Donald Trump was elected on a wave of anti-establishment resentment, in what has been called ‘authoritarian populism’. This phenomenon is also growing in Europe, so it is important to understand its origin and nature, its prevalence, how it might gain power and how it might be effectively opposed.
Stuart Hall used the term ‘authoritarian populism’ (AP) in the book The Politics of Thatcherism in 1983, but as Bob Jessop pointed out in a 1984 critique, there are separate phenomena within it. AP is a useful term when applied to a desire for a strong leader with a forceful independent foreign policy and impatience with liberal social attitudes. Hall swept up Thatcher’s neoliberalism in his use of the term, but more recent writers have not done so. “Populist authoritarianism can best be explained as a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change”, according to Pippa Norris in an article published on 11 March 2016, and she highlighted a popular desire for “a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress”. Her article cited the rise of liberal attitudes – to matters of gender, cultural diversity and global governance – as having caused sections of the population to become anxious and resentful.
An anti-immigrant stance is a feature of AP. In this respect it overlaps with the term ‘alt-right’ that Sasha Abramsky used in an article published on 29 October 2016, entitled Make America hate again, when explaining Trump’s success and drawing attention to the attendant risk of fascism. The terms ‘far right’ and ‘radical right’ are also used by different writers to highlight similar political phenomena.
A recent YouGov survey of the prevalence of AP in Europe was entitled Trump, Brexit, Front National, AfD: branches of the same tree. It depicted AP as “a core set of attitudes: cynicism over human rights, anti-immigration, an anti-EU position in Britain, and favouring a strong emphasis on defence as part of wider foreign policy.” It found that “in eight of the twelve countries, almost half of voters – if not more – hold authoritarian populist views”. In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National – an AP party – already enjoys considerable support. The survey’s finding, that 63% of French voters have AP attitudes, would suggest a potential for her to win the French presidency. She is anti-EU and there is growing anti-EU sentiment in several other member countries, resulting from people’s concerns about the economy and high levels of immigration, so there is a significant threat to the EU’s existence.
Britain’s next General Election is currently expected to be in 2020 (if there were an earlier election, focused on the issue of Brexit, it is predicted that the Conservatives would win – but that would merely postpone political change). At present the 48% of British voters who have AP attitudes are mostly in the Conservative Party and UKIP, but there are some in all the political parties. UKIP is a political party which has entirely AP policies; its new leader, Paul Nuttall, has said that he wants to “replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people”. This could be a serious threat to Labour, which is already looking vulnerable. UKIP came second in 125 constituencies in the last General Election; in the next election it might easily win many of those seats. In any case, AP voters are likely to vote for UKIP or the Conservative Party.
People with progressive attitudes tend to oppose authoritarian populism. They are represented by several political parties in England at present: Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green. With a first-past-the-post political system in Britain, a divided opposition would win very few seats, but the Liberal Democrat win in the Richmond Park by-election gives an indicator of how this problem can be overcome (even though it was a very unusual situation). The relevant lesson for other constituencies is that there was a pact: the Green Party stood aside so that the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn a substantial Conservative majority, campaigning on an anti-AP and pro-Europe platform (the Labour Party had very little support in this wealthy part of London).
A pact between the progressive parties in England, whereby only one of them fields a candidate in each constituency, might give them a chance in a General Election. It is very difficult to launch a new political party in a first-past-the-post system (as UKIP discovered, having won only one seat despite having received 12.6% of the votes cast in the last election) so a pact has a better chance. There would be problems in agreeing which party would be best placed to win a particular constituency, but if they all committed themselves to trying to introduce proportional representation they would be helping to ensure the future survival of them all (and UKIP might also support a move to proportional representation).