SZ: In an essay you called for a de-Trumpization of politics to be necessary. How far has Joe Biden come on this path?
Jan-Werner Müller: He did it cleverly to the extent that he consciously stayed away from cultural struggles, which are always part of the standard repertoire of right-wing populists. The fact that Republicans now only talk about canceled children's books and shows that they have little to oppose Biden's surprisingly social democratic agenda in terms of content.
Do you have the impression that the populist elements in politics are being pushed into the background and that more factual discussions can take place again?
I would distinguish two things. From my point of view, populism is a certain strategy to claim that we, only we, represent the real people - to which not all citizens belong. This deliberately divides society. Polarization is right-wing populists' political business model, but it's not a sophisticated ideology. But there is certainly an elective affinity between right-wing populism and nationalism and xenophobia. The polarization didn't go away after Trump, of course, and there are many actors trying to inherit him.
But what does that mean for the political debate in the USA?
Populism remains available as a strategy, but the right seems exhausted in terms of content. One could even cautiously suspect that a long era of neoliberalism is coming to an end. Trump did a lot of what the former US President Ronald Reagan did, such as deregulating, but he was unable to package it into a vision that, for example, made state skepticism a kind. In other words: basic political assumptions are shifting.
Do you see an ebb of the populist wave in Europe too? In the EU, a populist politician, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has now faced a lot of headwind. The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has a law directed against homosexuals Called shame.
I have a problem with the image of the wave, which suggests an automatism. You can no longer see that in any Western European or North American country right-wing populists have come to power without the support of established conservative forces: Trump also through traditional republicans, the ÖVP in Austria through a Sebastian Kurz. Orbán has enjoyed the support of the European People's Party for more than a decade. He easily danced over Manfred Weber's red lines, nothing ever happened.
But now something has happened: Orbán anticipated the exclusion of Fidesz from the EPP.
Yes, Orbán no longer has official cover from Ms. Merkel and others. The point was de facto: The German auto industry has fantastic conditions in Hungary, we don't want to shake that. This hypocrisy on the part of German Christian Democrats was scandalous: on the one hand, there was an urgent warning against the election of a Marine Le Pen in France, while at the same time a protective hand was held over a right-wing radical government in Budapest.
Did Orbán deal with the Homosexual law maneuvered too much into the right corner?
My assessment is that everything is actually going according to plan for Orbán. He set a trap for the Western European elites. He knew very well that everyone would say that this is incompatible with European values. He builds the front from the outside, which he needs as a divisive right-wing populist who can now stage himself as the defender of his country. At the same time, hardly anyone speaks of autocracy or kleptocracy anymore. If the EU cuts him money because of violations of the rule of law, he can say: They only do it because we represent an authentically Christian-conservative view of the world and want to protect our children. A discussion of values is now being conducted instead of one about the destruction of political institutions and fundamental rights.
With Janez Janša in Slovenia there is a new populist on the political stage in Europe. Is it a copy of Orbán for you?
There is right-wing populist knowledge of rule. Many patterns of right-wing populist governance are similar, but the reasons for the rise are sometimes very different. But you can learn from each other. Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland do it, it also happens globally. If someone realizes that a supposedly neutral law looks like that can be instrumentalized to intimidate critical sections of civil society, then it will be copied. That is why it was fatal that the EU said for a long time to Hungary that it is only one country. Now there are several.
But hasn't the pandemic contributed to a certain disenchantment of populists because management skills were what was most important?
The idea that you can always know beforehand that all these actors have a horribly under-complex understanding of politics or are incompetent in themselves is, with all due respect, a gross oversimplification. It is certainly true that figures who had nothing else to think of but to tighten their culture warfare strategy failed crashing - think of the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or Trump, who de facto condemned masks as un-American. Little attention was paid to the fact that in the shadow of the pandemic, these two ruthlessly pushed ahead with deregulation, so they did not remain completely inactive. But other populists with more government experience have not failed quite as obviously. So you cannot rely on the pandemic to simply defeat these actors. We still have to do that ourselves.