Does Economic Pain Really Explain Populism?

If Donald Trump had heeded the simple injunction – “It's the economy, stupid” – that guided his opponent’s husband to victory in 1992, he might have had a shot at beating her. But, for today’s populist leaders, cultural battles come first – which is why they are losing ground so quickly.


With the menacing prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in the United States fading fast, other problems – both economic and political – are reclaiming the world’s attention. This is no surprise for Project Syndicate’s commentators. Their analysis of populism has rarely been confined to particular examples like Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, or Britain’s Brexiteers.

Instead, most have understood the need to focus on populism’s defining traits, rather than dwelling on specific cases. As Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile, argues, the populist phenomenon, wherever it is found, “rests on a toxic triad: denial of complexity, anti-pluralism, and a crooked version of representation,” and each facet must be addressed.

From this perspective, the question raised by Trump’s impending defeat is not why he lost, but whether, as Anatole Kaletsky of Gavekal Dragonomics asks, “the revolt against globalization and immigration” will “simply take another form.” And, like many Project Syndicate columnists, he challenges the question’s underlying premise. “While the rise of protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, America, and Europe are widely believed to reflect stagnant incomes, widening inequality, structural unemployment, and even excessive monetary easing,” Kaletsky argues, “there are several reasons to question the link between populist politics and recent economic distress.”

Woman Trouble

Trump’s vertiginous fall in opinion polls in recent weeks has, no doubt, resulted mostly from his deep personal flaws – not just his failure to stay on message, but also, as the political analyst Elizabeth Drew notes, revelations of his “sexual aggressiveness.” And Trump is not the only populist to misjudge the politics of gender. Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s unelected leader, has been weakened by the response – massive protests and the threat of a general strike – to his Law and Justice party’s ham-fisted effort to restrict (almost entirely) and criminalize abortion.