Tag Archives: U.S. elections

Miklós Haraszti: I watched a populist leader rise in my country–That’s why I’m genuinely worried for America

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.

Viktor Orbán (Thierry Charlier/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

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.

January 2, 2017

The Clinton-Trump debate through Hungarian eyes

Already last night, after watching the U.S. presidential debate, I decided that I would check the Hungarian media’s coverage of the event. I’m happy to report that on the whole coverage of the debate was fair, with the exception of right-wing, pro-government sites that tried to make Trump the winner. A fair number of the leading papers relied in part on MTI’s report from Washington, with additional information coming from the American media. A few sleep-deprived reporters even listened to the debate live, and thus their writing reflects the genuineness of personal experience. Here I am especially thinking of Anita Köműves’s “Clinton was well prepared and didn’t give Trump a chance” in Népszabadság and A. Király’s “Clinton forced Trump to defend himself” in 444.hu. Eszter Balla, a correspondent of sorts for valasz.hu, sent a report from San Francisco titled “Clinton-Trump 1:0,” in which she stated that “Hillary Clinton won the debate with convincing dominance.” In my opinion these reports and assessments can stand on their own. Hungarians who rely on them will have a pretty solid grasp of what transpired last night.


The same cannot be said of some of the pro-government sources, which have been rooting for Donald Trump for months. First of all, most of the journalists who work for these papers are ideologically close to the right wing of the Republican party (although Trump is not its most obvious spokesman). And, second, Viktor Orbán made it clear some time ago that he is cheering for the Republican candidate.

In the last few months Magyar Idők has worked hard to acquaint its readers with Trump. In almost every issue there has been something about him, however insignificant. Yesterday, for example, it published a short news item picked up from The Washington Times which alleged that CNN had edited “crooked” out of Trump’s tweet before Hillary Clinton’s name. This occasion gave them the opportunity to talk about the biased CNN, which “Republicans simply call Clinton News Network.” Also yesterday we could read in Magyar Idők that “a veterans group that is trying to force swing-state Republican lawmakers to ‘disavow’ Donald Trump is actually being propped up by the George Soros-funded pro-Democrat advocacy group MoveOn.org.” The news originally appeared in breitbart.com, which seems to be the favorite news source in Hungarian right-wing circles.

Hirado.hu is the “official news outlet” of MTVA, the organization that supplies news to the so-called public television and radio stations. M1, the channel concentrating on news almost exclusively, asked a political scientist who is employed by the Külügyi és Külgazdasági Intézet, a think tank that supplies background material to the diplomats of the foreign ministry, to inform the public about Trump’s chances in the battle for the presidency. Márton Ugrósdy, who after getting a degree at ELTE spent a year at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, confidently announced that as long as Trump doesn’t make a huge mistake he will have an easy time of it at the debate. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton will have a much more difficult time. He also predicted that the first few sentences of the debate will decide the end result, adding that actually debates nowadays are not as important as they were, let’s say, ten years ago. Clearly, this expert has been sending reports to the ministry about a Trump presidency as a fait accompli.

By this morning or early afternoon most Hungarian papers concluded that Clinton did a much better job than Trump. But there were exceptions. Magyar Idők to the last minute refused to admit outright that their favorite candidate had lost the debate. The title of their article on the subject was “According to Trump, Clinton doesn’t have enough stamina to be president,” and they added only that “according to CNN the secretary of state won the debate.” And, of course, we know what the journalists of Magyar Idők think of CNN’s liberal bias. Magyar Idők by late afternoon, most likely reluctantly, published an MTI report based on an interview with Tibor Frank, professor of American Studies, who is a real “expert” on the United States, on MTV’s M1 channel. He pointed out Trump’s problems with the truth, adding that “Clinton, once she says something, it is true the next day as well.”

888.hu, one of the newest pro-government tabloids designed to capture the imagination of right-wing youth, also had problems with reality. They found someone who lives in New York who filed his opinion of the debate, which can be summed up as “a half-hearted attempt, a very average performance in which no winner could be named.” This afternoon 888.hu announced that polls conducted by CNN and NBC “naturally will declare the candidate of the Democrats the winner, but the readers of the largest, most authoritative online news sites without question declared Donald Trump to be the winner of the debate.” This announcement was then followed by a list of these sites: Drudge Report, Fortune, Time, CBS New York, CNBC, Washington Times, Slate Magazine, AOL, and Fox5. (We, of course, know how that happened.)

I left Magyar Nemzet to last. Today it came out with a short article which basically collected the results of American media opinion on the debate and freely admitted Clinton’s victory. Four days ago, however, the paper published a very strange opinion piece by Krisztián Pap, who has written two or three articles for the paper in the last couple of years. He seems to be a true right-winger with a hatred of the United States and admiration for Russia. In one of his earlier articles for Magyar Nemzet he called the United States “a terrible drag on Europe” (kolonc a nyakán). Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Pap would welcome the presidency of Donald Trump, who wants to move the United States back to splendid isolation. In the course of the article, for example, he accused the United States of entering the war in 1941 not to save Europe from Nazi domination but for selfish economic reasons. The United States wants to rule the world economically and otherwise, but Trump is a different kind of candidate. His supporters see him as a true patriot and not a figure in the global chess game. Trump is a man who is “the guardian of the old-fashioned American values of the early settlers and farmers while his rival, Hillary Clinton, openly presents herself as the fighter for the rights of Afro-American and Spanish-speaking minorities.” Pap is looking forward to a Trump presidency, which will bring about an inward turn and will cherish the kind of isolationism that was prevalent between the two world wars. “At last the sword will be placed back in its sheath” and the United States will give up its incessant sermonizing. I may add that many comments, even in liberal papers like Népszabadság, are strongly anti-American.

So, media coverage on the U.S. in general and on the presidential campaign in particular is a mixed bag. Opinions about the candidates depend, just like here, on one’s political views. Hungarian society is just as deeply divided, if not more so, than American society. I would like to see a poll on Hungarian attitudes toward the candidates. It could be revealing.

September 27, 2016