The coronation of Donald Trump is an undeniable shock and a challenge to our axiomatic assumptions. By now, post-hoc analysis is becoming a bit of a worn cliché, since everyone and their mother has given their insight and commentary on the results of the election. It’s important and worthwhile to deliberate and consider just how groundbreaking and system-shattering Trump’s victory is. Given the riptide of the right moving across the world, his rise begs the question: is this the new normal?
The president-elect was messianic. His candidacy delivered a series of blows to establishment politics, liberalism, and the very nature of our world order. Zigzagging and flip-flopping across the country, he stuck it to the elites as a renegade outsider, pledging loyalty to nobody and taking marching orders from only himself. As a cheerleader for those hit in the gut by automation, globalization, and technological development, he galvanized a silent majority in the flyover and rust-belt states of Middle America. He rallied resentment against the bicoastal barons and media gatekeepers. He challenged liberal smugness and political correctness. And he won.
His unlikely emergence as leader of the free world is—on paper—certainly a shock to what we knew (or what we thought we knew). But the vindication of a clairvoyant Trump is concurrent with a broader global trend: globalism, cosmopolitanism, and liberalism in retreat. Apostles of resentment are rising from the right, skeptical of international cooperation and weary of the tides of globalization. In general, these leaders are pessimistic, populist, and P.O.’ed. They are ready to turn their countries inward, raise the walls, and build a moat.
Across the Atlantic, amid a massive influx of migrants, sluggish economic growth, and profound disappointment with the central planning and bureaucracy of Brussels, the Europeans are getting bearish on the European Union, and they are toppling the liberal optimists of the West’s old guard left and right. Gone are the days of cheery diplomacy, climate accords, upbeat G7 meetings, and steady resolve in beating back the Russian bear in Europe’s backyard.
David Cameron of the United Kingdom was ousted from office when Britons voted for Brexit, a vision for the country sharply at odds with his own. In France, François Hollande saw his approval rating bottom out at 4 percent last month. Vying for his spot are Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, who are both fond of Russia and critical of France’s Muslim population. And just this week in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced that he will resign following the country’s forceful populist-driven vote against his proposed political reforms.
In Eastern Europe, far-right politicians are winning. Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland have elected parties that “range across a wide policy spectrum, from populist and nationalist to far-right neofascist.” The rhetoric and ideologies of these politicians seem more similar to that of Europe’s eastern neighbor, Vladimir Putin, than they do to that of bulwarks like Germany’s Angela Merkel. Countries in this bloc are balking at a weakening E.U. and beginning to embrace an emboldened Russian-led push for regional hegemony.
Improved Russian relations might be in store for even the continent’s western flank, which could pose challenges to global stability with America as top dog. For all his talk on warming to Russia, Trump would surely recoil at the thought of the country dominating in the Middle East, ramping up cyber interference, or gaining the edge in proxy conflicts.
Former Soviet Union satellites and Eastern European countries with particularly bleak socioeconomic prospects pivoting to the far right is one thing. But the U.S., France, England, and Italy—nation-states typically seen as post-WWII bastions of liberalism and stability—are also experiencing far-right nationalist and populist pushbacks. As Florian Phillippot, vice president of France’s National Front party, tweeted on Nov. 8, “Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.”
With Trump, Euro-skeptics, and authoritarianism, the world order as we know it is in store for some big changes. Multilateralism and the free flows of capital, trade, and people could take a back seat to parochial pushes for national sovereignty and “taking the country back.” The neoliberal nature of the West is at stake as economic nationalism is becoming the policy du jour. The ‘New World’ is being built: two parts systemic shock and disruption, one part Trump, three steps to the right, and a sprinkling of populist rhetoric thrown in for good measure.
The president-elect might as well be the standard bearer for this “New World.” He will preside over a melting pot that he has violently stirred, elected by a democratic process he has time and again inveighed against, constrained by a system of checks and balances which he has repeatedly insulted, and able to dismantle a Pax Americana he has vociferously raised doubts about. Though his ascent might have been disruptive and unprecedented, his place at the top of the pecking order in the “New World” is unquestionable. However, his ability to stay atop is certainly questionable.
Illiberalism and a form of splintering tribalism seem to be on the rise, but if global cooperation and diplomacy recede, will it be possible to handle international issues like climate change? Who will keep the Kremlin in check, if and when it jockeys for territorial expansion and cyber dominance?
The “New World” winners want to stem the flow of immigration and free trade. Will isolationism boost a country’s economic prospects or is it a recipe for further malaise?
Many of the West’s new leaders are overtly contemptuous of democracy; some have patently exclusionist, xenophobic, and racist beliefs. Has this full-scale assault on cosmopolitanism and liberalism taken root in the West, or is it a passing—and dangerous—chapter of history?
How Trump and his compatriots in the West handle the uncertainties and contradictions raised above will determine how they fare. Their ascent to positions of power, popularity, and prestige in their respective countries are a clear mandate for fresh and new leadership. However, if they are not able to govern and deliver, then they will be booted just as soon as they were ushered in. The million dollar question is how far these fresh-faced renegades and newly-minted leaders of 2017 will deviate from the west’s current course. If their campaigns and proposals are any guide, the change and disruption could be profound.
Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Staff