After Trump’s Success: A Convergence of the Populist Challenge

This essay attempts to look for the reasons of the current success of populists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The unexpected happened and we are still searching for an answer why it happened and what might be the adequate response. This essay attempts to look for the reasons of the current success of populists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and to face the challenge that is produced by this convergence.

The unexpected happened and we are still searching for an answer why it happened and what might be the adequate response. This essay attempts to look for the reasons of the current success of populists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and to face the challenge that is produced by this convergence.

First of all I would like to remind us that the rise of populist parties in Europe didn’t begin in the last years but already in the 1970ties when Mogens Glistrup founded the anti-tax progress party in Denmark that became the second strongest party in the Danish national elections in 1973. For many years populist parties in Europe came and went without leaving deep marks in the political landscape. This started to change, however, in the 1990ies when right-populist parties became stronger and achieved real power within governments at the turn of the century. The Austrian Freedom Party, for example, built a government together with Christian Democrats in 2001, and the so-called List Pim Fortuyn that got 17 per cent of the votes in the Dutch national elections of 2002, joined the government of the Netherlands and appointed, among others, the minister for immigration. This list could be continued further. Populist parties are no longer a marginal problem at the edge of the political spectrum but they achieved real influence on the political agenda and on government politics in Europe.

At the same time as right-populist parties rose in Europe, a polarization of the main political camps started to happen in the US

For decades, the competition between Republicans and Democrats in the US was oriented towards the center, because this was the most successful way to win elections. But starting in the 1990ies – and increasing after the turn of the century – issues like abortion, Christian values, terrorism and illegal immigration polarized the US society more and more and gained influence on the political conflict between the two major parties. Triggered by the experience of 9/11, many US citizens developed feelings of insecurity and distrust towards Muslims in their own country. In so far, both the division of American society and the polarization in the past presidential election campaign have their origin in the years before and express a continuing trend in US politics.

Germany has been an exception in this regard for many reasons.

Until 2013, right populist parties had not only failed to enter the national parliament but the ideological polarization between the major parties even seemed to cease. Despite a slight fragmentation, the center-oriented party system had been rather stable, coalition building between all major parties had worked smoothly, and Germany seemed to be a kind of bulwark against the right-populist virus. Political scientists explain this resistance with the public awareness of Germany’s Nazi past, the federal system that provides the opportunity for voters to express their protest in Laender elections, and the fact that the Left Party attracted protest voters with an authoritarian background by a social populist approach in Eastern Germany.

But the erosion of this stability started before 2013. After the economic and financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, and after the building of the conservative-liberal government in 2009, more and more voters were searching for an alternative to the established democratic parties. The surprising rise of the Pirate Party in 2011, attracting protest voters and voters from the other political camps, already indicated a change. Also, coalition and government building at the time became more complicated; and the formation of grand coalitions on the national and the Laender level increasingly blurred the ideological differences between the Conservatives and Social Democrats.

But it was only after the beginning of the Euro-crisis, which has dominated the public agenda since 2011, that a gap between the political elites and parts of the population became more visible.

Euro-skepticism was never as strong in Germany as in other European countries, and many believed in a kind of permissive consensus about necessarily progressing in the European integration process. However, a kind of fiscal nationalism has never vanished among the German population. Against this background, the discussion about the transfer of German money to the South European countries was the gateway for the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Founded in 2013, the AfD managed in a few months to build up a national party organization and started campaigning for the national election in the same year.

Although the party just failed to enter parliament, because of the five per cent threshold of the German election system, this was the first breakthrough for the newcomers. At this time, the party was, however, not yet a distinctly right-populist party, but rather a party with a far right-conservative profile. Founded by some university professors and businessmen, the party appeared to be seriously arguing, among others, for more democracy of the people. Focus on national-conservative and cultural-identity issues were mainly represented in the East German state organizations of the AfD. 2014 turned out to be the first year of electoral success for the party when the AfD managed to get 7.1 per cent in the European election and entered the state parliaments in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, achieving partly more than ten per cent of the votes.

Beside the Euro crisis, issues such as immigration, crime and the defense of national identity became more prominent in the public agenda of the Alternative for Germany.

By now it was clear that the party had become a serious factor within the future of the party competition.

Just at its first peak before the summer of 2015, the party split up because of a conflict among its leadership about its future orientation. Some of the founders realized that the discourse within the party was more and more dominated by a growing right-populist current that embraced anti-Islamist attitudes, xenophobia and nationalistic values. Also, people from non-parliamentary anti-Islamist movements had gained influence on the party’s agenda. By the middle of summer 2015, after the split, the support for the party decreased in polls.

But the influx of several hundred thousands of refugees in the fall of 2015 opened an opportunity to regain strength. The new leadership of the AfD attacked Angela Merkel’s refugee policy and incited fear against refugees from Muslim countries, arguing that these refugees would gain more and more cultural influence on Germany’s society. In 2016, the party brought in the harvest and celebrated outreaching electoral success in a couple of state elections even passing the 20 per cent mark in some East German states.

Including the US presidential election in this picture, the question comes up why right-wing populism is so successful?

Scholars of Social Science very often employ theories of modernization to explain the success. Particularly, breaks and deep changes in the economic structures of societies, processes of acceleration, the erosion of traditional cultures and transnational migration movements produce uncertainty and a feeling of insecurity. Markets and qualifications have changed around the world; global acting companies have outsourced their production, jobs and services at the periphery. According to this theory, globalization as a new cleavage has a significant impact on political constellations and voting behavior (see figure 1).

Figure 1

Following this approach, an increasing number of voters are losers of globalization and tend to vote for right-populist parties and actors that take up the discomfort of disappointed voters. Empirical research highlights that blue-collar workers and people living under precarious conditions represent indeed one important segment of the voters of right-populist parties. The Austrian Freedom Party, for example, has the strongest support among workers. Although, the USA is literally a symbol of globalization with its worldwide acting digital industries, financial services and high-tech companies, the downside of globalization is a process of deindustrialization in the classic production sectors in the US. Low qualified white blue-collar workers are jobless or earn less in the new service provider economy. Many of them have not benefitted from the slow economic recovery after the crisis of 2008 to 2010. In the USA, every fifth white men between 30 and 50 years of age is jobless, the suicide rate among them is high.

Still, it would be too simple to reduce the success of right-populist actors to the negative impact of globalization on the individual standard of living

Most of the voters of the AfD, e.g. are not blue-collar workers or unemployed people, but employees, owners of small and medium size enterprises, and craftsmen. The income of these voters is above average and they have a medium education level. We should be aware that a couple of external factors have also triggered a wave of social, physical and political insecurity among many people in the Western countries since the end of the cold war. A series of brutal terror acts— from 9/11 until the present— have set the world on fire and inflamed tensions between people of different cultural and religious backgrounds; a profound financial and economic crisis between 2008 and 2010—including the housing bubble and its devastating consequences for many people in the US, the Euro-crisis in Europe and not to forget global movements of refugees who try to move to the safer and prosperous regions of the West – all of these developments intensified a feeling of unease.

Another strong factor is the rhetoric of right-populist actors. Next to their islamophobia, all of them have one other feature in common: their anti-establishment respectively anti-elitist discourse. All populist parties construct a kind of antagonistic contradiction between the people and the elite. They pretend to represent the real will of the people whereas the elites “betray” the citizens. The Brexit decision in the UK offers some good examples of this kind of rhetoric.

Teaching the elites a lesson was a central part of the exit campaign.

The British “Daily Mail” wrote one day after the referendum: “It was a day where the decent British people stood up against an arrogant political class, that is out of touch with the reality, and against a disrespectful elite in Brussels.” The anti-establishment attitude of populists encloses, however, not only political but also economic and cultural elites as well as representatives of the media. In Germany supporters of the AfD use the term “mendacious press”, and we find the same patterns of denigration in Donald Trump’s election campaign. Stephen Miller, the whip before Trump’s performances pointed with his fingers to the journalists in the hall and shouted at the hungry audience: “Look at them – they jibe at you, they betray you, and they lie to you.” And the crowd immediately responded: “Liars, liars!” In Germany, the supporters of the Alternative for Germany hate Angela Merkel. As soon as her name is mentioned at party meetings, they shout: “Merkel should be removed.” Likewise Trump followers chanted “Lock her up” when they heard Hillary Clinton’s name. Interestingly, Donald Trump as well as many supporters of the Alternative for Germany and of right-populist parties in Europe admire Vladimir Putin. With his authoritarian rule and his disrespect for homosexuals and minorities he is obviously a kind of role model for their own concept of leadership.

We can note so far that populists know how to satisfy and to stimulate the prejudices of their henchmen against the elite. Not surprisingly “Insider out, outsider in” was one of the widespread slogans among Trump’s fellow travelers.

The trouble is that the populists strike a nerve.

First of all, we have to admit that there is a growing alienation between the elites and the ordinary people. Political, economic and cultural elites act in close-knit networks that are coined by mutual relations and interdependencies. We can also observe a specific language code that has evolved in these networks, which is very hard to understand and to decode by normal citizens. This includes – at least in Germany – a strong pro-European and cosmopolitan orientation of the elites. A positive assessment of the advantages of globalization and of European integration is part of the consensus among the elites, whereas ordinary citizens are much more skeptical in this respect, without finding, however, a resonance in the ruling parties.

Against this background, the access to the elite discourse is for many people rather limited. Populists fill this gap and claim to bring in the vox populi to the political arena. Also, social working and living conditions of the elites and the ordinary people differ more and more.

Furthermore, many educated people, including liberal intellectuals, despise the taste and so-called “trash culture” of the underclass.

Against this background, common people feel themselves and their way of living mocked. Whereas the defamation of ethnic or sexual minorities is a taboo among educated upper class people, the mockery of “rednecks”, for example, in the US is rather widespread. Donald Trump counterattacked this disrespect by emphasizing that he “loves uneducated people”.

There is also a prevailing feeling among ordinary citizens that the members of the elite illegally enrich themselves and live at the expense of the hard working people. Actually, we are talking about a considerable number of examples that feed this feeling. Banks that finance shady dealings, car companies like Volkswagen that manipulate the electronic software of their cars in order to circumvent the removal control, or Panama Papers that reveal illegal mechanism of money laundering by the elites. Such examples intensify the impression that the elites don’t respect the rules – rules that are, however, expected to be obeyed by the ordinary citizens.

Let me briefly summarize my reflections: Right-wing populism is on the march in Europe as well as in the US. This means that our liberal democracies are not only challenged by external enemies but more than ever by anti-liberal movements from inside our societies. This makes right-wing populism a real threat. So what now? Is there any promising strategy to stop the rise of right-wing populism? I don’t claim to have a perfect strategy but I want to stress three points.

First off: Political elites should consider the rise of populist parties as a seismograph for their failure to respond in adequate ways to the needs and desires of ordinary people. The established political parties and actors must change their attitude in this respect and improve their responsiveness for upcoming problems and conflicts. This includes particularly to work on the mode of communication with ordinary citizens. It is true that political decision making is much more complicated than populists pretend. But also liberal and left politicians have to develop a clear political language that gets through to the people.

Second off: Corruption, bribery and illegal personal gain of elites is grist to the mill of populists. Democracies have to prove that they have the ability to combat these tendencies by complete clarification and severe sentences.

Third off: Parties in Europe should open their doors for newcomers that represent the diversity and variety of the whole societal spectrum. This requires, of course, that the ways of recruitment for candidates have to change. Pre-elections could be an appropriate way for recruitment although in the US the whole pre-electoral process is spoiled by big money.

I’m rather skeptical that these suggestions have a real chance to be realized. But if liberal democracies fail to change their response to the people the rise of populists will most likely continue.

This contribution is based on a lecture of Lothar Probst on the topic of „The Populist Challenge“. Lothar Probst is Professor for Political Science at the University of Bremen.


Prof. Dr. Lothar Probst taught at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Bremen until his retirement in April 2016. He focuses on electoral, participatory and political research. Since its founding, he is a member of the "Green Academy" of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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