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The Polish politician is a vocal critic of both the brand of illiberal nationalism that has taken over his native country as well as Trump’s “America First” agenda. In the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, he described Trump’s avowed politics as constituting a possible “external” threat to the European Union. In the years that followed, the right-wing government in Warsaw cozied up to the White House, hosting a Trump visit and later an ineffectual Trump administration summit on the future of the Middle East. Polish state television has recently recycled falsehoods supported by Trump of voter fraud in the wake of the U.S. election.
With President-elect Joe Biden poised to enter the White House in January, Europe’s nationalists and populists look lonelier. It’s a stark contrast to the first months of the Trump presidency, when his ideological allies in Europe cheered what they claimed was a turning point in history. “We are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of another,” trumpeted French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in January 2017. “We are experiencing the return of nation-states.”
The following year, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon barnstormed through Europe with grandiose plans to knit together a transnational right wing in Europe and North America. He hailed Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a “hero,” a “patriot” and an inspiration for Western politics. “What I’ve learned is that you’re part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary — bigger than all of it. And history is on our side,” Bannon told a crowd in the French city of Lille. “The tide of history is on our side.”
But that nationalist tide is now ebbing. Bannon’s movement fizzled. The European far right has been mostly checked over a series of national elections, as well as the 2019 European Parliament elections. Rather than bellwethers for the future, Orban and his Polish counterparts seem like continental outliers at risk of turning into pariahs. Farther west, far-right parties are fanning conspiracy theories about the pandemic, while also joining the ranks of the Trumpist bitter-enders who refused to accept Biden’s electoral victory.
When asked last week if she would recognize Biden as the next U.S. president, Le Pen said “absolutely not” until all of Trump’s legal challenges are exhausted. She and her far-right National Rally party have to wait until 2022 to challenge for the French presidency, but nationalist movements are hardly any closer to political dominance in the West than they were when Trump first came to office.
Instead, observers expect Biden’s ascent to power to bolster liberal, internationalist forces across the Atlantic. The European Union is turning the screws right now on the governments of Hungary and Poland for their controversial attacks on democratic institutions within their countries. A Biden White House more supportive of Brussels may make that pressure all the more effective.
“What has really changed is that liberal powers now feel empowered,” Kati Piri, a Hungarian-born member of the European Parliament who represents the Netherlands, told the Wall Street Journal. “For the last several years many European leaders didn’t stand up to these autocrats. Now I have the feeling that this won’t happen again.”
“With Trump gone, populist politicians will not only enjoy less domestic legitimacy; governments will face a higher international price for nationalist stances,” wrote Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission.
“It’s going to be a pretty big change,” Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told the Wall Street Journal. “Democratic values and the commitment to the rule of law are going to be pretty darn fundamental to having good relations with Washington.”
But the far-right wave that included Trump is not about to vanish. In the United States, the Republican Party is still largely beholden to Trumpist politics, while a new generation of GOP officials seeks to build a more durable platform that may see the traditionally laissez-faire party start to borrow more directly from the economic populism of Europe’s far right. In Europe, centrist politicians and parties have tried to head off the populist challenge by aping far-right talking points on immigration and Islam.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, now perhaps the most prominent nationalist in the Western hemisphere, is going to be at loggerheads with the Biden administration over climate policy. But for all his aversion to scientific expertise, Bolsonaro’s popularity remains high. Experts recognize that the opponents of nationalism have to represent more than just a return to liberal norms and niceties.
That’s true in the United States and elsewhere. “All of the social and economic problems that led to the rise of Trump and Bolsonaro, these problems are still here,” Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told my colleagues. “The political system hasn’t reformed itself. We’re talking about a long-form battle over the reform of political systems.”
“What this election demonstrates is that in the same way Trumpism is alive and kicking in the U.S., our own little Trumps are still alive and kicking,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs think tank, told the Financial Times. “The only guarantee we have that they [won’t] rise again is addressing the grievances and inequalities the pandemic is going to aggravate even further.”