“If Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election was an earthquake, then the transition period leading up to his inauguration on January 20 feels like a tsunami warning,” says Spain’s former foreign minister, Ana Palacio. But the warnings have sounded the loudest across the Atlantic of late, with populists in Italy and Austria mounting fresh challenges to the stability of the European Union and its common currency.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s defeat in the referendum he called to reform Italy’s creaking constitution had been anticipated, but the opposition’s margin of victory was unexpectedly large. While Renzi has submitted his resignation to Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, a caretaker administration is expected to be formed. That would leave the populist Five Star Movement – which led the “No” campaign in the run-up to the referendum – to wait until February 2018 to try to capitalize on its surging popularity in a general election. And time may yet prove the populists’ undoing: Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory over the far-right Norbert Hofer in the re-run of Austria’s presidential election (on the same day as Renzi’s defeat) suggests that greater familiarity with the populists may dilute their appeal.
Trump’s appeal is already wearing thin, at least among more orthodox congressional Republicans, who are openly questioning his threats to impose heavy taxes on businesses that move jobs overseas, or his promise to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. And hopes that the demands of office and America’s vaunted constitutional checks and balances would prove to be a sobering influence are being tested to the limit. By refusing to place his extensive assets in a blind trust, Trump could run afoul of the US Constitution’s emoluments clause. He has deliberately undermined decades-old bipartisan policies and protocols. He continues to use social media to mislead and incite. And, most important, his cabinet appointees hold some of the most extreme positions – on national security, social welfare, education, the environment, and much else – ever to be represented in a US administration.
For Project Syndicate commentators, however, the Trump transition should not be viewed solely in terms of its domestic implications. By serving as a catalyst and booster of populism worldwide (even expressing support for the Philippines’ populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his extrajudicial murders), Trump’s victory has initiated a period of uncertainty on a scale that the West has not witnessed since the dying days of World War II. But where there was hope then, today there is dread. Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer is not alone in fearing the worst: “the end of what was heretofore termed the ‘West’ has become all but certain.”