This is not a book about Donald Trump. It is an inquiry into the new political reality that has been revealed by his election and the events that have accompanied it. We thought we had enough on our plate already: war and global warming, tribalism and terrorism, artificial intelligence and the Sixth Mass Extinction. Suddenly it turns out that we will have to cope with all these problems and challenges, some of them very frightening indeed, while simultaneously dealing with a huge shift in our basic social, economic, and political relationships.
We owe Donald Trump a vote of thanks, because he has inadvertently done us a great service. He is the canary in the coalmine — a giant orange canary — and he has made us aware of a growing threat to democratic societies that we should have noticed but didn’t. He didn’t do it by toppling off his perch, dead, poisoned by the accumulation of explosive gases, as the traditional small yellow canaries did. He did it simply by getting elected to the presidency of the United States, an outcome so unexpected and implausible that people realised right away that something had gone seriously wrong.
Trump’s election has created two different sets of anxieties in the rest of the world (and in many Americans, too, of course). The first is simply that Trump’s ignorance, his vanity, and his impulsiveness make a major war more likely than it has been at any time since the late 1980s. This is a quite understandable fear, because even in this remarkably peaceful era there are still ‘flash-points’ such as the Korean peninsula and the Middle East where a relatively short series of bad decisions could draw the great powers into proxy wars, or even into direct clashes. But that probably is not going to happen.
Low-probability events do occasionally come to pass, but it’s hard to believe that even North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests will lead to a great-power war in northeast Asia. The grown-ups are still in charge in China, in Japan, in Russia, and in South Korea, and they really don’t want such a war. If Donald Trump and his North Korean adversary, Kim Jong-un, seem a trifle unhinged from time to time, that is cause for concern, but not really for panic.
The Middle East is more worrisome, because both Russian and American troops are already on the ground in different parts of Syria, and two of the most powerful leaders in the region, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are as belligerent and as erratic as Donald Trump. But even direct US-Russian clashes in Syria would almost certainly not lead to a nuclear war: the military establishments in both countries, and President Vladimir Putin himself, have absolutely no desire to go down that road.
I’ll go into these questions further in Chapter Two, but let us assume for the moment that a major war that involves great powers on both sides is very unlikely in the next few years. The real worries have more to do with the long-term integrity of the system, for many people saw a pattern in Trump’s rise that reminded them of the last time populism and ultra-nationalism overwhelmed democratic politics and the rule of law in some Western democracies. This is not to say that Donald Trump is a fascist — that would require more abstract thinking and self-discipline than he seems capable of — but, despite all his tweets and other 21st-century political techniques, there is a strong whiff of the 1930s about him.
In the months following Trump’s election there was something approaching panic in European political circles. The local neo-fascists and simple racists seemed to have the wind in their sails, and the ‘domino theory’ was resurrected from its shallow grave. In this scenario, the United States played the role of first domino to fall (although some argued that pro-Brexit Britain had really led the way six months previously), and the elections in the Netherlands, France, and even Germany were going to go the same way in the course of 2017.
Well, they didn’t, and the immediate panic is past. Now European opinion has swung to the other extreme, and has re-defined the problem as a purely American phenomenon, or at most an aberration of the ‘Anglosphere’. That is not true either.
In the Dutch parliamentary election of March 2017, Geert Wilders, the most notorious source of nativist, authoritarian, populist, and rabidly anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands, won only five extra seats in parliament — but his party is now the secondlargest of the thirteen parties in the Dutch House of Representatives.
In the French presidential elections of 2002, Jean- Marie Le Pen, the openly anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, neo-fascist founder of the National Front, managed to squeak into the second round because the anti-fascist vote had been split between so many other parties in the first round. However, he then got only 17 per cent of the vote when faced with a single rival in the run-off. Whereas in last year’s presidential election his daughter Marine Le Pen, who inherited the party leadership and most of his ideas (although she is a far smoother operator), also made it into the second round of voting — and then doubled her father’s share of the vote in the run-off to 34 per cent. One-third of the French men and women who voted in the second round this time gave their votes to a neo-fascist.
And in the German elections of September 2017, the two ‘mainstream’ parties together got barely half the vote, while one German in eight voted for the radicalright Alternativ für Deutschland, which shades off into neo-Nazism on its far right.
So the phenomenon that produced Trump, whatever it may be, also exists in Europe, but it seems to be less advanced there. The explanation for this striking difference between American and European politics, after a decade of low economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic, probably lies in the far greater inequality of incomes in the United States. On the assumption that it is the size of the gap between the rich and the poor, rather than the absolute level of incomes, that causes the greatest political resentment, one would expect the United States to have the biggest problem: the top 20 per cent of Americans earn about eight times what the bottom 20 per cent get. The United Kingdom, as one would expect, is the EU member whose politics most closely resemble those of the US, as the top fifth of British earners are paid seven times as much as the bottom fifth, and there too the radical nationalists are in power. They are not in power, or at least not yet, in the Netherlands, France, or Germany, where the income gap between the top fifth and the bottom fifth is just over five times greater.
The fact that the European welfare states are more comprehensive and more generous than that of the United States may also be relevant, but income disparities alone may be enough to account for the higher levels of envy, resentment, and anger, and the political consequences of all those negative emotions, in the United States.
Cast the net even wider, and the results are still the same. Canada closely resembles the United States in most respects, and Canadian and American average incomes are virtually identical, but Canada’s politics are far less combative and extreme. Why? Probably because the disparity between the incomes of the top 20 per cent of Canadians and the bottom 20 per cent is the same as it is in France (5.5 times) and quite unlike the United States (8 times). And Japan, whose politics are a byword for stability, has the lowest income disparity of any developed country. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but it’s a pretty safe bet that there is a connection here, and I will be returning to this subject.
So then: is it all a mirage? Is there no populist wave, just the United States having a hard time (or at least a bizarre one), and everybody else muddling through as usual? Or is it at least only a case of the ‘Anglosphere’ vs. the rest? (England has gone off the rails, too.) And can it really all be so easily explained just by income disparities? If, when Pat Moynihan persuaded president Richard Nixon to send a proposal to Congress for a Family Assistance Program (a guaranteed income for the poor) in 1969, that bill had made it through Congress, the disparity of income between rich Americans and the rest would suddenly have narrowed to European or Canadian levels. And in that case, would the president of the United States today resemble Justin Trudeau more than Donald Trump?
Obviously not. A country is more than just its economic arrangements. It has deeply embedded traditions and habits and even ideals, and they are subtly or hugely different, depending on which countries you are comparing. You can’t reduce it all to a simple formula. So the answer to the larger question — was it all a mirage? — is no, it wasn’t, but you can’t reduce it to a lockstep or a row of dominoes either. It does seem like the United States is going through some sort of reckoning for past mistakes, and that it will emerge from the process changed in various ways, for better or for worse. The same is largely true for England, but it doesn’t yet feel that such a profound change is underway in most European countries. Yet it may come to that in the end. The West is one civilisation — which includes Russia, no matter what the Slavophiles think — in many local varieties. Economic trends, political styles, and ideological fashions do spread right across it in a short number of years.
As for the notion that ‘populism’ in the Trump style is spreading beyond the confines of the West and changing the wider world beyond, that is far from self-evident. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the soldiers now running Thailand, and Egypt’s General al-Sisi are just standard-issue thugs in politics; the only new thing about them is that they are recent arrivals in power. These countries, and dozens more like them, are reinventing democracy for themselves — you can’t export it — and there is bound to be a lot of back-and-forth in the early years. The first eighty years after the Revolution in France were also pretty turbulent, and roughly the same length of time after the American Revolution the country was being consumed by a great civil war. Democratic politics is hard, no doubt about it, and there are practically bound to be setbacks.
Across the ‘West’, however, there is enough common ground that the same factors may well be fuelling the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a matter of great concern, even if we are not heading for a future of storm troopers and death camps. As the bill comes due for the two-century boom in human population and consumption triggered by the Industrial Revolution, we are moving into a future that will be a lot more difficult and dangerous than the present or the recent past. Climate change, mass migration, ocean acidification, global food shortages: we will face multiple converging crises at the same time, and the last thing we need in charge of dealing with them is simple-minded, short-sighted, and incompetent populist governments.
The potential for disaster would still be high even if we were all ruled by Plato’s philosopher-kings. In real life, the best we can hope for is democratic governments led by intelligent and honest politicians who respect the rule of law. Not all countries that call themselves democratic have that even now, but if the trend that became evident in 2016 prospers and spreads, our governments will be totally incapable of dealing with these crises by the time they actually hit us in five, ten, or fifteen years from now.
Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long, nightmarish episodes of triage, deciding who and what can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home. We have already previewed the images, in the course of the organisational and spiritual unravelling that was Hurricane Katrina. At progressively more extreme levels, the decisions will be increasingly harsh: morally agonising to those who must make them — but in the end morally deadening. Professor Leon Fuerth, member of the Principals’ Committee of the National Security Council, 1993–2000
Such tragedies may already be inevitable, but they may also still be contingent on the decisions that governments take in the present and the near future. It’s therefore still worth proceeding on the assumption that global catastrophe is not inevitable, and that what governments do matters a lot. For that reason, if for no other, we need to understand why crude populists are doing better in elections even in long-established democracies, and how far the rot is likely to spread.