Why Every European Country Has a Trump or Sanders Candidate

Italy has two politicians riding a wave of outrage, out-polling mainstream parties.

Italian candidate Beppe Grillo of the politically eclectic Five-Star Movement, in 2013. Credit:Triesteprima.it/CreativeCommons

The suicide in the Friuli region of northern Italy earlier this year of a 30-year-old man, identified in the newspapers only as Michele, has become a symbol of the country’s unemployment tragedy, particularly as it affects young people. Though much worse in the South, the country’s economic crisis also has had a blighting effect on the North. The national unemployment rate now stands at nearly 12 percent. A 40 percent youth unemployment rate nationwide, however, has people speaking of a generational apartheid in Italy. There is no work to be found for young people. In the workplace, comparatively speaking, they have been walled off from the rest of the population.

Friuli is a region of plain and mountain in the northeastern part of Italy, flush against borders to the north with Austria and the east with Slovenia. The annals of Friuli antedate by many centuries the arrival of the ancient Romans, who founded the colony of Aquileia there nearly two hundred years before Christ. The barbarian invasions swept over Friuli in the general wreckage of the Roman Empire. An Aquileian state arose in the Middle Ages, but was absorbed in the 15th century by the expanding Venetian empire. Then Friuli passed through French and Austrian phases of occupation and control before becoming part the newly founded Kingdom of Italy, in 1866.

The Friulani, a highly energetic and resourceful people steeped in the work ethic common to the peasant and artisanal cultures of traditional Europe, tilled the land and also gained a well-deserved reputation for their skill in specialty crafts and the building trades. Typically in such cultures, the work that a man did defined him. The modern world has changed those old ways of life, but the culture they generated persists. More recently, Friuli became renowned for its small businesses and factories, which played a vital role in the national economy. There was still hard work for the Friulani to do.

From his mother’s milk, Michele would have imbibed the work ethic of his native region. He would have thought of work as dignity and honor. In a suicide note, he claimed to be bereft of such things and of hope. “Desire has passed me by,” he wrote. Michele never had been able to find a meaningful job and had despaired of ever finding one. Contemplating his blank future, a sense of deep frustration had crushed his spirit. He hoped that his parents would forgive his dreadful act, but could not envisage a place for himself in a society without work.


No less than many other regions in the country, Friuli has been devastated by the economic crash of 2008 and its seemingly permanent aftermath. Hundreds of its small businesses and factories have closed, leaving many thousands unemployed. Michele’s father called his son’s death “the defeat of a moribund society.” What other way is there to describe a society unable to create work for its young people?

One of Italy’s rising political figures, Beppe Grillo of the politically eclectic Five-Star Movement, has proposed a guaranteed citizen income for all Italians. His reasoning appears to be that the Italians should be getting something from their government other than its slavish devotion to the corrupt oligarchy of the banks and corporations that rule the country.

There is a strong Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein component in the Five-Star Movement, as well as an admiration for the challenge that Hugo Chávez threw down to the multinationals in Venezuela. Grillo also has praised Ecuador’s Rafael Correa for his opposition to the International Monetary Fund, an institution that the Italian leader reviles as a battering ram of noxious austerity policies. Since the recent presidential election in the United States, Grillo has praised Trump as a much-needed change-of-air in world politics. Change of any kind, a powerful sentiment in the United States last fall, exerts the same kind of force in Italy now.

Even if a guaranteed citizen income initiative were to prevail and become law, the main problem underscored by Michele’s death would still remain. An allowance conjures up the image of juvenile dependence. A national welfare program for all citizens certainly is preferable to leaving ever rising numbers of them in want, but it would not solve in a socially edifying way the anterior problem of work. Michele was not asking for an allowance. He wanted work to do. This is a human need that societies deserving of survival are obliged to supply, a point raised by Thorstein Veblen in the book of his he valued most, The Instinct of Workmanship (1914). Human beings, he wrote, are called by nature to useful effort. It is not only the deprivations and frustrations associated with sex that undermine and subvert the human personality. He judged the men who live by moving money around to be the greatest peril of all to those who live by work.

The problem of work in Italy today belongs to the class of social consequences identified by Pier Paolo Pasolini in a famous Corriere della Sera article in 1974. “The Italians are no longer what they once were,” he observed. By this statement, Friuli’s greatest poet, filmmaker, and social critic meant that Italy’s traditional values had undergone an anthropological mutation. The country had abandoned its traditional way of life, which in its peasant culture had achieved a kind of poetic synthesis in the saying of Padron ‘Ntoni, novelist Giovanni Verga’s lead character in I Malavoglia (1881): “He is richest who has the fewest wants.” Pasolini feared that the new values of a hedonistic consumer society would be a poor substitute for Italy’s Christian and socialist ideals. What a debased fate for Italy, to come through the civilization-defining vicissitudes of its millennial history, only to end up ignobly aping American-style conspicuous consumption.

Pasolini had in mind a particular phase of the globalized economy, which since the 1970s has sped forward on the principle that money must be completely liberated to maximize profits for those who have it. It is immediately evident why this golden rule for today’s economy, though achieving its purpose of profit-maximization, has been a poor proposition for most of the working people of the Western world.

While rates of extreme poverty worldwide have declined in recent decades, the means to produce such a result have required an outsourcing of the West’s manufacturing base. The coincidental surge in profits made possible by the relocation of manufacturing jobs to countries unencumbered by high wages, labor unions, and environmental laws has with perfect justice sparked a political firestorm.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explained in Globalization and Its Discontents (2004) that the basic problem with the world’s current financial arrangement concerned the institutions and organizations commanding it. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Treasury, and the European Monetary Union protect special interests, Wall Street most of all. Despite their lip-service in democratic argot, the very last thing seriously on the minds of the top financial policy makers is the well-being of ordinary people.

As a result of the methods used to promote globalization, the consequences for the West have been tragic. Work is becoming increasingly uncertain and insecure, or it is in the process of disappearing altogether. It would take Veblen’s talents for social satire, which are unsurpassed in all of American literature, to depict with the essential exactitude of artistic synthesis how far the United States has fallen away from democratic grace, the country’s dramatically widening gap between the haves and the have-nots being what it is. Clearly, we are on the wrong course. What the robotics revolution, now at an incipient stage, will do to further diminish opportunities for Western peoples to work can be easily imagined, if the economic imperative of corporate capitalism is the rule to go by.

The same desolating trends can be seen in Europe, where people increasingly regard the European Union as a Trojan horse. The economic elites and their political front-men responsible for this image-challenged contraption lose public support with each new poll. The people by and large blame the European Union and the other accessories of globalization for their worsening standard of living. When informed by the establishment media that thanks to globalization Europe has never been more prosperous and peaceful, Europeans in historic numbers are reacting with disbelief. Their deepening sense of betrayal propels the surge of populism that defines the politics of Europe today.

Arguments long-settled in favor of deregulation, liberalization, open borders, and other globalization watchwords have been reopened. The constituency is growing for a politics that puts the well-being of Europeans first. Political measures calling for the protection of European jobs and cultures have gained a following unforeseen prior to 2008.

In Italy, for example, 77 percent of the people questioned in a recent poll could see no advantage to them at all from the country’s membership in the European Union. Sixty-four percent of them expressed hostility toward it. Eight Italian businesses out of 10 can find nothing positive to say about the European Union. It is seen to be a creature of the banks and the big financial houses. As public relations disasters go, this one has unfolded on an epic scale as the underlying populations, long left out of consideration by the economic elites, have begun to sense the fate their masters have in store for them.

Leaving underlying populations out of consideration was a special feature of the planning that went into globalization. They have been voiceless. In America, Trump gave them a voice, and they responded to him with their political support. It did not matter that he came before them without a plan for their deliverance. That he came to them at all mattered. He understood the depth of the anger and alienation in America against a status quo personified by his opponent, Hillary Clinton, whose repeated and munificently rewarded speeches before the captains of finance on Wall Street effectively branded her as the safe candidate for all who wanted to leave existing economic arrangements fundamentally undisturbed.

Trump may go down in history as a president who was hopelessly out of his depth on all vital matters, but his presidential campaign will be studied for as long as historians have an interest in American politics. It was a masterpiece of intuition based on an uncannily correct judgment about the spirit of the times. Bernie Sanders had the same insight, but the Democratic Party turned out to be much more corrupt and vulnerable to manipulation than the Republicans, an astonishing feat. In possibly an even more flagrant instance of interference in the American democratic process than anything yet proven against Vladimir Putin, internal machinations weighted the primary process against Sanders. The Republicans tried to head off Trump, too, but a fiercely loyal base and a dearth of plausible opponents gave him an easy victory in the primaries.

At an academic conference in New York in May a year ago, I participated in a conversation among scholars, journalists, and government officials who generally thought that Trump would not even win 20 percent of the national vote. His ridiculous campaign surely would fall of its own dead weight. Professional pollsters, though not so far wrong as my conference colleagues in New York, also missed what appears to be the main story of the campaign: a loss of faith, unprecedented in its severity, by the American people in the rules of the game. There is no other way to explain the stunningly bizarre choice that they made for the man to lead them.

That Trump has rapt admirers and self-confessed imitators in Europe should come as no surprise because the mood he represents is an international phenomenon. Virtually every European country has a Trump candidate saying basically the same things that he did in his campaign against immigrants, globalization trade agreements, and the establishment media. Italy has two such candidates: Grillo and the leader of the xenophobic League Party, Matteo Salvini. They are riding a wave of anti-establishment outrage and in tandem are outpolling the two major mainstream parties, the center-left Democratic Party, now in internal disarray from schism, and the center-right Go Italy Party.

As Europe since the end of World War II has slipped ever more securely into the orbit of American military and economic power, it is only to be expected that the Atlantic Community will be increasingly homogeneous. The Italian case is most instructive about the fundamental meaning of America for Europe. Italy’s greatest postwar novelist, Cesare Pavese, explained in The Moon and the Bonfires (1950), “America is here already. We have our millionaires and people are dying of hunger.” Contemporary Italy, in keeping with Europe as a whole, is best understood as an example of America’s role as the prime mover in international affairs and economics, or of how the world works per necessità, in Machiavelli’s phrase, according to the dictates of those who hold irresistible power.

By outsourcing its manufacturing base in search of portfolio enhancement, the United States exercised a freedom for which liberty-loving European businessmen, bankers, and politicians hungered as well. Unable to compete with 50-cent per hour labor, the working classes in America and Europe would have to go to the wall, but while adjusting their blindfolds they could rest assured that in the fullness of time the wonder-working ways of the free market would redeem the world.

Such a promise held no meaning for Michele, and he left this world slamming the door. “I feel betrayed,” he wrote in his suicide note. Who can say which other factors drove him in those last desperate hours before he took his life? We do know what his stated reason was for doing it. Work was the final thought that he had. How else could a Friulano give a good account of himself in this life?

Richard Drake, a historian of Europe and the United States, is professor of history at the University of Montana.

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19 Responses to Why Every European Country Has a Trump or Sanders Candidate

  1. James Drouin says:

    “Why Every European Country Has a Trump or Sanders Candidate”

    Simple: It’s a natural progression of history documented in the public eye, of the struggle between liberalism and conservatism.

    And liberalism is losing and its proponents know it.

  2. EliteCommInc. says:

    There are a lot of prescriptions fo this mess. The least of which is calls to hire rich people because they understand the economy — it is probably true that most people in politics thinks that is true. But if the evidence is brought to bear on the matter it’s a dubious claim.

    The single damaging practice that has become standard is the constant bailing out of the economic elite. The reason the gap is becoming so vast so very quickly is because of the insider trading that is going on among members of government and the business community.

    The fact that those responsible for one of the worst economic landslide in history were actually protected from the consequences of their behavior explains a lot about where we are and why.

    And of course the new game in the town of financial mismanagement Basel I and Base II.

    I have no beef with people getting wealthy. But I do chagrin the practice of how they are protected from accountability while the rest are penalized not only for their own mistakes, but the wealthy as well.

  3. Jack L. says:

    I’m afraid “desire has passed me by” is a mistranslation of the original phrase, “Mi è passata la voglia.”

    A better translation would be “I have lost the desire.”

    A reader could pick up that something is wrong here by noticing that the phrase “desire has passed me by” is somewhat ambiguous, and doesn’t make very clear sense. (e.g. whose desire?)

    The phrase Michele used is an extremely common one in Italian. It’s used in everyday life in a variety of more mundane contexts. In these contexts, it generally means you have changed your mind about doing something. To put it simply: “I don’t feel like it anymore.”

  4. polistra says:

    EXCELLENT article. Gets everything right.

    Only one little quibble:
    “That Trump has rapt admirers and self-confessed imitators in Europe…”

    All of the Euro populists were there long before Trump, and will continue after Trump. They used his image as an explanatory device to help Americans understand them. Now that Trump has taken off the mask to reveal Hillary, the explanatory device no longer works, and politicians like LePen and Grillo will let it drop. They’re smart.

  5. James Hartwick says:

    Have I not seen the stat that there are more jobs available in America now than there have ever been before? I know that some of those are low-level retail and service jobs that can’t support a family; but others are manufacturing jobs that require a little more skill or technical knowledge than the average high school graduate has. Conservatives should encourage our youth to develop their abilities. Even if you are in an standard high school that teaches you “useless” academic things rather than teaching you a trade, being able to do, say, algebra better will make you more able to learn that complex tool that will get you a good manufacturing job.

    Point being: America is not perfect. But in addition to arguing for the appropriate changes, conservatives should once again become known for the ability to make the best of an imperfect situation.

  6. Martin says:

    “The national unemployment rate now stands at nearly 12 percent. A 40 percent youth unemployment rate nationwide, however, has people speaking of a generational apartheid in Italy. There is no work to be found for young people.” And as Douglas Murray has pointed out a country and a continent with such a horrendous unemployment rate doesn’t need mass immigration from the third world. That Europe need immigrants from the third world is not only a lie (perhaps made in good intention nonetheless) but a very obvious lie

  7. Cratylus says:

    This is a superb article.
    The solution would appear to be ever shorter hours of work at higher hourly compensation if the goals of desire for work as part of one’s identity, sufficient jobs and sufficient income are all to be met.
    But is this not a violation of conservative beliefs?

  8. Giovanni DiLauro says:

    Thank you for the excellent article, it should be on the front page of every major newspaper.

    If globalization was the path America sought to follow after WWII, it would have been much wiser to adopt Keynes’ bancor monetary framework. Once a nation built up a certain trade deficit, it would be allowed to depreciate its currency. Past a certain point a devaluation would be mandatory, allowing for a level playing field.

    It is past time for a major departure from the status quo.

  9. peterc says:

    Excellent article!
    The reference to Thorstein Veblen is so appropriate:
    – Human beings are called by nature to useful effort.
    – The men who live by moving money around are the greatest peril to those who live by work.

  10. Will Harrington says:

    James Hartwick

    Yes, there are jobs available in the US, many that will not allow a person to support a family. But, there are also many employers who can’t fill those jobs because they can’t find people who will show up, follow orders, stay sober on the job, or pass a drug test. I don’t really see how conservatives making the best of an imperfect situation will alleviate this. Maybe if there were more conservative teachers teaching kids how to be work, but we have a fundamental breakdown of culture here where the knowledge of how to hold onto a job has not been passed on to an ever growing number of people. They are not employed because they are not employable.

  11. One grows tired of hearing the Northern League and Matteo Salvini mechanically characterized as “xenophobic.” Salvini has done nothing more than call for limits to immigration—limits, that is, to the unbridled immigration now underway, in which some %90 of arrivals have absolutely no just cause to request asylum, but are simply profitting from a chaotic situation. He has said that, as an Italian politician, he thinks it just to put the Italians first, and to think of the rest of the world later. If this is xenophobic, then xenophobia is eminently reasonable, and everyone should be held to its standards.

    A small correction to the caption beneath the photograph: Beppe Grillo is not, and cannot be, the candidate for the Five Star Movement. He is only its founder and its sometime figurehead.

  12. EliteCommInc. says:

    “But is this not a violation of conservative beliefs?”

    well, it relies on two precarious expectations.

    1. that government minimum wage laws actually work — they don’t in the long term, in my view. As government impositions they are clearly not a conservative perspective

    2. the other in the current environment rests on an ethic that business out of some manner of beneficence (good will) intent will pay higher wages. given the balance toward business, – this seems highly unlikely. It appears unlikely even when it’s in the best interests of the wealthy. Who apparently think that the masses will tolerate the unfair balance indefinitely – unlikely.

    Here in the US businesses are leverage immigrants on VISAS and here illegally to press against US citizens, whose here require a series of legal expectations that are short changed by hiring immigrants on VIA;s or here illegally. I have no doubt that this pressure exists in Europe.

    No one discusses the addtion of several million women to the once male dominated work force. Harnessing affirmative action policies, discriminatory practice, harassment laws and identity politics women have managed to change the landscape of the employable even against the mechanisms for truly violated populations, white women, asians, and hispanics now corner the pressure points of political forces concerning employment.

    We have given little thought to the societal impacts.

  13. Rossbach says:

    “…the Democratic Party turned out to be much more corrupt and vulnerable to manipulation than the Republicans, an astonishing feat.”

    The article was worth reading if only to obtain this admission.

  14. hooly says:

    Right, right … always blame others, America, the World Bank, ‘neo-liberalism’, the Third World, the EU, etc, etc. These people never seem to look in the mirror for some reason. Italy doesn’t have a dynamic economy because of Italians, not because of Americans, other Europeans or Asians. Italy, ever since the Unification in 1871 has not had competent leaders up to the very present, a Mafia ridden South, a class ridden society more rigid than India’s famous Caste System, a feckless population that makes it the first of the PIGS in terms of corruption, a lazy Mediterranean lifestyle that make it a great place to visit but not thrive, … all these factors have contributed to the failed state that is modern Italy.

  15. Amico says:

    Excellent article. Comports with everything I hear from colleagues, many of them young, in Italy.

  16. EarlyBird says:

    @Martin: “That Europe need immigrants from the third world is not only a lie (perhaps made in good intention nonetheless) but a very obvious lie.”

    It’s exactly what so much of modern liberalism is: well intentioned lies, viciously enforced.

    Overall a great article.

  17. Dan Green says:

    Here in America we are conditioned daly, by the all powerful media, and CNN, what a profound mistake was made, electing our current President. As if millions didn’t understand Trump would never accomplish what we voiced. I think it tells the left here and in Europe, which is socialized already, The Social Democratic Welfare State Model has hit the wall. The prior elite cast from office talk a good game and preach the gospel while they prosper, offering every influence whatever they ask for. Now the left has a new term identity politics they are fast correcting.

  18. To Hooly—

    “Italy…has a lazy Mediterranean lifestyle that make it a great place to visit but not thrive…”

    Certainly—insofar as one understands by “thriving” mere economic well-being.

    I suspect the Italians are the healthiest people in Europe at present, and in large part owing to most of the qualities you list against them.

  19. Ray Woodcock says:

    How conservatism can dislike capitalism.

    How liberalism can be conservative.

    Interesting article.

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