European populism is about something. For Americans, it’s about someone

The US version is more of a personality cult - and one day Donald Trump will be gone

At the next general election, British voters will return either a centre-right government or a centre-left one. For comparison, the spread of plausible outcomes in the US includes a second term of Donald Trump. In France? A Rassemblement National president. The Netherlands? After last week’s election, power for the hardline Geert Wilders. As for the Italian far right, power is theirs already, while the German equivalents threaten to break through in the federal elections of 2025.

And so, as difficult as this is for some liberals to hear, Britain is now a relative haven from populism. Brexit set that cause back by allowing voters to release much of their pent-up anger, and by flopping badly enough to put them off another right-wing experiment. When enough time has passed, even some Remainers might decide that the hit to national output was worth the period of domestic civic peace. As bad as Britain is at high-speed rail and IPOs, I’d rather take my chances here than in many western democracies over the coming years, thanks.

Another thing about the UK: it is a good place from which to compare American and European populism. So often conflated with each other, it is the differences between them that stand out ever more to an observer in this in-between place.

European populism is much less of a personality cult. In France, the far right made the presidential run-off under Marine Le Pen in 2017 and 2022. But then it did so under her more provocative father, Jean-Marie, in 2002. It has a plausible future leader in the eerily self-possessed 28-year-old Jordan Bardella. The Alternative for Germany is no more reliant on this or that figurehead (can you name one?) for its own cohesion or success. Giorgia Meloni has led Italian populists with some skill, but so have others, going back at least to Silvio Berlusconi. Wilders isn’t even the first libertarian nativist to shake Dutch politics this century.


In contrast, we still don’t know what American populism amounts to without the elemental personal force of Trump. Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis are among those who have tried to offer Republican voters at least the gist of Trumpism. Both have flopped. Vivek Ramaswamy, who is well to the right of the 45th president, doesn’t have people swooning in the prairies. For a sense of how person- rather than idea-centred US populism has become, ask yourself: if Trump proposed a truce with China, or embraced green taxes, or even softened his line on immigration somewhat, how much of his core support would he lose?

Given that he has already championed the Covid-19 vaccines that much of his base mistrusted, without alienating them, I suspect the answer is “less than we think”. Is there a European populist active in politics right now who could commit such ideological heresies at so little electoral cost? Le Pen can’t make the slightest adjustment on foreign affairs or social issues without risking a split on the right. Meloni supports Ukraine against Russia at her daily peril. The hardest thing to convey about the Trump phenomenon, especially to intellectuals, trained to think in terms of philosophical doctrines, is how secondary the content of it has become. European populism is about something. American populism is, to an amazing extent, about someone.

The “something” of European populism, the ideas that take precedence over all leaders, are what? Mistrust of the EU (if not as much outright opposition to membership as British conservatives tend to assume). A rejection of modern gender and race norms as an imported Anglo-Saxon weirdness. Above all, hostility to extra European immigration in general and to the Islamic kind in particular. No other cause but this last could unite the individualist Wilders with the Catholic Meloni, the US-sceptic Rassemblement National with more Atlanticist demagogues farther east in Europe.

Of course, there is no lack of suspicion of Islam on the US hard right, where a lurid, statistically slapdash discourse has long flourished about its “takeover” of Europe. But the US is far away from the nearest majority-Muslim nation. Members of the religion account for 1 per cent or so of the American population. It can never be the animating force for populists there that it is for those from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.

In which half of the West is liberalism more vulnerable: the US or Europe? Well, the raw individual clout of Trump unites and fuels America’s hard right. What serves the equivalent role in Europe is a sense of demographic and cultural siege. The difference is that Trump will one day be gone.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023