Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why Melania Trump should feel afraid in Authoritarian America

The answer is that she is from Slovakia.

That country endured an authoritarian government that came to power after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the citizens ultimately prevailed. The Washington Post carries an op-ed by a native Slovakian in My country had its own Trump. Here’s how we beat him.

Two and a half years after the fall of communism in 1989, the ruthless and charismatic Vladimir Meciar was elected as prime minister in my home country of Slovakia after a brief previous stint in the office. His larger-than-life personality and bombastic rhetoric filled much of the media space, often with lies and conspiracies. His opponents, many of them former dissidents from the old era, lacked the rhetorical skills, charisma and political acumen to compete.

Notoriously unstable, Meciar lashed out against critics when under pressure. He rejected experts who, he argued, didn’t understand Slovakia’s exceptionalism. Instead of opening the country to international businesses, he let his cronies get spectacularly rich by seizing publicly owned assets. At regular intervals, Meciar got into unprovoked fights with leaders of neighboring countries and indulged in crass jokes about their sex lives. More seriously, he was widely suspected of using the politicized secret service against his political opponents. No wonder that then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once called the country a “black hole in the heart of Europe.”

But there was a semi-happy ending - or perhaps better viewed as a promising beginning.

… After the 1998 election, Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia was unable to secure a parliamentary majority and lost power to a broad coalition of center-right and center-left parties.

Three factors accounted for Meciar’s demise. First, his base was slowly eroding, as his supporters were often drawn from older segments of the population. … Second, Meciar’s demise was precipitated by the emergence of an effective opposition that coalesced around the questions that mattered the most: rule of law and Slovakia’s place among European democracies. … Third, Meciar’s political decline had a strong international dimension. Meciar’s brutish manners alienated Slovakia’s neighbors, as well as Brussels and Washington. In defending himself, he tried to sell his voters a grotesque idea of an international conspiracy directed against Slovakia. His domestic critics, too, were smeared as paid agents of anti-Slovak forces abroad. That message resonated with Meciar’s core supporters, but more and more Slovaks saw that their country’s growing isolation was purely of their own government’s making.

The legacy of Meciar’s reign is continuing corruption and distrust of government.

Overall, however, Slovakia’s story is an optimistic one, as it shows that creeping authoritarianism can be defeated — even in a vulnerable society. In the early 1990s, Slovakia had just woken up from 40 years of communist rule: Its democratic institutions, rule of law and civil society were weak. Yet it succeeded in fighting off Meciar’s abuses of power. Surely Americans will not let their traditions of democracy and limited government be destroyed by a hyperactive and unstable reality TV host — at least not without a fight.

Here is what it will take.

… nurturing the institutions of liberal democracy requires much more work than simply keeping aspiring authoritarians at bay. It requires ensuring that liberal democratic governments are seen as legitimate and effective at delivering key public goods, including justice and security.

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