Few are predicting an end to global Trumpism, the nation-first, people-dividing style of governance with a hint of authoritarianism that began to gain traction in Europe and Asia well before Trump’s 2016 election. President-elect Joe Biden’s tight victory, in fact, could embolden Trump’s global allies to portray his unexpectedly strong showing as anything but a repudiation of their arch-conservative populist ideals.
Trump’s false, democracy-damaging claims of widespread fraud, meanwhile, could serve as a model for how to handle their own political challenges at home. The precedent of a sitting U.S. president refusing to honor a free and fair vote could embolden more hard-right nationalists, aggrieved by political defeats, to mount similar attempts to cling to power. Or, at the very least, they could mimic the doubt Trump has thrown on the legitimacy of his opponent’s win, inciting their fervent supporters to the streets and compromising the ability of political rivals to effectively lead.
Some of Trump’s global backers initially rallied to his defense as the U.S. election unfolded. But following his claims of a U.S. election being stolen, even some of his most ardent backers appeared to hedge their bets.
“I am not the most important person in Brazil, just as Trump is not the most important person in the world, as he himself says,” Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro — a close Trump ally — said during a Friday event. “The most important person is God. Humility must be present among us.”
Biden’s victory nevertheless presents practical challenges to policies that went unchecked during Trump’s presidency, ranging from destruction in Brazil of the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro to democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland to heavy-handed law enforcement under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Trump gave these populists tremendous respectability — the ability to say they were not extremist outsiders, but people who could be invited to and welcomed by the White House,” said Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the erosion of liberal democracy worldwide. “But a Trump loss raises the prospect that they will be seen as being on the wrong side of history after all.”
Trump’s four years saw victories and defeats for right-wing nationalists overseas, some of whom embraced his populist former political strategist Stephen K. Bannon as an adviser and ally. They lost power in Italy and Slovakia and slumped in the polls in Germany. But they secured key victories in Brazil and Poland, with the overt backing of the Trump White House.
“Trump’s defeat can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populism also in Europe. Thank you, Joe,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council who has railed against populism in his native Poland.
Nationalists remain in control of Hungary, where the anti-immigrant Prime Minister Viktor Orban shut down the Budapest campus of an American university over its links to billionaire financier and liberal donor George Soros. But instead of criticizing Orban, Trump’s ambassador, David B. Cornstein, blamed Soros for not establishing better ties with Orban’s right-wing government.
Orban openly supported Trump in a September op-ed. The Democrats’ foreign policy, he said in the pro-government Magyar Nemzet, was built on “moral imperialism.”
“We were forced to taste it,” he wrote. “It didn’t taste good.”
Biden has described Hungary and Poland as rising “totalitarian regimes” and implied that its leaders were “thugs.” Hungarian lawmaker Gergely Gulyás, the head of Orban’s prime ministerial office, said he was “pessimistic” as votes were coming in Tuesday. He hoped that the foreign policy of a new Democratic administration would be “better than the last one.” But he noted that Biden had received donations from Soros. “The starting point is not good,” he said.
Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, sees change ahead for Hungary.
“Trump’s presidency meant unconditional support from Washington,” he said. “I think a Joe Biden administration would be much tougher on Hungary, on democratic backsliding and corruption related to Chinese and Russian investments, where Trump just looked away.”
No global leader has barnacled himself more tightly to Trump than Bolsonaro, the formerly fringe politician who won the Brazilian presidency in 2018 by mimicking many of Trump’s campaign tactics. Bolsonaro has made closer relations with the U.S. president the keystone of his foreign policy. He has met with Bannon; he cheered on Trump during his impeachment and, as the election neared, left no doubt where he stood.
“I hope, God willing, to soon appear at the inauguration of President [Trump] in the United States,” Bolsonaro said late last month. “I don’t need to hide this. It’s from my heart.”
The defeat of Trump, who shares Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire approach to the environment, will make life more difficult for Brazil’s president. Much of the international community has condemned his stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, devastated on his watch by fire and deforestation. The arrival of Biden, who has threatened economic consequences for continued deforestation, brings more pressure.
“If he loses his main partner, his role model — because that’s what Donald Trump is — then he will be all alone,” said Dawisson Belém Lopes, a political scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “Brazil has become an environmental villain. . . . It will be a nightmare for Bolsonaro.”
Yet few expect Bolsonaro or other nationalists to abandon their populist politics. If anything, the narrow margin of the U.S. vote showed the brand’s enduring appeal. Analysts expected the results to provide Bolsonaro with a road map for his own campaign for reelection in 2022.
“All of the social and economic problems that led to the rise of Trump and Bolsonaro, these problems are still here,” said Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “The political system hasn’t reformed itself. We’re talking about a long-form battle over the reform of political systems.”
Some like-minded leaders have jumped to Trump’s aid. The hard-right Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa tweeted: “It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump and @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears. More delays and facts denying from [the mainstream media], bigger the final triumph for #POTUS.”
Bolsonaro’s influential son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, tweeted Friday that the decision by the “fake news” to take Trump’s Friday night claims off the air amounted to a left-wing conspiracy against “freedom of expression.”
It’s easy to understand their defense. Populist leaders were able to count on Trump to provide what would once have been unthinkable U.S. support. At times, the stamp of his approval appeared to help them at home.
Poland’s Law and Justice party has stacked the courts with supporters and punished judges who spoke out about changes. It has chipped away at the independence of the media, using state-run channels to churn out pro-government propaganda and attack opponents. Politicians from the ruling party have frequently made discriminatory statements targeting minorities. President Andrzej Duda has described LGBT “ideology” as more destructive than communism in his recent reelection campaign.
Nevertheless, Trump welcomed Duda in July as the first world leader to visit the White House following the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic, giving his reelection campaign a boost just days before the squeaker of a vote. Months earlier, the Trump administration had granted him another gift: visa-free travel to the United States for Polish citizens.
Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said veterans of Poland’s Solidarity movement told him Tuesday, “we’re counting on you” to restore democratic values.
“They’re not suggesting that the U.S. needs to fix Polish politics,” Fried said. “But they want to believe that the U.S., the country that in some way saved them, is willing to stand up again for democracy.”
Trump has had his ups and downs with authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who stands accused of his own shenanigans to remain in power. The American leader at one point threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy over its involvement in Syria, though their mutual search for global allies ultimately led them to a pragmatic embrace. Trump has refrained from sanctioning Turkey over the purchase of a Russian missile system — something Biden might be less shy about.
Trump’s friendly ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi culminated with an extraordinary 50,000-person rally in Houston last year, and a February jaunt to India by Trump, a time when his host was under fire over violence tied to a law that critics say discriminates against Muslims. Trump praised the Hindu nationalist nonetheless, saying, “He wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly.”
Despite Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris’s Indian roots, the new administration may prove less forgiving over Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda, even as it cultivates the relationship on most other fronts.
In Britain, where the Brexiteers became synonymous with the global wave of isolationism that brought Trump to power, there are some jitters over whether and how Biden will pursue the U.S.-British special relationship with the Trump-friendly Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Some fret that Biden, eager to curry favor with more like-minded leaders on the European continent, might prove tougher to woo into the lucrative trade deal that London needs after it bids farewell to the European Union.
“But I think, on balance, it would actually be easier for Boris Johnson to deal with Biden,” said the London-based analyst Tony Travers. “The comparisons between Johnson and Trump were always quite off. He is much more of a mainstream European politician than he is like Donald Trump.”
Trump’s early claim of victory amid unfounded accusations of fraud might have done more harm than good to nationalist movements that are seeking to portray themselves as legitimate parties. Jörg Meuthen, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, called the move “unnecessary.”
“It doesn’t matter who wins,” he said Wednesday on German television. “We have to work with the U.S. cooperatively.”
Regine Cabato in Manila, Heloísa Traiano in Rio de Janeiro and Dariusz Kalan in Budapest contributed to this report.