The writer is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia
The joke goes like this: when two Donald Trump supporters die and go to heaven, God meets them at the pearly gates. “Tell us,” they say, “what were the real results of the 2020 election and who was behind the fraud?” God answers: “My children, there was no fraud.” After a few seconds of stunned silence, one turns to the other, whispering: “This goes higher up than we thought.”
Political polarisation also goes deeper than a lot of people thought. In Europe, even before the storming of the US Congress, the mainstream public tended to view the American political system as broken and Mr Trump’s image was so damaged that nationalist leaders no longer dream of being called “the German Trump” or “the Italian Trump”. But the revulsion has not changed the belief of many populist voters that Mr Trump’s policies were right.
Resentment against the establishment has not receded in most European countries, and the failures of liberalism have not been pardoned. What has changed, because of Covid-19, is that politics has become local again — a shift amplified by Mr Trump’s defeat.
As a result, the promise of a pan-European populist movement has lost momentum. The paths of Mr Trump’s allies, who are in opposition in western Europe and in power in central Europe, have diverged. In Italy, France and Spain, national populist parties are trying to use growing resentment against Covid-19 lockdowns to gain electoral support. By contrast, in Poland and Hungary, populists are trying to preserve their hold on power by proving that lockdowns work.
And it is in central Europe that the effect of Mr Trump’s defeat will be felt most. On the eve of last year’s US election, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban wrote: “We root for Donald Trump’s victory, because we know well American Democratic governments’ diplomacy, built on moral imperialism. We have been forced to sample it before, we did not like it, we do not want seconds.” But Mr Orban’s prayers were not enough for Mr Trump to win. And Mr Biden’s America is as much of a threat to illiberal forces in Europe as Mr Trump’s was to the liberals.
It is not simply that Poland and Hungary have lost an ally; they have a problem. Budapest and Warsaw interpret the new administration’s commitment to make fighting international corruption a priority and the EU’s move to make its funding conditional on the rule of law as a desire to interfere in their domestic politics. “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent,” an interlocutor told US author David Frum, but “more the power to protect the guilty.” Mr Biden’s Washington is determined to make it harder for illiberal governments to defend their cronies.
In this sense, Mr Trump’s defeat does not mean the end of the populist moment in Europe (the conditions that gave rise to it remain), but it signals the end of populists’ fascination with the US. After the US nationalist right’s defeat, European national populist parties will be more ready to look for allies and sponsors outside the west.
Traditionally, many of them were sympathetic to authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and to China’s economic model. But, in the Trump era, Mr Orban. Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski preferred to ally with Washington and to portray themselves as the defenders of the west. Now, with Mr Biden in the White House, it will not come as a surprise that most of these parties will be ready to turn their backs on America and collaborate more willingly with other authoritarian regimes.
The risk of Hungary, in particular, breaking western unity when it comes to China or Russia has dramatically increased now Mr Trump has left the White House. The Hungarian government’s decision to open a campus of the Chinese Fudan University in Budapest, after expelling the Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros, should be read as a message written in bold letters.
The uncivil cultural wars are not over — neither in America nor in Europe. An 1848 French engraving captures best the contract on which western democracies were founded. It depicts a worker with a rifle in one hand and a ballot in the other. The message is clear: bullets for the nation’s enemies and ballots for class enemies — against each other in time of elections but together in a time of war. Mr Trump’s readiness to favour Russia’s President Putin at the cost of the Democrats was the signal that this old contract is not valid any more. For many of the populist parties in Europe, political establishment at home is the only enemy worth fighting.