Populism Has Peaked

Main Image Credit Boris Johnson and Sebastian Kurz. Courtesy of Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The surge of right-wing populists in the West has come to a halt. Riddled by corruption scandals and falling over their own disruptive politics, the populists have lost power.

The decline of populism started at the end of 2020. After years of a dramatic surge that saw right-wing politicians rise to power in many countries, three of the most striking examples of populists in democracies have already lost their posts.

Donald Trump was elected President of the US in 2016, and lost to Joe Biden after only one term in 2020. Austria’s political ‘wunderkind’, the 35-year old Sebastian Kurz, came to power in Austria in 2017 and resigned after corruptions scandals in 2021. The populist billionaire Andrej Babiš, in power since 2017, lost elections in the Czech Republic in October 2021 to a centre-right coalition.

A Global Populism Project developed by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change notes the difference between cultural, anti-establishment and socioeconomic populism. Think Donald Trump for the first, Silvio Berlusconi for the second and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua for the third category.

This article does not discuss socioeconomic populism. With the exception of Syriza, this issue has not brought power to leaders in Europe or the US. Left-wing populism has a particularly strong history and presence in Latin America. Populism peaked there in the 1930s. Argentina had Juan and Evita Perón, then Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; Bolivia had Evo Morales; Ecuador had Rafael Correa; and Venezuela had Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.

This analysis also does not focus on strongmen with populist methods, as their main character trait is not populism, but rather disrespect for democratic principles. Victor Orban of Hungary or Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil are certainly claiming to ‘speak for the people’, but they hide behind populism to disguise much more recalcitrant ideologies.

This article looks at political leaders in the US and Europe who came to power through platforms touting cultural and anti-establishment populism. It explores four populists – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Andrej Babiš and Sebastian Kurz – who managed in a relatively short time to rise to power by pulling their centre-right parties further to the right. While doing so, they attempted to change the coordinates of what was considered to be appropriate behaviour in politics.

Not all ruling populists have lost power. Like his colleagues, Boris Johnson pulled his party away from the centre in order to collect the votes of people feeling left behind on the fringes of society. Johnson, elected with a large majority in 2019, is currently under pressure – the next elections are only scheduled for 2024, but he might not stay in Downing Street till then. A string of scandals in the Conservative Party and in government, as well as weak management of the party and parliament, show similar weaknesses to other populists who have lost power already.

The decline of populism might not be total and it also might not be permanent. As Matthew Goodwin writes: ‘Populism is something that kicks in when our democracies become too remote and detached from the people’. The current trend might just be a dent, not the end of populism.

One aspect worth mentioning, however, is how fragile populist regimes seem to be and how quickly some leaders have risen and fallen. This points to a core problem of populism: it is difficult to fulfil empty promises.

Empty Promises

Overpromising is a key behaviour of populists. This goes for Boris Johnson’s Brexit promises. UK goods trade was 11.2% or £8.5 billion lower in September 2021 than if the UK had stayed in the EU’s Single Market. Boris Johnson had promised independent bilateral trade deals to replace the Single Market. So far these deals cannot make up for the loss. A much heralded trade agreement with Australia reached in June 2021 will grow the UK’s GDP by 0.01–0.02%. 

A right-wing populist is generally considered to be a charismatic leader, who concentrates power around themselves and moves decision-making away from traditional party structures to personal headquarters. They are tough on immigration, disruptive and divisive in political manoeuvres and they attract followers from voters of both the left and the right. They often have an anti-elitist agenda, but this ‘outsider’ image is not necessarily true. Behind the front sits a deep mistrust in established pluralism and its institutions – parliament, courts and media.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson can hardly be called an anti-establishment candidate – he attended one of England’s elite schools, Eton, followed by Oxford; he held the post of mayor of London from 2008 to 2016 and foreign secretary before moving into Downing Street. It was his own eclectic mix of populism – cultural with a touch of socioeconomic – which brought him a broad majority combining voters on the right in 'Middle England' and on the left in the north of England.

At the beginning of their successful political campaigns it seemed as if right-wing populists formed a happy band of internationalist nationalists. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump certainly had only nice things to say about their prospective cooperation. In a speech for ‘Vote Leave’ in 2016 Boris Johnson had claimed: ‘We can strike free trade deals with America’. The hope for a quick trade agreement was kept alive under Donald Trump. But, like so many other promises, the deal was not delivered. Joe Biden has made it clear that a trade deal with the UK is not a priority.

Thriving Corruption

The fastest rise and fall from power happened to Sebastian Kurz. Donald Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, had called him a ‘rockstar’ in an interview with Breitbart in 2018. He was only 31 when he became chancellor of Austria. 

But as fast as Sebastian Kurz came, he also went. After he staged a coup in his own party in 2017 to take power, he won early elections with the promise of a 'new style' of clean politics and then formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. It was short lived and eventually terminated by corruption scandals. Nevertheless, this popular populist emerged unscathed and new elections brought him again to power. He went into coalition with the Green party in January 2020. Since the Covid pandemic gripped the world the two unlikely partners have stuck together in an unhappy alliance.

But Kurz was forced to resign in October 2021 over allegations of corruption and bribery, best described by the Austrian expression ‘Freunderlwirtschaft’ (crony capitalism). Kurz and his ‘praetorians’, as they called themselves in internal chats, stand accused of having placed doctored opinion polls in friendly newspapers in return for lucrative government advertisement contracts. Whether Kurz will actually be charged is still unclear. In the worst-case scenario he faces up to 10 years in prison. Parliament revoked his immunity as an MP in November 2021.

At the beginning of December 2021, Kurz resigned from politics altogether. The threat of corruption charges had made his return to politics impossible. The young populist, who always watched opinion polls with eagle eyes, had seen his popularity slip with every day the corruption scandal continued. His finance minister Gernot Blümel, also under criminal investigation, resigned shortly after. Alexander Schallenberg, the stand-in as chancellor for two months, has returned to his post as foreign minister. Former interior minister Karl Nehammer – a hardliner on immigration, but seen as slightly less dependent on Kurz – was appointed as prime minister and head of the Conservative Party.

The 35-year old Sebastian Kurz, who just yesterday was considered to be the biggest political talent in Austria’s history, ruined his own career by his disruptive, populist manoeuvres. He was brought down by promising a new style and delivering old-fashioned corruption. He is now the youngest ex-chancellor in Austrian history.

Politics as Business

Andrej Babiš came to power in the Czech Republic in December 2017 and was voted out in October 2021. Unlike Sebastian Kurz, the 67-year old Babiš was not the youngest but the oldest prime minister his country ever appointed.

Like Kurz, Babiš also has a problem with the law. In Babiš’ case, however, this originated before he was voted into office. The Czech police and the European Anti-Fraud Office investigated him between 2015 and 2017 for having received €2 million in European development fund money to which he was not entitled.

Babiš became prime minister in one of the newest EU member states which became democratic only after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. In former communist countries with newer democratic institutions it seems easier to undermine institutions and the rule of law. Babiš rose through the ranks of Czech politics with the help of his own newspapers and mass media outlets.

He was also able to bankroll his own campaign. He ran his populist movement, ANO, with the slogan ‘Run the state like a business’ – true to his word, he ruled the country like his company Agrofert.

In the case of Trump and Brexit it has often been argued that populism was a backlash by a loose alliance of blue-collar workers and middle-class conservatives against the excesses of liberalism. That was more true for the British and American experiences than for Central Europe, on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. The economic differences are less evident there.

Babiš or Kurz were, however, certainly united with Trump and Johnson in a strong nationalist agenda. To ride the wave of public sentiment, they used xenophobic rhetoric and took an increasingly hard stance on immigration. Where Trump wanted to close the border to Mexico – with a wall he never built – Kurz claimed to have singlehandedly ‘closed the Balkan route’ for refugees. Johnson pulled his island out of the EU and Babiš thought he needed to resist a ‘Muslim Europe’.

But beside xenophobia, the most remarkable drive of these narcissist populists seems to have been to gain power for themselves and their loyalists. Their populist legacy will have one underlying main theme: corruption.

Social Media versus Democracy

While there are significant differences between populist politicians worldwide, there are also similarities. All of them feel something between unease and disrespect for democracy. What all of these men share is their understanding – or rather misunderstanding – of the underlying principles of the political system they are supposed to serve.

Donald Trump not only questions democratic values – he openly showed disrespect and did not shy away from calling on a mob to storm Capitol Hill in Washington DC on 6 January 2021.

Boris Johnson on the other hand would hardly incite his followers to occupy Westminster Palace – but he did pressure the Queen to prorogue parliament when MPs resisted his plans for a hard Brexit in August 2019. In the UK,  Johnson was stopped by the Supreme Court. The judges ruled he acted unlawfully.

In the US the democratic structures were also strong enough to bar the attempted coup from succeeding. The investigation into the storm of Capitol Hill will still be ongoing in 2022, and the House panel investigating the riot will hold public hearings for weeks next year. This might impact the public image of Donald Trump in a year of midterm elections, which might be crucial for his chances of winning the White House back – or keeping it for the Democrats.

A strong social media presence is a key competence of every populist. Paul Kenny defines populism as a highly personalistic political movement. The populist playbook relies heavily on social media as a direct communication channel to supporters.

Trump has announced that he is founding his own social media company called ‘Truth Social’. His Twitter account was blocked on 9 January 2021 due to the risk of inciting further violence. But Donald Trump has the chance to return to power by operating within democratic structures. His pre-campaign for the 2024 presidential race is gaining steam. A Politico survey in October found that 47% of Republican voters would vote for him. No other candidate got more than 13%.

Populism has long-term destructive consequences. Not only for the Republican party, which might eventually crown a younger, even more dangerous populist as its next presidential candidate. But also for the country. The Supreme Court judges – three of which Donald Trump appointed – might soon overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that determined the constitutional right of a woman to have an abortion.

Beyond Populism

Even with the noise around Donald Trump’s attempt to return to the top job, the political scene in the West feels different now than it did a year ago. Not every populist leader is rising and falling as quickly as Sebastian Kurz. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has made it obvious to the political centre in various countries that a pushback against populism is needed. Populists are struggling to manage a severe national and global crisis.

There may be a re-emergence of the conservative centre. Angela Merkel is leaving behind an important legacy: the overall positive effect of moderate conservatives as a basis for stability and economic prosperity. Although her party elected as its new head Friedrich Merz, who bears some populist characteristics, it is her successor as Bundeskanzler, Olaf Scholz, who will follow in her footsteps with a coalition driven by an anti-populist platform – pro-European and facts-based – with a pragmatic spirit.

As in response the conservative party CDU elected the more populist right winger Friedrich Merz as Merkel’s successor as party leader in the middle of December. The struggle for the heart, soul and brains of the German conservatives is on.

Italy has currently stabilised under technocrat Mario Draghi. The leaders of the populist parties – to the left, Giuseppe Conte of the 5 Star Movement and to the far right, Matteo Salvini of the Lega – have even indicated they could support Draghi, if he runs for president in 2022.

In the Czech Republic, Petr Fiala will try his hand at post-populist politics. In Austria, it is too early to tell if the coalition of the post-Kurz Volkspartei and the Green Party will hold for long. But with Kurz’ spell over his party’s ranks fizzling out, power is floating back to the strong, traditional leaders of Austria’s conservative regions.

An interesting indication for the direction of European politics will be the presidential elections in France this coming spring. There is a strong threat coming from the far right. Their voters are split between Marine le Pen and the even more aggressive challenger Éric Zemmour. The centre right, however, will be represented by a ‘classic’ conservative. With Valérie Pécresse, Les Républicains nominated their first female candidate for president. The former minister of Nicolas Sarkozy could pose a threat to left-of-centre president Emmanuel Macron’s chances of re-election.

After the fall of populism in Prague and Vienna, will Budapest be next? Authoritarian leader Viktor Orban will face a new challenge at the Hungarian parliamentary elections in March. The opposition has formed an alliance against him under the conservative Péter Márki-Zay. As with Babiš, the opposition is united by one interest only: to oust Orban.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Tessa Szyszkowitz

Distinguished Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content