Given the non-stop, global coverage of the tidal wave that has been Donald Trump’s first month in the White House, it seems unnecessary to rehearse the chaos, resentment, and fear that the administration has already caused over this short period. Ranging from the botched (and unlawful) roll-out of a plan to refuse entry to all immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, to a deliberate escalation of tensions with Iran, to the official start of efforts to build a border wall to keep out Mexicans to a threat to send in troops to take care of Mexico’s “bad hombres”, Trump has made every effort to make a lot of people around the world feel very uncomfortable in a short period of time.
Outside of the United States, commentators have long been fearful of a Trump presidency. Although some have been skeptical Trump would follow through on his campaign rhetoric – reminding us that barking dogs seldom bite – the general consensus has been one of incredulous apprehensiveness at the prospect of a raging, megalomaniac lunatic in charge of the most powerful country in the world.
Not all foreigners have been similarly apprehensive of the coming Trump era, however. European right-wing parties, in particular, have lauded Trump’s isolationism and willingness to listen to regular people. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders hailed Trump’s victory as the beginning of a “Patriotic Spring.” France’s Marine Le Pen declared that she supported Trump’s policies,
Including his efforts to undo international trade agreements. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the British UKIP party and preeminent architect of the Brexit campaign, even teamed up with Trump during his presidential campaign.
The general motivation for supporting Trump, shared by all these right-wing, populist, isolationist politicians, seems to be a belief that Trump is one of them. They see his ascension to the most powerful office in the world as confirmation of the fact that they are riding a global – or, at least, a Western – wave of popular dissent and that it will not be long before they too will take the reins of their respective governments.
One month after Trump’s ascension to the White House, however, it appears that Trump’s European champions may be celebrating too soon.
With elections taking place in the Netherlands on March 15 everyone is keeping a close watch on recent polls. Breaking with a rising trend over the last year, Wilders’s Freedom Party has been losing ground in recent weeks, and fast. Set to become the largest party at the end of last year, with predictions it would win over thirty seats in parliament, the Freedom Party is now expected to win between twenty-four and twenty-eight seats with one recent poll putting them as low as twenty seats, in a battle for second place with both the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats.
Wilders’s recent slump in the polls is not an isolated event. In other European countries, right-wing isolationism seems to be shrinking. The German anti-immigration party Alternatives for Germany lost one percent in a recent poll, bringing it to its lowest mark in one year. Meanwhile, regret over last year’s decision to leave the EU among the British people appears to be growing.
Although the tentative decline of right-wing isolationism may be explained by reference to local events – like Wilders’s boycott of a televised debate or the fact that the campaign promises of the pro-Brexit camp now seem to have been overstated – it is reasonable to look for a single cause affecting the fortunes of these parties. Of course, there is one very clear and salient cause that has entered the stage, whose twenty-four-hour display of madness has been on the minds of the entire world: one-month-old President Donald Trump.
Trump’s “fine-tuned machine” of an administration is showing the whole world the consequences of electing an inexperienced populist. The intrigue, the miscommunications, the slander, and the straightforward incompetency of the current White House are being followed closely by a global audience. Apart from a few, foolhardy pockets of populist supporters, the mainstream does not seem to like what it is seeing.
Before Trump’s election victory, there were no recent examples of a populist leading a Western government. Wilders played a major part in forming the previous Dutch government, but managed to evade direct responsibility for its actions (and ultimate failures) by only promising tacit support and not putting forward his own ministers. Of course, there was the era of President Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul whose time in office between 2001 and 2006 was filled with a constant string of controversies. But, Italy being Italy, many northern Europeans viewed this episode as nothing more than peculiar-yet-harmless Italian theatre.
Before Trump, those who were willing to vote for populist, right-wing parties could justify their choice by telling themselves either that their vote was merely a form of protest – because their party was not going to win anyway – or that, once in power, populist forces would be tamed and reason would prevail to ensure their country would be governed in a relatively straightforward fashion.
This is no longer the case.
Now that the leadership of the Western world is in Trump’s hands, the failure of populism in power is on full display. With every mis-step he makes and every fanatical campaign promise he keeps, Trump not only disqualifies himself, but the entire populist movement that was so eager to count him as one of their own. Rather than heralding an isolationist, xenophobic, and dangerous 21st century, Trump’s presidency may well prove to be its undoing.
This, one might say, is the silver lining around the “huge,” gold-plated cloud that is President Donald Trump.