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How to Combat Populist Demagogues

We will never know whether greater honesty on the part of mainstream politicians and technocrats would have spared us the rise of nativist demagogues like Donald Trump in the US or Marine Le Pen in France. What is clear is that lack of candor in the past has come at a steep price.

CAMBRIDGE – At a recent conference I attended, I was seated next to a prominent American trade policy expert. We began to talk about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which President Donald Trump has blamed for American workers’ woes and is trying to renegotiate. “I never thought NAFTA was a big deal,” the economist said.

I was astonished. The expert had been one of the most prominent and vocal advocates of NAFTA when the deal was concluded a quarter-century ago. He and other trade economists had played a big part in selling the agreement to the American public. “I supported NAFTA because I thought it would pave the way for further trade agreements,” my companion explained.

A couple of weeks later, I was at a dinner in Europe, where the speaker was a former finance minister of a eurozone country. The topic was the rise of populism. The former minister had left politics and had strong words about the mistakes he thought the European policy elite had made. “We accuse populists of making promises they cannot keep, but we should turn that criticism back on ourselves,” he told us.

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