End of Trump era deals heavy blow to rightwing populist leaders worldwide

Shaun Walker in Budapest, Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro and Jon Henley in Paris
·7-min read

As the Donald Trump era draws to a close, many world leaders are breathing a sigh of relief. But Trump’s ideological kindred spirits – rightwing populists in office in Brazil, Hungary, Slovenia and elsewhere – are instead taking a sharp breath.

The end of the Trump presidency may not mean the beginning of their demise, but it certainly strips them of a powerful motivational factor, and also alters the global political atmosphere, which in recent years had seemed to be slowly tilting in their favour, at least until the onset of coronavirus. The momentous US election result is further evidence that the much-talked-about “populist wave” of recent years may be subsiding.

For Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has yet to recognise Joe Biden’s victory, Trump’s dismissal struck close to home. “He was really banking on a Trump victory … Bolsonaro knows that part of his project depends on Trump,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist from Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil.

As the reality of a Trump-free future sunk in last Thursday, Bolsonaro reportedly sought to lighten the mood in the presidential palace, telling ministers he now had little choice but to hurl his pro-Trump foreign policy guru, Filipe Martins, from the building’s third-floor window.

The election result represented a blow to Bolsonarismo, a far-right political project modelled closely on Trumpism that may now lose some of its shine. And on the world stage the result means Brazil has lost a key ally, even if critics say the relationship brought few tangible benefits. It brings an end to what Eliane Cantanhêde, a prominent political commentator, called Bolsonaro’s megalomaniacal pipedream” of spearheading an international rightwing crusade.

Homeless people rest near graffiti depicting Donald Trump and the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, as his puppet, under Minhocão Bridge in São Paulo.
Homeless people rest near graffiti depicting Donald Trump and the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, as his puppet, under Minhocão Bridge in São Paulo. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

“Without Trump, who’s going to lead this? Brazil, Poland and Hungary?” Cantanhêde said. “The party’s over ... No one was taking this seriously anyway – but now without Trump, they’ll just laugh.”

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whom Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon once called “Trump before Trump”, had also set out his stall firmly behind the incumbent before the vote, saying he had no plan B in the event of a Trump loss.

“I am convinced that President Trump has saved conservative America and become one of the greatest American presidents. We wish him, and ourselves, total success in his election,” Orbán said shortly before the vote.

Trump’s White House has given tacit backing and sometimes open support to far-right movements and leaders. Trump sent an old friend, the jewellery magnate David Cornstein, to be ambassador in Budapest and flatter Orbán, while his ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said he planned to “empower” rightwing forces across Europe, infuriating his German hosts.

Orbán said his support for Trump was partly because Hungary was tired of being lectured by Democratic politicians. “We didn’t like it and we don’t want a second helping,” he said.

Cas Mudde, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, said it was the prospect of this kind of criticism under Biden, rather than any concrete political benefits of Trump per se, that was behind European illiberal politicians’ embrace of Trump.

“I doubt most far-right leaders will feel their electoral success is going to be impacted by Trump’s defeat. Neither will it really change their access to the White House, which was limited under Trump too,” he said.

“What they mainly worry about is what Orbán has called ‘liberal imperialism’ – having the US criticise democratic erosion and the abuse of human rights around the world again.”

Trump with Viktor Orbán in the Oval Office in May 2019. Hungary’s far-right prime minister has been described as ‘Trump before Trump’.
Trump with Viktor Orbán in the Oval Office in May 2019. Hungary’s far-right prime minister has been described as ‘Trump before Trump’. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty

Most populist leaders waited as long as possible for the results before grudgingly congratulating Biden, or simply remaining quiet. Orbán sent belated congratulations on Sunday, but Hungarian and Polish state television played up Trump’s claims of fraud and suggested the result was still in the balance.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly called AMLO, declined to congratulate Biden immediately, saying he would wait until all legal challenges had been settled. “We want to be prudent,” López Obrador said on Saturday.

Observers see stylistic similarities between the two leaders, despite the fact AMLO was elected on a leftwing populist platform. He questioned the US media on Monday for “censoring” Trump’s recent press conference by cutting coverage over false claims being made.

Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Janša, went further, calling the election for Trump on Wednesday morning. Janša, who has a Trumpian relationship with his Twitter feed, wrote that it was “pretty clear” Trump had won four more years in office. “More delays and facts denying from #MSM, bigger the final triumph for #POTUS,” he wrote.

Since then, he has said Slovenia will continue to be partners with the US, though he also tweeted a number of times that the timing of Monday’s announcement on a potential coronavirus vaccine breakthrough was suspicious and perhaps had been deliberately withheld until after the election.

In Estonia, where the far-right EKRE party was brought into a coalition government last year, remarks on Trump by the party leader and interior minister, Mart Helme, led to a full-blown political crisis. Helme, who described Biden and his son Hunter as “corrupt characters”, said he believed Trump would be declared the winner in the end. “It will happen as a result of an immense struggle, maybe even bloodshed but justice will win in the end,” he said.

Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has distanced herself from anti-Biden remarks made by the interior minister.
Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has distanced herself from anti-Biden remarks made by the interior minister. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

President Kersti Kaljulaid said over the weekend that she was “sad and embarrassed” by the remarks and suggested the attack on Estonia’s main ally was a national security threat. On Monday, Helme resigned.

Not everyone in the European far right is eager to die on the hill of Trump’s evidence-free claims of electoral fraud, however, particularly in those countries where most voters tend to be sceptical of the brash US president.

In France, where according to one pre-election poll only 14% of voters wanted Trump to win, the far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen seemed keen not to rock any boats before next year’s presidential elections.

Although she hailed Trump’s victory in 2016, and suggested after last week’s vote that he was “on the side of history”, she has conspicuously declined to follow several of her party officials in relaying false claims from the Trump campaign of mass electoral fraud, prompting speculation that she fears risking her domestic credibility by associating herself too strongly with the Trump cause.

In the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet, leader of the far-right Forum for Democracy, and his rival, Geert Wilders of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom, both of whom backed Trump in the election, have made little noise in the aftermath.

Matteo Salvini wearing a ‘Trump 2020’ face mask in Rome.
Matteo Salvini wearing a ‘Trump 2020’ face mask in Rome. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA

In Italy, the League leader, Matteo Salvini, who wore a “Trump 2020” face mask before the elections, has been silent since the Biden win, though he did restate the claims of voter fraud late last week. Giorgia Meloni, his coalition partner and Brothers of Italy leader, said Biden had “Covid to thank” for his victory.

Mudde said Trump, with his “America First” rhetoric, was always a tricky figure for large parts of the European far right, especially in countries that have strong anti-American sentiment.

“Bolsonaro is much more like Trump than Le Pen or Salvini. The latter are ideological far-right politicians, steeped in a far-right subculture; Bolsonaro is a conservative-turned-far-right, unconnected to party or subculture, and therefore ideologically thin and flexible,” he said.

Some observers believe Bolsonaro will be forced to moderate his politics by Trump’s loss. Many expect him to retire his Trump-admiring foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who has hailed the US president as the “saviour” of the west.

“The foreign minister is of no use in a post-Trumpian world,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations specialist. “He was a one-issue foreign minister: to admire and adulate Donald Trump and propagate Trumpist ideas.”

In Europe, opponents of populism hope the change in the White House will have a similar knock-on effect. “President Trump was good for the Orbán government, President Biden will be good for Hungary,” Gergely Karácsony, the opposition mayor of Budapest, wrote on Facebook.

Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida in Rome and David Agren in Mexico City