Yesterday’s conventional wisdom: A wave of insurgent populism is sweeping the West, threatening its foundational institutions — the European Union, the Western alliance, even liberal democracy itself.
Today’s conventional wisdom (post-first-round French presidential election): The populist wave has crested, soon to abate.
Chances are that both verdicts are wrong. The anti-establishment sentiment that gave us Brexit, then Donald Trump, then seemed poised to give us Marine Le Pen, has indeed plateaued. But although she will likely be defeated in the second round, victory by the leading centrist, Emmanuel Macron, would hardly constitute an establishment triumph.
Macron barely edged out a Cro-Magnon communist (Jean-Luc Melenchon), a blood-and-soil nationalist (Le Pen) and a center-right candidate brought low by charges of nepotism and corruption (Francois Fillon). And the ruling Socialist candidate came in fifth, garnering a pathetic 6 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, the populists can hardly be encouraged by what has followed Brexit and Trump: Dutch elections, where the nationalist Geert Wilders faded toward the end and came nowhere near power; Austrian elections, where another nationalist challenge was turned back; and upcoming German elections, where polls indicate that the far-right nationalists are at barely 10 percent and slipping. And, of course, France.
In retrospect, the populist panic may have been overblown. Regarding Brexit, for example, the shock exaggerated its meaning. Because it was so unexpected, it became a sensation. But in the longer view, Britain has always been deeply ambivalent about Europe, going back at least to Henry VIII and his break with Rome. In the intervening 500 years, Britain has generally seen itself as less a part of Europe than an offshore island.
The true historical anomaly was Britain’s EU membership with all the attendant transfer of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels. Brexit was a rather brutal return to the extra-European norm, but the norm it is.
The other notable populist victory, the triumph of Trump, has also turned out to be less than meets the eye. He certainly ran as a populist and won as a populist but, a mere 100 days in, he is governing as a traditionalist.
The Obamacare replacement proposals are traditional small-government fixes. His tax reform is a follow-on to Reagan’s from 1986. His Supreme Court pick is a straight-laced, constitutional conservative out of central casting. And his more notable executive orders read as a wish list of traditional business-oriented conservatism from regulatory reform to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
I happen to support all of these moves, but they don’t qualify as insurrectionist populism. The one exception may be trade policy. As of now, however, it remains ad hoc and idiosyncratic. Trump has made gestures and threats to those cunning Mexicans, Chinese and now Canadians. But it’s not yet clear if he is serious about,…