As candidate, Donald Trump made a number of comments about the utility of the North Atlantic Alliance and about the virtues of European integration that left many in the establishment scratching their heads. When he was elected President of the United States, Trump did very little to soften his tone. On the contrary, the Trump White House floated the names of potential ambassadorial appointments who talked about the transatlantic relationship and the European Union in even more disparaging tones. Of course, this could all be marked down as campaign bluster and the hiccups that come with any transition into office. Other more seasoned politicians and diplomats have challenged Europe to do more for NATO and many have expressed exasperation with the transatlantic partnership. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland are two obvious examples, but the list is a long one. Nevertheless, the positions taken by Trump with respect to Europe both as candidate and as President are unusual enough to warrant putting them into context.
The upsurge of populism in the United States and Europe has us asking the wrong questions. The issue that should concern us is not what populists have in common. The similarities between Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are unimportant. We also should stop wondering why voters on both sides of the Atlantic are so easily beguiled by political messages that combine rejection of the ‘establishment’ with some kind of appeal to identity politics. There has never been a shortage of voices calling for the overthrow of the elite or disgruntled voters willing to follow them and any slogan that promises that a history of victimhood can be replaced wth a future of privilege is always going to be attractive. Such mobilization against ‘the system’ is a hardy perennial of democratic politics.
The inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States represents the triumph of populism over the world’s greatest democracy. It also sets the stage for populists to make further gains across Europe. Trump’s affection for Nigel Farage is plain to see. His affinity for (and his attraction to) populists of other shades is easy to find as well. The challenge is to sort out what this means for the European project. Populists tend to stake out Euroskeptical positions, and Donald Trump has made no secret of his indifference for the European Union, but it is hard to say just how populists can have a lasting impact unless they somehow manage to seize control over government.
The political landscape of Europe is changing rapidly and in ways that are hard to interpret. The recent Italian referendum is a good illustration. Matteo Renzi inherited an agenda to reform the Italian constitution when he became prime minister. He negotiated an agreement with the centre-right on the precise details of the package. He shepherded the agreement through two majority votes in each of Italy’s two chambers of parliament. He then brought the agreement to a popular vote as per constitutional requirement and with an electorate broadly disenchanted with politics and therefore favourable to reform. Nevertheless, virtually every party outside the government opposed the reform package and Renzi lost the referendum vote by a spread of twenty percentage points. Now Renzi is out of office. Italy is without a viable electoral system because of changes made in anticipation of the (failed) constitutional reforms. And it is unclear whether the new government headed by Paolo Gentiloni has sufficient support in the Senate to pass a new electoral law. Most Italians did not want Renzi’s constitutional reforms and yet they are not happy with the status quo either. Disillusionment with politics has grown as a result.
Central bank independence is under attack. This is true particularly in the United States. When the dust began to settle on the presidential primaries in spring 2016, three of the four leading candidates – one Democrat and two Republicans – supported legislation to audit the Federal Reserve (or Fed) and to compel it to follow a rigid and transparent rule for changing policy in response to changes in a limited range of macroeconomic variables. The reason has a lot to do with the same populist resentment that swirls around global trade. And while the Fed has not received the attention given to the trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for example, it is arguably just as important.
The U.S. Ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, caused a minor uproar by telling the Italians that international investors were going to be disappointed with a ‘no’ vote in the upcoming referendum on constitutional reforms. At about the same time, Finch announced that a popular rejection of the reforms would put downward pressure on the country’s ratings. The Italians responded that the ambassador should mind his own business and that the ratings agencies should find some new analysts. Italy will be fine whatever the referendum outcome, they insisted. If anything, this unwelcome foreign intervention is going to encourage the Italians to vote against the reforms just to prove a point. The echoes with Brexit were obvious – and widely noted. So is Italy headed for disaster or is this just another storm in a teacup?
The British referendum is based on (at least) two bad ideas. The first is that the popular legitimacy of a referendum can restore the sovereignty of the British parliament. The Leave campaign believes they can take power from Brussels and give it back to Westminster. That is a fantasy. The British parliament will be more constrained and less effective if the UK leaves. The second bad idea is that referendums are more democratic than acts of parliament (which is the kind of decision that brought Great Britain this far in its relationship with Europe). By giving the people the chance to speak their mind on a yes-or-no (in-or-out, remain-or-leave) question, we can discover what they really want. That is not how people work. Real people prefer trial and error. Real people also like to delegate responsibility for making complicated decisions. This matters because the two bad ideas combine to make the worst of all possible worlds. Britons who vote to Leave will discover that they have made a terrible mistake only to learn that there is no easy way to fix it.