A rightwing leader defies social norms and political conventions, winning a popular following as well as the blessing of a major political movement, whose agenda he pursues to their delight. But when he’s about to lose office, he musters up his supporters and sympathetic members of the security forces to keep power, turning against his former patrons.
The frightening scenario playing out in the United States appears to have been resolved for now. A partially chastened Donald Trump says that while he “totally disagrees with the outcome” of the presidential election he lost to President-elect Joe Biden on 3 November “there will be an orderly transition on 20 January” hours after his violent backers stormed the Capitol building in Washington. At least four people died in the melee, and the ornate symbol of American democracy was trashed.
“Yesterday’s images terrified everyone,” said Tara Varma, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Journalists and anchors on television said this is not on Netflix – this is real. There is a fear of this occurring [elsewhere]. If this can happen in the US, it can happen in a lot of places.”
From the Philippines to Brazil, from India to Central Europe and the Balkans, in Israel and in Turkey, rightwing leaders have fashioned themselves as populist “men of the people” and cemented their power, often exploiting the anger of publics frustrated by economic difficulties and rapid social change.
Even established democracies like the United Kingdom and France grapple with political movements animated by the same kind of angry authoritarian fervour weaponised by Mr Trump, his supporters and their enablers in the security and civil services. The big lesson many are drawing is not to underestimate the danger of the populist right.
“At the beginning we were not taking him so seriously,” said Sylvie Kauffmann, a columnist who writes on international affairs for the French daily Le Monde. “We thought he was a clown and a real estate billionaire, this reality TV star or whatever. There were these adults in the room who could supervise him. In fact, it’s not possible. And as soon as you see those signs in a politician, don’t let him or her get anywhere near power.”
Even after Mr Trump has managed to alienate a majority of voters, and major players in his own political party, he remains a threat, and will likely remain so after he leaves office in less than two weeks.
“Yesterday’s events have shown the great political impact of Trump’s rhetoric, which encouraged violence and deeply divided society,” said Daniela Schwarzer, Berlin-based director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “It was not only those who stormed the Capitol but also those police who stepped back and even opened the gates. We have to learn how easily it can spill over, and politically motivated violence is the next step.”
Trump, a failed businessman and onetime star of the television show “The Apprentice”, is a singular figure in the US, a perfect storm of lowbrow celebrity, blustery charisma and unbridled ambition. But across the world many saw echoes of America’s chaotic course in their domestic political battles.
“This is proof that before political rivalry, we must agree on the rules of the game: Maintaining the rule of law, respecting democratic procedures and respectful discourse,” Israel opposition leader Benny Gantz, who has been grappling for power with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said following the attack on the Capitol.
The images of police officers assigned to protect the Capitol Building complex in Washington allowing Trump supporters to swarm inside were perhaps most shocking for those around the world, as well as those of flabby Trump supporters wearing camouflage and t-shirts lounging in Congressional chambers.
“Dear Americans,” the prominent Iraqi satirist Ahmed Albasheer wrote, posting a photo of a protester who stormed parliament in Baghdad in 2016, next to one of a Trump supporter holding forth in the Capitol in 2021. “We’ve been there before.” In addition to Iraq, in recent years protesters have stormed parliaments in Kyrgyzstan, Hong Kong and Armenia. On Wednesday, a brawl broke out on the floor of the parliament in Ghana, prompting security forces to intervene.
Germany, whose parliament came under attack over the summer by rightwing protesters opposed to coronavirus restrictions, announced new plans on Thursday to tighten security around the Bundestag in Berlin. Police held them back, but the nation has been shocked in recent months by revelations of far-right infiltration of its security forces.
“Even in an established democracy like the US, there wasn’t sufficient security to protect the institution,” said Ms Schwarzer. “The basis for securing a democracy is that law enforcement forces are completely loyal to the constitution. If a populist is able to command them, and get them to help him or her undermine democracy, that’s the beginning of the end.”
President-elect Biden has already announced plans to hold a global conference in 2021 to strengthen democratic institutions, a sign that he recognises the damage Mr Trump has wrought, and the dire need to rebuild confidence in liberal democratic values. Already there is more talk in Europe about punishing or pressuring countries like Hungary and Poland, which have been politically captured by Trump-like rightwing figures who are rewriting the rules and silencing critics in bids to cement their power.
Just as Mr Trump has proven unwilling to accept the results of an election he lost, few believe that leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or India’s Narendra Modi would be willing to hand over power without a fight.
“The lesson,” said Ms Schwarzer, “is that we need to look at democracy as a fragile construct that needs protection from within.”