Through the mist of change precipitated by President Trump’s consuming narcissism, some new order is taking shape, but its form is as yet indiscernible. Sometimes a many-headed beast seems to loom, shrieking in discordant voices, promising strife. Still, perhaps that is to underestimate the promise of a hyperconnected 21st century.
After the bi-polar world and the unipolar world, this is an era without a name. The ideas that gave the United States purpose in the postwar decades, from the spread of liberty to a rules-based international order, have been abandoned. American enlightened self-interest, beneficial both to the United States and its allies, has been replaced by a crude America-first self-absorption.
The pace of offensive behavior grows. With the presidency of Donald Trump it has become impossible to recall Friday what seemed outrageous Monday. Even rot can be normalized. It is human nature to adapt. Global “culture” is increasingly defined by rich, valueless elites — as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and Trump’s United States — while those excluded from this wealth veer toward angry, xenophobic nationalism. It’s “Crazy Rich Asians” versus “Hillbilly Elegy.”
America’s word has lost its value, and it was on America’s word that the security of the world hinged in the decades following 1945. In this vacuum — where there is no American agenda beyond winning commercial battles — China rises, impunity spreads, powerful actors multiply, and autocrats have free rein. The word “values” seems quaint. China, an increasingly repressive nation in which information is controlled, leads the world in college graduates. The competition of ideas between authoritarianism and liberal democracy seems evenly balanced.
We begin to shrug at the once unthinkable — thousands of children separated from their parents at the Mexican border; false or misleading statements issued daily from the Oval Office; the press attacked by the president as the “enemy of the people” (a phrase of pure totalitarian pedigree); a video doctored by the White House in an attempt to discredit a CNN correspondent; United States intelligence services deemed less credible than President Vladimir Putin by President Trump; the European Union described as “brutal” by Trump while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un morphs from a threat to humanity into a “great personality.”
Oh, I almost forgot Trump’s recent cancellation, due to rain, of a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. We know Trump hates rain because it affects his hair. Never mind the more than 2,250 Americans in that cemetery who gave their lives far from home. We also know that in almost two years in office, Trump has never visited American troops in Afghanistan, or in any combat zone. The coward with the brittle hairdo turns his back on America’s dead and deployed.
Such is Trump’s nationalism, a helter-skelter make-believe of disorienting slogans and moral abasement. Chinese President Xi Jinping opens the way to rule for life and Trump says, “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” It was a joke, sort of. It was also a window into the state of the world.
Trump is not to be discounted, however. His manipulation of American anger has legs. Underestimating him would be the surest way for Democrats to ensure a Trump presidency through 2024.
© Christian Hartmann/Reuters
The midterm elections gave the Democrats a substantial victory in the House of Representatives, with a gain of at least 37 seats. The president is now more circumscribed in what he can do. His attacks on immigrants and evident contempt for women have taken a toll in suburbs and exurbs across the country. Most decent Americans do not like demagoguery. Still, Trump’s road to re-election in 2020 remains open. Republicans, now the Trump Party, held on to the Senate, gaining two seats, and showed strength in Florida, a pivotal state in every presidential election.
A decade after the financial meltdown of 2008, animus toward the elites who escaped unscathed from the disaster and anger over growing inequality still feed a wave of ultranationalism across the world. Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil is only the latest example of this trend that brought Trump to power.
The mounting “yellow vests” protests in France reflect anger at societies distorted or corrupted in favor of the rich. In Hungary, a society that thirsted for the freedom of London and Paris when it emerged from the Soviet imperium, the West has, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, become the place where family, church, nation and traditional notions of marriage and gender go to die. Orbán offers a new model of illiberalism for Europe. His fight with French President Emmanuel Macron for ideological sway will determine the direction of the European Union, whether or not Britain consummates its Brexit folly in 2019.