The rise of populism


Speaking at a breakfast address at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) in November, outgoing US ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard likened the “rough and tumble” of the US election to a reality show. Fitting analogy, as the 54th president of the US, Donald Trump, is no stranger to the medium. However, the reality of his election has proven a bitter pill to swallow and, unfortunately, can’t be dismissed as mindless entertainment anymore. 

Whether or not you were in shock on the morning of 9 November, a lot of people would have been asking how this happened. And why. Surely a man who has promulgated racist, misogynistic and other very questionable views (not to mention the fact that he has never held public office and more often than not disregards facts) could not win the highest office in the US. But he did. 

Speaking recently at the Discovery Leadership Summit, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson unpacked the history of populism around the globe, finding that at present it is really the northern hemisphere seeing a rise in this. Whereas the southern hemisphere, particularly South American countries, already tried this experiment and saw that it didn’t work.

But if Brexit and Trump happened, what are the chances of more populist wins around the globe – notably continental Europe, which is seeing a rise in popularity of conservative right-wing politicians? 

In Europe, the Syrian refugee crisis has led to heavy anti-immigration and anti-globalisation sentiment, with conservative right-wing parties leading the charge. In France, the first round of the presidential election takes place on 23 April. The leader of the far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen – who has been ahead in polls – has called for a withdrawal from the EU and has expressed  anti-immigration policy objectives. Unpredictably, François Fillon, the leader of the centre-right Republican Party, won a vote on 27 November to run in the race. He has similar foreign policy and immigration views as Le Pen, and is seen as a strong contender for the country’s top position. 

Italy held a constitutional referendum on 4 December, which saw Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigning after Italians voted against changing the constitution. The three opposition parties in the wings are all in favour of exiting the euro should they come to power. 

Meanwhile, also on 4 December, Austrians rejected far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, with Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly clinching the victory. However, concerns remain that the Netherlands’ general elections in March could follow Europe’s right-wing surge. 

So what does this mean?

Many theories have done the rounds in the aftermath of the US election, and parallels have been drawn with the unexpected Brexit outcome as well as a surge in populism in continental Europe. The unpredictability of the political landscape does make it difficult – and risky – to forecast the future. 

Further, the US case in particular is unprecedented: The rise of a politically inexperienced business tycoon cum reality star and beauty pageant mogul making a move from his penthouse in Manhattan to the White House in Washington. In the case of the UK and continental Europe, the political players have some credentials and have been in the game for some time – albeit they are promulgating similar nationalistic views. 

Says Yannick Thiem, associate professor of philosophy at Villanova University in the US: “First of all, we need to understand ‘Trump’ as a symptom rather than as a cause of the current situation. There were plenty of xenophobic, racist, sexist, and economic fears converging in complex ways already. An enormous factor also was a feeling of ‘[to hell with it], the system is broken, let’s try something else’ on the side of people who also already harbour unconscious racist and sexist sentiments. Trump is a symptom of the reality that Anglo-American liberalism and Clintonism is a failed experiment.” 

And the cacophonic noise – from Trump himself and his supporters – is populism at work. As Professor John Stremlau, visiting professor in the department of international relations at Wits University, describes it: “[It’s] a democratic expression of people feeling their voices aren’t being heard.” The problem with this is that in accommodating this process, it cannot be done at the expense – as is the case in the US – of African Americans and others, he warns. 

Trump’s voice is making promises that will see to just that. In his first televised speech about his plans for his first 100 days in office, Trump’s rhetoric remained true to his campaign slogan, making it clear that his aim is to put America first, bring back “OUR jobs and rebuild the middle class”. 

“My sense is that a lot of people who I know voted for Trump did so because they feel their lives have become precarious or are on the verge of becoming precarious. The neoliberal economy and globalisation have not only eroded manufacturing and other formerly important and well-paying sectors of our economy, we all, nearly, regardless of whether we already are experiencing materially economic precarity, feel the uncertainty and economic threat. Many people I know who voted for Trump wanted change. Clinton seemed like more of the same,” says Thiem. 

It’s clear that the discontent was underestimated in the US. And if they got it wrong, then it is very likely that Europe could too – Brexit proved the precarity felt by voters there. 

(Anti) globalisation – not everyone is getting an equal share of the pie

It is extremely important to note that each country is unique in its problems, says Stremlau. So predicting the outcome of upcoming elections and referendums in Europe is risky, at best. 

On the globalisation tip, as positive as it has been, it is not a one-sided coin. Speaking at the Old Mutual Corporate Wisdom Forum Gala Dinner in Johannesburg in early November, American economist Jeffrey Sachs pointed out that, “Globalisation has been a major source of economic growth for decades, especially in countries like China… The results, however, are not uniform across all countries, and within countries the benefits are also not equally shared, which is a big part of the problem.”

This sentiment contributes heavily to the anti-globalisation movement, and is fuelled in Europe by the Syrian refugee crisis. 

On the immigration front, there is an important distinction when it comes to the issue of migrants in the US and Europe. Stremlau believes that in terms of giving enough feeling of comfort for identity groups, there has been a lot of progress in the US, whereas in Europe there is a lot more discomfort and uncertainty. At this stage, there are second- and third-generation immigrants legally in the US. “My impression is that in Europe [the case of] the ‘other’ that comes in is a lot more sensitive and real than the huge population living legally in the US.” 

In a country like France, which has the highest concentration of Muslims living in a European country and has been marred by a spate of terrorist attacks, illegal immigrants are of concern to citizens and could just push them to casting their votes to the right. 

A new world order?

Should populism take hold in continental Europe, and bring with it increased protectionism and inward-looking policies, the implications for global growth and trade are concerning. Already Trump, as an example, has made it clear that he will be withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) when he takes office. 

Says Arthur Kamp, investment economist at Sanlam Investments: “I think this is concerning when viewed against the backdrop of a loss in global trade liberalisation momentum generally… On current information it appears as though the best we can hope for is that the status quo is maintained, i.e. no new deals are signed (although bilateral deals between the US and specific countries are a possibility), while the US also refrains from introducing new protectionist measures. But even this would not be ideal. Trade liberalisation has already lost momentum in the post-global financial crisis environment and more protectionist measures are evident. This must, at least in part, explain the weakness in global goods trade.” 

Moreover, trade fosters competition and can promote investment and further transfer of technology, adds Kamp. “In other words, it encourages innovation and drives productivity – a key ingredient required to grow economies. This does not mean we should ignore workers adversely affected by trade deals. It’s just that we should ask whether they would not be better served with more efficient safety nets and re-skilling initiatives.” 

Too bad a candidate like Trump is more personality, little policy. 

Stremlau emphasises that Trump should serve as a warning to the rest of the world and advises that citizen obligation must take a front seat. 

His populism prediction? 

“Who knows? 

This article formed part of the cover story that originally appeared in in the 15 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
Have you noticed a difference in the voices of women compared to men in virtual meetings?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, there is a difference.
31% - 23 votes
No, I haven't noticed it.
59% - 44 votes
A bad internet connection worsens it.
11% - 8 votes