About two months ago, at a breakfast tête à tête, I was talking with a Western diplomat in Washington about the rise of Donald Trump and the parallel surge of populist movements throughout Europe—a wave of anger fueled by migration flows and Islamist terror attacks. “When Marie Antoinette was looking through the window of her castle, at crowds with pitchforks in Versailles, she probably thought that it might pass, that people would calm down and the old order prevail,” said the diplomat. “What if we have entered a similar moment? What if this wave of anger gets so big that it destroys the EU, Western democracies, and the West as we have known it?”, he wondered. And then came Brexit.
Have we entered a new age? A new paradigm that will reduce to ashes the mores and institutions that have kept us free and at peace for seven decades? The paradox of the current situation is that it is precisely because they seek to protect our way of life that many citizens are attracted to populists like Donald Trump. They are heading his way out of a mix of patriotism and despair, out of an instinctive urge to try something new and radical, because they have given up on the “traditional elites.” The reality is that they feel betrayed and abandoned by these elites. They see them as impotent and selfish for refusing to acknowledge the truth. And that truth, for them, is simple: The multicultural model of open-ended immigration and globalization that promised to carry the West forward into a sunny future has faltered in the face of implacable demographic facts and Islamic radicalism—especially in Europe.
To be sure, in theory (and most of the time in reality), diversity is beautiful. It holds out the promise of enriching our lives and filling them with wonder. When you are a member of the elite, in particular, with the means to travel, get a global education, learn multiple languages, and “hop” from Dakar to Paris to Washington to Shanghai, what richness one must feel—a sense of being one with inhabitants of distant lands that our forebears knew only as strange names on a map.
But what about the people who don’t get to travel and don’t master the means to savor the best of other cultures? What about the people whose only experience of globalism are dwindling salaries, shuttered factories, and the migrant flows reshaping their world before their very eyes? What about those in Europe, who see the failure to integrate newcomers, feel the economic competition and cultural and religious tensions they bring, and fear the threats posed by new enclaves of radicalism and hatred in their midst? Those disenfranchised citizens look to Trump, Le Pen, Orban, or their like.
Does that mean they are all bigots and racists? Maybe a small fraction is, and it must be harshly fought. But what about the 30-40 percent of Republican Americans who voted for Trump in the primaries, and what about the 30 percent of French voters who pledge in polls to vote Le Pen in 2017? Have vast portions of entire nations suddenly announced themselves openly as bigots and racists, as many frightened and worried elites now claim? Doubtful. And if they are ignored, they will grow increasingly deaf to the calls of the Mitt Romneys and François Hollandes of the world, who are asking them to be “reasonable.“
We can sense the trend in the way that the legions of angered voters have begun to listen seriously to other proposals formerly relegated to the fringe. Let’s dump NATO and the EU, since they haven’t protected us, say the French National Front and its followers, echoed by voices on the left as well. Let’s open up to Putin, says Marine Le Pen, seemingly ready to renounce our most sacred alliances to strike a new partnership with a dangerously revisionist and authoritarian Russia. (To be sure, after twenty years spent studying post communist Russia, I am among those who believe that Russia will ultimately become a key ally of the West, in fact a third West, when it comes to terms with its imperial past and chooses the rule of law to ensure a lasting development. But not now, not under Putin’s corrupt and aggressive rule.) The spell that the former KGB agent seems to have cast over presidential candidate Donald Trump is, from this point of view, very disturbing, even if one holds out hope that, once in the Oval Office, the daily Intelligence brief would bring him back to reason. Trump’s lack of interest in Europe and his repeated calls to withdraw American troops are clearly vexing Europe’s leaders, already disillusioned by Obama’s pivot to Asia and his striking underestimation of the existential questions facing the continent. Maybe it is just a way for the Republican candidate to start a tough conversation with European countries and force them to contribute more to their defense. But if it’s not, and if things continue in this vein on both sides of the Atlantic, we really could be only a few elections away from a geopolitical and historical earthquake that could bury the European Union and the Western military alliance. Brexit is a clear warning.
Mores, laws, and institutions we once trusted to be eternal are, we now know, very fragile. Just as in 1789 and 1917, French and Russian revolutionaries went as far as killing their King and their Tsar to bring about change—a tragedy from which both France and Russia never wholly recovered—so today could the people decide to throw the “baby of democracy” and Western institutions out with the “bath water” of national and global elites, if they continue to be ignored. Vladimir Putin is patiently waiting for just such a turn of events.
As I traveled across America during the primary season, I had a sense that Trump’s voters understood some of the establishment’s fears concerning the New York billionaire. While they praised his fearlessness and willingness to shake off the status quo, many in fact recognized the flaws of their candidate: his brashness and unpredictability; his temptation to use ends to justify all means. But what they could not forgive was the refusal of the current elite to acknowledge the truth about the dangers of keeping open borders. “A country without borders is a country no more”, they told me, echoing Trump’s (and Le Pen’s) formula. Is it any less true because Trump says it?
Let’s hope we are not in another 1789, when French elites scoffed and their world came to an end. But let us remember that when elites close their eyes to inconvenient truths that the people see, the people sometimes throw off not only the elites but the institutions they control—even when those institutions might still be worth saving. There is craving for strength in the streets of Western democracies because the people no longer believe the elites when they say that democratic institutions are still strong. Mending this wounded trust is our most urgent task. This means, in Europe for example, re-evaluating the European Union, its goals, and its means. It means pushing the “pause” button and taking a moment to think. It means we need to think less ideologically and more pragmatically. Return powers to the nation states where necessary, and deepen European integration in areas where doing so is clearly superior.
My American friends tend to argue that tyranny couldn’t happen in the United States given its constitutional checks and balances and separation of powers. Let’s hope they’re right, and that we never see the fulfillment of Tocqueville’s prophesies that tyranny can emerge from democracies when citizens feel estranged. As Brexit and the assorted crises racking the Continent have shown, the current European order is undeniably fragile. And let’s be clear: Without Europe, there is no more West and no more America as we know it.