Even before Donald Trump’s election victory it was becoming clear that we are living in an age of disintegration. Nation states are returning to relationships based on rivalry and friction when the trend was meant to be in the opposite direction. The internal unity of country after country is under stress or has already broken down. Governments and universities used to set up institutions to study greater integration and cooperation, while in fact they might have been better looking at how things fall apart.
The phenomenon is most obvious in the wider Middle East where there are at least seven wars and three insurgencies raging in the swathe of countries between Pakistan and Nigeria. But in Europe and the US, foreign and domestic antagonisms are also becoming deeper and more venomous. In this more rancorous political landscape, the election of Donald Trump as US President feels like part of a trend, toxic and dangerous but wide-ranging and unstoppable. Distinct though the political and economic situation in the US, Europe and the Middle East may be in many respects, there is the same dissatisfaction or rejection of the status quo without much idea of what should be put in its place.
Political shocks like the election of Trump can produce apocalyptic forebodings that in retrospect turn out to be misplaced or exaggerated. But, in this case, grim expectations about the future may be all too justified and unlikely to evaporate. Trump’s promises of radical change may be phoney or opportunistic, but they have a momentum of their own which will be uncontrollable.
For all his demagoguery, there was a sense that Trump was often nearer to the issues that concerned voters than Hillary Clinton. In the final election rallies of Trump in Michigan and Clinton in North Carolina, he was promising voters the return of factories and well-paid jobs while she was repeating kindergarten waffle such as “love trumps hate” and “build bridges not walls”. He will find it difficult to retreat from these pledges and this is bound to bring confrontation with other trading nations. Overall, the high days of liberal capitalism since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which continued despite a battering from the financial crisis of 2008, are finally finished.
It is an age not just of disintegration but of extremes, with proponents of the status quo either weakened or discredited, as shown by the Brexit vote in Britain. The beneficiaries are mostly on the right: from the 1980s on, the mainstream left in Britain, France and Germany abandoned socialism for liberal free market capitalism as the proven recipe for human happiness, which meant that after 2008 they had no alternative system to advocate and could no longer provide a credible vehicle for protest. The political beneficiaries of disillusionment with things as they are have almost invariably been on the right as with Trump who, along with other rightist insurgencies, can plug into resurgent loyalty to the nation state in the wake of discredited globalisation.
There are similarities – so long as the analogies are not overstrained – between the forces behind the Arab Spring protests of 2011, the Brexit vote and Trump’s electoral victory today. In all cases, the ruling establishment was weaker and more unpopular than even the most critical observers had imagined: the triumphant protesters were astonished by the extent of their own success. More ominously, it swiftly emerged in the Middle East that the proponents of change had little idea what it should be and had relied wholly on demonisation of their opponents as the source of all evils.
There is another parallel between what happened in the Arab world five years ago and events in the UK and the US this year. The old regimes were battered or discarded but there was nothing to replace them with. There is no consensus on what to do. Travelling to Britain from the Middle East, it is striking how the political, social and geographical divisions expressed by the Brexit vote have only deepened with time, whatever pretences there are to the contrary. Political commentators in the UK and US who endlessly proclaimed that, whatever the rhetoric, elections were won by those who seized the centre ground turned out to be wrong because there was not much centre ground to seize.
These are not the only political shibboleths which should be discarded. Shocks like these usually provoke jeremiads from the “commentariat” about how all is chaos and the centre cannot hold. Such dire warnings are swiftly followed by more hopeful commentary about how things have not changed as radically or dangerously as first feared. But, unfortunately, in the case of the US election, the first gloom-filled predictions may be the most accurate.
It is true that Trump’s authority will be thwarted by the division of powers laid down by the US constitution – though this is somewhat contradicted by Republican control of both Houses of Congress as well as the presidency. Presidential powers are also diluted by those of other state institutions such as the Pentagon and the Treasury. But these comforting thoughts are probably wishful thinking. The extent of the rejection of the American establishment – Democrats, Republicans, celebrities, media – by US voters underlines its weakness. The US media in particular is so much part of the political class that it had become an echo chamber in which it heard only its own views.
Leaving aside these dangerous historical trends, there is another more immediate menace stemming from election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain: it empowers and legitimises the crackpots and the cranks, those who want to roll back the verdict of past elections since the New Deal if not the Civil War. Those around Trump are not just the Team “B” of American politics but the Team “C” or even lower down the alphabet. They may not want to blow up the world but, out of sheer idiocy, they could do just that.
I am writing this in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil which is 60 miles from Mosul, where rival armies are fighting their way into Isis’s last great stronghold. Nobody expects this to be the end of the wars in Iraq and Syria or the multiple crises tearing the region apart. The experience is evidence of the fragility of states and how easily they can be capsized, not just by domestic divisions and foreign enemies but by avoidable political errors. With Donald Trump soon to be in the White House, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that the world has just become a lot more dangerous place.