The more this writer reads and researches recent events in Central Europe- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia- the more I see parallels to the rise of Donald Trump. After the fall of Communism, the transition to a free market economy was, at times, messy. These were populations that knew only a centrally planned economy for 40-50 years. Prior to falling under the domination of Communism, many areas had an economy similar to Medieval feudalism. However, on the whole, the triumph of capitalism has been a good thing. Per capita income in considerably higher. Foreign investment has flowed into these countries. The standard of living using every metric has also risen.
Like any capitalist country, there are winners and there are losers. The competitive nature of capitalism dictates this phenomena. Further, in any economic system, there will be people who take advantage of the system and capitalism is not alone in that. To people like Bernie Sanders, it is invariably the sinister Wall Street bankers while to Trump and others, it is the political class. It is one thing when Wall Street is perceived to be the center of corruption and quite another thing when political leaders and the government are perceived to be corrupt.
There is an added ingredient at play here in Central Europe and, to a lesser degree, in the United States. For decades, Communism suppressed the natural nationalist tendencies in the region. Once those constraints were removed, those tendencies came to the fore, but not fully. It explains why the map of Europe in 2016- especially Central Europe and the Balkans- looks different than a map of Europe in 1985. Likewise, Trump appeals to a certain brand of nationalism and it is small wonder why groups like the KKK and websites like Stormfront, a neo-Nazi site, sing his praises. But, this could potentially be his undoing since true nationalist tendencies in the US nowhere nearly approximate those in Central Europe. We are an amalgamation of nationalities which creates a unique national identity unlike any in Europe.
To understand the parallels with Trump, look at the people who are fueling his rise to prominence. One finds striking similarities to the average Central European who lifted their leaders to power. Whether we are talking about Richard Fico in Slovakia or Viktor Orban in Hungary, it is people disaffected by the status quo- those who look around and perceive the alleged excesses of capitalism and being left behind. Fico rose to power on a platform of battling multinational corporations and using the tax code to bring them to heel. Orban in Hungary endorsed protectionist trade policies. In these countries, there is a growing opposition to the European Union; to them, it is a “bad deal.” These leaders preyed upon those sentiments. Trump is no different. His self-funded campaign and rhetoric against lobbyists is akin to Fico’s attacks on the multinational corporations. Orban’s protectionist policies are like Trump’s proposed tariff on Chinese, Mexican or Japanese goods. The EU “bad deal” sentiment in Slovakia and elsewhere is the Trump campaign in a nutshell- the United States makes bad deals.
Additionally, Trump- like his Central European counterparts- has tapped into two other factors that have propelled him to prominence. The first is the social conservatives whose support of Trump political pundits cannot understand. But, his socially conservative rhetoric followed his economic and immigration rhetoric and by then, people had fallen for it. These Central European leaders managed to marry social conservatism with liberal fiscal policies and cloak it in populist language.
Domestically, social conservatives see themselves as a segment under attack. Traditional family values are falling by the wayside. In Europe, there is a direct correlation between the population’s belief in God and the approval of these populist leaders; the greater the belief, the greater the popularity. The Czech Republic has, according to some surveys, the lowest percentage of people who believe in God and their populist movement is perhaps the weakest. Slovakia and Poland fall at the other end of the spectrum. Today, the population of Central Europe turns to Russia under Putin and see the straight-talking strongman as a bulwark against moral decay. Likewise, American conservatives are turning to their straight speaking (“he tells it like it is”), politically incorrect newly found leader in the same light. Is it any wonder Trump admires Putin?
The other parallel between Trump and these leaders is a certain degree of xenophobia. Americans- especially many white Americans- see the demographic, moral and religious landscape shifting rapidly under their feet. Illegal immigration is the obvious flash point, but even legal immigration is coming under attack. The LGBT movement is on the march with gay marriage now codified by the Supreme Court- a major fundamental shift in the definition of “marriage.” Religious liberty is under attack as traditional Judeo-Christian values are ignored or denigrated. The dynamics that gave rise to Trump have been in play in Central Europe since 2006. We are simply ten years late to the game.
Another good example that could shed some light on how this is likely to play out (assuming it is Trump versus Clinton in November) is Russia in 1995. Then, Russians were angry, disoriented and disillusioned by a rapidly changing world. Factories were closing. So much capital was concentrated in the hands of the new oligarchy even though the average Russian’s standard of living was up measurably. The Russian military was suffering heavy losses in Chechnya. There was a growing nostalgia for the paternalism of the former Soviet state.
Along came Gennady Zyugamov- a Communist- to challenge President Boris Yeltsin. However, Zyuganov was a Communist in name only (a CINO?). Does this sound familiar? His solution to Russia’s problems sounds suspiciously like the campaign of Donald Trump. He wanted to restore industry and manufacturing to its former “glory.” If that took closing Russia to foreign goods, then so be it. Russia’s territorial borders would be closed and secure. The military would be the best in the world and if they had to fight, they would fight to win.
The election came down not to reelecting Yeltsin; it came down to keeping Zyuganov out of power. We see the same dynamics today in America. Hillary Clinton is Yeltsin and Trump is Zyuganov. In 1995, Yeltsin privately appealed to the oligarchs while lambasting them and promising to clean up corruption. He also managed to get the media on his side. Clinton has a very cozy relationship with Wall Street while she attacks them and she already has the media on her side.
For Trump, it is like asking the country whether they want another four years of Clinton/Obama just as Zyuganov asked the Russians whether they wanted another four years of Yeltsin. For Yeltsin, he asked whether Russia wanted an ignorant authoritarian (an almost perfect description of Donald Trump) as their leader. Yeltsin won that election, although it took a runoff. In the process, his victory all but killed the Communist Party in Russia. The brand had been tarnished and rejected. And that is a very real fear among Republicans- that Trump will tarnish the Republican brand for generations.
If we view the election this year in the United States in light of the Yeltsin/Zyuganov dynamic, we discover his victory had a small silver lining in a very large, dark ominous cloud. While he attacked the oligarchy in rhetoric, he was beholden to it. Eventually, he could not deliver on his promises other than keeping a CINO out of power. Coupled with failing health, he never managed to finish his second term. The silver lining is that if Clinton is elected President, she will likely be a one-term President as the electorate will soon tire of 12 years of Democratic Party rule.
The dark cloud is what eventually happened in Russia- the emergence of a populist strongman in Vladimir Putin. The trade off for making Russia great again- just like making Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or America great again- is an increasing government encroaching on civil liberties. We hear inclinations of these sentiments in Trump’s rhetoric: he is going to hunt down and kill the families of terrorists, Mexico is going to pay for his wall, or he is going to change the libel laws because something may offend him. Central European countries have changed their laws weakening the judiciary as a vital check on Executive power. Trump has already signaled an even stronger Executive- an Obama administration on steroids.
The United States in 2016 stands at a vital crossroads. A “big government” liberal stands to gain the nomination of the Republican Party by preying on the fears and angst of a largely ignorant electorate. This is why Marco Rubio calls it the most important election in a generation. It is why Ted Cruz invokes the Constitution and a defense of the Bill of Rights into every speech. This is why it is so important that we get this right. The Republican Party does not need nor should it want their own Genaddy Zyuganov, Robert Fico, or Viktor Orban. As bad as Clinton is, Trump as the alternative is potentially worse. Either way, if Central Europe and Russia are any indications, things could get even more ugly in 2020. It is one thing to repeat the mistakes of history; it is even worse to ignore the mistakes of recent history.