What George Orwell would have made of Donald Trump

23/2/17 | 0 | 0 | 524 εμφανίσεις

The energy of populist insurgents is about more than flat living standards Philip Stephens. Financial Times.

The Munich Security Conference used to be the place where western leaders talked about bad and dangerous things happening elsewhere in the world. This year the conversation was all about bad and dangerous things imperilling democracy at home.

Donald Trump topped everyone’s threat list. The Europeans were alarmed by the US president’s opening weeks; the Americans promised to do their best to hold him in check. Some things do not change.

Sergei Lavrov, the veteran Russian foreign minister, turned up to deliver his ritual charge of Nato perfidy. The Kremlin, though, has lost some spring from its step since Russophile-leaning Michael Flynn was forced out as Mr Trump’s national security adviser.

The terrible conflict in Syria had western heads shaking in knowing powerlessness. Many warned of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s revanchist ambitions. As for Mr Trump, stories abounded of a dysfunctional administration, eccentric working habits and power struggles between inner circle ideologues and the president’s more orthodox cabinet choices.

Everyone despaired of the vanishing border between truth and lies. The Republican contingent, led by Senator John McCain, predicted bruising encounters ahead. Mike Pence, the vice-president, pulled off, just, the feat of sounding loyal to Mr Trump while discarding his foreign policy. The really gloomy talk, though, was not so much about the fact of Mr Trump as about the fact that voters had put him in the White House.

Like demagogues through time, he had seized the opportunity presented by a deeper malaise. The political classes are some way off an agreed diagnosis of this sickness, let alone a prescription for its cure. Sure, the Republican establishment’s “containment strategy” could blunt the worst instincts of the president, but what then for his “movement”?

These days, the dispossessed carry automatic weapons in preference to pitchforks. In any event, the insurgency is not confined to the US. It played a part in Britain’s vote on the EU referendum. It is fuelling far-right nationalism across Europe. If events go badly wrong, it could put Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s xenophobic National Front, into the Elysée Palace. The French presidential contest will probably be the most consequential political event of 2017. Mr Trump’s disdain for the Atlantic community’s postwar architecture is worrying. Ms Le Pen would tear it down.

What has happened is that large segments of the population have withdrawn their consent for the democratic order. For 70 years the political argument in liberal democracies has been largely about “means”. Right and left could disagree, often angrily, about the distribution of power, the relationship between the state and the individual, and the pace of societal change, but they signed up to essentially the same pluralist framework.

The populists have upturned the debate: now it is about the “ends”. Mr Trump, spurred by his White House strategic adviser Stephen Bannon, imagines an entirely different order — one that is robustly nationalist and protectionist and guards the privileges of the native, white, Christian majority. The values of the old order — human dignity, pluralism, the role of law, protection for minorities — have no place in this identity politics. Nor do the institutions of democracy. Judges, media and the rest are “enemies of the people”. An “America First” foreign policy is part of the same construct.

Mr Bannon, the ideologue who informs Mr Trump’s impulses, anticipates a civilisational clash with Islam and a war with China. The flirtation with Mr Putin is about confessional and cultural solidarity against an imagined barbarian threat. Why now?

Everyone has their own explanation as to why the Trumps and Le Pens have succeeded where others have failed to tap into the anger and anxieties of so many. Stagnating incomes, hubristic elites, post-crash austerity, the insecurities thrown up by technology and globalisation, the cultural shocks of migration — all played a part.

I am not sure they explain the striking energy of the insurgents. This is about more than flat living standards and rising migration. The other day a German friend recalled the 1930s, and reminded me of George Orwell’s review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Writing in 1940, Orwell reflected on the complacency of that era’s progressives. The ruling assumption had been that material welfare — the greatest happiness of the greatest number — would safeguard the prevailing order.

But, in Orwell’s words, “human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades”.

It helps, he might have added, if the promised struggle is rooted in identity, with “the other” — be they Jews or Muslims — the enemy. Nazism and Fascism, Orwell was saying, had caught a psychological current. Emotions elbowed aside economic calculation.

Something similar is happening today if not, thankfully, on the same level of evil delusion. For Orwell’s generation the only answer was to fight for its values. Perhaps there is a message here too for all the liberals who have blithely assumed these past few decades that it was enough to declare the end of history.

philip.stephens@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/cafee176-f834-11e6-bd4e-68d53499ed71

Category: International

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