The Trump Presidency represents a rebellion against liberalism itself—an angry assault on the advances of groups of people who have experienced profound, if fitful, empowerment over the past half century. There is nothing about Trump’s public pronouncements that indicates that he has welcomed these moral advances; his language, his tone, his personal behavior, and his policies all suggest, and foster, a politics of resentment. It is the Other—the ethnic minority, the immigrant—who has closed your factory, taken your job, threatened your safety.
The Trumpian rebellion against liberal democracy is not a local event; it is part of a disturbing global trend. When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved, two years later, the democratic movement grew and liberalism advanced, and not only in Eastern and Central Europe. During the course of thirty years, the number of democracies in the world expanded from thirty to roughly a hundred. But, since 2000, nation-states of major consequence—Russia, Hungary, Thailand, and the Philippines among them—have gone in the opposite, authoritarian direction. India, Indonesia, and Great Britain have become more nationalistic. The Arab Spring failed nearly everywhere. The prestige and the efficacy of democracy itself is in question. The Chinese Communist Party, which crushed a pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, in 1989, then set out to make the case that it could achieve enormous economic growth while ignoring the demand for human rights and political liberties. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has suppressed political competition, a nascent independent media, and any hope for an independent judiciary or legislature while managing to convince millions of his countrymen that the United States is hypocritical and immoral, no more democratic than any other country. In Turkey, Erdoğan has jailed tens of thousands of political opponents, muzzled the press, and narrowly won a referendum providing him with nearly dictatorial powers. Western Europe is also in question. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is polling credibly in a Presidential campaign guided by two of her longtime associates and fascist sympathizers, Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau.
The stakes of this anti-democratic wave cannot be overestimated. Nor can it be ignored to what degree authoritarian states have been able to point out the failures of the West—including the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya—and use them to diminish the moral prestige of democracy itself. As Edward Luce writes, in “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” “What we do not yet know is whether the world’s democratic recession will turn into a global depression.”
David Remnick, “One Hundred Days”, The New Yorker (1 May 2017), 20.