No need for tears and hand-wringing, U.S. friends. What happened on Tuesday was not a collapse of your democracy — just a powerful blow to American Exceptionalism and the misplaced arrogance of the U.S. elite.
Donald Trump won by using a mix that has been effective in Eastern Europe since the turn of the century: a combination of strong nationalism and an anti-corruption agenda.
At a hotel in an Orlando, Florida, suburb at 7 p.m. Tuesday, a dozen Osceola County Republicans gathered around a TV tuned to Fox News. They were early comers to an event billed as a victory party — the Osceola Republican Party was going to celebrate some modest down-ballot wins — but these people were more interested in the presidential race.
They looked cocky and overconfident about Trump’s performance. “He’s going to run the table,” a gray-haired gentleman in an Air Force cap said as the first results came in. They toasted one another with beer. “To the wall,” said an olive-skinned woman who explained that she was herself an immigrant from Romania.
They didn’t really feel this confidence. As the numbers changed on the screen, faces grew tense and the body language betrayed anxiety. Mobile phones came out of pockets as the Trump fans perused the various online election maps and discussed their candidate’s paths to victory, still unlikely at that point.
Three hours later, a woman in a cowboy hat climbed up on a chair and screamed: “They’ve just called Florida for Donald Trump!” And she brandished a rubber mask of Hillary Clinton as a witch as if it was the Democratic nominee’s severed head. A huge cheer went up. It did turn out to be a real victory party, after all.
Many will say Trump’s victory was fueled by racism and xenophobia. But it’s more complicated than that.
The pro-Trump Orlando crowd wasn’t an all-white, all-male audience. The day before, when Orlando government relations consultant Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Trump surrogate, told me the Republicans hadn’t really botched Hispanic outreach and would deliver plenty of votes to their candidate, it was all I could do not to show disbelief. Yet she was right: Spanish was heard in that hotel ballroom. Women, too, were well-represented. Clearly, enough Latinos and enough women didn’t believe Trump’s words about them had been particularly offensive.
This is just anecdotal evidence, of course, and so is the fact that, in my travels around the United States this year, I met far more people who were enthusiastic about Trump than about Clinton. But then, do we have anything but anecdotal evidence to go on anymore?
Clearly, most pollsters and pundits were so wrong that everything they said all year should have been disregarded. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to do so, unlike some people I met — for example, Las Vegas lawyer Robert Barnes, who has, since the primaries, consistently predicted a Trump victory and who has now made hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself and the clients he advised to place bets on Trump with European bookmakers.
The signs he and other gamblers saw — many of them rather unscientific — turned out to be more valid than the arrogant opinions and authoritative-looking calculations of pollsters, academics, political operatives and veteran commentators.
I should have listened to Barnes, and to dozens of ordinary Americans who explained to me why they preferred Trump to Clinton. Only a small number of them indicated they were xenophobic. Most were unhappy about their economic situation, particularly rising Obamacare premiums and the precariousness of their incomes — and every one of them considered Clinton corrupt. As one Trump supporter in Orlando put it Tuesday night, “I’d rather have the Mafia run the U.S. government than Hillary Clinton: They are less crooked.”
That should have told me something important — or, rather, confirmed something I’d known from another part of the world.
Trump probably won because, by the end of his campaign, he wasn’t just a nationalist populist, like the kind that has recently achieved increasing success in Europe, without, however, winning commanding heights. He was also an anti-corruption crusader. He was smart to pick up on the opportunity given to him by WikiLeaks, which tweeted on Tuesday night: “The American people don’t like corruption.”
Anti-corruption parties saw major electoral success in Central and Eastern Europe, joining or leading governing coalitions in a number of countries — Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Bulgaria — in the 2000s. Far from all of them, however, survived their second, not to mention their third election. The most successful of them — Poland’s Law and Justice — runs the country today because it has artfully combined an anti-corruption agenda with nationalist populism.
This combination has tempted many post-Soviet politicians, too. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili honed it after his country’s 2003 “Rose Revolution,” and then, when he was swept out of power after significantly changing his country, he brought it with him to Ukraine. This week, he resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region to build a strong party and fight for an early parliamentary election.
He announced his resignation in a Trump-like self-pitying, vindictive speech. He blamed corruption in President Petro Poroshenko’s administration and cabinet for his failure to reform customs and public services in the region. He said the president personally supported corrupt “criminal clans” in Odessa and he vowed to “begin a new stage of the struggle.”
“I am the soldier who forges ahead while he can and then as long as he must,” Saakashvili said. “As long as he must until a total victory, until Ukraine is purged of this filth, of this corrupt dirt.”
It’s highly ironic if indeed it was Russia that provided Trump with his WikiLeaks ammunition. There, an anti-corruption, nationalist populist, Alexei Navalny, is probably the strongest figure in the beleaguered opposition to the Vladimir Putin regime. Putin, who is not a nativist and whose close circle is notoriously corrupt, is the sworn enemy of nationalist anti-corruption movements in Russia’s immediate vicinity, and he is their No. 1 target. The Law and Justice coalition in Poland is strongly anti-Putin, too.
Meanwhile, it’s time to give up the hubris. The United States is a country like many others in most important respects. Everything that can happen elsewhere can happen here. Trump has just proven that.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.