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Stealing the Populists’ Clothes

The populist wave that gained momentum in Poland in 2015, and spread to the United Kingdom and the United States in 2016, will still be with us in the coming year. Populism is an age-old problem for democracies, and only by recognizing what drives can we understand how to combat its appeal.

WARSAW – Two cheers for US President Donald Trump. Without him, the West would still regard populism as a problem unique to Central and Eastern Europe. Yet Trump’s presidency is as clear a demonstration as there could be of the fact that populism is not merely a product of the alleged “immaturity” of post-communist countries.

Leo Tolstoy supposedly said that the further one is from events, the more inevitable those events seem. So it is with today’s populist surge. It wasn’t inevitable that Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) would come to power with 38% of the vote in 2015; nor was it inevitable that Trump would win the US presidency, despite having received almost three million fewer votes than his opponent. In both cases, luck and the competition’s incompetence played a role, just as they did in bringing decidedly liberal forces to power in France in 2017.

Still, as we head into 2018, we should recognize that another year of populist turbulence beckons. After all, there is nothing new about populist politics in democracies, whether young or old. In the nineteenth century, the “free silver” movement divided the United States in much the same way that Brexit divides Britain today.