MIL-OSI Global: Trump’s Iowa win is just a small part of soaring right-wing populism in 2024

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Source: The Conversation – Canada – By Daniel Drache, Professor emeritus, Department of Politics, York University, Canada

The last 12 months have been a mixed bag for right-wing populists. Democracy advocates cheered the defeat of the Law and Justice party in Poland and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s breakthrough victory over his populist adversary in Brazil.

Read more:
Lula and the world: what to expect from the new Brazilian foreign policy

But populists won big victories in 2023 too — and made comebacks. Donald Trump, despite his numerous indictments and allegations he incited an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, began a second run for president. He’s just won the Republican Iowa caucuses handily.

In Argentina, Javier Milei defied the experts and rode to power as an anarcho-capitalist. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, the most extreme politician in Europe, is now a kingmaker. His party came out on top as the largest in the Dutch legislature.

In Germany, the far right has made important electoral breakthroughs as the Alternative for Germany party’s popularity soars.

The year 2023 demonstrated that right-wing populists can win big at the polls. The West’s chaotic, ad hoc response to hundreds of thousands of refugee-seekers and migrants desperate to find a safe haven from war and poverty is fuelling the electoral appeal of populist movements.

A new age of extremism

British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the 20th century an “age of extremes.” He was speaking of capitalism and Stalinism, of empire and turbulent decolonization. Today, we have seemingly passed from the age of extremes into an age of extremism.

Low-trust voters feel they’ve been misled and reject the traditional policy options offered by social democratic parties. They are too impatient to build generational movements. They want a leader who will kick butt and take names.

With the decline in support for traditional left-wing parties in the Global North, voters are sending anti-establishment messages to the parties of the right.

Just as they were between the two world wars in the 20th century, ideological battles are once again fought between those who want to maintain liberal democracy and those who believe that liberals, foreigners and “cultural Marxists” are the root of all evil.

Binary voting and wedge issues

Globally, right-wing populism is set to soar in 2024.

This is an era of the true believer and the culture warrior. Public opinion research from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, the Pew Research Center and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute warn that there are fewer undecided voters than ever.

Modern politics is increasingly an exercise in what’s known as binary voting. The only effective protest is to vote against the greater evil: Pierre Poilievre against Justin Trudeau, Marine Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump against Joe Biden.

Nothing makes the law-and-order and anti-tax brigades angrier than the false notion of unwanted foreigners cheating the system. Populism is being fuelled by intensifying migration flows around the world.

Amassing on land borders and crossing perilously by sea, migrants and refugees perfectly illustrate the “us versus them” mindset. In the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, India, France and even Canada, immigration is either a rising issue or it’s an issue that divides left and right.

Migrants are an easy target but the hate speech is still shocking.

In 2016, Hungary’s Viktor Orban called African migrants a “poison”. Adolf Hitler’s words have also become standard Trump fare as he recently alleged undocumented migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” Discredited ideologies apparently have a worrying half-life.

Asylum-seekers and the anxious voter

Why are migrants such a target of populists when their labour is obviously needed? The answer is simple: in the skewed world view of nationalists, migrants are by definition “cheaters”.

Far-right populists campaign on the false belief that refugee-seekers are also corrupting the traditional way of life, taking jobs and driving up the cost of living. Migrants’ avoidance of expensive, but lawful, immigration channels is usually reason enough to remove them.

In 2016, the EU began paying Turkey six billion euros to take in undocumented migrants. Since then, the refugee issue in Europe has grown in scale and scope. Increasingly extreme populists have come to power promising to deal with the problem, but they’ve failed to provide any effective solutions.

At the height of the Syrian civil war, more than two million refugees entered Europe. Numbers declined in the following years, but are up again. By the end of 2023, EU countries will have received more than a million refugee applications, a number rivalling the 1.3 million who arrived in 2015.

In Italy in the past year, 100,000 refugees have arrived by sea and land. In the U.K., net migration — the difference between those leaving and those arriving — has increased to more than 1.3 million migrants over the same period. It’s the same situation at the American southern border — in 2023, two million people illegally crossed the border.

A problem with no solution

Migration flows are intensified by every other serious challenge facing our societies. Climate change, war and geopolitical rivalry drive already precarious populations to seek a place of greater safety. But as the numbers rise, politicians continuously recycle bad ideas: close the border, send them back, send them elsewhere.

The narrative of the enemy at the gate is demonstrably false. Declining birth rates in rich countries mean that maintaining the standard of living to which westerners have become accustomed will require more immigration, not less.

Even so, in Canada, with one of the most liberal models of immigration in the world, voters are doubting the benefits. In a recent poll, three out of four Canadians thought that high levels of immigration were making the housing crisis worse and putting pressure on the health-care system.

Read more:
What’s behind the dramatic shift in Canadian public opinion about immigration levels?

Nonetheless, wealthy countries will remain a magnet for poor and displaced people. A hundred thousand desperate people crossed the English Channel last year in search of safety and to take up jobs left by EU citizens.

The main drivers of migration today are not just poverty and war in the Middle East and Ukraine, but also post-pandemic labour shortages.

Staring into the abyss?

At the outset of the 20th century, the affluent world could never have predicted the mechanized slaughter of war and the decimation of the British Empire.

Today we’re standing on the brink of momentous change. The Economist recently proclaimed 2024 will be the biggest election year in history. More than four billion people, fully half the world’s population, are voting for national leaders.

In more than a dozen countries, populist leaders are poised to either take power or consolidate their hold on the opposition.

Trump will garner most of the headlines, but he is only the thin edge of the wedge. Wannabe fascists are set to play a bigger role in world affairs this year than they have at any time since the Second World War.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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MIL OSI – Global Reports