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After Trump, Europe's Populist Leaders Will Have 'Lost One Of Their Cheerleaders'

President Trump welcomes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the White House in May 2019.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Trump welcomes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the White House in May 2019.

On the day after the U.S. election, millions of votes in swing states were still being counted and there was no winner yet. But that didn't stop Janez Jansa, the prime minister of Slovenia, birthplace of first lady Melania Trump, from posting a congratulatory tweet,cheering on a second term for President Trump – and bashing the mainstream media for good measure.

After the election was called for Joe Biden, Polish President Andrzej Duda composed a carefully worded tweetthat congratulated the president-elect "for a successful presidential campaign," but stopped short of acknowledging that Biden would be the next U.S. president. He added that Poland would instead wait for the results of the Electoral College.

Eastern Europe's populist leaders are having a hard time accepting that Trump has lost.

"I'm not so sure it's a big loss for the populations. I think it's a big loss for the individual leaders, frankly," says Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

President Trump hosts Polish President Andrzej Duda at the White House in June.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Trump hosts Polish President Andrzej Duda at the White House in June.

Dempsey says the increasingly authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland will especially miss a U.S. president who seemed to share their worldview.

"They loved nothing more than getting invited to the White House," says Dempsey, "and in that sense, they've lost one of their cheerleaders. But frankly, I think their populations might be quite relieved that they have a sane man coming into the White House in January."

Voters in Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and in Poland elected their populist leaders, but many have grown increasingly wary of their crackdowns on democratic institutions. So, too, has the European Union. It has launched an investigation into both countries that could result in removal of their EU voting rights.

"The Polish government bet on the wrong horse, and unfortunately, bet everything they had," says Marcin Matczak, law professor at the University of Warsaw.

Matczak says Poland's nationalist Law and Justice party, in power since 2015, bent over backwards to align itself with Trump's anti-immigrant, anti-globalist views. The Trump administration largely looked the other way as the Law and Justice party systematically dismantled Poland's judicial system and cracked down on its free press.

Recently, hundreds of thousands of Poles — spurred by the government's tightened restrictions on abortion — took part in the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Communism, the latest sign that the ruling party is losing appeal.

President-elect Biden says he is committed to rebuilding ties with the EU, and Matczak says that means Poland's government is in danger of being left by the wayside.

"They no longer have a friend in the president of the United States," he says. "They don't have a person that is similar to them, and it will no longer be possible for them to build a strategic partnership with the United States with the politics they have in Poland. So I think it is going to be a huge problem for them."

Matczak says Poland is left with only two potential friends in the region: the U.K., on the brink of leaving the EU, and Orban, who has consolidated power for himself and his nationalist party.

"But Orban is going to be just fine among his supporters, even if it's not a Trump in the American presidency," says Zsuzsanna Vegh of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Unlike Poland's leaders, says Vegh, Orban has been in power for a decade, starting well before the rise of Trump. In that time, Orban has completely reshaped Hungary's political system by changing the constitution, tampering with the electoral code and taking over state institutions meant to counterbalance executive power.

Vegh says Hungary's fragmented opposition will likely look to Biden for support, even if "it just remains like a distant reference point to the opposition that 'OK, we can look to the U.S. and see that change is possible.' "

Dempsey says Biden will be too busy with the pandemic and domestic affairs when he takes office to do much about autocrats in Europe. That should be left to the EU, she believes. And for those fighting for democracy, she says, what matters most is not who's coming into the White House, but who's leaving it.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.