BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
A daily newsletter that explores where the world meets Washington
Trump and the march of ballot box autocrats
To President Trump’s critics, the creeping authoritarianism is in plain view.
Take this week: Democrats on the Hill declared that the United States was in constitutional crisis, a consequence of the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with House subpoenas pertaining to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe and thereby disregard congressional powers of oversight. Separately, my colleague Dana Milbank pointed to the administration’s provocative new steps to revoke the media credentials for White House journalists (including his).
And then, at a rally on Wednesday, Trump laughed along with thousands of cheering supporters about shooting migrants who arrive at the U.S. border. That it fostered only muted outrage and discussion on cable news networks the following day pointed to how inured the American public has become to Trump’s routine demagoguery.
In part for that reason, the White House visit next week of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is worth watching. Shunned during the Obama presidency, Orban, an illiberal nationalist, has appeared to find common cause with Trump. While numerous E.U. officials and European statesmen have decried Orban’s majoritarian rule — which they say is actively eroding Hungary’s democracy — the Trump administration has cultivated Hungary and other nationalist governments in Central Europe as like-minded partners.
Orban’s bitter opposition to immigration won him the affection of ethnonationalists and right-wing populists to the West. His vehement rejection of E.U. efforts to collectively reckon with a 2015 influx of Syrian refugees and other economic migrants precipitated the far-right backlash that still inflames politics across Europe.
“Facing the prospect of a massive influx of population from other continents in the coming decades, the E.U. was, like the United States in the 1850s, a house divided,” wrote Christopher Caldwell, in a fawning profile of Orban for the Claremont Review of Books, a rare highbrow journal of what could be described as Trumpist thought. “The high-immigration states of the west could not tolerate the low-immigration states of the east. Orbán hinted that the immigrantlessness of the eastern countries was going to give them a great competitive advantage over the western ones, threatened by terrorism, burdened by welfare, stultified by an official multiculturalism.”
Whatever the debatable merits of that argument, Orban remains on the warpath against liberalism four years later. Ahead of this month’s European Parliament elections, Orban declared he wants to defeat the “elite of 1968” — a jab at the leftist, cosmopolitan values he seeks to jettison from Brussels. But his rhetoric and actions have earned him enemies throughout Europe, and his party’s traditional center-right allies in European Parliament are contemplating breaking ties outright with Orban’s faction. (Orban, for his part, is now flirting with Europe’s far-right, anti-migrant parties.)
Yet the Trump administration appears to look far more favorably upon Orban. When the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer confronted David Cornstein, Trump’s ambassador in Budapest, about Orban’s explicit embrace of “illiberal democracy” as a description of his own government, Cornstein offered a chilling response.
“It’s a question of a personal view, or what the American people, or the president of the United States, think of illiberal democracy, and what its definition is,” Cornstein said. He then added: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn’t.”
What exactly is that situation? “Over the past nine years, the Hungarian leader has accomplished many of the anti-democratic actions Trump can only tweet about,” wrote Rob Berschinski and Hal Brands in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “He has rewritten Hungary’s constitution and dismantled judicial checks on power, stifled a once vibrant media, forced a top university out of the country, and criminalized the activities of some human rights organizations. Meanwhile, he has won deeply flawed elections by vilifying migrants, Muslim ‘invaders’ and the Jewish ‘financiers’ that supposedly support them.”
A lot has already been said about Trump’s conspicuous propensity for autocrats. From the Saudi crown prince to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the American president has made no secret of his admiration for supposedly strong rulers unbowed by democratic niceties and pressures. At home, Trump can’t even command the majority of the vote, something that Orban has effectively corralled in his favor in his country’s parliamentary elections.
But Trump can still gin up far-right sentiment over migrants and Muslims and grouse about the “treason” committed by his opponents. He spent part of the weekend retweeting the outrage of his allies, including one prominent religious conservative who declared that Trump should be given two extra years in power to compensate for the debilitating intrigues of the past two. It has already kicked off a feverish debate in Washington over whether Trump may be unable to accept an electoral defeat in 2020.
This week, we saw a clear example of what it looks like when an entrenched demagogue refuses to concede power. On Monday, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited supposed irregularities and annulled the results of the March mayoral election in Istanbul, which had been sensationally won by a candidate from Turkey’s main opposition party. A controversial revote is scheduled for June.
The decision has outraged the Turkish opposition and even some prominent members of Erdogan’s party. Western officials — including the State Department, but not the White House — issued critical notes of concern. “Never before has a Turkish government refused to accept the results of an election,” noted a Post editorial. “They must hope that Erdogan’s strong-arm move backfires and that he again loses Istanbul when the new vote is held next month.”
That may not be likely. “In light of the voided March election results, [Erdogan] has apparently decided that the financial and political cost of losing Istanbul far outweighs the loss of legitimacy he will suffer domestically and internationally by forcing a revote,” wrote Soner Cagaptay, a Washington-based expert on Turkey, in a piece arguing that the Turkish president would do whatever it takes to ensure a victory for his party’s candidate.
There was a time when Erdogan’s maneuvers and Orban’s majoritarian bullying felt a world away from the politics of Washington. But in the Trump era, it no longer seems so distant.
- Foer’s piece is worth reading in full. He focuses on Orban’s campaign against George Soros, the American Jewish financier who Orban and other members of the West’s right wing have made into a bete noir. A snippet:
“Orbán’s big break came in the mid-1980s, with his acceptance to a new college in Budapest called István Bibó. But before he could go to the big city, the state mandated a stint in the military. Orbán chafed at the army’s relentless indoctrination and its strict hold on his time. On several occasions, his superiors punished him for going AWOL to watch the World Cup. By the time he arrived at Bibó, he had settled into firm anticommunist convictions, which he voiced with stridency and courage.
“Bibó was run by a reformer who permitted a freewheeling atmosphere. After Soros visited the school in 1985, he gave the students a photocopier, subsidized a feisty student journal (edited by Orbán), and paid for activists to take language courses and travel abroad…
“Soros’s friends in Hungary’s liberal intelligentsia recommended Orbán as one of their own. When Soros met him, he was captivated by the young activist’s charisma. He made a donation to Fidesz and gave Orbán a scholarship to study civil society at Oxford. For a time, Orbán reciprocated the generosity. He railed against the ‘malicious attacks’ of nationalists who waxed hysterical over Soros’s philanthropic presence in Hungary. In those years, Orbán proudly called himself a liberal, and his party distanced itself from anti-Semitism and revanchist nationalism.
“How did the Orbán of the early ’90s, with his long hair and academic aspirations, become the architect of illiberalism? One theory suggests that political expediency pulled him to the right. But the liberals had also wishfully imposed their hopes on Orbán, never looking carefully enough at him to notice that he deeply resented them.”
- The United States and China hurtled toward a defining moment in their four-decade-old relationship on Thursday. My colleagues David J. Lynch and Damian Paletta report:
“Negotiators met into the evening but failed to avert an increase in U.S. tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese products that took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. The two sides have agreed to continue negotiations Friday…
“Because the higher tariffs apply only to goods that leave China on Friday — not shipments already approaching American shores — officials still have time to work out a last-minute solution.
“But no matter what happens at the bargaining table, relations between the world’s two largest economies, accounting for roughly 40 percent of global output, appear certain to change.”
- President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shattered more than a year of relative tranquility Thursday with the U.S. seizure of a North Korean vessel and the isolated regime’s launch of two short-range ballistic missiles, my colleagues reported:
“The renewed tensions followed a series of internal battles Trump and Kim fought with their own subordinates in the process of striving for a historic disarmament deal…
“It was the first time the United States had seized a North Korean cargo vessel for violating international sanctions, the Justice Department said, and the first confirmed missile test by Pyongyang in more than 500 days. The return of tit-for-tat provocations demonstrated the limits of the personal relationship between Kim and Trump that the president has touted as key to overcoming decades of mistrust.
“Last month, Trump sent Kim a “happy birthday” letter commemorating the birth date of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and expressed interest in future engagements following the collapse of their meeting in February in Hanoi…
“In April, Kim demoted his point man for the nuclear talks, Kim Yong Chol, rebuking a prominent hard-liner and former spy chief who exasperated U.S. negotiators with his stubborn demands and aloof demeanor, two State Department officials said.
“Trump also has battled with his top advisers to preserve a positive atmosphere for a deal. On Tuesday, Trump told South Korea’s president in a phone call that he supports aid for North Korea to ease food shortages, despite the concerns of some U.S. officials that it might ease internal pressure on the regime. In March, he ruled out future sanctions against North Korea in a meeting with Bolton and reacted angrily after learning that previous sanctions were imposed without his approval, U.S. officials said.”
- My colleague Karen DeYoung spells out the dominant view in Latin America about what Washington should and should not do about Venezuela and the regime of President Nicolás Maduro:
“Latin Americans, who already see the Venezuelan crisis spilling over their borders in the form of millions of refugees, appreciate U.S. interest and determination. The threat of U.S. military intervention, not so much.
“The history of U.S. invasion and occupation in the region, along with covert involvement in regime change, is long and troubled. Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, Chile, and more. Even those leaders who might be happy to see Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ousted with U.S. force believe there would be a heavy price to pay among their own constituents.
“As U.S. threats toward Venezuela and Cuba, one of Maduro’s primary backers, have grown more explicit in recent days, Latin American and European governments have nervously stepped up their efforts toward a political solution. All back the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, the self-declared president of an interim government trying to take over, as does the United States.”
President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28. (Leah Millis/Reuters)</p>
President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
President Trump is questioning his administration’s aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro. Trump complains he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman with a young opposition figure, according to administration officials and White House advisers. The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.
U.S. policy is officially unchanged in the wake of a fizzled power play last week by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But officials have since been more cautious in their predictions of Maduro’s swift exit, while reassessing what one official described as the likelihood of a diplomatic “long haul.”
Still Trump has complained over the past week that Bolton and others underestimated Maduro. He has expressed concern that Bolton has boxed him into a corner and gone beyond where he is comfortable, said a U.S. official familiar with U.S.-Venezuela policy. But Bolton’s job is safe, and Trump has told him to keep focusing on Venezuela.
The open threat of U.S. military involvement in Venezuela has grown alongside the administration’s increasingly confrontational approach to Iran. In both cases, the administration has adopted a get-tough policy that appeals to Trump’s instincts to project American power abroad but that also echoes the kind of military adventurism he has long ridiculed.
Trump appears to be more comfortable with the Iran policy, which is grounded in his strong belief that President Barack Obama miscalculated in striking a nuclear bargain with Tehran. He’s less comfortable with the escalating rhetoric on Venezuela, which does not pose a direct military threat to the United States. But there might be another reason that military intervention in Venezuela is unlikely.
“It runs counter to Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection narrative,” said John D. Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador. “At a time when you’re pulling people back from Syria, back from Iraq, back from Afghanistan, how do you say we’re going to commit 50-, 100-, 150,000 of our blood and treasure to a country where you can’t tell the bad guys from the good guys?” — Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, John Hudson and Seung Min Kim
The big question
South Africans voted on Wednesday, almost exactly 25 years after a long liberation struggle ended apartheid and ushered in a democratic era for all its citizens. President Cyril Ramaphosa, widely expected to be reelected, cast his ballot in Soweto, the cradle of the struggle, where leaders such as Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, once lived. Ramaphosa’s main challenger did the same. But despite the high-stakes contest, the there was a lack of enthusiasm among voters. Ramaphosa came to power promising economic prosperity and an end to corruption — two things he hasn’t exactly delivered on. And though he’s likely to win again, some South Africans wonder if he’s the right leader to breathe new life into the country’s dwindling faith in democracy. So we asked Post Africa bureau chief Max Bearak, regardless of what they are, will the results reflect what South Africans want?
“South Africans waited patiently for a second night as counting continued after its election — but everyone knew the outcome long before they went to the polls on Wednesday. The African National Congress, which led the country out of apartheid and into democracy, was expected to hold on to the power it’s held since 1994. With around 70 percent of the votes counted, it looked certain that prediction would hold true.
“But beneath that win are some indicators that show just how much support for Africa’s most famous liberation movement has decayed. First off, this will be their worst showing, eking by 50 percent of votes by a slim margin. Turnout is also projected to be the lowest in South Africa’s history. Speaking with many young South Africans, their verdict is in on democracy: it has been good for almost nothing. More than half are unemployed. An abysmal 20 percent think the country is headed in the right direction. Youth voter registration was the lowest in more than a decade.
“And the ANC is neither helping nor inspiring this generation, the first born after apartheid. Cyril Ramaphosa, who now has a five-year mandate as president, faces a crisis bigger than a sputtering economy, bigger than the corruption eating away at public institutions — he will have to convince young South Africans that his government can do more than promise progress. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be a surprise come next election when young South Africans, who feel no debt to the ANC for its freedom struggle, vote them out.”
Opinions to knows
Now that the German far right has a foothold in the country’s parliament, Der Spiegel looks at how some communities are struggling with whether to treat the members as peers or adversaries. Meanwhile, The Post calls attention to the continued crackdown by Nicaragua’s government on free speech, a piece in the New Yorker takes stock of the confrontation between Israel and Gaza and, in Slate, an op-ed shines a light on how differently the United States used to treat refugees.
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor