When Donald Trump lost the White House in 2020, Europe’s strongmen, populists and climate change deniers lost a powerful ally and a protector. Yet most of Europe’s mini-Trumps have survived his fall, his denial of defeat and the storming of Congress by his supporters, and are now hoping that a comeback for the Republican frontrunner in next year’s US presidential election will put fresh wind in their own sails.
In his four years in office, Trump described the European Union as a “foe” and Nato as “obsolete”. He had earlier openly applauded the UK’s vote for Brexit and encouraged other countries to follow suit. He pulled the United States out of global agreements to fight climate change, tore up arms control treaties, slapped tariffs on his allies and picked fights with Germany over trade and defence spending. And he rolled out the red carpet for the populist leaders of Poland and Hungary just as they were defying EU censure over moves to snuff out judicial independence, civil rights and media pluralism.
No wonder senior officials in mainstream EU governments are quaking at the prospect that Trump may win in 2024 despite facing several impending trials over his efforts to overturn the results of the election he lost to Joe Biden. With Trump holding a commanding early lead in the race for the Republican nomination, European fears are exacerbated by his refusal to back Ukraine against Russian aggression and his vow to slap tariffs on EU imports.
Continental European practitioners of Trump’s attack-dog politics such as the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and the de facto Polish leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, are still in power and continuing to fight Brussels over the rule of law, migration and LGBTQ+ rights.
Indeed, they may gain a new illiberal ally if Slovakia’s former prime minister Robert Fico, who has lifted tactics straight out of the Trump playbook, achieves a comeback in the general election on 30 September. Fico claims the incumbent liberal government is trying to steal the election because some of his associates, including a former police chief, have been arrested in corruption investigations.
Fico, whose Smer party is a member of the European Socialists and Democrats group, blames the west for Russia’s war on Ukraine and says he’ll stop all aid to Kyiv if he wins. Slovakian analysts fear he will dismantle the country’s judicial independence and purge corruption fighters, as Orbán and Kaczyński have done, and that he will join them in fighting the EU’s migration pact, which requires member states to either take a share of asylum seekers or contribute financially to their reception in other countries.
Smer party leader Robert Fico and Progresivne Slovensko party leader Michal Šimečka in a TV election debate in Bratislava, Slovakia, 21 September 2023. Photograph: Jakub Gavlák/EPA
After Bratislava, the big test for Europe’s Trumpists will be in Warsaw, where Kaczyński’s conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party is bidding for an unprecedented third term on 15 October by relentlessly demonising liberal centre-right opposition leader Donald Tusk and bashing Russia, Germany, Brussels and now even Ukraine, accused of ruining Polish farmers with grain imports.
Hungary’s Orbán, who last year hosted the US far-right Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac) in Budapest and is a buddy of former Fox TV host Tucker Carlson, used his grip on the media, social media and state apparatus to see off a challenge by a united opposition last year. He tarred his challengers as stooges of an EU depicted as trying to thrust gay and transgender propaganda on Hungarian schoolchildren.
PiS is trying to pull a similar trick in Poland by staging a referendum on the same day as the election with four slanted questions including: “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?”
Former Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša, who jumped the gun and tweeted congratulations on Trump’s “victory” in 2020 while votes were still being counted, was beaten by liberal opponents in 2022. But the veteran populist still leads the largest opposition party and may yet rise again from the political graveyard.
Trump’s tactics of attacking and bypassing the mainstream media while favouring rightist news outlets that spread “alternative facts” have caught on in Europe. Kaczyński and Orbán have brought public broadcasters under their thumb. The sprouting of Fox News-style hard-right broadcasters in some countries, such as CNews in France, has given politicians of the radical right a platform to propound their narratives without facing the scrutiny of independent journalists. Elsewhere, populists are going direct to their followers on social media.
However, efforts by Steve Bannon, a former Trump strategist, to forge a unified European hard-right front to wield influence in the European parliament and undermine the EU from within have had little success. Bannon’s attempt to found an academy for young rightist “gladiators” in an Italian monastery ended in legal eviction. Europe’s mini-Trumps remain divided among themselves, notably over whether and how strongly to support Ukraine.
Some pre-war Putin sympathisers, such as Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally and Italian deputy premier Matteo Salvini’s League, sit in the hard-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the EU legislature. Others, who have backed Ukraine, sit in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, including Kaczyński’s PiS and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Yet others, such as Orbán’s pro-Russian Fidesz party, are not attached to any political family. This has so far marginalised their influence in European affairs.
The manifest damage of Brexit to the UK’s economy has led Europe’s radical right to mostly dump manifesto pledges to leave the EU or the euro, and to pledge instead to work for a “Europe of nation states” in which national law would take primacy over EU rules, unravelling the European legal order.
Whether a Trump return to the White House would galvanise his European friends and admirers into building a united Eurosceptic movement is far from certain. But it would create a host of political, diplomatic and potentially military headaches for which Europe’s governments are ill-prepared.