Monday, March 12, 2018


In The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum warns us that leaders often get a pass on corruption if they combine it with populist demagoguery:
The former Venezuelan dictator-president Hugo Chávez won office on an “anti-corruption” ticket and then proceeded to rob the state on a massive scale, using government contracts to keep friendly business executives on board, turning the civil service and the state oil company into machines for rewarding supporters, even buying a luxurious plane from the ruling family of Qatar for his own use.

... During its previous turn in power, Austria’s “populist” Freedom Party proved far more corrupt than the mainstream politicians it had denounced while out of office. After his death, it emerged that the party’s leader, Joerg Haider — more famous for his nods and winks to Austria’s Nazi legacy — was doing shady deals from Libya to the Balkans and beyond. Viktor Orban, the “populist” Hungarian prime minister who won in 2010 by denouncing the corruption of his opponents, has since directed European Union funding to business executives who support his party (among them a childhood friend), and helped to enrich numerous relatives, above all his son-in-law. (Sound familiar?) Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party also ran an anti-elitist election campaign in 2015 and has spent two years populating the civil service with friends, cousins, nephews and uncles of politicians.
Applebaum says these leaders get away with it in large part because they're populist demagogues.
If those had been “ordinary” politicians — social democrats or earnest liberals — they would have been run out of office by disappointed supporters who voted for efficient and effective government. But Chávez remained in power for 14 years before dying in office; his successor is still there. In Austria, the resurgent Freedom Party has just joined a new government coalition. Orban has been Hungary’s prime minister for nearly eight years, and Law and Justice’s support seems to be holding steady in Poland.
One reason?
Unlike social democrats or earnest liberals, these politicians were never trying to appeal to the good sense of voters, they were never selling efficiency and effectiveness, and their voters don’t expect it from them. In a recent speech, Orban declared that Western Europe had caused the “decline of Christian culture,” and he described Hungary as “the last bastion of Christianity.” If you are emotionally moved by that declaration, why should you care if his son-in-law is getting rich?
If a leader really succeeds at persuading the people that he's defending them again the forces of barbarianism and chaos, he can get a pass on his bad deeds even from those who aren't the obvious targets for populist appeals. Recall the Post's recent story about the high levels of support for Vladimir Putin among Russia's young people, including the non-pronvincial young:
Rather than dwell on Putin’s crackdown on his opponents, young Russians draw a sense of personal liberty from those freedoms they do enjoy — a mostly open Internet, an open job market and open borders. Many of them reject state TV as propaganda but nevertheless repeat its central tenet — that Russia needs Putin to stand up to U.S. aggression. And perhaps most important, these Russians seem shaped by a collective history they never knew — by fear of a return of the crisis-stricken 1990s or the stifling Soviet era.

“We already know everything about him,” Pavel Rybin, 20, who is studying event management, said of Putin. “If now the people elect him again, everything will be quiet and calm.”

... [Dmitri] Shaburov, the 18-year-old entrepreneur, recently moved from the countryside to Kurgan.... His latest venture is called “crowd investing,” and he said he was hoping to move to Moscow to take advantage of the greater opportunities in the capital.

He said he realizes that Russia offers its citizens fewer freedoms than Western countries do — and that Putin may have something to do with this. But he prefers to focus on the freedoms he does have, such as being able to start a business and traveling abroad.

“There are jobs. You can do whatever you want. You can travel wherever you want,” Shaburov said. “The borders are all open before you — and this truly makes me happy.”

Shaburov said he has watched [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny's videos highlighting apparent government corruption. He said he is upset to see officials steal public money in broad daylight and “grandmothers and kids” dragged from Navalny rallies by the riot police. But this is no time for an untested leader like Navalny, he said, given Russia’s tumultuous history.

“Making a change could lead to the collapse of the country,” Shaburov said. “If we look back and see what happened in the past, it’s better that everything continue as it is now.”
Applebaum's column is written as a warning about President Trump. She thinks his supporters are unlikely to expect honesty from him the way they might from an ordinary politician.

But what should save us is the fact that Trump isn't very good at persuading anyone outside his base that he can protect us from the forces of evil. He asserts that he can, and the deplorables believe him, but the rest of us (including a few of his own voters) aren't buying it.

He's not really a strongman. He's too capricious and too needy. Read the interviews with those pro-Putin youth and it's clear that they regard Putin as a force for stability. Would anyone other than the most blinkered Trump zealots ever describe him that way?

Think about the Trump campaign speech that took place over the weekend. A successful autocrat would rally his supporters that way as a means to an end: solidifying his power base and manufacturing the appearance of a national consensus. For Trump, rallying the faithful is an end in itself -- he does it because he craves the personal validation. He seems emotionally weak. He doesn't appear to be in control of the levers of power and he doesn't appear to be in control of himself.

Appelbaum's warnings are worth heeding. Because Trump is a populist demagogue, his base won't object to his corruption. But the rest of us aren't impressed or intimidated by him. He may get away with the corruption, but we should be able to get him on something.

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