This article will appear in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
The election of Donald Trump shows what happens when democracy misfires. It echoes recent developments in Europe, most notably in Hungary and Poland, where elected leaders are attacking democratic pluralism, minority rights, and civil liberties, keeping the forms of democracy without the substance. The same trends are proceeding in France, the Netherlands, the U.K., and other European democracies where far-right parties under the banner of populist nationalism are pursuing racist and xenophobic objectives.
Having returned to the United States this fall after seven years in Hungary, I am struck by the shocking parallel between what is happening in Europe and here at home. The Trump election signals a sharp turn toward the populist far right. The presidential campaign was marked by the denigration of women and minorities and the rhetoric of racial extremism. The president-elect’s early appointments include people with these views. Civil liberties are threatened. Foreign alliances are in jeopardy. The risk of war is heightened.
There are similarities and differences between the environment that has produced Trump and the circumstances fueling the rise of European nationalism. What can we learn from what’s happening in Europe? What are the firewalls against authoritarianism in the United States?
Democracy is in trouble for many of the same reasons on both sides of the Atlantic. Discontent is widespread. In 2014, a European Commission poll revealed that 68 percent of Europeans distrusted their national governments, and 78 percent distrusted the political parties that had produced them. In the United States, a Gallup poll showed that 65 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with their system of government and how it works—a striking increase from only 23 percent in 2002.
A reason for the discontent is a sense that the world is out of control, and elected governments are making matters worse. A deeper reason is that people are confused about democracy—demanding greater participation in their own governance and greater efficiency in the way government operates. Democracy is at war with itself—citizens look to democratic governments to solve their problems, but are unwilling to recognize their own responsibility for keeping democracy healthy.
The roots of discontent can be found in recent Western social and economic revolutions that have simultaneously strengthened and weakened democracy in Europe and the United States.
The cultural revolution of the 1960s created a world of individual rights and freedoms, transforming democratic society by strengthening pluralism and minority rights. But a counterrevolution that has turned the struggle for human rights and civil liberties into an endlessly divisive political battleground, in which the resurgent racism, sexism, and xenophobia of the Trump campaign is the latest example.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The market revolution of the 1980s enshrined the market as an engine of economic growth. It also drastically reduced the role of government in regulating the economy, cutting back the social benefits of a mixed economy and a welfare state. It paved the way for the rise of new economic elites, globalization, and inequality, while breeding political resentment among those left behind.
The political revolution of 1989 marked the end of the Cold War, the opening of borders, and the beginning of a transition to democracy and free markets in Eastern Europe. But it also marked the end of the social contract between economic elites and the people. In Europe, the government began to restrict social support programs, and in the United States, employers reduced employee health plans, pensions, and job security.
The most recent democratic upheaval, the internet revolution, opened the floodgates of information, creating unlimited opportunities for peer-to-peer communication and bottom-up pressure for change. But it amplified amateur voices and spawned echo chambers and ghettos of communication, reducing discourse across political divides and increasing the polarization of democratic societies. Fake news mixed easily with verified facts, and was often more powerful than the facts because it confirmed prejudices. Meanwhile, the same digital revolution gave governments new powers to invade privacy, in democracies as well as dictatorships.
DEMOCRATIC DISCONTENT IS ESPECIALLY ACUTE in Eastern Europe, where the roots of democracy are shallow. Here, self-styled “illiberal” leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban are paving the way for right-wing nationalists like France’s Marine Le Pen, and providing a potential model for Donald Trump in the United States.
Autocratic nationalism in Eastern Europe—like the Trump revolution in the United States—is a product of populist anger at outside oppressors, disaffection from elites, and disappointment with the market economy. Eastern Europeans were ruled for centuries by successive empires of Ottoman, Russian, Habsburg, fascist, and communist authoritarian regimes. A hunger for national identity and honor among the peoples of the region grew out of oppression by their rulers—the Habsburgs, who executed the first elected Hungarian prime minister in 1849; the Russians, who dominated Poland throughout the 19th century; and the Turks, who defeated the Serbs in the Battle of Kosovo Polje at the end of the 14th century. The collective Serb memory of Turkish conquest was so powerful that Slobodan Milosevic invoked it 600 years later when he launched his genocidal ethnic cleansing campaigns against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, massive crimes that revealed the dark side of populist nationalism in post–Cold War Europe.
Totalitarianism after World War II shattered civil society in Eastern Europe. It also destroyed the sense of citizen responsibility essential for the growth of democracy. In Prague in the 1990s, “volunteering” had a negative connotation because it was seen as “collaborating” with oppressive rulers. In Budapest, residents wary of “communal” premises did not take care of common spaces in apartment buildings. Communism’s alternative to civil society was state employment and social security, but of course these were dismantled when the communist regimes fell.
After 1989, hopes in Eastern Europe that democracy would bring immediate economic benefits went unfulfilled. Standards of living failed to keep pace with popular expectations, especially after the financial crisis hit the region in 2009. In this neuralgic environment, Eastern Europeans were attracted to political leaders who claimed they could defend them against outsiders like the foreign banks that had called in their mortgages when the financial markets collapsed.
These festering resentments were the building blocks of an autocratic populist nationalism that is relevant to what is happening today in the United States. In our country, identity politics is cultural and racial. In Europe, it tends to be national. Ignored by the liberal proponents of post–Cold War European integration, identity politics were taken up with a vengeance by right-wing leaders who developed divisive “us versus them” nationalist narratives to appeal to a resentful and confused populace.
In Hungary, on the losing side of both world wars as an ally of Germany, the nationalist narrative depicts Hungarians as victims. The treaty ending World War I dismantled the Habsburg Empire and stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its lands, separating Hungarians from their compatriots. This narrative claims that Hungarians (who were allies of Hitler) were victims of German occupation in 1944 who were forced to participate in the Holocaust, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The nationalist identity narrative proclaims, “Brussels is the new Moscow.” Casting the European Union as a hostile foreign power serves the interests of nationalist politicians whose popularity is boosted whenever EU authorities question their commitment to democracy.
Eastern European autocratic nationalism is also built on the politics of fear. Leaders have linked the threat of terrorism in their countries to the refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. In Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, the governing parties have branded Muslim refugees as “a threat to Christian civilization.” The Hungarian government claims that Muslim refugees in Europe are all potential terrorists, and has enacted an anti-terror law giving the government emergency powers to declare “a state of terror threat” and suspend the constitution.
In July 2014, Viktor Orban proclaimed in a speech following his April re-election as prime minister that Hungary was “an illiberal democracy.” The prime minister stated that Hungary and its Eastern European neighbors were explicitly rejecting the liberal values of individual rights. To emphasize his point, he asserted that “the Hungarian nation is not a pile of individuals” like the West. Orban claimed that liberal democracy was a failure, pointing to political division and economic inequality in the United States, and dysfunction in the EU on financial policy and migration.
The elements of an “illiberal democracy” are similar in Orban’s Hungary and Trump’s America. The entry point is an election victory achieved by denigrating the opposition, through distortion and innuendo, as criminal and elitist, and appealing to ethnic identity and national revival. The critical feature of the new governance model is a legislative supermajority that guarantees total control by the ruling party. In Hungary, this opened the door following the 2010 elections to constitutional changes abolishing checks and balances and other key distinguishing features of pluralist democracy.
The central claims of the new illiberal system are its promises of efficiency, collective purpose, and national pride. The tradeoffs to achieve these goals are the centralization of power and curtailment of individual rights. A central question is whether this model is sustainable, especially when it is inside a larger transnational system like the European Union. In his 2014 speech, Orban challenged the EU, claiming, “I don’t think our EU membership precludes building an illiberal new state based on a national foundation.” If Hungary’s rejection of EU values is replicated by other countries across Europe, the transnational system will collapse.
A meeting of Poland's far-right Law and Justice Party on National Independence Day, November 11, 2016.
The Hungarian government is undermining structures that maximize accountability and liberty within a framework of democratic governance—checks and balances, independence of the judiciary and the media, the protection of minorities, a pluralist civil society, and the rule of law. The government used its supermajority in 2011 to push through a media law broadening official media channels and reducing independent media. It amended the constitution to reduce the power and independence of the country’s principal safeguard against arbitrary rule, the Hungarian Constitutional Court. It instituted a regulatory crackdown on NGOs and civic groups that receive international funding, causing President Barack Obama to include Hungary in a list of countries using “endless regulations and overt intimidation” against civil society. The government has honored anti-Semitic leaders of the interwar regime that allied with Hitler’s Germany and paved the way for the Hungarian Holocaust by passing four separate anti-Jewish laws. And, for more than a year, the government has led a campaign to block refugees fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq from entering Europe.
In September 2015, the Hungarian government galvanized nationalists across Europe when it constructed razor-wire fences on Hungary’s borders and stationed its army and police to keep out refugees. The result was a huge boost to the governing party’s popularity at home, and the prime minister’s emergence on the European stage as a challenger to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose humanitarian response to the crisis reflected the values of the EU. The refugee crisis provided a golden opportunity for Hungarian, Polish, and other Eastern European leaders to burnish their illiberal credentials. To paraphrase the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, illiberal leaders use chaos to create the opportunity for imposing order.
The Polish government is now emulating the Hungarian model. It made the refugee issue a central feature of its election campaign last year, promising that religious and ethnic nationalism would protect Poles from an invasion of Muslims into Poland’s homogeneous Catholic society. The government took a page out of the Hungarian playbook by attacking the Polish Constitutional Court and the independence of the Polish judiciary.
An internal battle is shaping up in Europe and the United States between liberal and illiberal democracy. At stake are the values that safeguard against a repeat of the world’s catastrophic experience with fascism and communist totalitarianism. Disturbing signs are everywhere about the declining health of Western democracies—the steady fall in participation, broad distrust of political leaders, alienation from distant decision-makers, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and increasing polarization and gridlock. Out of this discontent, populist nationalists and demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic, like Orban and Trump, have come to power through democratic elections.
BUT ILLIBERAL GOVERNANCE has weaknesses. The legacy of state control over the economy in Eastern Europe and its eventual collapse under communism has shown that it is difficult for centralized authoritarian regimes to deliver economically to their citizens. This is particularly true for countries like Hungary and Poland that have been incorporated into a much larger interconnected market economy like the European Union. Russia and China, cited by Orban as models of illiberal governance, are both faltering economically because of the way they are governed politically.
A related weakness is that illiberal governance breeds systemic corruption, which is a drag on economic growth and a source of political instability, as the situation in Russia demonstrates. The governments of Eastern European countries have high unfavorability ratings compared with other EU member states on Transparency International’s European Corruption Index. They are rife with crony oligarchs whose conflicts of interest and amassing of wealth drain public resources and sap competition.
Marine Le Pen, president of France's Front National.
A further weakness is that, even in autocracies, civil society seeps in. Illiberal governance is vulnerable to the digital revolution, which allows increased peer-to-peer flows of information and amplifies grassroots pressure for change. Traditional media have fallen under the control of illiberal regimes, but digital media have not. In Hungary in 2014, more than 100,000 people took to the streets when the government threatened to tax internet use, and it had to back down.
As the Hungarian internet tax controversy shows, illiberal regimes have few institutional safety valves for citizen discontent. When popular pressures build, the regime must either back down or resort to coercion. The government crackdown on the Maidan democracy movement in Ukraine showed how the use of violence by an authoritarian regime can lead to greater public discontent and pressure for more radical change. The result in Ukraine was the replacement of an illiberal regime with a more open government. In short, illiberal governance stimulates and feeds on popular fears and anxieties. But without a safety valve for discontent, it may not be sustainable in the long run.
In Eastern Europe, it’s not yet clear whether these vulnerabilities will lead to a political reversal and a liberal democratic opposition coming to power through elections—or to deeper repression and entrenchment of the regime, as in Putin’s Russia.
THE UNITED STATES, WITH ITS democratic and civic traditions, is better prepared to resist permanent autocratic rule. If Trump, like Orban, moves toward authoritarianism, unique characteristics of the American political system that are different from those in Eastern Europe will be available to opponents to organize effective resistance.
The United States is better equipped than Hungary to resist a leader who uses an election to centralize power and undermine the country’s pluralist institutions. While the United States has had more than two centuries of constitutional democracy, Hungary and many other European countries, especially in the east, have limited democratic traditions and long experience under authoritarian rule. And in contrast to the United States’ immigrant history and vast ethnic diversity, Hungary, Poland, and other countries tending toward authoritarianism are far smaller, relatively homogeneous societies that are readily susceptible to xenophobia.
Strong civil society organizations can provide a platform for resisting authoritarianism, but in Eastern Europe the legacy of communism has stunted the growth of civil society, limiting its effectiveness as a counterweight to government. Press freedom and independence are guaranteed by law and tradition in the United States, but the media in Eastern Europe are identified by their political party connections and rarely able to push back against government dominance or manipulation. An independent judiciary is essential for effective resistance to authoritarian rule, but the courts in Hungary have been reshaped by constitutional changes pushed through by the government’s parliamentary supermajority. Finally, congressional procedures in the United States are more complex than parliamentary rules in Eastern Europe, where it is easier for a government majority to push through its agenda and even change the constitution if it has supermajority status.
Americans may be in a better position than Europeans to resist autocracy, but the challenge nevertheless will be great if Donald Trump tries to govern as an autocrat. The new president comes into office with vast powers: control of both houses of Congress, national-security authority that has been broadened and extended by both of his immediate predecessors, an open Supreme Court seat and perhaps more, the power to overturn executive decisions made by President Obama in key areas such as the environment and immigration, the ability to populate the government with extremists, and the power of the bully pulpit to rally his constituency and set the tone of government, including, crucially, the tone of its relations with ethnic, racial, and political minorities and noncitizens.
There are precedents for reining in presidents who threaten human rights. Richard Nixon used the power of the presidency to attack the Constitution and his political enemies. In response, the courts, the media, and civil society resisted and the House of Representative voted to impeach him for high crimes and misdemeanors. Ronald Reagan and his congressional allies attempted to overturn judicial and legislative safeguards of the rights of minorities and women. A bipartisan coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, professional organizations, and civil-rights groups succeeded in defending against this attack. The administration of George W. Bush, in violation of the Constitution and international law, instituted the use of torture in the “war on terror” after September 11, but resistance inside the federal bureaucracy, and by the federal courts and members of Congress succeeded in eventually reinstating the torture ban.
I was involved in all three of these successful campaigns to defend the rights of Americans against authoritarian assertions of presidential power. A similar campaign will have to be launched if Donald Trump abuses his power at the expense of the people.
The government crackdown on the Maidan democracy movement in Ukraine showed how the use of violence by an authoritarian regime can lead to greater public discontent and pressure for more radical change. Here, a protester faces a police blockade in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, during Euromaidan protests in February 2014.
There are six major democratic assets in the United States that can be used to resist autocracy. None of them is a guarantee, but together they represent a firewall for American democracy that can be deployed by citizens collectively determined to protect their freedom.
First is the great diversity of American society. In contrast to the largely homogeneous populations of Eastern Europe, the United States is a nation of immigrants and minorities, woven together in a vast patchwork of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, connected by a common interest in freedom and opportunity for themselves, their families, and their communities. Trump appealed to the “forgotten (white) man” who feels threatened by this diversity. But as the Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrated, there are ways of reaching this constituency from the left. Cross-cutting economic interests in creating jobs, protecting social welfare, and reducing inequality connect Trump and non-Trump voters, making it possible to imagine a broad political base for promoting economic justice and resisting extremism, particularly since Hillary Clinton received about two million more popular votes than Trump, and 54 percent of the total votes cast were against Trump. Organizing a broad-based demand for economic inclusion would undercut Trump’s brand of racially exclusive autocracy, symbolized by his appointment of Breitbart media executive Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist. The Bannon appointment has appalled almost as many Republicans as Democrats.
Second are the federal courts. Unlike European national courts, the federal judiciary has the authority to review challenges to executive or legislative actions that violate citizen rights, and as noted, the courts have done so repeatedly during previous presidencies. I was the lawyer in a case successfully challenging President Nixon’s warrantless wiretapping of government officials and journalists, which was cited in the Nixon impeachment proceedings. Obama has appointed several hundred federal judges who can be counted on to uphold the Constitution against presidential abuses of power. Judges appointed by previous presidents have not hesitated to do so. The incoming president will have the power to nominate one Supreme Court justice to fill an open seat, but this will not change the current five-justice majority in very recent decisions involving abortion rights, press freedom, and civil rights.
The federal courts are not a panacea for the diseases afflicting democracy. They are procedurally ponderous and institutionally cautious, and federal judges are trained to stay within the confines of precedent. But there is ample proof that the federal judiciary has played a role in the past in restraining presidents from exceeding their constitutional authority and protecting and advancing the constitutional rights of citizens. There is good reason to believe that they can do so under the Trump presidency.
Third is the federal system itself. Unlike European countries where government power is centralized, the United States is made up of state and local governments, as well as the federal government, and power on most domestic issues is constitutionally diffused throughout the system. On the day Trump was elected president, scores of state and local-level referenda were passed on such issues as education reform, de-incarceration, and marijuana use. It has long been a Republican mantra to devolve domestic policymaking to the states, and this is likely to continue in the Trump era, though some Republicans are happy to undermine federalism when it suits their ideological goals. There is also a danger in this approach: Civil-rights and civil-liberties standards (like abortion and gay rights) could be lowered by some states, and it will be up to the federal courts to guard against that.
Fourth is the strong and multi-layered civil society of the United States, in contrast to the anemic civil society of Eastern Europe. This is the greatest potential engine of resistance to autocratic nationalism. Amplified by social media, American civil society organizations have the capacity to build coalitions and create pressures on Congress and the executive branch. A broad coalition to save the federal courts led by the American Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union prevented the Reagan administration from passing legislation to take away the jurisdiction of the federal courts in cases involving abortion rights and school desegregation. From coalition-building to political lobbying to mass demonstrations, civil society will be the backbone of any movement to resist authoritarianism. This will require people to come out of their silos and reach across partisan divides to seek common ground on political goals such as defending immigration, protecting the environment, resisting discrimination against minorities and women, and preventing torture from being reintroduced in terrorism investigations. In each of these areas, several Republicans in Congress have already signaled that they will resist extremist Trump policies. Civil society organizations across the political spectrum should work with them to build bipartisan coalitions.
Fifth is the news media. Unlike Europe, the media in the United States are constitutionally protected and beyond the reach of most forms of regulation. Donald Trump has threatened to control the media by strengthening state libel laws, but these threats ring hollow against the unanimous opposition of Republican and Democratic judges. Bigger challenges for the media are its fragmentation in an increasingly digital landscape, and its susceptibility to manipulation by propagandists and political liars, as well as regulatory threats. But the very diversity of our media is an important tool of democracy against authoritarianism.
Finally, Congress is a potential source of resistance to assertions of presidential power. In European parliamentary systems, a prime minister who controls a supermajority, as Orban did from 2010 to 2015 in Hungary, can force legislation through parliamentary opposition. In the United States, Congress and the president are separate branches of government. Congressional procedures such as the filibuster in the Senate and the rules process in the House can slow or stop the progress of legislation, especially if the president’s party is divided over policy, as is the case with the Republican Party after the Trump election.
At this writing, too many Republicans have been willing to do Trump’s bidding, seeing him as the agent of their policy agenda. But it takes only three defections in a Senate divided 52-48. If Trump resorts to blatant extra-constitutional extremism, there are likely to be enough Republican senators committed to civil liberties and the rule of law to prevent him from succeeding.
These features of American democracy can be safeguards against the abuse of presidential power. But citizens must mobilize to resist illiberal governance. Now is the time for mobilization, before it is too late and the United States begins to resemble an Eastern European autocracy.