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Political Scholars Analyze Trump’s Legacy on Global Populism

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The Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies gathered three political scholars Thursday to discuss the effects of Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 United States presidential election on global populism.

The seminar — titled “Populism After Trump” — featured Johns Hopkins University Senior Fellow of International Affairs Anne Applebaum and Harvard Government professors Steven R. Levitsky and Daniel F. Ziblatt. Government professor Grzegorz Ekiert, the director of CES, moderated the event, which drew more than 400 attendees.

The seminar is part of an event series titled “Seminar on Democracy: Past, Present, and Future,” which is jointly sponsored by the Berlin Social Science Center in Germany, Central European University in Hungary, Collegium Civitas in Poland, and Johns Hopkins University. The series seeks to explore a range of topics including what makes democracies work and the challenges democracies face.

Ekiert opened the event by discussing the implications of Trump’s presidency on populist movements and leaders worldwide. Following the introduction, each panelist centered their comments on specific geographical locations where they have conducted research.

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Applebaum said Trump’s presidency provided a cover for European populist leaders in Poland, Hungary, and other countries in Eastern Europe, allowing them to demonstrate to their citizens that they “had support in Washington.”

Applebaum noted, however, that Trump’s appeal in Eastern Europe declined following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January.

“The attack on the Capitol undermined his attraction,” she said. “It just becomes harder to point to him as some kind of successful democratic leader when that’s the legacy that he left behind.”

Levitsky, who directs Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, said populism has “always posed a threat to liberal democracy in Latin America.”

Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro could become a model for other populist leaders in the region, “even more than Trump,” he added.

“If [Bolsonaro is] defeated in the polls in 2022, like Trump was in 2020, it may help to prevent the emergence of an illiberal right-wing model of Latin America,” Levitsky said.

Ziblatt centered his discussion on the United States, calling Trumpism a “peculiar American variant” of populism.

“Today, where we worry a lot about different strains and variants of viruses, I think Trumpism is a particular strain of populism that is ethno-nationalist, often racist, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, at least in rhetoric, and relying on a particular political style that plays fast and loose with facts, truth, and science,” he said.

Ziblatt went on to analyze the reasons Trumpism has been able to take root in American politics, despite its status as a minority view. Trump supporters actually make up slightly less than a quarter of the voting constituency, he noted.

“What gets Trumpism its power today is our political institutions,” Ziblatt said. “They’re broken giving rise to the illusion, and hence the reality, that Trumpism is power.”

“To break this spell, we need to reform our institutions — we need to democratize our democracy,” he added.

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