Is Donald Trump-style populism, Trumpismo, ready for export to Europe? We will get the first hints this weekend when Austrians may well vote for Europe’s first far-right head of state, and when a constitutional referendum in Italy goes “wrong” — that is, when voters ignore the advice of a comfortable elite. Imagine how this could unfold: an Italian government led by the Five Star movement demanding a referendum on the country’s membership of the eurozone, an Austrian rejection of closer EU integration and maybe, just maybe, a President Marine Le Pen threatening to blow up the European dream. If you thought 2016 was a rough ride, just wait for the 2017 revolutions.
Some ingredients of Trumpismo are certainly familiar to Europeans. The deep currents of the banking crisis, widespread resentment at the self-enriching political class and down below, barely visible on the lower decks, millions of people who feel cast out, no longer necessary to society. Is that anger enough to overturn governments and rattle the founding idea of Europe?
It is not difficult to see the far right advancing in the Dutch elections in March or in the French presidential race soon after. A blue-collar worker in France is likely to be faced with a choice between François Fillon, who advocates working harder for longer and with less protection, and Marine Le Pen who offers protection from foreigners, being fired and terrorists. After Mr Trump’s victory, you would be rash to discount Ms Le Pen’s chances of victory.
The European backstory, though, sets it apart from Trumpismo. After the Second World War, western Europe built constitutional blockades to stop fascism returning or Stalinism encroaching. The rise of small parties was barred in Germany (they have to win five per cent of the vote before getting into parliament), while in Italy the Christian Democrats were pumped up with cash and privilege to ensure that the communists never got into power.
In the 1990s, however, a different kind of politics, one that addressed real popular anxieties, took hold. So, long before the rise of Trump, many Austrians fell under the thrall of a Porsche-driving Jörg Haider, and Italians succumbed to a cruise ship crooner-turned-media magnate named Silvio Berlusconi. Establishment pundits in both countries say that these nationalist crowd-pleasers were a flash in the pan. A democratic corrective returned societies to the “norm” of openness and tolerance. And the same will happen this time round.
But listen to how the sages justify this supposed swing of the pendulum. The centre-leftist Matteo Renzi, they say, will win his referendum on Sunday (designed to slash the powers of the Senate and make government more effective) because the alternative — the fall of his government, an international collapse of confidence, bank failures and a eurozone meltdown — is too dreadful to contemplate. Project Fear alla Italiana.
There is similar elite complacency in France. It is counting on a replay of the 2002 presidential contest when, in the second round, Jean-Marie Le Pen was trounced by Jacques Chirac, thanks to the whole of the terrified mainstream voting against the far-rightist. Trump won, they say, because of his novelty value but the Le Pen dynasty has been around for so long it virtually qualifies as the ancien regime. What’s more, the French would find it abhorrent to mimic les Americains.
Yet these pundits fail to appreciate the depth of popular disgruntlement with elites who have failed to deliver a prosperous or secure Europe. The eurozone crisis has pitted north against south, and creditor nations against those in their debt. And then there is the helplessness of governments in the face of mass migration, their unwillingness to even speak publicly about a defunct model of multiculturalism.
So the old bogeymen, the fear tactics, have lost their power at a time of massive social disruption. My bet is that Renzi will lose his vote not because of an Italian lust for chaos but because they consider the reforms largely irrelevant to their needs. Italians want more efficient judges and better schools, they want economic growth and a slashing of youth unemployment; all they seem to be getting is constitutional tinkering.
If Italy votes “no” on Sunday, it won’t be the end of the world, even if a snap election were to bring Beppe Grillo, the former comedian and founder of the Five Star movement, closer to power. The world is undergoing a process of recalibration, not the accelerated decline of civilisation. Bringing politics closer to the people makes it more vulgar, less predictable, but also, for a while, more effective. Italy, after all, survived the years of bunga-bunga. Italians were initially forgiving of Berlusconi’s vanities because he promised to bring a businessman’s critical eye to failing institutions. When he failed to deliver serious change, or serious anything, he was turfed out. On the day when he resigned as prime minister in 2011, Italians took to the streets not to riot but, rather more joyfully, to sing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The message: Italy had no more need of an ersatz messiah as a leader.
Mature democracies can handle populist politicians, use them, discard them. If these upstarts become the tribunes of the future, Europe will have to search for a new consensus and perhaps that’s exactly what the continent needs. But don’t expect a new Führer. Not every Beppe is a Benito, not every Austrian nationalist an Adolf.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.