‘Little Trumps Are in Every European Country’ – The Atlantic

8 months ago Comments Off on ‘Little Trumps Are in Every European Country’ – The Atlantic

“Modern politics is quite technical: the handling of a complex, globally engaged economy and the administration of all the myriad public services that an enlightened state is expected to provide are a matter for professionals,” observed the Corbyn critic Janet Daley in The Telegraph. That’s resulted in more attention to a candidate’s “qualifications” for governing. But it also means “the business of governing has become obscure and arcane, as well as uninspiring.” Being “in touch with the feelings of ordinary people” suddenly becomes a huge advantage to politicians who can pull it off.

More than plainspokenness, Baggini argued, signs of “amateurism” are a win for populist politicians: “It just goes to show their honesty and lack of spin. Gaffes that hurt other politicians only help populists, since they emphasize how much more human they are than the old guard of apparatchiks.”

But some see a threat to Western democracy itself in this populist upswing. “No matter where you look, people are turning away from the [usual] political institutions,” wrote Yascha Mounk, a German-born political-science lecturer at Harvard, for Die Zeit. “It’s too early to say with certainty where the crisis of democracy will lead. Perhaps it will find itself anew. … Or perhaps we stand at the beginning of a new era of violence and dictatorship.” In fact, even commentators who don’t think Trump will ever make it to the White House seem deeply perturbed by the phenomenon he represents. “Populists have always brought calamity to Europe,” declared one German op-ed.

The Democracy Report

Very few observers have explicitly hauled out the explosive Hitler and Mussolini comparisons. After all, dropping the name of a 1930s dictator has a way of making everything one writes in the first three-quarters of an article, no matter how perceptive, look like a prelude to gibbering lunacy.

But a keen awareness of populism’s patchy history in Europe haunts much of this commentary. And those who see similarities between popular frustrations in interwar Europe and the current moment can’t be dismissed out of hand. Recent historical works have emphasized just how disenchanted not just Germans and Italians, but also the French, Spanish, English, and others became with liberal, bourgeois democracy in response to the economic travails and plodding, technocratic, ineffectual government of the 1920s and early 1930s. The inability of traditional politicians to connect with voters and get things done—visibly, quickly—was part of what made populist authoritarianism so appealing. Many historians trace 1920s nativist hysteria in part to declining native birthrates—also a feature of present debates. And a rough parallel could also be drawn between the current refugee crisis involving Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian migrants and the influx of Eastern European Jews, fleeing pogroms, into Western Europe in the early 20th century. These less assimilated, more culturally distinct Jewish populations quickly became the targets of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic propaganda.

Some commentators have argued that today’s populist movements, like those in the 1920s and 30s, spring from a potent combination of broad dissatisfaction with political institutions and acute anxiety about a globalized future. Josef Joffe, noting populist complaints involving “values,” “foreign infiltration,” and so forth, even went so far as to suggest that Trump, Sanders, & Co. are offering their supporters nothing less than a “bulwark against modernity.” In the German magazine Der Spiegel, Henrik Müller, a professor of economic journalism at the University of Dortmund, cited survey results showing a minority of respondents in both the United States and European Union expressing trust in their political and economic institutions. “Functioning democracies,” he argued, need three things: “a broad consensus about what is important for a society”; “platforms where discussions can take place about which problems take priority and what solutions can be offered”; and “enough common values that they trust their institutions, that majorities and minorities respect one another, and that everyone generally deals fairly with one another.” These preconditions used to be taken for granted. Now they’re looking precarious in some countries.

If European commentators are more prone to building grand, pessimistic narratives around Trump, they’re also less likely than American commentators to see his rise as the result of strategic error, organizational deficiency, or flat-out insanity. Their perspective isn’t necessarily more accurate or clear-eyed than the American perspective, but it can be equally instructive. It de-emphasizes the specifics of party politics, and emphasizes the need for politicians and publics across the democratic world to think about more effective, less scripted ways of governing—to have more thoughtful discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of increased globalization. It’s very hard to sustain, with this perspective, the belief that Donald Trump is (a) pure entertainment, (b) somebody else’s mistake, or (c) somebody else’s problem—views that are in abundant supply in the United States and have further irritated Trump’s supporters. Insofar as Trump represents a problem, he’s the symptom rather than the cause—and it’s everyone’s problem.

‘Little Trumps Are in Every European Country’ – The Atlantic