Trump’s European Orphans

I was born and raised in a Prague that was under the sway of totalitarian communism. Back then, we all knew that we couldn’t trust any official statement because the authorities never told the truth. At school, we were inculcated with doctrines that hardly anyone believed in, and dominating everything was class hatred, one of the basic principles of the communist state. Historians and thinkers have described Eastern Europe’s communist period as having been a great lie that conditioned every aspect of life.

After just over a decade of the presidency of Václav Havel, who saw love and truth as the cures for the mentality just described, and who exercised a great deal of influence over other post-communist countries, there has been a return to politicians who base their policies on lies and hatred. When I visit my native city or any of the four countries that make up the Visegrád Group, I get a feeling of déjà vu.

Over the last four years, the political leaders of this foursome, also known as V4, enjoyed the support of Donald Trump. Under his influence, their slanderous, hate-filled campaigns have become more toxic than ever.

On the first weekend after the attempt to seize the Capitol, a strange demonstration took place in Prague: Trump supporters from different parts of the Czech Republic carried banners that expressed their sympathy towards their champion and, following his example, claimed they were unconvinced by the Covid vaccine. By way of showing their apparent marginalisation, the demonstrators wore yellow stars, like the Jews under the Nazis, a gesture which angered Jewish associations and many other citizens.

When I saw a video of the protest, I got the feeling that these little Trumpists were disorientated. Their hero had dug his own grave in front of an astonished world. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Czech PM, the right-wing populist Andrej Babis, who up until then had worn the red Trumpist cap, suddenly appeared without his cap and wearing a mask. Babis has thrown his cap into the garbage just as, in 1989, after the fall of communism, he got rid of his party membership card, as if neither thing had ever existed.

If Babis had thrown away his Trumpist cap in the same way that the communist leaders of the 1950s erased from the official photos their liquidated colleagues, it is because Trump has turned into something undesirable even for his own supporters. Among them are the Visegrád Four: Slovakia and the Czech Republic to a lesser extent, given that in spite of various slip-ups they have continued along a democratic path. Hungary and Poland, on the other hand, are reclaiming fragments of the totalitarianism which disappeared over 30 years ago, but in its radical right-wing form, which is anti-Semitic and blessed by the church, especially in Poland.

After Trump’s fall, Poland and Hungary have become orphans. Nonetheless, they can console themselves with the American leader’s legacy: manipulation, falsehoods, division and hatred. The Polish president Andrzej Duda, who Trump helped to win the elections by inviting him to the White House just before they took place, has used the Trumpist doctrine to his own ends, as has the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. Biden angered both of them when he compared their countries to Belarus’s dictatorial regime, and mentioned them in the context of the rise of totalitarian regimes around the world.

Orbán was the first European leader who gave his support to Trump during the latter’s first candidacy, four years ago. Both politicians share similar points of view regarding immigration and border controls, among other issues. Time and again, Orbán has described Hungary and the other Visegrád Group countries as the defenders of conservative and Christian values as opposed to those of the liberal West. Not long ago, the Hungarian minister for foreign affairs celebrated the fact that he had never enjoyed such a good bilateral relationship as the one during Trump’s term of office.

After the assault on the Capitol, Poland merely stated that ‘the events in Washington are an internal affair’. On the other hand, Orbán stuck to his conviction that reality had to be manipulated: he described the attack as ‘the work of an aggressive left-wing mob’, adding that he too had had some experience with a ‘Hungarian left-wing which uses force’, a reference to a peaceful protest, which had no negative repercussions.

While Biden’s White House will seek to lower the tension with the European Union and stress bilateral relationships and European integration, Hungary and Poland, having lost a powerful defender in Washington, will be side-lined. I personally hope that during my next visits to the Visegrád countries I will find a state of affairs that is different in comparison to the one I experienced when I was a little girl, up to my neck in a sea of lies and hatred.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)