National Security & Defense

Trumpian Echoes from Abroad

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

There are signs that aspects of the Trump phenomenon have parallels in currents of public opinion in other advanced democracies. In France, the National Front, which has been somewhat sanitized by the founder’s daughter, Marine Le Pen (who expelled her father — several years ago, when he was 87 — from the party he created, for dismissive remarks about the Holocaust), now leads the polls for next year’s elections. In Britain, where the official opposition is in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn, who is to the left even of Bernie Sanders, Prime Minister David Cameron has commended Trump as follows: “Anyone who makes it through that extraordinary contest to lead their party into a general election certainly deserves our respect.” His own respect is unconvincing, but he may detect Trumpish sentiment in his own ranks and especially in the UK Independence party. The just-retired mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the unofficial leader of the campaign supposedly to vote for British exit from the European Union (though in fact only for a renegotiation of its position), while he publicly disapproves of Trump’s comments on Muslims, is tapping some of the same sentiments as the apparent Republican nominee.

A large swath of British voters is angry at official toleration of what is seen as excessive deference to Islamic separateness within Britain and a tepid response to undesirable immigrants. Approximately half the country thinks that Cameron’s sole concession wrung from the EU, that it would “consider” British applications for reduced social benefits to some migrants from Europe, was grossly insufficient. Cameron had promised “front-on treaty change,” but as is often the case with Mr. Cameron, he exaggerated, and the paltry pseudo-concession he did gain is widely seen as an affront to British sovereignty and national identity, and even a diminution of what the British have taken as their birthright for nearly a thousand years. “Remainers” have called for confirmation of membership in the European Union as essential to British prosperity, and have produced “Project Fear” to frighten the country with prospects of horrible consequences if Britain departs. “Leavers” warn that this is Britain’s last chance to avoid rule by unelected Brussels bureaucrats and the submergence of Britain in a sea of uncongenial foreigners.

Into this controversy stepped President Obama last month, who irritated most Britons by lecturing them on the evils and dangers of voting to depart. Polls indicated that the net effect of his intervention was a two-point rise in support for the leavers. In fact, the European treaty provides that such a vote, if it carries, will open a two-year period for negotiation of changed terms, and Johnson has promised to do a better job of that than his putative leader has. In practice, the Euro-federalists respond to every negative vote by ignoring it and holding another vote on slightly recalibrated terms. In this case, if the leavers win, Cameron will almost certainly lose the leadership of the Conservative party and the government to Johnson, and a simple recanvass of the country will be problematic without real concessions to retain British membership.

The only connection of all this with the Trump candidacy is that there are very audible concerns in Britain about Islamism, immigration, the decline of patriotism, national defeatism and irresolution, and gimcrack political hucksters and harpies, where Disraeli, Gladstone, Churchill, and Thatcher once stood. As usual, Britain is more centrist and polemically restrained than France and the United States, but misgivings about the facile Cameron are somewhat reminiscent of the general criticism of Obama as fluent but superficial. Obama’s presumption in advising Britain how to vote and threatening it with being sent to “the end of the queue” in American trade relations if it didn’t follow his advice was outrageous. But he was, he thought, returning Cameron’s favor to him of lobbying U.S. senators in support of the contemptible nuclear-arms agreement with Iran. It may be inferred from Cameron’s claim this week that a vote to leave would create a threat of war that he is severely rattled by the extreme closeness of the June 23 vote on Britain and Europe.

#share#In Germany, the government is composed of the two main parties, in a coalition that spans from mid conservative to quite far left, and has been strained and rebuked in local elections because of Chancellor Merkel’s over-indulgence, and even encouragement, of mass immigration from the Middle East. The German opposition is fragmented into completely unfeasible formations of extreme Greens, virtually undisguised remnants of the old East German Communist regime, and a group of non-violent anarchist cyber-enthusiasts calling themselves “Bandits.” Obviously, none of these bears much resemblance to Trump, and Germany is still trying to hit its stride as Europe’s greatest power, hobbled yet by guilt over the stupefying atrocities and aggressions of the Third Reich, and still blinking unbelievingly at the retirement of the benign Americans and the retreat and disintegration of the ancient Russian menace, like a cave-dweller just emerged into bright sunlight. Merkel failed to recognize that what was set loose in the Middle East and parts of Africa was not immigration such as is celebrated by the Statue of Liberty, but mass migrations of people seeking to occupy and take over their countries of destination, as in the last days of the Roman Empire. She was, for a time, like a siren beckoning to Ulysses (who strapped himself to his mast to resist the temptation). The migrants showed no such restraint, but the brunt of the invasion, for such it was though an unarmed one, was borne by Europe’s peripheral states — Turkey, Greece, Hungary, and Italy.

Italy’s politics, of course, have essentially been a carnival since the death of the founder of the Christian Democrats, Alcide de Gasperi, in 1953. No Italian really takes the government of the country seriously and Italians routinely expect their elected leaders to pillage, misgovern, and embarrass the country, and are not pleasantly surprised very often. The leader of Italy’s Northern League, Matteo Salvini, goes Donald Trump one better at least, with his flamboyant claims that “the Euro is a crime against humanity” (not even Margaret Thatcher would have tried that one) and his virulent hostility to most immigration. He and Trump met in April in Philadelphia and broadly agree on many points. The Northern League seems to be polling from 15 to 30 percent in the contest of a multitude of parties in the northern provinces of Italy, including the country’s largest and richest city, Milan.

There is an echo of Trumpism even in Canada, which is the most genteel and moderate of all large Western countries. Though it has no party remotely like Trump Republicans, Canada follows American affairs more closely than does any other foreign country, as 90 percent of Canadians live within a hundred miles of the U.S.Canada border; and social media and letters to newspapers and similar public forums reveal a good deal of identification with Trump’s reservations about Islam and inept and spineless government.

The Trump phenomenon is not as freakish as both its foreign and its domestic enemies claim.

All of this should reassure Americans that the Trump phenomenon is not as freakish as both its foreign and its domestic enemies claim, and that all the advanced world is to some extent moved by similar forces of public revulsion at the political status quo. There should also be more gratitude than is easily detectable now that the beneficiaries of public disaffection are, for the most part, and this certainly includes Mr. Trump and his most prominent supporters, firm believers in democratic institutions and authentic, if rather histrionic, patriots. If the present populist wave spends itself unsuccessfully, or prevails and fails at government, the next eruption of spontaneous political opposition may be much more worrisome. Those who call Trump a fascist, as the egregious Bob Woodward did a few weeks ago, should remember what a fascist is. I was asked, on the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news-comment program Newsnight three weeks ago, if Trump were not a Mussolini. I gently replied that Trump “doesn’t dress his followers in black shirts, march on the capital, murder his opponents, and is unlikely to repeal democracy, invade Ethiopia, stab Britain and France in the back, turn his country into a vassal state of foreign Nazism, or be apprehended in a German-army uniform fleeing his country and be shot and hung upside-down in a gas station.” The calming effect on my overwrought questioner was momentary.

#related#Behind all this discontent is not only the mediocre performance of most contemporary political leaders and legislators, but the problem that advancing science creates more efficiency and reduced need for human work, and higher unemployment. The contest between scientific progress and employment that actually adds value to anything and is objectively useful has already created superfluous hosts of lawyers, consultants, academics, and those engaged in manifold areas of entertainment and social diversion. But what was called, in the Eighties, “systemic unemployment” is steadily rising. It will take more than sloganeering to deal with it; it will require clear-headed, commonsensical government. If this and related problems are not generally addressed soon, and made the subject of serious remedial attention across the reasonable political spectrum, what comes after Donald Trump and his analogues will be far more disturbing even than myth-makers, hysterics, and mudslingers like Woodward can imagine.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

Recommended

The Latest