During the 2016 election, some Trump supporters argued that this was our last chance to save American sovereignty from the affluent, elite “Davos class” of cosmopolitan technocrats. The irony is that, if moderate populist nationalists are not careful, this prophecy could turn out to be self-fulfilling. As the example of Greece teaches us, the Davos class might look pretty good to voters who have tried populism and found it wanting.
In 2015, Greece elected a government led by a radical-left party called SYRIZA. It is difficult to understate how odd this outcome was. Prior to the economic crisis that hit Greece in 2009, SYRIZA had struggled to get 5 percent of the vote. Its membership resembled the kind of leftwing college mobs one sees in America, but with a higher average age and a lower average IQ. Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA’s leader, was an engineer by training, but actually a lifetime political agitator who might be thought of as Hugo Chavez without the oil money, tolerance for political violence, or extensive military service (or much of a career of any kind). And these people took over a country (though perhaps we Americans should not be too snotty about that sort of thing).
The Greek political establishment had been discredited by a depression, then dragging into a sixth year. Tsipras was making outrageous promises. The public was willing to swallow his radicalism, if he could reestablish their lives of prosperity, dignity, order, and hope. His talk sounded good to a country with over 20 percent unemployment.
Tsipras made it sound easy, but it didn’t turn out to be easy—or even achievable. A key part of his strategy was to avoid tax increases, spending cuts, and labor market reforms by getting Greece’s creditors to suspend Greece’s debt obligations and fund SYRIZA’s social spending agenda. His hammer was the implicit threat that Greece’s defaulting and crashing out of the Eurozone would start a wave of national bankruptcies in larger countries, such as Italy and Portugal, and produce a regional (or even global) financial crisis.
Germany called his bluff. They convinced him that the Eurozone could sustain Greece crashing out, by offering to back up the debt obligations of the other, larger, less irresponsible Eurozone nations. The result was that Greece, in order to maintain a level of subsidy far lower than Tsipras would have liked, was forced to implement the tax increases and spending cuts he had campaigned against. And Greece’s depression ground on.
Tsipras and SYRIZA have lost most of their popularity, and polls indicate that if an election were held now, the winner would be the center-right led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis. There are several levels of irony here.
The first is that Mitsotakis embodies the dynastic political establishment the Greek electorate rejected when they elected Tsipras. Mitsotakis has an older sister who had been foreign minister, a nephew who is a regional governor, and his (recently deceased) father had been prime minister. Other recent Greek PMs include one fellow who was the nephew of a former prime minister and another who was both the son and grandson of prime ministers. The Kennedys, Clintons, and Bushes have nothing on Greek politics.
The irony isn’t just genealogical. It is also ideological. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seemingly a sincere “liberal.” In the Greek context, that means he is an opponent of patronage in the civil service, and a supporter of smaller government, lower taxes, freer labor markets—at least relative to pretty much anyone else on the Greek political spectrum.
Greek liberalism also means being more supportive of NATO and seeking to integrate Greece ever more deeply into the European Union. In America, supporters of smaller government are often supportive of America’s alliance system, but they also tend to be very skeptical of transnational institutions and jealous of American sovereignty. In Greece, liberals—whose economic ideas have not been especially popular—tend to think that Greece would be better off if Greek institutions converged with, or took dictation from, those of Brussels. Greek liberals tend toward technocracy and transnationalism to go along with their (relative) economic libertarianism.
But the Greek electorate rejected all that when they elected Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA. They rejected smaller government, freer labor markets, and having their economic choices dictated by Germany. Now the Greek electorate has gone from one extreme to the other.
The lesson for America’s populist nationalists is that public opinion is not fixed, and that failure can produce significant ideological changes. Trump has made some large promises himself. People are practical. They might be receptive to nationalism, but if they see, in their lives, that nationalism is producing chaos, economic decline, and national humiliation, then they might, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, capitulate to the cosmopolitan left.
That isn’t a prediction. We should hope that Trump is a successful president. We should praise him when he gets things right (as in his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court) and be constructive critics when he gets things wrong.
But we should also start thinking of what a constructive populist nationalism might look like in the event of a failed Trump presidency. In that case, we will be dealing not only with the wreckage of Trump, but also with the wreckage produced by the leftwing and cosmopolitan reaction against Trump. We will also face a skeptical public that remembers the failures of the last time conservative nationalism was given a chance. We should take this time to prepare the answers that were not ready when populist nationalism unexpectedly won the 2016 presidential election. Even if it is a long wait, we can pray that the effort will pay off in the end.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.