Published April 29, 2019
The center-left Socialist Worker’s Party came out on top in Sunday’s Spanish elections, but the real story was on the right. Vox, a culturally conservative party opposed to mass immigration, will enter Spain’s parliament for the first time after capturing 10 percent of the vote. Vox’s rise is part of a larger trend in this year’s national elections in Europe that shows the forces that fueled President Trump’s rise are gaining, not losing, strength.
Estonia’s March election started this trend. The Estonian populists, EKRE, doubled their share of the vote in March on a platform of nationalism, cultural conservatism and anti-E.U. and anti-immigrant sentiments. Just as Trump got his largest wave of support in the rural and small-town regions that 21st-century prosperity had left behind, EKRE did best in rural areas farthest from the booming capital of Tallinn. It is now part of the new government despite preelection statements from newly-elected Prime Minister Juri Ratas that he would never work with the populists.
The Netherlands was next in line. A party that did not even exist four years ago, the Forum for Democracy, stunned the nation by finishing first in their provincial elections. Led by 36-year-old Thierry Baudet, it advocates for lower taxes, smaller government, traditional Western culture and opposition to Islamic immigration. Sounds familiar? FvD, as it’s known in Holland, now leads in the opinion polls for the parliamentary election. If this continues, it will be almost impossible for the Dutch to form a government that excludes the far-left and the populists.
Finland rode the populist wave in April’s elections, too. The Finns Party, a Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant party, had split in 2017 as many party activists thought its leaders had compromised too much in joining a center-right government in 2015. The hardliners won the fight to control the party, but it looked like they had lost the war when polls showed party support had declined by nearly half. But they skyrocketed during the election campaign to finish second, trailing the leaders, the Social Democrats, by only 8,000 votes out of more than 3 million cast. The incoming prime minister, Antti Rinne, had ruled out working with the Finns before the vote. We’ll see this month if he also changes his tune.
These trends may seem like far away and trivial matters for Americans consumed with unseating Trump. They’re not. The continued strength of Trumpian themes in almost every Western country shows that Trump is not the cause of this discontent, he’s the discontented’s voice.
Trump has his own set of personality-related issues, but the underlying reason his supporters like him is for his advocacy of traditional American cultural concerns and economic power bases. Blue-collar workers devastated by free trade over the past 20 years flocked to his banner just as Europeans, harmed by competition from low-cost E.U. countries, flocked to anti-E.U. parties. Culturally conservative Christians who feel swept aside by cosmopolitan liberalism find warmth in his embrace every bit as much as Europe’s fading — but still numerous — Christians find succor in culturally conservative populist parties. It’s not the man, it’s the message.
Americans genuinely concerned about our democracy need to take notice. In our past, Republicans thought the New Deal would fade after FDR’s death while Democrats thought Reagan’s stepping down would end his conservative politics. Both groups were shocked out of their complacency when their candidates lost to those presidents’ successors (in 1948 and 1988), proving that the message could outlast the man. The same is going to be true today: Trumpism will outlast Trump.
The question Trump opponents need to ask themselves is whether they will adapt to these trends or try to confront them. Republicans post-1948 and Democrats post-1988 chose adaptation, bringing moderate Dwight Eisenhower and New Democrat Bill Clinton to power. Both men moderated the impulses that the disruptive politics had launched, cementing some core innovations (the welfare state under Eisenhower, revived capitalism and lower taxes under Clinton) while resisting some of the wilder positions activists in those movements wanted. As a result, a new consensus was formed that helped keep the nation on an even keel.
The alternative course could easily lead to a much worse outcome. Italy’s establishment failed over 20 years to restore economic growth or limit mass immigration after the adoption of the euro and the expansion of the European Union to include Eastern Europe. That’s why two populist parties swept the 2018 Italian elections and formed the first government in Western Europe that included no representatives of the old consensus.
Since then, Italian populist leader Matteo Salvini has cannily promoted himself and his party, Lega, at the expense of his coalition partner, the Five Star Movement. Salvini’s party, which promotes hardline cultural conservativism and anti-immigrant policies, now leads the polls with more than 30 percent of the vote. If it runs with the declining conservative parties that used to dominate Italian politics in the next race, a Salvini-led government could easily win a super-majority that would be able to change the Italian constitution nearly at will. That would give a man whose party signed a cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and is suspected of receiving Kremlin funding nearly unlimited power over a key NATO ally.
European populist strength is the canary in the American coal mine. Left, right and center alike need to adapt and offer real, effective responses to drive down populist discontent. If we do not, those upset with Trump may soon find themselves dealing with a successor who will match Trump’s political skill with a seriousness of governing purpose that will make them wish they had acted when they could.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.