Trump, Sanders, Brexit, Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle), Le Pen: we have heard a lot about populism lately. But what is really populism? The panel “Populisms from Brexit to Trump”at the International Journalism Festival saw four high-profile journalists analysed the political moment Western societies are going through.
A simple way to describe what populism means was given by The Financial Times journalist James Politi, one of the panel speakers. According to him, populism is characterised by “providing easy solutions to complex problems”. Politi also mentioned the unique features in which populism communicates today. This includes an exhaustive use of social media and directly attacks to the traditional press. Regarding the economy, Politi said “the financial crisis has had a very strong effect on Western public opinion. Many people have lost their jobs, the minimum wage hasn’t increased, even in the United Stated within the Obama Administration, therefore, the possibility to stand for an open society is a much more challenging now than it was in the past”.
Davide Ghiglione, Rome-based correspondent for The Financial Times and moderator of the debate, asked Politi about the economic and international consequences that the most successful populist movements could have. To this question, Politi answered that none of the immediate financial damages forecasted has materialised yet and it seems that economic consequences are likely to be long-term. Proposals such as immigration control, national economic and cultural protection are mainly based on a wish to close the globalised world in which we have been living in recent times.
For the Rome-based correspondent for The New York Times, Gaia Pianigiani, president Donald Trump is very similar to the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: a businessman, who knows how to administer the fortune of his family, who criticises the establishment and who presents himself as the “New Man” in politics. Besides the comparison with Italy, The New York Times journalist talked about the different changes Trump has produced in today’s political language. For her, the discourse of the 45th President of the United States during his campaign has proposed a new way of communicating, using simple vocabulary to reach the working class. However, once the campaign finished and he won the election his language transformed.
An interesting comparison between American populism and European populism was made by the Italian correspondent for the French newspaper Les Échos, Olivier Tosseri who compared what has happened in the United States with some candidates for the 2017 French presidential election. For him, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen is a good example of populism in Europe, a candidate who, in case of victory in the elections, would hold a referendum to leave the EU.
Populism in Italy
To end the debate, the guests talked about Italian politics and the Five Star Movement, one of the strongest populist parties in Europe in the opinion of all the panel members. According to Davide Ghiglione, the movement behind the British referendum and the Italian political party both stand for attacking the establishment and promoting greater protectionism. One of the main distinctions between the two, however, is the electorate: while in the United Kingdom the elder people were mainly those who voted to leave the EU, in Italy, it was mainly the youth who voted for Grillo. His view was echoed by Gaia Pianigiani, who also added that one of the main differences with other European forms of populism is that the Italian political party is neither right nor left wing, but rather a mix of both.
The correspondent of the French newspaper Tosseri said: “the political party that is voted for the most in France by young people is the Front National”. Interstingly, he continued, populist movements in Italy and France are those that know how to capture the youth vote the best. The concept of populism, concluded Tosseri, is synonymous of an anxiety towards the system that sees that it is living a historical moment and does not know how to manage, allowing sometimes to sweep the dust under the carpet.
All the panelists agreed that the rise of these movements in Western countries could be a response towards the uncertain moment we are currently experiencing. Additionally, many of their features are very similar amongst all of them, and their consequences will probably be visible in the long-term period.