By Nelson Graves

U.S. populists such as Donald Trump share grievances with supporters of Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union, including antagonism towards immigrants and antipathy towards elites, but not all contemporary populists are cut from the same cloth.

So stated three university students who discussed rising populism in the United States and Europe during a webinar broadcast to institutions in News-Decoder’s pilot program, the latest in a series of online events examining major international issues.

Emma Bapt of King’s College London, Emily Dalgo of American University in Washington, DC, and Katerina Rigas of the Dukakis Center at the American College of Thessaloniki compared and contrasted populists who are challenging the status quo on both sides of the Atlantic.

Two populists — Republican Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders — have sought the U.S. presidency this year, while within Europe, populist parties control parliamentary majorities or pluralities in six countries (Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland) and share in government in three others (Finland, Lithuania, Norway).

During the webinar on October 24, there was agreement that Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency, like Britain’s decision to quit the EU, has tapped into simmering voter antipathy towards immigrants and distrust of ruling elites.

But Rigas noted that populists in power in Greece have different motivations, shaped in part by Greece’s unique history.

Parallels between Brexit and Trump

Dalgo said Trump and Bernie Sanders, who ran an unsuccessful but popular campaign for the Democratic nomination to the White House, are very similar despite coming from different parties. “They both claim that the status quo needs to change,” Dalgo said. “They both claim to hate the political elite, and they say that they represent the people.”

But while Trump has capitalized on fears of immigrants, Sanders’ supporters encourage immigration, she said.

Dalgo, who as the 2016 American University Summer Scholars Fellow conducted research on links between anti-establishment movements and xenophobia, said she was fascinated that some some populists ended up supporting Trump while others backed Sanders, although they share a disdain for the establishment.

Her research showed that Trump and Sanders supporters have different “origin stories” — how they perceive American identity and the role of the United States in the world.

“With Trump supporters, we found that they mostly chose an origin story based on political power, American exceptionalism and undertones of the American dream, that the hard-working American can achieve whatever he wants if they are hard-working,” said Dalgo, who is in her final year of undergraduate studies.

Sanders supporters, on the other hand, “chose an origin story that was based on equality under the law, racial equality, and they really saw American identity as being formed when the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed, so in the 1960s when everyone became equal under the law.”

Dalgo said she sees a “huge parallel” between the Brexit “Leave” campaign and Trump supporters, who she said feel they have been allowed to speak their mind for the first time.

“And I think that in Britain, showing up at the polls and voting to leave empowered a lot of people and allowed them to feel for the first time in a long time that their opinions mattered and were being heard,” she said.

“Many people thought that EU migrants were stealing UK jobs.”

Bapt, a second-year student at King’s College London, said Britons who voted for the UK to quit the EU shared a conviction with many Trump supporters that a “corrupt elite,” in this case policymakers in Brussels, has ignored the people’s demands and needs.

EU enlargement in 2011, which opened the door to an increased flow of immigrants into the UK, and the 2008 economic crisis exacerbated anti-EU sentiment in Britain, said Bapt, who was News-Decoder’s intern last summer.

“In Britain, the link between populist views and xenophobic, anti-immigrant views is … the idea that immigrants pose a threat to the UK because they make Britain less British,” Bapt said. “Many people thought that EU migrants were stealing UK jobs.”

Rigas, a graduate of the American College of Thessaloniki and currently a student at Aristotle University, said left-wing populists in power in Greece for almost two years, like populists elsewhere in Europe, have capitalized on citizens’ frustration with mainstream parties.

But Greece’s case is unique, she said, because of the country’s history of being dominated by outside powers, politically and economically.

“Greece is weak and has always been subject to foreign intervention and foreign supervision. So it’s a totally different perception of populism,” Rigas said.

What impact will the rising influence of populists have across Europe?

Rigas said: “We will see populists becoming set in their beliefs, unwilling to negotiate and to discuss in the context of a European Union, which they have already challenged, and this will test the resilience of the EU, at least.”

populistsEmma Bapt is a second-year student at King’s College London, studying History and War Studies. She has lived in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Milan and Paris, and this past summer was News-Decoder’s intern.



populistsEmily Dalgo is in her final year of undergraduate studies at the American University’s School of International Service. As the 2016 AU Summer Scholars Fellow, Dalgo conducted research on links between anti-establishment movements and xenophobia, using populist U.S. candidates as case studies.


populistsKaterina Rigas is a graduate of the American College of Thessaloniki in Greece and an active participant in events organized by the college’s Dukakis Center think tank. Her academic interests include the decline of secularism in international relations and domestic policy in a globalized world.

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