The Rising Tide of the Populist Right

Jair Bolsonaro (Antonio Scorza via Shutterstock)

by John Feffer

In the Americas, the Trump tsunami has swept across both continents and the “pink tide” of progressivism has all but disappeared from the southern half of the hemisphere. In Europe, with the recent exception of Spain, the left has been banished to the political margins. In Africa and Asia, socialism has devolved into nationalism, authoritarianism, or just plain corruption. And forget about the Middle East.

In this planet-wide rising tide of right-wing populism, the liberal left commands only a few disconnected islands — Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Uruguay. In so many other places, increasingly illiberal leaders are in charge. Add up the numbers and significantly more than half the world’s population currently lives under some form of right-wing populist or authoritarian rule, courtesy of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China, among others.

Optimists cling to the pendulum theory of politics: conservatives are now basking in the limelight, but the day will come when the right inevitably falls on its face and the left swings back into action; witness the results of the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States.

In addition, pragmatists point out that many of these latter-day autocrats, for all their anti-democratic tendencies, came to power through elections. Yes, they have since sought to change constitutions, pack courts, muzzle the media, and crack down on civil society, but they remain constrained by the guardrails of the more-or-less liberal political systems they still run. In the end, so goes such thinking, democracy will prevail. Look at how, over time, some right-wing populists have been dislodged at the polls (Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia), brought down by corruption scandals (Alberto Fujimori in Peru), or forced to resign in disgrace (Silvio Berlusconi in Italy).

Optimists and pragmatists alike ultimately have faith that democracies are self-regulating organisms, not unlike the Earth’s ecosystem. The planet has managed to survive countless asteroid strikes, solar flares, and extreme weather conditions. Democracy, too, will outlast Hurricane Donald and all the other examples of extreme political weather, thanks, sooner or later, to woke voters and resilient mechanisms of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, given the malign impact humans are having on the planet, this analogy is far less reassuring than it once might have been. Only the willfully ignorant expect that some natural oscillation in global temperature or the Earth’s own adjustments to its climate feedback loops will arrive in time to save us. Humankind has clearly thrown a spanner into the works and now faces a distinctly difficult, if not disastrous, future. Similarly, across the globe, the electoral pendulum appears to be stuck on the side of reaction and the new generation of right-wing populists could well be on the verge of changing the political playing field, just as humans are in the process of irrevocably transforming the planet.

Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, Trump, and their ilk should indeed be understood as the political equivalent of global warming. Instead of deadly carbon, they spew hateful invective and show a remarkable determination to destroy a far-from-perfect status quo.  Moreover, they are the product not of farting livestock or extraterrestrial events but of the self-interested acts of blinkered humans. In an increasingly restrictive political space, liberals and progressives are looking ever more like so many polar bears on ever fewer ice floes, with diminishing room for maneuver.

Don’t bet on politics as usual to lower the temperature and put a stop to this moment’s tidal surge of ugly intolerance. Because the nature of the game has changed, those who oppose the global New Right must engage in a strategic rethink — or we’ll all drown in the rising waters.

The Game Changers

Today’s autocrats are, at first glance, a diverse band of brothers.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has attacked the Catholic Church for defending the sanctity of human life and challenging his campaign of extrajudicial murder. In Nicaragua, one-time revolutionary Daniel Ortega has courted the Catholic Church as a pillar of his undemocratic rule. Vladimir Putin presents himself and his country as saviors of Christianity, while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to promote his own brand of political Islam, Narendra Modi has ridden to power thanks to Hindu nationalism, and Xi Jinping eschews religion altogether. Some right-wing nationalists like Bolsonaro have ambitious plans to privatize state assets, while others, like those in Italy’s current leadership, want to nationalize major properties. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is concerned about climate change, but most right-wing populists like Donald Trump insist that the threat doesn’t exist and want to extract ever more fossil fuels.

Don’t be fooled, though. While these leaders may not rhyme, they all dance to the same rhythm.

These illiberal politicians have uniformly come to power by attacking globalization. They have criticized the neo-liberal transformations of the recent past that enriched the few at the expense of the many, while challenging the major political parties of the center left and center right that implemented the economic reforms that unleashed such forces. They have taken aim at the corruption that has metastasized in political systems already ill equipped to handle a massive uptick in cross-border financial transactions. When politically useful, they have demonized immigrants and refugees who are one side effect of, as well as victims of, that very burgeoning globalization movement. They have championed national sovereignty against the interventions of multilateral organizations, while blasting multicultural values and the human-rights groups that promote them. And they have taken advantage of social media like Facebook and Twitter that promote a version of participatory totalitarianism in which individuals can freely relinquish their privacy and abandon conventional news media for daily dispatches from their favorite celebrity autocrat.

Election results in the world’s most populous democracies suggest that liberalism — in its free-market economic form and its more tolerant, inclusive, and statist political version – has become discredited at a popular level. A quick glance at the titles of some recent books (Why Liberalism Failed, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, How Democracies Die, What Was Liberalism) reveals that the chattering classes, too, have noticed this global trend.

The Trumps of this world have cannily identified a fundamental shift in the political playing field, rushing into the gap created by the declining popularity of liberal values. Viktor Orban set an early example of such opportunism when, in the 1990s, he jettisoned his liberal past and opted instead for the right side of the Hungarian political spectrum. In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the left and right had alternated in power as voters became disgusted with whatever party controlled the levers of state. By successfully linking all the ills facing the country to liberals and their follies, however, Orban became the one to preside over a genuine transformation of the political landscape. The premier liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats, effectively disappeared when he became prime minister in 2010 — and formally dissolved three years later. Almost a decade after he first took office, the only serious opposition to Orban is to his right.

The last time globalization transformed the world so thoroughly, in the early twentieth century, the ensuing backlash led to liberalism’s first catastrophic fail. In those years, liberals consistently failed to understand that the ground had shifted under them. In Russia, Bolsheviks took power from the weak crew of potential democratic reformers that had overthrown the tsar, inspiring a handful of movements in Europe that attempted something similar. In Germany, illiberal politicians took aim at the cosmopolitan values of the Weimar Republic. In Italy and Spain, leaders adopted virulent nationalism, challenging incipient global institutions like the League of Nations. In the wake of the Great Depression, Japanese ultra-militarists easily dispatched the weak Taisho democracy. Meanwhile, in the United States, right-wing demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin built large followings by railing on the radio against communists, Wall Street, and “the international money-changers in the temple,” though they failed to take power in the era of a charismatic liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Where liberalism survived, it did so largely by absorbing some of the strategies of the illiberal communists and fascists, namely relying on the state to keep the economy afloat, as Roosevelt did with his New Deal policies. This lesson carried over into the post-World War II-era in which American liberals continued to embrace New Deal principles that would culminate in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and European liberals embraced the compromises that would eventually produce the European Union. At the global level, nations of various ideological dispositions came together to create a set of institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund — meant to ensure some degree of permanent stability. Economic globalization resumed, but this time in a regulatory environment that, initially, seemed to spread the benefits more equally.

That all changed in the 1970s when, in one country after another, a new generation of liberals and conservatives began to dismantle those very regulations in hopes that an unfettered market would jump-start growth globally. However, only after China embraced capitalism and the Soviet Union collapsed did economic globalization take a quantum leap to true globalization. With it the world returned to Gilded Age levels of concentrated wealth and inequality. No surprise, then, that the instability and intolerance of that long-gone era has returned as well.

Leaders like Putin, Erdogan, and Trump aren’t just politically savvy, nor have they simply been lucky or unusually ruthless. Instead, they sensed the changing mood of a moment and were able to capitalize on a profound discontent with the status quo that liberals had built, a discontent that won’t disappear simply because right-wing populists are exposed as frauds, incompetents, or cheats. Worse, crafty operators with even more ambitious agendas stand ready to destroy the liberal status quo once and for all.

The Bannon Archipelago

A Nationalist International should be a contradiction in terms, but that hasn’t stopped Steve Bannon from trying to create one. The erstwhile publisher and moviemaker, darling of the alt-right, and one-time Trump whisperer is on an extended world tour aimed at building a loose network of right-wing populists that he calls the Movement. It’s centered in — of all places — Brussels, the home of the European Union.

Bannon hopes to take advantage of post-Brexit Euroskepticism to roll his Trojan horse of a movement into the very heart of the enemy’s camp. With the encouragement of various right-wing oligarchs like financier John Thornton, he’s already met with neo-fascists associated with groups like the Belgian Vlaams Belong, France’s National Rally (the rebranded National Front), and Sweden’s Democratic Party, as well as more conventional right-wing populists in Italy and Hungary. He’s out to take the EU from the social democrats and pallid conservatives, the Vatican from the too-permissive Pope Francis, and the West from the clutches of immigrants and multiculturalists.

Elections for the European Parliament at the end of May should prove a testing ground for Bannon’s Movement. Right now, if the polling is accurate and the Euroskeptic, populist, and far-right parties combine their efforts, they could, staggeringly enough, become the largest coalition in that body. True, some prominent right-wing parties, like Poland’s Law and Justice, remain unseduced by Bannon. But it’s a mistake to underestimate him, just as it was a mistake to dismiss Trump in 2016. Success can be very persuasive, as The Donald proved in his takeover of a Republican Party whose leaders initially and almost universally despised him.

But Europe is only part of Bannon’s plan. For someone who has vented so much spleen at “globalists” like financier and philanthropist George Soros, Bannon is quite the internationalist. In Latin America, he’s already appointed Jair Bolsonaro’s youngest son as his regional representative to help build on the right’s electoral successes in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay. Bannon has also partnered with a Chinese billionaire to create a Rule of Law Fund that’s meant to be the point of a spear aimed at the regime in Beijing.

In search of a stable of princes, that would-be Machiavelli has also visited Japan at the invitation of the fanatical Happiness Realization Party, a political cult that embraces Japanese militarism. Israel, too, is to be part of Bannon’s alt-right archipelago because the self-professed “Christian Zionist” sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a key link in a future anti-Islamic front. Also figuring prominently in his thinking is Russia, a vast, mostly white country led by a critic of Western liberalism and “radical Islam,” though Bannon acknowledges that the Mueller report has temporarily set back his efforts.

Bannon didn’t create the new right-wing populist wave, but he’s been clever enough to grab a surfboard, dive into the waters, and try to guide the swell further to the right. Toward that end, he’s creating what he calls a “war room.” He says:

“It’s what we did for Trump in the U.S.: writing op-eds, booking people on media, surrogate media — all that. The last part of it is to do with grassroots social media and getting organized physically and getting out the vote.”

This isn’t, however, just a global version of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” an opportunistic attempt to solidify a political realignment. Bannon and his ilk have a much more ambitious project in mind. Having dismissed the current resident of the Vatican as far too liberal, Bannon has put himself forward as the pope of a new movement to fight the barbarians (as he defines them).

A lifelong Catholic and former military man, he harkens back to a much earlier papal tradition, that of Pope Urban II, who launched the First Crusade to retake Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century. Bannon wants to recreate a pre-EU, whiter, more martial and nationalistic Europe. Like the popes and princes of the eleventh century, the right-wing populists in Europe have already been conjuring up external enemies to unify the like-minded. Islam remains a suitable adversary, whether in the form of ordinary immigrants or extraordinary terrorists. But there’s China, too, which poses the greatest challenge to the West since the Middle Kingdom last ruled the world of commerce, innovation, and culture so many centuries ago. Finally, there’s the enemy within: the globalists who have no patience for nationalism, the secularists who want to hold religion at arm’s length, and the multiculturalists who campaign against white privilege.

This crusade of Bannon’s and the far right is a last-ditch effort to maintain the United States and a large swath of Eurasia as bastions of white Christendom. For decades, those who held such views populated the extremes where they belonged. However, the economic failures of globalization, a huge uptick in refugee flows, and a general decline in faith in democratic institutions have proved fertile ground for such a new crusade to take shape.

Movement vs. Movement

In the United States, organizations like Indivisible, a progressive group created by former congressional staffers in the wake of the 2016 elections that now has 5,000 local chapters, are not waiting for the political pendulum to swing by itself. They’re already working hard to push politics back to the left — and their organizing produced results in the 2018 midterm elections when the Democratic Party retook the House of Representatives.

The 2020 presidential election, however, is a different matter. Trump now has the incumbent’s advantage and, for the time being, the tailwind of a strong economy. In fact, some economic forecasters predict a landslide for him as long as the economy doesn’t tank. The president’s team has also made sure that areas of the country where his base is strong are experiencing greater job growth than in Democratic Party strongholds.

In addition, Trump and his minions are hard at work eroding the foundations of a democratic society — demonizing the media, working to suppress voter turnout, chipping away at the barriers between church and state, and packing the courts with ideologues who support their agenda. The vast majority of the groups mobilizing to defeat Trump in 2020 are working with traditional tools to effect political change. Having learned from past masters of populism like Orban and Erdogan, Team Trump is instead busy changing the playing field.

That’s what makes the current political moment different. The pendulum theory of political change only applies if the major electoral actors play by the same rules. The right-wing populists have, however, been busy transforming the rules of the game so that they can stay in power as long as possible, while using the levers of the state to enrich themselves and their cronies. Putin has ruled Russia for two decades. Erdogan has held onto power for 16 years. Orban is closing in on a decade in office. Even in an undemocratic country like China, Xi Jinping has altered the collective rules of succession to ensure that he will remain leader for life.

One possible response to right-wing populism would, of course, be to ramp up left-wing populism. This was a winning strategy in 2015 for the Greek political party Syriza, which has been in charge of that country for four years now. It also worked for Evo Morales, who has captained Bolivia for more than a dozen years. And, of course, Bernie Sanders came close to being the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 2016 election while promoting his version of left-wing populism, which capitalizes on an essential political reality: passion often moves people more effectively than policy.

But it’s hard to see left-wing populism as a long-term answer to the New Right. It either fails electorally, as Jean-Luc Melenchon, the standard bearer for the movement France Unbowed, discovered in that country’s last presidential election; or it faces the kind of “economic realities” that forced Syriza to accommodate the austerity demands of European bureaucrats and banks; or, as Morales has demonstrated in Bolivia, it ends up presiding over the same erosion of democratic practices as its right-wing counterparts.

Yes, the nuts-and-bolts organizing of groups like Indivisible is indispensable. Yes, the passion of left-wing populists is essential. But such politicking and the mirror-image populism that sometimes goes with it are mere life preservers. They may keep us afloat, but they won’t rescue us. The New Right requires a far more original kind of response.

After all, the forces that gave rise to this tidal wave of right-wing populism remain in place: widening economic inequality, surging migrant flows, ballooning corruption scandals. Parties of the center remain discredited, and liberals have not come up with convincing alternatives to the policies and institutions of globalization they created. Trying to nudge the political pendulum out of the emergency zone is a necessary but ultimately insufficient approach. It’s the equivalent of expecting that a conventional fix like a gasoline tax will stop climate change. Environmentalists understand that unprecedented change requires an unprecedented response. To deal with the threat of political climate change, a similarly international, broad-based, and fundamentally new approach is called for.

So don’t wait for the pendulum to swing. Don’t put your faith in the guardrails. It’s not time for a manifesto or a 10-point plan. It’s time for a movement to counteract Bannon’s Movement, a global coalition that joins people and politicians in a united, international effort to respond to the true global problems — climate change, endless war, and economic inequality — that threaten to overwhelm us all. Absent such a movement, the rising tide of populism will sink all boats, life preservers and all.

Reprinted, with permission, from TomDispatch.

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.



  1. The problem with the left conjuring a movement with energy comparable to that of right-wing populists is that the left by its very nature cannot pair itself with nationalism. The nation state is what most people naturally identify themselves with, but the nation as a rallying standard appears to be the exclusive property of the right.

  2. It is worth noting that both Mussolini and Hitler rose to power via elections but then, as now with Trump, began gradually nibbling away at democratic constraints over years so the populace became accustomed to such violations of their own constitutions and just plain civil morality, until one day, they seized power and there were not institutional systems remaining in place to stop the shift to authoritarian rule.

    My point is that people do indeed get the government they deserve because we sit idly and watch our elected representatives dither without doing their duty because they place their political fortunes ahead of their duties. Trump has committed more impeachable offenses than all prior presidents combined – including impeached ones – and yet Pelosi talks about impeachment as if it was a chess game with mere political consequences. This same thinking is what people like Mussolini and Hitler count on. A lot of people would say that WWII has significant consequences for Europe and Russia.

  3. While bringing up many salient points, in my opinion this article largely glosses over the reality that liberalism’s wounds are mostly self-inflicted, and countering “rightwing populism” with “leftwing populism” isn’t viable because a) liberalism has spent decades defanging the left and continue to actively do so, and b) large swaths of the liberal intelligentsia are against empowering the left, even if that means ceding ground to the right.

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