LONDON – The Republican establishment has gone into overdrive to present President-elect Donald Trump as a guarantor of continuity. Of course, he is nothing of the sort. He campaigned against the political establishment, and, as he told a pre-election rally, a victory for him would be a “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” With two political earthquakes within months of each other, and more sure to follow, we may well agree with the verdict of France’s ambassador to the United States: the world as we know it “is crumbling before our eyes.”
The last time this seemed to be happening was the era of the two world wars, 1914 to 1945. The sense then of a “crumbling” world was captured by William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” With the traditional institutions of rule thoroughly discredited by the war, the vacuum of legitimacy would be filled by powerful demagogues and populist dictatorships: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.” Oswald Spengler had the same idea in his Decline of the West, published in 1918.
Yeats’s political prognosis was shaped by his religious eschatology. He believed the world had to wade through “nightmare” for “Bethlehem to be born.” In his day, he was right. The nightmare he discerned continued through the Great Depression of 1929-1932, and culminated in World War II. These were preludes to the “second coming,” not of Christ, but of a liberalism built on firmer social foundations.
But were the nightmares of depression and war necessary preludes? Is horror the price we must pay for progress? Evil has indeed often been the agent of good (without Hitler, no United Nations, no Pax Americana, no European Union, no taboo on racism, no decolonization, no Keynesian economics, and much else). But it does not follow that evil is necessary for good, much less that we should wish it as a means to an end.
We cannot embrace the politics of upheaval, because we cannot be sure that it will produce a Roosevelt rather than a Hitler. Any decent, rational person hopes for a milder method to achieve progress.
But must the milder method – call it parliamentary or constitutional democracy – break down periodically in disastrous fashion? The usual explanation is that a system fails because the elites lose touch with the masses. But while one would expect this disconnect to happen in dictatorships, why does disenchantment with democracy take root in democracies themselves?
One explanation, which goes back to Aristotle, is the perversion of democracy by plutocracy. The more unequal a society, the more the lifestyles and values of the wealthy diverge from those of “ordinary” people. They come to inhabit symbolically gated communities in which only one type of public conversation is deemed decent, respectable, and acceptable. This itself represents a considerable disenfranchisement. To Trump’s supporters, his gaffes were not gaffes at all, or if they were, his supporters didn’t mind.
But it is economics, not culture, that strikes at the heart of legitimacy. It is when the rewards of economic progress accrue mainly to the already wealthy that the disjunction between minority and majority cultural values becomes seriously destabilizing. And this, I think, is what is happening in the democratic world.
The second coming of liberalism represented by Roosevelt, Keynes, and the founders of the European Union has been destroyed by the economics of globalization: the pursuit of an ideal equilibrium through the free movement of goods, capital, and labor, with its conjoined tolerance of financial criminality, obscenely lavish rewards for a few, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and curtailment of the state’s role in welfare provision. The resulting inequality of economic outcomes strips away the democratic veil that hides from the majority of citizens the true workings of power.
The “passionate intensity” of the populists conveys a simple, easily grasped, and now resonant message: the elites are selfish, corrupt, and often criminal. Power must be returned to the people. It is surely no coincidence that the two biggest political shocks of the year – Brexit and the election of Trump – have come in the two countries that most fervently embraced neoliberal economics.
Trump’s geopolitical and economic views should be judged against this background of disenchantment, not by an ideal moral or economic standard. In other words, Trumpism could be a solution to the crisis of liberalism, not a portent of its disintegration.
Viewed this way, Trump’s isolationism is a populist way of saying that the US needs to withdraw from commitments which it has neither the power nor the will to honor. The promise to work with Russia to end the savage conflict in Syria is sensible, even though it implies the victory of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Disengaging peacefully from exposed global responsibilities will be Trump’s biggest challenge.
Trump’s protectionism harks back to an older American tradition. The US economy of high-wage, job-rich manufacturing has foundered with globalization. But what would a feasible form of protectionism look like? The challenge will be to achieve stricter controls without beggaring the world economy or inflaming national rivalries and racist sentiment.
Trump has also promised an $800 billion-$1 trillion program of infrastructure investment, to be financed by bonds, as well as a massive corporate-tax cut, both aimed at creating 25 million new jobs and boosting growth. This, together with a pledge to maintain welfare entitlements, amounts to a modern form of Keynesian fiscal policy (though of course not identified as such). Its merit is its head-on challenge to the neoliberal obsession with deficits and debt reduction, and to reliance on quantitative easing as the sole – and now exhausted – demand-management tool.
As Trump moves from populism to policy, liberals should not turn away in disgust and despair, but rather engage with Trumpism’s positive potential. His proposals need to be interrogated and refined, not dismissed as ignorant ravings. The task of liberals is to ensure that a third coming of liberalism arrives with the least cost to liberal values. And there will be some cost. That is the meaning of Brexit, Trump’s victory, and any populist victories to come.