Analysis: Extreme populists rise again in US and Europe as Putin attacks global order

In France, the United States, Hungary and elsewhere, the center appears to be abandoning politics as moderates lose ground to radicals on the right and left, amid widespread public discontent following a two-year pandemic which has seen governments drastically restrict individual freedoms.

Just 17 months ago, a US campaign won by a veteran establishment politician – President Joe Biden – who had campaigned as a moderate against an aspiring authoritarian – Donald Trump – seemed to herald the end of the road for the Former Commander in the Leader’s Populist Crusade.

Yet Republicans, still in thrall to Trump — many of whom signed off on his caustic lies about voter fraud to curry favor with his supporters — look set to capture the House, and possibly the Senate, in the election. midterm in the grave.

They are capitalizing on deep frustrations across the country over rising gasoline prices and high gas costs that Biden has been unable to stem. Many are also spreading fiery messages about race, gender and LGBTQ issues and immigration, implying that traditional American culture is in danger of being destroyed. This theme dominated the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron – the epitome of technocratic elitism – now faces a tough two-week fight to roll back the momentum of the far-right anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic and pro-Putin candidate. Marine Le Pen.
The pro-Trump wing of European politics won a victory that would have pleased Russian President Vladimir Putin after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – a scourge of press freedom, EU leaders and democratic values – kept his job in a landslide election victory earlier. this month. Orban, a favorite of the “Make America Great Again” movement and conservative television pundits, used his own gerrymandering of constituencies and friendly press propagandists to defy predictions that his appeal was fading.

Trump’s continued stranglehold on Republican politics, Orban’s victory and Macron’s tight re-election race underscore how vulnerable established democratic structures in Western countries remain – not just to hostile external forces like the election interference from Putin, but also because of a perception that mainstream politicians are incapable of solving people’s problems.

A rush to political extremes

The worst predictions of Macron’s performance in the first round of the election failed to materialize as he won by around 5 percentage points. But his lackluster campaign gave Le Pen an opening to brand the president, who has always struggled to show he understands voters’ economic woes, as indifferent to high inflation and energy prices.

As he aimed for the second round of his electoral race, Macron presented himself as a bulwark against populism and extremism in France and abroad.

“I want France to be part of a strong EU, to continue to create alliances with the major democracies of the world to protect us,” the French president said after the first round result.

“I don’t want a France that leaves the EU and only has populists and international xenophobes as allies. It’s not us.”

After the effective disappearance of the centre-right opposition from French political life, around 50% of the votes went to the radical right and left parties.

In some ways, this matches the eclipse of moderate Republicans in Washington by Trump’s authoritarian America First-ism. In the United States, Biden won in 2020 by courting moderate suburbs, but progressives managed to pull his presidency to the left once he was in office in a way that may have alienated more centrist voters. .

Le Pen worked on paper on his past support for Putin and his wishes to withdraw France from the European Union. But if she were to win a surprise victory, the anti-Putin coalition in Europe would be sorely tested and the Russian leader would have another opportunity to drive further divisions between the allies. Macron has played a particularly important role in the Ukraine crisis, keeping lines of communication open with the Kremlin but also emerging as Biden’s most important ally in Europe.

“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the West like never before since the Cold War. The world is now divided between the countries that defend the rule of law and democracy and those that fight to end it. “said Nicholas Dungan, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council. who teaches at Sciences Po, a prestigious French research university. Still, Macron’s first-round victory and his newly energized rhetoric offered the prospect that he could be a dam against extremism, at least in France.

“Today we have a slight relief that we will be able to count on French leadership in the future,” Dungan said after Sunday’s results in an election that had been watched with some anxiety among government officials. Biden administration.

Yet no one who cares about the threat extremism poses to democracy — a central theme of Biden’s presidency — takes a Macron runoff victory for granted.

“The far right has never been so close to winning,” said defeated French Republican candidate Valérie Pécresse.

In 2016, the populist revolt that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union was a canary moment in the coal mine that foreshadowed Trump’s foreigners’ crusade that crushed White House hopes of the Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Six years later, it seems to be a bad omen for the democrats across the Channel. Le Pen was able to energize his campaign, holding multiple rallies in rural areas, pointing to the painful toll of inflation which has driven up the cost of living and has been exacerbated by the economic impact of war in Ukraine. .

Biden, who has repeatedly told Americans that inflation is a “transitional” issue coming out of the pandemic, has worked to show the country he understands its effects. But he could pay a heavy price in November’s midterms if already disgruntled voters are still furious about their grocery bills.

Power based on big lies

Trump, Le Pen and Orban are a far cry from the depravity and violence of Putin, who is committing atrocities in Ukraine on a scale not seen since at least the Bosnian war and probably since World War II.

But the tactics of many anti-establishment politicians stem from a similar well of political toxicity. They rely on stoking anger over economic conditions in the resentment of foreigners, Muslims and foreigners, including other minority communities. Some focus on eroding the reputation of democratic systems and a free press to bolster power. Anything that increases the cynicism of the electorate about its leaders and the system that keeps them in place creates a new source of anger that can be tapped.

Voter suppression has eroded democracy in Russia and Hungary, and it is doing the same in the United States. It is uncertain whether Trump’s extremism will pave the way to power among a diverse general electorate. But he remains the dominant figure in his party and the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Trump’s entire political scheme – the one that instigated an unprecedented assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 – is now based on one big lie: that the US election was rigged in 2020.

The more outrageous the lie, the more it can be weaponized for a politician’s nefarious means. Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine – that the country is under Nazi control, when in reality it has a democratically elected Jewish president – ​​stems from the same well of dangerous imaginary politics.

The assault was prompted by Putin’s belief that the country had no right to exist as an independent, sovereign state and that its people were predominantly Russian. But it was also brewed from more than 30 years of the Russian leader’s festering resentment of the West and its political systems following the fall of the Soviet Union after the Cold War.

The Russian president launched his own direct effort to disrupt American democracy with his intervention in the 2016 US election, which US intelligence agencies said was designed to help Trump win. Those same agencies warned on Monday that US pressure on Russia over invading Ukraine could spur Putin to go even further in interfering with US democracy in the future.

But it was Ukraine’s open desire to consolidate its democracy by joining the West – it wanted European Union and NATO membership – that ultimately pushed Putin over the edge and precipitated his assault.

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