Why it’s so difficult to kill a populist movement
fter dominating Italian politics for two decades, Silvio Berlusconi finally seemed to be falling from grace in November 2011. Jubilant crowds flocked to the presidential palace, where he soon tendered his resignation amid a debt crisis. A large amateur orchestra hastily assembled to give an impromptu performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus.
At the time, Berlusconi’s exit seemed like the beginning of a new era. During his years in office, he had made dozens of unrealistic promises, vilified his political opponents, attacked the independence of judicial institutions and effectively controlled up to 90 percent of Italy’s broadcast media. Now, many observers hoped, Italy would leave behind his populism and embrace the kind of sober government championed by his successor, a technocrat by the name of Mario Monti. “We came here because I wanted my kids to see this,” one reveler told the New York Times, “to see that another country is possible and is already here.”
Less than seven years on, that hope is demolished. In last weekend’s elections, Berlusconi’s party made an unlikely comeback, taking enough of the vote to make him a kingmaker once again. Worse, during the years of his absence, his style of politics proliferated well beyond his party. In fact, two other populist movements eclipsed him this time: the far-right League, which combines his hostility to democratic institutions with a far more radical brand of xenophobia, and the ideologically amorphous Five Star Movement, which attacks the corruption of mainstream parties and promises a new form of democracy, but is itself run in a highly opaque manner. Between them, these populist movements took nearly two-thirds of the vote.
Populism, it turns out, has staying power. As Berlusconi’s resurgence shows, the assumption that it somehow leaves the political stage when its most prominent practitioner is repudiated at the polls, or even punished in a court of law (as Berlusconi was), is wrong. The lesson applies outside Italy, too — and that matters for the battle against President Trump, the scandal-plagued billionaire whose brash political rhetoric against elites across the ideological spectrum resembles that of Berlusconi. Recent cases from Poland to Thailand demonstrate that populists often prove more resilient than expected. Even when they appear to be thoroughly discredited, populists can pull off surprising comebacks or pass the baton to relatives and political allies. Even when they lose elections, they can continue to sow chaos and instability. And even when a particular populist movement crumbles, other politicians can build on its success. If Americans want to defend not just against Trump’s attacks on institutions like the FBI and the Justice Department, but also against the larger danger to constitutional government he represents, we first need to understand how populism has survived — and even spread — in other countries.
Poland is a good example. When the Law and Justice party under the leadership of twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski first took power in 2005, observers were alarmed by its extreme rhetoric and apparent hostility to the country’s core political institutions. But the government proved to be chaotic and ineffective. After losing its main coalition partner less than two years after taking office, the party had to face new elections — and was banished into opposition.
For eight years, Poland went back to being relatively stable. Thanks to a highly competent government, the country barely suffered during the Great Recession. But many voters were frustrated with the prominent role that some former communists continued to play, afraid of rapid cultural change in a country long dominated by Catholicism and livid at a series of corruption scandals. In 2015, they gave Law and Justice another chance, and the party used it to full effect: Having learned from its previous mistakes, it has, this time around, proved much more effective both at delivering big handouts to its core supporters and in undermining democratic institutions. The party has given many Polish families a monthly subsidy of $150 per child, after the first one; turned Poland’s state broadcasters into purveyors of government propaganda; and crippled the independence of the country’s courts.
Peru’s populist former president, Alberto Fujimori, is in the process of pulling off an even more unlikely comeback. Fujimori, a university professor and television talk show host, rose to power by disparaging political elites for failing to tackle Peru’s all-too-real problems, including rampant hyperinflation and a reign of terror imposed by the Shining Path guerilla group. But once he was elected president, he ruled by executive decree, disbanding Congress and diverting an estimated $600 million in public funds. Fujimori’s regime collapsed in 2000 when his political fixer, Vladimiro Montesinos, was caught on video bribing congressmen, judges, journalists and business leaders.
But in December, eight years into a 25-year prison term for human rights abuses and corruption , Fujimori walked free, ready to return to the political fray. Ostensibly, the current president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, pardoned him on medical grounds. But the timing suggests that the real reason can be found in a political quid pro quo: Three days before Kuczynski issued the pardon, a faction of Fujimori loyalists led by Alberto’s son, Kenji, saved the president from impeachment. One legislator said Fujimori had called him from prison and urged him to abstain. Fujimori has clearly retained enough clout that Kuczynski was able to stay in office only in return for his pardon. Now that he is out of prison, he is expected to play an even larger role in the country’s politics.
Even when populists don’t manage to win back power, they often turn the divide between their supporters and their opponents into a country’s most important political rift. Before he walked free, for instance, Fujimori dominated Peruvian politics with a stream of tweets from his cell criticizing the government. And every election since he left office has been fought between Fujimoristas and anti-Fujimoristas — including when his daughter ran in 2016.
The same dynamic has plagued Thailand. When he was in office, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra branded his political rivals as enemies of the state and lauded his supporters as the only true representatives of the Thai nation. When indicted on corruption charges in 2000, he complained about having to answer to unelected judges and took his case to the people, collecting 1.4 million signatures in his support. After almost six years in office, Thaksin was ousted by a military coup and went into exile. But thanks to his continued grip on his political party, Pheu Thai, as well as family surrogates including his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, he has remained the most prominent player in Thai politics. When Yingluck swept the 2011 elections after the end of military rule, for example, her campaign slogan was simply: “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts.”
Finally, charismatic populist leaders can still hold remarkable sway over the public imagination even when their direct political influence has long since waned. Generations after these leaders have left office, citizens have such strong emotional attachments to them that their successors frequently invoke their names to great effect, as political scientist Caitlin Andrews has shown. The political party founded by Argentina’s original populist, Juan Perón, has won all but three presidential elections in which it has been permitted to run since 1946. The party has not held a consistent ideology over time; rather, it owes its longevity to the reservoir of emotion that still connects many Argentines with the memory of its founder. Its most recent leaders, Néstor and Cristina Fernández De Kirchner, cast themselves as Juan and Eva Perón’s spiritual successors — and showed a similar disregard for democratic institutions.
Ultimately, it’s naive to assume that the connection between populists and their supporters will quickly dissolve if political leaders fail to deliver on their promises or are ousted from office under controversial circumstances. Loyalty can last — and be politically mobilized — for generations.
But why do so many citizens give populists a second chance, even when their flaws are well-known? One answer has to do with the depth of disenchantment with democratic institutions that usually precedes the populists. Since some populists experience a meteoric rise, breaking onto the political scene suddenly, it is tempting to think of the causes of their success as ephemeral. Yet populists in virtually every country have exploited deep social divisions (such as fears about immigration in Europe) and long-standing economic frustrations (such as the vast differences in prosperity between town and country in Thailand). Since these underlying causes are rarely remedied after populists are deposed, it’s not surprising that the same kind of politics can live on.
Another answer has to do with the way populists destroy the most basic rules and norms of the political system. Leaders’ willingness to signal that their adversaries are legitimate participants in the system, and to respect the sanctity of institutions instead of pressing their partisan advantage to the limit, is largely dependent on the premise that voters would punish them for such transgressions. Italians before Berlusconi and Americans before 2015 assumed that a candidate who attacked the independent judiciary or called for his opponent to be jailed could never garner mass support. Once a ruthless and talented political leader demonstrates that this assumption is mistaken, it becomes more tempting for future politicians to break norms with abandon.
The experiences of countries like Peru, Italy and Thailand are a warning for Americans not to underestimate Trump’s staying power. To vanquish the broader style he represents will require more than voting him out of office. It will require healing the disease — fixing the reasons for Americans’ growing disenchantment with democratic institutions and reestablishing their commitment to the country’s most fundamental norms — not merely managing the symptoms.