Donald Trump’s presidency has left an indelible mark on global politics. Over the past four years, political leaders around the world have emulated Trump’s rhetoric, government style and policies, ranging from calls to restore some kind of “lost” national greatness and criticism of traditional politicians to hawkish positions on law and order issues and nationalist approaches to immigration and trade. Some did this for electoral purposes, as they saw Trump’s political strategy as a way to win votes, while others supported the U.S. president in order to benefit from having a close relationship with his White House. Many were somewhere in between, combining tactical moves with a genuine ideological affinity with Trump.
But while Trump’s time in office is ending, nationalism and populism will remain influential forces in global politics for the foreseeable future, as the socio-economic forces that fuel such ideologies — including income inequality, fear of the impact of globalization on jobs and national identity, demographic changes and popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political and economic establishment — are poised to only grow in the United States and elsewhere.
Beneficiaries of the Trump Administration
There were traces of Trump’s rhetoric in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s calls to “take back control” of the United Kingdom after Brexit, while Poland’s governing Law and Justice party agreed with the Trump administration’s views on social issues, national sovereignty and immigration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive rhetoric and attacks on the media were similar to Trump’s, while Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s hawkish position on crime was very close to that of the U.S. president. In the meantime, right-wing opposition parties around the world, including Italy’s League and France’s National Rally, have also praised Trump and promised to adopt similar policies if they came to power.
Many of these leaders have benefited from their good ties with Trump’s White House. Johnson used his alignment with Trump to send U.K. voters the message that the United States had Britain’s back during his tense free trade negotiations with the European Union (even if Johnson ended up signing a deal with the bloc). Poland saw keeping close ties with Trump as a way to achieve its longstanding goal of securing a greater presence of U.S. troops in the country. The Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, more importantly, its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, were significant political victories for Netanyahu. Bolsonaro, for his part, used Trump’s initial public rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 to validate his own push to prioritize keeping the economy open while belittling the pandemic’s severity. Trump’s personal affinity with controversial leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, meanwhile, also provided both with political support from the White House — at least for a while.
The Biden Factor
In the coming months, populist and nationalist leaders will probably become more pragmatic and, in some cases, tone down the more extremist elements of their policies to avoid stoking tensions with U.S. Joe Biden’s new administration (and potentially triggering sanctions and other punitive measures). Indeed, this shift already began during the final weeks of the Trump administration: the assault of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6 forced most of his admirers abroad to distance themselves from Trump — both for domestic reasons (to echo their voters’ dismay with the images coming from the United States) and for foreign policy calculations (to keep the door open for cooperation with the incoming Biden administration).
But this change in behavior will likely be tactical and only partial. While Biden may be a more vocal critic of populist and autocratic regimes compared with his predecessor, interest rather than ideology will still dominate his new administration’s relationships with such governments. Washington will retain relations with its strategic allies, regardless of their leaders’ ideology. And the same will be true for nationalist and populist governments dealing with the United States. Central and Eastern European countries will continue to see the White House as the ultimate guarantor against Russian aggression, which means that they will seek alignment with Washington no matter who is in charge. U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region will also still look to the White House for reassurances against China’s rise, while cooperation with the United States will remain a pillar of both Israel and the United Kingdom’s foreign policy.
The Enduring Legacy of ‘Trumpism’
The end of Trump’s term in the United States is unlikely to translate to the end of global nationalist/populist ideologies for one fundamental reason: all the socio-economic factors that have propelled the popularity of such beliefs remain as prevalent as ever. In fact, the deep economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic will only exacerbate unemployment, inequality and, in some cases, anger against the political and economic establishment that initially created the fertile ground for the type of rhetoric and politics that catapulted Trump and like-minded leaders to power over the past decade.
This means the narrative claiming that governments are not doing enough to protect domestic jobs and that de-globalization and trade wars are the best way to win the race against competing economies, multinational corporations and, in the case of EU states, supranational institutions, is here to stay and will continue to shape global politics for the foreseeable future. And the same can be said for the anti-establishment ideology that blames national and international elites (including politicians, international organizations and the mainstream media) for the alleged national decay and for the rhetoric that links immigration to wage stagnation, crime and terrorism.
Populist and nationalist forces have been very disruptive for the countries where they emerged. In Western Europe, they led to more fragmented political systems by challenging the supremacy of traditional parties, resulting in more fragile governments and a more complex and lengthier policymaking process. Eastern Europe, meanwhile, has seen the rise of governments that have weakened the rule of law, marginalized minorities and increased pressure on critical media. In the United States, Trump’s brand of populism has deepened social and political divisions in ways that may take decades to repair. In the coming years, this shifting political climate will continue to force leaders of mainstream centrist parties around the world to move either further right or further left to attract voters in an increasingly polarized electorate, making political and social consensus increasingly hard to achieve.
Despite being deemed “Trumpism,” most of the politics and policies associated with the Trump administration were not born with him and will not end with his presidency. Indeed, many of Trump’s ideological peers were in power long before he was elected and will likely outlast him by several years. And many more are sure to follow in his footsteps in the future.
The Global Allure of Nationalism Won’t End With Trump’s Term is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.