Populism isn’t over. It’s getting an upgrade

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Twenty minutes after midnight on June 24 2016, in the Silksworth Tennis Centre in Sunderland, England, western populism broke through. The announcement that 69 per cent of Sunderlanders had voted for Brexit made clear that Britain would eventually leave the EU. The peak western populist phase stretched through 2019 with the victories of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, and the entry of the Five Star Movement and Lega into Italy’s government.

Now all that looks like it is being reversed. Johnson lasted less than a term as prime minister despite his 80-seat majority and Five Star faces decimation in Sunday’s Italian election, while Bolsonaro will probably lose to leftist Lula next month. These populists disintegrated in office, but some others, such as the far-right Swedish Democrats and Italy’s likely next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, are replacing them. Populism can thrive after Johnson or Trump. In fact, it is upgrading itself from something like performance art into actual administration.

“Populism” has a broadly accepted definition. Populists depict a political battle between the “good people” and the “bad elite”. Institutions like parliament or judges cannot be allowed to block “the people’s” will. But 2016-era populists were, essentially, TV performers. They had no interest in governing, not even during a pandemic. Their fantasy projects — Brexit, Trump’s wall with Mexico — collided with reality. Nor did populists exactly drain the swamp. Just this month, Johnson lost office after compulsively breaking his own lockdown rules, nativist thinker Steve Bannon exited right in handcuffs, deposed Czech billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš is standing trial and monitoring Trump’s legal problems has become a full-time job.

But the new populists care about running things. Meloni, a former Mussolini fan, “is actually competent. She’s not entirely gripped by vanity,” says Catherine Fieschi, author of Populocracy. Meloni has ditched older Italian populist fantasies of leaving the euro or seceding from southern Italy. She is perfectly happy inside the EU since it swivelled from austerity to stuffing the country’s pockets. And whereas Trump and Johnson whined about the “deep state”, Fieschi expects Meloni will work with other Italian parties and bureaucrats to get far-right things done.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has replaced Trump as the populist movement’s lodestar. When the European Parliament voted last week that Hungary was no longer a full democracy, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party stuck by Orbán.

Populism until recently had a leftist branch, in certain moods represented by Five Star. That branch has withered. Argentina’s Cristina Fernández and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have lost their presidencies, Venezuela’s regime has lost even its blindest supporters, and Spain’s Podemos is descending like Five Star.

Instead, populism’s dominant tendency now calls itself “national conservatism”. Its philosopher-in-chief, Israeli professor Yoram Hazony, just helped host the National Conservatism Conference in Miami. “National conservatism” has added “woke” to the 2016-era demons of Islam and feminists. Meloni likes the “traditional family” and doesn’t like “gender ideology”. Along with Orbán and the US Republicans, her Fratelli are riding the unpopular cause of rolling back abortion.

Traditional centre-right parties are unsure whether to beat the national conservatives or join them. The centre right’s old small-state, low-tax sales pitch has lost salience in an age of Covid-19 and energy crisis. Johnson oversaw the growth of Britain’s highest tax burden in 70 years. His successor Liz Truss talks up the small state but is spending perhaps £150bn on subsidising energy.

Johnson’s famous “fuck business” remark also illuminates changing centre-right attitudes. The wannabe American Orbán, Ron DeSantis, rages against “woke business”; the Conservative Partnership Institute’s Rachel Bovard warns “of the US Chamber of Commerce’s boot, stamping on an unborn baby’s face. Forever.” So centre-right parties are drifting to the far right, which pushes the far right even further right, says Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

But though they march on, populists have lost the centrality they had in 2016. Back then, notes Mudde, they dominated a public debate on the “migrant crisis”, jihadis and corrupt elites. Populists have less to say about Covid-19 or Ukraine. Meanwhile, their erstwhile donor and godfather Vladimir Putin has become an embarrassing loser. Still, even when populists can’t win free elections, they can either manage them as Orbán does, or steal them as Bolsonaro has hinted he will try.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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