Boris Johnson leaves his Downing Street office in London, October 2019
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

After a swift and seemingly inevitable rise, some of Europe’s far-right populists have begun to falter, one after another. They are foundering not because voters have rejected their ideas but because of the embarrassing missteps that follow from a particular brand of politics, which can be characterized by nebulous insularity and delusional overconfidence.

In Austria, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on tape promising state contracts in exchange for campaign donations to a woman whom he believed to be a Russian oligarch’s niece. Strache and his far-right Freedom Party crashed out of government in May as a result, and saw their share of the vote fall by more than a third in subsequent elections. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nativist Lega party, tried to force an election in August that he thought he would win. But his erstwhile coalition partner, the populist Five Star Movement, took that moment to forge an alternative alliance with Italy’s main center-left party, and Salvini wound up in the opposition. And in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson opted for a high-risk strategy of pursuing Brexit at all costs—only to suffer humiliating defeats in Parliament and in the courts. Although he secured a surprise, last-minute deal with the European Union, he may not be able to sell it to his own Parliament. Failure to do so would throw his political survival into question. 

Neither their extreme ideas nor the strength of their opponents did these three leaders in. Rather, they fell prey to their own hubris, penchant for risky gambits, and false sense of invincibility. In other words, the very characteristics that propelled these leaders to power—their ability to project strength, cultivate a cult of personality, and offer simple answers to complex problems—arguably caused them to grow detached from reality, and, ultimately, to crash back to earth.

Right-wing populism remains a powerful force in Europe. The Freedom Party and Lega may well recover. Johnson and his Brexiteers could end up having the last word. Still, the abruptness with which all three movements have found themselves on the defensive hints at a profound vulnerability—one that seems to make far-right populists particularly prone to fatal mistakes.

THE POPULIST ASCENT

Not long ago, right-wing populists looked poised to take a share of power across much of Europe. Over the past decade, far-right parties gained power in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Then in 2017, Strache’s Freedom Party won 26 percent of the vote in Austria and became the junior partner in a coalition government with the right-wing Austrian People’s Party.

Like other far-right populists, the Freedom Party campaigned on a message of “us” versus “them,” positioning itself as the only legitimate advocate for the people in a highly personalized campaign centered on Strache. Austrians, in the party’s narrative, were homogenous, pure, traditional, and hard-working—and under attack from immigrants. Once in office, the Freedom Party worked with the Austrian People’s Party to push through tougher immigration policies and measures restricting access to welfare benefits for minorities and immigrants. It also sought to weaken the state-run television station and to build a powerful social media platform that would allow the party to bypass traditional media. This social media strategy, which focused entirely on Strache, created a bubble of misinformation in which many of the views pushed by the party bordered on conspiracy theories. In this alternative universe, Strache was styled as the savior of Austria, the only thing standing between a pure, traditional nation and a hostile foreign invasion.

Even after three years of chaos and uncertainty for which he is partly responsible, Johnson managed to portray himself as the only Tory capable of saving Britain from this mess.

Lega’s ascent in Italy followed a similar script. The party rode a wave of antiestablishment backlash into a second-place finish in the 2018 elections, joining the populist Five Star Movement in government. Nominally the junior partner, Lega quickly outshone its coalition partner, buoyed by its strident anti-immigrant policies and nativist “Italians first!” slogan. Salvini, who became interior minister and deputy prime minister, positioned himself as the true advocate of the people. His harsh and polemical rhetoric, coupled with his unabashedly nativist policies, quickly made him the leading figure in the coalition. By the time he toppled the government in August, he seemed convinced of certain electoral victory—and apparently forgot the inner workings of Italian parliamentary politics.

Likewise, in the United Kingdom, it was Johnson’s blustering overconfidence and delusional—or perhaps cynical—optimism that Britain could relive its halcyon days by exiting the European Union that propelled him to 10 Downing Street. He looked poised to ride the Brexit referendum into the prime minister’s office in 2016 but misplayed his cards and lost out to Theresa May, who tried and failed to hammer out a deal to leave the European Union. But even after three years of chaos and uncertainty for which he is partly responsible, Johnson managed to portray himself as the only Tory capable of saving Britain from this mess.

A FATAL FLAW

The once ascendant populists have fallen in Austria and Italy, and may be falling in the United Kingdom. The specific circumstances differ in each case, but the commonalities are telling. In Italy, Salvini’s gambit to force early elections was prompted, no doubt, by his soaring poll numbers and the overconfidence they inspired. Strache’s downfall was likewise the product of hubris. Ensconced in a social media bubble of his party’s making, and convinced of his own invincibility, Strache was tempted into an extraordinarily brazen act: offering up lucrative state contracts in exchange for political support. But his brashness didn’t end there. Five months after he was forced from office, on the eve of last month’s elections, new details emerged about his lavish expense account and high-society lifestyle. In part because of these revelations, support for the Freedom Party plunged from 26 percent of the vote in 2017 to 16.2 percent. Talks to form a coalition are still ongoing, but the Freedom Party is consumed by internal disputes and unlikely to end up back in government.

Because both Austria and Italy have strong, resilient democratic institutions, Strache, Salvini, and their parties could not survive their egregious blunders. The same was not true in Hungary and Poland, for example, where sustained right-wing attacks on the press and the courts succeeded in weakening those institutions—leaving far-right parties unshackled. But in Austria, the independent media proved strong and effective. Coverage of the taped discussion between Strache and the woman purporting to be a Russian oligarch’s niece immediately plunged the government into crisis, and eventually prompted criminal investigations. In Italy, Salvini’s actions weren’t illegal, but the country’s parliamentary system functioned as it should, allowing a coalition of other parties to outwit the would-be strongman, albeit with a fragile coalition of populist and social democratic forces.

Resilient institutions in the United Kingdom might well make Johnson the country’s shortest-serving prime minister. Johnson rode the populist Brexit campaign—along with a public-school boy’s sense of entitlement—to the pinnacle of British power. When he got there, he tried to ram through a no-deal Brexit by suspending Parliament. The effort failed spectacularly—for now, at least. Parliament forced Johnson to ask the European Union to extend the Brexit deadline; some of his own party members have deserted him; and the Supreme Court has ruled his actions unlawful. For now, British institutions seem to be holding the country’s political system together. But the precedent is a risky one, suggesting that unaccountable experts might continue to make important decisions for the country—something that could corrode Britain’s democratic culture over time.

In the DNA of far-right populists, it would seem, is a blueprint for their demise. Opponents of the new populism might take heart from this observation. An us-or-them mentality produces insularity, which can lead to poor information, overconfidence, and misjudgment. An outsider’s contempt can lure a rogue leader to cross institutions that may then be instrumental in his downfall, especially where those institutions are strong enough to weather a populist onslaught. Similarly, social media might allow a leader to disseminate his own “facts,” but it also creates an alternative universe in which he may be tempted to believe them. A sense of one’s own historical inevitability is the very definition of hubris, which is itself a harbinger of disgrace.

Far-right populists are still a long way from extinction, even if such leaders are more likely than other politicians to succumb to self-inflicted wounds. After all, it’s easier to fire up a crowd with “Take Britain back” or “Italians first!” than with “Back to normal.” At least for now.

  • LUKAS KAELIN is Assistant Professor at the Department of Practical Philosophy/Ethics at the Catholic Private University in Linz, Austria.
  • BENJAMIN KAELIN is a research assistant at the Department of History at Zurich University.
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