In recent months, academics, columnists and analysts have spilled gallons of ink analyzing the so-called “populists” who are winning elections, or coming close to winning them, in so many countries. Mea culpa: I, too, have sought to explain why so many people are suddenly using xenophobic language, attacking “elites” and heaping scorn on international institutions of all kinds. What do they all have in common? What are the traits they all share?
After months of listening and reading, I am now beginning to think that we’re all wrong. All of our theories have missed the point. It isn’t racism, identity politics or even “nationalism” that links President Trump with his counterparts in Europe and beyond. It isn’t the data operations — or the online trolling operations — that matter most. What links Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Andrej Babis, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Marine Le Pen is one simple character trait: hypocrisy. These politicians aren’t tribunes of the people, they are hucksters. They aren’t bitter enemies of the Western system; they are con artists who seek to profit from it.
How else to interpret the news that Trump’s Bedminster, N.J., golf club, the one his aides refer to as the “Summer White House,” has employed illegal immigrants, not just once in a while but for many, many years? These were no occasional or accidental hires: On the contrary, dozens of illegal immigrants — a veritable caravan — regularly made their way from a clutch of villages in Costa Rica to Bedminster, where they worked as cleaners and groundskeepers. Nor was this some low-level business mistake. Trump’s club paid them a fraction of what their American counterparts would have earned, so club managers absolutely knew what they were doing: They were intentionally cutting costs.
Just as news of Trump’s Costa Rican caravan was breaking in Washington, a similar story appeared in Prague. Babis, the Czech prime minister, is another politician who likes to talk up his opposition to migration. Yet the factories controlled by his holding company, Agrofert, employ a wide range of underpaid foreigners: Vietnamese, Mongolian, Ukrainian. A journalist who recently visited one of the factories found Vietnamese families living in company-owned accommodation. Again, these aren’t accidents or small slip-ups: These are long-standing policies going back many years.
Hypocrisy is also the signature character trait of Orban, the Hungarian leader who has cleverly styled himself as the enemy of “immigration” and the European Union. Follow the money, and the story is different: Even as Orban’s anti-immigration rhetoric reached hysterical levels, his government was running a “Golden Visa” program that allowed more than 19,000 people, including some well-connected Syrians, to buy residency in Hungary. Naturally, people close to the prime minister appear to have benefited; unsurprisingly, many people close to the prime minister have also personally benefited from E.U. funding programs. Indeed, a whole cohort of people around Orban have become mysteriously wealthy in recent years.
Hypocrisy is not limited to those “populists” in power. Le Pen’s anti-European party long sustained itself using money from the European Parliament, some of it obtained by fraud. Hypocrisy isn’t only about immigration, either. Kaczynski, the Polish “populist” leader, has railed against supposed networks of former communists in Poland, claiming they’ve been making money out of former state property. Yet he has recently been accused of serving as the de facto controller of a company that did a deal to procure land from the state in the 1990s; the company has big plans to build skyscrapers on the land and employs a former secret police informer as its nominal chairman. Hypocrisy isn’t even limited to “populists” on the right: Hugo Chávez’s crusade on behalf of Venezuela’s poor quickly turned into a kleptocratic money grab that left the people around him extremely wealthy.
But hypocrisy does help explain why all of these leaders, as soon as they get anywhere near power, instinctively seek to undermine the press, to remove judicial independence and to control prosecutors and police. It also explains why they are such notorious liars. Their private agendas are very different from the ones they declare in public, and they don’t want any of us to find out.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post's editorial board.