Some of these stories are really about authoritarianism: Many populist leaders are actually anti-pluralist leaders, and they change the rules of their democracies to make it more difficult for their opponents to win. But another factor is at work as well: Unlike social democrats or earnest liberals, these politicians were never trying to appeal to the good sense of voters, they were never selling efficiency and effectiveness, and their voters don’t expect it from them. In a recent speech, Orban declared that Western Europe had caused the “decline of Christian culture,” and he described Hungary as “the last bastion of Christianity.” If you are emotionally moved by that declaration, why should you care if his son-in-law is getting rich? The political scientist Jan-Werner Muller has also written that corruption and cronyism aren’t a problem for this kind of leader “as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them.’ ”
These same instincts might shield Trump from the wrath of some his voters. If you really believe that American civilization is in decline and only the Trump administration can halt it, then you won’t care that Jared Kushner is massaging America’s Middle Eastern policy to suit his business interests. If the “Forgotten Man” of Middle America believes Trump is battling invisible Islamist extremists (or overly visible television talk-show hosts), then they might not care that the Chinese government granted Ivanka Trump some valuable trademarks on the day President Xi Jinping met her father.