Konstanty Gebert

Vacation is Over

The Polish journalist and Jewish activist Konstanty Gebert paints a dark picture of how the victory of Donald Trump will effect Europe.
The nightmare scenario? The most powerful countries in Europe will elect right-wing populists who will realize their threats to leave the EU.

When in the Nineties I covered the war in Bosnia, I lived for a year in Sarajevo, with friends, in their apartment in the neighborhood of Koševo. I once asked them how they realized that the war had come. They told me how they would watch TV news in their comfortable living room. They were first shocked to see fighting in Slovenia – but Slovenia was far away, almost at the other end of the country. Then they saw the war move to Croatia – but Croats were warlike by nature, weren’t they? Next there was shooting in Grbavica, which could only mean that for some unaccountable reason the people there had gone bonkers.

Grbavica, however, was but a few kilometers away from Koševo, and couple of days later a tank crawled up the hill next to their building, turned its turret – and fired a shell that went right through the living room. There would be no more watching TV, which hardly mattered, because the electricity went off soon after. In the winter, we would take turns in clearing the snow from the living room. It would drift in no matter how well we tried to cover the holes in the walls, and made the job of heating the room next to the living room almost impossible.

If Brexit was, or should have been, the equivalent of the Grbavica fighting for Americans, it had clearly also failed to jolt them from their belief that “it can’t happen here” (those who haven’t yet read Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous and prescient novel would be well advised to do so). But now that Trump has also shot through their living rooms, it is too late. Paradoxically, the isolationist candidate’s electoral victory has dragged the US in the same swamp that Russians and Turks, Israeli and Indians, Hungarians and Poles have fallen into – and brought globalization home the way no East Coast internationalist could ever hope to. We’re now in the same morass all together, including the mass of humanity which never was given the chance to emerge from it. America has truly rejoined the world.

There is no Schadenfreude in this remark. The US had become that rare bird – a truly functioning multiethnic and multiracial democracy – that many of us see as the world’s best hope. It had become this through a bitter internal struggle which started when the Republic was founded, and did not achieve all its objectives even now. Yet the gradient of change was unmistakable, and the election and re-election of Barack Obama gave it an air of irreversibility. The coming of his successor means everything is reversible, and thus dashes our brightest hope.

Yet the feeling of irreversibility was hardly an American illusion alone. The quarter-century which followed the fall of Communism was easily the best period in the continent’s recent history, and quite possibly in the entire history of Europe. It started with the unexpected bloodless dissolution of the most powerful totalitarian empire ever, and then went from success to success. The liberated countries left their bloody pasts behind, and build functioning democracies, which aspired to a shared membership in the EU, instead of dominion over hereditary enemies. The EU itself was already slated to be the poster child of the 21st century, and was awarded a Nobel peace prize – like the previous recipient, President Obama, not so much for what it had accomplished but for all the dreams invested in it. Everybody wanted to join – from a newly democratic Turkey to emancipating states of the Arab Spring. The world had gone on vacation. Redemption was nigh.

To be sure, not all went well. The triumph of democracy in Central Europe was accompanied by the horrors of war in the Balkans which my Koševo friends were to experience. Economic crisis dampened the European dream, and the Georgian and Ukrainian wars showed that the Russian bear has not converted into being Winnie the Pooh. 9/11 reminded us that there still is a larger world around us, and the war in Iraq became a textbook example of how not to react to its impact. As the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring transformed into the horrors of the Libyan and Syrian wars, a huge tide of refugees hit the continent, eliciting first generosity, then more and more anger. This anger fed into a more diffuse discontent, which simultaneously blamed Europe for doing too much and not doing it well enough. Each of those phenomena alone could have been managed, and even all of them together did not amount to an existential threat, as long as it was evident that the basic rules of the game are being observed. That it can’t happen here. Not again.

To denounce American Fascism, Sinclair Lewis had to resort to literary fiction; Europe was not so lucky. The experience of the Thirties and Forties was seared into the European psyche, and the persistence of Communism, Fascism’s inverted twin, helped to keep that memory fresh. Fascism meant dictatorship, murder, war and genocide; whatever else it did, the continent was unanimous that it does not want to venture down that road ever again. Not even to gingerly step on one of the paths which might lead that way. To do otherwise was literally unthinkable.

But unthinkables, as it turned out, have expiry dates, even if they are not clearly marked on the wrapping. War first returned to Europe in the early Nineties, but was explained away as a throwback to the past; the fact that nobody was threatened but Serbia’s neighbors, all in the distant and only freshly recovered Balkans, helped. With the second coming, however, there was no more looking away: this time, the threat affected the neighbors of Russia, and that meant war had once again become a European possibility.

When the extreme right took power in Austria, it was soon shamed out of office. When it resurged in Italy, another former Fascist state, it was conveniently explained away through the fact that its leader was a clown. But when it took the mobilization of all political forces in France to prevent Jean Marie Le Pen from becoming President, it should have become very clear that the unthinkable had become thinkable again. Yet even when Victor Orban took power in Budapest, and later Jarosław Kaczyński became Poland’s puppeteer, it was hoped that these are but teething pains in the periphery. It took Brexit to shake us up, but by then it was too late – as it had been too late in Grbavica. The unthinkable stopped being just thinkable. It had become reality.

And if so, why should it stop? In Europe, as in the US, there never had been a shortage of citizens who believed in the values of blood and race, in the superiority of virile men over the fair sex, and in it being foolish to treat the bloody jungle of the world as if were a just a series of legal issues to be settled in a court of law. Yet even those citizens held back, out of the fear of repeating what had happened when their beliefs had been acted on last time. Out of respect for the consensus of authorities – leaders, intellectuals, moral figures – who warned them of the destruction that awaits down that path. But since time and time over the authorities have proven to be wrong, while the unthinkable eventually happened and we survived – why allow ourselves to be governed by that irrational fear any longer? Why not prefer the unvarnished truth of who we really are?

Especially as we can see around us none of the telltale symptoms of that dread era. No figures in ridiculous uniforms, with rings of sweat under their armpits, screaming grotesquely into radio mikes. No moronic thugs in said uniforms, marching in formation with lighted torches down cobble-head streets. No Jews cowering in doorways. Whatever it is, Fascism it is not.

And certainly Donald Trump is no Fascist, nor does his election indicate a major political change in American voting patterns. He received slightly less votes than his rival, and slightly less also than his Republican predecessor four years ago. The novelty – and the threat – is not in the fact that he was elected, but in that he was electable at all. Not in the fact that only a procedural quirk gave him the Presidency, but in that he won any votes at all. For this means there are no more unthinkables.

In all probability Trump will not do the more outlandish things he has committed to. He will not block Muslims from the US, or deport millions of illegal aliens, build a wall on the Mexican border or nuke ISIS. He will neither rip up the Iran deal nor formally change US military commitment to allies from a contractual obligation to a mercenary deal (“Sorry guys, the US will not help you, after all: the other side paid us more”). He will almost certainly even not move the embassy to Jerusalem. On all of those he will have to compromise with his party, the policy establishment, financial and political costs – ultimately, with reality. But he will have made any of those thinkable. This is enough to change the world. Irreparably, and for the worse. Irreparably, for this means shattering a shared trust in a decades-long consensus identifying the unthinkable. For the worse, for if there is no longer any consensus, the world is up for grabs.

In Poland, the ruling Right initially exulted at the electoral result, yet another Bronx cheer to the self-righteous elites who had thought they have it all figured out. Yet they lost in Poland, now in America, and they still don’t know what hit them. Trump was – somewhat implausibly, given his views on gays, abortion, divorce, and his own self-confessed lifestyle – trumpeted as a champion of traditional European values: apparently, for Christian fundamentalists anywhere, Islamophobia trumps pussy grab. The rumor then spread that he will be a friend of Poland, for his grandma was a Pole, from the city of Lwów, lost since WWII to Ukraine; he apparently had said he had promised her he will reclaim Lwów for Poland. The fact that he never made such a promise – and for good reason, for the Polish grandma never existed; of the two who did one was Swedish and the other one German – was irrelevant. Law and Justice never allowed facts to stand in the way of a good yarn. But there was ideological reason to cheer: with his farrago of conspiracy theories, contradictions and falsehoods, outlandish promises and down to earth hatreds, Trump does seem to be a Kaczyński clone.

And this, of course, is very bad news for Poland. First, the Trump administration will be supremely indifferent to the country’s internal vicissitudes. Obama supported the Polish judiciary and journalists in their struggle to preserve a dwindling independence against the relentless PiS onslaught; Trump will just shrug: not his problem. In all fairness, however, one has to note that, in the opinion of PiS supporters, still a majority, this in fact will be a good thing. This majority will be bolstered and strengthened by the Trump victory, and therefore in a better position to win again, in the elections scheduled for 2019. In the same vein, however, Trump will be also supremely indifferent to PiS conspiracy claims regarding alleged Russian involvement in the Smolensk air crash of 2010 that killed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 96 members of the Polish elite; again: not his problem. This, of course, will make PiS profoundly unhappy.

But, second, the very fact that Trump had publicly undermined the credibility of NATO guarantees will give Putin a powerful incentive to test them. And while it is still reasonable to suppose that in case of an all-out war the US would not remain indifferent, an all-out war is not what Putin wants. His goal is to bring back the effective political border of the West to where it was in 1989, give or take a GDR or two. Between that border and the – unchanged – border of the Russian Federation there still can be EU and NATO members, no worry. All they need to understand is that they are very far from God and very close to Moscow. The Trump we know seems inclined to accept this new understanding.

There exists, of course, the alternative possibility – that of Trump concentrating on domestic policy and leaving foreign affairs, of which he knows little and probably cares even less, in the hands of his advisers, Republican hawks. They would be delighted to engage with the newly assertive Russia in a pissing match – and that match in all probability take place on Poland’s eastern border. If the hawks win, that would unavoidably leave a defeated and frustrated Russia waiting for an opportunity for revenge – if not on the US, then on Poland which had piggy-backed to victory on the Americans’ back. And this, of course, is the optimistic scenario. Be it as may, a Trump America will have, just as the PiS Poland, no permanent friends, only permanent interests – and will be as ready to dump Poland for a better deal, as Poland has shown it was ready to dump the Belarus opposition in order to constructively and profitably engage with President Lukashenka. We should therefore not expect anything better ourselves.

For Europe, the Trump effect will, first and foremost, strengthen the electoral chances of the extreme right everywhere: if it could happen there, why not here? The first test will be December 4, with the Presidential elections in Austria and the constitutional referendum in Italy. The extreme right is almost sure to win in both, even though its victories were already likely before Trump. But the key test will come with the French Presidential and German Parliamentary elections of next year. In the former, Front National’s Marine Le Pen was sure to enter the second round; now she actually has a fair chance of winning it. If elected, she promised a referendum on Frexit; the result is impossible to foretell. And if the government in Italy is defeated in the referendum, early elections next year would appear a possibility, with a probable victory of Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Stars movement. Grillo had promised a referendum on leaving the Euro; if won by those who want to return to the lira, another one on leaving the EU would become unavoidable.

Germany seems still in best shape to weather the storm, but the populist and anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland is certain to enter Bundestag as the third party (in doomsday scenarios: the second). As the establishment will scramble to contain them, AfD will become the only credible alternative, as its name says, and will sail to victory four years later – or sooner, if it manages, through civic action, to make Germany ungovernable. Similar processes can be expected to occur in almost all other European countries.

On top of all that, a wave of anti-refugee Islamophobia, freshly legitimized by its triumph across the Atlantic, and drawing on genuine popular discontent at home, is bound to sweep the continent. It will coincide with a dramatic increase in the number of refugees reaching Europe. Trump has already announced he will abandon the anti-Assad rebels, making hundreds of thousands flee, and Turkey is bound to denounce the refugee deal; it refuses to moderate its repressive “anti-terror” laws, as the EU demands. This is a receipt for disaster: violence against Muslims in Europe, till now to a large degree averted, is all but certain to explode. As a result, the EU will almost certainly capitulate to Turkey’s terms – a harbinger of repressive anti-refugee measures it will eventually probably itself adopt.

None of these processes are due to the Trump victory – but, by making the unthinkable real, that victory has made other unthinkables attainable. To be sure, it will also have the effect of mobilizing those who, shaken out of their complacency, will now fight toe and nail to prevent that from happening. Simultaneously, rising complications of Brexit might make listening to populists less popular – though they might have the opposite effect, if Brussels will be seen as treating the Brits too harshly. Whatever the result, the net winner is one – Russia.

Putin had worked hard against the EU, seeing in it an adversary capable to curb his expansionism and promote values – democracy, pluralism, tolerance, rule of law – antithetical to his rule. This is why he has consistently, politically and also financially, supported the right-wing populists. But it is safe to assume he never expected that the US will give him such a huge boost in this, for free. A weakened, and possibly crumbling EU, with the UK already out of it, will be in no position to buttress the undermined credibility of NATO. States will therefore consider themselves obliged to negotiate their security in bilateral deals with Moscow, further strengthening Putin’s hand.

Jews in all this will get it coming and going. The will be torn between fighting the antisemitic innuendoes which had permeated Trump’s electoral campaign, with great success, and which can be expected to reappear in the practice of his administration – and supporting the probable endorsement by Trump of a hard-nosed Israeli policy against Palestinians. The contradiction between the two is only superficial. The Trump administration seems eager to support useful Jews – fighting Arabs which otherwise might be inclined to come here, regardless of whether as terrorists or as refugees (it’s so hard to distinguish between the two anyway). Or doing useful business deals in the US, making money and allowing others to make money as well. But one can expect no tolerance for Jews who are useless or dangerous: the internationalists who allegedly stood behind Hillary Clinton’s dastardly plots to subvert US sovereignty. The bleeding hearts who would support even Muslims on spurious grounds of empathy and human rights. Or the moronic intellectuals who are responsible for big government, political correctness, affirmative action and all the other scourges of the age.

Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, will be at hand to deflect any accusations of antisemitism. So will the many Jews who will be willing to accept the deal: out of fear, out of convenience, or out of sincere belief in the inchoate but powerful world-view the election’s victor espouses. This would hardly be anything new: like other Europeans, Jews had flocked to right-wing authoritarian parties before the Shoah had closed that option off, and the post-Shoah age had made it irrelevant. But vacation is now over.

Donald Trump