The siege of the Capitol was one of the darkest moments, but not the last hour of modern democracy, writes Anna Donáth.
Anna Donáth is a Hungarian MEP within the Renew Europe group
Trump’s presidency has been the antithesis of nearly everything we believe in, but the self-healing power of the democratic order will show its strength. Make no mistake: the hardest part is not over. The Trumpian recipe is way too effective not to be exploited by European populists. New threats require new solutions – a transatlantic dialogue is needed.
While I was watching the mob take over the Capitol, I struggled with ambivalent feelings. The footage struck me hard and caught me off guard – one cannot be prepared to see such events unfolding in the heart of the world’s leading democracy. On the other hand, that gruesome day seems to be an inevitable consequence of the populist politics gaining power in recent years.
For the siege seems anything but surprising in the light of Trump’s presidency which focused so heavily on undermining democracy. During his term, the President was continuously spreading fake news and hatred, attacking the most profound institutions of democracy.
The distinction between fact and opinion had been muddled, knowledge and objective facts, which should be the cornerstones of public speech, were stripped off their authority. This was paired with identity politics pulling the ‘us-them’ division within the borders of the political community.
As a final touch, Trump spread distrust towards elections, the society’s last institution of reality check. Well before the elections, a campaign had been launched to question the legitimacy of mail-in ballots followed by the President proclaiming himself the winner before every vote was counted. Trump left no stone unturned, showing signs of acute election-denial.
The Trump phenomenon is not an isolated case, but a product of deeper, frightening trends. With the super-personalization of politics, the horizontalization of the media sphere and the related downfall of authority of classic democratic institutions, we face serious threats.
The victory of persons over institutions, such as parties, switches off paramount layers of checks and balances. The classic institutions of the public sphere – journalists or experts for example – are losing ground as well as basic underlying procedures, such as deliberation.
We are living in the era of the informational Wild West: it has never been easier in the history of modern democracy to question virtually anything while weakening the public trust in democratic processes.
This is not a foreign affair for us, European citizens: Populists in Hungary and Poland both exploit and escalate these trends.
There are fears that the Trumpian playbook, that is, undermining elections and denying peaceful transfer of power, will happen in these countries as well. Indeed, it is not by chance that so many people in Hungary followed the US events with the fear lurking in the background – ‘is this going to happen after the parliamentary elections in 2022 if Orbán loses?’
Trump demonstrated the potential in a populist interpretation of electoral results, and if it was possible to do in the US, it might as well happen in countries where populists have infiltrated democratic institutions to even a greater degree.
Despite all this post-truth madness, I believe that democracy will show its potential of being the most resilient political system ever created. The thesis of democracy and the populist antithesis will produce a synthesis. In the US, the recovery and healing process can start with the inauguration of the newly elected President, Joe Biden. I am positive that the American society will find its way to overcome the challenges.
Nevertheless, the fight is far from over. For one, the world needs to be prepared for the transition of power from the populist to the newly elected democratic forces in the US. Moreover, the synthesis following this will not inevitably lead to the democracy most of us desire – we need to drive the process.
The trends weakening today’s democracy might be used to strengthen the democracy of tomorrow. The personalization of politics as well as social media platforms might be used to lessen the gap between the ordinary voters and politicians, creating a political system with stronger civic participation.
We need to engage in a global discourse on how to prepare for election denial on the one hand, and how to recover democracy post-populism on the other.
The past few months might and should serve as an example regarding the former. In turn, the upcoming months and years in the US will provide an example for the latter. I believe that both the US and the EU might profit from such a dialogue.