Populists worldwide have lost their leader

As the US election results trickled out, Janez Jansa, prime minister of Slovenia, took to Twitter to proclaim: “It’s pretty clear that the American people have elected Donald Trump and Mike Pence for four more years . . . [The] more delay and facts denying . . . [the] bigger the final triumph.”

The Slovenian leader’s tweet was more than a comic miscalculation. It also underlined an important point. There are leaders and governments all over the world who were deeply invested in a second Trump term. The outgoing US president is the informal leader of the populist international. Its most important outposts are the governments of Brazil, Poland and Hungary. There are also significant populist-right parties, in countries such as Italy and Germany, that look to Mr Trump for inspiration and validation.

As well as the pure populists, there is a sizeable group of governments that, for a mixture of strategic and ideological reasons, will be uneasy about Mr Trump’s defeat. They include Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain and India.

Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is probably the most articulate promoter of globalised Trumpism. The Hungarian leader’s determination to bar Muslim refugees, during Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, attracted attention and admiration from the American right. A year later, Mr Trump won the US presidency after campaigning to “build a wall” to keep out migrants and to ban Muslims from entering the US.

The Polish government, led by the Law and Justice party, has championed a brand of conspiratorial, nationalist and “anti-globalist” politics that shares a lot with Mr Trump. The US president gave his first major speech in Europe in Warsaw, in tribute to this ideological affinity. The Poles even proposed naming a new military base “Fort Trump”.

The Trump administration actively encouraged its allies in Warsaw and Budapest to break ranks with Brussels and Berlin. An increasingly confident Mr Orban proclaimed this year: “We used to think that Europe was our future; today we know that we are the future of Europe.” Mr Trump’s defeat undermines Mr Orban’s efforts to become a figure of global significance.

But while Europe’s populists will be deflated by Mr Trump’s loss, they will not be defeated. The Hungarian and Polish governments have deep domestic roots. The strength of the vote for Mr Trump also means that they still have powerful ideological allies in the US (and Europe) to work with. Just as Europe’s liberals chose to try and outlast Mr Trump, so the populists will try to wait out Mr Biden.

The result of the US presidential election will also be a big blow to Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s president is sometimes labelled “the Trump of the tropics”. His admiration for the US president is so slavish that he endorsed the same quack remedies for Covid-19, proclaiming: “rightwingers take chloroquine”. With Mr Trump in the White House, Mr Bolsonaro could point out that the two most populous nations in the Americas were run by rightwing populists. Now the Brazilian looks more alone, although his poll ratings are currently high.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has also revelled in his closeness with Mr Trump. The US president reversed the Obama administration’s policies on Iran and moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. Mr Biden’s return to the White House weakens Mr Netanyahu, both at home and abroad.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, also has reason for anxiety. During the election campaign, Mr Biden labelled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and called for an end to weapons sales to the kingdom. It is entirely possible that realpolitik will kick in and that Mr Biden will take a more conciliatory line with Riyadh once in the Oval Office. But Prince Mohammed cannot count on it.

Last year Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, was whooping it up with Mr Trump in Texas — at a rally labelled “Howdy Modi.” The two leaders’ populist politics are highly compatible. Mr Modi has reason to worry that a Biden administration will place more emphasis on Muslim rights in India. The fact that America’s new vice-president has family roots in India was quickly hailed by Mr Modi. But Kamala Harris has been critical of the Modi government over Kashmir and other issues. Like the Saudis, the Indian government will be hoping that strategic considerations — in particular Delhi’s and Washington’s shared concern about China — will outweigh differences over human rights.

And then there is Boris Johnson. Mr Trump supports Brexit; Mr Biden opposed it initially and has been clear that Britain can forget about a US trade deal if the Johnson government does anything to endanger Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord. The Johnson government is now scrambling to emphasise that the UK prime minister’s views on other issues — climate, trade, Iran — are closer to Mr Biden than Mr Trump. Still, Mr Johnson will struggle to shrug off the label bestowed on him by the outgoing US president: “Britain Trump”.

Mr Johnson is likely to spend the next few months hiding away much of his populist wardrobe, and trying on some new liberal clothing. But the hardcore of Mr Trump’s international fan club — figures like Mr Orban and Mr Bolsonaro — are more likely to dig in. They will be hoping that their hero can make an unlikely comeback in 2024.


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