The wave of nationalist populism is now flooding the West

"We face a generational struggle to defend liberal democracy at home and liberal order abroad"

Timothy Garton Ash
Anti-Trump protesters march in Milwaukee (Tanjug/AP)
Anti-Trump protesters march in Milwaukee (Tanjug/AP)

So now the challenge is in plain view: we face the globalisation of anti-globalisation, a popular front of populists, an International of nationalists.

'Today the United States, tomorrow – France', tweets Jean-Marie le Pen. It will be a long hard struggle to defeat them, at home and abroad, and we may now have to look elsewhere for the 'leader of the free world'. But defeat them we will.

In Vladimir Putin's Russia, we have something very close to fascism. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey is rapidly crossing the line between illiberal democracy and fascism, while Viktor Orban's Hungary is already an illiberal democracy. In Poland, France, the Netherlands, Britain and now the United States, we have to defend the line between liberal and illiberal democracy. In Britain, that means standing up for the independence of the judiciary, the sovereignty of Parliament and the impartial strength of the BBC.

In the United States, we shall now witness the biggest test of one of the strongest, oldest systems of liberal democratic checks and balances. Even though Republicans dominate Congress and, fatefully, President Donald Trump will be able to make key political appointments to the Supreme Court, that does not mean he will have it all his own way.

What we see in all these nationalist populisms is an ideology which claims that the directly expressed will of 'the people' trumps (the verb has already acquired a new connotation) all other sources of authority. And the populist leader identifies himself – or herself, in the case of Marine Le Pen – as the single voice of the people. Trump's 'I am your voice' is a totemic populist line. But so is the Daily Mail's front page denouncing the three British judges who ruled that Parliament must have a vote on Brexit as 'enemies of the people'. So is the Turkish prime minister rebuking EU claims that a red line had been crossed in Turkey's brutal repression of media freedom by saying 'the people draw the red lines'.

On closer examination, it turns out that 'the people' – Volk might be a more accurate term – is actually only a part of the people. Trump perfectly exemplified this populist sleight of hand in an impromptu remark at a campaign rally. 'The only important thing is the unification of the people,' he said, 'because the other people don't mean anything'. It's not the Others, you see: the Kurds, Muslims, Jews, refugees, immigrants, black people, elites, experts, homosexuals, Scinti and Roma, cosmopolitans, metropolitans, gay Europhile judges. UKIP's Nigel Farage announced that Brexit was a victory for ordinary people, decent people, real people - 48% of those who voted in the referendum being thereby declared neither ordinary nor decent nor real.

Does history teach us anything about such wave-like phenomena, appearing at roughly the same time in many places, in different national and regional forms, but nonetheless having common features? Nationalist populism now, globalised liberalism (or neoliberalism) in the 1990s, fascism and communism in the 1930s and 40s, imperialism in the 19th century. Two lessons perhaps: that these things usually take a significant period of time to work themselves out, and that to reverse them (if the wave is of a kind you want to see reversed) requires courage, determination, consistency, the development of a new political language and new policy answers to real problems.

A great example is the development of Western Europe's combination of market economy and welfare state after 1945. This model, which finally saw off the waves of communism and fascism, needed the intellectual genius of a John Maynard Keynes, the policy know-how of people like William Beveridge and the political skill of people like Clement Attlee. I say 'people like' because other names could be inserted for the versions adopted in other West European countries. But what an ocean of blood, sweat and tears we had to swim through to reach that point.

We must therefore brace ourselves for a long struggle, perhaps even a generational struggle. This is not yet a 'post-liberal world', but it could become so. The forces behind the popular front of populism are strong, traditional parties are often weak, and such waves are not reversed overnight. For a start, we need to defend pluralism at home. We also need to understand the economic, social and cultural causes of the vote for populists. Not just the left but liberals, moderate conservatives and opinion-leaders of all kinds must seek a new language to appeal, emotionally as well as substantively, to that large part of the populist electorate which is not irredeemably xenophobic, racist and misogynist. (Not calling half of

them a 'basket of deplorables' is a good place to start.) Rhetoric alone obviously won't do it. What are the right policies? Is it really free trade agreements and immigration that are undermining people's jobs, or is it mainly technology? If the latter, what do we do about that?

Abroad, the first challenge is to prevent the erosion of existing elements of liberal international order – hard-won agreements on climate change, for example, and current free-trade agreements. Philosophically, president Xi Jinping of China might welcome a Trumpworld of strong, assertive, nationalistic sovereign states, but practically both leaders should recognise that a return to the economic nationalism of the 1930s – 45% tariff barriers on Chinese imports were promised by campaigner Trump – would be disastrous for everyone. The one good thing about an International of nationalists is that it's ultimately a contradiction in terms.

We must also hope that serious, experienced Americans do go to work shaping the foreign and economic policy of the new administration, however morally distasteful Trump is. It's time for holding your nose and Max Weber's 'ethics of responsibility'. Yet even if they do, this is likely to be a bombastic, erratic and unpredictable presidency.

A greater burden therefore falls on other leading democracies of the world: our many national democracies in Europe, but also Canada, Australia, Japan and India. If we in Europe feel it is vital for the Baltic states to be protected against any possible kind of aggression by Putin's Russia, we must work through NATO and EU to ensure that. We can't rely on a Putin-praising Trump. If we Europeans think it important to keep an independent Ukrainian democracy alive, we must see to that ourselves. Britain having sidelined itself as a result of its own version of nationalist populism, a special responsibility lies with French and German voters. If we have a French president Alain Juppé and a re-elected chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of next year, Europe may still be able to pull its weight.

Merkel made by far the most dignified response I have seen to Trump's election. 'Germany and America,' she said, 'are tied by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and human dignity, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next President of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation on the basis of these values.'


The phrase 'leader of the free world' is usually applied to the President of the United States, and rarely without irony. I'm tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now Angela Merkel.

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