Eastern Europe, birthplace of Trumpism — but also of a new hope

Former Soviet-bloc nations produced an upsurge of right-wing nationalism — but a new generation wants real change

Published January 21, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Members of the far-right group, the National-Radical Camp, marking the 83rd anniversary of their organization, in Warsaw, Poland. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
Members of the far-right group, the National-Radical Camp, marking the 83rd anniversary of their organization, in Warsaw, Poland. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

“He was a rich businessman, an outspoken outsider with a love of conspiracy theories. And he was a populist running for president.” That’s how John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, introduces Stanisław Tymiński in a TomDispatch article spun off from his new book, "Aftershock: A Journey Into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams." A Trump forerunner by a quarter century, Tymiński ran for president of Poland in 1990, when the first wave of shock therapy was just beginning to devastate the country. He shocked everyone by actually making it into the runoff election against legendary Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa (who defeated him easily).

“Tyminski’s major error: his political backwardness was a little ahead of its time,” Feffer writes, “He was the standard-bearer for a virulent right-wing populism that would one day take power in Poland and control the politics of the region.” Indeed, his article is subtitled “Welcome to the Birthplace of Trumpism.” But the history of Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War is considerably more complicated than that, and what makes Feffer’s book so significant is precisely his eagerness to burrow into those complexities, based on almost 300 interviews he conducted in 2012 and 2013 (available here), and re-interviewing 80 people he first interviewed in 1990, who provide a wide range of different perspectives on that history.

“By interviewing people at two points in their lives, I want to illuminate the gap in between, on hopes realized and fears confronted,” Feffer writes. “But there’s also a larger story I want to tell: the sudden rise and ignominious fall of the liberal project.”  

In his article, Feffer provides a condensed explanation of why Americans should be concerned about Eastern Europe for their own sake, as well as for those who live there. Twenty years after Tymiński’s premature run, in 2010, Victor Orbán came to power in Hungary, as leader of a once-liberal party he reshaped in response to all the ways the promise of transition had failed to deliver:

In a remarkable number of ways Orbán anticipated Donald Trump. He reversed his country’s longstanding mistrust of Russia by openly courting its president, Vladimir Putin, and pledging to transform Hungarian politics along the lines of that country’s “illiberal state.” He railed against mainstream journalism, attempted to bend the judiciary (and the constitution) to his will, and rigged the state apparatus to benefit his supporters. In perhaps his most ominous twist, Orbán courted the Hungarian version of the alt-right with relentless anti-immigrant statements and the occasional anti-Semitic gesture.

This in turn inspired the Polish right-wing Law and Justice Party, which came to power four years later, Feffer notes. And now:

Donald Trump is constructing Budapest in Washington D.C., as he unwittingly follows Tyminski’s and Orbán’s trajectory. The reality TV star cultivated his status as an extreme outsider. During the Obama era, he identified a political opportunity on the right and, in September 2009, switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Seven years later, having combined outlandish conspiracy theories (think: birtherism) with an astute critique of liberal elites, he squeaked into power. He surely owes something to native (and nativist) traditions from Huey Long to Ross Perot, but he shares so much more with his compatriots across the Atlantic.

Feffer’s book is not about Tymiński, Orbán, or the Law and Justice Party. It’s about what made them possible, if not inevitable: the societies and historical conditions they emerged from, all of which were variations on the fall of the liberal project. This is arguably the most important thing he shares with them. The cracks in Eastern Europe are much more gaping than our own, which makes them easier to see and make sense of. Given how blind we’ve been recently, we can use all the help we can get in seeing things.

Feffer’s method of understanding this historical period is through wide-ranging interviews with all sorts of people, puts the New York Times’ fixation on white male Trump voters to shame. Feffer doesn’t interview inarticulate people, asking superficial questions, nor is he concerned with seeming “objective,” as opposed to being critically aware.

He advances his own ideas and the ideas of others he finds significant as ways of making sense of what his interview subjects say. Those subjects often have their own ways of understanding their nations' long histories as well as the “sudden rise and ignominious fall” of the liberal project that is a central theme of Feffer’s book.

The collapse of that project is what allowed Trumpism to rise. But Tymiński's unexpected success in 1990 shows how the collapse began, and what exactly one means by the "liberal project" is not easy to define. Indeed, this story has multiple main facets, several of which are summed up near the end of the book: 

This final chapter has explored a set of divides: between those inside and outside the EU, between the cosmopolitan and the national, between those who have benefited from economic globalization and those who haven’t, and between political elites and the citizenries who rage against them. A country can accommodate one or two such divisions. But when such unbridgeable conflicts start to accumulate and intensify, as they have over the last twenty years, the existing system becomes increasingly untenable.

There are disturbing parallels between the experiences of Eastern Europe and those in America, despite all our differences. They were promised a “transition” to become prosperous free societies like Western Europe within a decade — a generation at most. America has been the “leader of the free world” for seven decades. Yet, neither has come close to providing a universal quality of life comparable to that seen Austria, Germany and France, much less the Scandinavian countries. Those countries, too, are now seeing their futures threatened, so Eastern Europe’s experience has lessons for all the world, which we ignore at our peril.

Feffer's book is divided into two parts, connected by an interlude. "Part I: Stepping Backward" chronicles what went wrong, in systemic terms. "Part II: Leaping Forward" has a more individualistic tone, reflecting the reality that most of what's positive in the Eastern European experience has little systemic support so far.

The first half unfolds with an inexorable logic, despite considerable variation in perspectives. Chapter 1, "Pyramids of Sacrifice" takes its name from a 1974 book by Peter Berger, who “compared social engineering projects like [Chairman Mao's] Great Leap Forward to the ritual sacrifice of the Aztecs,” as Feffer puts it. “What made Berger’s arguments even more radical in the 1970s was his willingness to compare communism and capitalism to the Aztec ritual. ‘Both models are based on the willingness to sacrifice at least one generation for the putative goals of the experiment,’ he wrote. ‘Both sets of sacrifice are justified by theories.’”  

Eastern Europe’s post-1989 experience wasn’t as extreme, Feffer writes. “However, entire classes of people in the region -- pensioners, industrial workers, collective farmers  were simply incapable of accommodating the profound shifts taking place in their society.” He sketches out various more specific examples as well, such as the Erased in Slovenia — about 25,000 residents born elsewhere in Yugoslavia, who were promised citizenship after Slovenia won its independence, but who lost their legal status without even notification, due to ignorance, confusion and disinformation.

In Chapter 2, “The Journey to Utopia,” Feffer introduces a metaphor to explain how different people with very different politics could still share a similar framework for making sense of their future: a train trip on which everyone is headed toward the same destination but with very different accommodations, from the “lucky few” in first class to the large masses crowded into unreserved cars. “Even if the length of the journey is unknown, everyone on the train seems convinced that a single track connects the embarkation point of regime change with the disembarkation point of market democracy,” he explains. By this logic, it makes sense to make the journey as quickly as possible, whatever the costs. More pain than you expected? Go faster, to get it over with more quickly!

Next, Chapter 3, “The Revenge of the Provinces” takes up the most comprehensive way in which this promise failed to deliver. In a section titled “Eastern Europe B,” Feffer writes:

After its postcommunist transition, Poland cleaved into two parts that Poles refer to as "Poland A" and "Poland B." Poland A links together an archipelago of cities and their younger, wealthier inhabitants. Poland B encompasses the poorer, older parts of the population, many clustered in the countryside, particularly in the country’s eastern reaches near the former Soviet border.

After 1989 and the implementation of a punishing series of economic reforms, Poland A took off economically. By 2010, Warsaw had become one of the most expensive places to live in Europe, outranking even Brussels and Berlin. …

In the countryside, on the other hand, Poland B fell ever farther behind. Factories couldn’t compete with the West. … As the good times rolled in Poland A, Poland B languished.

It’s not just Poland, but all of Eastern Europe that’s similarly divided — and so are we in America. To put it in Feffer's terms "America B" is what elected Trump, it’s where “Make America Great Again” makes sense in a way that it never can in America A, where the present is in most important respects better than the past. Late in the chapter, Feffer writes, “Eastern Europe B is a subset of Europe B, which also hasn’t seen much advantage coming from the more neoliberal economic reforms of the last two decades.” The same is clearly true of America as well. Economic growth is concentrated in urban areas. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won counties that accounted for almost two-thirds of America’s economic output.

This is the primary dynamic fueling the subject of Chapter 4, “The Faces of Illiberalism,” which leads off with Tamás Hegedűs, a member of Jobbik, Hungary’s right-wing nationalist party, which has “prospered because of the absence of a strong political left and the grave disappointments attached to the promises of the liberal center,” Feffer notes. “But the most important impact of the rise of groups like Jobbik has been their disruption of the conventional narrative of eastern Europe proceeding smoothly in one direction toward some steady state of market liberalism.”

Communism was in theory the opposite of nationalism, but in practice the two were symbiotic, and nationalism became increasingly important in the 1980s, as the appeal of communism began to fade. In a section titled “The Nationalist Turn,” Feffer goes into some detail about how this played out, and how it continued after 1989. Then, in “The Populist Reformation,” he stakes out a much deeper historical perspective, drawing parallels to the Protestant Reformation:

The rise of populism in Europe today contains some echoes of this earlier convulsion, though the religious tones have been transposed to a political register. The Rome that so dismayed the Protestants of the past has become Brussels, and today’s populists devote considerable energy to decrying the interference of this immense bureaucracy in national prerogatives. They invoke nationalist slogans and symbols not only against the European Union but against immigrants, foreign investors, international economic institutions, and transnational NGOs. The new populists also argue for a more direct relationship between citizens and political power, unmediated by traditional politicians. And they take advantage of the latest technologies (YouTube, social media) to spread their messages.

Insurgent Protestants established their own churches. Insurgent populists have established their own parties and aspire to lead their congregations out from under the rule of Brussels.

One indication that this may be a profound break with the past lies in how these populists — again, like Trump — are interested in raw power, rather than policy proposals. This is a point driven home by Goran Buldioski, the head of the Open Society Initiative for Europe in Budapest:

"The only skill or ability that’s important at the moment is the social skill," [Buldioski] said. "If you’re able to navigate through society by expressing your loyalty upwards and your use of brute power downwards, then you will be successful. ..." Populists will tack whichever way the wind blows in order to gain power.

This entails a completely different political logic, at odds with the modern liberal state:

Populists romanticize the "heartland," which political scientist Paul Taggart identifies as "a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of the imagination." It is this tension between the aggressively political competition at the polls and the aggressively non-political rhetoric of the heartland that characterizes the Populist Reformation. What drops out is the middle: the back-and-forth compromises of liberal governance for which populists and their supporters have little patience.

This is the heart of the picture Feffer paints in his book, supported both by the breadth of his interviews and by the many threads connecting them. One striking example is the role of the Roma people (sometimes called the Gypsies, a term now seen as derogatory) as a favorite target of right-wing nationalists contrasted with the importance of their rights struggle in progressive circles, which comes to the fore in the book's second part.

The failures and problems of "Aftershock’s" first half can be seen as a systemic whole, the last chapter of which, “Unexploded Ordnance,” centers on the overhang of complicity from the Communist era — a severe complicating factor with significantly less universal resonance.

But the possibilities surveyed in the second half are significantly different, in that what they are striving toward remains largely undefined. This stretches from the most individualist level in Chapter 6, “Reinvention of Self, ”to the most universal in Chapter 10, “Creating New Worlds,” focused on the imaginative and community-building role of artists. In between come chapters focused on the Roma minority and on the challenges of advancing progressive reforms in the worlds made possible by Cold War dissidents, but formed almost entirely by larger forces outside them. Chapter 9, “The Next Generation,” can be summed up in one sentence: “A new generation has decided to clean up the messes created by previous generations.”

All these chapters have more precarious foundations than those in the book's first half, but are strengthened by the connections between them. For example, the Roma also figure in Feffer's chapter “The New Dissidents,” which include gay rights, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, women's rights, and anti-austerity and anti-corruption campaigns.

What Feffer describes as the "talented tenth strategy" (borrowing from W.E.B. DuBois), meaning a situation in which a minority within a previously underprivileged group prospers while the majority is left behind, has much broader application than the predicament of the Roma people:

The talented tenth problem applies to the region as a whole. The transformations of 1989 offered tremendous opportunities to a gifted minority…. The elite of eastern Europe now lives at the level of their western European counterparts. But the problem of underdevelopment in the region stems from the failure of the elite to pull the mass of people into prosperity. The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the inequality line.

Another, reinforcing connection is comes up when Feffer interviews Violeta Draganova, who became the first Roma anchor on Bulgarian national television in the early 2000s and eventually left to work for the European Commission in Brussels. “There are Roma who live in the ghetto who don’t know what it means for Bulgaria to be accepted in the EU,” she told Feffer. “But there are other Roma who want a better education, who are ambitious. For them, this is a good opportunity: to get out of Bulgaria and be part of the EU. Maybe some of them will go to different universities in Europe, and it will be easier for them to come back here and do something. In some way, they will break the glass ceiling by going outside and studying.”

This connects the Roma specifically with the younger generation more broadly, as in this example:

Yanina Taneva is one of the returnees. Studying abroad, she learned about NGO culture in the West. Now she heads up a Bulgarian initiative called the Idea Factory. "We started it in 2006," she told me in the organization’s headquarters in a Sofia apartment. "Everything that we were watching as children on television, all this inequality, made us so angry, but we were kids and couldn’t do anything. But some of us studied in universities outside Bulgaria and then came back. What we saw was huge injustice, especially regarding the environment. This topic became so well known in Bulgaria because we started a few campaigns that turned out to be huge."

These younger activists are still feeling their way. “The next generation in eastern Europe has not gotten behind a single ideology,” Feffer writes. “But whatever group young people join, they’ve largely rejected the orthodox liberalism handed down by those who constructed the post-1989 order. The republicans and extremists have challenged this neoliberalism from the right; the radicals have launched their critiques from the left. Even liberals, like those around Kultura Liberalna, have been busy trying to distinguish their version of liberalism from what has become so discredited in the public sphere.”

It’s as foolish to try to predict what this rising generation will come up as it is to ignore them. However fragile their hopes may seem, the same could be said for the dissidents who preceded them, in the decades before the Berlin Wall fell.

Feffer begins his book with a tale of two psychologists: A Bulgarian, Miroslave Durmov, who went into politics as an idealistic defender of Turkish minority rights and ended up disillusioned, living in Kentucky and working menial jobs; and a Pole, Bogdan Łapiński, who went into business and prospered wildly.

"Through an ad in the newspaper, coming from nowhere, I jumped onto the board of directors of IKEA. It took only one week," Łapiński told Feffer. He went on to work for other multinationals, eventually building a successful career as a management consultant.

Durmov is characteristic of the vast number of "losers of transition," Feffer explains, but Łapiński lived out what was supposed to happen: first shock, then adjustment and then prosperity. Despite so many millions of losers, there was some sense in which this still seems true. “If you compare what has happened in the former Warsaw Pact to the chaos and  conflict following the Color Revolutions to the east or the Arab Spring to the south, eastern Europe has indeed been a success story of transition – perhaps the success story,” Feffer points out.

This is perhaps the biggest reason why Feffer's book is so important. Compared to the rest of the world, Eastern Europe is a relative success -- and the same can be said about America, even after the election of Donald Trump. If the first half of "Aftershock" can be read as a warning of what might befall us in the years ahead, then the second half can be read as an inspiration about what we can do to prevent it.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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