The Populists Finally Breaking With Trump

For some of the president’s most like-minded allies, the insurrection on Capitol Hill was one step too far.

A collage featuring photos of Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini, and Marine le Pen.
Mondadori Portfolio / Sylvain Lefevre / Samuel Corum / Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 10:45 a.m. ET on Jan. 11, 2021.

What started as American lawmakers’ bipartisan denunciation of the Capitol Hill riot, and Donald Trump’s role in stoking it, quickly grew to include condemnation from many U.S. allies: World leaders as far afield as Britain, Canada, and India voiced distress and alarm at the vandalism taking place at the seat of U.S. democracy, as did officials from the European Union and NATO.

Before long, even some of Trump’s most vocal supporters abroad began joining the chorus: Nigel Farage, the British politician and longtime Trump ally, tweeted that “storming Capitol Hill”—as Trump had all but encouraged his supporters to do—“is wrong.” Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, said that “violence is never the solution, never.” Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician known as the “Dutch Trump,” reacted to the live coverage by stressing that “the outcome of democratic elections should always be respected, whether you win or lose.”

Where have Trump’s friends gone? For years, populists and nationalists around the world have looked to the president as something of a global champion—a leader who not only spoke their nativist, iconoclastic language, but proved that the populist political project each of them was attempting in their own country was possible. If it can happen in America, one of the greatest democracies on Earth, they surmised, it can happen here too.

That vision might have dimmed following Trump’s defeat in last year’s presidential election, but it didn’t disappear completely: Many of the European figures who have an affinity for the American president remained supportive of him in the fraught, contested aftermath of the vote. The far-right French politician Marine Le Pen continued to call into question Biden’s victory well after the results were announced (an outcome she publicly acknowledged only this week). Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša went as far as to prematurely congratulate Trump on the election. But by Wednesday, both politicians had changed tack. Janša tweeted, “All should be very troubled by the violence taking place in Washington D.C.” Le Pen condemned “any violent act that aims to disrupt the democratic process” and urged Trump to do the same.

This wasn’t an ideological break. Many of the same figures who decried the violence in the U.S. had openly stated their desire that Trump win reelection. Even after his defeat, few of them rushed to acknowledge Biden’s victory, let alone condemn the president’s efforts to undermine trust in American democracy with baseless claims of voter fraud or calls to force the election outcome in his favor—the consequences of which were on full display in the Capitol. Virtually all of them stopped short of assigning Trump blame for the violence.

But perhaps the break was a practical one. Even populists who show nothing but disdain for democratic institutions don’t want to be associated with an insurrection, or be seen to be inciting one. The scenes of red-capped Trump supporters waltzing through the halls of Congress, some wielding Confederate flags and sporting sweaters emblazoned with messages such as Camp Auschwitz, are enough to make anyone bristle.* For Europe’s far-right leaders such as Le Pen, whose efforts to distance her party from its history of xenophobia and Holocaust denial have had limited success, those images would have served as a reminder of exactly the fascist association they are trying to avoid.

Trump’s erstwhile cheerleaders abroad might be keen to distance themselves for another, deeper reason: While populists have no problem attacking institutions and other threats to their power, they still claim to have a democratic mandate. Their legitimacy hinges on the populist notion that they represent an imagined “real people” against corrupt elites. Being seen to openly support undermining the democratic process, as Trump has, would undermine their very claim to power. “Anyone who violently attacks parliaments aims at the heart of democracy,” Tino Chrupalla, the spokesperson for the far-right Alternative for Germany, said in a tweet.

It was perhaps because of the widespread condemnation, from both his own party and his allies overseas, that Trump felt compelled on Thursday to characterize those involved in the insurrection as “intruders” who “do not represent our country”—the same individuals he had expressed sympathy and love for only a day earlier.

Not all of Trump’s fellow populists see what happened in Washington as a cautionary tale. Notably, those who are already in power (and therefore less reliant on maintaining appearances) had no trouble staying out of the fray, or even backing the president. Polish President Andrzej Duda dismissed the attack on the U.S. Capitol as an “internal matter,” and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a vocal supporter of Trump’s reelection, opted against interfering in “America’s business.” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has his own history of refusing to concede elections when the outcome doesn’t go his way, also declined to take a position. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who modeled his election campaign on Trump’s, told journalists that Brazil could face “a worse problem than the United States” in its election next year, an apparent suggestion that he may follow the Trump playbook once more.

For a while, other like-minded leaders seemed to be laying the groundwork to do the same. But by egging on his most violent supporters, Trump may have deterred other populists from hitching their wagons to a fallen star.

* An earlier version of this article misidentified clothing worn during the riots. Sweaters with the message 6MWE were not confirmed to have been seen.