Trump’s Loss May Trigger a Populist Butterfly Effect Around the Globe

Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

The demise of Donald Trump has cut off the head of right-wing populism globally. Having Trump in power, and on Twitter, helped give credibility and fuel to populists elsewhere. Boris Johnson was the ‘Britain Trump,’ and Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, the ‘Trump of the Tropics’. In the past, America has set an example as a liberal democracy, and was a standard against which other countries were measured. If America is one of the leading super-powers, and Trump was one of the most powerful men in the world, his behaviour enabled lesser versions of him, in smaller countries. That has now ended.

Boslonaro is already said to have lost interest in running for another term since Trump’s defeat. Israel’s populist leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been empowered by Trump to do things that a liberal, democratic President would never have tolerated, has set about reminding Biden what old friends they are, like a teenager hiding a cigarette behind his back when his parents walk in the room.

In the UK, the timing of Trump’s ungracious ending could not have been worse for Boris Johnson. Trump supported Brexit, which was the first shock vote that showed right-wing populist nationalism could succeed, foreshadowing Trump’s own shock win. Brexit and Trump have been inextricably linked, both dividing an electorate roughly down the middle, both upsetting the Transatlantic, post-war order, and both putting gut before head. Both were about borders, immigration, and introspective nationalism, at the expense of openness, prosperity, and internationalism. Both have continued to divide their countries, and global opinion.

The UK is weeks away from its transition period with the EU ending, and there is still no deal in place for Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. This is a deal that the Brexit politicians promised the country would be ‘the easiest in history.’ It has been an unmitigated disaster, so far, not helped by low quality prime ministers building teams of even lower quality ministers, who have simply been out of their depth. As with Trump, when it came to the UK’s Conservative government, loyalty has mattered more than ability. Most of us have already forgotten the dismal failure-ridden ministerial careers of Liam Fox and David Davis, who were the face of the UK’s trade and EU negotiating teams.

Part of the bravado of Boris Johnson and his team that has been behind their hard-nosed negotiations with the EU was a confidence that the Brexit-supporting, right-wing populist President of the United States would cut them an easy deal come January. That may not have been true, but they believed it anyway. The American’s would come to our rescue, offering us an enhanced trading deal that allows our economy to keep chugging along even if Europe cuts us off.

That has now changed. Joe Biden has never hidden his disdain for Brexit, and is no fan of Johnson. Both are against everything he believes in, as an old-school Trans-Atlantic internationalist, a friend of Ireland, and an ally of Europe. With Trump soon to be ejected from the White House, and isolationist nationalism no longer in f-avour, Johnson is in trouble. He can no longer fall back on America to save him if he fails to negotiate some sort of deal with Europe. Europe now holds the cards, and the UK has no ‘other’ plan.

A first sign that this reality has sunk in at Downing Street was the sudden departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain as Johnson’s Chief of Staff, and his Director of Communications. Both were leading minds behind the Vote Leave campaign, which delivered the Brexit result. They were intertwined with the now-disgraced Cambridge Analytica, and part of the same political ecosystem as Steven Bannon, and the social media engineering that helped bring Trump to power.

They were deeply unpopular, and most people in the country and in the Conservative party are glad to see them go. Cummings is seen as an evil genius, very clever, with very strong ideas, and a great campaigner. But as many pundits have said recently, he was good for fighting elections, but not for governing. His approach was abrasive, secretive, and megalomaniacal. That did not work in a political party used to engagement between Downing Street and its lawmakers in Parliament. It was also not well-suited to negotiations with the European Union, a huge trading body and political union that has done an impressive job of avoiding British attempts at divide and rule, only ever speaking with one voice, and refusing to throw any country, like Ireland, under the bus for a deal.

It appears that the hard-line Brexiteers are being flushed out of Downing Street, just after Trump has fallen from power and the UK can no longer rely on America for a favourable trade deal if they cannot reach an agreement with Brussels. It looks very much like people around Johnson have realised that they can no longer fight hard with Brussels, and either risk or threaten a failure to reach a deal. Such an outcome would leave the UK trading under WTO terms from January 1st 2021, which most economists and people in industry predict would be a disaster for the economy.

In better times, the Brexiteers may have felt they could ride out an economic storm to push their plan through, but with the pandemic already hitting the UK economy harder than elsewhere, it must be obvious, even to Brexit idealogues, that a failure to reach a deal with the EU combined with the Covid recession would surely destroy them politically.

We might assume then that the sudden exit of the Vote Leave Brexiteers from Downing Street is a direct response to Trump’s fall from power in America, which will herald a new approach by the UK to Brussels over the coming weeks to try to reach some sort of compromise on a deal with the EU.

This may be just the beginning of a butterfly-effect globally, as right-wing populism has lost its bully-in-chief. What happens on Pennsylvania Avenue over the coming few months will directly impact what happens on the streets of London, and in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and many more countries that have veered away from democracy in recent years.

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