Lessons from Trump’s election and the momentum of “anti-establishment” vote in Europe

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, International Developments

By Dr. Nikolaos Lampas, Adjunct Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Piraeus, Greece

Following the announcement of the results making Donald Trump the 45th President of the United States Bernie Sanders posted on his Facebook account his views on Trump’s victory. He argued, among other reasons, that Trump “tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics, and the establishment media.” During his campaign, Trump frequently presented himself as an “anti-establishment” candidate. More recently, on November 7, during a speech in North Karolina, Trump stated that the failed political establishment has delivered nothing to Americans. He constructed a message of economic grievance and political change. Despite being spurned by the Republican establishment Trump’s message garnered support in rural areas and small towns. Trump’s message was simple and clear. Take back control from political elites. Though Trump’s anti-systemic approach has been criticized as “a scam” the fact remains that Trump’s victory can be added to the increasingly long list of electoral results worldwide where the anti-systemic rhetoric gained grounds with the voters. Trump’s campaign pledge was to “make America great again.” The “anti-establishment” wave of support of Trump is reflected on an analysis from ABC News/Washington Post poll. According to the study, Trump’s victory reflects two related but ultimately distinct sets of attitude: Anti-establishment populism and push back against outside groups. A similar study from LSE corroborates the findings of the poll from ABC News. In their study, they find that “Trump’s support stems from two groups with different psychological traits, Authoritarians, who have a preference for social order and hierarchy and individuals who score low on the personality trait of Agreeableness, which they hold fierce anti-establishment attitudes.”  These two groups were highly motivated by Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric. Regarding the reasons as to why Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric managed to gain considerable grounds within the American electoral body most studies cite economic discontent and a desire among some American for traditional authority. Trump’s victory comes as no surprise considering the momentum that “anti-systemic vote” has been gaining in Europe. The victory of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo in Italy, the elections in Poland, Slovakia and Estonia, the results of the referendum in Britain are such examples. Moreover, the upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy, and the polls which show Marine Le Pen’s ratings rapidly increasing and that she is likely to win the first round of the election  necessitate a more thorough discussion of this trend of “anti-systemic” vote.

Europe and “Anti-systemic” Vote

As expected, the result of the American elections created waves of enthusiasm amongst European populists who saw his victory as “a sea change that will help sweep away the continent’s political establishment and carry them to power.” Over the next 10 months, France and Germany will also be having elections and Trump’s victory causes major concerns regarding the momentum that populist and nationalist forces are gaining. Europe is still recovering from Britain’s referendum results and a potential upset in France and or Germany is bound to have a much more detrimental effect to the very foundation of the European Union.

The populist/nationalist movement is rapidly spreading across Europe. The government of Italy has its survival tied to the referendum in December on constitutional reform. In Austria, the leader of the far-right Norbert Hofer is a serious contender for the presidential elections in December. Other examples of countries were nationalist parties are gaining moment are France and Germany. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is leading the polls for the presidential election in May. For example, in Germany, AfD’s ratings dramatically increased as witnessed in the recent state election where the party secured 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. Moreover, recent polls show that AfD’s momentum is likely to secure it a place in the federal parliament. According to the polls, AfD is likey to win between 11% and 16% in the federal elections of 2017.A similar situation we find in Italy where polls show Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement at almost at 30 % tied to the centre-left Democratic Party.

The dynamic of populist parties can be attributed to two major issues that Europe is facing. First is the euro zone debt crisis which has paralyzed the region’s economy. The record high unemployment rates all over Europe and the inability of traditional right and left parties to come up with a solution has created a major political gap for populist parties to exploit. The second issue relates to the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, for which the populist parties blame, among others, Europe’s policies. Additionally, the consequences of migrant crisis manifest themselves through

In front of the rapid growth of populist momentum and nationalist parties the response of mainstream politicians was merely to sound the alarm on the dangers of populism than proposing solutions to its driving forces. However, this tactic could have worked in past elections, were the fear of Europe’s Nazi and Soviet occupations was enough to give leaders “a powerful argument for marginalizing parties with extremist roots and other political outsiders.”

There are significant lessons to be learned from studying the rise of “anti-establishment” vote both in Europe and the United States. The first is that voters systematically show their aversion to mainstream parties, which they blame for their economic deterioration both in Europe and the United States. Secondly, the rise of anti-establishment supersedes political ideology. Both extreme right wing and left wing parties are experiencing a rise in their electoral support through merely adopting an anti-systemic rhetoric. This becomes even more important considering the fact that voters appear unconcerned with the fact that the majority of these parties become mainstream after they come to power as it happened in the case of Greece and will most likely happen with Donald Trump. Lastly, the momentum of populist/nationalist parties across Europe represents a direct threat to the unity of the European Union who is still suffering from the impact of the debt crisis and is facing an ongoing crisis of identity.