By Benjamin Moffitt* – The Guardian
The loose coalition of disparate groups that came together to defeat Trump has served its purpose. Now the struggle begins
It is tempting to conclude that Donald Trump’s defeat – which he still hasn’t accepted – is a sign that the “populist wave” that saw many rightwing populists triumph across the 2010s is finally receding. With the populist commander-in-chief losing office, rightwing populists around the world must surely be feeling nervous, wondering if it is all over, and whether they might be next.
We’ve heard this one before. In 2017, when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in France and Mark Rutte defeated Geert Wilders in the Netherlands within the space of a few months, many a thinkpiece was written asking: are populism’s days numbered? I think we all know the answer to that, as do the likes of Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Make no mistake: Joe Biden’s win over Trump is a monumental and important victory, not only for the Democrats in the US, but for small-d democrats worldwide. There was a collective sigh of relief in liberal democracies across the globe when the news came through that the most prominent and famous case of rightwing populism would soon be packing his bags. But to assume that Biden’s win sounds the death knell for populism, or that it provides a clear model for defeating populism that should be imitated in other countries, would be a mistake.
There are three key problems here. The first is assuming that a single election in a single country acts as a bellwether for global trends – even if it is the most powerful and wealthy country in the world. While political scientists often speak about a process of “diffusion” in which political events in one country influence those in others, this is by no means a linear process. While parties and movements across the globe that are opposed to rightwing populism and nativism will undoubtedly take heart from Biden’s victory and study what worked, there is no indication nor guarantee that the dominoes will fall for populists in other countries, many of whose success is far more entrenched and longstanding than Trump’s. Beyond this, while Trump may (eventually) be gone, that does not mean populism is: populist-right leaders and parties tend to have long institutional legacies, and we can expect the GOP to grapple with its post-Trump future – and the question of whether it wants to continue down the populist path he has set them on – for months and years to come.
The second problem is, strangely enough, overlooking what a singularly and uniquely bizarre, venal and odious character Trump is, even compared with the rogues’ gallery that make up the global populist right. While populism is a political style that revolves around the appeal to “the people” versus “the elite”, the invocation of crisis, and the use of “bad manners” to demonstrate your closeness to the “real people”, Trump took this to an extreme.
His was a populism on steroids. I have spent my professional life studying populism across the globe, so should be inured to these kinds of things, but constantly found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the depths Trump was willing to plumb. Only Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or perhaps Bolsonaro come close in terms of their ability to court outrage and offend: most rightwing populists at least know when to tone it down and when to play it up, a balance that Trump seemed unwilling or perhaps even unable to achieve.
In this regard, it is probably the case that this election should not be read as a vote for Biden, but as a strong vote against Trump. This is what political scientists refer to as “negative partisanship” – the idea that you vote against candidates and parties, not for them. Trump is such a detestable figure that many people probably held their noses and voted for Biden as there was no other realistic choice if they wanted to save the republic. Now that Biden will take office, those people will probably stop holding their noses.
This relates to the third, perhaps deepest problem: the kind of “anti-populism” put forward by Biden does not represent a lasting response to rightwing populism. By anti-populism, I refer not to a clear ideological disposition or mode of governance, but rather the phenomenon by which opponents of populism are drawn together in a temporary alliance to “defeat” populism. Such anti-populism usually has a centrist and moderate flavour, offering a return to “normal”, a privileging of “rationality”, and the offer of the grownups being in charge once again: precisely what Biden was offering in comparison with the utter chaos of the Trump administration.
Let us be clear: anti-populism worked here. Biden was able to pull together a loose coalition of disparate groups in the name of defeating Trump – leftists, centrist Democrats, the so-called moderate Republicans of the “Never Trumpers” and Lincoln Project strand. But what now? With Trump (nearly) out of the way, what on earth do these groups have to agree on? “Decency”? “Normalcy”? These are not the basis for a sustainable ideological project or the makings of newly forged political identity. They have served their purpose as part of an electoral strategy, but there is little long-term to grasp on to here, and serious political imagination and courage is needed to forge a way out of this.
As such, while the embrace of centrism may be enticing at present as Biden calls for unity, compromise and consensus, it is important to keep in mind that such a form of politics often ends up eventually feeding into the desire for populism. Indeed, political theorists such as Chantal Mouffe have explicitly blamed such “third wayism”, which seeks to steer “not right, nor left”, for the rise of right populism in Europe. The American people have every right to demand not “normal”, but serious systemic change in a fractured and deeply unequal nation. It is not difficult to imagine how a failure to meet these challenges could create the conditions in which enough of the populace is discontented and alienated from political, economic and social life that they are willing to roll the dice on a right-populist once again.
So, let the anti-populists enjoy a much-deserved electoral victory. The Trump era is over, and, in the end, Biden was the person to deliver them from the misery that Trump had lorded over for the past four years. But let’s not be naive: you don’t defeat populism in the long run simply by being anti-populist. The longer struggle of what a Biden presidency will mean now begins. Last modified on Thu 19 Nov 2020
*Benjamin Moffitt is a senior lecturer in politics at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. His latest book is Populism (Polity, 2020)