue to stress minority rights and economics. The coming year could prove to be fruitful for the left populists. The race to be the next Democratic nominee for the US presidency has begun. Most of the energy in the party seems to be on its “progressive” wing, exemplified by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These are politicians who attack the rich and privileged in a way that used to be taboo in mainstream US politics.
In Britain, the post-Brexit blues could easily present Jeremy Corbyn with the chance to become prime minister. A Corbyn victory in Britain would inspire left-populists around the world, much as Brexit persuaded rightwing populists (including the Trump campaign) that history was moving in their direction.
The populism of the left has an important Latin American branch. The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of Mexico in 2018 was greeted enthusiastically by the far-left all over the world. Mr Corbyn, once an enthusiastic fan of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, is an old friend of Mr López Obrador and was a guest of honour at his inauguration.
Pragmatic centrists will suspect that both the Mexican and Brazilian experiments with populism will ultimately fare about as well as Brexit and the Trump presidency. But the centre needs some new tunes. Politicians like France’s president Emmanuel Macron, whose response to populism is to play the old music, just louder, risk being drowned out. Populism is in trouble, but the populist moment has not passed.
Gideon Rachman is a Financial Times Columnist