Slododan Milosevic and Donald Trump
Credit: NATO/Wikimedia Commons;Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump has been called “America’s Silvio Berlusconi,” and the similarities between him and the former Italian prime minister are indeed striking—the hair jobs, the conspicuous womanizing, the media manipulation, the TV-pitchman-style demagoguery. But Berlusconi’s style didn’t really include playing on religious and ethnic fears. That’s why I think the more apt—and worrisome—comparison is to Slobodan Milosevic.

Like Trump, the former Yugoslav president came to power by fanning ethno-nationalist sentiments whose strength surprised even him. In 1987, Milosevic, then a loyal Communist Party apparatchik, went to Kosovo to mediate a protest by minority Serbs against the province’s ethnic-Albanian-dominated government. The party at that time took a hard line against nationalist speech. But when the protesters complained of rough handling by the Kosovo police, Milosevic told them, “No one will ever dare beat you again!” A TV clip of that remark went, as we say now, viral. Overnight, Milosevic became a hero to Serbs throughout Yugoslavia for having defied what we would today call “political correctness.” He used that celebrity to take over the presidency of the Serbian Republic, to foment protests by restive Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, and to provide those Serbs arms and ammunition.

During the years of carnage that followed—the ethnic cleansing, the rape camps, the 100,000 people killed—journalists and foreign leaders who met with Milosevic came away with impressions of the man remarkably similar to what many today say about Trump. He was brash and confident in public, but polite and conciliatory in private. He was obsessed with controlling and manipulating the press. He seemed not even to believe the nationalist rhetoric he spouted, but to be using it to gain and hold power. He trusted nobody but his family.

There are other parallels. We remember the breakup of Yugoslavia as driven by ethnic/religious divisions, but there was also a huge economic component. During most of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was a relatively prosperous country, but in the 1980s living standards plummeted thanks to austerity measures brought on by high foreign debts. Tensions grew between the industrialized, higher-income northern (Catholic) republics like Croatia and Slovenia, and the poorer farming- and mining-based republics like (Orthodox Christian) Serbia and Montenegro.

As a journalist covering Yugoslavia in 1995, I spent a fair amount of time with Serbs in both Bosnia and Serbia. I met plenty of educated professionals in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, who abhorred Milosevic, but many more working-class and rural Serbs who, in retrospect, remind me of Trump voters. They believed themselves to be the patriotic heart and soul of Yugoslavia but misunderstood and looked down upon. They would remind you that the Serbs fought with the Allies in World War II, while the Croats sided with Hitler. They’d argue that the government had minimized the economic and political power of Serbs, the largest group in the country, and granted special privileges to minorities, like Albanians and Croats. They’d complain that those minorities showed their gratitude by demanding more autonomy, and ultimately independence, for their regions; that this would render Serbs in those regions “minorities in their own country”; and that therefore Milosevic was right to support their armed uprisings. If you pointed out that the Serbs had started the fighting and that, because they controlled the heavy weaponry, they were doing most of the killing, they’d tell you—reflecting Milosevic’s official state-run media line—that that was just Western propaganda. If you sat with them watching images on CNN of Bosnian Muslim bodies being pulled from mass graves, as I did with a family in a provincial town in southern Serbia, they’d tell you CNN manipulated those images, and that the slaughter either hadn’t happened or, if it had, the Serbs weren’t responsible. The fact that their own economic situation was declining precipitously even as Milosevic’s business cronies, many of them outright criminals, were getting rich did not seem to dull their loyalty to his regime.

Milosevic was an opportunist. I doubt he planned to lay waste to his country and die in a cell in The Hague. He merely followed the logic of the ethno-nationalism he unleashed. So too with Trump. His plans are unclear, perhaps even to himself. But over the next four years, events will occur—a terrorist attack by radical Islamists, a left-wing protest in which police are killed, a takeover of federal lands by armed right-wingers—that will test him. Will he bend to the normal pressures of the office and act with lawful restraint, or in ways that feed his base and fuel more violence? I hope and expect the former. His words and actions during and after the campaign clearly imply the latter.

Fortunately, we don’t have to passively accept whatever Trump decides. As Barry Lynn, Anne Kim, and Phil Keisling argue in this issue’s cover package, Democrats have more ways to fight back in the short term and retake power in the long term than they might realize. Daniel Stid makes the case that even congressional Republicans have reason to resist if Trump steps over constitutional lines.

The United States in 2017 is not Yugoslavia in 1995. We have a longer, deeper experience with democracy and a more robust system of checks and balances. But the next four years will severely test that system. We must all do our part to make sure it doesn’t fail.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.