For Europe’s populists, the electoral defeat of President Donald Trump, who has been a symbol of success and a strong supporter, was bad enough. But his refusal to accept defeat and the violence that followed appears to have damaged the prospects of similarly minded leaders across the continent.
“What happened in the Capitol following the defeat of Donald Trump is a bad omen for the populists,” said Dominique Moïsi, a senior analyst at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. “It says two things: If you elect them, they don’t leave power easily, and if you elect them, look at what they can do in calling for popular anger.”
The long day of rioting, violence and death as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol has presented a clear warning to countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland about underestimating the force of populist anger and the prevalence of conspiracy theories aimed at democratic governments.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, said the unrest showed how the populist playbook was founded on “us versus them and leads to violence.”
“It’s very important to show where populism leads and how it plays with fire,” she added. “When you’ve aroused your supporters with political arguments about us versus them, they are not opponents but enemies who must be fought with all means, and it both leads to violence and makes conceding power impossible.”
Just how threatening Europe’s populists found the events in the United States could be seen in their reaction: One by one, they distanced themselves from the rioting or fell silent.
There remains considerable anxiety among mainstream politicians about anti-elitist, anti-government political movements in Europe, especially amid the confusion and anxiety produced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Janis A. Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels, said that there was no uniform European populism. The various movements have different characteristics in different countries, and outside events are only one factor in their varying popularity, he noted.
The “amazing polarization of society” and the violence in Washington “creates a lot of deterrence in other societies,” Emmanouilidis said. “We see where it leads, we want to avoid it, but we are aware that we too could get to that point, that things could escalate.”