The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump is inspiring world leaders — just not the ones you’d think

He's turning mainstream conservatives across the globe into racists and nativists.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban waves during the final electoral rally of his Fidesz party in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, on April 6, 2018. Illiberal leaders like Orban predated the rise of President Trump, whose real influence abroad lay elsewhere. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

While many Americans sound the alarm about the threat that Trumpism poses to constitutional democracy at home, it also has a dangerous impact abroad.

But not in the ways many pundits think.

Trumpism is not responsible for the spread of illiberalism to Europe, Latin America and other places in Asia and Africa. Those developments preceded Trumpism. In recent years, democracy has been undermined by populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary and, outside of Europe, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — all well before Trump’s rise to power.

At most, Trumpism represents a key confirmation of the illiberal approaches to politics wielded by these leaders. Instead, rather than serving as a role model for right-wing populists, Trump’s real influence has been on those conservative politicians who outwardly distance themselves from Trump, but nonetheless recognize the political appeal of his style and politics. They have subtly — and dangerously — embraced his appeals to racism and state violence to shore up their support while sanding off Trumpism’s roughest edges, allowing their illiberal approach to fly beneath the radar.

European and American pundits constantly repeat the notion that Trumpism is the template for populists worldwide, inspiring the rise of right-wing parties in France, Italy, Germany and beyond. It’s a view they’re even more prone to trumpet after former Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s recent European tour, in which he appeared before Le Pen’s National Front and touted the rise of a “global populist movement.” In countries where fascism was born and where right-wing populism has thrived for years, Bannon was treated not only as the creator of Trump, but also as an exporter of Trumpism.

But while Trumpism shares a genealogy with other populist movements, this is not a stereotypical export-import situation. Rather, the rise of these movements across Europe, the United States and Latin America reflects a shared crisis of democracy. There is a widespread sense of a crisis of political representation, in which people do not see their concerns being addressed by their governments. Growing economic inequality likewise matters, fueling more radical and nationalist politics.

The populists present themselves as the solution to these problems of democracy. But in general, their proposals simply exacerbate the current unrepresentative dimensions of government and economic inequality, while also weakening democratic institutions and stressing intolerance as way to deal with those that are different. Even when populists represent large electoral groups, voices that are critical of the leader are delegitimized, and thus unworthy of having their views reflected in government policy.

In this way, the new populists are building upon a long tradition — but adding a modern twist that the success of Trumpism has incentivized. Populism first came to power in countries such as Argentina and Brazil as a way of overcoming fascism while offering an alternative model to liberalism and socialism. Before the end of World War II and the defeat of fascism, dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had owned this political third position between liberalism and socialism. After 1945, politicians like Col. Juan Domingo Perón left fascism and dictatorship behind and created a new post-fascism, which we can also call populism in power.

In other words, Peronism and other Latin American governments of that time created a form of authoritarian democracy. This democracy was anti-liberal (against existing models of constitutional democracy), but it wasn’t dictatorial and racist like fascism had been. And that’s what is new — or rather, what is old — about today’s right-wing populisms, including Trumpism. They want to return to precisely what classical populism arose in opposition to: fascist violence and racism.

Hatred of the political enemy is mostly racial for Trump, a feature he shares with the right-wing movements in Europe. The new right-wing populism in America and countries such as France, Austria, Germany and Italy tends to conceive of “the people” as an ethnically and religiously homogeneous body. But doing so merely represents a return to the right-wing histories of populism and fascism, using Trump as evidence of the appeal of their politics.

Trumpism has had a far more significant global impact, however, on conservative or even social-democratic leaders in Europe and Latin America who want to leverage the appeal of Trumpist positions on “law and order” and immigration restriction while trying to avoid the charges of populism and racism. To be sure, right-wing politicians worldwide have adopted these positions for a half-century, but by demonstrating the appeal of this old model in the world’s most powerful country, Trumpism has legitimated these positions and helped to bring them into the political mainstream.

Many of the politicians who are learning a political lesson from Trumpism have no plans to vocally embrace Trump’s style or to present themselves as populists. In fact, they are populists on a diet, which means that, dangerously, the media and many voters ignore the impact that Trumpism is having on them. They are not interested in condoning Bannon or the KKK, but they do hope to build support by excluding immigrants and celebrating the unrestrained violence of law enforcement. As they distance themselves from Trump publicly, they work to quietly leverage what they understand as his appeal.

Like Trump, these “anti-political” leaders enjoy pillorying politics as usual and claiming to do the work of politics while keeping themselves free from the political process.

These importers of Trumpism-lite, including leaders like Britain’s Theresa May and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, are fusing anti-politics and a technocratic government of managers, and adding in a large dose of paranoia and xenophobia against immigrants. In Germany, as part of the conservative attempt to attract xenophobic extreme-right AFD voters, “populism light” prompted the minister of the interior to declare that “Islam does not belong to Germany.”

These “moderates” often call themselves anti-populist — a way of distancing themselves from the extreme right wing — but they nonetheless advance their own measures of xenophobia and discrimination. They avoid focusing on structural problems of inequality and underemployment by sporadically stressing hatred of the immigrant and others who look or speak different. They are ready to celebrate police repression for political gain.

This is Donald Trump’s real export. Right-wing populists such as Le Pen have been around for decades. But by rejecting the populist label and mainstreaming Trump’s politics, these advocates of Trumpism-lite are the true novel importers of Trump’s ongoing racist and repressive legacy.