Whether you laud or lament the political rise of Donald Trump, he has certainly grabbed public attention. The businessman and erstwhile reality TV star used his celebrity and ‘straight-talking’ populist style to woo voters in a way very different from his opponents and peers. Whether that approach is positive is another question.


Meanwhile, when Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, warned in September of the fundamental threats facing the European Union, he notably drew attention to one factor. Splits within the EU, he said, were leaving scope for “galloping populism”. That image – of a movement heading at destructive speed towards mainstream politics – captures the angst with which many, not only in Europe but around the world, view the rapid growth of populism.

On the side of the people

This can be a tricky trend to define, but certainly groups or movements proclaiming themselves to be on the side of ‘the ordinary citizen’, threatened by globalisation, immigration or fear of terrorism, are becoming increasingly prominent. Whether in the context of the US presidential election, European debates about migration and austerity, or UK’s Brexit (the referendum in June in which the UK voted to leave the EU), those claiming to speak for the people against the elite seem to have the initiative, while mainstream politicians look vulnerable.

Have we seen comparable populist surges in the past? And what are the roots of this situation? Some historians, such as Niall Ferguson at Harvard, have found revealing parallels in the 19th century, when “a motley crew of xenophobes, nationalists and cranks” emerged. The first group to be labelled ‘populist’ comprised 19th-century Russian revolutionaries who claimed to stand up for toiling peasants ignored by their rulers (but who were themselves criticised for being out of touch with peasant life).

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For all that there was relatively little conflict between states during the 19th century, it was for many a time of insecurity, when the masses wanted to assert themselves against ruling elites. Prolonged economic downturns in Europe were prompted partly by the beginnings of a kind of globalisation brought about by railways, mass migration and the emergence of new economic powers such as Germany and the US. This could alienate both agricultural workers and new graduates struggling to find jobs – just like the unemployed graduates who fuel populist challenges in southern Europe today. Angst about immigration and urbanisation helped inspire conspiracy theories.

And labour movements began to flex their muscles against what they saw as elites representing the interests of a privileged few, while suffragists in the early 20th century campaigned against women’s complete exclusion from political power.

Fears of terrorism linked to migration were exploited by populist leaders over a century ago, much as they are today. The 1870s saw the start of decades of anarchist terrorism, including the assassination of political leaders and bombing of public buildings and events throughout Europe.

Many point to the 1920s and 1930s, following the Great Depression, as the heyday of populist politics, when fascist and communist movements exploited economic misery and weakened political systems. However, Daphne Halikiopoulou, a University of Reading specialist on the far right, cautions against proposing easy equations linking economic distress and the rise of movements such as Nazism.

“The US had an economic crash but no fascist movement that won,” Halikiopoulou points out. And today, while a prolonged economic crisis afflicts southern Europe, only Greece has experienced a populist challenge from the far right (the Golden Dawn party) as well as the left (Syriza). Moreover, factors fuelling populism vary across time.

“Let’s not forget the migration crisis,” she adds; though this is a major populist theme today, migration on such a scale was not so prominent in the 1930s.

Fear of populism certainly motivated European politicians after the Second World War. Revolutionary challenges from the far left had solidified into the Soviet bloc of eastern Europe, whose leaders were fearful of their power being undermined by people’s movements. Western Europe, meanwhile, was determined to immunise itself against challenges from below, and mainstream parties backed generous welfare states. Cas Mudde, expert on populism at the University of Georgia, has written that (western) Europe “saw very little populism until the 1980s”. Anti-tax parties then began to emerge in Scandinavia, and far-right populists in France and the Netherlands. Claiming to be ‘the voice of the people’, they were forerunners of more successful movements now disturbing the status quo in most European countries.

Decline of the mainstream

Trends that might be seen as populist come from the political left as well as the right. Mass protest movements against nuclear weapons blossomed in the 1980s, and Matthew Feldman, professor in contemporary history at Teesside University, points to later protests in Britain against the Iraq War: “Getting 2 million people out for a single issue about which ‘the elite’ is not listening – for me, that was a good expression of populism.”

It’s also important, argues Halikiopoulou, to recognise that established parties and governments have sometimes resorted to what could be seen as a populist style in an attempt to sustain support: “In Greece in the 1980s, the PASOK [Panhellenic Socialist Movement] party gained power and stayed in power with a very populist rhetoric – anti-Nato, anti-west.” And those who remember mass resistance on the streets against Portuguese dictators or Greek colonels in the 1970s, or Soviet-backed communist rulers in the late 1980s, may have a much more positive view of what a kind of populism can achieve.

Another significant factor is the vacuum left by the steady decline of mainstream parties such as social democrats that once could rely on the tribal loyalty of millions. New populist movements have eaten into their support. Where a successful challenge has come from the right, says Matthew Feldman, it was often after such movements jettisoned toxic, alienating views such as anti-Semitism – a great taboo in Europe after the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, he argues, “nobody who wants to break into the mainstream talks about biological anti-Semitism or Jewish conspiracy”. Instead, such movements and parties have found fertile political ground in training hostility toward Islam. “And that,” adds Feldman, “ties in – often unfairly – with acts of terrorism we’ve seen since 9/11.”

Sometimes this focus on Islam echoes very old historical moments. The Freedom Party in Austria, for example, which has come close to winning the country’s presidency (and may have done so in the re-run election in December by the time you read this) uses modern means of communication to re-work old Austrian angst about invasion by ‘the Turk’ that recalls the 17th-century siege of Vienna. Similarly, politicians and campaigners in central and eastern Europe, hostile to the idea of receiving more refugees from the Middle East, have spoken of themselves, says Feldman, as “the bastion of a supposedly homogeneous Christianised west as opposed to an Islamised east”.

What has also proved effective for such campaigners is suggesting links between migration and the future of welfare spending. Such welfare was developed originally as insurance against political instability caused by economic insecurity. Now, populist challengers – warning that immigration threatens to overburden welfare systems – poach voters from mainstream parties of the left as well as the right.

It should be emphasised that these trends vary from country to country. One major exception to the populist surge has until recently been Germany, where recall of its dark 20th-century history acted as a barrier against such movements. The AfD party (Alternative für Deutschland), however, achieved regional electoral success by switching emphasis, replacing opposition to the euro with hostility to Muslim immigration. If the AfD enters parliament in the 2017 federal election, it would mark a highly significant historical shift in Germany’s postwar politics.

Britain provided this year’s most striking case study: the Brexit vote. Though the campaign to leave the EU was broad-based, it echoed familiar populist themes: challenging the elite, giving control back to ‘ordinary people’, resisting large-scale immigration. Britain’s rightwing Eurosceptic UK Independence Party may have only one member of parliament but, says Feldman, Brexit “shows that populism can be successful and when harnessed can be a major political force”.

In the US, of course, many have seen Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as a potent example of populist success. Trump echoes earlier US political figures such as William Jennings Bryan in championing ‘the people’ against the Washington elite – though some point out that the billionaire businessman is hardly an ‘ordinary American’. But what seems distinctive is that Trump captured the Republicans as an outsider.

It will be fascinating to see whether Trump can maintain the image and language of an outsider once occupying the White House. The transition from challenging power to wielding it can prove especially hazardous for populist movements, which tend to rise and fall rapidly. The “big dilemma” for such movements, says Halikiopoulou, is “how to retain legitimacy, to claim that their hands are still clean, that they have never been part of the mainstream”. Such movements, says Feldman, may “lose some of their populist appeal as a trade-off for political influence” as they aim to appeal to a broader base. Their leaders tend to be “good at leading a movement, less good at securing political change”.

Even so, mainstream politicians looking nervously over their shoulders in many countries now seem less and less assured that history is on their side.

How populist movements exploit new mass media

One striking feature of populists is their use of new means of direct communication. In some respects, says Matthew Feldman, this echoes trends seen centuries ago. In the 17th century, new printed material and woodcut images were delivered by a network of propagandists: this kind of communication “allowed for a real expansion of conspiracy theories, ‘Us versus Them’ ideas”.

By the 20th century, populists could exploit other new technologies. Nazi propaganda supremo Joseph Goebbels was quick to recognise and use the potential of radio, with its capacity to convey the drama and intimacy of the rallies at which Hitler and others addressed audiences around Germany.

“It would not have been possible” claimed Goebbels, “for us to take power… without the radio and the airplane.”

In recent times, populists have used the internet and social media to bypass what they see as mainstream media allied to their enemies among the elite – what Donald Trump has called (in a tweet) the “dishonest and disgusting media”. Social media, says Daphne Halikiopoulou, offers populists “a big difference to how many people they can reach”. Studying the rise of the Front National in France, she observed how their publicity effort has moved since the 1980s from “one bulletin that came out every few months – short, directed only at staunch FN supporters” to a website updated daily.

The speed and efficiency of such communication, argues Feldman, boosts the influence of the ‘galloping populism’ feared by mainstream politicians. “Historians of the 19th and 20th centuries will say that this kind of thing – populism – has been around for a long time. But I feel that the rate at which it can translate into political power – through social media and so on – has speeded up.”

Chris Bowlby is a BBC journalist specialising in history


This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016