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The Enduring Populist Threat

If anti-elitism is a pillar of modern populism, it should be no surprise that populists have come to power at a time of soaring income and wealth inequality. But the “them” versus “us” populist narrative does not capture merely a conflict between haves and have-nots.

PARIS/LONDON – As Donald Trump’s presidency begins to recede, his defeat now seems to be a harbinger of populism’s demise, with the storming of the US Capitol that he incited on January 6 amounting to little more than his presidency’s death rattle. And yet, there is plenty of reason to think that populism will persist – and possibly even gain ground in the coming months and years.

It has a lot of momentum, growing in strength in the advanced economies since the turn of the century, and receiving a major boost from the 2008 global financial crisis. But it was in 2016 – with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, followed by Trump’s electoral victory in the United States – that populism began to dominate western political discourse.

At that point, Hungary’s right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had been in power for more than six years. Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, had controlled the country’s government – often following Orbán’s illiberal playbook – for a little over one year. And in Greece, a coalition of right- and left-wing populists had emerged following the country’s 2015 debt standoff with the European Union.