Whatever the relations may or may not have been between Donald Trump and his crew and Vladimir Putin and his crew, here’s one thing that the two presidents do not have in common: popularity. According to polls, Putin’s approval rating was at 82% late last year. In his 17-year reign, he’s never fallen below the 60% mark, and when his figures did drop modestly, his military-first projection of Russian power in the Crimea and then Syria turned things around. Trump, on the other hand, barely squeaked to victory last November without even winning the popular vote — you remember all those undocumented aliens, millions of them, who snuck into the polling booths! — and his approval rating recently hit a distinctly non-Putinesque 36% in a Gallup poll, a figure unique for American presidents in their “honeymoon” periods and below all-time lows for, among others, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Gerald Ford.
And if we’re talking about the rest of the global roster of right-wing populists TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy focuses on today, things don’t look much better for The Donald. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for instance, who has loosed his country’s police in a brutal killing campaign that’s littered Filipino urban landscapes with the bodies of thousands of drug pushers and users, stood at an 83% approval rating in January, down from his September 2016 high of 86%. Unfortunately for Trump, in the wake of the recent Obamacare fiasco, there’s no obvious way to recover domestically, no less soar to the heights presently reached by the Russian and Philippine strongmen. He does, however, have at his command something that neither Putin, Duterte, or any other populist figure can call upon: a military unparalleled on the planet — and don’t for a second think that, if things continue going this badly, it won’t cross his mind that creating his own “Crimea” might have certain plusses, that “bombing the shit” out of distant enemies (rather than murdering pushers at home) might perk up those polling figures a bit. Taking out enemies, as McCoy makes clear, is an eternally popular way for such politicians to make their mark. The only problem: if the U.S. military is unparalleled in its destructive power in these years, it’s also had an unparalleled inability to bring any conflict it enters to a positive conclusion or, as Trump puts it, to start “winning wars again.”
It’s a record that would worry any populist looking for advantage and it’s part of a larger historical record, now including the election of Donald J. Trump, which should bring the word “decline” (as in the decline and fall of…) to all our lips. Alfred McCoy has had that very word on his mind for a while. His timely new Dispatch Book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, will be published this fall at a moment when all of this may seem far more obvious. In the meantime, on our increasingly fragmented, seemingly degrading planet, he does something you don’t often see and groups the whole crew of global populists of our moment in one place to consider just what we should make of their rise — and our potential fall.