It all started with a speech.
On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump told the world he would pursue the highest office in the United States of America. His reason? “The United States has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.” Close quote.
While the now-U.S. president has been known to make shocking statements (those regarding Mexican immigrants, drugs and rapists, for example), this line encompasses in its purest form the driving force behind Trump’s populist campaign.
This breed of populism – which feeds on the nationalism of the far right – can be counted among and identified in some of the millennium’s most politically influential movements. However, it’s no question that the American federal election brought the term “populism” back into regular use.
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For many, populism is still an unfamiliar term, though a quick Google search defines it as “support for the issues of ordinary people.” According to Justin Gest, associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government, the concept is a little more complicated than that.
Most nations, Canada included, have had run-ins with these movements in the past. The best examples of populism in Canada date back to the farmer’s movement of the 1920s or the much-more-recent Reform Party led by Canadian politician Preston Manning. The Reform Party eventually evolved into the Canadian Alliance.
Manning defines the term as “a bottom-up grassroots democracy where a large group of people choose to express themselves democratically.”
Populism, by definition, isn’t a partisan concept. It can encompass the values of the left or the right, but either way, it’s a movement waged by the working class to protest political elites.
“It’s people power basically,” explains Gest. In regards to the election of the current president of the United States, he goes further in saying, “This was absolutely a revolt.”
While the recent United States presidential election is certainly the most high-profile example of populism in the world today, it’s not the only case. Several major powers, namely Britain and France, are currently undergoing what experts have labelled populist movements – the kind of populism that threatens to uproot the national political structure.
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“So far, his policies do not reflect a desire to change the structure of American society,” explains Gest of Trump.
Despite the overlap between the concerns of populist supporters in Europe and those of Trump supporters, it’s become clear through his policies that Trump isn’t a far-right purist, whereas the policies of many respective European movements – namely France’s Marine Le Pen – better represent this side of the political scale.
The Brexit vote of June 2016 represented a massive political game changer. The French election on May 7 could represent another one, depending on whether the public flocks to the familiar with centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, or embraces the unknown with far-right candidate Le Pen.
Le Pen has been the head of the National Front party since 2012 after taking over for her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. After ejecting her largely-considered-a-racist father from the party, she spent the next few years shedding the National Front’s racist, xenophobic image.
The party has never before been so successful in a national election, and Le Pen is hoping that this populist wave will carry her to victory in the final round. Recent polls however, see her lagging behind and predict her loss to Macron by a large margin on Sunday.
If elected, Le Pen has pledged to dramatically reduce immigration, and expel all illegal immigrants from France. A National Front win would also bring a referendum on EU membership, an attempt to reintroduce the French franc currency, and policies to curb financial globalization and Islamic extremism.
Le Pen has been vocal about her hope that the victory of Trump in the United States will improve her chances in France.
Both Trump and separatist advocates in the U.K. campaigned on many of these anti-globalization ideas — immigration being a key area of disdain for many voters. The overarching goal of this group however, remains unclear, explains Gest.
“[Globalization is] going to happen. In fact it’s already happened. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle here. Any country that decides to turn its back on globalization is doomed in the global world economy.”
Gest explains that this discontent begins to fester largely because, as it pertains to globalization, there society has winners and losers.
“It’s worth debating, what kind of globalization. There are ways to protect people from the sharper edges of globalization but I don’t think that’s what’s happened so far.”
Both Gest and Manning agree that in a globalized world, the similarities between these populist movements is hardly a coincidence. It’s likely, in fact, they both agree the populism of the United States – however two-dimensional – may have fanned the flames on a nationalist revolt in Europe just biding its time.
“When there’s populist success in one country it encourages populist sentiment in another. So, I think they have fed off each other,” says Manning.
“The populist force in France has been encouraged by Trump, and not just by Trump but the Brexit vote as well.”
He goes on to explain however, that while a temporary blip in the globalization trend is plausible, it’s highly unlikely that the habit of interconnectedness we’ve all become accustomed to could be reversed entirely, despite who comes out of France’s election victorious.
“I think it definitely puts the old conception of the European Union in considerable danger,” says Manning.
“The unknown in all of this, is if you blow up these big trade agreements, what happens after? Does everybody go back to purely nationalistic policies? I don’t think so, in a globally integrated economy, I think you’ll have other forms of association that take their place.”
Pundits however, are predicting a win for Macron on Sunday. Le Pen’s numbers have dissipated following her second-place win in the first round of France’s presidential election. She’s made an effort to soften everything about her image in the final stretch, including stepping down as president of the National Front to focus on her candidacy. It’s still unclear whether the radical ideas that gave her a competitive edge in round one could propel her to victory in the final round.
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Canada has also had a taste of right-wing populist politics by way of the current Conservative leadership race. Candidate Kellie Leitch has said she would introduce a “Canadian values” screening for immigrants; a poll revealed that a majority of Canadians support her idea.
Leitch still needs to win the Tory leadership before she can put the popularity of her “Canadian values” test to the masses when Canada next heads to the polls in 2019.
Could the brand of populism that exploded around the world in 2016 be an overblown trend not six months later? If that is the case, is the rule of those who’ve reigned supreme in power and politics on the back of right-wing populist rhetoric sustainable in the long run?
One thing is for certain: France is facing two very different futures.