Populism is not over. It is undergoing an upgrade

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Twenty minutes after midnight on June 24, 2016, at the Silksworth Tennis Center in Sunderland, England, Western populism erupted. The announcement that 69% of Sunderland residents had voted for Brexit made it clear that Britain would eventually leave the EU. The peak Western populist phase extended into 2019 with the victories of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, and the entry of the Five Star Movement and the Lega into the Italian government.

Now it all seems to be reversing. Johnson lasted less than one term as prime minister despite his 80-seat majority and Five Star faces decimation in Sunday’s Italian election, while Bolsonaro is likely to lose to leftist Lula next month. These populists have disintegrated in power, but others, like Sweden’s far-right Democrats and the likely next Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, are replacing them. Populism can thrive after Johnson or Trump. In fact, it goes from a kind of performance art to real administration.

“Populism” has a widely accepted definition. Populists portray a political battle between the “good people” and the “bad elite”. Institutions like parliament or judges cannot be allowed to block the will of the “people”. But the populists of the 2016 era were essentially television entertainers. They had no interest in governing, not even in times of pandemic. Their fanciful plans – Brexit, Trump’s wall with Mexico – have collided with reality. Populists haven’t exactly drained the swamp either. This month alone, Johnson lost office after compulsively breaking his own lockdown rules, nativist thinker Steve Bannon walked out in handcuffs, ousted Czech billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babiš goes on trial and Trump’s legal troubles watch became a full-time job.

But the new populists care about running things. Meloni, a former Mussolini fan, “is really competent. She is not entirely taken up by vanity”, explains Catherine Fieschi, author of populocracy. Meloni has abandoned old populist Italian fantasies of leaving the euro or seceding from southern Italy. She is perfectly happy inside the EU since she went from austerity to stuffing the country’s pockets. And while Trump and Johnson have complained about the “deep state,” Fieschi expects Meloni to work with other Italian parties and bureaucrats to get far-right things done.

Hungarian Viktor Orbán replaced Trump as leader of the populist movement. When the European Parliament voted last week that Hungary was no longer a full democracy, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party remained loyal to Orbán.

Populism had until recently a left branch, in certain moods represented by Five Star. This branch has dried up. Argentina’s Cristina Fernández and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have lost their presidencies, the Venezuelan regime has lost even its most blind supporters, and Spain’s Podemos is collapsing like Five Star.

Instead, the dominant trend of populism is now called “national conservatism”. Its chief philosopher, Israeli professor Yoram Hazony, has just helped organize the National Conference on Conservatism in Miami. “National conservatism” has added “awakening” to the demons of Islam and 2016-era feminists. Meloni loves “traditional family” and dislikes “gender ideology”. Alongside Orbán and the American Republicans, his Fratelli champion the unpopular cause of rolling back abortion.

The traditional centre-right parties are unsure whether to beat the national conservatives or join them. The old low-tax sales pitch of the small center-right state has lost relevance in the era of Covid-19 and the energy crisis. Johnson has overseen the growth of Britain’s highest tax burden in 70 years. His successor Liz Truss talks about the small state but spending perhaps £150billion on subsidizing energy.

Johnson’s famous “fuck business” remark also sheds light on changing center-right attitudes. American Orbán wannabe Ron DeSantis rages against “woke business”; Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute warns “against the boot of the American Chamber of Commerce, stomping on the face of an unborn baby. Always.” So center-right parties drift to the far right, which pushes the far right even farther to the right, says Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

But although they are advancing, populists have lost the centrality they had in 2016. Back then, Mudde notes, they dominated a public debate about the “migrant crisis,” jihadists and corrupt elites. Populists have less to say about Covid-19 or Ukraine. Meanwhile, their former donor and sponsor Vladimir Putin has turned into an embarrassing loser. Yet even when populists cannot win free elections, they can either run them like Orbán does, or steal them like Bolsonaro hinted he would try.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and send him an e-mail at simon.kuper@ft.com

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