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Are Populists Unusually Prone to Political Blunders?

In the DNA of Far-Right Demagogues Is a Blueprint for Their Demise

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

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