“It’s not that I’m a Trump supporter. It’s just that you, my friend, are actively undermining the very foundations of everything you purport to defend.”
Over the past ten months, that conflicted sentiment has led me into countless debates with people much more implacably opposed to the President than I am. I live in Washington, DC. We voted for Hillary Clinton by an overwhelming 90.9 percent. Most of the people I end up arguing with are my friends and colleagues.
My interlocutors increasingly think they are at a world-historical inflection point, and only their unwavering commitment to what they simply know to be right can avert certain catastrophe. I emphatically agree with them that we are at a critical inflection point. But to me, Trump’s presidency is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.
“It’s about our shared values,” my friends might say to me. “Trump is attacking them. Liberal democracy is at stake. This is existential.”
“Democracy is just fine,” I might answer. “Liberalism, however, is slitting its own throat.”
You didn’t have to be a Trump supporter to have seen all this coming. The brilliant Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev predicted much of it ten years ago in a remarkable essay for the Journal of Democracy titled “The Strange Death of the Liberal Consensus.” The financial crisis that would soon hit was on almost no one’s radar, and yet Central and East Europeans had already started their electoral revolt. Though Krastev’s focus is the rise of what was even then disparagingly called “populism,” his essay is vital to understanding the dynamics that shape our current political reality across the West.
Seven years into the new millennium and not even a decade after the launch of the single currency, familiar faces were already being cursed and abused in the halls of power in Brussels: Robert Fico was serving his first term as Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban was on the rise in Hungary, and the Kaczynski brothers’ Law and Justice Party was leading a coalition in Poland. The abuse was not completely unwarranted. Fico’s nationalist coalition partners were notorious for making impolitic, and often drunken, statements about Hungarians and Roma at rallies. (Jan Slota of the Slovak National Party said in 1995 that solving the country’s “Gypsy problem” was a matter of a “small courtyard and a long whip.”) And Law and Justice was raising hackles, then as now, with both its heavy-handed attempts to appoint loyalists as nominally independent civil servants, and its paranoid, conspiratorial approach to democratic politics.
Yet their critics were no less over the top, making comparisons to Weimar Germany as a matter of course. The problem with the so-called “Weimar interpretation,” Krastev wryly noted, is that it was both wrong on the merits and transparently self-serving. “The streets of Budapest and Warsaw today are flooded not by ruthless paramilitary formations in search of a final solution,” he wrote, “but by restless consumers in search of a final sale.” Democracy was in fine shape, as was market capitalism. What was being roundly rejected, however, was what we might describe as a common-sense liberal worldview—a kind of political correctness that since the end of the Cold War had taken questions otherwise vital to politics “off the menu.”
The European Union had stumbled into imposing a political conditionality in their accessions arrangements with the eager Central and East Europeans. You will not only reform your institutions to our standards, the eurocrats demanded, but you will also forbid a certain kind of political discourse to flourish in your countries. “In order to prevent anticapitalist mobilization, liberals successfully excluded anticapitalist discourse,” Krastev wrote, “but in doing so they opened up space for political mobilization around symbolic and identity issues, thus creating the conditions for their own destruction.” Another way to put it: after the Cold War, victorious liberals made liberalism into a moral matter, a set of tenets beyond political question. Instead of defending individual and property rights and free, open markets on rational grounds, they shut down discussion by casting anyone who happened to disagree as some kind of reprehensible throwback—not just wrong, but bad.
Krastev perhaps didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t just “anticapitalism” that was verboten. The very concept of the nation and national culture had through the years become deemed too dangerous for democratic politics. This was due in no small part to the bloody Balkan wars that buffeted Europe’s periphery shortly after the fall of communism. But as Frank Furedi argues in his penetrating new book Populism and the European Culture Wars, a profound rejection of nationality as a legitimating concept was at the core of a Good European’s own historical self-understanding.
West European democracies had assiduously worked to banish nationalism from the Continent’s politics in the decades following World War II, in an attempt to expiate their collective sins associated with the Holocaust. It would be wrong to minimize the importance the task played in helping the Europeans get back on their feet, both economically and psychologically. But the exercise certainly left its mark. With the “defeat” of international communism in the 1990s, this convenient piety now seemed the cause of liberalism’s triumph, and was embraced with intensifying fervor. Political theorists like Jurgen Habermas began to argue that the nation-state was a necessary stepping stone on the path to the gas chambers. The post-national European Union—now increasingly seen as a universal project, the means by which mankind would finally transcend its atavistic and tribal impulses—was the only moral way forward. This pious post-nationalism was of course tangled up with unexamined justifications for markets mentioned above. In a globalized economy, the argument went, smaller European countries simply could not compete without ceding their sovereignty to the European Union and opening up their borders to both capital and labor. It’s no coincidence that Good Europeans like Angela Merkel and George Soros both saw openness to migration—at first to workers within the EU, but since 2015 to the wretched masses trudging overland from Syria, North Africa, and Afghanistan—as a defining mark of European civilization.
The problem for European liberals, Furedi writes, is that voters have only ever regarded their project as weakly legitimate. The threat of the Soviet Union and the postwar economic boom proved to be adequate glue for several decades. But as the economic crises of the 1970s started to bite, it became apparent to even the EU’s most stalwart supporters that this was not going to be enough in the long run. More than 40 years later, however, that sharp insight has not led to anything more than a few weak attempts at manufacturing a bloodless transnational EU identity through lazy PR. By 2011, even a giant such as Jacques Delors was conceding that a European project that hid its Judeo-Christian heritage was in trouble.
But his warning found few listeners. As the European project accrued universalist, global pretentions, its most fervent defenders lost the ability to appeal to the common heritage of the Continent’s constituent peoples. Today, the situation is as acute as ever. “The very public assertion of the principle of national sovereignty by [so-called ‘populist’ leaders],” Furedi argues, “has created an ‘Emperor Has No Clothes’ situation” for the EU itself.
It’s not that voters have necessarily grown more illiberal. Rather, it’s that they were never as closely wedded to liberal ideals as their elites had hoped or imagined. In Central and Eastern Europe, at least, the intellectual case for liberalism was never really made to people. As long as blind adherence to liberal shibboleths was the price one needed to pay for rising living standards and the promise of future prosperity, most were willing to go along. But the universal aspirations of liberalism-as-religion had always rung more than a little hollow. When the future arrived and European integration underdelivered on its promises, these pieties were trivial to discard.
While the backstory in the United States is quite different, the underlying political dynamics at play today are strikingly similar. Faced with a broad revolt against the common-sense liberal worldview, panicked American elites are prophesying an apocalyptic, totalitarian future for the Republic. And when it comes to “doing politics,” liberals seem keen to double down on what worked in the past.
I have noticed that a kind of sickly grey hope hangs around most people’s hottest anti-Trump vitriol, lingering like stale morning breath: a hope that once everything is sorted—all the disinformation exposed, all the dossiers verified, all the tax returns audited, and all the President’s men jailed—the “adults” will wrest back control of politics, and things can get back more or less to the way they were before. Established, institutionalized parties representing well-defined and time-tested electoral coalitions will once again vie for the affections of so-called “independent” voters, whose demands define a sensible middle ground where the parties are compelled to make concessions to common sense. We will still have disagreements about important issues, my friends might say to me—issues like abortion, taxes, trade, and immigration will of course remain divisive. Banishing Trump does not mean the end of politics: after all, we remain a deeply polarized country. But the bigger frame of the debates will no longer come into question. Our values, to which Trump personally and Trumpism more broadly is such an affront, will no longer be up for debate.
But ten months into Year Zero of Trump’s first term, Trumpism has, if anything, strengthened its hold on the Republican Party. The press rapturously praised the recent remonstrations of Senators Corker and Flake, but without noting that their fine words largely fell on deaf ears among their constituents, and were rendered less than cheap by their decision to avoid discovering the true price in the upcoming elections. Whoever follows Trump on the Right almost certainly will not be a #NeverTrumper. Rather, it will probably be someone like Senator Tom Cotton, a man who has clearly read the mood of Republican voters and is willing to meet them more than halfway on most issues.
The nostalgics could still be proven right by the Democrats, who could conceivably field a slate of broadly “centrist” candidates of the old mold in the upcoming midterms. But early indicators suggest that the Left too has little appetite for anything like it. Ezra Klein, founder of the influential Lefty-millennial online publication Vox, was recently boosting the fortunes of a young Muslim candidate for Governor in Michigan: “Obama-like biography and political style paired with Sanders-like policy ideas sounds like the fusion the Democratic Party is searching for.”
It seems to me that it’s precisely the old framing—Krastev’s “liberal consensus”—that’s done for. Gone with it is any certainty about free trade and immigration, as well as any certainty surrounding the so-called liberal international order. As Nils Gilman astutely noted two days ago in these pages, what Trump has done is vastly expand the realm of what is politically possible (and permissible) in the United States. Arguably, he has done so across the existing political spectrum, not just on the Right.
For someone who had previously bought into that liberal consensus, these are disorienting times, to be sure. But the truth is, democracy is not only working, it’s working quite well. Popular discontent with an overweening and increasingly ossified ideology is finding its voice across Europe, and has found a (deeply flawed) tribune in the United States. The future of liberalism depends on smart politicians getting the message loud and clear, and then working out a path forward that preserves all the elements of the philosophical tradition that are worth preserving. The shrill screeching of the high priests of the liberal clerisy are not helping things at all.