The World

The Global Wave That Trump Rode In on Carries On Without Him

A right-wing populist in the White House was the movement’s biggest coup. Now what?

Vladimir Putin with a blinking red and blue background behind him.
Animation by Slate. Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images.

This is part of Trump Slump, a series of stories checking in on how things are going now for the people and products that were riding high during the last administration.

There may be few public figures as quintessentially American as Donald Trump, but the 45th president’s election in 2016 was also widely seen as part of a global political backlash against liberalism, globalization, and immigration. It was a wave that included the 2016 Brexit referendum, the growing influence of far-right populist parties in Europe, and democratic backsliding in countries like Brazil and India. Trump and his officials invited the comparisons. He called himself “Mr. Brexit” on the campaign trail and semi-endorsed far-right candidates like France’s Marine Le Pen; his ambassador to Germany and all-purpose global troll Richard Grenell said he saw it as his mission to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” who are “experiencing an awakening from the silent majority.”

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Someone with Trump’s views becoming, for four years, the most powerful person on the planet, was this loose movement’s most significant victory. You would think that his loss in the 2020 election would set the whole project back. But that’s not exactly what’s happened.

This is not to say that there haven’t been some adjustments. In Brazil, where right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has been dubbed “Trump of the tropics,” the recent departure of foreign minister Ernesto Araújo seemed like a recognition of the new post-Trump political reality. Araújo, who referred to Trump as the “savior of the West,” fancied himself an anti-globalist intellectual, peppering his screeds against liberals, feminists, environmentalists, and China with references to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and postmodernism. But in a post-Trump world, having a figure like Araújo as Brazil’s global representative is less useful than it used to be. You don’t need a guy who appeals to Trump in that role, and the foreign minister was facing an internal revolt from career diplomats who blamed his trashing of Brazil’s foreign policy for impeding the COVID-wracked country’s access to much-needed vaccines.

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Bolsonaro, who has reshuffled his Cabinet as part of what some fear may be preparations for a Jan. 6–style challenge if the 2022 election doesn’t go his way, continues to downplay the coronavirus and push for a full reopening amid an alarming surge of deaths and a deadly new variant of the disease. But not all right-wing populist leaders shared Trump’s reluctance to take COVID seriously. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who openly advocates for what he calls “illiberal democracy,” was dubbed “Trump before Trump” by former White House adviser Steve Bannon. Indeed his draconian immigration policies presaged many of those put in place by the U.S., and he was one of the first world leaders to endorse Trump’s candidacy for president. But rather than seeing COVID as a threat to his agenda, Orbán, who has been steadily eroding the independence of Hungary’s media and judiciary, used the virus as a pretext to grant himself more sweeping emergency powers. (The emergency law has since been lifted, but many of Orbán’s new powers remain.) While Hungary, like much of Europe, is now struggling to contain a new wave of virus infections, it also leads the continent in vaccinations in part because of its decision to break with the rest of the EU to approve the use of vaccines made in Russia and China—a further distancing of Hungary from the European governments that have criticized its authoritarian drift in recent years, but one Hungarians might not mind if the vaccines turn out to be effective.

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At the beginning of this year, Orbán joined with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former deputy prime minister, to create a new right-wing European political alliance that aims to, as Salvini put it, “make Europe great again.” The three are often considered the leading figures in Europe’s far right. Conspicuous in her absence in the group is France’s Le Pen, whose National Rally party is trailing the incumbent President Emmanuel Macron’s party by only a few points in a potential runoff, according to recent polls of next year’s presidential elections.

Le Pen, who once described Trump as “an additional stone in the building of a new world,” has been aided by the public’s declining faith in Macron’s handling of the coronavirus, with a series of long lockdowns and a stumbling vaccine rollout. Rather than drawing a clear distinction between his centrist party and the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam National Rally, Macron has been stealing the latter’s talking points, launching high-profile crusades against “Islamo-leftism” and “woke” forms of identity politics he portrays as unwelcome imports from the U.S. Even if she doesn’t win, Le Pen is succeeding in shifting the terms of the debate in France.

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Some of the nationalist leaders in Trump’s orbit may find it pretty easy to adjust to the new order. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed the staunch support of Trump even as he faced protests at home and condemnation abroad for his government’s discrimination against Muslims and crackdowns on civil society. But India’s cooperation is key to enough of the Biden administration’s foreign policy goals—from counterterrorism to climate change, to China—that he’s unlikely to face too much pressure from the new president.

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It won’t be so easy for all leaders to make that pivot. Few world leaders hitched their wagons to Trump’s star quite as enthusiastically as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who touted the president’s support during election campaigns and lifted some of Trump’s favorite lines to defend himself from corruption allegations. Netanyahu is currently fighting for his political life after a recent election—Israel’s fourth in just two years—left him without enough allies to form a government. But the issue is more Netanyahu himself, and the criminal charges he’s facing, than ideology. Israel has lurched dramatically to the right under Netanyahu, to the point that the far-right, racist, homophobic, Religious Zionist party, which includes a faction once designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. for its violent attacks on Arabs, now sits in the assembly and could potentially be part of a Netanyahu-led coalition government.

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Then there’s Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has tried to position himself as the leader of a global conservative backlash to Western-style liberalism, which he has declared “obsolete.” He’s embraced nationalist and Orthodox religious values at home and cultivated ties with far-right parties—Le Pen’s National Rally, Austria’s Freedom Party—abroad. The Kremlin’s efforts on behalf of Trump’s campaign were part of this project as well, and expectations for Putin’s admirer in the White House were high. (The Russian parliament burst into applause after his election in 2016.) But in many ways, the Trump years were, as former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put it, a “period of disappointment” for Russia. The Trump administration didn’t lift any Obama-era sanctions—in fact, it imposed new ones. And it provided offensive weapons to Russia’s foes in Ukraine and launched airstrikes on the Russian-backed regime in Syria.

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If the U.S. is not actually going to be any more friendly to Russia, it may serve Putin’s anti-Western message better to have an unambiguous Russia hawk like Joe Biden in the White House. Putin seemed almost eager to shift back into confrontation mode last month after Biden agreed that Putin was a “killer” during a TV interview, accusing Biden of hypocrisy and challenging him to a televised debate.

In general, a Trump-free world may be an unexpected boost to right-wing populists. Trump himself was deeply unpopular globally, even though his views on immigration, Islam, feminism, and—more recently—coronavirus lockdowns had plenty of adherents. Trump’s ideological allies may find these ideas to be an easier sell without the ugly American associations.

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