ROME — “A casa! A casa!” shouted the crowds marching through the streets of the Eternal City. Their demand: that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi “go home” after the crushing defeat of the constitutional referendum on which he foolishly staked his political future.
And the instant reaction from Europe and the world was that Italy had risen up against the political establishment as the United States did when it elected Donald Trump; that this is part of the same far-right onslaught we saw with the Brexit vote in Britain and may well see in French presidential elections this spring. It’s precisely the kind of thing Trumpian chief strategist Steve Bannon hopes to capitalize on by extending Breitbart’s reach into France and Germany.
Certainly there are similarities. What Donald Trump learned from reality-TV and the unreal rabble-rousing of World Wrestling Entertainment he applied to politics with resounding success. In Italy, leading the charge against Renzi was Beppe Grillo, a coarse comedian who heads the anarchic anti-corruption, anti-government, anti-globalization, anti-EU, anti-euro, anti-immigrant, pro-Putin Five-Star Movement, and who told Italians to “vote with your guts not your brains.”
You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, they all want to change the world.
But each country, each electorate, has its specificities, and while there’s no question that antiestablishmentarianism is on the rise (yes, an unwieldy word is at the heart of this unwieldy trend), the Austrian presidential elections on Sunday show that the right is not the only party able to profit from it.
After recounts and postponements dating back to last spring, suave Norbert Hofer—the kinder, gentler face of a party originally founded by a former SS officer—looked set to ride the “right-wing populist wave” to victory. But he seems to have thought he could shed his slick skin in the closing days of the campaign and pick up some cues from Trump, repeatedly calling his opponent a liar and even tossing out the fake news that the man he was up against used to work for the Soviet KGB.
So much for suave young Norbert. The definitive winner on Sunday was Alexander Van der Bellen, a grizzled 72-year-old “professor” who is decidedly for the European Union but comes from the far-left Greens. The two mainstream center-left and center-right parties were pushed out of the running many months back.
In fact, the “throw the rascals out” trend is not fundamentally of the left or the right, which is one reason the establishment elites are so confused as they confront it.
Almost two years ago, before Trump even seemed a remotely plausible political factor in the United States, Greece voted the far-left outliers of Syriza into power. And in little Switzerland, so proud of its many centuries of democracy, a movement of young insurgent centrists, Operation Libero, has pushed back against the nationalist excesses of the far right, defeating a referendum that would have opened the door to expulsion of immigrants, their children, and even their grandchildren for offenses as minor as parking infractions.
The way politicians project their personalities, whether real or concocted, has always been important, but never was it so obvious as now, as people vote for or against their politicians like the crowds in the Coliseum that used to wave thumbs up or down on the fate of gladiator.
The Italian constitutional referendum was complicated and boring—maybe a good idea, maybe not—but for a majority, Renzi himself had become insopportabile, while Hofer, as noted, may have trumped his own campaign.
Then there is the matter of how to govern when the government is ousted by complete outsiders or, to put it more bluntly, rank amateurs. Grillo may have emerged the big winner in the Italian referendum contest. But the members of his movement elected mayors of Rome and Torino have found it much easier to say “no” from the outside than to figure out what the hell to do from the inside. (Grillo himself cannot be prime minister because of a felony conviction for vehicular homicide.)
In Dutch elections this coming March, Islam-hating, Muslim-baiting, Trump-emulating Geert Wilders may well see his party gain ground in parliament, but he will find it hard or impossible to form a governing coalition. His previous attempts to play the power broker did not suit him well. His game is always from the outside.
The big test—really the defining test—for the European right and the future of the European Union as we know it will be the two-stage presidential elections in France in April and May.
Although current polls suggest the National Front’s Marine Le Pen will get only about 34 percent of the vote in the second round, that’s still about the same odds (to borrow a metaphor from American statistician Nate Silver) as playing Russian roulette with two bullets in the six-shooter.
Le Pen’s personal charisma and her nationalist-socialistic (one hesitates to say national socialist) platform is not only anti-immigration and antiestablishmentarian, it is carefully crafted to appeal to many core interests and values of French voters who feel they’ve been betrayed by the grandiose globalized and pan-European dreams of the elites. She may not be certain to win—nothing is remotely certain amid the current political upheaval—but she has built a party, not just a movement, and the entire political spectrum has shifted in her direction. (Her opponents are all “understudies,” she says).
Even if, in the next few months, there is growing revulsion in Europe at the spectacle of a Trump presidency in the United States, which is a real possibility, it would be a mistake to think Le Pen can be counted out.
So, what happens if the outliers and amateurs continue to win elections? One hears again an echo of the Beatles classic Revolution: “You say you got a real solution. Well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.”
In the end the man with the clearest design appears to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, exploiting what the Beatles call “minds that hate.” He built his own populist base to the benefit of those oligarchs he favored, and when his economy began to falter badly, he launched his “hybrid” war against Ukraine, then moved into Syria—war in its early phases being a well-known way to rally a nation behind its leader.
His long-term goal is unquestionably to discredit Western liberal democracy, which he has seen as a direct, existential threat to what might be called the Union of Putin Subservient Republics.
Putting aside Trump’s Putin predilections, it’s clear that Beppe Grillo likes his spaghetti à la Putinesca, heavily spiced with fishy fake news from various front organizations. Hofer is a big Putin fan, and seems to have seen no contradiction denouncing Van der Bellen as KGB while Putin, unquestionably, was part of that organization and has brought many of his old buddies into the corridors of power. Le Pen took loans from Putin-backed banks when she could get none in France. And even her “mainstream” center-right opponent from Les Républicains, former Prime Minister François Fillon, has declared himself a fan of warmer relations with Russia, more or less ignoring what happened in Ukraine and is going on in Syria.
For the next few months, at least, and possibly for years and decades, it looks like the right-wing antiestablishment movements will be singing “Kumbaya” with the Kremlin. And if they win, Europe will be dancing to that tune.
This story was reported by Barbie Latza Nadeau in Rome, Christopher Dickey in Paris, and Josephine Hüetlin in Berlin.