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All Quiet on the Populist Front?

Because every country is different, the ignominious exit of a political figure like US President Donald Trump does not necessarily tell us anything about the fate of authoritarian populists elsewhere. Just as populists tend to learn from one another's successes, so will they heed others' mistakes.

BERLIN – Liberals around the world are daring to hope that there is a silver lining to the violent denouement of Donald Trump’s presidency: namely, that the inciter-in-chief’s ignominious exit from the political stage will chasten authoritarian populists elsewhere. Unfortunately, their optimism is naive.

Contrary to the cliché about a populist “wave” sweeping the world in recent years, the rise and fall of populist leaders tends not to have significant transnational effects. Just as there is no honor among thieves, there was no solidarity among the supposed Populist International when it really mattered. Trump chums like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and even Russian President Vladimir Putin ultimately acknowledged Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

More important, while Trump has been omnipresent, he has never been a typical populist. Right-wing populists in government tend to be more careful when it comes to maintaining a façade of legality and avoiding direct association with street violence. Because the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 was clearly a sign of desperation, it does not necessarily foreshadow the fate of populist (and radical right-wing) movements elsewhere. The only real takeaway is that other populist kleptocrats might also resort to violent street mobilizations if they are ever truly cornered.

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