BRUSSELS – For Europe’s populists, President Trump’s election defeat, which has been a symbol of success and a strong supporter, was bad enough. But his refusal to accept defeat and the ensuing violence seem to have hurt the prospects of similar-minded leaders across the continent.
“What happened in the Capitol after Donald Trump’s defeat is a bad omen for the populists,” said Dominique Moïsi, a senior analyst at the Paris-based Montaigne Institute. “It says two things: if you choose them, they do not easily leave power, and if you choose them, look at what they can do to incite popular anger.”
The long day of rebellion, violence and death as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol has presented a clear warning to countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland to underestimate the power of populist anger and the prevalence of conspiracy theories directed courage of democratic governments.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, said the unrest showed how the populist playbook was based on “us versus them and leading to violence.”
“But it is very important to show where populism leads and how it plays with fire,” she added. “Once you have aroused your supporters with political arguments about us versus them, they are not opponents, but enemies who must be fought by all means, and this both leads to violence and makes it impossible to concede power.”
Just how threatening Europe’s populists found the events in the United States could be seen in their reaction: One by one, they withdrew from the uprisings or became silent.
In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, is expected to pose another significant challenge to President Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 election. Trump, praised his election and Brexit as forerunners of populist success in France and reiterated his insistence that the US election was rigged and fraudulent. But after the violence, which she said left her “very shocked”, Mrs Le Pen withdrew, condemning “any violent act aimed at disrupting the democratic process.”
Like Mrs Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, populist leader of the Italian anti-immigrant league party, said “Violence is never the answer.” In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, a prominent right-wing leader, criticized the attack on the US legislature. With the election in his country in March, Wilders wrote on Twitter: “The result of democratic elections must always be respected, whether you win or lose.”
Thierry Baudet, another high-profile Dutch populist, has adapted to Mr Trump and the anti-vaccination movement and has previously questioned the judiciary and a “false parliament”.
But already in difficulty over reported anti-Semitic remarks and divisions in his party, the Forum for Democracy, Mr. Baudet also had little to say so far.
Still, the Forum for Democracy and Mr. Wilders’ Party for Freedom together probably get approx. 20 percent of the votes in the Dutch election, said Rem Korteweg, an analyst at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands.
Although populist leaders seem shaken by the events in Washington and nervous about further violence at the inauguration on January 20, there is still great concern among ordinary politicians about anti-elitist, anti-government political movements in Europe, especially amid confusion and anxiety produced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Capitol Riot Fallout
Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Head of Studies at the European Political Center in Brussels, said there was no uniform European populism. The different movements have different characteristics in different countries, and external events are only one factor in their varying popularity, he noted.
“Now the most pressing issue is Covid-19, but it is not at all clear how politics will play out in the post-pandemic,” he said. “But,” he added, “fear of the worst helps to avoid the worst.”
The “amazing societal polarization” and violence in Washington “creates a lot of deterrence in other communities,” Emmanouilidis said. “We see where it leads, we want to avoid it, but we are aware that we could also get to the point that things could escalate.”
If the economy tank and populists gain power in France or Italy, he said, “God forbid it when Europe faces the next crisis.” This concern – with a view to the 2022 election – seems in part to have been why Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has been so vocal to France and to Mr Macron’s demands.
In Poland, the government has been very pro-Trump, and public television did not acknowledge his election defeat until Mr. Trump did it himself, said Radoslaw Sikorski, a former foreign and defense minister who now chairs the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the United States.
“With Trump’s defeat, there was an audible sound of disappointment from the populist right wing in Central Europe,” Sikorski said. “For them, the world will be a lonelier place.”
President Andrzej Duda of Poland, who met with Mr Trump in Washington in June, has simply called the Capitol uprising an internal affair. “Poland believes in the power of American democracy,” he added.
Similarly, Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary, a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump, to comment on the riots. “We should not interfere in what is happening in America, it is America’s business, we are rooted for them, and we trust that they will solve their own problems,” he told state radio.
Sir. Sikorski, the former Polish minister, is a political opponent of the current government in his country. Europe, he said, needed to “wake up to the dangers of right-wing extremist violence” and conspiracy theories. “There is far more right-wing extremist violence than jihadi violence,” he said. “We can not assume that this kind of madness will disappear because they have their own facts. We have to take off our gloves – liberal democracy must defend itself. ”
Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister who is now dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po, said Mr Trump “gave credibility to the disruptive attitudes and approaches of populist leaders in Europe, so having him out is big problem for them. “Then came the uprising,” he said, “which I think has changed the map completely.”
Like Mrs Le Pen, Italian populist leaders have felt “obliged to cut their ties to some form of extremism,” Letta said. “They have lost this ability to maintain this ambiguity around their ties to extremists on the margins,” he added.
He said Mr Trump’s defeat and the violent reactions to it were significant blows to European populism. The Coronavirus disaster alone, he represented the “revenge for competence and the scientific method” against obscurantism and anti-elitism in populism, noting that the problems surrounding Brexit have also been a blow.
“We’re even starting to think that Brexit has been something positive for the rest of Europe, allowing for a restart,” Letta said. “No one followed Britain out, and now there is Trump’s collapse.”
But Mr Moïsi, the Institut Montaigne analyst, struck a darker tone. After writing about the feelings of geopolitics, he sees a dangerous analogy in what happened at the Capitol, noting that it could go down as a heroic event among many of Mr.Trump’s supporters.
The uprising reminded him, he said, of the failed Beer Hall Putsch by Adolf Hitler and the early Nazi party in Munich in 1923.
This effort to overthrow the Bavarian government also had elements of farce and was widely ridiculed, but it became “the fundamental myth of the Nazi regime,” Moïsi said. Hitler spent the prison term he was handed over after the violence of writing “Mein Kampf.”
Sir. Moïsi quoted Ashli Babbitt, a military veteran, shot by a Capitol police officer. “If things go badly in America,” he said, “this woman could be the first martyr.”