A Comeuppance for Populism?

If populism defined Western politics in 2016, do British Prime Minister Theresa May’s election flop, US President Donald Trump’s deepening legal trouble, and Emmanuel Macron’s makeover of French politics signal that an equal and opposite force has emerged in 2017? Perhaps – or perhaps that is the wrong question.

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Niccolò Machiavelli believed that one could become a prince “by prowess or by fortune.” In the second case, a leader assumes power “with little exertion on their own part; but subsequently they maintain their position only by considerable exertion.”

Machiavelli could have been describing British Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump. Both have convinced themselves of their princely prowess, despite having come to power largely through luck.

Notwithstanding a long career in politics and public service, May became prime minister not through an election, but because British voters decided by a slim margin to leave the European Union, prompting the resignation of her Conservative Party predecessor, David Cameron. Similarly, Trump owes his presidency, arguably, to Russian subterfuge on his behalf, and to a fluke of the Electoral College – which was actually designed to block unqualified candidates such as him. He now presides over a country whose people supported his opponent by a margin of some three million votes.

In recent weeks, both May and Trump have suffered serious political setbacks. In this month’s snap general election, which May called in April – when the Conservatives had a 20-point lead in opinion polls – she managed to lose the party’s parliamentary majority. May is now holding on to power by the skin of her teeth, while trying to find a way forward with a hung parliament.