BRUSSELS – For European populists, the electoral defeat of President Trump, who was a symbol of success and a staunch supporter, was pretty bad. But his refusal to accept defeat and the violence that followed appears to have hurt the prospects of like-minded leaders across the continent.
“What happened on Capitol Hill after Donald Trump’s defeat bodes ill for populists,” said Dominique Moïsi, senior analyst at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. “That says two things: if you elect them they don’t leave power easily, and if you elect them look at what they can do to call for popular anger.”
The long day of riots, violence and death as Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol has presented a clear warning to countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland underestimate the strength of populist anger and the prevalence of conspiracy theories targeting democratic governments.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, said the unrest showed how the populist playbook was based on ‘us versus them and led to violence’.
“But it is very important to show where populism leads and how it plays with fire,” she added. “When you have excited your supporters with political arguments against us against them, they are not opponents but enemies who must be fought with all means, and this leads both to violence and makes the concession of power impossible. . “
You could see how threatening European populists found the events in the United States in their reaction: one by one they distanced themselves from the riots or fell silent.
In France, Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally, should rise another big challenge to President Emmanuel Macron during the 2022 elections. firm in supporting Mr. Trump, welcomed his election and Brexi as precursors of populist success in France and echoed his insistence that the US election was rigged and fraudulent. But after the violence, which she said left her “very shocked”, Ms. Le Pen pulled back, condemning “any act of violence aimed at disrupting the democratic process”.
Like Ms. Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, populist leader of the Italian Anti-Immigrant League party, said: “Violence is never the solution.” In the Nederlands, Geert Wilders, a prominent right-wing party leader, criticized the attack on the US legislature. With elections in his country in March, Mr Wilders wrote on Twitter, “The result of democratic elections must always be respected, whether you win or lose.”
Thierry Baudet, another high-profile Dutch populist, aligned himself with Mr. Trump and the anti-vaccination movement, and in the past questioned the independence of the judiciary and a “bogus parliament”.
But already in difficulty because of the anti-Semitic comments reported and the divisions in his party, the Forum for Democracy, Mr. Baudet, too, has had little to say so far.
Yet Mr Wilders’ Forum for Democracy and Freedom Party are expected to collect around 20% of the vote in the Dutch elections together, said Rem Korteweg, analyst at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands.
Even though populist leaders appear reeling from events in Washington and nervous about further violence at the January 20 inauguration, there remains considerable anxiety among mainstream politicians about anti-elitist and anti-political movements. governments in Europe, especially in the confusion and anxiety produced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Capitol Riot Fallout
Janis A. Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels, said there was no uniform European populism. The various movements have different characteristics in different countries, and external events are only one factor in their varying popularity, he noted.
“Today the most pressing problem is Covid-19, but it is not at all clear how politics will play out after the pandemic,” he said. “But,” he added, “the fear of the worst helps to avoid the worst.”
“The astonishing polarization of society” and the violence in Washington “creates a lot of deterrence in other societies,” said Emmanouilidis. “We see where it leads, we want to avoid it, but we are aware that we too could get to this point, that things could escalate.”
If the economies fall and the populists take power in France or Italy, he said: “God forbid when Europe faces the next crisis.” This concern – with an eye on the 2022 elections – seems to have been part of the reason why German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been so attentive to France and to Mr. Macron’s requests.
In Poland, the government has been very pro-Trump and state television only acknowledged its electoral defeat when Mr Trump did so himself, said Radoslaw Sikorski, a former foreign and defense minister who is now chairman of the European Parliament delegation for relations with the United States.
“With Trump’s defeat, there has been an audible noise of disappointment from the populist right in Central Europe,” Sikorski said. “For them the world will be a lonelier place.”
Likewise, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump, declined to comment on the riot. “We must not interfere with what is going on in America, it is America’s business, we stand behind them and we are convinced that they will succeed in solving their own problems,” he told state radio.
Mr Sikorski, the former Polish minister, is a political opponent of his country’s current government. Europe, he said, must “be aware of the dangers of far-right violence” and conspiracy theories. “There is much more far-right violence than jihadist violence,” he said. “We can’t assume that this kind of madness will go away, because they have their own facts. We must take off the gloves – liberal democracy must defend itself. “
Enrico Letta, former Italian prime minister who is now dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po, said that Mr Trump “has given credibility to the disruptive attitudes and approaches of populist leaders in Europe, so the getting out is a big deal for them. Then came the riot, he said, “which I think completely changed the map.”
Now, like Ms. Le Pen, Italy’s populist leaders have felt “compelled to sever their ties with certain forms of extremism,” Letta said. “They have lost this ability to preserve this ambiguity about their links with extremists on the fringes,” he added.
He said Mr. Trump’s defeat and the violent responses to him were huge blows to European populism. The coronavirus disaster alone, he added, represented “the revenge of skill and scientific method” against the obscurantism and anti-elitism of populism, noting that the unrest surrounding Brexit has also been a big blow.
“We are even starting to think that Brexit has been something positive for the rest of Europe, allowing a revival,” said Letta. “No one has followed Britain, and now there is the collapse of Trump.”
But Mr. Moïsi, the analyst at the Institut Montaigne, struck a darker note. After writing about the emotions of geopolitics, he sees a dangerous analogy in what happened on Capitol Hill, noting that it could turn out to be a heroic event among many of Mr. Trump’s supporters.
The riots reminded him, he said, of the failure of the Adolf Hitler brewery putsch and the start of the Nazi Party in Munich in 1923.
This effort to overthrow the Bavarian government also had elements of farce and was widely ridiculed, but it has become “the founding myth of the Nazi regime,” Moïsi said. Hitler spent his prison sentence after the violence by writing “Mein Kampf”.
Mr. Moisi quoted the death of Ashli Babbitt, a veteran shot dead by a Capitol Police officer. “If things turn out badly in America,” he said, “this woman could be the first martyr.”