The political landscape saw a fundamental shift in 2016, as an anti-globalist populist wave washed over the Western World. But as the realities of Brexit and Trump become increasingly clear, I’m beginning to sense a change in the wind. Is the populist wave starting to die down?
I want to start by explaining how I’m going to be referring to ‘populism’ within a specific context during this article. The word ‘populism,’ just refers to a movement which reflects the concerns of the majority of the people. However, in the current political climate, populism has become a byword for the anti-globalist, anti-immigrant sentiments which have risen across much of the developed world of late. I will be using the latter definition.
The global economic crash of 2007 – 2008 changed everything. It left ordinary people footing the bill for the excesses of the worldwide banking sector, leaving a lot of families struggling to make ends meet. Many of the bankers who brought about this crash went unpunished. Instead, Western governments such as the UK implemented austerity programmes – cutting government spending on essential services such as healthcare, to fix their broken economies. Understandably, this made a lot of ordinary people very angry at the political establishments that had so easily betrayed them.
In hard times, when people can’t affect change in their societies, many find a scapegoat for their problems. We saw this famously during the 1930’s, where non-white peoples, were demonised following the devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929, with horrific consequences. This phenomenon reared it’s ugly head, if to a much lesser extent, again in the wake of the economic crash, with Muslims in particular being somewhat blamed for many of the Western World’s ills, due to the rise of terrorism. The entire religion has been tarred with the same brush, despite the fact that only a very small minority of Muslims have committed terrorist acts in our countries.
The rise of anti-other populism first-became apparent with the Brexit vote. I want to point out that there are good people on both sides of this debate. I understand that many Brexit-backers had real concerns about the EU, which even I have to admit has it’s problems, such as it’s bloated bureaucracy. Some also felt justifiably angry at the UK government, which backed remain, following it’s actions during the global recession, and voted yes simply to hit back at the political establishment, and I sympathise with this.
However, for many of us who voted no, the reason we did so, was that throughout the referendum it became clear that some on the opposing side had xenophobic beliefs. We constantly saw leaders of the yes campaign, notably UKIP head Nigel Farage, use phrases such as ‘take back control of our borders,’ preach the ills off mass immigration and talk of the UK regaining sovereignty from Europe. There are some people who saw these actions as innocent but there are many, such as myself, who believed that they were anti-immigrant and I think that after the referendum, we’ve been vindicated.
According to The Independent, racial hate crimes soared by 41% in the month after Brexit. It’s hard to deny that this happened because racists felt more vindicated in their beliefs, after the passage of a vote which in my opinion was shaped by anti-immigrant sentiments. What other reason would there be for such a radical rise in hate crimes? Over the next few months, we saw the realities of Brexit come into sharper focus, for instance the government is now pushing to strip EU citizens’ of their rights to live here, and I think that this is causing public opinion to change. I recently saw a poll which showed that if the referendum was held again, remain would win. While this isn’t necessarily definitive, it does illustrate that people are coming to view Brexit through a different lens.
The populist movement reached it’s zenith, however, when Donald Trump was elected US President last year. I want to point out that the economic situation is particularly bad in America right now for ordinary people. As a certain Senator from Vermont is so fond of saying, the benefits of the economic recovery are going to the top 1%, of the top 1% of society, leaving everyone else to struggle and understandably, this is really frustrating average Americans. Also the country’s media, especially the ultra-right wing Fox News, is extremely sensationalist. Some outlets, with Fox News being the most prominent, have been preaching the evils of Islam since 9/11, and these factors stoked real rage in the US.
Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul from New York, tapped into this rage like a pro. Over the course of the election, Donald Trump touted an ‘America first’ policy, promising to do things such as keep Mexicans out, implement Muslim bans, and impose trade tariffs on China to bring jobs home. It was clear to many of us that ‘America first,’ really meant that only the America that GOP voters believe in, one which is majority white but won’t be for much longer, was the one that mattered and screw everyone else. This didn’t matter to many voters, as despite Donald Trump’s blatant racism, as well as his history of debasing women, they made him the most powerful man in the world.
Where do we even begin with President Trump? After a few months in office, he has threatened healthcare, introduced two blocked Muslim bans, put the rights of transgender children at risk, rolled back climate protection initiatives, accused his predecessor of wire tapping and so much more. The Republican base loves Trump more than ever, but the rest of the country, many of whom already hated him (Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million people) is only coming to despise him more. His favourability numbers were the lowest of any incoming President and they’ve only gotten worse, showing that the realities of President Trump have seriously dented the US populist movement.
The next test of the popularity of the populist wave was the Dutch national election, which was held this week. Many people expected Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, to beat the sitting Prime Minister, Mark Rutte of the centre-right VVD, and form a coalition government. Geert Wilders is a racist, who has proudly preached Islamophobia in the past, so in the current climate, he seemed poised for victory.
But in a shock twist, the BBC reports, Rutte’s VVD easily beat Wilders’ Party for Freedom. The VVD netted 33 seats out of a possible 150 in the Dutch Parliament, while the Party for Freedom won just 20 seats, although they did make gains, leaving Rutte to form a new government. In his victory speech, Rutte argued that the Dutch had rejected “the wrong kind of populism” – namely the type that inspired Trump, in this election. We are soon set to see whether this rejection is isolated to The Netherlands or not, with the upcoming French Presidential elections.
The French Presidential elections will be held in two rounds. The first will see all candidates compete on 23th April and if no-one secures over 50% of the vote, the top two will go head-to-head in a run-off election on 7th May. All the polls previously showed that the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, Marine Le Pen, would win the first round, but not secure over 50% of the vote and be defeated in the second. However, Le Pen’s position at the top of the first round polls was taken from her for the first time in early March, and now she’s in a neck-and-neck race with Emmanuel Macron, a centrist independent, further illustrating the slackening grip of populism.
Beginning of the end
The anti-globalist wave was incredibly powerful, and it was underpinned, in some cases, by justifiable anger. There’s no denying that populism is still a force to be reckoned with in 2017, but as it’s realities become more apparent, I do think it’s appeal is weakening. The pivotal Dutch election may have signalled the beginning of the end for “the wrong kind of populism,” and the French Presidential elections could do more damage. But the anger that fuelled this movement is very real and I would implore politicians to recognise this, otherwise nothing will really change and the populist movement will grow in future.