A Populist Revolt?
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Donald Trump rode into the White House, in part, on a wave of populism—a political promise to represent the people against the elites. While populism hit American shores with a dramatic force that left many people stunned, it is a broader phenomenon—one that had already rocked Britain with the Brexit vote and continues to fuel far-right movements in other European countries. To begin grappling with these world-changing forces, Carnegie Corporation of New York and TIME magazine hosted a forum—A Populist Revolt? The Transformation of the World Order in the Trump Era—on February 7 at the Corporation’s New York headquarters.
Michael Scherer, TIME’s Washington bureau chief, moderated the panel, which included Ian Bremmer, founder of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm; Roger Cohen, an international affairs columnist for the New York Times; and Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
According to Pippa Norris, the seeds of this populist revolt have been gestating for some time. Her research before the November election found two main explanations for the rise of populism. The first is that it is an economic response to long-term trends of globalization. The second, even “gloomier” explanation is that the “new” populism is a backlash against progressive beliefs like gender equality, LGBT rights, and cosmopolitan diversity, particularly as embraced by younger generations and the well educated. For Norris, today’s cultural shift echoes the conflicts of the 1960s when progressive attitudes began to impact affluent societies. Today’s populists are exploiting both a generation gap and an education gap, said Norris. “They appeal to this dissatisfaction with the amount of change, saying ‘We can take you back.’” Trump’s campaign slogan is a case in point. “‘Make America Great Again’ says that America was great and that we can get back there,” she notes. However, “progressive groups are not going to go back to the racism, or the sexism, or the idea that somehow America should be less diverse. . . . So there is a cultural battle that makes it very difficult to know where we go from here.”
Populism Is Gaining the Upper Hand
“Democracy is marked,” warned Roger Cohen. “People don’t realize the value,” he continued. “For the first time in my life I feel like I can identify with people in the 1930s, who had the sense of the world drifting toward the abyss.” At the end of the Cold War liberal democratic values triumphed and “people wanted to be free, to have choices, and to choose the people that they elected,” said Cohen. “Today that conviction has completely evaporated and we have to say that authoritarian systems and populism seem for the moment to have the upper hand.”
Cohen outlined the evidence: “You see nationalism—and nationalism is always allied to myth; the notion of some restored glory. You see authoritarianism; the idea of a savior—Donald Trump saying, ‘I am your voice.’” These are all the hallmarks of “soft authoritarianism,” according to Cohen. Another tactic is disorientation: destroying the distinction between facts and lies. “I think the population of the United States is increasingly disoriented,” Cohen observed. He warned that Trump is more than capable of exploiting a terrorist attack against the United States to seize control. “What will constitute Donald Trump’s Reichstag fire?” he asked, referring to the burning of the parliament building in Berlin in 1933, a key event in Hitler’s rise to dictatorship. “It was just a little nudge at first,” said Cohen, “but then came the Reichstag fire and it was all over.”
Ian Bremmer, however, made the point that political institutions in the United States are strong enough to withstand the worst impulses of rising populism. “I think Trump is ultimately going to get pushed back by the fact that power is much more distributed in the United States,” said Bremmer. “Efforts to make the American state more structurally vertical are going to be systemically impossible to put in place. Because of the way that capitalist America works and the role of money.” As a matter of fact, Bremmer is more concerned about a country like China, which does not have the political system or the social safety net to handle populism.
Bremmer said that “Pax Americana” was already unwinding even before Trump won the election. Populism was growing in Europe, Brexit had been voted upon, and “there were plenty of countries around the world saying we do not think the United States really believes in us.” Consequently, these countries are going to hedge their bets. “Look at the Philippines, look at the U.K., look at what happened to the Middle East, look at the rise of China, look at what Russia was doing on the security side,” Bremmer said. But Norris cautioned that if human rights and democratic freedom are not part of Trump’s agenda, and if programs like UNDP and USAID don't get American support, this will spur global consequences. “The lack of support for other countries which are really struggling and which need America’s help, those things are very black for the world.”
And if the United States pulls back, Norris is concerned that Russia and China are poised to step into the power vacuum. But Bremmer does not think that the Chinese have the experience or the economic resources to fill the void. China’s global strategy is much more incremental, he said, but they are indeed “building architecture and they are building alternatives to the United States and U.S.-led global initiatives.” Cohen believes that Russia does have a clear strategy to “pry western Europe and the United States apart.” He said Putin thinks Trump might be willing to take the United States out of Europe, which is part of a plan to weaken the European Union. According to Cohen, Russia is already hard at work in France, the Netherlands, and Germany promoting anti-EU candidates in those countries’ upcoming elections.
Are we already seeing a pushback that may turn into a political solution? Norris thinks so. She noted that on January 21, four million people around the world turned out for the women’s marches. “I have never lived through such a mass demonstration. I don’t think anybody here has.” Norris said liberals have woken up and are energized, which may well lead to higher participation in civic organizations and student unions. “If it can turn itself into votes,” she observed, “and if it can turn itself into an effective opposition against policies”—that would be a positive political sign.
But politics is also viewed as “one big heist” by Trump’s supporters, said Cohen. Think about the debacles of the last 15 years: the Iraq War, the Euro, the 2008 financial crash, and growing inequality in Western societies. “It seemed that everybody in power, the elites, simply walked away with complete impunity and that has fueled the anger.” Grudges and grievances against a rigged system fueled Donald Trump. “He got it,” said Cohen, “and he pulled off something absolutely extraordinary—he borrowed the Republican Party the way you might rent a tux for the evening.” But Cohen emphasized that the problem of inequality can no longer be ignored and must be tackled on the level of education and taxation. “If we go on doing the same thing, it is only going to get worse.”
Bremmer added that globalism must be de-ideologized if we are going fix the problems that transcend national borders, such as global warming, or jihad, or automation in manufacturing. “You can’t build walls to keep robots out,” he said. Responding globally to global problems must transcend ideology. It has to be “science,” it has to be “facts,” declared Bremmer. “If we have any role as elites, it is to recognize when we are fighting something that is effectively not an alternative ideology, but is creationism.”