The Past and Future of Populism
Donald Trump’s campaign in the United States, the rightwing populist parties in Europe, and
even the left-center Five Star Movement have repeatedly been likened to the fascists of the
1920s. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich titles a column, “Donald Trump: American
Fascist.” “Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist,” Jamil Smith declares in The New Republic.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble described the National Front as “not a rightwing party but . . . a fascist, extremist party.” Dutch philosopher Rob Rieman accused Geert
Wilders’s Freedom Party of being a “fascist movement.” The British Spectator described
Beppe Grillo as “Italy’s New Mussolini.” Examples abound.
The term “fascism” is like the term “populism.” It is hard to pick out a collection of
characteristics that exclusively define a fascist movement or party. The Nazi Party scapegoated
an out group—the Jews. Mussolini’s fascist party did not initially single out an ethnicity or
nationality. But there are certainly some resemblances between some of today’s populist
campaigns and some of the interwar fascists: the role of the charismatic leader (Trump, Le Pen,
Wilders, Grillo); the flaunting of democratic norms (Trump); the scapegoating of an out group
(Trump, Le Pen, UKIP’s Farage, Wilders, the Danish People’s Party). But there are two major
historical differences between populism today in the United States and Western Europe and the
interwar fascist movements.
First, the two original fascist parties in Italy and Germany arose in the wake of the Russian
Revolution. During this period, it was widely believed that socialist and communist parties
would spread the revolution westward. The fascists’ and Nazis’ original targets were the
Socialists and Communists in their countries. Their aim was not simply to defeat these parties
in elections, but to destroy them through armed struggle. The fascists and Nazis blamed
democracy for encouraging the rise of these movements and while some fascists initially
concealed their aims, they eventually sought to replace democracy with dictatorship.
Today’s populist movements in Western Europe operate openly within the democratic
electoral system. They have won power and lost it like normal parties. Those that have roots in
fascism like the National Front have repudiated those roots. (There are rightwing parties in
Eastern Europe and Greece that have still not distanced themselves from Europe’s dark past.)
While some of the parties have charismatic leaders, they don’t seek to invest them with the
will of the state, but merely to elect them. Grillo himself has not even run for election, and the
Danish People’s Party, which has no prior links to fascism, has changed its top leadership the
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-02-23 20:10:35. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
way a conventional party would. In the United States, Trump is a one-man show whose initial
target was other Republicans and who has not built a movement around himself. He has
displayed anti-democratic tendencies, but they are idiosyncratic. If he has any correlate in
European history, it is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, not Mussolini nor Hitler.
Second, the original fascist movements arose not only in response to revolutionary change,
but also as part of the continuing struggle for imperial domination that had begun in the 1870s
when the European powers accelerated the process of carving up the world into colonies,
protectorates, and spheres of influence. The First World War was at least in part, as Woodrow
Wilson and Vladimir Lenin separately concluded, an attempt by Germany—which equaled
Britain in industry, but not in colonies—to redistribute the spoils of empire. European fascism
emerged as part of an attempt by a defeated Germany to reclaim what had been taken from it at
Versailles and to resume the quest for empire, and by another imperial power, Italy, to gain
what it felt it had been cheated out of. Hitler wanted a Thousand Year Reich and Mussolini
aspired to recreate the Roman Empire. In this sense, fascism was inherently expansionist.
The rightwing populist movements in Europe are, if anything, opposed to supranational
formations. They want to reassert national control of their currency, fiscal policy, and borders.
They don’t like to use the term “nationalist” to describe their objectives because it suggests
some links with Europe’s unsavory past, in which expansionism was integral to nationalism.
The National Front uses the term souveraniste rather than nationaliste. In Denmark, the
People’s Party’s Kenneth Kristiansen Berth explained, “nationalism has a very bad tone, so we
don’t call ourselves nationalist, we call ourselves national.” In Spain, Podemos uses the term
patriotica rather than nacionalista. But in fact, as foreign policy analyst George Friedman has
pointed out, these movements are nationalist as opposed to imperialist or globalist. In contrast
to interwar fascism, they exert a centrifugal rather than centripetal force on European and
global politics.
Trump, too, is a nationalist. His promise to “make America great again” does not entail
reacquiring the Philippines or launching new wars of conquest. On the contrary, Trump wants
to withdraw from America’s overseas conflicts that don’t directly threaten America and to use
the country’s resources instead to rebuild its infrastructure and manufacturing. He is an
outspoken critic of the neo-conservatives who wanted to create a new Pax Americana in the
Middle East. Domestically, Trump wants to build a wall to stop illegal immigration. He wants
to strengthen America’s borders not expand them.
Calling these parties and campaigns “fascist” can make for effective politics. It does bring
out what is most toxic about these movements—their scapegoating of other nationalities and
religions and in Trump’s case, too, the encouragement of thuggery—but it is not helpful for
understanding their actual role in contemporary history. Calling them fascist exaggerates the
danger they pose—they don’t threaten to wage war or disband parliaments. That may be the
case in the future as conditions change in the U.S. or Europe, but it’s not an accurate view of
where they are at present. If they are repellent, it is for the kind of exclusionary nationalism
they profess not for their global ambitions.
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-02-23 20:10:35. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
Populism as an Early Warning
The heated denunciation of these campaigns and parties, based on inexact historical analogies,
makes it difficult to understand why what populists say resonates with the greater public, and
how they are pointing, however imperfectly, to real problems that the major parties are
downplaying or ignoring. By the nature of populism, these campaigns and parties point to
problems through demands that are unlikely to be realized in the present political
circumstances. In the case of some rightwing populists, the demands are laced with bigotry or
challenge democratic norms. In other cases, they are clouded with misinformation. But they
still point to tears in the fabric of accepted political wisdom.
The People’s Party may have been wrong in seeing free silver as a panacea or in advancing
a complex sub-treasury scheme to help farmers, but it was not wrong to decry unregulated
finance and freight, growing economic inequality, and a corrupt and undemocratic political
system. Long’s tax schemes didn’t add up, but he got the Roosevelt administration to pay
attention to the maldistribution of wealth. Sanders’s Medicare for all or free college may not
get through a penurious Congress, and the plans themselves may need considerable tinkering,
but they are arguably worthy objectives that respond to the anxiety about their situation that
many Americans feel.
Trump is bloviating in threatening huge tariffs against China or against manufacturers that
move their factories to Mexico, or in wanting to rip up NAFTA, but there has been a problem
with American trade with China and with unfettered capital mobility. According to David
Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson, China’s imports between 1999 and 2011 cost the
United States 2.4 million jobs and particularly hurt workers in the bottom 40 percent of income
distribution. During the 2000s, the Commerce Department reported, American multinational
corporations cut their American workforces by 2.9 million, while creating 2.4 million jobs
Syriza and Podemos might end up as “model prisoners” of Germany and the Eurozone, but
they and the National Front, and the Five Star Movement have been right to point to the
dysfunctionality of the EU and the Euro. In this case, one member of the Troika has come
around, but it’s too late. In June 2016, after Greece already lay in fiscal ruin, the IMF’s journal
Finance & Development ran an essay by three of its economists entitled, “Neoliberalism:
Oversold?” The economists warned that “instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal
policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion.” On the website
Social Europe, economist Andrew Watt commented, “A definition of chutzpah is murdering
your parents and then claiming social benefits as an orphan. It is not widely recognized, but the
IMF illustrates similar brazenness in the current debate on Greece’s debt burden.”
Finally, rightwing populist campaigns and groups have held racist or nativist or
xenophobic views, but their complaints point to genuine problems. George Wallace’s call for
segregation forever was clearly racist, but he was right about the pitfalls of busing children of
different races from one urban neighborhood to another. It did result in white flight to the
suburbs and was in that sense self-defeating. Trump, Buchanan, the National Front, and the
Danish People’s Party have courted nativist sentiments in attacking illegal and legal
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-02-23 20:10:35. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
immigration, but they are right that unskilled immigration has tended to pull down wages and
burden the public sector. Writes Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang, “Wages in
rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else, including any
minimum wage legislation. How is the immigration maximum determined? Not by the ‘free’
labor market, which, if left alone, will end up replacing 80–90 percent of native workers with
cheaper, and often more productive, immigrants.”
In a deeper sense, the existence of an immigrant underclass can undermine the public trust
on which a welfare state or social democracy needs to be based. Social democracy does not
necessarily require ethnic homogeneity. But when ethnic heterogeneity takes the form of an
immigrant underclass, then it can make citizens less willing to pay taxes to support social
benefits. By the same token, as French sociologist Olivier Roy has warned, the existence in
countries like France of a ghettoized underclass can also be a seedbed for political extremism
and terrorism. Rightwing populists wrongly look at Islam the religion as the cause of
extremism, and advocate the public suppression of Islam, but they at least acknowledge there is
a problem with these communities that must be addressed.
Populism and Neoliberalism
In the United States, Trump’s and Sanders’s assault against the neoliberal consensus
significantly shifted the economic debate during the 2016 presidential election. At the
Republican and Democratic conventions, there was little mention of the supply-side nostrums
that had been a staple of both parties’ economics. Trump didn’t waver from the stands he had
taken in the primaries; and Clinton adopted much of Sanders’s message. Neither candidate
mentioned deficits in their speeches nor pledged to reduce what neoliberals have called
“entitlements”; both pledged to be vigilant about trade deals and runaway shops; both
committed themselves to regulating Wall Street. In the primaries, Sanders had been the only
candidate to call for reviving the Glass-Steagall Act, but both party platforms called for
reviving some version of the act.
How much this shift in debate will be reflected after the November election remains
unclear. If Trump is soundly defeated, as seems likely at this writing, the Republican
congressional and business leadership will argue that his defeat was due not only to his
intemperate and amateurish campaigning, but to his populism. After Barry Goldwater was
defeated in 1964, leading Republicans made similar arguments. But in the case of Goldwater,
more polished imitators sprung up who eventually transformed the Republican Party. If
Trump’s campaign does spawn imitators, the Republicans will face a continuing conflict
between its white working class and business supporters.
Sanders’s campaign is likely to have a more certain impact on the Democratic Party even if
he himself fades from the scene. Sanders’s outlook is well represented in Congress by senators
Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and by the House Progressive Caucus, which Sanders
helped to found. If Hillary Clinton does win the presidency, they are likely to provide a
counterweight to the neoliberal influence of Wall Street and Silicon Valley among the
Democrats. That should lead to continuing conflict within the party.
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-02-23 20:10:35. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
In the near term, however, the United States is not likely to experience a political
earthquake that would overturn neoliberalism and realign the parties. American neoliberalism
has been based on an implicit global arrangement in which the United States runs large trade
deficits, particularly to countries in Asia, and the countries send back the dollars from their
trade surpluses to fund our deficits and fuel consumer demand. That arrangement could fray
and precipitate a crisis, but it remains semi-intact for the moment. The American workforce
will continue to skew away from the middle, but as long as those in the middle can still find
work, a crisis is unlikely. Also, the United States is in a better position than Europe to control
its flow of immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants. What is happening is an erosion
rather than a disintegration of the neoliberal agenda.
But in the words of Herbert Stein, things that can’t go on forever, don’t. The circulatory
system of trade deficits, recycled dollars, and private and public debt that sustains
neoliberalism won’t go on forever, and when it does cease, or fray to the point of breaking,
there will be a reckoning for which the Perot, Buchanan, Sanders, and Trump campaigns will
have prepared the way.
Europe is another matter entirely. The European Union and the Eurozone were built with
the best of intentions, but many Europeans have not seen their benefits, particularly those who
live in the less prosperous nations within the Eurozone. The case against the Euro is not new. It
was stated clearly by economist Wynne Godley in the London Review of Books in 1992:
What happens if a whole country—a potential ‘region’ in a fully integrated community—
suffers a structural setback? So long as it is a sovereign state, it can devalue its currency. It
can then trade successfully at full employment provided its people accept the necessary cut
in their real incomes. With an economic and monetary union, this recourse is obviously
barred, and its prospect is grave indeed unless federal budgeting arrangements are made
which fulfill a redistributive role.
And of course, no federal budgeting arrangements were made. Fiscal policy, and the revenues
on which it is based have remained in national hands, and to make matters worse, the Stability
and Growth Pact—and its 2012 successor, the Stability Pact—have drastically limited the use
of deficit spending to ease unemployment. If the EU were to move toward a centralized fiscal
and monetary policy, as Varoufakis and other leftwing economists have proposed, then the
Eurocrisis could be eased, but there is huge resistance to doing that, particularly in wealthier
northern European countries, including Germany, Holland, and Finland. As a result, the
prognosis for the Eurozone is negative.
And the EU’s other source of disunion—the flood of asylum seekers from the Middle East
and North Africa and from the poorer parts of the EU itself to the more prosperous—is
integrally related to the Eurocrisis. Part of the logic of open borders was that if people in one
country couldn’t find jobs they could move to another. Large-scale immigration is the price that
northern European countries have had to pay for their success, and it’s a major reason for
Britain’s voting to leave the EU. It has fueled rightwing populism and adamant opposition
among groups like the True Finns, the Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Freedom Party, and the
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-02-23 20:10:35. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
Alternative fur Deutschland to any federal budgeting arrangements that fulfill a redistributive
Some experts on European politics, including Oxford political scientist Jan Zielonka, think
that the EU is destined to disintegrate. That’s beyond my own power of speculation. But I think
it is fair to say that the pressures that have created rightwing and leftwing populist parties in
Europe will, if anything, grow, and could reach the point where several other countries besides
Great Britain decide to bolt. If that happens, the EU, which Barack Obama called “one of the
greatest achievements of modern times,” will suffer the fate that former, and far less benign,
attempts at a European confederation have suffered.
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-02-23 20:10:35. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.

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