“Donald Trump is running for dictator” – a conversation on populism in Europe and the USA with Tom Palmer

Who are Trump`s supporters and why do they vote him from victory to victory? Classical liberal philosopher and historian Tom Palmer, Executive Vice President of the Atlas Network, asked himself these questions as it became ever more likely that after the first primaries Trump could be the Republican 2016 presidential candidate. He noticed that he was disconnected from Trump voters, he knew no-one who would admit to supporting Trump, yet he knew that support existed. In a telling interview with the BBC a voter said she supported Trump because he “said what she thought”. An interesting observation, Palmer has looked at the motivation of Trump voters and contrasted that with support for populism in Europe. During a whistle-stop tour of Europe, Palmer visited the Naumann Foundation in Brussels to exchange ideas on populism on both sides of the Atlantic and what liberals can do to stop future governments from being headed by populists such as Trump or Le Pen.

Populism according to Palmer

Populism is not to be thought of as an ideology, but rather a communication strategy. You can be a socialist populist just as well as you can be a liberal or conservative populist, but what defines populist parties and figures is their opposition to something, rather than any sort of positive agenda. Populism feeds on plebian popular disappointments and on topics where established parties are vague or out of touch with the people. Leaders of such populist forces are however much more likely to be patricians than plebeians, Palmer claimed, citing historical cases going back to Caesar’s overthrow of the Roman Republic. In this way, one patrician can galvanize plebeian sentiments to upset the patrician applecart, positioning themselves at the top.

The Trump phenomenon explained

Palmer sees several populists on the horizon, not only in the United States, but also in European countries as different as France, Germany and Hungary. In the case of the United States, the reason why Palmer sees Trump as such a threat to the American Republic can first and foremostly be traced to Trump`s authoritarian ideals. Palmer pointed to Trump`s willingness to throw international war crimes conventions out the window in order to, arguably, make American forces better equipped to go into battle. As in any society, America also harbors a segment of the population more predisposed to authoritarian solutions. American society is changing fast; mores, demographics and the job market are all very different to how they were just a few years ago. In addition, he subscribes to the thesis originally developed by Charles Murray that the U.S. is seeing the growing apart of white society in America, into a New Upper Class and a New Lower Class. As the elite increasingly inoculate itself from the rest of society elite politics grows more disjointed from the fears of the broader sways of society. Rapid social change, coupled with a segment of the electorate with a latent authoritarian streak has merged with the enigmatic personality of Donald Trump to change the political landscape of the United States. As Tom Palmer underlined, Trump is not “…running for president, he is running for dictator”.

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Tom Palmer explaining the Trump phenomenon

Why is Populism on the rise in Europe?

While Palmer prescribes very little ideology to the Trump movement, he notes that in Europe populists on the left and right benefit from a rich tradition of past identitarian movements. In the case of both France and Germany the Front National and the AfD find roots for their beliefs in their own national pasts. At the same time, Europe suffers from many of the same qualms as the United States with the elite increasingly drawing away from the broad sways of society and norms and demographic makeup changing fast. Palmer in particular stressed Europe`s inflexible labor market as a reason for excluding low-skilled workers from getting a job. In the case of Europe however, Palmer identified the added impact of Russian financing for European populist movements unlike anything seen in the United States. He stressed that the Russian interest in propping up parties such as the Front National in France is to see a weak and disunited Europe which can be manipulated in President Putin`s interest.

What can we do about it?

Although Palmer was concerned by the rising tide of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, his prescription for taking the wind out of the sails of populism is far from gloomy. In his analysis Palmer early on identified the disjoint between a populist electorate and the liberal politician. His recommendation was to speak to those who vote for Trump, Le Pen and their likes, to understand what issues move them to vote the way they vote. As Palmer stressed, voters vote for populists when they feel that mainstream politicians are unable to come up with clear and communicable answers to the challenges they feel in their everyday lives. To win over such voters liberals must return to their basic values of individual freedom, respect and tolerance to unmask populists such as Trump. Only with a values message as a point of departure can complex questions such as migration and security be tackled head-on, giving liberals a chance to pop the populist balloon in Europe. Having identified the growing apart of society as one major challenge which spurns populism on both sides of the Atlantic Palmer made a plea for liberals to counter this trend by entering into debates in arenas where both groups come together. In these arenas it is important not only to rely on rational arguments, but to speak your opinion with conviction and emotion, rooted in a local reality.

Want to know more about how to deal with populism in your context? Read the 2013 publication by ELF and FNF “Communicating with Confidence and Clarity”.

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Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom