As Trump takes office: what is far right populism?

By Martin Smith | 23 January 2017

Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Pic credit: Gage Skidmore

What was unthinkable a few months ago has happened: Donald Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th US president.

Trump’s acceptance speech left no one in any doubt where he stands. As the Guardian journalist Gary Younge noted, it was a “crude and unapologetic appeal to nationalism”.

But Trump’s anointment as US president sparked a huge wave of anti-Trump protests across the US and around the world. News agencies reported that over 5 million people took to the streets against Trump at the weekend. No other president in US history has come to power facing such massive opposition.

Economic and social inequality, the rise of racism and the weakening of the political establishment opened up the space for a far right racist populist like Trump.

We looked at the rise of both far right populist parties and outright fascist organisations across Europe, defining and distinguishing the different trends in our country by country guide.

Here we take a closer look at Trump’s far right racist populism.

Historically the term “populism” first arose in the US and was used to describe the agrarian rural movements that developed in the 1880s and 1890s. This mass movement challenged the urban elites. It demanded tax reform, public ownership of the railroads and other measures that would give farmers economic parity with big business and industry.

The Democrats not only backed the farmers’ fight against the Republican government but also absorbed the movement into its ranks. The movement collapsed with the failure of the Democrats to win the presidential election of 1896. The film Heaven’s Gate paints a brilliant picture of the times.

In the 1950s academics used the term to describe fascist and communist movements.

The political scientist Cas Mudde provides a definition that has become increasingly influential today. In his view populism is a “thin ideology” which pits the “people” versus the “corrupt elite”. This definition is useful when trying to define Trump’s political theory and practice.

Wafer thin

Firstly Trump’s political ideology is wafer thin. During the presidential election campaign he was prepared to put forward any idea or policy that would win him votes, even if these pledges were unattainable. He was also prepared to drop his election pledges at a drop of a hat – remember the promise to jail Hilary Clinton?

But there are some key themes to Trump’s political thinking. Firstly he portrays himself as an ultra-nationalist and protectionist.

Secondly, like his racist populist counterparts in Europe, he uses racism to win votes. Trump has focused his venom on Mexicans and Muslims. He also promotes socially conservative policies on issues such as abortion, women’s rights and LGBT+ rights.

It is this toxic mix of racism and pro-imperialist sentiment that makes any comparison to left wing populists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez meaningless.

Trump has been able to present himself as an anti-establishment figure who stands up for the “little man”. He was able to portray his political competitors, including those in the Republican Party as well as Hillary Clinton, as part of an immoral political elite.

It is hard to comprehend how billionaire Trump – one of the richest men in the world and clearly part of the US establishment – is able to do this.

One small incident during the presidential election campaign was very revealing. A protestor waving a placard saying, “We are the 99%” confronted Trump at a rally, but in rely Trump scoffed, “We are the 100%.” This anecdote perhaps illustrates Trump’s ability to portray himself not as an “average” person, but as someone who stands up for all the people and as an “amplifier” for their grievances and concerns.

Describing Trump as a racist populist is a political characterisation and should in no way be seen as downplaying the danger he poses and the racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-working class policies he pursues.


Trump is no flash in the pan or a one-off – as we have noted before, he is part of the resurgence of far right populist and fascist parties across Europe and the US.

The leader of France’s fascist Front National, Marine Le Pen, boasted at a conference of European far right parties in Koblenz, Germany, as Trump’s inauguration took place in the US: “We are seeing the end of one world and the birth of a new.”

The far right faces three important tests in the coming year – the Netherlands general election in March, the French presidential elections in April and May and the German federal elections in August.

And they are working closely together. Under the banner of the European Parliament’s Europe of Nations and Freedom group – which includes the FN, Italy’s Lega, Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands, Germany’s AfD and Austria’s FPÖ – hundreds of delegates met in Koblenz to discuss greater cooperation across Europe.

Trump has openly embraced many of the key figurers of this reactionary political movement. The first European political leader Trump met was Nigel Farage, former leader and key figurehead of Britain’s racist populist UKIP. Photos also showed Le Pen hovering at Trump Towers – whether there was a meeting between the fascist leader and the incoming US president remains unclear.

When confronted with racist populist parties coming to power the ruling elites have attempted to incorporate them into the system. In the past few days we have witnessed key US institutions and the media trying to embrace Trump and tone down his proclamations.

Attempts at incorporation can sometimes succeed. In 2000 Austria’s racist populist FPÖ entered a coalition government with the ÖVP, the conservative Christian democratic party. The FPÖ was given a number of ministerial posts yet governed the country like any other conservative party.

But the idea that far right populists in power are bound to fail may be comforting but it is also an illusion.


As we have seen with Fidesz in Hungary and the PiS in Poland, once in power these parties can become more and more authoritarian. Both Fidesz and PiS have begun to adopt more “radical” far right elements into their political programmes.

The far right populist parties can also pull mainstream politics further to the racist right – with centre party politicians stepping up their own racist rhetoric and policies directed against immigrants, Muslims or other minorities.

And gains by racist populists like Trump create a climate that encourages racist attacks and boosts the confidence of harder racist and fascist organisations internationally.

The grim political situation in the US and in many parts of Europe is serious – but the rise of Trump-style populism can be checked.

Racist populist movements need forward movement. Setbacks and political defeats often bring about splits and defections. UKIP was thrown into chaos when it failed to gain the MPs it predicted in May 2015, with the repeated resignations of Nigel Farage.

Trump, like Europe’s right wing populist leaders, rests like a ball on top of a pyramid. They do not have a coherent political base – nor the organised cadres and streetfighting organisations that the fascist groups seek to build. This means that mass resistance can force them to retreat or topple them.

Mass protests in Poland, for example, have forced the PiS-led government to halt its proposals to further limit abortion rights.

Even more inspiring were Saturday’s enormous demonstrations in the US and across the globe. On the streets that day we witnessed the power of a movement with the potential to stop Trump and his like in their tracks.


1 comment

  1. Andy Coles said:

    Well done – the clip of film is amazing!

    25 January 2017 at 10:53am

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