Trump and Worldwide Nationalist Movements
Much as we fixate on the Trump phenomenon in America, it’s important to see it as part of a worldwide nationalist turn. Like other nationalist movements, it builds on internal currents, structures and cultural elements and takes form through idiosyncratic leaders capable of breaking through existing political frameworks. There is nobody else just like Donald Trump, though there are equally disruptive forces within most countries.
What is driving this nationalist turn at this exact time? I think it’s three things: dashed expectations of recovery following the 2008 Great Recession, ISIS and the newly destabilized Middle East, and social media.
The blowback against neoliberal globalist economic policies has gotten plenty of attention. Wage stagnation and lost manufacturing jobs have affected non-elites in Europe and America. What’s most interesting is the timing. People tend to get angry and call for dismantling existing economic frameworks not when times get rough, but when times don’t get better fast enough. The “revolution of rising expectations” explained much of the unrest in the 1960s. It does the same today.
In Europe it was the EU’s continued failure to sustain collapsing economies like Greece, along with the replacement of high-paying western European manufacturing jobs with service-oriented jobs staffed mostly by eastern Europeans that fueled Brexit and other challenges to the European order. Closer to home, long-term failures in America’s Rust Belt, and general depopulation of rural America has left behind populations without skills to compete in a newer economy. Low energy prices after 2012, while a boon to consumers, has closed off yet another avenue of employment for many blue collar workers.
The second factor is the turmoil in the Middle East, much of it stemming from the disastrous Iraq war, but also rooted in Cold War-era resentments long frozen in time. In many ways, Islamism in the Middle East was the first expression of what the West now calls the alt-right.
It was a cultural rejection of global – read: Western – secular, modern values as the economic promise offered by global trade rarely reaches outside the golden towers of Dubai. The hyper-masculinity of this extremism betrayed the emasculation of middle class Muslim men no longer in control of their societies. Al Qaeda was the vehicle not for the impoverished, but for the stifled professionals in Egypt and Saudi Arabia lacking access to the autocratic pro-US regimes there. With Saddam’s Iraq blown apart in 2003-06, and then an Arab Spring that devolved into a regional social meltdown in 2011, the broader Middle East collapsed into a proxy Sunni-Shi’ite war.
Syria replaced 1970s-80s Lebanon as Ground Zero for this new catastrophe. Assad’s Alawite regime, with support from Iran and Russia, takes on Sunnis, backed by Gulf States, Turkey and, for a while, the United States. The chaos attracted the Islamists, which blossomed into ISIS. The combined effect of ISIS’s hideous social media-circulating beheading videos, the refugee crisis from civilians fleeing Assad’s destruction of Aleppo, and the ISIS-sponsored and ISIS-inspired acts of random terrorism in the West have all put Europe and the United States on edge. Polls have shown more fear of Islamist terrorism than after 9/11. Why? Because there seems no rhyme or reason to ISIS’s violence. Many of these attackers were not trained over years in a camp in Afghanistan. Many were trained and inspired on social media, which has had the effect of exaggerating the sense of social breakdown.
Which makes social media itself one of the prime culprits in this rise of the new nationalism. Social media brings every confrontation or provocation right into our pockets. We cannot look away. News of outrages mesh seamlessly with images of happy family members and friends living their lives. We’ve lost our comfortable spaces – not the much ridiculed “safe spaces” where people are shielded from insults – but the private spaces where we can just carry on ordinary life without having to think about every crisis in the world. Add to this the post-modern deconstruction of facts and truth, the collapsing value of expertise, and even the loss of shame at saying outrageous things on social media. We now occupy a cacophonous Twilight Zone where nothing seems real, and only the loudest, most persistent and most obnoxious voices can be heard above the din. Is it any wonder that Donald Trump ended up on top?
In many ways, this feels like the year 1919. Then, a series of empires collapsed, a terrifying (and thrilling for some) new phenomenon of Bolshevik revolution emerged in Russia, a Spanish Flu epidemic, a series of race riots and massacres, labor upheaval, newly emergent nations descending quickly into pointless wars (Ireland and its post-Treaty civil war), large scale migration – all produced a deep sense of anxiety. It was the Dynamo of Henry Adams’s imagination. And it led, in America as elsewhere, to a nationalist turn inward. Whether expressed as corporatism, isolationism, cartelism, fascism, or even the “Lost Generation” – it all signaled entropy, a descent into chaos. The post-1919 world led fearful peoples to turn to what was most familiar, even as they discovered that what was once so familiar was no longer there.
I’d be lying if I said I knew where things would go in 2017 and beyond. All we can do is remain vigilant in defense of democracy, liberty, equality and justice. And never assume that the problems of the world will take care of themselves.