20th Mar 2018


Populism is not a coherent transatlantic trend

  • Donald Trump's supporters were more preoccupied with the economy and their country's standing in the world than European right-wingers. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

As 2017 begins, populist politics are on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic.

In June 2016, the British voted to leave the European Union, a vote linked to anti-immigrant, “take back control from Brussels” sentiment. In November, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States with the support of less-educated, rural, working class voters, many of whom felt alienated from the Washington establishment.

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  • What divides supporters of Geert Wilders (r), Marine Le Pen (c) and Donald Trump could be as important as what unites them. (Photo: European Parliament)

In the months ahead, right-wing parties that have tapped into unease over globalisation and immigration are poised to contest national elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

It is too soon to say these developments are part of a common popular backlash. But evidence from Pew Research Centre surveys in the US and Europe indicate that while populist political movements in the US and Europe share some common roots, the importance of specific issues, as well as the extent of anti-establishment, anti-globalist views among the general public, varies significantly on either side of the Atlantic.

The beliefs of American supporters of president-elect Trump and the opinions of supporters of the National Front (FN) in France, Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, while similar in tone, are not always the same.

Economic dismay

Prior to the presidential vote, Trump partisans expressed deep concern about the US economy and the nation’s international standing. In spring 2016, 87 percent of Trump primary backers said the US economy was bad and 77 percent believed that the US was less important in the world today than it had been a decade ago.

Trump backers’ dismay about the economy mirrors the views of 88 percent of those who favour the FN (as well as the French public at large). But in Germany and the Netherlands, those who favour AfD (33 percent) or PVV (55 percent), respectively, do not share such intense economic pessimism, although they are less positive on the economy than those who have an unfavourable view of these parties.

However, only 52 percent of those favourable to the FN shared the pessimism of Trump supporters about their country’s international standing. The sentiment was even lower for the PVV (36 percent) and AfD (15 percent). Indeed, their views regarding their nation’s stature are generally in line with those of the general public. By contrast, in the US, Trump supporters were much more likely than Americans who supported his opponent, Hillary Clinton, to see America in decline.

Polarising issues

Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of Trump supporters think that US involvement in the global economy is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs. Only 53 percent of those who favour FN and 43 percent of PVV and 38 percent of AfD sympathisers share this negative view of globalisation.

In the US, global economic engagement is a polarising issue: In spring 2016, 28 percentage points separated Trump primary supporters (65 percent global economic engagement is bad) and Clinton primary supporters (37 percent bad).

A similar divide is evident in the Netherlands (27 points – 43 percent of those who favour PVV say global engagement is bad, 16 percent of those who don’t favour PVV). But the issue of engagement in the global economy is less divisive in Germany (a 16-point gap between AfD sympathisers and others) and France (a 10-point divide between those who favour the FN and those who don’t).

Trump supporters and sympathisers with right-wing European parties do share concerns about the impact of refugees and immigrants. Nearly seven-in-ten (69 percent) Trump backers believe immigrants are a burden on jobs and government benefits.

Roughly eight-in-ten (82 percent) in France who favour the FN see refugees imperilling jobs and benefits, as do 74 percent of PVV and 69 percent of AfD sympathisers. In 2016 such views separated Trump supporters from Clinton-backers by 52 percentage points. Polarization in Europe over this issue between sympathisers of right-wing parties and those who do not sympathise with such movements is somewhat narrower, but still substantial: 45 points in Germany, 43 points in the Netherlands, and 39 points in France.

Own problems

Both Trump backers and right-wing sympathisers in Europe hold the view that their country should deal with its own problems and let other nations deal with their own challenges as best they can.

Roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of Trump supporters express this view, as do 78 percent of FN, 76 percent of PVV and 65 percent of AfD sympathisers. Notably, on this measure the US is the least polarised (a 23-point difference between the views of Trump supporters and Clinton backers) compared with the three European countries (37 points in the Netherlands, 30 points in Germany and 25 points in France).

In 2017, a popular political backlash is now a fact of life on both sides of the Atlantic. And it has the potential to influence both domestic and international policy debates. But the intensity of such sentiment, and the issues that drive it, differ on either side of the Atlantic.

On several key issues, the populist attitudes of Trump-backers in the US seem to place them somewhat further apart from the opposing political camp than is the case for right-wing parties in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

How the political dynamics in each country play out in upcoming elections and policy debates, and how much of a factor populism proves to be and its implications for transatlantic relations, remains to be seen.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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