Populism Isn’t So Popular After All

Around the world, nationalist governments that claimed to speak for silent majorities are hanging on to power with minority support.

Stefan Rousseau / Reuters

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, premised on Brexit at all costs, is teetering. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is two weeks from an election that may or may not return him to power, but he appears to be in a slow political decline either way. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s stratagem to seize power has, at least for now, been derailed by a coalition that opposes him. And in the United States, President Donald Trump is barely a year away from facing voters, with the economy shaky and his approval rating still mired in negative territory.

For the past several years, these politicians have been leading exponents of what observers have labeled a populist moment, as right-wing nationalist leaders, claiming a mandate from a previously silent majority, grabbed power in capitals around the globe. In Britain, they also captured a surprise victory in the Brexit referendum.

But their recent struggles suggest that populism is not so popular after all. Each of these leaders may survive, but he will do so with minority support. For a movement whose premise was that there were great, untapped wells of popular support waiting to be tapped, and waiting for the strong leadership of a charismatic leader, this is a cold dose of reality. Not every populist is struggling, of course. India’s Narendra Modi is in a strong position, and illiberal populist leaders from Moscow to Budapest enjoy the benefits of authoritarian systems. But for populist leaders who are subject to democratic pressures, it’s been a rough few months.

A common denominator is that once in office, these politicians have found that charisma does not translate smoothly to power. In his rise to the British premiership, Johnson argued that his predecessor, Theresa May, had simply not been staunch enough in her approach to Brexit—either with members of Parliament or with the European Union. He positioned himself as the man with enough spine to stick with it, and even demanded that the EU compromise—though he held little leverage over Europe—and expressed optimism that it would give in. In his first speech to Parliament, he boasted of his Conservatives, “We are now the party of the many.”

No more. As Johnson spoke on Tuesday, one of his lawmakers left the party—physically and practically—depriving Johnson of his majority. By the end of the day, he had expelled another 21 members of the party, among them Parliament’s longest-serving member; the man who served as the powerful chancellor of the Exchequer until July; and the grandson of Winston Churchill, of whom Johnson wrote a hagiographic biography. Johnson says he will not resign and is seeking a new election. If the past three years have taught us anything about Johnson, it’s that he has a knack for coming back from apparent death blows. But if he does manage to cling to power, polls suggest he will do so weakly, in a coalition government. Sticking to a path in the face of repeated failures may be courageous, but it may also be insane.

Netanyahu is not a newcomer to power—in June, he became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister—but his populist, nationalist appeal is similar, and so is his message that he is the indispensable leader for Israel. Israeli voters, however, are no longer as convinced as they once were. After elections in April, he failed to build a governing coalition, which is why there are new elections this month. Even within his own Likud Party, there seems to be some appetite for moving past Netanyahu—which could pose a problem for him, because losing the premiership might expose him to prosecution. Trump, a close ally, is reportedly working with Netanyahu on a grand gesture to help him before the voting, but having moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel, the president has already used many of his most potent tools.

Finally, there is Trump himself. He, too, portrayed himself as both the representative of a “silent majority” of Americans and a singular figure who could succeed where no other politician could. “I alone can fix it,” he said as he accepted the Republican nomination. More than three years later, there is little evidence to back up that claim, even on Trump’s own terms. Few of Trump’s top priorities have been fulfilled: His border wall is unbuilt, the flow of migrants to the U.S. continues, Obamacare remains in place, the trade war with China remains unwon, and his NAFTA replacement is still in limbo. More broadly, America remains riven with the tensions that existed before Trump entered office. Trump’s approval rating continues to hover around 40 percent, right where it’s been throughout his presidency. Whatever it means to make America great again, it doesn’t seem to have happened.

That puts Trump in an awkward position for his reelection campaign, forced to argue that although he hasn’t managed to repair the things only he could fix, reelecting him will give him a mandate to follow through. That’s not to say that he won’t win. He has several key advantages going into 2020. But it’s also plausible that he could once again win while losing the popular vote.

It would be ironic, just as it was in 2016, if the electoral college, an elitist institution designed to insulate the American government against rabble-rousing movements, handed power to Trump. But it would also underscore the failed promise of his populist project. Like his fellow travelers, Trump held out the idea that even if he came to power with minority support, once in office, he would demonstrate his unique skills and bring the populace around to supporting him. But as it turns out, there are no shortcuts. Populist nationalism is subject to the same laws of gravity as any other political movement.