- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Much ink has been spilled and many viral videos made arguing that Donald Trump won the election because liberals — college students, the media, the coastal clique — are out of touch with America. And their borderline hysteria over creeping authoritarianism since Trump’s surprise victory, the argument goes, just proves how out of touch they are.
But what about folks who have some experience with political earthquakes, and where the legacy of authoritarianism looms large? How do young liberals in what used to be called the Eastern Bloc view the rise of Trump?
The short answer is that the young intelligentsia — the liberal elite of Prague, Warsaw, Tbilisi, and Sofia — were surprised and disappointed, as were many of the liberal elite in the United States. “This has been a big blow to [those of] us believing in liberal, democratic America,” Nino Vardiashvili of Tbilisi, Georgia told Foreign Policy.
Marcin Buzanski, director of the Peace and Stabilization Strategies Programme at Pulaski Foundation in Warsaw, Poland noted that few expected Trump to win, and that nobody has a clue how he might turn his campaign rhetoric into governing. That’s not cause for optimism. Calling the election “extremely worrying,” he said, “We have actually felt what authoritarian rule means before, so if we see the signs that we’re heading this way, they should somehow be addressed and addressed quite quickly.”
Such sentiments were echoed by Matteo Mazzini, who is a doctoral student based in Warsaw. “When I was growing up in a freshly democratized Poland,” he said, “the United States was always shown as blueprint of a strong constitutional order, respect for civil liberties, a model we wanted to look up to, no matter who was in power. Now, however, for the past year the government in Poland has made all efforts possible to dismantle the Constitutional Court and tighten their grip on civic liberties, attacking women, immigrants, minorities. And since they control all branches of power, there is no way to stop them — I feel the U.S. runs a serious risk of going down the same path.”
In the Czech Republic, where Trump’s win was as surprising as anywhere else, “Many people are horrified,” said Jessie Hronesova, a Czech pursuing a doctorate in England. “I can give you the view of my parents. They lived through 1968 and 1989. They lived through the politics of truth and love of [Vaclav] Havel and then its gradual entanglement by [Vaclav] Klaus and [Milos] Zeman,” she said. “And now they are watching that liberal peace unravel across Europe and then the U.S., too.”
Still, many noted that one election does not an authoritarian system make, particularly because the United States has strong civic and political institutions.
“I don’t think you are in danger of authoritarianism — just four very unpleasant years,” said Johana Sedlackova Vamberska, a lecturer and businesswoman based in Prague. “Also, I believe that people who voted for Trump won’t gain any particular advantages during his presidency and, once they realize that, their support will weaken or vanish.”
Simona Valentova, who also works in business in Prague, agreed. “I think you should not be scared, and definitely you will get through [it] – just look at our Czech president and you will know what I mean,” she said, referring to Zeman, the Czech Republic’s pro-Russian president, and one of the few Czech politicians to be an enthusiastic Trump supporter.
America’s institutions — and their ability to kneecap nascent authoritarianism — are held in high regard in other quarters. Tatia Chikhladze, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia working on her dissertation in Germany said, “When I was reading all this sad statuses and comments of my U.S. friends, I was thinking to myself, ‘But institutions are so strong in the USA, will they allow him to become a personalistic president?’ I strongly doubt that [they will].”
A fellow Georgian, Elene Lika Sekhniashvili, chief specialist at the National Intellectual Property Center of Georgia, agrees. “This is not the end of the world,” she said, “Believe me, we’ve been there, done that. I sure the American people and the U.S. democracy can handle it!”
How Eastern Europe will handle it, however, is still to be seen. Almost every person with whom FP spoke cited anxiety about how an increasingly aggressive Russia would behave without Washington backstopping NATO, or with less American engagement to defend the established order.
They may just get an unlikely champion. Trump’s first wife, Ivana, who is from the Czech Republic, has offered to be her husband’s ambassador to her native country.
Photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images