Miklós Haraszti, author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University, is a familiar name to readers of Hungarian Spectrum, both as an author and as a commentator. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Washington Post (December 28, 2016). I’m grateful for the opportunity to share it.
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Hungary, my country, has in the past half-decade morphed from an exemplary post-Cold War democracy into a populist autocracy. Here are a few eerie parallels that have made it easy for Hungarians to put Donald Trump on their political map: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has depicted migrants as rapists, job-stealers, terrorists and “poison” for the nation, and built a vast fence along Hungary’s southern border. The popularity of his nativist agitation has allowed him to easily debunk as unpatriotic or partisan any resistance to his self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which he said he modeled after “successful states” such as Russia and Turkey.
No wonder Orban feted Trump’s victory as ending the era of “liberal non-democracy,” “the dictatorship of political correctness” and “democracy export.” The two consummated their political kinship in a recent phone conversation; Orban is invited to Washington, where, they agreed, both had been treated as “black sheep.”
When friends encouraged me to share my views on the U.S. election, they may have looked for heartening insights from a member of the European generation that managed a successful transition from Communist autocracy to liberal constitutionalism. Alas, right now I find it hard to squeeze hope from our past experiences, because halting elected post-truthers in countries split by partisan fighting is much more difficult than achieving freedom where it is desired by virtually everyone.
But based on our current humiliating condition, I may observe what governing style to expect from the incoming populist in chief and what fallacies should be avoided in countering his ravages.
A first vital lesson from my Hungarian experience: Do not be distracted by a delusion of impending normalization. Do not ascribe a rectifying force to statutes, logic, necessities or fiascoes. Remember the frequently reset and always failed illusions attached to an eventual normalization of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Orban.
Call me a typical Hungarian pessimist, but I think hope can be damaging when dealing with populists. For instance, hoping that unprincipled populism is unable to govern. Hoping that Trumpism is self-deceiving, or self-revealing, or self-defeating. Hoping to find out if the president-elect will have a line or a core, or if he is driven by beliefs or by interests. Or there’s the Kremlinology-type hope that Trump’s party, swept to out-and-out power by his charms, could turn against him. Or hope extracted, oddly, from the very fact that he often disavows his previous commitments.
Populists govern by swapping issues, as opposed to resolving them. Purposeful randomness, constant ambush, relentless slaloming and red herrings dropped all around are the new normal. Their favorite means of communication is provoking conflict. They do not mind being hated. Their two basic postures of “defending” and “triumphing” are impossible to perform without picking enemies.
I was terrified to learn that pundits in the United States have started to elaborate on possible benefits of Trump’s stances toward Russia and China. Few developments are more frightening than the populist edition of George Orwell’s dystopia. The world is now dominated by three gigantic powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, a.k.a. the United States, Russia and China, and all three are governed by promises of making their realms “great again.”
Please do not forget that populists can turn into peaceniks or imperialists at any moment, depending on what they think could yield good spin that boosts their support. Remember how Putin and Erdogan had switched, within months this year, from warring to fraternity. Or how Orban in opposition had blasted any compromises with Russia, only to become Putin’s best friend upon his election.
I have plenty of gloomy don’t-dos, but few proven trump cards. There is perhaps one mighty exception, the issue of corruption, which the polite American media like to describe as “conflicts of interest.”
It is the public’s moral indignation over nepotism that has proved to be the nemesis of illiberal regimes. Personal and family greed, cronyism, thievery combined with hypocrisy are in the genes of illiberal autocracy; and in many countries betrayed expectations of a selfless strongman have led to a civic awakening.
It probably helps to be as watchful as possible on corruption, to assist investigative journalism at any price, and to defend the institutions that enforce transparency and justice. And it also helps to have leaders in the opposition who are not only impeccably clean in pecuniary matters, but also impress as such.
The world is looking at the United States now in a way that we never thought would be possible: fretting that the “deals” of its new president will make the world’s first democracy more similar to that of the others. I wish we onlookers could help the Americans in making the most out of their hard-to-change Constitution. We still are thankful for what they gave to the world, and we will be a bit envious if they can stop the fast-spreading plague of national populism.