The Cable

How Donald Trump’s Rise Explains the Greek Debt Crisis

Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tapped into populist anger in Greece to rise to power. Just like Donald Trump.


A fiery, radical outsider upends traditional politics. The ruling political class is forced to respond as this rebel gains momentum. A crisis ensues, as traditional kingmakers are unable to contain a populist surge, creating political uncertainty at a critical time.

This could describe Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who’s upsetting the GOP race for the 2016 presidential nomination. He’s tapped into an anti-Washington sentiment among far right Republicans to take a commanding lead over more traditional candidates like Floridians former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Or it could be Alexis Tsipras, the former, far-left Greek prime minister who brought his country to the brink of bankruptcy in a debt standoff with Europe, only to capitulate and accept harsh European austerity in return for a three-year, 86 billion euro bailout package.

That’s according to Theodore Pelagidis, a professor of economics at the University of Piraeus. Speaking to Foreign Policy from Greece, Pelagidis, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institute, said his country’s people got caught up in Tsipras’s anti-austerity movement even though their government and their banks desperately needed the money. This led them to vote against their interests.

In a July referendum called by Tsipras, 61 percent of Greeks rejected Europe’s austerity plan. More than a month later, Tsipras, who resigned as prime minister last week and called for new elections in September that will serve as a referendum on his leadership, passed the spending cuts, tax increases, and pension reforms anyway.

“That was a comic event, I would say,” Pelagidis said in an interview last week. ”It was a parody, asking grandpas and grandmas about austerity. It was bizarre.”

He attributed the “no” vote as a “grassroots movement” Tsipras was able to tap into. Just like Trump.

“This is not austerity against growth. You see this phenomenon in the United States with Donald Trump,” Pelagidis said. “The radicals have misinformed Greek voters, and they know they can tap the grief of the middle class.”

When Greeks take to the polls next month, to decide whether to allow Tsipras to return and impose austerity, Pelagidis said he is confident the former prime minister will prevail.

“Greeks understand there is no other choice,” he added. “I think they are prepared to have this program implemented.”

If they do, they’ll continue to have Tsipras — and the volatility he brings — as the head of their government. If Trump manages to stick around the 2016 race, he could add the same element of loosely-controlled chaos, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Monday.

But, Sabato said, that’s not going to happen.

“He’s not going to be the next president. He’s not going to be the Republican nominee,” Sabato told Foreign Policy. “How he loses is another question. He could go through the primaries and steal some delegates. He could self-immolate. I just don’t know. No one does.”

Photo Credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

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