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The Varieties of Populist Experience

LONDON – Emmanuel Macron’s decisive defeat of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential runoff was a major victory for liberal Europe. But it was a battle, not a war. The idea that one in three French citizens would vote for the National Front’s Le Pen was inconceivable only a few years ago.

Commentators have affixed the “populist” label to the wave of demagogic politics sweeping Europe (and much of the rest of the world). But, beyond the raucous style common to populists, what do these movements share? After all, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza are of the left. France’s National Front, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are of the right. Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, says that his movement is neither left nor right.

And yet common themes run through all of them: economic nationalism, social protection, anti-Europeanism, anti-globalization, and hostility not just to the political establishment, but to politics itself.

To understand what this might mean for the evolution of European politics, consider the history of fascism. Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italian fascism in 1919, started as a revolutionary socialist. In Germany, the word Nazi was, we should recall, short for National Socialist German Workers’ Party.