What if you only had two choices for president: Ted Cruz or Donald Trump?
That fascinating (some would say enviable) question will confront the French in their election next year. France’s current president, the bumbling pooh-bear socialist François Hollande, has enervated the left, with an approval rating hovering around 4 percent. That leaves François Fillon, a free-market Thatcherite with a plan to cut half a million government jobs, and Marine Le Pen, a nationalist populist in the mold of Trump. The two will likely square off in France’s runoff election after the socialists are eliminated during the first round of voting in April, and Le Pen has a very good chance at winning it all.
Welcome to the new world order. Actually that’s premature: the old center-left/center-right establishment is still spluttering along, but it’s being challenged as never before by populist insurgencies, spurred by fury over mass immigration and political elitism. Donald Trump is the American iteration of this; his shock election last month will alter our politics for years to come. But while Trump is often portrayed as an American original, an Andrew Jackson 2.0 who torched his way to Washington by igniting a prairie fire, the sentiments he embodies can also be found across Europe.
The international ascent of Trumpism has been remarkable. It has also been very rapid.
There was Brexit, of course, the June referendum that saw the British vote decisively to reclaim their sovereignty from the European Union. And while Brexit is often cited as a trumpet blast of what was to come, the portents began to appear long before that.
All the way back in 2010, Hungary elected as its prime minister Viktor Orbán, a social conservative who contends that “liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive,” and who has sought to refashion Hungary as a more authoritarian-ish country in the mold of Russia and Turkey. Similar trends are at work in Poland, where voters late last year elected the Law and Justice Party. Its early reforms have included consolidating state power over the media and passing an invasive government surveillance law.
Now, additional tremors are felt in Italy, where Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is holding a referendum on Sunday in the hopes of overhauling his country’s constitution and streamlining its unwieldy parliament. It’s a perfectly good idea, but Renzi slipped on a banana peel by promising to resign if the measure fails, turning it into a vote of confidence on him and the political class in Rome. If Renzi’s reforms lose, which polls suggest they will, it will plunge Italy into political chaos and pave the road for populist parties like the increasingly popular Five Star Movement.
Austrians, too, are heading to the ballot box this weekend, for a presidential election that will probably be won by the Freedom Party. Since its rise in 1956 under Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi SS officer, the Freedom Party has never won the Austrian presidency; its victory on Sunday would be the first time a so-called “far-right” group has risen to power in Western Europe since World War II.
Over in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom is at the top of all the polls and well-positioned to win the parliamentary elections in March. Wilders is the filmmaker behind “Fitna,” an incendiary documentary about Islam that’s deeply skeptical of the Quran. Under Wilders’ pressure, the lower house of the Dutch parliament voted this week to ban all public face coverings, including its ostensible target, the burqa.
There are common denominators under all these movements: opposition to mass immigration, a determination to combat Islamic terrorism, hostility towards the European Union, a general friendliness towards Russia. The number-one culprit behind this new populism is the EU, which has voraciously gobbled up member sovereignty while providing clueless governance, making a nationalist reaction against its superstate inevitable. Playing a secondary role are national European leaders like Angela Merkel, who made the fateful decision to admit millions of Syrian refugees.
The biggest worry for European leaders right now is France. If Marine Le Pen wins the presidency, she’s promised to hold a referendum on France’s European Union membership. The French are more Euroskeptical than you think, having already rejected the European Constitution in a 2005 referendum. Brexit will challenge the EU; Frexit would destroy it, leaving only Germany surrounded by client states.
That would bring the old order crashing down, but will it actually happen? Keep an eye on Italy and Austria: we’ll have a better idea after this weekend.