WASHINGTON, D.C. - American Trumpism is clearly a relative of current conservative populist pushes in Europe. What isn’t clear is how close the relations are.
The world will have more evidence to assess in the case of Right-wing Populism v. The Establishment after the election Sunday in Austria. Depending on one’s perspective, there will be more cause to be alarmed or inspired.
Norbert Hofer, leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, which was started by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, stands a good chance of becoming the first head of state from a far-right party in Western Europe since World War II.
Hofer has said that Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. is helping Austrian voters get more comfortable supporting him. “With Trump’s victory, that barrier has loosened a bit,” he said recently. Hofer also has tried to cast the Freedom Party as Austria’s most pro-Israel, saying “to make right-wing politics is quite in order so long as it is not anti-Semitic.”
Italy also is holding elections Sunday and the populist party is again the key player. But in Italy’s case, it is the left-wing, anarchic populism of the Five Star Movement party. The FSM, led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, shares Trumpism’s irreverence, but not its conservative, anti-immigrant streak. The election is actually a referendum on a package of major constitutional changes put forward by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who will resign if it fails. The main opposition is the FSM, which is now in a position to possibly topple the government.
The Netherlands and France have closer parallels to Trumpism, with right-wing populist movements gaining momentum before elections next spring. And, of course, this all follows on the United Kingdom’s stunning Brexit vote earlier this year.
Since then, there has been a deluge of analysis arguing that these movements all share, along with Trumpism, common themes in widely varying degrees. The bulk of this wave of 21st century populism (if that remains the right word) comes from the right, conjuring old themes of nationalism, racial or ethnic dominance and authoritarianism while still being fiercely capitalist. Other themes include:
Anti-elite. In the period of the European Counter-Enlightenment in the early 1800s, rebellious ideologies sprang up that rejected science, reason, law and constitutionalism, believing that it was tradition, blood, racial identity and power that held societies together. These movements gave birth to what we now call nationalism. These were anti-democratic movements that wanted stronger monarchs, popes, conquerors or ruling classes. Today’s movements are clearly anti-elite and anti-establishment — or at least they claim to be.
Anti-international. The rejection of Europe and compromised sovereignty was the hallmark of the U.K.’s Brexit vote. Trump will become the first American president since WWII to mock existing treaties and alliances and the organizations that empower them. The Freedom Party in Austria uses the slogan “Austria First.”
Anti-intellectual. Like Trump, leaders of these movements tend to scorn and tease intellectuals, scientists and other kinds of eggheads. They brutally exaggerate threats, push conspiracy theories and “big lie” propaganda. Like early forms of nationalism, today’s right-wing populisms reject rationalism and science. This is what critics are getting at when they say Trump is America’s “post-truth” or “post-fact” president.
Anti-“other”. Different nations have different scapegoats or bogeyman. The French and Austrian right-wing parties are more ferociously anti-Muslim than Trump. Anti-immigrant anger is perhaps the lead doctrine of the new conservative populisms.
Pro-Putin. Like Trump, some European populists have taken a distinctly pro-Vladimir Putin stance. “All over Europe, Putinism has emerged as an ideological alternative to globalism, the E.U., etc.,” Benjamin Haddad, an analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, told The New York Times. Putin is seen as “a bulwark for conservative values — a strongman against gay marriage, immigration, Islam.”
There is a strong case to be made that all these themes blend into a much larger rage against modern life; against the intense pace of change, the onslaught of information and media, globalism, technology and new social mores; against the erosion of community, tradition, religion and old, small worlds and proverbial villages.
Such things also have been said to explain the rise of radical Islam, that it is a rejection of the modern world gone to a grotesque extreme. The West is not immune from the grotesque, history makes clear. Indeed, today’s right-wing movements probably have more in common with nationalist movements than with classic populism.
Whatever it should be called, liberals, investors, journalists and other core “establishment” cadres have consistently underestimated the power of new right-wing politics so far this year. One would think that a victory for a far right party in Austria, Hitler’s birthplace, would put a stop to that. We’ll see.