From the insistence of the British people that their wishes on Brexit be carried out to the people of Germany pushing out longtime leader Angela Merkel to the protesters in Paris shouting “We want Trump” to the moves in Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Romania and elsewhere to regain control of their borders and discourage mass immigration, the policies of President Trump have become quite popular in Europe.
So much so, in fact, that the keepers of the old guard have begun to give them the same treatment they give to right-of-center policymakers in the United States. They are labeled as extremists. Their use of the political power to enact the policies their supporters endorsed by voting for them is seen as anti-democratic. Their moves to re-empower their citizens are characterized as oppression.
The Washington Post demonstrated this phenomenon with a piece headlined, “The new autocrats,” – subhead: “Leaders are turning democracy into a tool of oppression” – by Griff Witte, its Berlin bureau chief.
“We are entering a new era of democracy,” Witte wrote in the introduction to his piece. “Its hallmarks bear little resemblance to the repressive methods of 20th-century despotism. Countries that once represented the triumph of liberty and freedom are now using democratic structures as tools of oppression. The Post reports on the struggle underway in Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, as leaders seek to consolidate control and citizens fight back.”
This new autocracy, which is “seeping into parts of the world where it once appeared to have been vanquished,” is “a sleeker, subtler and, ultimately, more sophisticated version that its authoritarian forebears, twisting democratic structures and principles into tools of oppression and state control.”
Witte says Americans “worried about the health of their own democracy” should take note that “the decline can come bracingly fast.” Central and Eastern Europe represented the “triumph of liberal democracy over dictatorship” 30 years ago. “Today, the region is on the front lines of history’s march in reverse.”
He admits there are no “strutting soldiers” or “cults of personality” around leaders, that opponents and journalists can speak openly and loudly and that anyone is free to leave if they don’t like it and that “instead of economic isolation and scarcity, a gusher of foreign investment flows.”
Witte also acknowledges the gains made by conservatives have come from victories at the ballot box. He interviewed an activist in Poland who told him that in the past three years, “ever since the right-wing Law and Justice Party won elections, he has watched the government use the liberties for which he fought to tighten its grip.”
The electoral victories “became a pretext for the takeover of previously independent institutions. The country’s membership in the European Union was transformed into a shield against charges of oppression and a foil in Poland’s longstanding quest for sovereignty. Its integration into the global economy – and the fast-paced growth that has come with it – put money in people’s pockets, overriding more abstract concerns about the rule of law.”
In general, efforts to preserve the rule of law, the environment and other “abstract” concerns intensify when earnings improve.
The most clever trick, Witte wrote, was Hungary’s Viktor Orban learning to use the European Union’s free movement rules in his favor. The rules give “autocrats like Orban a useful safety valve. Anyone dissatisfied with his government can pick up and go, with not even a passport check standing in the way of self-imposed exile.”
Hundreds of thousands have left Hungary since then … “although many may have been motivated by higher wages elsewhere.”
Those who have left “tend to be young, ambitious and educated,” Witte wrote. “That’s not a problem for Orban, who pulls his support from the less educated, poorer and older segments of society. But it is a crisis for anyone trying to organize opposition to his rule.
“’There’s no protest in Hungary because people can emigrate instead,’” a Budapest researcher is quoted as saying.