The Great Disruption

Understanding the Populist Forces Behind Trump, Brexit, and LePen

by Anil Hira (Author)
©2019 Monographs XVI, 174 Pages


The Great Disruption: Understanding the Populist Forces Behind Trump, Brexit, and LePen aims to put the shocking events of 2016–17 into a long-term, historical perspective. The seemingly disparate and separately discussed election of Donald Trump, Brexit vote, success of Marine LePen’s National Front Party, and the wider spread of populism have an overlooked commonality: They all start with a similar core constituency of disaffected older blue collar workers. Using a data-driven analysis, author Anil Hira shows that racism and xenophobia are linked to economic populism—xenophobia becoming widespread under conditions of economic stress. Hira shows further that since economic stress is felt very deeply, conventional solutions are inadequate. There is a perception among the affected group that politicians can not offer "normal" solutions and thus turn to populism. The Great Disruption traces long-term and largely un-linked shifts in the economy from globalization to automation to uncover the deeper sources of populist outbreaks. This book demonstrates that racial and immigrant attitudes have not changed, rather any backlash is a scapegoating effect of economic loss and dislocation. Populism not only misdiagnoses the situation but also misses the wider long-term threats of climate change, demographic shifts, and the rise of China. Recognizing the transformational nature of such threats depends on the maturation of the Millennial generation and its willingness to evolve towards a more global style of governance, in the process rejecting the shallow promises of populism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Why Populism Is Not Just Trump
  • From 1989 to Despair
  • What We Don’t Know About Populism
  • An Overview of the Book
  • The Rise of Populism—A Global Phenomenon
  • Chapter 1. The Economic Roots of Populism, Something Old, Something New
  • What Is Populism?
  • Haven’t We Seen This Movie Before? Understanding the Economic Roots of US Populism in Historical Perspective
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. A Snapshot—Tying Together the Tumultuous Events of 2016–17
  • Who Are the Supporters of Trump, Brexit, and LePen?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. The Seemingly Paradoxical Nature of Social Values Towards Race and Immigration in the Populist Wave of 2016
  • Racial and Immigrant Values Over Time
  • Racial Attitudes in Europe
  • Summing Up Long-term Values Evolution
  • Xenophobic Upsurge Is Tied to Migration and Terrorism Incidents
  • Chapter 4. Empty Rhetoric and Empty Promises—Examining the Phony Solutions of the New Populists
  • Introduction—The Empire and the Rebels Are Both Found Wanting
  • The Establishment Fiddles at the Margins
  • What the Populists Offer Is Equally Clueless
  • The Red Herring of Immigration
  • Why Illegal Is the Real Lightning Rod, But Covers Up Long-term Demographic Shifts
  • Democracy Under Fire—Campaign Funders Use Anger to Obfuscate Real Issues
  • Social Media’s Role in Elections
  • Chapter 5. Underlying Force Number 1: “American Carnage”—A Codeword for Long-term Economic Decline in the West and the Shrinking Middle Class
  • Populist Recognition of the Relative Decline of the West
  • A Brief Set of Illustrations on the West’s Rise
  • Growing Inequality Exacerbates Relative Decline
  • Chapter 6. Underlying Force Number 2: The Collapse of Manufacturing From Globalization, Financialization, and Automation
  • Behind Growing Inequality: Declines in Manufacturing Employment
  • Manufacturing Declines Made Worse by Financialization
  • Why Isn’t Growth in the Service Sector Picking Up the Slack From Manufacturing?
  • Unemployment Rates Are Sticky and Likely to Worsen for Blue Collar Workers
  • The Near Death of Unions
  • Automation Means the Decline Is Not Just a Temporary Business Cycle Downturn or Reversible Through Anti-Globalization
  • An Age of Despair for the Middle Class
  • Chapter 7. Force Number 3: The Rise of China
  • Changes in the Global Order—Implications of the Rise of China
  • Why Can’t the West Get Its Act Together? True and False Sources of US Resentment
  • Trump’s Myopic Foreign Policy
  • Chapter 8. Force Number 4: Rapid Environmental Deterioration
  • Climate Change—A Wild Card
  • Populists Would Have Us Bury Ourselves in the Sand, But There’s Hope
  • Renewable Energy Transition Needs a Lot of Coaxing
  • Chapter 9. Force Number 5: Demographics and the Raw Deal Given to Millennials
  • Prospects for the Millennial Generation Are Bad and Getting Worse
  • Millennial Attitudes Are Nonetheless More Progressive
  • Chapter 10. Global Problems Need Global Solutions
  • Index

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Figure 1.1. Causal Linkages for Conventional Views on Populism.

Figure 1.2. Suggested Sequence of Populism.

Figure 3.1. Percent of US Whites Who Approve of Racial Intermarriage.

Figure 3.2. Percent of US Whites Who Would Live Where Half the Neighbors Were Black.

Figure 3.3. Percent of Whites Who Believe in Legal Intervention to Prevent Racial Discrimination in Housing Sales.

Figure 3.4. Percent of Americans Who Think Immigration Will Make National Unity Harder.

Figure 3.5. 2014: The Number of Immigrants to the US Should Be.

Figure 3.6. Percent of Americans Who Believe Strong Patriotic Feelings Lead to Negative Attitudes Towards Immigration.

Figure 4.1. Percent of US Immigrants by Region of Origin, 1960−2016.

Figure 5.1. GDP Levels, 1−1280 AD.

Figure 5.2. GDP, 1400−1800.

Figure 5.3. GDP, 1800−1900. ← xi | xii →

Figure 5.4. GDP, 1900−2015.

Figure 5.5. Average Real Annual Economic Growth Rates, 1950−2014.

Figure 5.6. Average Real Annual Economic Growth Rates, 1950−2014.

Figure 5.7. UK Top 0.05% Share of Income.

Figure 5.8. US Top 1% Income Share.

Figure 5.9. France Top 1% Share of Income.

Figure 6.1. Top World Merchandise Exporters, 1950−2017.

Figure 6.2. China Employment by Sector, 1950−2010.

Figure 6.3. India Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.4. US Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.5. UK Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.6. France Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.7. US Corporate Profit/GDP.

Figure 6.8. Top Commercial Service Exporters, 1980−2013, % of World Total.

Figure 6.9. US Unemployment Rate, 1947−2016.

Figure 6.10. US Median Income by Educational Attainment.

Figure 6.11. Percent of Employment in Manufacturing, 1971−2012.

Figure 7.1. Defense Expenditures by Major Country, 1949−2017, (2016 $millions).

Figure 9.1. India 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.2. Iraq 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.3. UK 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.4. France 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.5. US 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.6. China 1950 & 2010.

Table 6.1. Rankings of Top US Companies by Market Capitalization,1917, 1967, and 2017.

Table 7.1. Military Expenditures as a % of GDP, Average by Decade.

Table 7.2. Average Trade Deficit by Decade, Major Economies.

| xiii →


This book is written for a general audience interested in politics, coming out of several public discussions and numerous interviews in the wake of the events of 2016, and particularly the election of Donald Trump. Observers everywhere seemed shocked and befuddled not only by his election but also the rise of right wing and left wing extremes throughout the West, and nationalistic reactions to globalization capped by the Brexit (the UK leaving the European Union). Is all of this a temporary blip, a hiccup of madness, or can we reach a wider conclusion that Western society is going through a sea change? A flood of social science analyses is emerging to examine these events, teasing out demographic “swing” voters, looking at political party formation, and trying in general to gauge citizen sentiment. The research for the most part focuses on each event separately, seeking to explain election/referendum results through two main variables- latent racism and anger over lingering economic conditions of recession. The events are separated in the analysis as they occur in different electoral systems.

While I see the merit of the “trees” view, I believe that a wider, “forest” view is necessary to truly understand and link these events. What has come from much of the public discourse is the usual kind of global schadenfreude on events in the U.S. as kind of inevitable racial paroxysm and the events in Europe as a kind of faint hiccup. Having grown up and worked in ← xiii | xiv → my formative years in U.S. politics and witnessed the steady improvement in race relations, I can not help but believe a better analysis is required. As someone who has studied world events for the past 50 years, I can not also help but wonder what the links among the events are, and what might be the explanation that would place them into a wider sense of historical trajectory. From my experience as a veteran of international relations studies, if we focus too much on short-term analysis, we miss the wider trajectory of events, one that could better inform our choices and aid a fuller understanding of causality, rather than correlation and replaying event sequences. I have seen this time and again in my life, from the optimism of the moon landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall to the “malaise” of the late 1970s and the US invasion of Iraq. There was analysis aplenty on each event, but academics not only failed to predict the long-term points of change, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of the age of terror, we have for the most part, failed to help society to put such events into a wider perspective in order to properly respond to them. I write this book unabashedly, perhaps foolishly, in this age of Twitter and Instagram and election models, to do just that. I have therefore tried to reduce the jargon and endless citations of ordinary academic usage in the hopes of making the discussion more approachable. If you take the journey through this book, you will see the Trump, LePen, and Brexit are but epiphenomena of much wider trends and currents, ones that if we pay attention to, can uncover the real challenges we face, ones so far buried beneath the sandstorm of global populism.


XVI, 174
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVI, 174 pp., 36 b/w ill., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Anil Hira (Author)

Anil Hira is Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He is a political economist specializing in industrial, technology, and energy policies for development, of which he has written extensively. His current interests are on climate change strategies for the developing world. Hira is a frequent contributor to media outlets in Canada.


Title: The Great Disruption
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