During his inaugural address, Donald Trump deployed rhetoric that was familiar to anyone who spent time in the Balkans in the 1990s. “You will never be ignored again,” Trump thundered, with Congress as his backdrop. He expanded on the idea a few days later, during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security, where he said, “To all of those hurting out there, I repeat to you these words, we hear you, we see you, and you will never, ever be ignored again.”
Trump’s message was a variation, directed at his largely white constituency, of the you-shall-not-be-beaten-again rhetoric used with malignant effect by Slobodan Milošević during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Trump is not Milošević and the United States is not Yugoslavia, of course, but the echoes between these paragons of national shamelessness reveal the underlying methods and weaknesses of what Trump is trying to pull off.
In 1987, Milošević was sent to Kosovo to soothe angry Serbs who felt threatened by Albanians who dominated the province. A low-profile communist official at the time, Milošević visited a municipal office and spoke to a crowd of unhappy Serbs who had gathered outside. Milošević was uncertain as he addressed them, but everything changed when he voiced a nationalist message they had never heard before: “No one will be allowed to beat the Serbs again, no one!” he said.
The crowd began to chant his name. Even though he remained cold (he had almost no charisma), it was a decisive moment in which he realized the political usefulness of tapping into the resentments of Serbs who felt slighted by other identity groups in Yugoslavia. This had been a taboo, and he broke it. When Milošević returned to Belgrade, he took up the banner of Serb nationalism and ousted his low-energy mentor, Ivan Stambolić. He provoked other republics to secede from Yugoslavia, and this led to years of warfare and war crimes.
Milošević created his own reality. I have never interviewed Trump but I have an unforgettable memory of what it’s like to sit in a room with a gaslighter-in-chief and try to pin him down. I was one of the few American journalists whom Milošević spoke with before he was overthrown and extradited to a war crimes trial in The Hague, where he died of a heart attack in 2006.
I visited Milošević on a bright spring day when he was in the full bloom of power. His office was in the center of Belgrade in a former palace that had been chiseled with the less-than-joyous touch of Austro-Hungarian architecture. Plainclothes guards asked me to walk through a metal detector that beeped loudly, prompting one of the guards to ask with a laugh, “Any guns?” He waved me through. A woman then led me through empty hallways to a waiting room. Sit here, she said.
She returned in a minute and opened a set of double doors into an office that had a long row of windows letting in the day’s sunshine. The office was empty except for Slobodan Milošević, who was standing by the windows. His first words were, “Why do you write lies about my country?” I now realize these words could just as easily come out of Trump’s mouth, or his Twitter account, when he discusses media organizations he does not like, which is most of them.
Milošević was shameless in lying about obvious truths. “We are blamed for a nationalistic policy but I don’t believe that our policy is nationalistic,” he said. “If we don’t have national equality and equality of people, we cannot be, how to say, a civilized and prosperous country in the future.” As we spoke, the military forces he had organized were continuing to lay waste to Bosnia, encircling Sarajevo and other major cities with medieval-style sieges.
We sat together for 90 minutes, with nobody else in the room. Though he didn’t have the bluster of Trump — Milošević was a quiet and controlled speaker, with just occasional flashes of anger that were tactical, not impulsive — he was a master of the alternative fact, even in the face of someone who knew they were lies, because I had reported from Bosnia on the crimes perpetrated by military forces under his control. When I later wrote a book about all this, I described Milošević’s relationship to the truth in a way that I now realize fits Trump, too.
I would have had better luck trying to land a punch on a hologram. Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts. He had spent his entire life in the world of communism, and he had become a master, an absolute master, at fabrication. Of course my verbal punches went right through him. It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milošević what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked. He does not shout in anger. He sounds concerned for my eyesight. I knew the wall was black. I could see the wall. I had touched the wall. I had watched the workmen paint it black.
Comparisons of political leaders are of limited usefulness, because no two are exactly alike — they bring to mind Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, each is unhappy in its own way. Milošević was whip smart, disciplined, and he wasn’t a narcissist in the way of Trump. He didn’t have a lot of public meetings, his face wasn’t plastered on Serbian media, and he spent most evenings at home with his wife, a hard-line professor named Mira Marković who was also his principal confidante. And no matter what Trump does, I don’t believe the United States is heading for the kind of violence that Milošević knowingly steered Yugoslavia toward.
Trump’s buffoonery was present, however, in another protagonist of the Balkan carnage — Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader who got his start as Milošević’s puppet. Karadžić’s fabulism was more brazen than his fellow Serb’s, if only because like Trump he adored the spotlight and talked so much. Karadžić was a night owl, and one evening I attended a press conference that began after midnight in his small-town headquarters outside besieged Sarajevo. The Muslims were bombing themselves, Karadžić said. The media invented the tales of Serb mistreatment of detainees. There was no ethnic cleansing — Muslims left their homes voluntarily.
Karadžić’s performance was Trumpian in its audacious make-believe, and it conveyed a lesson that’s useful to us today. Tyrants don’t care if you believe them, they just want you to succumb to doubt. “His ideas were so grotesque,” I later wrote of Karadžić, “his version of reality so twisted, that I was tempted to conclude he was on drugs, or that I was. I knew Bosnia well, and I knew that the things Karadžić said were lies, and that these lies were being broadcast worldwide, every day, several times a day, and they were being taken seriously. I am not saying that his lies were accepted as the truth, but I sensed they were obscuring the truth, causing outsiders to stay on the sidelines, and this of course was a great triumph for Karadžić. He didn’t need to make outsiders believe his version of events; he just needed to make them doubt the truth and sit on their hands.”
The terrible experience of the Balkans offers a slit of hope, however: Milošević was overthrown. His world of alternative facts led to a disaster that involved Weimar levels of hyperinflation that sapped his regime of popular support. During one of my stays at the Hyatt Hotel in Belgrade, the nightly rate exceeded 4 million dinars, taxes not included. The defining moment of his overthrow occurred when bulldozers from the working-class town of Čačak smashed into Belgrade at the head of a column of blue-collar workers who realized their hero had conned them.
It wasn’t inertia that caught up with Milošević, nor the liberals and students who opposed him from almost the first day. Well-behaved democrats played important and necessary roles, laying the groundwork for Milošević’s removal, but it was his core constituencies, the working class and the security services, that delivered the decisive blows. The role of Brutus is often taken by insiders who have finally had enough of a failed demagogue. These are early days in the Trump era, but if Milošević’s fate is as much of a guide as his rhetoric, Trump will be undone when the democratic resistance deepens and the voters and party that brought him to power turn on him.