Whom Should We Call a Populist?

The idea of large populist movements is rising all over the world, in USA with Donald Trump, and also in Europe. Here is an interesting question – whom should we call a populist? Should we call populist a movement which succeeded? In France before the Revolution in 1789 the main movement was against elites, against privileges, now we would call such a movement populist. But this movement succeeded, and we had the Great French Revolution.

We call populist some kind of revolutionary or non-revolutionary movements, which so far did not succeed. If they succeed, they will be no more populist movements.

The Trump movement is quite specific. It is a kind of protest movement, linked with disaffection of the Obama presidency. It is extremely important to understand, that there is a movement, that is going far beyond the personality of Donald Trump. It is a kind of massive uprising not just of the white male workers, it is uprising of males and females, white and colored people, because Obama made a lot of promises and disappointed a lot of people. Disappointment of the huge part of the US population is brought to the forefront and can be exploited by professional politicians. Donald Trump is a symptom of something which is more deeper than Donald Trump himself.

As to Europe, there are Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, National Front in France, and so on. Between them there is one similarity and this similarity is disappointment. There are a lot of people, who are disappointed not just by the policy of the last government, they are disappointed by political elites, by the so-called political class, and this is important. The situation in France is closer to the situation in the Great Britain, and maybe to the situation in Italy. In Italy there is a specific issue of the corruption of the political elite. In France and Great Britain the corruption is not so developed, the population there reacted mainly to the migration problem, an also to the problem of huge incomes inequality.

If we look to the problem of populism in Eastern and Central Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Croatia there are some differences. Hungary and Poland recovered sovereignty just 25 years ago, with the end of the system of Soviet domination. In these countries the principle of sovereignty, the devotion of the population to the sovereignty is extremely deep. And there is a kind of reaction to the mishandling of the European policy both by Germany and France, which to some extent believe that they own the European Union. Surely, the European Union must not be owned neither by Germany, nor by France, or by any other country. If the EU is really to exist, it must be a community of nations.

Moreover, we have a quite obvious religious factor in Poland. The influence of the Catholic Church is very important in Poland. In Hungary the religious factor is not so important.

Now we have problems with Austria, which was a long-standing member of the European Union. Austria now is moving closer to Hungary on many issues, mostly on the issue whether to invite Turkey to the EU or not. Populist candidates in Austria declared, that if Turkey is admitted to the EU, we will move out.

The problem of populism is becoming more and more important. All the populist movements have some common grounds, but we have also to look very carefully to the specificities of politics in different countries.

Jacques Sapir is Director of studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and head of the Centre d'Étude des Modes d'Industrialisation (CEMI-EHESS).

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.