Leaders Are Not Their Countries

Criticizing a president or a prime minister is not the same as condemning an entire people.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán attends a debate in the European Parliament in Brussels, May 19, 2015
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán attends a debate in the European Parliament in Brussels, May 19, 2015 (European Parliament)

It’s a tried-and-tested strongman tactic: conflate yourself with the nation to silence your critics.

Viktor Orbán used it this week, when he told critical members of the European parliament they were condemning not only him and his government but the entire nation of Hungary.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president, had the right response when he called this the “coward’s way out” of a debate.

In the United States, President Donald Trump and his supporters accuse opponents of subverting the “will of the people” — another phrase that will send chills down the spines of anyone who is familiar with the history of authoritarianism.

Vladimir Putin’s apologists maintain that he is the only man who can hold Russia together. In his 2012 reelection campaign, Putin explicitly warned that ethnic tensions could tear Russia apart. Après moi, le déluge!

In Nazi Germany, the Führer‘s will was literally above the law and disobedience was tantamount to treason.

You would think we would have learned by now that criticizing the leader is not the same as attacking the nation; that dissent is not unpatriotic. Yet we keep making this mistake, which is why we have to keep pointing out that’s exactly what it is: a mistake.