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Trump rode an 'us vs. them' populism all the way to the White House. A global recession could take it to dangerous levels

Business Insider | Aug 20, 2019, 08.26PM IST

Trump rally

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump reacts to the crowd after speaking at his re-election kickoff rally

  • Financial experts and economists have seen signs an economic recession is looming, which could inflame tensions linked to the rise of nationalism and right-wing populism in recent years.
  • "Generally, tough economic times tend to exacerbate a lot of the negative trends that we associate populism and democratic backsliding," Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College with expertise in democracy, populism, and fascism, told INSIDER.
  • For President Donald Trump, who ascended to the White House on a wave of right-wing populism, a recession is a double-edged sword.
  • Trump is running for re-election on the premise he's been good for the economy, and a recession undermines his case.
  • But, like many populist leaders, Trump is also a master at scapegoating and shifting blame to others. 
  • Meanwhile, in places where populism hasn't quite taken hold yet, like Germany, far-right groups could benefit from a recession. 

There are fears an economic recession is on the horizon, the consequences of which could reach far beyond people's bank accounts. 

After years of rising nationalism and right-wing authoritarian populism in countries across the world, a global recession could inflame tensions as desperate leaders look for scapegoats and opportunistic politicians seek to exploit divisions that tend to come in concert with tough times. 

"Generally, tough economic times tend to exacerbate a lot of the negative trends that we associate populism and democratic backsliding," Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College with expertise in democracy, populism, and fascism, told INSIDER. "Tough economic times create all kinds of social and political tensions that can be exploited by populists and those who are trying to sow discord within democracy."

Berman said there's a "fairly strong correlation" between economic downtown, and even more specifically deep recessions, and "democratic backsliding." In short, economic instability can wreak havoc on democratic societies and institutions. 

"Populism often involves a politician who claims to have direct charismatic connection to the people, which gives him/her special legitimacy in pursuing the 'people's' interest," Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford University, said in a discussion on contemporary political movements earlier this year. "This presents a challenge to democracy, since such leaders tend to be anti-institutional: They oppose courts, the media, bureaucracies, and any check-and-balance institution that stands in their way."

Recent history has shown that political polarization, social divide, and the scapegoating of marginalized groups are often the byproducts of economic recessions

The 2008 recession catalyzed a wave of anti-establishment and anti-elite sentiments in the US, for example, which spiraled into larger political movements that are now at the heart of the country's politics and leadership. 

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which saw protesters enraged over the recession and economic inequality swarm the financial district in Manhattan in 2011, fostered many ideas that are still at the center of left-wing politics today. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont - a top contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination - routinely echoes the movement's "99 percent" mantra. 

The Tea Party, the conservative movement that rose up in early 2009 within the GOP as a response to the recession, preached fervently against the involvement of the federal government in the private sector and called for stricter immigration laws.

A decade later, the Tea Party is no longer as visible as it once was in the US but many of its former supporters are "some of Donald Trump's most stalwart Republican supporters," according to an analysis from Pew Research Center of surveys from 2014 to 2018.

Trumpism and the Tea Party are hardly synonymous. While the latter called for limited government spending and cutting the national debt, the former oversaw has soon a huge increase in spending (particularly in terms of defense). But the nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiments have remained and Trumpism's success highlights the stronger draw of right-wing populism as compared to limited government. 

To put it another way, the 2008 recession fostered a populist, nationalistic, anti-establishment, conservative political movement that can be directly connected to the rise of President Donald Trump.

But these trends are not unique to the US.

Populist and nationalist movements already have a strong base of power in many European countries - from Italy to Sweden - with Brexit in the UK perhaps the most well-known example. Brexit, or the UK's referendum to exit from the European Union, was driven by hyper-nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments. 

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the White House in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Reuters

President Trump welcomes Brazilian President Bolsonaro at the White House in Washington

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader with strong authoritarian tendencies, with his country still traumatized from a recent recession rose to power in the past year on a populist platform railing against immigrants and government corruption. 

Read more: The 'Brazilian Donald Trump,' Jair Bolsonaro, is visiting the White House. He was elected president despite saying he couldn't love a gay son and that a colleague was too 'ugly' to be raped

In places like Germany, which remained fairly economically stable after the 2008 crisis and more resistant to populism than other countries in the neighborhood, far-right entities like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that have recently gained more influence could get a boost from a recession. 

Marcel Fratzscher, a German political economist and professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, told The New York Times, "The economic slowdown should rather help the AfD."

Trump, who rose to power on a wave of 'us vs. them' right-wing populism, faces a political quagmire with a potential recession looming

While right-wing populists could benefit from an economic crisis in certain parts of Europe, a recession could be a double-edged sword for Trump in the US. 

Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who's an expert in populism, extremism, and democracy, told INSIDER that in countries outside of the US "economic considerations tend to be secondary to voters of far right parties and politicians" and these groups and individuals often lose elections during economic crises "because the political debate shifts to economic issues, on which they trend to be not very strong (and trusted)."

But Mudde said there's a "different dynamic" in the case of the US and the impending 2020 presidential election.

"First, the far right (in the form of Trump) is in government and therefore considered responsible for the economic crisis," Mudde said, adding that though the GOP is far right, it's also mainstream in the US. 

"There is a sizable part of the Republican electorate that votes for that party on the basis of economic considerations, as it did before Trump and will do after he has left," Mudde added. "All this means that Trump would be harder hit by an economic downturn than the usual oppositional far right parties in Europe."

Read more: Pompeo warned Trump would be an 'authoritarian president' in 2016. Now he's one of Trump's most loyal and trusted advisors

Despite his low approval ratings overall, Trump has consistently polled well in terms of how he's handled the economy. The president has sought to build off of this by warning that if he's not re-elected it would lead to economic collapse. A recession during his tenure could undermine that argument significantly, particularly amid a controversial trade war with China.

But at the same time, Trump has exhibited a masterful ability to shift blame toward others.

"A recession might end up hurting the president rather than helping him simply because he's the one who's presiding over it," Berman said. "On the other hand, it does make it easier to search for scapegoats, which Trump is extremely good at doing."

Berman noted that Trump has already made the "ridiculous charge" that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, whom the president appointed last year, is to blame for recent developments that have been pointed to as signs of a looming recession. The Trump administration and its allies have also suggested the media is attempting to manufacture an economic crisis, ignoring warnings from economists and financial experts. 

 

"Whatever you can say about Trump, he's been very good at shifting blame for a whole variety of things - including negative economic trends - onto others and taking all the credit when things go well for himself," Berman said, adding that Trump has been doing this for so long he's in a sense "prepped his base" to be adequately convinced if he blames someone or something else for 

trump jerome powell

Carlos Barria/Reuters

President Donald Trump stands behind President Donald Trump

The polarization Trump rode to power on has only deepened since he entered the White House, Berman went on the say, which makes scapegoating "even easier" because Republican voters will be less likely to want to blame their own candidate and party for problems. 

If there was less partisanship and polarization, Berman said people might assess the economic climate with more open minds, "but now people are really looking for a way to shift blame onto others."

"[Trump's] deep partisans, those committed Republicans, are probably not likely to be shaken by an economic downturn unless it is a very significant one," Berman added. 

As Yascha Mounk, an expert on populism, put it for The Atlantic: "[Trump's] unpopular, scandalous, and a bigot, and we may be sliding into a recession. But that might not matter."

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