Economic Policy Election2017 Europe inequality ZEIT ONLINE op-ed column

Trump’s brand of populism feeds on frustration and fear

January 20, 2017 is a historic day, with Donald Trump’s entry into office as the 45th U.S. President marking the beginning of a new era. Yet his inauguration is accompanied, at least among certain political circles, by a widespread anticipation of his failure – as well as the belief that it’s only a matter of time until everyone else catches on.

The prospect of a Trump presidency is generating collective concern around the globe: since he was elected in November 2016, the President-elect has failed to produce any concrete plans for his time in office. This comes as no surprise, however, because his plan is clearly to have no plan – or at least no plan based on concrete new initiatives. Trump’s plan is more of an anti-plan: he has simply told us what he is against. 

In economic policy, he is against free trade. He is against foreign investment, against international cooperation, and against innovation. In social policy, he is against Obamacare, against immigration. He is against solidarity. And in foreign and security policy, he has spoken out against China, Iran, and a sustainable solution in the Middle East. And increasingly, he is speaking out against Europe as well.

Stoke fears, polarize, unleash conflict

Such an anti-plan is bound to fail, right? After all, a political approach that seeks to turn back time has zero chance of success. The protectionism Trump has threatened will not bring jobs back to the U.S.; the rejection of innovation and migration will not increase prosperity. Aggressive foreign and security policy will not solve problems: it will only deepen conflicts. And so it seems only a matter of time until Trump’s dilettantism becomes clear, at which point he will be driven out of office, perhaps even before his term is up. Right?

But it appears that Trump doesn’t care about actually improving economic, social, or foreign policy – because to him, his “success” as U.S. President will be judged solely in the voting booths in 2020. Trump knows what his constituents want: that he provide them with security and the hope of a better economic future while taking down the ruling elites both at home and abroad. If Trump can convince his constituents that he is in fact fighting for them – with any failures or mistakes clearly the fault of these elites or foreign governments – then his strategy of polarizing, stoking fears, and unleashing conflicts will lead to his desired outcome of re-election. For his populism to succeed, it is essential that he divide society and nurture these tensions. And thus in order to both remain in office and be re-elected in four years, he is unlikely to pursue a strategy of reconciliation, solidarity, and cooperation.

Promises for the U.S.’s struggling middle class

The driving force behind Trump’s success is his promise of rebuilding the American Dream: the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and reach their goals, no matter what circumstances they come from. This dream of autonomy and freedom is becoming accessible to fewer and fewer U.S. Americans, with the massive increase in inequality over the past three decades leading to an increasing number of people being left behind, both economically and socially. The bottom 40 percent in terms of income are confronting the realization that their children and grandchildren are not actually going to have it better than they did.

It was these middle-class workers, more than the unemployed, who gave their votes to Trump on Election Day. It was not merely because they identified with Trump’s racism, sexism, or xenophobia: it was that they clung to the hope of Trump bringing back their version of the American Dream.

Populism in Europe

The rise of populism and populists is not just a U.S. phenomenon: the movement has also been making massive gains in Europe, from the UK’s Brexit decision to the political successes of right-wing extremist parties in France, the Netherlands, Italy, and even here in Germany. Because what the American Dream is to the U.S., the social market economy is to many Europeans – and especially to many Germans. And in the eyes of many, the social market economy is failing.

Over the past few decades, Europe has experienced a significant rise in social and economic inequality. The income and savings of the bottom 40 percent of Germans have been dwindling for the past 20 years, and concerns about the loss of social status and the future of the economy are no less common in Germany than they are in the U.S. Although there are key political and cultural differences between these two countries, it’s dangerous to underestimate Europe’s potential for populism and right-wing extremism.

We Europeans must brace ourselves for the next four – and possibly eight – years of a Trump presidency. But more importantly, we must draw lessons from Trump’s election and design policies that combat social inequality and polarization. If we fail to learn our lesson from the burgeoning populism in the Western world, it will continue to spread throughout Europe like a plague. Only with an intact, functioning social market economy can Germany and its neighbors put populism in its place and keep the spirit of Trump from infiltrating Europe – and ensure that the election of such a dangerous populist is a true historical exception.

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