conservative dilemma

Breaking the Populist Fever

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Populist parties have grown in support as the Republicans and the European center-right have ignored the concerns of voters alienated by globalization.

  • Facts


    • Donald Trump, the Alternative for Germany of AfD and the U.K. Independence Party have gained political momentum over the past year.
    • In Scandinavia, support for populist parties has declined as the center-right in Denmark, Norway and Finland have sought to address their concerns.
    • British Prime Minister Theresa May has sought to position the Conservatives in Britain as the party of working class Britons in the wake of the Brexit vote.
  • Audio


  • Pdf
Donald Trump and UKIP's Nigel Farage have teamed up. Source: Reuters

For many European observers, the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee seems inexplicable. Henry Olsen, an expert on the Grand Old Party, broke down the enigmatic Trump phenomenon in terms more familiar to readers across the pond.

“Republicans are within the German context more to the right economically and culturally then any of your mainstream parties,” Mr. Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told Handelsblatt during an event at our Election Camp in Washington D.C.

And Donald Trump has been able to pull them even further rightward, winning “a battle between different factions within that [Republican] coalition for which degree of conservatism and what tactics ought to be deployed,” he said.

“If you treat the concerns seriously and offer some degree of responsibility, it breaks the fever.”

Henry Olsen, Ethics and Public Policy Center

That’s because unlike parties in Germany, candidates in the U.S. are nominated by voters through an open primary process. To put it in business terms, that means the Republican Party was open to a hostile takeover by the Trump movement.

“What Donald Trump did is effectively mobilize disgruntled shareholders to launch a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, of the company,” Mr. Olsen said. “They won the shareholders meeting.”

And who are those voters? They’re similar to the people who are supporting the deeply conservative, populist and extreme right-wing parties in Germany.

“What he did is mobilize the people who in Germany would be behind the CSU or the AfD or the smaller parties like the NPD and bring them into the Republican coalition,” Mr. Olsen said

The CSU is the arch-conservative Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The Alternative for Germany or AfD is the upstart populist movement that is deeply opposed to Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies. The NPD has been accused of having neo-Nazi sympathies.

The fact that he was so successful is the fault of the party’s mainstream wing. The Republican Party, like many of the European parties of the right, had long ignored the grievances of a group Mr. Olsen calls “the forgotten people,” those who feel left out of globalization and feel like immigration and trade has put them at a disadvantage.

Mr. Olsen said the Republicans and the center-right parties of Europe have made similar mistakes in addressing the surge of populism and nativism.

“Most of the European parties of the right have not figured out how to deal with the national populist threat very well,” Mr. Olsen said. “They’ve tried what the elites of the Republicans have tried to do, which is to say overlook, ignore and denigrate. And that has not succeeded anywhere.”

There is one region of the world that has found a possible antidote to the populist fever. The center-right parties in Scandinavian nations such as Denmark, Finland and Norway have sought to address the grievances that have powered the populist movements.

“In each of those cases the support for the [populist] party has started to decline, “Mr. Olsen said. “If you treat the concerns seriously and offer some degree of responsibility, it breaks the fever.”

For the United States, Britain may serve as the best example of an effective approach, Mr. Olsen argued. Prime Minister Theresa May has sought to position the Conservatives as the party of the working class Briton in the wake of the Brexit vote, which was driven by the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP.

“The polls suggest that’s bringing some of the UKIP and moderate Labour voters into her camp,” Mr. Olsen said. “An approach in the American system that would look more like Theresa May might be the way to tame the Trump beast and make it part of the governing and sensible center right,” he said.


Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!