The populist way out: Why contemporary populist leaders seek transnational legitimation

Daniel F. Wajner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


This article aims to contribute to the growing academic debate on the transnational drivers and patterns of contemporary populism. As populist leaderships expand both politically and geographically, the very nature of the populist phenomenon is changing, as it is increasingly being projected on the international stage. Contemporary populist leaders show a growing willingness to transfer the discursive construction of a struggle between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ to the regional and global levels as a way of obtaining internal and external legitimation. In so doing, they exploit the symbiotic two-level game that links national and international (de-)legitimation dynamics, seeking to gain ‘abroad’ the kind of legitimacy that they cannot obtain ‘at home’. This article suggests three mechanisms that explain the populist ‘way out’ from various legitimation traps based on the traditional distinctions between input, throughput, and output legitimacy. The article’s argument is illustrated with reference to prototypical cases of populism in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The incorporation of the literature on international legitimacy enhances our understanding of the strategic activation of populist attitudes through the transnational articulation of empty signifiers, the global diffusion of this phenomenon, and the possibilities for its contestation and mitigation.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)416-436
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Politics and International Relations
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • international interactions
  • international legitimacy
  • international relations
  • legitimation
  • political leadership
  • populism
  • populist foreign policy
  • transnationality


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