BERLIN – No need for tears and hand-wringing, U.S. friends. What happened on Tuesday was not a collapse of your democracy — just a powerful blow to American exceptionalism and the misplaced arrogance of the U.S. elite.
Donald Trump won by using a mix that has been effective in Eastern Europe since the turn of the century: a combination of strong nationalism and an anti-corruption agenda.
At a hotel in an Orlando, Florida, suburb at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, a dozen Osceola County Republicans gathered around a TV tuned to Fox News. They were early comers to an event billed as a victory party — the Osceola Republican Party was going to celebrate some modest down-ballot wins — but these people were more interested in the presidential race.
Many will say Trump’s victory was fueled by racism and xenophobia. It’s more complicated than that. The pro-Trump crowd gathered at an Orlando hotel on Tuesday night to watch the election results wasn’t an all-white, all-male audience. The day before, when Orlando government relations consultant Bertica Cabrera Morris told me the Republicans hadn’t really botched Hispanic outreach and would deliver plenty of votes to their candidate, it was all I could do not to show disbelief. Yet she was right: Spanish was heard in that hotel ballroom. Women, too, were well-represented. Clearly, enough Latinos and enough women didn’t believe Trump’s words about them had been particularly offensive.
This is just anecdotal evidence, of course, and so is the fact that, in my travels around the U.S. this year, I met far more people who were enthusiastic about Trump than about Clinton. But then, do we have anything but anecdotal evidence to go on anymore?
Clearly, most pollsters and pundits were so wrong that everything they said all year should have been disregarded. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to do so, unlike some people I met — for example, Las Vegas lawyer Robert Barnes, who has, since the primaries, consistently predicted a Trump victory and who has now made hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself and clients he advised to place bets on Trump with European bookmakers. The signs he and other gamblers saw — many of them rather unscientific — turned out to be more valid than the arrogant opinions and authoritative-looking calculations of pollsters, academics, political operatives and veteran commentators.
I should have listened to Barnes, and to dozens of ordinary Americans who explained to me why they preferred Trump to Clinton. Only a small number of them indicated they were xenophobic. Most were unhappy about their economic situation, particularly rising Obamacare premiums and the precariousness of their incomes, and every one of them considered Clinton corrupt. As one Trump supporter in Orlando put it Tuesday night, “I’d rather have the mafia run the U.S. government than Hillary Clinton: They are less crooked.”
That should have told me something important — or, rather, confirmed something I’d known from another part of the world.
Trump probably won because, by the end of his campaign, he wasn’t just a nationalist populist, like the kind that has recently achieved increasing success in Europe, without, however, winning commanding heights. He was also an anti-corruption crusader. He was smart to pick up on the opportunity given to him by WikiLeaks, which on Tuesday night tweeted, “The American people don’t like corruption.”
Anti-corruption parties saw major electoral success in Central and Eastern Europe, joining or leading governing coalitions in a number of countries — Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Bulgaria — in the 2000s. Far from all of them, however, survived their second, not to mention their third election. The most successful of them — Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) — runs the country today because it has artfully combined an anti-corruption agenda with nationalist populism.
This combination has tempted many post-Soviet politicians, too. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili honed it after his country’s 2003 “Rose Revolution,” and then, when he was swept out of power after significantly changing his country, he brought it with him to Ukraine. This week, he resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region to build a strong party and fight for an early parliamentary election. He announced his resignation in a Trump-like self-pitying, vindictive speech. He blamed corruption in President Petro Poroshenko’s administration and Cabinet for his failure to reform customs and public services in the region. He said the president supported corrupt “criminal clans” in Odessa, and he vowed to “begin a new stage of the struggle.”
“I am the soldier who forges ahead while he can and then as long as he must,” Saakashvili said. “As long as he must until a total victory, until Ukraine is purged of this filth, of this corrupt dirt.” As I watched the speech, I half expected the audience to start chanting “Drain the swamp,” as crowds have done at recent Trump rallies. Ukrainians may yet learn the chant as Saakashvili’s campaign progresses.
It’s highly ironic if it was Russia that provided Trump with his WikiLeaks ammunition. There, an anti-corruption, nationalist populist, Alexei Navalny, is probably the strongest figure in the beleaguered opposition to Vladimir Putin regime. Putin, who is not a nativist and whose close circle is notoriously corrupt, is the sworn enemy of nationalist anti-corruption movements in Russia’s immediate vicinity, and he is their number one target. PiS in Poland is strongly anti-Putin, too.
By winning a presidential election with a distinctly Eastern European recipe, Trump has shown that there’s not that much difference between, say, Americans and Poles or Americans and Georgians. It’s as easy to appeal to their national pride, tying it in with their economic discomfort, and their understanding of official corruption is quite similar.
In August, Navalny published a post comparing Clinton’s increasingly expensive residences with the far grander palaces of Russian officials. He made an important point, but to the anti-corruption voter in Eastern Europe, schooled by more than a decade of politics as investigation followed by invective, Clinton still looks corrupt. Her exorbitant speaking fees would have been decried in Ukraine or Georgia as a form of graft. The Clintons’ failure to draw clear lines between their charitable foundation and their private business — which looks suspiciously like influence peddling — would have tarnished their reputations in these countries, probably more than they did in the U.S.
It didn’t matter if Clinton was really corrupt, or if she was as corrupt as post-Soviet politicians: It’s all about the optics. “If they were public servants all their lives, why are they so rich?” — that question would have been a powerful weapon against them in the young democracies. In Ukraine, where a nationalist, anti-corruption revolution ousted the last president in 2014, it is being asked right now in the wake of a property declaration campaign that revealed local officials have stashed away hundreds of millions of dollars.
The U.S. is never compared to the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe because the same arrogant U.S. elite that failed so miserably this year has been so proud of the U.S. political tradition. As the tradition collapsed, some members of the pundit class have had to admit they didn’t really understand the country. “America, we hardly knew ye,” economist Paul Krugman tweeted. “Certainly I misjudged the country.”
It’s time to give up the hubris. The U.S. is a country like many others in most important respects. Everything that can happen elsewhere can happen here. Trump has just happened.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg columnist.
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