ROME— Rewind to last November, when the election of Donald J. Trump as the outsider president of the United States gave a raucous rallying cry to anti-establishment parties around the globe, and especially in Europe.
Politicians like Italy’s comedian-cum-insurgent-politician Beppe Grillo reveled in the unheard of victory that seemed like an impossible dream at the time, calling it a giant “fuck you” to the world: vafancullo being Grillo’s favorite rhetorical flourish.
Others, like France’s Marine Le Pen, lined up at Trump’s door for a sprinkling of magic gold dust so they, too, might beat the odds that had historically been stacked against them.
Just over six months later, Le Pen’s National Front party is coming apart at the seams after a thumping by centrist Emmanuel Macron in French presidential elections last month. It fared even worse in the first round of parliamentary elections this month, making such a poor showing that the fearsome roar it hoped for will be something of a whisper in France’s new parliament under Macron.
And over the weekend, Grillo’s party appeared to be plunging down the slippery slope of passé populism as well. After strong showings in opinion polls over the last six months, Grillo’s Five Star Movement just performed miserably in municipal elections in over 1,000 communities across Italy. It lost every major race, even where it was predicted to win, as in Grillo’s hometown of Genoa.
Five Star’s less than stellar performance is important because Italy, too, will go to the polls to elect a new prime minister sometime before May 2018. The last time Italian elections resulted in a clear winner was 2008 when Silvio Berlusconi handily won. Elections in 2013 produced a coalition government that has seen three prime ministers try to hold it together.
Weariness with Berlusconi, who was elected three times and served for nearly a dozen scandal-plagued years, gave Grillo the strong footing to create his own political movement, which he launched at a series of “Fuck Off” rallies in squares across the country. (Not surprisingly, Berlusconi is now eyeing a comeback based on Grillo’s poor showing.)
Even a month ago, Grillo’s not-quite-right-wing-populist-but-close party was polling ahead of the center-left. But with uneasy times in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, it seems even Italians, who are hardly known for measured reflection when it comes to elections, are nervous about giving someone like Grillo, who openly supports both Trump’s outsider ways and Theresa May’s Brexit leanings, a chance at power.
It would be easy to blame this all on Trump. In fact, it has become too easy to blame everything wrong with any political system on what is happening in the United States. But Europe and its leaders also need to look in the mirror.
Several recent debacles, from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's disastrous referendum on reform, which led to his resignation, to Theresa May’s ill-advised snap elections that might still lead to hers, have actually been as much a result of their own political arrogance as any sort of Trump effect.
Writing on his FiveThirtyEight blog, statistician and political analyst Nate Silver sums up the situation precisely. Outlining recent losses by once-popular right-wing populist parties in Austria, France, and the United Kingdom, he points out a common denominator: Hard nationalistic talk is OK at rallies, but can be scary to voters how have actual ballots in their hands.
Silver points out that nationalist parties that want out of the European Union or which want to close up their border to migrants do well in polls leading up to election day, but then seem to stumble when voters actually vote, which could be the sort of buyer’s remorse many Americans seem to be feeling.
“The nationalist party fades as the election heats up and it begins to receive more scrutiny,” he says. “Then it further underperforms its polls on election day, sometimes by several percentage points.”
Is this lesson one that is being learned in real time by watching American politics? Maybe.
“While there’s no smoking gun to attribute this shift to Trump, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence,” says Silver. “Trump is highly unpopular in Europe, especially in some of the countries to have held elections so far. Several of the candidates who fared poorly had praised Trump—and vice versa. He’s explicitly become a subject of debate among the candidates in Germany and the U.K. To the extent the populist wave was partly an anti-establishment wave, Trump— the president of the most powerful country on earth—has now become a symbol of the establishment, at least to Europeans.”
How all this will play out in the next two critical electoral tests for Western Europe is still far from certain. Germany doesn’t go to the polls until September, and Italy may not vote until late next spring. We’ve seen such volatility and so many risks in the last few months that it would be foolish to say populism is dead and the centrists triumphant. But there’s this: While the Grillos and Le Pens might well think Trump’s the cause of their problems, and rightly so, if there is a debacle for the Merkels, the Renzis, and their centrist kind, they’ll have only themselves to blame.