The world watched the Brexit debate and thought that the United Kingdom would never vote to leave the European Union. And then it did.

They watched again and thought that Donald Trump, a politically-incorrect businessman with no previous experience in government, could never be elected the President of the United States.

But he was.

Then Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, was almost elected as the next President of the French Republic. Why has the world recently pushed to eliminate traditional governmental policies in favor for radical changes? The answer is that the working-class world, frustrated with the traditional “establishment”, is searching for an alternative that can alleviate their fear of rapid global change. For many, this alternative is populism, which appeals to voters who fear the effects of cultural change. Populism pits the people against a corrupt elite, symbolizing a desire to reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions.

A decade ago, people could not have imagined that leaders such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen would be anything more than marginally popular, much less actually win the Presidency of some of the most powerful nations in the world. However, in light of the surge in global populism in recent years, it is not surprising that two people who are so similar in their policies could gain so much momentum in their respective countries. Trump ran on a strong anti-immigration policy in the United States, with an emphasis on deporting undocumented immigrants; Le Pen wanted to secure French borders by pulling France out of the European Union. Both wish to increase defense spending and launch particularly vehement anti-ISIS campaigns, threatening innocent Muslims in the process. They also want to build closer ties with Russia, and end trade deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Considering these proposals, it is clear that both leaders are riding the wave of populism, in an effort to appeal to voters who fear economic insecurity and cultural change.  

One of the key factors in the rising fear of cultural change is immigration. In recent years, the world has seen an increase in anti-immigration sentiment, especially in regards to the people who have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Citizens of Western European and North American countries relate immigration to the rise in economic inequality, loss of jobs, and spread of international terrorism. These citizens want a strong reassurance that the current government is in control of immigration; any apparent loss of control gives other leaders with a populist message the chance to gain power under the platform of blocking immigration, and thus restoring both economic and physical security to the people.

This anti-immigration sentiment was a central element in both the American and French elections. Although the United States does not face an immigration crisis on the scale of that in Europe (simply because of the number of refugees and people seeking asylum in nearby Europe from the turmoil in the Middle East), many US citizens still fear the threat of terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not only did the attack by Islamic jihadists on 9/11 cause Americans to associate immigration from the Middle East with terrorism, but the surge in illegal immigration from Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s caused them to believe that the US government had lost control of its borders. Even though illegal immigration numbers have drastically declined in the last few years, there has been a lasting sentiment that the United States has lost its sovereignty and needs to implement radical measures to regain control. Many Americans saw the promise of such radical strategies in Donald Trump, who pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and curb immigration from the Middle East: the two things that US citizens who were disillusioned with current politics and policies desired. 

Likewise, Marine Le Pen provided French voters an alternative to the traditional establishment. She campaigned on a platform of securing French borders by pulling France out of the EU; her campaign slogan, “Au nom du people” (In the Name of the People), literally claims a “France for the French.” In other words, she built her presidential campaign around the idea of curbing immigration in order to restore France to the proud, purely French country that it was in the past. In the same way that Trump’s anti-immigration policies communicated his intention to “Make America Great Again” for the American people, Le Pen wanted to restore order to the French.

The uniquely French concept of laïcité, which has no translation to the English language, describes a France for the French. Le Pen uses the idea of laïcité to advance her anti-immigration stance, discriminating between those who are French and those who are not; her policy includes prioritizing French citizens for jobs and housing, deporting illegal immigrants, and reducing the quota for legal immigration from 200,000 to 10,000 people per year.  Le Pen argues that French citizenship should be “either inherited or merited”, and that illegal immigrants “have no reason to stay in France” because they “broke the law the minute they set foot on French soil.” She has contended that the issue with immigration is its impact on French culture because the refusal of immigrants to assimilate into French culture is not only an insult to the French people, but also a threat to the core of French society, which is built upon laïcité. The appeal of her populist ideal of a country built by the people and for the people is best captured in her response to her an interview with National Public Radio. When asked whether she was a populist, Le Pen replied “What's populism? If it's someone who wants to defend government for the people, of the people and by the people, then yes, I'm a populist.”

Another important element of populism that explains the attraction of Trump and Le Pen to voters is its attention to the “forgotten people”. These forgotten people view the spread of globalization as the main cause of their economic downfall, a force that heightened trade competition between global business corporations and smaller companies, and increased competition with immigrants for jobs. Both Trump and Le Pen appeal to the silent majority, comprised of working class, blue collar voters who feel ignored by the government; populist leaders use broader nationalist messages and non-traditional right wing views on trade and government spending to placate the economic anxieties that plague these voters. Whereas traditional right-wing politicians oppose dedicating a large portion of the national budget to rebuilding infrastructure, Trump previously suggested a US $1 trillion infrastructure bill in order to rebuild the country and create new jobs. Trump also holds a softer stance on entitlement spending than other traditional right-wing politicians.  

For Trump, the blue-collar communities proved vital to his election as the president of the United States. White, working class voters feared the potential loss of jobs if opponent Hillary Clinton won, partly due to her intent to shut down factories out of environmental safety concerns. For the Rust Belt in the northern part of the US, the potential economic losses of a Clinton presidency proved sufficient to swing the voters towards Trump; for the first time in nearly 30 years, the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania voted Republican in the electoral college. Trump’s ability to appeal to white, working class communities who feel as if the previous governmental had “forgotten” them in its economic and global policies was critical to his election.

Likewise, Le Pen appeals to blue-collar workers in the northern part of France. During his presidency, François Hollande was unable to reduce unemployment and increase the standard of living, as promised. Hollande’s inability to increase France’s economic stability is one of the reasons that he refused the opportunity to run for a second term, something that no sitting president has ever done in modern history. Le Pen offers blue-collar French citizens the promise to defend the forgotten ones against crime and economic change, particularly to workers in France’s northeast regions such as Hayange. Unemployment in Hayange has risen by 75% in the last decade, and over a quarter of the population currently commutes across the border to work in Luxembourg each day. One woman from Hayange told Lucy Williamson, a correspondent for BBC News, that she voted for the Front National, despite having some misgivings about their policies. “I’m not totally in favor of them, but it’s my way of saying that I’m not happy with today’s politics.”

While Trump and Le Pen appeal to their audience for similar reasons, that is not to say that their forms of populism have the same styles or policies. Rather than offering a golden age of prosperity to the people like Trump, Le Pen instead promises to restore order to France over the course of her presidency. Le Pen also seems to embrace the core republican values of French society, as a quasi-feminist and an advocate for women’s rights.

"I’m not totally in favor of them, but it’s my way of saying that I’m not happy with today’s politics."

Trump, on the other hand, claims to almost repel traditional American values in order to bring radical change to the US government. Trump’s bold, politically incorrect, and often crass communication style is drastically different from that of Le Pen, whose experience in government and disdain for her father’s rhetorical style has caused her to develop a more polished and soft-spoken communication style. Despite the differences between the two, the election of President Trump and the near-election of Le Pen makes it clear that the people want a government that will cater to their grievances and wishes, unlike the traditional establishment. For the people, the future of politics lies with populism. Only time will reveal the global ramifications of this change.