By John Feffer*
Donald Trump might seem like a uniquely American phenomenon. The shape-shifting billionaire huckster reinvented himself first as a TV personality and then as a maverick populist politician. He rode to power on patriotic slogans – Make America Great Again – and tailored his policy prescriptions to specific American constituencies like West Virginia coal miners and Michigan factory workers. He spoke to very particular American anxieties about immigration, crime, and guns. You can find traces of Trump in American history (Andrew Jackson, Huey Long) and American literature (Elmer Gantry, Lonesome Rhodes).
Donald Trump practically screams America.
And yet, Trump is nothing new. Europeans have been dealing with their own mini-Trumps for decades. Silvio Berlusconi also began his career in real estate before becoming a billionaire media mogul. A womanizer and right-wing populist who promised to create a million jobs, Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to victory more than 20 years ago in 1994. He would eventually serve as prime minister in four governments. He didn’t follow through on his promise to create a million jobs. In fact, the Italian economy sank deeper into debt and corruption, and Berlusconi became mired in a succession of scandals.
Silvio Berlusconi was, as The Economist put it indelicately, “the man who screwed an entire country.” Those are big shoes for Trump to fill.
Further east in Europe, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia have all produced their own mini-Trumps over the years. As America braces itself for the landfall of Hurricane Trump, it’s instructive to look at the trajectory of these populist leaders for they hold clues to our future.
Hungary: Political Swingers
Viktor Orban started out his political life as a liberal. He helped found the Alliance of Young Democrats – Fidesz – in Budapest in 1988. As Communism began to crumble in Hungary in 1989, the new movement promised to be “radical, liberal, and alternative.” Fidesz introduced a playful note into the 1990 election. One particularly striking, if heteronormative, campaign poster from that year showed two pictures of a kiss: between two Communist dinosaurs, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, and between two young, attractive Hungarians. “Make your choice,” read the inscription. Fidesz captured nearly 9 percent of the vote that year.
Today, Fidesz is no longer liberal or alternative. It’s no longer the party of young people. And it is far from irreverent. After a steady march to the Right, led by current Prime Minister Viktor Orban, it has become the party of orthodoxy.
“It was completely unexpected what happened in Hungary, where an already consolidated liberal democracy went backwards toward an autocratic or hybrid regime,” says Hungarian sociologist Andras Bozoki. “It never before happened in the EU that a country suddenly made a U-turn back from democracy toward some kind of half-democracy. When Austrians elected the Haider party, there was a huge protest in the EU. There was also a marginalization of Berlusconi. But none of these people had a two-thirds majority in the parliament, so they couldn’t change the constitution.”
After winning more than 50 percent of the vote in both 2010 and 2014, Fidesz can pass any legislation it wants. When the country’s constitutional court has overturned key Fidesz laws, the party simply achieved its goal by changing the constitution, which it has done four times — recalling the apocryphal story of the Paris bookseller who, when asked for a copy of the French constitution after World War II, answered that he didn’t traffic in periodical literature.
Orban moved to the right less because of ideological conviction than because of political opportunity. In Hungary, the main liberal party (the Alliance of Free Democrats) and the former Communists (the Socialist Party) teamed up to form a coalition government on two occasions. Orban was furious at what he perceived as a betrayal by his liberal brethren. The liberal-socialist coalition, meanwhile, implemented harsh economic reforms and became notorious for its corruption. The discrediting of the liberal-left on economic grounds presented Orban with the means to regain power in 2010. Fidesz hammered on its populist themes – average people were not benefitting from economic reforms, the elite had partnered with foreign interests against the nation, minorities (Roma, immigrants) were dragging the country down into lawlessness. Sound familiar?
Like Trump, the Fidesz take on the economy is all over the map. It has railed against international banks even as it imposes various neoliberal reforms. Orban is primarily interested in what economists call “state capture.” The ruling party is using the state apparatus to direct benefits – jobs, contracts, payments – to its supporters. If the Hungarian government renationalizes utilities or banks, it’s not because of some fundamental belief that the state benefits from controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy. Rather, Fidesz simply wants more power in its hands and more spoils to distribute.
The Hungarian public is not oblivious to this corruption. Indeed, according to a poll in July, two-thirds of Hungarians believe that Fidesz is “very corrupt.” Even a third of Fidesz supporters feel that way. In October, the government closed down a major opposition newspaper and sponsored an anti-immigrant referendum that failed to attract enough voters to pass. Despite all this – or perhaps because of all this – Fidesz remains very popular. Indeed, its favorability went up in October to 49 percent. The entire opposition – Socialists, Greens, liberals – musters only a little over 30 percent. Fidesz has faced more competition from the far-right party Jobbik. But by moving steadily toward the far right itself, the ruling party has stolen the thunder of Jobbik.
Lesson for the United States: don’t underestimate corrupt opportunists who have no hesitation about courting extremists to stay in power. The liberal-left in Hungary fragmented in the wake of the Fidesz victory, allowing the ruling party to focus on appealing to voters further to the right. Successful resistance requires unity and the broadest possible message.
Poland: Christian Crusade
Last year, the Law and Justice party (PiS) took control of the presidency and the parliament, delivering a decisive blow against both the center-right liberal party and the former Communists. It has moved quickly to implement its pro-Christian, anti-EU policies. The consolidation of power by PiS through the media, the public prosecutor, and the Constitutional Court has challenged democratic norms and even elicited a rebuke from the EU. Last spring, Brussels demanded that the Polish government walk back its authoritarian steps. Warsaw said no.
The EU, it seems, doesn’t seem to have any bite to back up its bark. One senior Polish diplomat said that the recent U.S. elections only strengthen the Polish government’s resolve: “I’m confident President Trump will not want to be involved in this whole discussion. We understand that Trump shares our concept of sovereignty. He doesn’t care about others’ internal issues.”
That leaves the task of resistance to Poles themselves. Women have mobilized against the government’s plans to ban all abortions. Teachers have demonstrated against the government’s efforts to change school curricula to reflect “patriotic values.” A new civic movement, KOD, is attempting to build the broadest possible front against the government. But PiS remains far more popular than the opposition.
Tying together all of the new right-wing populist movements is their trumpeting of Christian values. One of the first changes that Fidesz made to the Hungarian constitution was to insert a phrase that recognizes “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” The Catholic Church is a major backer of PiS in Poland. And the religious community proved a key supporter of Trump.
In a talk that he gave via Skype at a conference at the Vatican in 2014, alt-right guru Steve Bannon identified three civilizational challenges: crony capitalism, creeping secularism, and “jihadist Islamic fascism.” He was hard-pressed to decide which was worse – Islam or secularism – but he was very clear about the stakes:
We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
Bannon and his co-religionists are imagining nothing short of a new crusade against Muslims and secularists. I described the outlines of this effort in my book Crusade 2.0, but that was when these forces were still on the fringes. They have now moved front and center.
One other key element of the Polish example is the economic populism of PiS. It has targeted its economic programs at those who have not benefited from the country’s accession to the EU or globalization more generally. Writes Remi Adekoya in The Guardian:
While PiS is strongly rightwing on social issues, its economic approach can be described as leftist. It emphasises the need to tackle inequality and propagates strong welfare policies. It introduced unconditional monthly cash payments equivalent to £100 for all parents who have more than one child towards the upkeep of each subsequent child until he or she is 18. So if you have three children, you get £200 per month and so forth. For parents with one child, the payment is conditional on low income.
No previous government ever embarked on such a generous social programme. PiS’s approach puts many Polish leftists in a bind.
Lessons for the United States: Beware the Trump administration’s appeals to “Judeo-Christian values” and think twice about working with the administration on economic programs. Trump will likely try to peel off Democratic Party support for some domestic programs, which will blunt the overall effort to resist the administration’s appeal. It is one thing not to oppose sensible economic programs. It’s quite another to collaborate with the administration on their implementation (are you listening, Tulsi Gabbard?).
Slovakia: Populism Is Dead?
In the 1990s, after splitting with the Czech Republic, Slovakia took a turn away from democracy. Its new leader, Vladimir Meciar was the quintessential populist. He would insert grammatical mistakes into his campaign posters to demonstrate his proximity to “the people.” He openly discriminated against the ethnic Hungarian population, at one point in 1997 even proposing a mass population transfer with Hungary to “solve” the minority issue. He pushed through a campaign to “Slovakicize” culture — for instance, by mandating that 30 percent of all music on the radio be from Slovak composers —and appointed his own people to regulate the media to make sure it echoed his party’s line. He was also incorrigibly corrupt, arranging for his cronies to acquire cheap properties through the privatization process.
“The first years of Meciar’s government were almost worse than under Communism,” writer Martin Simecka recalled. “The regime was not so strong as under Communism, but it was more ugly with these fascistic tendencies and this nationalism. For me, personally, those were pretty bad years. Psychologically, it was very difficult to see the gap get bigger between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the Czechs going West and we Slovaks going East or going nowhere at all.”
By 1998, Slovaks had had enough with their illiberal detour. “In the first years of the Meciar government, it really became clear to everyone, not only to the inner circle, that this guy is thinking about a different type of democracy,” activist Rasto Kuzel told me. “It was good for Slovak NGOs and for the Slovak civil society that we had to again unite and fight for these principles. We had to very actively demonstrate that we didn’t want this type of democracy and that we wanted Slovakia to be back on the right track.”
“Thousands of small organizations, initiatives, clubs and volunteer groups have made unique achievements,” Martin Butora, former Slovak ambassador to the United States, recounts. “Despite a complicated heritage of undemocratic conditions, backwardness and discontinuity, civic actors and volunteers managed to engage and motivate a broader public because they offered understandable, acceptable concepts of freedom, solidarity and activism, which were in line with democratic modernization and which broke down the prevailing ethos of civic helplessness, as well as the tendency toward preferring the promotion of individual interests instead of the public good.”
Foreign organizations, including foundations and political parties, provided substantial assistance to Slovak civil society. The anti-Meciar mobilization also relied on the leverage of Europe. Meciar’s undemocratic leanings cost Slovakia its spot in the first round of accession in the European Union that included the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. Liberal activists used the widespread fear of losing out on EU benefits to strengthen their case for Meciar’s ouster.
In 1998, Slovaks used the ballot box to pry Meciar from power. The electoral strategy motivated young people and energized the previously apathetic. The remarkable victory put Slovakia back on course to join the EU in 2004.
The problem, however, is that the anti-Meciar movement focused almost exclusively on politics and didn’t address the underlying economic anxiety that many Slovaks felt about the impact of austerity capitalism and globalization more generally. As a result, another populist came along, Robert Fico, who successfully reached out to the “left behind” constituency by denouncing austerity, scrapping a regressive flat tax, and criticizing privatization. He also won successive elections by embracing a Trumpian social policy. Fico decried the influx of immigrants, calling the more liberal EU policy “ritual suicide.” He has called critics of his party “anti-Slovak,” reviving a Meciar-era tactic. On Roma, he has said that “the best solution would be to take away all their children and put them into boarding schools.”
Lessons for the United States: By all means rouse the anti-Trump base by focusing on his treatment of minorities, immigrants, and women. But make sure to put together an economic program that meets the expectations of America B while skewering Trump for his handouts to the rich, the lobbyists (of the military-industrial complex, for instance), and the biggest businesses.
The Long Haul
As these European examples demonstrate, America faces a long, difficult period. It takes a while before a populace can see through a populist. Berlusconi was in and out of power for two decades. Orban, too, first became prime minister nearly 20 years ago.
Trump doesn’t have that kind of political career ahead of him. He is 70 years old. He is the oldest president in history to take office. Still, he can do a lot of damage while he’s president. And make no mistake: in many ways Mike Pence is worse (on abortion, LGBT rights, and most foreign policy issues).
The Trump administration might have a shaky mandate – it did, after all, lose the popular vote. But Trump’s favorability rating has already gone up. Many former anti-Trumpers are ready to work with him. Most importantly, he is operating in a favorable international context (Brexit, Putin, Duterte, Le Pen).
Trump might seem like a peculiarly American problem. But he isn’t. To deal with him, we’ll have to act locally. But we’ll have to think and act globally as well.
*John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus. His latest book is the dystopian novel, Splinterlands.