ROME—How quickly they forget. During the height of Trump’s pre-pandemic presidency bounce, Georgia Meloni, Italy’s most prominent farthest right leaning politician and leader of the Brothers of Italy party quoted him every chance she could, in hopes that his star power among populists would lend her some credibility. But since his apparent loss to Joe Biden, Meloni has seemingly forgotten her man in Washington. “I share ideas and values with Trump and in recent years I have worked to strengthen ties,” she told reporters this week. “But I'm not anybody's cheerleader.”
Meloni's sentiments have been echoed by some of Trump's strongest supporters. The U.K. prime minister Boris Johhson—seen by some as Europe’s Trump—is already cuddling up to Biden over climate change, an issue almost no one agreed with Trump on. Many of the lawmakers in Germany’s Trump-supporting Alternative for Germany party have also shown a reluctant willingness to accept Biden’s victory after initially repeating Trump’s claims of voter fraud.
And Hungary's Victor Orban was one of the first European leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory, after being the only European leader to openly endorse Trump’s re-election, calling a second term his “Plan A.” It helps little that Biden has spared little love for Orban, referring to him as a Trump henchman on the campaign trail this fall. “You see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world,” Biden said. “This president embraces all the thugs in the world.”
Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council who now leads Europe’s largest moderate consdervative party called the European People's Party, was quick to claim the end of Trump would be the end of populism. “Trump’s defeat can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populisms also in Europe,” he wrote after Biden’s win was called. But it is far more complicated than that say analysts.
Rosa Balfour, the European director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, predicts Europe's populists who rode the Trump and Brexit wave will be just fine without him. “We saw Trump use populism but then it was more about undermining the rule of law than populism itself,” she told The Daily Beast, pointing out that while the leaders of Poland and Hungary have used the same “systematic attack on democracy and the rule of law” as Trump, they don’t really need him to keep it up.
“With respect to Hungary and Poland, they will adapt to the Biden presidency, and in the big picture, they know many strategic issues like security are better served by Biden,” she said. “Orban is a very clever politician, he is very pragmatic, he managed to get very far with very little scrutiny, that won’t change.”
Like in the U.S., Balfour says that it will be voters not Trump’s absence who eventually oust leaders like Orban and Polish President Andrzej Duda, whose Poland’s Law and Justice Party win in recent elections has been largely attributed to Duda’s White House visit with Trump and who has so far failed to recognize Biden’s victory. “It won't change anything,” she says. “Trump won't be what might change Poland and Hungary, it'll be the Hungarians and the Polish.”
Pawel Zerka, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations says the Trump-free era will have an impact and the sooner Europe's populist leaders find a new hero, the better for them. “The U.S. 2020 election also matters to them because it deprives them of either an ally or, at least, a useful reference point on the global political map; one that, more than anyone else, has contributed to the shifting of the range of what is or is not acceptable in the public discourse,” he wrote in a post-election essay. “Trump’s legacy in this area may well outlive his presidency—and he will likely continue to make trouble wherever he is.”
It is the second-tier leaders who have only skirted the halls of power like Italy’s Meloni and erstwhile leader Matteo Salvini who gained the most by Trump’s presidency because their strength lies in a set of circumstances they can exploit, from identity and inequality to being afraid of being left behind. “They don't have power, but they were empowered,” Balfour says. “He really emboldened them, he helped them see that if you create chaos, even if you run risks and create shambles, you undermine the governing coalition.” These learned techniques don't need Trump at the helm to work.
Still, the very fact that Trump once won is still more important for European populists, Zerka writes. The fact that Trump was elected at all gives them hope “making them more electable or giving them hope that one day they, too, could win” he says. More even “than the fact that he eventually lost. It will be giving them hope for years to come.”