As the era of US President Donald Trump draws to a close, many world leaders are breathing a sigh of relief, but Trump’s ideological kindred spirits — right-wing populists in office in Brazil, Hungary, Slovenia and elsewhere — are taking a sharp breath.
The end of the Trump presidency might not mean the beginning of their demise, but it certainly strips them of a powerful motivational factor, and also alters the global political atmosphere, which in recent years had seemed to be slowly tilting in their favor, at least until the onset of COVID-19.
The momentous result of the US presidential election is further evidence that the much-talked-about “populist wave” of recent years might be subsiding.
Illustration: Constance Chou
For Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has yet to recognize the victory of former US president Joe Biden in the US election, Trump’s dismissal struck close to home.
“He was really banking on a Trump victory... Bolsonaro knows that part of his project depends on Trump,” Getulio Vargas Foundation political scientist Guilherme Casaroes said.
As the reality of a Trump-free future sunk in on Thursday last week, Bolsonaro reportedly sought to lighten the mood in the presidential palace, telling ministers that he now had little choice but to hurl his pro-Trump foreign policy guru, Filipe Martins, from the building’s third-floor window.
The election result represented a blow to Bolsonarismo, a far-right political project modeled closely on Trumpism that might lose some of its shine.
On the world stage, the result means that Brazil has lost a key ally, even if critics have said that the relationship brought few tangible benefits. It brings an end to what political commentator Eliane Cantanhede called Bolsonaro’s “megalomaniacal pipedream” of spearheading an international right-wing crusade.
“Without Trump, who’s going to lead this — Brazil, Poland and Hungary?” Cantanhede said. “The party’s over... No one was taking this seriously anyway — but now without Trump, they’ll just laugh.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who former Trump adviser Steve Bannon once called “Trump before Trump,” had also set out his stall firmly behind the incumbent before the vote, saying that he had no plan B in the event of a Trump loss.
“I am convinced that President Trump has saved conservative America and become one of the greatest American presidents,” Orban said shortly before the vote. “We wish him, and ourselves, total success in his election.”
Trump’s White House has given tacit backing and sometimes open support to far-right movements and leaders. Trump sent an old friend, the jewelry magnate David Cornstein, to be ambassador in Budapest and flatter Orban, while his ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said that he planned to “empower” right-wing forces across Europe, infuriating his German hosts.
Orban said that his support for Trump was partly because Hungary was tired of being lectured by US Democratic politicians.
“We didn’t like it and we don’t want a second helping,” he said.
It was the prospect of this kind of criticism under Biden, rather than any concrete political benefits of Trump per se, that was behind European illiberal politicians’ embrace of Trump, University of Georgia international affairs professor Cas Mudde said.
“I doubt most far-right leaders will feel their electoral success is going to be impacted by Trump’s defeat,” Mudde said. “Neither will it really change their access to the White House, which was limited under Trump, too. What they mainly worry about is what Orban has called ‘liberal imperialism’ — having the US criticize democratic erosion and the abuse of human rights around the world again.”
Most populist leaders waited as long as possible for the election result before grudgingly congratulating Biden, or simply remaining quiet.
Orban sent belated congratulations on Sunday last week, but Hungarian and Polish state television played up Trump’s claims of fraud and suggested the result was still in the balance.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador declined to congratulate Biden immediately, saying that he would wait until all legal challenges had been settled.
“We want to be prudent,” Lopez Obrador said on Saturday last week.
Observers see stylistic similarities between the two leaders, despite the fact that Lopez Obrador was elected on a left-wing populist platform.
Lopez Obrador on Monday questioned the US media for “censoring” Trump’s recent news conference by cutting coverage over false claims being made.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa went further, calling the election for Trump on Wednesday morning.
Jansa, who has a Trumpian relationship with his Twitter feed, wrote that it was “pretty clear” Trump had won four more years in office.
“More delays and facts denying from #MSM, bigger the final triumph for #POTUS,” he wrote.
Since then, he said that Slovenia would continue to be partners with the US, although he also wrote on Twitter a number of times that the timing of Monday’s announcement on a potential COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough was suspicious and perhaps had been deliberately withheld until after the election.
In Estonia, where the far-right EKRE party was last year brought into a coalition government, remarks on Trump by party leader and former Estonian minister of the interior Mart Helme led to a full-blown political crisis.
Helme, who described Biden and his son Hunter as “corrupt characters,” said that he believed Trump would be declared the winner in the end.
“It will happen as a result of an immense struggle, maybe even bloodshed, but justice will win in the end,” he said.
Last weekend, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said that she was “sad and embarrassed” by the remarks and suggested that the attack on Estonia’s main ally was a national security threat.
On Monday, Helme resigned.
However, not everyone in the European far right is eager to die on the hill of Trump’s evidence-free claims of electoral fraud, particularly in those countries where most voters tend to be skeptical of the brash US president.
In France, where according to one pre-election poll only 14 percent of voters wanted Trump to win, the far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen seemed eager not to rock any boats before next year’s French presidential election.
Although she hailed Trump’s victory in 2016, and suggested after last week’s vote that he was “on the side of history,” she has conspicuously declined to follow several of her party officials in relaying false claims from the Trump campaign of mass electoral fraud, prompting speculation that she fears risking her domestic credibility by associating herself too strongly with the Trump cause.
In the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet, leader of the far-right Forum for Democracy, and his rival, Geert Wilders of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom, who both backed Trump in the election, have made little noise in the aftermath.
Italy’s populist leader Matteo Salvini, who wore a “Trump 2020” face mask before the elections, has been silent since the Biden win, although he did restate the claims of voter fraud in the week after the election.
Giorgia Meloni, his coalition partner and Brothers of Italy leader, said that Biden had “COVID to thank” for his victory.
Trump, with his “America first” rhetoric, was always a tricky figure for large parts of the European far right, especially in countries that have strong anti-US sentiment, Mudde said.
“Bolsonaro is much more like Trump, than like Le Pen or Salvini. The latter are ideological far-right politicians, steeped in a far-right subculture; Bolsonaro is a conservative who turned far-right, unconnected to party or subculture, and therefore ideologically thin and flexible,” he said.
Some observers believe that Bolsonaro will be forced to moderate his politics after Trump’s loss. Many expect him to retire the Trump-admiring Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araujo, who has hailed the US president as the “savior” of the West.
“The foreign minister is of no use in a post-Trumpian world,” international relations specialist Oliver Stuenkel said. “He was a one-issue foreign minister: to admire and adulate Donald Trump and propagate Trumpist ideas.”
In Europe, opponents of populism hope that the change in the White House will have a similar knock-on effect.
“President Trump was good for the Orban government; President Biden will be good for Hungary,” Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony wrote on Facebook.
Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida in Rome and David Agren in Mexico City
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