The Surge of Populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany


Ella Wesson, Editor of International/National News

Populism is defined as the political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups or other “outside” groups.  Centered around an “us vs them” mentality, populism has been a common American theme, stretching from the Revolution itself to the modern day election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

But populism is far from solely American concept. It has been equally influential in European history, most recently with the “Brexit” referendum in 2016. Occurring simultaneously to Donald Trump’s presidential bid and the rise populist ideals in the Netherlands and Germany, it signifies the sharp and sudden turn back to populism.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Why did so many people vote for a leader like Trump?

It comes down to in-group and out-group biases. Relatively self-explanatory, in-group biases cause people to favor those within their own community, whereas an out-group bias causes people to hold negative views of those dissimilar to them. These stem back to prehistoric times when being a part of a group meant survival. However, this thought process was not left in the prehistoric era and still heavily affects the way we think today. 

In US politics, having only two political parties perpetuates these incredibly divisive biases. With the addition of a populist leader, they become far more drastic, regardless of the represented political party. Although it is easy to view populism as a philosophy centered around a defined set of ideals, it is rather a blunt, honest, and indelicate way of communicating. 

In the example of Trump, his followers do not pay attention to his specific policies or plans, but rather his views on the so called “out-group”. This can be perfectly summed up by a typical response to why one supports Trump: “I like how he says what’s on his mind.” His supporters care less about whether the claims he makes are true and more about being part of an “in-group” which shares the same attitudes toward other people. In this case, the outsiders are the elite policy-makers in Washington, liberals, migrants seeking asylum, and the media. The fear of these outside groups influenced voters to be swayed by Trump, and the same fear of outsiders sparked the Brexit movement.

One of the main causes for the Brexit push was the influx of immigrants from other countries in the EU. Again showing the out-group bias, populists fear of “outsiders” has caused years of anguish over Brexit deals, political turmoil, and resignations of multiple Prime Ministers. Similar to sentiment seen in Trump’s “America First” platform, English nationalism played a major role in the referendum.  

As in Populism’s classic “us vs. them” frame of mind, English nationalists opposed the high levels of integration that the European Union allowed for. More specifically, Brexit supporters took on a “us vs. the elite” viewpoint. The vote to leave the EU was the grass roots nature of populism at work, aiming to dislodge the elite institutions of the EU which working-class citizens believe to be taking their money. In a true show of their power, out-group and in-group biases managed to partially deconstruct a political staple of the European Union which has been in power for nearly fifty years. 

However, populism has a different effect on every country it touches. While stemming from similar origins, populist movements in the Netherlands and Germany have had starkly different impacts.

Similar to the rise of populism in the United Kingdom, an influx in immigrants kickstarted a populist movement in the Netherlands. Even in such a libertarian country, a clear out-group bias emerged against the stream of Morrocan migrants. As a result, a populist movement emerged, a cult of personality under the leadership of a right-wing nationalist known as Wilders.

At first, support for the party boomed in the polls thanks to the widespread objection to the increased immigration. However, Wilders pushed it too far, paying more attention to the fact that his name was in the news than how it got there. But before the Dutch elections, citizens looked to the most recent example of failed populism: Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Despite polling extremely well, Wilders’ party won only 3% of the vote in the elections. The Dutch were able to look past an out-group bias and avoid falling victim to a populist regime. Similarly, populist support for Le Pen failed after Emanuel Macron won the most recent election, even in the face of a Russian disinformation campaign. 

However, Germany’s fate is still uncertain. After Merkel opened Germany’s borders for around one million immigrants, intense islamophobia took over and populism arose with support for the Alternative for Germany party. Members of the AFD criticize the current immigration policies, fostering an out-group bias. At the same time though, they have failed to create their own viable solutions.

Even more concerningly, The AFD is affiliated with neo-Nazism. A recent riot involved over 8,000 swastika-toting protesters attacking Jews and immigrants, even blaming them for crimes they did not commit. Populism has brought out a primal, terrifying side of German citizens. 

As the next generation to enter the electorate, we must educate ourselves and make informed decisions. Complacency is what leads to the rise of populist regimes. It is what allowed Hitler and Mussolini to rise to power and has absolutely no place in our democracy.