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The Populists And Each Other

18/01/2017 15:59

We are still in the calm before the storm. In Britain and the United States, the new right has seized power but it has not yet had to use it. We are on the brink of a new era defined by values and priorities at odds with those that have held sway in the West for decades, but we can only guess at what happens next. As the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci wrote at the beginning of another similar era in the 1930s, our "crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear".

Several of these morbid symptoms were on full display over the weekend as British politician Michael Gove sat down with Donald Trump to discuss the future of his populist nationalist project in an interview for The Sunday Times. The men make an unlikely match. One is a self-consciously cerebral bit player in the politics of our times, a man who rode the tiger of populism and anti-elitism as far as it could carry him before being unceremoniously dumped. The other is the global titan of the new right, an unselfconscious buffoon whose allure to men like Gove is precisely his patent unfitness for office, mental instability, and horrific record on race and gender. What could demonstrate the bankruptcy of the liberal order both despise more than the triumph of such a man over it?

Gove's fawning is only part of the problem, but it is worth dwelling on for a moment. Interviewing a man who encouraged the beating of protesters at his rallies, who called Mexicans rapists and murderers, who bragged of committing sexual assault, who threatened to jail his opponent in the election, Gove somehow manages to forget it all. Instead, we hear only praise for Trump's "natural good judgement" and, completely inexplicably, the "calculating business style that he has brought to communicating". Don't worry that the direct quotes in the interview reveal an inability to string a coherent thought together, we are told, for off the record Trump - as if anyone can even imagine such a thing by now - was actually very coherent.

It was surely a low point in British journalism to send not a serious journalist to interview Trump, but rather an acolyte who wanted to hear calming noises about Brexit. Trump promised a speedy trade deal between the UK and U.S., apparently unaware that such a deal is impossible to even begin negotiating until the UK formally leaves the EU. He predicted the imminent doom of the European project, an article of faith for the Brexiteers, and a necessity to make the destruction they will wreak on Britain look even remotely worth it.

These points aside, the populist bromance has an even stranger aspect to it. Both British and American populists promise to rewrite the global liberal order for the benefit of their supporters, and to be damned with the consequences for anyone else. Like their counterparts in Britain, American populists have swept into office on the back of the simplistic but powerful message that foreigners have colluded with "globalists" at home to deny their own country a fair shake through unfair trade deals. Their supposedly unique ability to renegotiate these deals and getting the best for people at home, and not for those abroad, is a key plank of the populist platform on sides of the Atlantic. Bother have a zero-sum view of the world in which only one side can benefit, and the other loses.

It hence seems strange for Britain's populists to be so excited about becoming the object of Trump's attention. There can be little doubt that the U.S., with its economy fired up by infrastructure spending, will be in a stronger position than poor, reeling Britain when negotiations open. Unlike London, Washington is bursting at the seams with experienced trade negotiators. And for Trump, the issue will be a low priority, whereas for Theresa May it could become an issue of political life and death. We can well imagine who will be the one making concessions when crunch time comes, as Americans who have thought about the issue surely know. Already Wilbur Ross, Trump's Commerce Secretary, has claimed Brexit is a "God-given opportunity" for Britain's rivals to take advantage of its "period of confusion".

Although they are bound together now by the glow of victory and their shared hatred of everything liberal and global, it cannot be long before the very nature of the populist nationalist project puts them at loggerheads with each other. When that time comes, Britain will suffer, however many fawning grins Gove and his ilk direct at their counterparts abroad. It will leave us in a new era of competing nationalist blocs pitilessly struggling for advantage, something we last saw in the 1930s and from which no-one emerged stronger or wealthier.

If we are currently in a period of calm, the mutual dawning of this realization on all sides may well be the coming storm.

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