Saturday, March 05, 2016

Re-Defining the western consensus


Donald Trump's startling success in the current Republican primaries is starting to hit home and spark a tranche of "we could have a president Trump" articles.  None of them make for happy reading and they're not intended to.  Trump is the horror story that most liberal observers of politics - whether that be liberal-right or liberal-left - hoped they wouldn't have to witness.  Could it be that the "pax occidentalis" that has held since the end of the Second World War is about to come apart?

Trump is an easy to recognise trope of the populist nationalist variety.  He shares none of the internationalism of any of his post-war predecessors.  His candidature hearkens back to the days of Warren Harding, but with an added nastiness.  His victory would bring to the White House a man who is perfectly capable of bringing the old international, American protected consensus crashing down.  Anne Applebaum considers this disaster in her Washington Post column, and adds a potential Marine Le Pen presidency of France with a British exit from the EU to the mix, just for good measure.  It's a pretty depressing vision.

Comparisons with Hitler are over-used and inaccurate, but what is apposite is the comparison between the frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of Weimar Germany in 1933 and the current frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of America in 2016.  The Spectator's Freddy Gray has provided a fascinating and cogent analysis of both what it is that Trump is tapping into in America, and how it is likely to play out in America's world role (worth buying this week's edition for, an online preview is here).  Gray writes that  "an ever larger number of Americans feel angry at the system.  The Donald embodies their rage and multiplies it as in a hall of mirrors".  Yes.  Exactly.  That's what populist demagogues do, and when a nation feels uneasy about itself and its manifest destiny, an electorate can turn quite nasty.  Nasty electorates produce nasty leaders.

Gray is particularly good, later in his piece, at acknowledging the huge impact America has had on the nature of the post-war world, and the democratic security that western nations have rather taken for granted, even as much of the rest of the planet disintegrates into strife and savagery.  A president uncommitted to such a role is more concerning than we might think.  As Applebaum notes, Trump has little time for modest democratic politicians and their compromising, negotiated positions, but he does express admiration for Vladimir Putin.  Putin is arguably the most sinister and dangerous man to govern Russia since the late Josef Stalin.  He seems to combine similar levels of paranoia about the non-Russian world with an opaqueness that makes him impossible to read.  (He is, incidentally, superbly portrayed in Netflix series "House of Cards", as fictional Russian president Petrov.)

Of course, much of this is speculative.  Trump is not only not president, the odds are still against that possibility.  Marine Le Pen is not yet president of France and could suffer the same fate as her once popular father.  But electorates are not bound to elect moderate, reasonable men and women, and we may just have reached a time in the affairs of liberal nations when de Tocqueville's fear of democracy may prove wholly justified. 


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