Let me start by saying this: today has been a wretched day. I’m going to try and get more specific and rational in a moment, but before I do it’s only fair to acknowledge the emotional place I am writing from. This post is not about informing, persuading or educating you. It is about making me feel better. When something bad happens I often find writing about it helpful. Reality may be chaotic and unknowably complex but if I can grab hold of it for long enough to examine it and knit an argument from it, then I feel like I am back in control even if only on the page. I could, for example, feel the gut punch of the Brexit vote and yet still stand up and craft a plan for what should happen next.
But the enormity of what has happened, the range and power of the shockwave it will create leaves me unable to produce anything that coherent. Too much has changed and too little is stable for me to feel I have a purchase on it. And that uncertainty is distressing.
After Brexit, I felt like I’d lost my country. After Trump’s victory, I feel like I’ve lost my world. I used to assume that, broadly speaking and with exceptions, the world would get more prosperous, safer and more co-operative. Even horrifying events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, seemed like setbacks rather than fundamental reversals. Trump’s victory seems more devastating than that.
The most powerful man on earth is a racist, misogynistic, conspiracy theorist, who has admitted to assaulting women, lacks any respect for the rule of law, has dodgy finances, holds some ‘maverick’ views, possesses little understanding of the issues with which he must grapple and most damningly seems to have no compunction about telling blatant lies.
That seems to speak to America and the West more generally having given up on making the world better and instead now just want to lock it out. We have gone to a dark place of hatred and suspicion, and I don’t know if we even want to get out of it.
If this was happening anywhere else it would not be so devastating. Even when grim events hit my own country, like the upsurge in hate crimes that followed Brexit, we could at least see them as our problem rather than something universal. Of course, it wasn’t happening in isolation. Nativism, populism and authoritarianism are on the rise more or less everywhere, and Brexit actually seemed to be a milder form of that tendency. Nonetheless, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Orban and the like still seemed to be a nasty sideshow so long as there was an American president willing to use his country’s enormous power to counterbalance them. Now one of their number is headed for the Oval Office and they suddenly seem to run the world.
I move in circles where to degenerate America and its power is fashionable. Even the American’s do it. The US and its hegemony was a menace to freedom, the story went, it used its incredible power to get rid of those who got in it – and its corporations – way. It overthrew awkward but democratically elected leaders like Chile’s Salvador Allende and Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, it missteped all over weaker countries like Vietnam and Iraq, and even made the rest of us sign up to its stupid copyright laws just because Disney can afford a tonne of lobbyists.
That is a reasonable story but it is only partial. It sees America’s imperfect espousal of democratic values as equivalent to other actors rejecting them outright. That’s an especially grievous error because while America is not alone in having these values, no other country backs them up so forcefully. America sometimes act like a bully because its strong and it’s that strength that guarantees freedom in many parts of the world. When Putin eyes the Baltic States, when Xi wonders about bringing Taiwan to heel and when Kim Jong-Un fantasies about the reunification of the Korean peninsula, a voice says “DON’T YOU DARE!” and it has an American accent.
Trendy lefty anti-Americanism has never given America enough credit for this. It has looked at America’s huge defence spending and seen a monstrosity, not a burden it bears for the sake of the global stability in which it wishes to share. Yes, this was self-interested, it made it easier for America to trade and reduced the risk of them being caught up in any instability. But that was also in the rest of the world’s interest too: it made it easier for us to trade and stopped us getting caught up in instability.
Now Trump, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, doesn’t appreciate this. Which ironically may be what finally gets people like me to see the merit of an America that tries to control the international order. The alternative may not be liberty but that order breaking down, and a return to a world of more naked geopolitics in which Russian or Chinese wolves can eat Ukrainian or Vietnamese lambs. But I fear it’s too late now. We will probably never get a chance to be grateful for that America, for it is likely gone, replaced by something meaner, nastier and smaller.