An Interview with Jan-Werner Müller

We have had to jettison the complacent liberal view that by definition, populists (either because they are protest movements or because their policy plans are horrendously simplistic) cannot govern. They can govern. This doesn't mean they're invincible.

As far as Trump is concerned, certainly at the level of his pronouncements, there is plenty of evidence that he has tried to take a similar path. Calling somebody who doesn't clap for your State of the Union speech un-American is a tell-tale sign of a tendency to exclude anybody who disagrees with you.

The actual attempt to reshape institutions — a commission that tries to bring about voter suppression, putting pressure on judges — clearly has not been comparable to what we've seen in some other countries (such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela). So, as many observers have said, the U.S. is really a different case when it comes to the resilience of certain institutions.

On a less sanguine note, I think people also underestimate the resilience of populist administrations. In the other countries that I mentioned, all the relevant governments have tried to clamp down on media pluralism. We haven't seen that here — but we already have a highly fragmented media landscape. So it's not obvious that everybody gets exactly the same more or less factually based message about what is going on, to put it very politely.

Remember, what seems highly damaging to populist actors — especially corruption — does not always look that way to their supporters. If such parties, one might imagine the reasoning going, get a little bit on the side, that's okay — they really brought us, their supporters, into politics in the way Erdoğan mobilized or even created a particular new middle class in Turkey. Liberals in a broader sense have been naïve to think that all we need to do is empirically demonstrate that there have been scandals and corruption, and then boom: the whole show will be over.

OR: To what types of criticism might such administrations be especially vulnerable?

Müller: I wish I could give you a neat handbook with three bullet points on how to defeat them. Alas, this is something that we're all still trying to figure out.

A distinction can be drawn between what can be done inside a country and what can be done if there's leverage from the outside. I think inside a country, again, it does matter that these governments do not officially abolish elections and do not, for the most part, engage in outright repressive measures to get rid of an opposition.

So there is an opposition left. Yet opposition parties have not always been terribly good at showing citizens that there's a difference between policy questions and what you might call polity questions: questions about the rules of the game, and not just the results of the game. And because of this inarticulacy, it's easier for these governments to say, "Oh, whatever we do, they don't like it. We don't have to pay attention because they're just criticizing us."

In the U.S., I think, the Democrats have not done a good job of saying, "Yes, of course we're opposed to gutting the Affordable Care Act. But we have to recognize that probably any Republican president would have done that." In contradistinction to other issues where they should be saying, “No, this goes to the core of our basic democratic infrastructure, this is not run-of-the-mill politics, this needs a different framing and a different level of mobilization.”

The second issue has to do with a movement’s numbers. If a million people march on Washington you just can't ignore it, the thinking runs. But the significance of numbers actually isn't as self-evident as one would like to think.

In April 2017, in the face of the possible closure of the Central European University by Viktor Orbán, 80,000 people took to the streets of Budapest. At the time, people thought this was meaningful. These were not just students. These were people from all walks of life, all generations. This could have been a turning or a tipping point.

What did the government say? The government in essence said, "Well, we're very glad that we've dragged the Soros network out into the open. There are more of them that we had imagined.”

It seemed to end up playing in their favor — their secretive, illegitimate opposition was even more powerful than initially assumed. Often the protest movements are not really ready with a strategy to combat that reframing. Obviously, that can be very difficult under conditions where media pluralism has already been reduced significantly.

On the external side, I think many observers have taken far too long to learn how to look behind the rhetoric of populist governance where they say, “No, we still believe in democracy and we give you an example of how what we do is perfectly fine: you find the same arrangement in Denmark or the Netherlands." I think it's taken far too long to call them out for what they're actually doing, and it's taken far too long to use the leverage that exists.

The E.U. could have done a lot more in the last couple of years but was far too willing to be misled, by Orbán in particular. The same goes for conservative parties — I am thinking of powerful German Christian Democrats in particular — who still do not see that Hungary effectively has a far-right government.

Lastly, I wanted to add one point contrary to the whole image of the wave — or as Steve Bannon put it on his tour in Europe earlier this year, the idea of the historical tide. I think it is important to remind ourselves that nowhere in western Europe or North America have right-wing populists come to power without the support of conservative elites. Many supposedly mainstream conservatives seem to assume that they can get away with the kind of collaboration they've engaged in. I think it's very important to communicate to some of these people that they are being watched. People who basically believe that it's about not just policy but about polity are going to do everything possible to punish them for the kinds of transgressions and collaboration they've engaged in.