ccording to the bland conventional wisdom, Americans frustrated by the failure of the establishment to address issues like immigration and economic inequality have turned to an unlikely pair of political outsiders, a New York developer-turned-reality-TV-star and a Vermont socialist, to set things right. This account is true as far as it goes, but it is also hopelessly parochial and inadequate to the scope of the changes afoot. Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.
As an ideology and as a governing philosophy, liberalism is fast losing ground. “Liberalism” here is understood not as the American shorthand for those who vote Democratic in the United States, but as the philosophy of individual rights and (relatively) free markets that in theory is shared by the U.S. Republican Party and Scandinavian social democrats alike. As it fades, populism and identitarian politics of all kinds are gaining adherents nearly everywhere. Today’s illiberals are less likely to be organized around systematic philosophies like Fascism and Communism than was the case in the years between the two world wars—the last time liberalism appeared this vulnerable. In our time, illiberal forces are disparate, instinctual, inchoate, more likely to be local in focus, and internally divided. Often various illiberalisms are locked in combat against one another.
Nevertheless there are common patterns that range vastly different geographies and political contexts, suggesting that this illiberal ascendance will be a defining feature of the 21st century. Welcome to Planet Trump.
egin with Europe. Everywhere in the birthplace of liberal Enlightenment, parties of the far left and far right are making inroads at the ballot box—from the well-established democracies of Western Europe to the economic disaster zones of the south, and from the prosperous Nordic lands with their traditions of consensus-based politics to the newborn democracies of post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.
In France, President François Hollande’s Socialists and the center-right Republicans of former President Nikolas Sarkozy have had to resort to tactical voting alliances to shut out Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In Austria, the anti-immigration Freedom Party, or FPO, thumped the mainstream parties in the first round of elections to the presidency in April, forcing the center-left prime minister to resign. Norbert Hofer, the FPO candidate, lost the runoff in May, after the mainstream parties urged their supporters to back his Green Party opponent—lest Austria become the first country in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since World War II.
Next door in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz Party has gradually hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions. He has politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed “unbalanced” media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power. The prime minister has mused about “building an illiberal new national state” on Turkish, Russian, and Chinese blueprints. His main opposition is the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik Party.
Finally, there is Vladimir Putin. Having transformed his country into an authoritarian mafia state, the Russian strongman funds Europe’s illiberals and amplifies their messages on his slick propaganda networks.
Spain and Greece have seen the rise of Syriza and Podemos respectively—far-left parties with roots in the anti-globalization movement. Underscoring Greece’s Weimar-esque conditions, the Golden Dawn Party (with a Hellenic swastika for a logo) came third in 2015’s election. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s project to transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into an Ottoman sultanate is nearly complete.
Then there is Britain, where the hard-left wing of Labour has taken over the party. Rising to the leadership in the aftermath of last year’s electoral rout, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the party’s peace with free enterprise and individual responsibility—the main reformist achievement of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The party once again longs for socialism and speaks the language of class warfare at home, while anti-Americanism, pacifism, and blame-the-West attitudes dominate its foreign policy.
Beyond party politics, Europe is also witnessing the awakening of long-dormant separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, while subnational and regional identities are loudly asserting themselves in Northern Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere. Continent-wide, opposition to the European Union is also at an all-time high. On the left, the EU is seen as a neoliberal vehicle used by corporate elites to pare back workers’ rights and impose “austerity.” The right, meanwhile, disdains Brussels for blurring borders, flooding Europe with immigrants, and substituting a bloodless multiculturalism for the continent’s authentic national cultures.
Finally, there is Vladimir Putin. Having transformed his country into an authoritarian mafia state, the Russian strongman funds Europe’s illiberals and amplifies their messages on his slick propaganda networks. In turn, Europe’s assorted separatists, far-right parties, and unreconstructed Communists support Moscow in its confrontation with the West. Thus Kremlin media have looked with favor on Scottish separatism, Brexit, opposition to trans-Atlantic trade, Le Penism, Orbánism—all of which advance Moscow’s interest in a fractured West.
European illiberalism is no Russian conspiracy, however. What unites these disparate parties and movements is a worldview. For the far right and far left, the Kremlin deserves respect as an avatar of sovereignty and an enemy of the U.S.-led liberal order. But the new illiberalism would exist without Putin’s assistance. And in some countries—Turkey and Poland come to mind—the new illiberalism is intensely anti-Russian owing to historical and geopolitical factors.
How the new illiberalism manifests itself varies according to local conditions, and there are sometimes unusual shifts in alliance and enmity. The animating impulses are always the same.
lliberalism is also ascendant in Iran and the Arab Middle East. That may sound odd, since politics there has always been defined by violence, autocracy, and oppression of minorities. But recall that just a few years ago, a liberalism of sentiments swept the region and brought millions of Iranian and Arab youth to the streets. Those young people deployed the rights-based language of liberalism against secular-autocratic rulers (and Islamist elites in Iran’s case)—even if they didn’t always embrace the “liberal” label or have a systematic appreciation for the idea.
That liberal consciousness has evaporated. In Iran, the ayatollahs’ vicious crackdown against the 2009 Green uprising has driven the pro-democracy movement underground. The educated young who were the backbone of the Green movement are now demoralized and apathetic thirty- and forty-somethings—a transformation not unlike what happened to China’s pro-democracy movement after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Democratic aspiration has transmogrified into Persian-Shiite chauvinism. Václav Havel is out. Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Suleimani is in.
The situation is equally grim in the Arab lands. Save for Tunisia, the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010 and 2011 have everywhere yielded civil war, state failure, or a return to the repressive status quo ante. Recent surveys of Arab-youth attitudes, such as the one conducted annually by the public-relations firm Burson Marsteller, suggest that the region’s young aspire to stability, not political freedom.
The biggest setback for global democratic development since the end of the Cold War resulted from the fact that, given a democratic opening, large numbers of Arabs have reverted to sectarian and tribal bloodletting, demanding the imposition of Shariah law and restrictions on the rights of women and minorities. Democracy in the Arab world, in other words, proved to be an invitation to chaos and illiberalism.
Not that there aren’t signs of progress elsewhere. Nigeria last year completed a peaceful power transition that saw a Muslim ex-general, Muhammadu Buhari, elected president on a platform of rooting out corruption and fighting the scourge of the monstrous terrorist group Boko Haram. He has so far kept good on his pledges. The wave of leftist populism that engulfed Latin America at the beginning of this century seems to be receding. Burma is transitioning from junta rule to democracy. South Africa remains a liberal-democratic beacon in a troubled continent.
Yet the same South Africa is also home to an intensely xenophobic anti-immigration movement that would attract more attention but for that fact that its supporters (native South Africans) and victims (migrants from Zimbabwe and elsewhere) are both black. Militant economic populism, moreover, is the force mobilizing young South Africans frustrated with 22 years of one-party African National Congress rule. Anti-immigration sentiment is also growing rapidly and shaping politics in Kenya.
Burma’s democratic transition has been accompanied by a pogrom targeting the country’s Rohingya minority, while Aung San Suu Kyi (the Nobel-winning pro-democracy icon) maintains an ominous silence. And voters in May elected Rodrigo Duterte as the next president of the Philippines. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City, has been called the “Filipino Trump” for his brash style and his pledge to murder criminals with his own hands, dump their bodies in Manila Bay, and then grant himself a presidential pardon.
iven all this, the rise of Trump and Sanders seems part of a larger trend rather than a momentous disruption in the American timeline. This is a disturbing turn of events. Since World War II, the U.S. has overseen a liberal world order, promoted and protected free trade, including at home, and viewed democratic development abroad as essential to its own prosperity and security. The strength of the Trump and Sanders presidential candidacies has revealed the hollowness of this liberal consensus in the 21st century.
Both candidates oppose the existing North American Free Trade Agreement as well as Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade pacts currently being negotiated between the United States and its Asian and European allies. Trump would impose tariffs on foreign imports and penalize U.S. companies moving operations offshore. Sanders, meanwhile, has said American consumers don’t “need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”
To economic protectionism Trump adds hostility to immigrants and deep skepticism about the geopolitical structures that undergird liberal order, not least NATO and the EU. He has threatened to “open up” U.S. libel laws to make it easier to silence the press, and to go after media owners whose outlets criticize him. He openly admires Putin.
What if Planet Trump represents the emergence of a serious ideological alternative to liberalism—one that echoes the illiberal and authoritarian movements of the previous century but, crucially, isn’t an exact replica?
What is going on here?
The typical answers eschew ideas and ideology. Voters are, it is said, moving in response to sustained slow growth and dizzying technological change. The “protected class” of corporate and political elites, another line of thinking goes, has been uninterested in the pain of the “unprotected” many, and it’s past time for this class’s rude awakening. All of these explanations are plausible. Some are more persuasive than others. Yet none is a properly ideological account of an ideological phenomenon.
To blame, say, slow growth for Trumpism is to lose sight of the fact that varieties of “Trumpism” are on the rise in countries that have experienced decent economic growth in recent years (Britain, Poland, and Turkey, for instance). Trump’s vituperation notwithstanding, net Mexican migration to the United States is on a downward trajectory. Advanced economies have been hemorrhaging blue-collar jobs for decades, so why all this rage against the postindustrial machine now? And when and where in history have elites not been detached from the masses?
Reducing political and ideological phenomena to social, economic, and legal ones is one of liberalism’s chief strengths and major blind spots, as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt long ago recognized. Liberalism has always tried to dissolve ideological enmity in the stream of commerce, and to articulate a law so complete that it will both encompass and supplant politics as such. It has frequently succeeded on both counts. But not always.
lanet Trump is what happens when liberalism’s capacity to absorb and dilute enmity falters, and when liberals neglect to give politics, ideology, and enmity their due—when they take a little too seriously their own claim to stand outside and above ideology. To see Planet Trump as merely a reaction to social, economic, and legal developments is to reproduce this common error, and some of Trumpism’s sharpest critics and most sympathetic observers are equally guilty of it.
Both camps are caught in liberalism’s blind spot, in other words, because they fail to discern the simpler if more discomfiting explanation. What if Planet Trump represents the emergence of a serious ideological alternative to liberalism—one that echoes the illiberal and authoritarian movements of the previous century but, crucially, isn’t an exact replica? What if the new illiberals believe what they say they believe?
Planet Trump is a combination of 1) economic protectionism, including shielding earned entitlements from fiscal reform and undeserving newcomers; 2) geopolitical isolationism and, often, pro-Russian sentiment; and 3) hostility toward groups that are seen as agents of economic dislocation and/or physical insecurity—immigrants for the far right, corporate elites for the far left, finance capital for both (and Jews for many).
The fact that these policies are common to far-right and far-left movements from Vermont to Vienna isn’t all that interesting or illuminating. It is necessary to uncover the deeper impulses behind the policy mix—that is, the emotions and instincts that are the warp and weft of any ideology, including liberalism. In the case of Planet Trump, the impulses can be summed up as nostalgia, aggrieved nationhood, and hunger for authentic politics.
These are the three psychological planks on which all such movements rest, and understanding them is essential to defending liberalism against this fresh assault—not least by rejiggering the liberal program in areas where the new illiberals have a point but offer solutions that are monstrous, irrational, or, well, illiberal.
The restoration of a prouder, more wholesome, more coherent past is the first plank. The particular narrative varies by local context, but the form is identical. Donald Trump promises to “make America great again” and asks his followers, mostly displaced blue-collar workers, to imagine a time when industrial manufacturing was king and provided well-paying working-class jobs secure from globalization and mass migration.*
Jobbik’s supporters in Hungary see their modern history as a series of catastrophes and betrayals that robbed their nation of its former greatness. The democracy that followed the collapse of Communism was only the latest disaster because it subjected Hungary to liberal dictates from Brussels, U.S.-NATO “imperialism,” and predatory market forces. Jobbik and other Hungarian nationalists long for the return of national will and cohesion—as well as the territories and populations—lost to the cruel 20th century. The Nazi-collaborationist regime of Admiral Horthy (1920–44) is warmly remembered.
Many Brexit supporters look back as well to a period when Britain’s authority was not subordinated. As the sharpest European critics of Brexit point out, the movement’s leaders are insistent that that the UK can revitalize trading relationships with the countries of its own Commonwealth—the countries that were once parts of the British Empire—once it leaves the EU. In its most romantic framing, this idea imagines the open sea, not the Continent with its petty bureaucrats, as Britain’s once and future destiny.
Vladimir Putin has decried the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, but the real Putinist fantasy is a sort of latter-day czarist restoration—much as Putin’s great rival, Turkey’s Erdogan, has Ottomanist fantasies.
Europe’s far-right thinkers have developed sophisticated theoretical justifications for restoring the communitarian wholeness of a long-ago West. Take Manifesto for a New Europe (1999), by Charles Champetier and Alain de Benoist—the latter is a leading philosopher of the French New Right and a figure long associated with the National Front. In it, the authors describe the “life-world” of liberal modernity as one
replete with delinquency, violence, and incivility, in which man is at war with himself and against all, i.e., an unreal world of drugs, virtual reality and media-hyped sports, in which the countryside is abandoned for unlivable suburbs and monstrous megalopolises, and where the solitary individual merges into an anonymous and hostile crowd, while the traditional social, political, cultural, or religious mediations become increasingly uncertain and undifferentiated.
Liberalism, Benoist and Champetier argue, has uprooted authentic communities and severed man’s connections with more organic and communitarian forms of being that are the ground of true freedom. Mass migration and the social incohesion it breeds, the economic insecurity and inner alienation we all feel—these are signs of liberal man’s fall from community, according to the authors.
The aim of their brand of illiberalism is to restore man to community. In practice, that means restricting immigration (man isn’t an “economic merchandise which can be relocated anywhere”); rejecting the very possibility of assimilation (people can’t “melt” together just by adding rule of law and market forces into the cultural pot); protecting workers from the cult of productivity and “unbridled” technology that causes economic dislocation (think Uber or self-driving cars); and prioritizing local, regional, and “internal” economies over “hyper-competitive” global markets (whatever that means).
Marine Le Pen knows her Benoist. When I asked her about the pending U.S.-Europe free-trade agreement, known as TTIP, in an interview for the Wall Street Journal last year, she emphasized how American goods are “un-hygienic,” a noteworthy expression. Trade means cultural exchange, dilution, dynamism, intermingling. All these are bogeys of the illiberal mind. These communitarians are reactionaries in the most literal sense.
Collective grievance and a desire for national recognition form the second psychological plank. Donald Trump never fails to tell his followers that they have been taken for a ride, bamboozled, robbed. The head-spinning complexity of the world and government’s real and perceived failures aren’t the voters’ fault. It’s the establishment, the Chinese, Mexicans, Muslims, bankers and hedge-funders—all are conspiring to humiliate the nation.
Having ceded nationalism and nationhood to the likes of Le Pen, Orbán, and Putin, liberal Europe is now dumbfounded that so many are gravitating toward such leaders and their movements.
Alexander Dugin, the political theorist known as “Putin’s philosopher” and widely admired among the European far right, goes further. Dugin describes U.S. primacy on the world stage as a “form of global dictatorship.” He rages against “modernity and its ideological basis (individualism, liberal democracy, capitalism, consumerism, and so on).” These things, he says, are “the cause of the future catastrophe of humanity.” No points for guessing which nation is at the heart of the “kingdom of the anti-Christ” that is liberal globalization. “The American Empire should be destroyed,” Dugin writes. “And at one point, it will be.”
Sometimes the you-aren’t-to-blame message to voters has an even darker aspect. By casting Hungary as mainly a victim of World War II, Jobbik and to a lesser extent Prime Minister Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party are attempting to renegotiate the country’s responsibility for Holocaust-era crimes. When in an interview last year I asked Jobbik leader Gábor Vona about Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, he readily conceded that “Hungarian governments did have their responsibility, yes,” but he quickly added:
This is a very complex issue, because Hungary suffered a lot of harm during the First World War, a lot of Hungarian-populated territories were taken away from Hungary and transferred to neighboring countries . . . . I will never question anybody’s right to commemorate the events of the past, but identity cannot be built on tragedies, because it will inevitably lead to more and more confrontation.
Postwar European identity has indeed been largely “built on tragedies,” and rightly so. But voters clearly long for something more: a national culture with a positive content around which to organize political life. European liberal elites want nothing to do with such atavistic superstitions as nationalism and nationhood. Instead, they have tried to tie political loyalty to the vow of “never again,” to the rights enshrined in national constitutions, and to transnational liberal norms and the institutions charged with upholding them (the EU, NATO, the European Court of Human Rights, and so on).
Having ceded nationalism and nationhood to the likes of Le Pen, Orbán, and Putin, liberal Europe is now dumbfounded that so many are gravitating toward such leaders and their movements. Much the same could be said about American liberals puzzled by the attraction of Trump’s brand of nationalism.
The third and final plank is a desire that politics reflect the dark realities of the present. That means: a recognition that enmity can be permanent, that bad actors cannot be transformed into good ones, and that sovereign nations need sovereign options for dealing with these timeless features of life in a fallen world. As more than a million refugees overwhelm Europe, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State wreak havoc across the Middle East and Africa, and jihadism increasingly threatens Western homelands, it isn’t only bigots and reactionaries who are terrified by the lame and haphazard responses in Brussels, Berlin, and Washington. People everywhere, including free peoples, want to see order, leadership, and clarity amid danger and chaos.
When leaders of the center right and center left on both sides of the Atlantic—not least the leader of the Free World—fail to even name “Islamism” or “jihadism” as the enemies of liberal democracy, they empower the likes of Trump, Le Pen, and Orbán. Such men and women have no compunction about naming the enemy, and after they do so, they cast a wide net: It isn’t just the virulent ideology of political Islam that threatens the West, they say, it’s the 1.4 billion global adherents of Islam. President Obama’s refusal to name Islamism as the cause of the terrorist attack in Paris in November and the shooting spree in San Bernardino in December may have been the key events in securing Donald Trump’s presidential nomination. The president insisted, in the wake of Paris, that his strategy against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was working and in need of no modification. Trump insisted, after San Bernardino, on temporarily banning all Muslims entering the U.S. (including, initially, American Muslim citizens) “until we figure out what the hell is going on.” This may have seemed, and was, absurdly extreme, but at least it involved a recognition that the attack was an element of a conflict on a global scale.
Along with the failure to name the enemy, the liberal mainstream is also becoming more dismissive of self-government, and this too has intensified the sense that contemporary politicians are pursuing their own agenda rather than the interests of the voters they are supposed to serve. On both sides of the Atlantic, mainstream parties have been too ready to short-circuit the democratic process when they fear it won’t produce the desired liberal outcomes. From Obama’s executive order on immigration, to the imposition of gay marriage by judicial fiat, to the EU’s attempts to punish voters in Poland and elsewhere for electing the wrong kind of government, to the efforts by European and American transnationalists to “download” liberal norms into national legal systems, liberal disdain for self-government is bolstering illiberals. By sanctioning and censoring the wrong kinds of speech on Islam, immigration, and integration, European and American liberals only manage to turn the illiberals into folk heroes and martyrs voicing forbidden truths.
Liberal civilization has in the past proved resilient when threatened by anti-liberal forces, and its institutions retain a remarkable capacity to adapt. (Again, I am not speaking of “liberalism” as shorthand for positions aligned with the Democratic Party, but in the broader philosophical sense.) As a set of legal norms and economic principles—and, more important, as a cultural force—liberalism remains overwhelmingly dominant. Classically liberal ideas about the limited power of the state and the inherent rights of citizens have expanded into nearly every corner of the globe since 1776. Liberalism has vanquished every significant rival that has stood against it since then, and a succession of liberal powers has presided over world order.
To survive the rise of global Trumpism, the liberal idea must adapt again—to become more robust on issues like Islamism, immigration, and integration; more comfortable with democracy than it has been in recent years; and more conscious of itself as an ideology. Above all, liberal forces need leaders who can offer the kind of democratic pedagogy that the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Reagan, and Thatcher did in the previous century.
There is little reason to believe Hillary Rodham Clinton is up to the task. Mrs. Clinton has given no indication that she will challenge these forces within her own party—which is increasingly a party of relentless ethnic- and identity-pandering, and of the censorious campus left—and she has been forced to eat her words and engage in vigorous self-criticism when she has let slip the slightest heterodoxy on free trade, law and order, or welfare reform. So we face an election and an immediate future in which illiberalism will either be the open policy of the new Republican administration or will be advanced through entropy by the new Democratic one.
The main ideological struggles of this century will pit liberalism against illiberalism. True defenders of freedom must recognize that the battlefront cuts across the traditional left–right divide and will have to act accordingly.