When right-wing populist Marie La Pen referred to French president Emmanuel Macron as “the president of chaos,” she tapped a nerve that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and others used to gain power. They relied on a sense of chaos to launch wars and dismantle the institutions that led to nearly a century of peace and prosperity. While the elections of 1994 in Romania and Hungary may seem obscure, they foreshadowed where we find ourselves today.
When communism collapsed, Romanians and Hungarians experienced something with which the rest of the world would soon become familiar. Political and economic structures changed and with it, anything recognizable. Previously, they lived together in shared misery and had no say in political decisions. In return, they were guaranteed a job, a modest home and basic healthcare.
Afterward, they chose leaders and owned businesses. But the euphoria of freedom evaporated quickly. Unprofitable factories closed, and workers were laid off. Those who still farmed using an ox to pull a plow suddenly competed with the French agricultural industry. Many did not have the skills to participate in the new economy and were not retrainable. Sound familiar?
Democracy hampered political progress. Communists issued a decree, and it was implemented. Democracy, however, invited disagreement. For the first time, Parliamentary debates were broadcast into people’s homes, and it terrified them. What we view as a healthy exchange of ideas, they saw as “it’s chaos,” “the country is falling apart” or “the government has lost control.”
In a Gallup poll, 66 percent felt the old communist government was more representative of “order” and “discipline,” versus 11 percent who said that of the new democratic government. Voters associated democracy with a lack of stability.
No wonder 88 percent of Romanians wanted an “authoritative” leader to instill order. In Hungary, Poland and Lithuania similar sentiments resulted in democratic parties being tossed from office in favor of those representing the old communist guard.
Today, the West faces a similar situation. Voters feel society has descended into chaos. Western workers had a social pact as well. If they worked hard, they were rewarded. Now they may be replaced by a robot, an app or a behemoth online retailer. It is hard to retrain a coal miner for a job in the digital economy. The concept of working for one company, then retiring with a pension vanished.
Baby Boomers held an average of 12.4 jobs with no retirement security. A college degree no longer guarantees a lifetime career; continuing education and constant digital upskilling are necessary. Try explaining this to someone in their mid-40s or older.
Politics has also taken on a chaotic tone. A universally agreed-upon infrastructure bill devolved into partisan matches worthy of professional wrestling. Protests air democracy’s dirty laundry, from rising crime to police brutality to race relations. While not addressing these issues is dangerous, addressing them further increases the perception of chaos.
The 24-hour news cycle exacerbates this perception. Social media overloads us with contentious and frenetic information. As populations struggle with a world changing quicker than they can adapt, they lose faith in politicians representing a status quo that is failing them.
This is the environment in which tyrants and populists thrive. They promise simplistic solutions, provide agreeable scapegoats, and a return of order, calm and security.
Putin rose to power as a response to Russia’s messy post-Soviet government and stayed in power by shielding his voters from the anarchy that inflicts the West. Hungary’s Victor Orban dismantles democratic checks and balances and silences independent media to defend his country against Islamification, gays and villains in Brussels. The likes of Donald Trump and Alexandria Casio-Cortez protect middle-class jobs from climate change and greedy corporations, taxpayers from NATO and funding the police, and voters from the chaos of gender fluidity.
Today’s tyrants and populists give hope to voters looking for a way out of the chaos. Just like those Romanians in 1994.