The most pressing question confronting political analysts today is the most elemental one: What, exactly, is even happening?
Is Donald Trump's presidency an entirely American phenomenon? Or was his implausible victory in 2016 continuous with the outcome of the Brexit vote and the rise of right-wing populists across Europe?
Is Trump just the latest in a long line of Republican presidents whose ineptitude and weakness signals the death-throes of a movement and an era? Or does he represent a glimpse of a right-wing populist future?
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And if it's the latter, how should we describe this potential future? Is "populism" something stable that can even be coherently defined? Or are Trump and his European analogues — Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Party in Hungary; Poland's Law and Justice Party — more accurately described as illiberal democrats, would-be authoritarians, or "soft fascists"?
Looking at political shifts in Poland and Hungary over the last 20 years in the direction of right-wing populism, Applebaum sees the changes as flowing from a rejection of meritocratic norms (in both politics and economics) by those who were vanquished in the competition for power and success. That has led to profound transformations in these countries at the level of what might be called the regime. She writes:
For liberal meritocrats, the right to rule is supposed to be a function of "different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests to determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets." Liberals presume these norms and institutions are "the most just and efficient way to distribute power" because they believe that "the best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field to ensure a fair outcome."
But their anti-meritocratic critics disagree, according to Applebaum. Having failed to thrive under those rules, they believe that power and prestige — posts in "universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry" — should not go to "the most industrious or the most capable." Instead, they should be awarded to those who are "the most loyal" to a political cause, movement, or tribe — and to those most willing to deploy lies, deceptions, and conspiracies to advance it. It is above all "the true believers" who will most succeed under such an arrangement.
These beneficiaries also tend to reject the ideal of a neutral state that allows multiple parties to compete fairly for power. Why should there be more than one party if only one party consistently advances one's own interests and rewards one's own loyalty? Likewise with markets: Why support competition among businesses and industries within one's own country, or competition with enterprises owned and run by foreigners, when doing so could result in the failure of my business, industry, and country? Doesn't it make more sense — isn't it more just — to put a thumb on the scale in one's own favor?
This is a clarifying way to think about the changes going on around us, both at home and abroad — not least because it recognizes that, although there are very important reasons to worry about this shift, it's not quite as bad as a return to fascism. It's also a useful way to understand and evaluate what's happening in Trump's Washington beyond the president's role in encouraging GOP policy shifts on immigration and trade. Even when the Trump administration pursues the standard GOP agenda of cutting taxes and nominating conservative jurists to the courts, there's something different about the way the administration governs. Applebaum helps us see the difference is rooted in a change both in the kind of people who are running the show and the norms they advance.
Finally, Applebaum's analysis also helps us make sense of what's going on in terms of classical political philosophy. There are certainly aspects of recent developments that are new — not least the role of social media in empowering those excluded from the upper ranks of meritocracy — but other aspects are as old as politics itself. The conflict between the meritocrats and their opponents is ultimately a conflict over who, or what class of people, will get to rule the political community and in the name of which moral ideals. That's a topic that goes back to Aristotle.
Yet there is also something slightly off about Applebaum's way of understanding this clash. Perhaps because she so strongly believes in the justice of meritocracy, in part because she and her husband (who served as Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs before the populist Law and Justice Party took over) benefitted handsomely under meritocratic norms, she writes at times with unconcealed disdain about those who seek to overthrow them. That leads her to imply that those who now wield power in Poland and Hungary are somehow illegitimate — losers and riffraff who refuse to accept their rightful status as underlings to those who are more capable of thriving under meritocratic rules.
There's certainly something to this, as anyone who's suggested that the Trump era resembles life in a kakistocracy — a form of government in which the most incompetent and corrupt rule — will recognize. Still, as Applebaum notes in certain passages of her essay, it's not surprising that those who fail to thrive (and are therefore excluded from exercising rule) in a meritocracy would come to resist and ultimately seek to tear it down.
But what, then, are we to make of the spread of political techniques devised by right-wing populist politicians to more mainstream figures? We see this in everything from muckraking online anti-Trump "resistance" fighters peddling conspiracy theories to Hillary Clinton herself promoting a claim about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh that journalists have thoroughly debunked. We also see it in the breakdown of national consensus in Germany about basic facts, complete with mainstream politicians accusing one another of peddling fake news.
Perhaps populists merely form the leading edge of a much broader trend. Maybe they merely figured out before mainstream politicians how to use digital media to manipulate and distort public opinion to gain political advantage — and those techniques will soon be deployed by everyone in our public life, meritocrat and anti-meritocrat alike.
In that case, the norm of competition would be preserved but for a very different and more sinister goal — to test which party or faction is more capable of enacting mass deception.
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