Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Around 11 pm, on Sunday, December 11, 2016, the Republic of Macedonia discovered that its two main parties had finished neck and neck in early parliamentary elections. Supporters of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, leader of the incumbent Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and Zoran Zaev, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), gathered just feet away from one another in the center of Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, to celebrate their supposed victories. It was unclear which party, if any, would be able to form a government.
Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE secured 51 of the 120 total seats, two more than Zaev’s SDSM. Just as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump was voted into office despite (or because of) his threats to jail his political adversary, his payment of $25 million to settle a fraud lawsuit, and his bragging about nonconsensual sex on tape, so Gruevski was able to win a plurality of votes despite being mired in scandals, protests, and charges of fraud. Trump’s election has sent shock waves around the world, triggering a chaotic search for answers to how he was elected, what his policies will be, and how the opposition can regain its footing. Short of psychic powers, the best way to analyze the possibilities of a Trump presidency is through an examination of comparable leaders. And Macedonia’s Gruevski may prove an instructive example.
Like the U.S. elections, the Macedonian vote unleashed deep tensions. Even before the elections, allegations of Gruevski’s criminal actions unfolded like a House of Cards episode. In January 2015, Gruevski declared publicly that Zaev was preparing a coup and ordered his passport seized. Shortly thereafter, Zaev started releasing tape recordings in which members of the government could be heard discussing illegal activities. Gruevski and the VMRO-DPMNE inner circle allegedly engineered a massive wiretapping program that kept tabs on one percent of the population (roughly 20,000 citizens), comprising members of the opposition, diplomats, journalists, and businessmen. Now public, these recordings unveil Gruevski’s authoritarian style: political beatings, flattening of critical businessmen’s properties, and illegal real estate speculation are only some of the criminal acts disclosed. At their lowest point, VMRO-DPMNE ministers are heard mocking Martin Neskovski, a young VMRO-DPMNE sympathizer who was killed in 2011 by Gruevski’s bodyguard while celebrating Gruevski’s third electoral victory.
Public outrage over the scandal culminated in an outburst in April 2016, when protesters threw “bombs” of colored paint at Macedonia’s parliament and other institutions. The “colorful revolution” was not an expression of ethnic frustrations, the major source of instability in Macedonia, but rather a demand for the resignation of Gruevski and the repeal of a mass pardon that prevented the VMRO-DPMNE inner circle from being prosecuted for misdeeds.
Faced with mounting discontent, Gruevski did not step down. Instead, he organized counterrallies and dug in. To prevent an escalation of violence, EU mediators brokered a deal for new elections, which proved to be tricky to organize. The leaked tapes had revealed widespread electoral fraud in previous elections. Elevators were put out of order to prevent SDSM-inclined elderly voters from reaching the polls, deceased had been registered to vote, and in some cases foreign nationals had been given Macedonian passports to vote for the VMRO-DPMNE. Set for April 2016, then June, then September, the EU-mediated elections would not be held until last month, when the SDSM and other opposition parties felt confident in the electoral procedures.
THE MEDIA FACTOR
Both Gruevski and Trump captivated the press. Trump’s most extreme tweets received round-the-clock coverage on news outlets that counted on public outrage. In Macedonia, Gruevski dominated media coverage thanks to the support of businessmen who owned televisions and newspapers. Fake news permeated both political campaigns. Ironically, Macedonians spread disinformation about Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, by publishing fake news articles picked up by major outlets or linked to Russian-sponsored portals. Although less influential, the same disinformation has plagued Macedonian domestic politics. “Fake news” as a phenomenon first appeared there in May 2015, in the aftermath of a bloody antiterrorism operation conducted by Macedonia’s SWAT teams in the northern town of Kumanovo. Locals and Western analysts suggested that the sudden emergence of “terrorists” was likely a play by Gruevski to stop the mounting protests. Russian-inspired media claimed that the West was behind both protests and the terrorist attacks. It aimed, the argument went, at foiling a pipeline deal supported by Russia. During the elections, fake news sites were set up by representatives of the VMRO-DPMNE. The party also conducted extensive Facebook trolling.
During the elections, fake news sites were set up by representatives of the VMRO-DPMNE. The party also conducted extensive Facebook trolling.
When considering the impact of fake news in the United States and Macedonia, the economic plight of voters is key. Antiestablishment conspiracy theories appealed to both Macedonian and U.S. voters who have lived through rapid deindustrialization. Make no mistake: although Trump and Gruevski didn’t build their campaigns around winning the poorest voters, they did seduce voters in rapidly deteriorating Rust Belt areas once known for liberal or socialist views.
Abandoned factories, empty union halls, and decaying police stations in Detroit look just like the crumbling department stores in Probistip, eastern Macedonia, once one of the most prosperous municipalities of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Deindustrialization did not mean only a widening in education or income gaps. It implied a complete unmaking of citizens’ identity, whose belief in unions, social progress, and class mobility was radically undermined. Gruevski and Trump appealed to these discontented voters, as well as to those who were sympathetic to social welfare provisions or welcomed a strong state. Many of these same voters had supported U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012 or were inspired by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Macedonia, voters from the “Rust Belt” showed a deep nostalgia for socialism and thought of Gruevski as a right-leaning politician who implemented left-leaning social policies.
Trump and Gruevski presented themselves as entrepreneurs who know how to create jobs, and they both relied on their record of urban projects to showcase the future they promised. President-elect Trump has built his fortune on grand edifices that cast an image of excess and luxury. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Gruevski pushed the Skopje 2014 project, which gave a face-lift to the socialist visage of Skopje, now transformed into a grand or, as some say, kitsch neo-Baroque-themed attraction. Although architects and other urbanites ridiculed the project, many working-class individuals found the new Skopje meaningful, an international brand that could bring Macedonia back to the world scene. Few of these buildings, in Skopje or New York City, would have been possible without tax breaks, city subsidies, and political favors that Trump gained thanks to his family and that Gruevski imposed to favor his business allies.
A WEAK OPPOSITION
Working-class Macedonians did not believe that the SDSM would enact a significantly different agenda from that of the incumbent government. A full 67 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in 2016—five percent more than in 2014—but the increase was largely a result of taking fraudulent voters off the list of eligible citizens. There were not enough new anti-Gruevski voters to topple his government. The SDSM did not provoke significant defections from the VMRO-DPMNE, which received only 30,000 fewer votes in 2016 than in 2014. This might indicate that Zaev’s baggage was too much for some voters to stomach. Zaev was arrested in 2008 on charges of corruption but claimed to have been a political victim of the Gruevski regime. His public appeal is also limited by the lack of transparency that surrounds the leaked tape recordings, whose origin and full extent is yet to be determined.
And just like the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, the SDSM was not strengthened by its sympathy toward neoliberal economic policies. Under its watch, oligarchs thrived, unemployment soared to 40 percent, and austerity measures were approved (in agreement with the International Monetary Fund) to compensate for the economic shock of the 2001 conflict. The icing on the cake was perhaps the party’s top-down approach to campaigning, which resembled the Clinton campaign’s failed one-size-fits-all model in its ability to alienate potential voters.
On January 9, 2017, Gruevski received the mandate to form a new government. With only two representatives more than Zaev, he faces steep challenges. Theoretically, he could draw from his former Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration. Yet, in an unprecedented move, the three major Albanian parties, which control 18 seats, formed a common platform. They demand the use of Albanian as the second official language of the country, fair representation in the public administration, and support for the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which should verify the allegations of corruption within the Gruevski government. These conditions are unlikely to appeal to the VMRO-DPMNE but might also alienate some Zaev supporters, who fear that more rights granted to ethnic Albanians would weaken the Macedonian state.
THE PROGRESSIVE ANSWER
Macedonia’s example provides a window into potential paths Trumpism could take. Institutions might have significant inertia and antibodies, as Obama has suggested, but in the current economic context, they are highly vulnerable. Gruevski did not start out as an authoritarian leader, yet his regime has lasted for ten years so far, and it has caused extensive social conflict and economic damage. Insufficient and conditional funding in the name of “balanced budgets” makes state agencies susceptible to political pressures. Gruevski’s government was able to buy loyalty by withdrawing funding for agencies that did not conform to his views and providing economic resources to those who supported him. Trump’s request to see lists of programs and individuals active in areas such as gender equality and climate change alludes to a potentially similar process.
Gruevski’s government was able to buy loyalty by withdrawing funding for agencies that did not conform to his views.
Indignation, one-off rallies, and even daily protests have not been enough to topple the Macedonian regime. Facebook posts and massive mobilizations have allowed Macedonians to start conversations about issues such as police brutality and urban planning, but they have not spurred any real political change. More important, protests have not engaged productively with those 500,000 Macedonians who support the VMRO-DPMNE regime. In such a polarized context, authoritarian tendencies in Skopje have rooted themselves by providing a sense of unreality—with plaster-made façades, fake counterrallies, and conspiracy theories masquerading as news.
There are, however, ways to overcome these problems. On December 11, 2016, ethnic Albanian voters in Macedonia cast their ballots for the SDSM, overcoming years of mistrust and ethnic fragmentation. An increasingly vocal number of public figures from Macedonia’s Albanian minority are publicly pressuring their parties to shun Gruevski, thus continuing the grass-roots, multiethnic efforts to shake up politics. This is a hopeful lesson for the United States: where infrastructures of care and everyday solidarity are built, progressive political change is attainable.