SOFIA, Bulgaria — In early April, the researcher Chiara Pagano noted drily that “Italy is now more closed than Matteo Salvini ever dreamed it would be.” She had a point, and we should not be surprised that, back then, many political commentators were convinced that the pandemic would bring a new nationalist moment in Europe, and that right-wing populist parties would be the political beneficiaries of the COVID-19 crisis.
This can still happen, but six months into the crisis, various opinion polls indicate a decline in support for right-wing populists all over Europe. In Italy, the League lost last month’s regional elections, which Salvini had hoped to win; in Poland, the Law and Justice Party’s president, Andrzej Duda, was reelected with a slim margin in elections that just three months prior to the vote had looked as easy for him as a walk in the park. Meanwhile, a vast majority of Swiss citizens voted in a referendum to keep their borders with the European Union open.
COVID-19 has infected societies with fear but, for the time being, populist parties have not benefitted from the pandemic. Could it be that the electoral success of populism during the last decade was rooted in anxiety rather than fear?
While psychologists suggest that fear and anxiety are close relatives — both contain the idea of danger — they also stress that fear is a reaction to a specific and observable danger, such as the fear of being infected with a deadly disease, while anxiety is a diffuse, unfocused, objectless belief about one’s future. Anxious people are loud and angry, while fearful people do not have the luxury of anger, because they are too busy working to survive. Populists have been able to skillfully exploit the anger of the anxious, but it was non-populists that benefited from the newly born seriousness of the fearful that was triggered by the pandemic.
Donald Trump’s failure to deal with the crisis was another reason why Europeans have shut off their enthusiasm for populist leaders. A recent survey conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations reveals that Trump’s disastrous response to the pandemic made America look to the world as dysfunctional and depressive as the late Soviet Union.
If COVID-19 has put European populists on the back foot, the question then is: Will Trump’s defeat in the November elections relegate them to a mere footnote in European politics?
Brexit and Trump’s victory in 2016 made many European populists feel like they were part of a global anti-liberal revolution. But as Marine Le Pen’s defeat in 2017 showed, imitating Trump and Brexit wasn’t a winning strategy everywhere.
The 2019 European parliamentary elections — which fell short of a populist revolution, yet signaled the birth of the pan-European populist right, a political movement that can mobilize across national borders — drove this home for the European right. As recently as a year before the vote, more than a dozen different political parties across Europe were advocating leaving either the EU or the euro; by the time of the election, the option for exit had vanished from the programs of the euro-skeptic parties.
The European populist revolution that started with the promise to destroy the EU has been transformed into a promise to remake the EU — and to take control over it.
What will then be the effect of Trump’s defeat in November?
It is most likely that the populists’ pan-European strategy will lose its attractions and the strategies of Central European populists in power, as well as Western European populists in opposition, will diverge. While populists in Italy, France and Spain will try to use the devastating economic crisis that will follow the COVID-19 public health crisis in order to get electoral support, the Polish and the Hungarian governments would have to fight to preserve their power in the face of stronger opposition and an open war with the EU.
In this sense, the effect of Trump’s defeat will be felt more strongly by Central European populist parties than by Western European ones. It is not simply that Poland and Hungary would lose Trump’s America as an ally, but for them Biden’s America would be an open threat for their model of illiberal democracy.
“We vote for Donald Trump’s victory, because we know well American Democratic governments’ diplomacy, built on moral imperialism,” the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said recently. “We have been forced to sample it before, we did not like it, we do not want seconds.” Unlike four years ago when Orbán bet on Trump’s victory, against all the odds, his analysis now makes us believe that he expects Trump to lose. Thus, Orbán’s recent essay in the pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet is a manifesto on the future of Central European illiberalism in the post-Trump world, rather than a preparation for Trump’s second term.
Facing tough parliamentary elections in 2022 and threatened by a second wave of COVID-19, the Democrats’ return to the White House in America and a united opposition at home, Orbán feels forced to rethink his relations with the EU. In a moment when the future of the EU is in question, Orbán offers Brussels a contract for keeping the EU together.
“We must remain on the path of agreements and compromises,” he wrote in Magyar Nemzet, “and — no matter what the European Parliament says — we must implement the sweeping financial and budgetary plans that we successfully finalized during the summer. This is possible, providing that the Germans succeed in managing the process for installing Chancellor Merkel’s successor without exceeding level four on the Richter scale.”
Intellectually, Orbán has given up on the EU and the West in general. However, the preservation of his power politically depends on the EU because, while Orban is probably ready to bet on China and Russia as the powers of the future, his society is not willing to do so. For the majority of Hungarians, China is too far and too different, while Russia is too close and too scary.
Trump’s defeat in November will force Orbán to stay closer to Brussels. But in order to pledge loyalty to the EU’s survival, Hungary’s prime minister asks Brussels and Berlin to stay away from Central Europe’s domestic politics and to withdraw its “rule of law” conditionality. In practice, this means that Brussels should stop being interested in how the Fidesz Party wins elections, how Budapest spends European money, how free Hungarian media is and how independent its courts are. Orbán is ready to endorse the EU’s strategic autonomy if it means decoupling from Biden’s America, staying on the fringes in the U.S.-China rivalry and putting an end to sanctions on Russia.
It is clear that Trump’s defeat will not mean the end of the populist moment in Europe, but it will signal the populists’ retreat. It also signals the end of populists’ fascination with America. At the moment when Trump is defeated, European populists will be ready, more than ever before, to look for allies and sponsors outside of the West.