The more I watch and read the rhetoric of Donald Trump, the more I find myself at times unexpectedly reflecting on some lessons I learned in the Central European country of Slovakia when I was a Fulbright Fellow there in 2002, and had as my host a man who was a member of the Slovak parliament and a prominent politician in that nation’s right wing, fascist-leaning political party. The similarities between Trump’s rhetoric and that of my host and his right wing platform are striking. It is unlikely this shared rhetoric is another case of plagiarism by the Trump campaign, since I suspect Trump is no student of post-communist politics, but there is no doubt the similarity stands as an example of how those with authoritarian interests gravitate to the same themes and attempt to tap the same anger and the same common fears among those they hope to control. While he is trying to soften some of his rhetoric now in order to gain credibility for a general election, the fact remains that Trump’s interests are authoritarian, and his previous tactics were successful because he followed the authoritarian playbook for mobilizing anger and fear. Having witnessed up-close how such characters justify their authoritarian motives, the only thing I have found surprising about Trump’s rise is not that it could happen in the U.S., but that it could happen to a person who lacks what I thought was a requisite charisma to bear forth such rhetoric. My host in Slovakia had such charisma, and while I was never mesmerized by it or lost my bearings in relationship to it, I did get to glimpse how such a person with such beliefs gains support.
One might wonder why a right wing Member of Parliament would choose to host an American Fulbright Fellow, since right wingers tend not to be dedicated to international relations and cross-cultural exchange. But I came to realize over time that it was the criticism his party was receiving from the West as isolationist and authoritarian that compelled him to offer himself as a Fulbright host and demonstrate his party’s capacity for warmth and goodwill towards all. In other words, I unwittingly was to serve as window dressing in a political charade of rather shallow impression-management. I was also matched with this guy because he was, in addition to being an MP, the chair of a clinical department at one of his country’s three medical schools, and there was a genuine interest among those schools in American brain injury programs like one I had developed previously, so from an administrative perspective, it must have seemed reasonable.
I knew almost immediately upon meeting my host, however, that something was definitely not well with my Fulbright assignment. I arrived in the small town that held the medical school after a long, winding drive from Bratislava with a wonderful pair of physicians, a couple that became my true Slovak soulmates during the coming months and who were the very kind and generous parents of a former international student of mine in the U.S. After my drop-off, I entered the first meeting with my host in his office at the medical school, a high-ceilinged room featuring a huge liquor collection gained over the years as gifts or “tips” from patients, a common custom in the health care settings there. Giving me something that tasted like peach Schnapps, he immediately began to ask me questions about my perspectives on political issues, ethnic and racial matters, gay rights in America, and the role of women in society. I might not have found him so disorienting had I not felt utterly foreign and alone in the dusk of this small, remote Slovak town, but I recall thinking at the time that I was trapped in there with a real nut and had no easy escape, since my Slovak friends were already back on the long road to Bratislava. After deflecting much prying into my beliefs and personal life, I finally looked around and tried to change the subject, curiously asking why the doors into his office were covered in button-tufted leather padding, resembling the back of a fancy leather sofa. He paused and then said it was because, during the communist period, the town was known for being a center for Russian military tank production, and spies, American ones too, were always trying to listen to the conversations occurring behind closed doors. The button-tufted leather was sound proofing. I responded that we had padded rooms in the U.S. too, but for different reasons, at which point which he stood up, frowned, and looking at me sideways, signaling the first meeting was over.
Over the coming months I came to know much more about my host through our meetings. I didn’t live with him, fortunately, because I had accommodations on campus, but we did get together for discussions when he was back in town from parliamentary meetings in Bratislava or important gatherings elsewhere. What I came to learn was that he was much more pro-fascist than even my first impressions. He was deeply anti-Semitic, anti- Gypsy, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and felt strongly that gay people could be made straight with proper psychological treatment. He despised George Soros, whose Open Society people I was meeting with in various locations to study their approaches to disability rights and de-institutionalization. He found America a backwards country where we turn every social conflict into a “legal” issue (meaning a civil rights matter) when often it was simply a problem of inferior types of people behaving inferiorly and better dealt with through segregation. Power, in his mind, was to be concentrated in those who ruled the populace, not scattered about and wasted in the hands of the average citizen. Democratic civil society was a sign of weakness, because only official government figures have the competency, and therefore should have the power, to influence the public appropriately, and any governing system that would abdicate such influence was a sign that a nation lacked a strong, courageous leadership. Certain people were entitled to lead, and others were meant to follow. These ideas were noted by him to exist outside his country, too, and were seen as successful. He had been a friend of Milosevic and admired Putin.
The appeal of my host’s right wing positions was based on a small number of common, poorly informed beliefs that were then highlighted and boldly articulated by his party as a political platform. One belief purported that the past was better than the present and could be returned to under the right leadership. Widespread economic insecurities since the fall of communism were the fault of a new and permissive government that disfavored Slovakia’s own people and instead allowed foreigners and ethnic minorities to siphon away the jobs and resources that were previously protected by an authoritarian leadership, a leadership that was nostalgically portrayed as benign with its own people but one that knew how to draw a hardline with outsiders, like a tough patriarch protecting his own family. A return to the values of “before” would therefore be a return to a sense of paternalistic and nationalistic security, where current hardships didn’t exist and current ethnic and foreign intruders, portrayed as the bullies or free-loaders, were driven back to where they came from. Another vague impression that was given voice and trumpeted aloud by his party was the idea that the nation was under threat of dissolution and decay, and there was an urgent need to reverse this terrible trend before all was lost. Clowns were portrayed to be at the controls, while what the public needed was a strong, competent, no-nonsense boss to wrestle back the nation’s moral authority and direction. Submit to the benign dictator and return to those golden years. Stand behind the tough protector who will shield you from harm at the hands of dark or foreign people who don’t respect our ways.
These beliefs in the supremacy of some groups over others, and the problems posed by democratic ideals, were not expressed in frothy rantings or desk-pounding fits. He was quite matter of fact, sometimes even genteel, in relating the truth of his world to me. In fact, he was typically quite patient in his explanations and defenses, apparently figuring he was dealing with a reasonably polite American idiot, long immersed in the folly of democratic fantasies and pursuit of equal rights back home. But what was most notable, and unsettling for me to recognize in myself, was how this despot could express redeeming qualities that allowed him to appear more human. He was often humorous, and made casual observations about life that could be funny. For example, he once explained “So you have gay friends. It’s ok. Let’s be honest, most male figure skaters are homosexuals. I have no problem with that. Talent is talent. Who is to say if they were not that way, would they skate so well? I find them very friendly.” He was also irreverent in ways that seemed intended to entertain his company. I recall once, when we were driving to visit a rehabilitation hospital in another town, he avoided traffic by jumping the curb and driving down the sidewalk, honking for the pedestrians to get out of the way. He explained “Ah, I have nothing to worry about. I am an official member of the Slovak parliament, after all”. Later on that same trip, we needed to part ways as he headed to the capital for meetings and I was to return to the medical school. He handed me a first class ticket on the train platform and called to a porter to see me to a seat. I reached for my wallet and he waved it away: “Of course not. I only wish we could drive back together and have more discussions”. There was frequently a sense of propriety and kindness tangled up with his hatred. I remember he once approached a young woman in the hospital strapped to a standing platform for support, because she had a recent spinal cord injury, offering her encouragement and commenting on her high spirits, then soon after turning to me and commenting “Very difficult injury. She’s Gypsy, you know”. But it was this occasional likeableness and complexity that I realized made him so dangerous, because if someone like me, coming at his world with radically opposing values, could see some good, I realized those with less drastic differences might be won over quite readily.
Trump lacks the charisma of my Slovak host, but he represents much of the same rhetoric and taps many of the same fears and wishes found in a portion of a public that is seeking paternalistic security and the angry scapegoating of minorities. That portion of the public is able to find whatever good qualities they need to find in order to admire him, and even like him. Possibly similar to my host, Trump is able, at times, if fleetingly, to appear like a human being who shares human concerns.
There are estimates that Hillary Clinton will win the election in a landslide, but even if that occurs, even if Trump’s supporters are the minority of voters as estimated, it remains a fact that a sizeable number of Americans are eager to support an authoritarian menace to be their leader, eager to seek their own benefit at the extreme expense of their neighbors who are perceived as different from them. The politics of Slovakia have vacillated since my time in that country, and there is now an autocratic president there cut from the same cloth as my host. I would also say, however, Trump too is cut from that cloth. One need not go to a small and struggling country in post-communist Central Europe to encounter a despot, or travel back in time to a place in history when there may have been less discomfiting precedent: We have our own autocrat right here and now and he is popular. These characters, whether here in the U.S. or somewhere else we rarely hear about, are not unique or new. They have a rather predictable modus operandi that is executed again and again, even as people insist “never again”. What I find most troubling and, yet, a validation of those who have long warned us of the banality of such evil, is the confirmation that America is not at all immune from an attraction to such characters. What may be the most valuable lesson from the rise of Trump is the realization that our citizenry shares the same vulnerabilities and same selfish motives as those that have catapulted such figures into power elsewhere, in out-of-the-way places that were never our place, or previous times that were never our time. This lesson is valuable, however, only if going forward we acknowledge this same frightful potential in ourselves as Americans, honestly and painfully address the anger and need for vengeance such characters thrive on in our own country, and take the precautions necessary to make sure such a figure posing such dangers never rises this high again. If we fail to do this, the emergence of Trump will serve not as just a critical lesson, a brief reminder of our own vulnerabilities along the course of our history, but the first glimpse of what was to become a recurrent theme in our future.
Daniel Holland is a clinical psychologist and professor. His work has focused on disability rights and disability activism in developing and transitioning parts of the world. He has been a two-time Fulbright Fellow, a Fellow of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania, a Research Scholar at the Wilson International Center, and a Mary E. Switzer Distinguished Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education. He lives in Minneapolis.