Donald Trump’s tweet from November 2017, which read“Crooked Hillary Clinton is the worst (and biggest) loser of all time”, sums up one of the most important themes of his presidential campaign: the fight against the “corrupt” establishment in Washington DC.
Recent elections follow a surprisingly similar trend: a big corruption scandal breaks a few months before election day, allowing the rising populist candidate to justify their extreme views and win more votes. We saw it with Clinton’s hacked emails, in France with Fillon accused of corruption and similarly in Brazil, where the Petrobras scandal crumbled the foundations of the governing left-wing party and led to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro. These events share one common thread: a growing far right with a strong stance against corruption and the establishment.
As outsiders, Trump, Le Pen, Bolsonaro and many others like them were able to appeal to the voters that were dissatisfied with the performance of our liberal democracies. They presented themselves as saviors, fighting the establishment that had taken their countries to the verge of chaos.
The new challenges of 21st -century democracy such as economic globalization, environmental sustainability, mass immigration, and a disappearing homogenous national identity have unsettled many fearful citizens. In the US, for example, they see potential chaos with the migrant caravans “invading” the southern border, “stealing” hard-earned jobs, “eradicating” their culture. Or perhaps they fear foreign countries snatching local factories and labor. The governing politicians were unable to adequately explain those issues or how they were dealing with them. This gave opportunistic populists the perfect momentum to rise to power and fame.
The populist leaders’ solution? Blame it all on corruption. In their discourse, the ruling class is to be held accountable for the crises. Why? Because they no longer represent the interests of the voters and are thus corrupt. For many citizens the only voice of reassurement is the populist one. It tells them that their issues can be solved by abolishing laws passed by those unpatriotic politicians of the establishment. An establishment which is more concerned by migrant safety than by their own constituencies.
The issue here is not that these candidates campaigned with this anti-elite and anti-corruption agenda, but rather that they brought other harmful ideas into mainstream political discourse. The populists lead the stranded worker or patriotic enthusiast to believe that the origin of all their problems lies in the system itself: democracy.
Democracy turns into corruption and chaos but the populists can bring back law and order. That’s what they argue. Populists create an unnecessary trade-off between order and democracy. Bolsonaro clearly stated it, for him, the answer for Brazil is the revival of the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Trump’s answer is more subtle but just as dangerous: the erosion of independent democratic institutions. He has established a legislative branch dependent on the executive and an overly-conservative judiciary. The worst part is that voters do not seem to care. In America, Trump supporters praise the accomplishments of the president and in Brazil they say they do not care about his vehement rhetoric because “at least he is not corrupt”
Corruption is a plague that has to be dealt with. Nevertheless, giving up individual liberties and creating a stronger, yet undemocratic way to crush corruption is wrong. This remedy is worse than the illness. If Democrats and moderate Republicans in the USA do not stand up to Trump, or if the opposition in Brazil does not organize itself, these presidents will act without restraint.
They may merely stick to conservative policies and not threaten democracy. But they could also act on a whim and break the law, and no one would be there to stop them. Bolsonaro may have just started, but if Trump’s example serves as an omen, he must be carefully watched. Trump has turned the people against the traditional counter-powers of the president (opposition to Congress and the media for example). As a result, he is able to bend political institutions to his will. It is getting harder and harder to hold him accountable for his actions.
The destruction of democratic counter-powers is the fastest way for a leader to go down the authoritarian path and before anyone notices, political vices like the corruption so central to anti-establishment discourse, become commonplace.
Paradoxically, the only way to eradicate corruption in democracies is by strengthening democracy. Transparency has to become the cultural norm. It requires voters to hold parties accountable for corruption scandals in elections without losing trust in the democratic apparatus. Consequently, democratic institutions have to be attributed more powers to control and review each other even if it makes them less efficient. There is no trade-off between democracy and order, despite what populists preach today. Order in the long term will not be restored by placing soldiers at the borders or in the streets, but by a system that regulates and punishes those who go astray. Right-wing parties can be elected to power if it is the will of the people, but they have to follow the rules and not abuse their power to gain more.
Santiago Robledo, born in Colombia (the country – not the dual degree) and raised in sunny southern France, is now in rainy northern France as a second-year student. He enjoys writing and all sorts of outdoor activities, but social media and eating French pastries does take up a lot of his time.
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