The final results of the Hungarian general election are out. The governing Fidesz party scored an overwhelming victory. Viktor Orbán, the Hungary’s well-known right-wing populist leader, will have another four years to lead his illiberal regime. It is the first time after the fall of the communism in Hungary when a party will be governing for the third consecutive term. Let’s look at the country’s political landscape and try to find out what happened.
Last week, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. A man of a surprisingly blunt language and the one who is not shy to speak his mind on issues some regard as far too controversial, he managed to shock the “correct-thinking people” once more. His inauguration speech will not be remembered for its eloquence, nor for its relatively short length, but for the astonishingly direct and forceful way in which he denounced the political establishment as self-serving and corrupt. Yet instead of asking and discussing if Trump was right and correct in what he stands for; which is a task fitting for democratic societies, mainstream media resorted to denouncing him in a myriad of inventive ways.
As TV cameras captured the inauguration spectacle for the rest of the world to see, the Democratic and Republic grandees present on the same tribune as Trump were left gasping for air as the new President started speaking about “a small group in our nation’s Capital” that “[has] reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” The speech broke many other taboos too as Trump expressed support for patriotism, putting “America First”, and returning power back to the people from Washington D.C. His speech was also full of action and strong, muscular pronouncements of the sort that have largely disappeared from the vocabulary of Western societies. Liberal commentators in a sort of reflexive snap reaction referred to them as “paternalist” or “authoritarian” or some combination thereof.
Donald Trump’s highly contested inauguration speech
Trump could hardly save himself from a harsh judgement even when he added that “whether we are black, brown or white, we bleed the same blood of patriots.” Bleeding and patriotism are certainly not two words that our delicate Western ears are used to hearing: we live in societies that are fine with sending drones and professional military to blow up people in other parts of the world, but we shy away from references to anything too primal and violent in our own backyard.
No country for old men (questioning the status quo)
So unsurprisingly, the thunderstruck reaction of the establishment to which Trump pointed out quickly followed. Ross Douthat at New York Times called Trump’s speech “populist and combative” and “eschew[ing] the rhetoric of liberty in favor of expansive promises of protection” (Douthat 2017) and “veering towards fascism” (Douthat 2017). Gary Younge in The Guardian was more poetic in saying that “fear and malevolence” and that “[t]he hands that once grabbed pussy now have access to the nuclear launch codes” (Younge 2017). The Guardian’s editorial chimed in to label it “a sham” and “a declaration of war on everything represented by these choreographed civilities” (Editorial 2017). Trump’s nods to lack of prejudice were called insincere (why?), his arguably bleak depiction that America is facing as “sketching dystopian landscapes”, and his lack of wishing good health to hospital-ridden George H.W. Bush and his wife as a proof that the man is “not capable of being magnanimous” (Abramson et al. 2017).
Meanwhile, others were more ingenious in pointing that “many lines in Trump’s address were unobjectionable by themselves”, yet “it was hard to take Trump seriously when he said them” (Larison 2017). The Washington Post then put the final nail in Trump’s ready made coffin: the new President was “furious and resentful” the first moment he walked into the White House (Parker et al. 2017).
In other words, the new President’s inauguration speech was branded as dumb, nationalistic, xenophobic, bigoted, populist, aggressive, or even white supremacist. Trump’s credo to put “America First” seemed to have taken particularly many hits as either “egoist” or plainly “malicious” (Pehe 2017). Neither the support for patriotism or giving back power to the people were spared this journalistic version of waterboarding treatment: commentators made a stunning revelation (!) that also North Korea celebrates patriotic devotion (and, “therefore”, Trump must be same as Kim Jong-un, right?) and that people’s champions are also Hugo Chávez, Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán.
Let me be clear: what is staggering is not that politicians, journalists, or different commentators make these judgments or go to such depths in attacking Trump. Where freedom of speech exists, that is everyone’s perfect right and, for journalists, even a duty of exposing what they see as important for the public. The truly shocking thing is that a large majority of these authors express their opinion without any further qualifications or a semblance of analysis. Since what time is protesting against the power of elites “aggressive”, since when patriotism turns one into a North Korean dictator, and since when appealing to democracy is only an attribute of dubious demagogues? Where are the standards of balanced journalism, when Barack Obama, the only American President who was permanently in war during his two terms in the office and who regularly resorted to extrajudicial killings of American citizens by drone strikes, is regarded by the same media as a perfect embodiment of Western liberal democratic values? Is that not the clearest example of “disinformation” and propaganda that we have recently started blaming squarely on Russia?
The much lauded objective journalism of the mainstream Western media, often contrasted to “fake news” of RT or Sputnik, thus seems to favour throwing around labels and accusations without evidence, publishing defamation reports written by private contract agents that did not pass intelligence vetting, and ad hominem attacks that regularly depict Trump as an unstable raging monster. If one regularly reads these reports, one has to wonder how such a man can even hold a pen for two minutes without drooling from his mouth, firing an aide for being the wrong colour of skin, or ordering to build a high wall here or there; because it is just in his despicable nature to be an aggressive xenophobe. Inevitably, the underlying assumption is that “such a brute” could have been elected only by the same kind as him.
Is the only alternative to liberalism really a dystopia?
Seemingly, there is a deeply ingrained conviction among the liberal elite that Trump‘s words about the rotten establishment are lies, vulgar, or both. It is as if some believe that direct naming and shaming is not appropriate for an inauguration speech, that if at all present, it should be wrapped in the thick plastic of polite phrases and nice words, and that only mild references should be made to “problems” “we are currently dealing with”, but in no way question the nature of the system. Because that is impolite, that is not correct to the reality, in one word, that is populist. Or is it not? Is it not the purpose of politics, and even more so of democratic politics, to speak to the people and with the people in a frank language that is understandable to all? In other words, build a link between voters and speak in a manner that directly identifies the problems that a society is dealing with? Trump’s critics should get this one absolutely clear, since by attacking him for his remarks in the inauguration speech, they are attacking many democratic and republican values (in small capitals!) as well. It only seems many have forgotten such values exist, because they got so much used to liberalism being the only set of ideals repeated on the public channels.
Very few critics stopped and asked if there is actually anything problematic per se with Trump’s key promises to return power from Washington and with putting “America First”. Do they really mean anything but a belief that the chief American politician should make the interests of his citizens the main priority, before any other private, sectoral, or foreign interests? Should this not be the role of every politician, to represent the people who elected him or her to the office? Have we not diverted from these fundamentally democratic values, have we not channeled too much power in the hands of the far too few and this caused the popular backlash? In the anger unleashed at Trump, there are far too many ideological assumptions to be tackled one by one. What seems clear to me is that we should question whether making the interests of one’s citizens the main priority automatically means jingoism and egoism on the international stage, whether patriotism cannot also strengthen society rather than just exclude people, and whether pointing the elites for greed is demagoguery or just telling what is necessary and evident.
Contrary to the great orator Obama, Trump is blunt and rejected American exceptionalism
It is clear than in any Western country, Trump’s open and unabashed strike at the elites and their interests in his first address as President would cause an uproar. In the United States, it represents nothing short of a political thunderstorm. Presidential inauguration speeches in the United States are traditionally highly ceremonial and it is presumed that the new President will “embrace” the whole nation and “heal” political divisions after the previous year’s campaign. Thus even from Trump, most commentators expected a more conciliatory tone than the one he had adopted during his tub-thumping presidential campaign. Secondly, there are certain recognisable symbols that traditionally make America “the America”, which people anticipate in an inauguration speech, and which can be roughly summarised as the values of American exceptionalism. Together, this makes for a broad consensus that the content of such address should be positive, forward-looking, and America-leading, in other words, in line with the American Dream that is about better future for all who work hard enough.
Barack Obama, ever an excellent and polished orator, fulfilled these expectations perfectly. While his 2013 inauguration speech is vague on political priorities, it is uplifting and interwoven with references to Bible, the Founding Fathers, Civil War, equality for all, eradicating poverty, or spreading democracy from “from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East”. There is hardly a single negative statement that would not be subsequently beaten by Obama’s vision for a brighter future.
Trump made very little of that and he was rather plain and simple in his promise to return power to the people from the establishment as well as put „America First“ and in belief that „nation exists for its citizens“. He also spoke in darker tones about crime, problems with financing education, worker layoffs, unfavourable trade deals, or lack of border control. And crucially, he abandoned the concept of American exceptionalism and spreading democracy abroad, which represents a revolution in American foreign policy without a precedent in the last 80 years. Instead, Trump explicitly mentioned that while standing up for his country‘s interests first, it is the “right of all nations to put their nations first”.
Trump therefore broke from the usual presidential tradition both in content and in the manner of its delivery. But note this is exactly what his electorate demands and what he was elected for. Should he break that promise and become “a nice speaking liberal politician”, as many people seem to demand? For the American citizens who chose Trump, the plain and crass speaking real property magnate is “tribune of the people” and his uncouth style is precisely what gives him the aura of authenticity – in a stark contrast to the politically correct, yet haughty, corrupt and Teflon-like Washington establishment. While Barack Obama is a great orator and a man of beautiful words, a problem with beautiful words is that they carry a big potential for their own kind of vulgarity and outrageousness. Such vulgarity arises if politicians and the establishment speak nicely and in familiar smooth terms, yet nothing results from their actions and one sees that the rich are getting richer while the brunt of the costs is taken by ordinary citizens.
Donald Trump may well turn out to be a demagogue who made too many promises that reflected more his sky-high ego than what was politically achievable. But he also may not. The fact that as a populist he responds to popular expectations and promises to “tackle” self-serving Washington, disappearing jobs, or unfavourable trade deals does not mean these causes are wrong in themselves. Or that they will necessarily end up in failure. After the decades when a US President after US President pursued the same liberal policies and they did not work, surely the best course in politics is try out an alternative. Let us start judging the new American President based on that, let us scrutinise whether what he says makes sense, and let us point out what cannot work and why it cannot work. If he re-opens Guantanamo and reinstates atrocious torturing techniques that disappeared thanks to Obama, then that is a subject for protests and strong critique. But they require argumentation and scrutiny, and not personality attacks and flat-out rejections of Trump’s calls for patriotism or returning power from Washington.
Is such approach not more appropriate for democratic societies than a plain old witch-hunt?
Abramson, Jill; Paarlberg, Michael; Weinstein, Jamie; Thrasher, Steven W. (2017): ‘He’s already let America down’: the reaction to Trump’s first speech as president. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/20/reaction-to-donald-trump-speech?CMP=fb_gu, updated on 1/21/2017, checked on 22-01-17.
Douthat, Ross (2017): Trump’s New-Right Politics of Solidarity. In New York Times, 1/20/2017.
Editorial (2017): The Guardian view on Donald Trump’s inauguration: a declaration of political war. In The Guardian, 1/20/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/20/the-guardian-view-on-donald-trumps-inauguration-a-declaration-of-political-war, checked on 22-01-17.
Larison, Daniel (2017): Trump’s Inaugural Address. In The American Conservative, 1/21/2017. Available online at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/trumps-inaugural-address/, checked on 21-01-17.
Parker, Ashley; Rucker, Philip; Gold, Matea (2017): The first days inside Trump’s White House: Fury, tumult and a reboot. In The Washington Post, 1/23/2017. Available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-first-days-inside-trumps-white-house-fury-tumult-and-a-reboot/2017/01/23/7ceef1b0-e191-11e6-ba11-63c4b4fb5a63_story.html, checked on 1/25/2017.
Pehe, Jiří (2017): Amerika na prvním místě. In Novinky, 1/24/2017. Available online at https://www.novinky.cz/komentare/427297-komentar-amerika-na-prvnim-miste-jiri-pehe.html, checked on 1/24/2017.
Younge, Gary (2017): Trump’s first speech in office was unapologetic appeal to nationalism. In The Guardian, 1/20/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/20/trumps-first-speech-in-office-was-unapologetic-appeal-to-nationalism, checked on 21-01-17.
The gloom in the eyes of the genteel EU folk in Brussels on Wednesday 9 November was a perfect reflection of the city’s rain-filled skies that morning. “The current tenant of the White House is the first Black President of the United States,” a colleague of mine quipped as I passed by his cubicle, “the guy we are getting now is a vulgar clownish buffoon, a Putin’s pal with hands on a nuclear switch.” As smart and talented as my colleague is, what escapes him as well as so many otherwise intelligent individuals of the “EU bubble” is the utter dissatisfaction of people with elites.
It is quite natural that Western political, financial, economic and media elites do not see it, since they are the exact target of the brewing popular anger. To borrow the words of Alain de Benoist, demanding they accept themselves as the root cause of resurgent populism is same as putting in doubt their raison d’être. Being in “shock”, “despair”, or “dumbfounded” about uncouth Donald Trump does not help, however. It only serves to underscore the elites became smug and live in a self-centred bubble to which day-to-day reality does not penetrate.
As non-Western media are too ready to point out, this lack of a capacity for self-reflection is a sign of political immaturity to which many Americans and Europeans have fallen. When I asked our editor Alice Máselníková for a comment, she aptly pointed out that elites pat themselves on the back and nurture each other with neoliberal convictions. They reject any different opinion immediately and without consideration as bigoted, racist, or extremist. If someone disagrees, so the logic goes, it must be only because they are not sufficiently educated or are not equipped with the right facts. If they were, “they would see through.“ Well, there you go, they did not. Now is the right moment to ask why.
Being “dumbfounded” is not a good enough response, says Jonathan Pie and does not mince his words while doing it!
Those who see hope in Trump and populism do not give a damn about all that mocking, eye rolling, crying emojis and emergency plans for emigration to far away lands. If there is something most human beings can agree on, it is that no one likes being treated as an idiot. Note well: Trump did not win regardless of his insensitive and direct utterances, but rather because of them. Pollsters who were putting Hillary Clinton in front of the race until the very last minute (as seen on the forecasts graph from New York Times) did not realise that people were quite likely hiding their political preferences because of fear of being blamed and shamed. Political correctness pushed the dialogue over ideology out of social discourse, to the extent a candidate who expressed himself vulgarly yet frankly, gave people the sense of choice and empowerment.
Democracy is based on the idea that in civic matters, everyone is equal. If certain criteria such as the age of maturity are met, every citizen has something to contribute to the debate and decision-making. Our life experience is different, each of us fights own battles and is given personal opportunities. Each of us, therefore, is also a bearer of certain wisdom, which does not correlate with profession or the formal level of education. Only if we share our individual wisdom and put it to the scrutiny of others, we can hope to correct for errors and mistakes that are also individual. Czech thinker Petr Robejšek is correct in saying there is a powerful wisdom in the wisdom of the crowds, since a collective offsets excesses made by a single human being.
For that reason, I have little doubt that Trump’s victory will be once written in history books as a fundamental moment of political change. Trump is the first President-elect in the 200-year old American history that did not hold any public or military function. Tremendous opposition from all traditional outlets of the mainstream notwithstanding, American people said no to the establishment and that after decades of electing sanitised and well-spoken presidential candidates who ended up offering zero palpable change. Obama was the last establishment candidate in whom people put their trust, only to see him put Citigroup and Goldman Sachs grandees on top posts in his Cabinet. Unsurprisingly, this betrayal had its political consequences: former Obama strongholds firmly sealed the election’s result when they turned to Trump.
Triumph of populism
It is not so much Donald Trump who is the winner of this election, as the anti-establishment movement as such. In fact, history was already made when Trump became the Republican candidate and when Bernie Sanders made such an excellent performance during Democratic primaries. Someone for once addressed head on problems connected to immigration and globalised economy. The Trump phenomenon is about breaking the rule that some things should not be spoken about. As disgraceful as Trump’s comments about women or Muslims were, these kinds of words are heard by people everyday, be it among “their buddies”, in a supermarket, or at their work on a construction site. While the form may and should be certainly questioned, it remains clear that Trump spoke in an understandable language about topics that concern people on the street.
Hillary Clinton and the establishment were certain they will have the White House. This witty video leaves them astonished as “mad dog” Donald snatches the coveted prize instead.
It is a triumph of populism, albeit with Trump of a xenophobic kind. Populism, however, is not an ideology but a political style. It is also not synonymous with demagogy, as populists and elitists alike are perfectly capable of deceiving the people. Ernesto Laclau defines populism as a political disposition through which people constitute or reconstitute themselves as a historical actor, starting from the moment characterised by antagonistic plurality of views. Populism is thus fundamentally linked to democracy. In the US, such a moment is becoming increasingly visible as the clash between the establishment and its neoliberal ideology of globalisation, and forces that to various extent question such fundamentals. As the traditional dichotomy between political left and right increasingly loses importance, it is being replaced by the division between “up” (elites) and “down” (people).
Trump represents the vulgar sort of populism and his political style managed to capture the anger of white working and middle-classes of the American Midwest. Formerly an industrial heartland of the United States, it was the area hardest hit by the outsourcing of jobs to cheaper locations in Asia. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had not voted for a Republican candidate since the 1980s, and most polls showed Clinton ahead by comfortable margins in those states. Ohio went for Obama in the last two presidential elections, as did Iowa. Trump won them all.
Changing social landscape due to influx of migrants, bursting of the housing bubble, and unaffordable education and healthcare that were not solved by any of the neoliberal “reformists” further added voters to the Trump camp. Vote for Trump meant a vote against Washington and against hollow moralising of corrupt elites that rely on their hold at institutions to push forward their own agenda. In one word against everything that the Clinton family symbolically represents. If Trump did not present himself as a xenophobe (as well as a misogynist) and appealed directly to African and Latin Americans of both sexes, his support would have been undoubtedly much higher still. Even then, as can be seen in the chart below, compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, his support among Hispanic voters increased by 2% to 29%. His highly antagonising rhetoric notwithstanding, he even gained some support among black voters, Jewish Americans or American Muslims.
Entirely another question is if the controversial figure of Donald Trump can fulfil his voters expectations. For once, he never expressed his policy with any great clarity and there are some indications that his attitude might change when he enters the White House. While he reaffirmed his commitment to “build the wall with Mexico”, his tone during the victory speech was calm and conciliatory. His Cabinet is also likely to include some well-known establishment figures. He is also a “capitalist par excellence” and one cannot expect that the United States will turn on Wall Street, but this largely reflects the economically liberal nature of American populism. It remains to be seen to what extent Trump’s rejection of environmental policies, widespread deregulation, reducing corporate tax from 35% to 15%, or return to more private healthcare is capable of answering popular calls for a more just society.
On the other hand, Trump offers some sympathetic policy proposals such as large-scale investments into infrastructure to secure jobs, an amnesty for the repatriation of big companies’ money from overseas, or protectionism against dumping prices of Chinese imports. All the above taken together, Trump and his team believe, should deliver a big fiscal stimulus to the American economy. The promise of higher investments were positively taken up by financial markets, which quickly jumped up from the initial “shock” of Trump’s victory, notwithstanding predictions to the contrary from such economists like Paul Krugman.
And what about Europe? The European Union does what it knows best: on Sunday it organised another summit. This time it was a “panic dinner” where these political pygmies, so-called European leaders, struggled to find a response to a turnaround in American foreign policy. Rather than having a normal political reaction, the EU behaves like a company board that suddenly lost its CEO.The outcome of this meeting was predictable – the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Morgherini issued a bland comment that “values, principles, interests” will continue to form the basis of the transatlantic partnership. European citizens, please translate: waste of your tax money.
More interestingly, the meeting seemed to have been snubbed by the UK, France and Hungary. Financial Times reported that “British foreign secretary Boris Johnson dropped out of the Brussels meeting, with officials arguing that it created an air of panic, while French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault instead opted to stay in Paris to meet the new UN secretary-general. Hungary’s foreign minister boycotted the meeting, [labelling] the response from some EU leaders as ‘hysterical’.” One is entitled to ask if the EU is showing first cracks in its façade.
Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission infamous for his drinking antics and former career stint in facilitating tax evasion as Luxembourg Prime Minister, wants to teach Trump “what Europe is and how Europe works”. Perhaps Mr Juncker should be reminded by his advisors that at least as far as Central Europe is concerned, Trump knows it better than him. His Czech ex-wife Ivana Trump is poised to become Ambassador to the Czech Republic and their children speak at least some level of Czech.
What European politicians cannot process is that Donald Trump openly admitted that he would put “America First”, make reasonable deals with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and fight alongside Bashar al Assad in Syria. In other words, he is completely reversing the decades of American liberal interventionism in global affairs. Since so many politicians in Europe made their career out of thoughtless pursuit of American political interests, it will be extremely interesting to see how they will react when they find themselves facing a President beating to a different tune.
Merkel, Hollande, Juncker and others spent last several months insulting and lecturing Trump at every opportunity, yet now they will have to back down and sit with him at international summits. Also various sorts of media commentators and “think tanks” openly wished that Clinton took up the reins and continued the bellicose stance towards Russia that would have made the world at the very best an extremely unstable place. In this context it should not be forgotten that “the non-flying zone” in Syria proposed by Clinton would lead to a war with Russia. It is unlikely these organisations will change the tone as George Soros and others will continue in their hefty funding. Will they now advocate that Trump is overthrown, so that the promotion of the American liberal hegemony at gun barrel point may continue unrestrained?
One should remain cautious about expecting (or fearing) too much from Trump, as he will be inevitably constrained by the Supreme Court as well as by Congress and powerful military-industrial complex. It also has to be noted that most of the Republican party does not support at all Trump’s realistic approach to international affairs. Especially through the figure of Mike Pence, future Vice-President, they will try to continue in the course of global interventionism.
The great hope is that the change in American foreign policy may ultimately be good for Europe. Since European politicians completely showed the utter lack of capacity to promote Europe’s sovereignty and independence, Trump’s withdrawal of support for NATO might do it for them. The EU may be very well forced to rely on its own means for defence, which would be an ironic achievement after the decades that the Americans spent on undermining Europe’s efforts to do so.
Last but not least, it becomes clear that liberal democracy with its focus on more of the same (political correctness, consumerism, corporate globalisation, disrespect for collective identities, preferential treatment of minorities to the problems of majority), does not offer solutions to social problems that we have also in Europe. The essential question is if the elites realise that and work together with people in solving their problems in a manner that is fully democratic, without demagogy and false promises, and just to all citizens without distinction. If they do not, and it would be due to their stupidity, greed and short-sightedness foremost, more and more extreme and extremist individuals will get elected into power also in Europe. Already in the 1990s American thinker Christopher Lasch spoke of the revolt of the elites, and that, I think, not the revolt of the people, is a fair assessment of the current situation.
German AfD candidate: ‘The EU is upside down’ (EurActiv, 25th May ’14)
Germany’s leading eurosceptic party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), received 7 percent of the vote in their country and will be sending 7 MEPs to the European Parliament. While AfD opposes the euro currency and would like that Germany reintroduces Deutsche Mark, it has been claiming that it does not oppose the European Union as such.