‘Trumpism’... not just an American invention

While both major Maltese parties are ideologically far closer to the US Democrats than Republicans, their discourse and antics do sometimes carry a Trumpian imprint

The victory for the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, in the United States presidential election spells an end to what must surely be the most internationally-maligned US Presidencies in history.

But while European polls have consistently placed Trump at the lowest rung of ‘most trusted world leaders’ – lower even than Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or Chinese President Xi Jinping – his actual performance in the election, now heading for a classic ‘photo-finish’, suggests that the same Donald Trump is viewed very differently on the other side of the Atlantic.  

Indeed, it is often the very attributes that make him so detestable to some, that also make him attractive to others. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of the term ‘Trumpism’: it is a combination of macho, strongman politics, and outspoken (often savage) criticism of a perceived ‘establishment’, that both horrifies his adversaries, and enthuses his own support-base.  

But while Donald Trump has become an internationally-recognised hallmark of precisely these qualities in contemporary politics, he is hardly the only example worldwide. Though most European countries take a dim view of ‘Trumpism’, and all it represents, there is not a single European country where similar, if not identical, political forces exist today.  

Malta is certainly no exception. Back in 2017 – just months after Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton – a MaltaToday survey showed that 68% of the Maltese had a negative impression of the newly elected US president. It also showed that a strong majority in both parties had a negative impression of the US President – 74% among PN voters and 58% among PL voters.  

But over the past four years, Trump also had earned himself a loyal Maltese fan base: especially among a groundswell anti-immigration movement, and a much smaller contingent of religious extremists/militant anti-abortionists, who hail Trump’s appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court in the hope of overturning Roe v Wade.  

Unlike the USA, however – or even other European countries – such enthusiasm does not translate into widespread support for local far fight parties (though this, too, may change in future).  

Nonetheless, while both major Maltese parties are ideologically far closer to the US Democrats than Republicans, their discourse and antics do sometimes carry a Trumpian imprint.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in Malta’s traditional approach to immigration. Where Donald Trump promised to build a physical wall between the USA and Malta, both Nationalist and Labour governments – not just in their discourse, but also in their policies – have always built imaginary ‘walls’ between migrant communities and the rest of the population.  

Pushback policies, illegal mass-detentions, the holding of migrants on vessels out at sea: these all amount to a distinctly ‘Trumpian’ approach, which also they pander to the worst sentiments among those who may be genuinely concerned among the migrant situation.  

Without denying that the logistical challenge is indeed great, Malta’s migration problems cannot be solved merely by stoking racist sentiment for short-term political gain. And this is not the only area where both local parties seem to have adopted a typically Trumpian brand of populism, either.  

The tendency to lash out at media criticism, for instance, or impolitic references to the lack of trust in the media highlighted in surveys that otherwise show a greater trust of the government, comes straight out of the Trump playbook.  

The narrative that prioritises economic growth over checks and balances remains a dangerous one. The result was a major scaling-back of bureaucracy, across the board. It was what weakened the role of an already servile party, the bureaucracy and parliament in holding the Prime Minister’s power in check: leading to a rule-of-law crisis, and ultimately to the collapse of the Muscat administration.  

In this sense, both Joseph Muscat and his successor have presented themselves as ‘strongmen’ in synch with popular aspirations, and as intermediaries between government and “families and business (who) want decision-makers to hear their real, unfiltered concerns”.  

However, one aspect of Trumpism in particular – its appeal to the extreme religious right – is traditionally far more applicable to the Nationalist Party than Labour: notably under Lawrence Gonzi, whose 2005 drive to entrench Malta’s abortion ban into the Constitution almost foreshadowed the American abortion debate under Trump (and also the situation currently unfolding in Poland).  

‘Trumpism’ is, in fact, very far from being an American invention: so even if he loses this election, the sad reality is that, in some respects, Donald Trump will still be here to stay.