If a government has no fear that the poor might one day revolt, then it will have few incentives to check the excesses of the rich. If elected leaders have no fear that they might lose the minority vote, they will have little reason to take racism as seriously as they should. If established parties have no fear that populist parties might take their place, they will have little reason to rethink their basic approach to politics. Without pressure from populist challengers, centrist parties will avoid addressing sensitive issues, instead postponing them until crisis hits. And crisis almost certainly does.
This confusion around the desirability of conflict makes it difficult to assess how well or poorly the world’s most established democracies are faring, now that nearly every one of them has been significantly affected (with Portugal being a notable exception). As some would have it, America, along with large chunks of Europe, is on the verge of dictatorship from which it may never recover.
If you view the very election of Trump—to say nothing of what he’s actually done in office—as an “extinction-level event,” then alarmism is precisely what’s called for: the more, the better. But I, for one, do not believe that Trump is anything more than damaging and destructive—as bad as that is. Two or six years from now, America will emerge with considerable damage, but intact. And by then, the experience of having lived under Trump will produce other consequences, some of them positive. In fact, it’s already producing them.
Trumpism—or some variation of the populist-nationalism that has proved so compelling from Italy and Poland to Israel and India—will survive Trump. The ideas of this visceral but vague populism—obsessed with demographic change and trafficking in proposals that only 4 years ago would have been beyond the pale—are almost entirely unconcerned with the norms of what was, up until 2016, a somewhat narrow mainstream consensus.
Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, popularized a bleak aphorism that encompassed the surrealism and absurdity of living in Putin’s Russia. In the United States, though, that everything might be possible, when it wasn’t before, means that the range of acceptable opinions is being broadened, whether that means democratic socialism, unabashed Catholic integralism, post-liberalism, or even something as silly as the notion that billionaires are well-suited to run for office.
As Ben Judah wrote recently, a door has been opened: “Because by embracing everything about Donald Trump, [the Right] has embraced the idea that something is terribly wrong with America, and that the country needs big, beautiful solutions for terrible, awful problems. When the Right becomes populist, embraces deficits, dunks on free trade, and rails against elites, it suddenly becomes a lot tougher for it to ridicule a populist Left that is credibly offering more.”