Following the result of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, some irresponsible commentators predicted that an Anglo-American wave of populism would sweep across Europe too. They foresaw Marine Le Pen in the Elysée Palace and Geert Wilders as prime minister of the Netherlands. They even evoked the possibility of Angela Merkel’s CDU bleeding to death by haemorrhaging votes to Alternative für Deutschland. After the Dutch elections in March and the first round of the French presidential election on April 23, when Marine Le Pen confounded all the opinion polls by coming second, not first, it became clear that this was all nonsense. Why?
First, the prediction of popular revolution sweeping out old elites was itself a product of ideology, not of analysis. The wish is father to the thought. The myth of “the people” rising up against hated and corrupt elites, which is at least as old as the French Revolution, is a seductive one, whose power over people’s minds seems only to have grown since the end of the Cold War.
The prediction of popular revolution sweeping out old elites was itself a product of ideology, not of analysis. The wish is father to the thought.
The ostensibly revolutionary regimes in Eastern Europe – which were in reality socially and politically conservative – having themselves collapsed, the revolutionary mythology has migrated West instead. Fairy tales about “colour revolutions” from Belgrade to Baghdad have now excited the Western mind for two decades; the events in Kiev in 2014 were only the latest re-run of a script which has been played out identically in Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. People believe in the fairy tale because it corresponds to Oscar Wilde’s definition of fiction: the good end happily and the bad unhappily.
Second, the Hegelian determinism underlying such predictions crassly fails to take account of two key factors in history: human agency and cultural difference. All countries are not the same and historical events depend on choices. Both the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump were particular events rooted in the political history and culture of their respective nations. They are not easily transposable to other lands.
It is well known, for instance, that the EU has been a major bone of contention in British politics, off and on, for 40 years: membership of that body never commanded the cross-party consensus, still less the emotional appeal, which it enjoys across the continent. (This is itself due in no small measure to Britain’s role in the Second World War, which was unique in Europe.)
Trump, for his part, benefited largely from the fact that the White House had been Democrat for eight years: his victory is less an aberration than the natural result of the normal electoral cycle of US politics, which, for the past two decades, has systematically seen the incumbent party lose the presidency after its second term.
As for Trump, he won because he was the leader of the opposition and he was brought to power as the official candidate of one of the oldest political parties in the world. He did not win the popular vote.
As far as human agency is concerned, Marine Le Pen fought a bad campaign in which she showed herself to be ignorant and totally unprepared for high office. She has none of the human qualities of Nigel Farage, whose unique selling point was that he transmitted the language of the pub into the public sphere, and that he did so with a smile and a laugh. Marine Le Pen’s grim face, as grey as the sky in her fiefdom of Hénin-Beaumont, cheers nobody up.
Third, neither the Brexit vote nor the Trump victory can properly be called examples of populism. To be sure, the Brexiteers and Trump drenched their political discourse with the language of populism: Trump’s inaugural speech, and UKIP’s “People’s Army”, are textbook cases of anti-elitism.
On the other hand, the same is probably true of every single candidate in a democratic election: what else is Emmanuel Macron’s “On the move!”, a political party created out of nothing in order to destroy and replace France’s existing political parties? Moreover, the idea that the Brexit campaign was based on a rebellion against elites, when six incumbent Cabinet ministers and several former heavyweight ministers – including two Tory Chancellors of the Exchequer, now members of the House of Lords, as well as one of the best-spoken and talented orators of his generation (Daniel Hannan) – campaigned for it, is a little quaint: you could hardly move in the Brexit camp for Oxbridge graduates and Old Etonians. As for Trump, he won because he was the leader of the opposition and he was brought to power as the official candidate of one of the oldest political parties in the world. He did not win the popular vote.
Far from being proof of the power of populism, the Brexit referendum and the Trump victory show instead the decisive role of the political establishment, in these cases the Conservative and Republican parties. These two outcomes are impossible to imagine without the support they received from that establishment. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, by contrast, not only flogged the anti-elitist horse until it was dead; by positioning themselves exclusively as angry anti-system candidates, and not as potential heads of state or government with the charisma necessary to draw people towards them in the name of a national project, they precisely demonstrated the insurmountable weakness of exclusively negative electioneering.
Fairy tales about “colour revolutions” from Belgrade to Baghdad have now excited the Western mind for two decades; the events in Kiev in 2014 were only the latest re-run of a script which has been played out identically in Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. People believe in the fairy tale because it corresponds to Oscar Wilde’s definition of fiction: the good end happily and the bad unhappily.
People in elections do not vote to clean out the Augean stables of a corrupt elite; they vote instead for a political leader in whom they can believe and whom they can respect. Populism fails where an air of natural authority, and the ability to be a true leader of men, wins. When everything seemed lost on June 18 1940, Churchill held out the prospect of “sunlit uplands”; he did not, like Marshal Pétain, plunge his country into the miasma of guilt and recrimination.
These are important lessons for conservatives. Political power is wielded through the institutions of the state, which conservatives seek to preserve and uphold because they are part of the fabric of civilisation. Political power consists in elevating the population towards higher things, and in consolidating the sense of nationhood which constitutes one of the greatest constructions of human civilisation: nations are to politics what cathedrals are to theology.
Power is never wielded by the will of the people, a debased and vacuous slogan, but instead only by its leaders. Marine Le Pen was consoled for her loss at the presidential election by winning a parliamentary seat in a desolate and déclassé proletarian constituency whose inchoate anger she certainly articulates; but the simple rules of sociology tell us that the ethic of such a place can never be a springboard to the leadership of a proud and ancient nation whose middle classes and political and business elites, however weakened they may be by decades of socialism, still do and should play a decisive role. Conservatives are not revolutionaries and revolutionaries are not conservatives.