President Trump’s visit to the UK this week, like his NATO meeting, has characteristically stirred up massive controversy and been met with widespread demonstrations. Rather than diplomatically mute his approach, he revels in controversy, the “Great Disruptor”. People may detest what Trump does and who he is, or be incredulous about what is happening and be like rabbits in the headlights, but that may be uncomfortably beside the point. A major shift in global politics is in the making, a polarisation between liberalism and authoritarian nationalism, a liberal crisis. What is important to do is to step back from the controversy and look at the broader trends, of which Trump is a figurehead as well as a leader, as seen in the UK and elsewhere.
An age of reaction
Both in the US and in Europe, the post-Cold War liberal consensus has been blown apart by reactions to the Great Recession of 2008 and the impact of globalisation and, behind the scenes, climate change. Progressively, voters have been rejecting centrist politics as corrupt, elitist and self-seeking, opting for the extremes, and preferring populist “strong man” and authoritarian leaders, nationalism, protectionism, xenophobia, homophobia, and resistance to migration. This can be seen in the “illiberal” democracies of Hungary and Poland, the new populist anti-immigrant Italian government, Austrian far-right involvement in government, the anti-immigrant AfD in Germany who are now the main opposition to a weakened Angela Merkel, or the shift towards a near-dictatorship in Turkey. In Britain, the vote for Brexit in 2016 has polarised politics into Leave and Remain factions and the 2017 general election has deadlocked Parliament and left PM May struggling to reach agreement on how to exit the EU.
Trump is delivering
In the US, Trump has despite all predictions been delivering to his base on what he has promised, such as tariffs on US trading partners, harsh immigration policies, a change in the Supreme Court towards conservative social values, reducing health care coverage, cutting taxes on the rich, leaving international bodies and agreements in favour of an “America First” approach, and so on. This is despite playing fast and loose with the US constitution, enjoying as he does support in Congress. His approval ratings have risen, particularly with his supporters. Abroad, he attacks NATO, his G7 colleagues, Canada, Germany and even intervenes in British internal affairs in his current visit. Very quickly he managed to support Boris Johnson, a leadership hopeful who had just resigned from the UK government in protest at May’s negotiating plan with the EU, and also said he disapproved of the line May was taking in these negotiations. This is in contrast to the favourable attitude shown to the authoritarian leaders of Russia, North Korea and the Philippines. It seems that he respects strong men and despises what he perceives to be weakness.
One may be shocked by what Trump does, until one sees his behaviour in context. Powerful forces are at work, and it can be misleading to place what is occurring at the feet of one seemingly crazy person. For one, Trump might be a bewildering, unpredictable narcissist, but he is also a showman, clever and calculating. What he does is being supported, both at home in his base and amongst right wing groups abroad.
He has become the de facto world leader of a right-wing reaction to liberal and constitutional internationalism and economic globalisation. Liberalism, broadly defined, has not delivered for significant groups in many countries and thus an aggressive, nationalistic and authoritarian solution looks tempting.
A challenge liberalism needs to respond to
Historically, such right-wing forces have undermined the liberal consensus and helped create instability, against which they then pose as savours of a version of traditional order and hierarchy. The risk for Western democracy is that, as the national and international crisis unfolds, the temptation will grow stronger to attempt authoritarian solutions more widely. As one writer has written, this could be another run at some version of “pre-fascism” brought up to date for today’s context.
These are febrile times and it is thus important to step back from the heat of debate, see the trends and develop a sound, practical, grounded response. At present the response is fragmented, and riven by different alternative political positions. Arguably we need to be seeking to renew what unites us rather than reactively pitching in against some perceived other who we think is a threat, and that unity needs to be consensual rather than imposed. The trend towards globalisation, collaboration and humanitarianism was for a reason, that humanity had more to gain. This new consensus then needs to be very firmly asserted against the forces of disruption and authoritarianism, characterised by win-lose, superior-inferior, friend-foe, right-wrong, power-over, domination thinking.