We’ve Got to Face It: Trump Is Riding a Global Trend
If Hillary Clinton wants to win, she needs to confront the rise of fear-driven politics.
Hillary Clinton talks a lot about globalization and its discontents, and much of what she says about the world is intelligent and true. Her supporters correspondingly like to cast her as the cosmopolitan in America’s presidential race, the one who really understands how the world works. In this narrative, Donald Trump is the parochial rube, the guy who just doesn’t get the big picture. And you can be pretty sure that that’s how she’ll play it in in tonight’s much-anticipated presidential debate.
But is that really true? If you take a look around the world right now, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Donald Trump is the candidate who’s in sync with the zeitgeist. It’s a deeply depressing thought. But Clinton ignores it at her peril.
Much of the world currently finds itself in the grip of dark emotions. The democracies of the West seem to be suffering from a collective nervous breakdown. Anxiety about sluggish economic growth is fusing with fears about terrorism and migration to devastating effect. There’s a widespread sense that remote political elites are completely out of touch with the anxieties of ordinary voters.
In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson deftly exploited these fears in their campaign to persuade Britons to leave the EU; Johnson has now become the U.K.’s foreign minister. France’s Marine Le Pen, who has made a career out of channeling resentment against immigrants, has a real shot at becoming her country’s next president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has vowed to end liberal democracy in his country. Meanwhile, Germans have been voting in droves for a party called the Alternative for Germany, a nativist movement that’s been causing big headaches for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Note that all of these European trendsetters (with the possible exception of Johnson) share a striking fondness for a certain orange-hued American politician. Farage has made a new career as a guest star at Trump rallies. Le Pen has endorsed Trump, while Orban has lavished praise on him. The Alternative for Germany has, among other things, proposed a ban on the building of mosques — shades of the Donald’s harsh anti-Muslim stance.
And that’s just the West. In the Philippines, formerly a proud regional champion of democracy, President Rodrigo Duterte has been sneering at the rule of law even as he flings obscenities at Barack Obama, the Pope, and the leaders of the EU. His penchant for demagoguery has earned him the title of “the Trump of the Philippines” (though one could make the case that his current body count makes him worse — for now).
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once praised as a model Muslim democrat, is now presiding over the systematic demolition of his country’s democratic institutions, assisted by his Trump-like penchant for the politics of fear. Trump’s bizarre bromance with Vladimir Putin is, of course, common knowledge. Less widely noted is his latest man-crush on Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom he recently called a “fantastic guy.” Sisi, it should be noted, is the leader who rose to power in part by gunning down hundreds of his own citizens in a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in 2013.
Certainly some of the reasons for the current populist revolt have to do with economics — the sense that an age of turbocharged technological change and free trade agreements has left too many behind. But purely economic explanations only go so far. What we’re seeing now around the world can’t always be reduced to rational thinking about economic self-interest.
Take that pesky fact that the illiberal surge has coincided in some countries with positive economic trends. In the U.K., one of the strongest pro-Brexit votes came from Cornwall, the county that has received huge amounts of EU subsidies. For voters there, worries about immigration and the loss of sovereignty to Brussels outweighed the potential damage to their pocketbooks. Poland has posted some of its region’s highest growth rates in the past two decades — but that didn’t dissuade voters from choosing a populist right-wing government with a disturbingly authoritarian streak last year. Clearly, growth wasn’t enough. The same goes for the Philippines, where a long-running economic boom has fueled a rise in crime, corruption, and government dysfunction, thus creating the perfect opening for Duterte.
Welcome to the age of the id. More than any other generation in human history, we currently inhabit a world of constant and unrelenting change, and many people are quite naturally responding with uncertainty and fear. They’re not looking primarily for someone who’s proposing rational policy fixes — they’re looking for security, reassurance, and trust, impulses that are all too often salved by strident promises of tribalism or nationalism.
In this world, voters are all too ready to reject the calm voices of reason and experience and to opt instead for a desperate leap into the arms of the demagogue, the leader who promises protection from all the messy turbulence of a world in constant flux. Voters gravitate to strongmen — and note that most of the leaders I’ve mentioned above are democratically elected — when they feel the need for protection: from change, from instability, from “the other.”
Fear, by its very definition, isn’t necessarily rational. Study after study shows that people’s perceptions of reality depend less on their own life experiences than on what they think is happening to other people. High expectations, which can be exacerbated by today’s promiscuous information environment, also play a role. Even if your situation is relatively good in objective terms, you might not see it as such if you were expecting greater things.
As far as Trump is concerned, many commentators have pointed out that his nightmare vision of the United States — a place mired in recession, weighed down by hopeless African-Americans, and plagued by rampant crime and runaway immigration — doesn’t correspond to reality. Poverty is declining, violent crime is down, and immigrants comprised a larger share of the U.S. population in the early 20th century. Yet Trump supporters, discomfited by a society in the grip of tumultuous cultural and demographic change, see his dark caricature as an accurate reflection of their own nagging worries.
So how should the defenders of liberal democracy respond? Combating inequality and creating greater economic opportunity should obviously be part of the answer. But we also need to acknowledge the power of the id — by paying attention to the less tangible reasons for the current age of anxiety.
We need to think about how to make democracy more effective at cushioning citizens from the shocks of change. We need to think hard about tackling political polarization and creating new space for politics that can actually address pressing problems rather than succumbing to the gridlock that discredits democracy. We need to think about information policies — including media literacy programs — that can offer urgently needed counterweights to the echo chambers and conspiracy factories of the internet.
And if I were Hillary Clinton, I’d talk a lot more about my faith in democracy itself. I’d tell people that I understand their fears about the perceived loss of control to big government and the faceless forces of globalization, and I’d propose reforms to address the erosion of trust — such as radical new policies of government transparency and changes to the electoral system that would enable people to feel that their votes really count. I might even argue that true democracy is impossible without genuine law and order — which you can only have as long as the police and the courts are truly accountable to all citizens. And I would certainly talk about the crucial importance of revitalizing education, since there’s no hope for democracy without an informed electorate.
Above all I would argue that it’s time for the United States to start setting a trend of its own — by showing that strongmen aren’t the answer. I suspect we can only really succeed in doing that if we acknowledge the deficits of our own democracy. I have to admit that I’m skeptical that the next president — whoever he or she is — will be up to the task. But we’re going to need to start on it sooner or later.
Photo credit: MELINDA MARA/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Correction, Sept. 26, 2016: UKIP MEP Nigel Farage advocated for Britain’s departure from the European Union. A previous version of this article mistakenly called him Niles Farage.