29/06/2018 16:10 BST | Updated 29/06/2018 16:10 BST

I Hear The Echo Of Jackboots

Words have power, and Trump’s words are almost always ugly. Anger is rising, and there is surely no challenge more urgent than to confront the threat head on

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

England go through! Yeah!

Germany go home! Yeah again!

Brexit will be great! Er, excuse me?

Don’t you hate it when what eleven men do with a spherical object on a patch of grass suddenly gets translated into some mystically powerful symbol of the State of the World?

By all means, celebrate the achievements of an England football team that aren’t a total disgrace. For me personally, it’s less than life-changing, but hey, if it makes you happy, be my guest.

But please, spare me the guff about Britain holding its head high in Europe again, or showing who’s boss, or Engerland all the way. Sport is never a metaphor for lasting political success, as a certain German leader discovered to his cost after the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

The truth is that Europe is in deep trouble. So if the World Cup had anything to do with reality, this year’s tournament would be won by a non-European team. My own preference would be Mexico, just to piss off Donald Trump, who thinks it’s where the ‘animals’ who ‘infest’ the United States come from.

As for Brexit, our EU neighbours have given up worrying. Their attitude can now be accurately, if brutally, summed up as: ‘Tell us when you’ve managed to work out what you want, and then we’ll tell you why you can’t have it.’

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the countries of western Europe linked up with the United States and Canada to form something called The West. They were united by a shared belief in liberal democracy and capitalism, and a perceived need to protect themselves against expansionist Soviet communism.

Most importantly, they believed that they were both stronger and safer when they cooperated with each other than when they confronted each other. That’s what Nato was all about – ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’ – it was also, in a strictly European context, what the EU was all about.

No longer – and not only because of Brexit. European leaders of the stature of Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand and Vaclav Havel have long gone. Now, Angela Merkel, the last leader worthy of the name on the European stage, is so politically weakened that she may soon be gone as well. Emmanuel Macron is all that’s left, but he sometimes seems to think he’s the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte, which I find somewhat worrying.

The post-war consensus – that the nations of the Western world must work together for the benefit of all instead of going to war for the benefit of none – has been shredded. When Donald Trump promises ‘America First’, we know that what he means is ‘And the rest of the world, allies included, nowhere.’

Mr Trump is a salesman, first and last. His over-riding aim is to screw anyone with whom he does business, because it’s the only way he knows how to ensure that he’s not getting screwed himself. The notion of a ‘fair deal’ has no place in his thinking. I must always win, because otherwise I will always lose.

Look at his record: Paris climate deal? Ripped up. Iran nuclear deal? Ditto. G7 summit? Trashed. Trade war with allies Canada and the EU? Bring it on.

The Nato summit is next, followed closely by a summit in Helsinki with President Putin. No prizes for guessing which will produce the warmer words.

Wherever you look, the autocrats, xenophobes and extreme nationalists are on the march. In Germany, Angela Merkel is under threat from anti-immigration voices both inside and outside her coalition. In Hungary and Poland, governments have no hesitation in pandering to the basest of anti-foreigner sentiment. In Italy, one of the EU’s biggest economies, the most powerful voice in the newly-formed government is that of Matteo Salvini, the loud-mouth leader of the formerly separatist (Northern) League.

And worst of all, in the United States, which twice in the last century came to Europe’s rescue to save it from itself, the man in the Oval Office cares for nothing except his own self-image as the strongest leader of the strongest nation in the world.

Perhaps it is because he knows that in reality he is anything but strong that he so enjoys basking in the reflected glory of other self-styled ‘strong leaders’. He values the friendship of Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey – even the ‘rocket man’ of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un – far more than that of the US’s traditional allies. How does he describe Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel? Weak, weak, weak.

In Trumpworld, democrats (and Democrats, come to that) are by definition weak and ineffectual. Only autocrats are worthy of respect. Trump’s latest bright idea is to rip up the rule of law and deport allegedly illegal immigrants without even a semblance of due process. After all, even before he was elected, he was whipping up his supporters into a frenzy of hysteria just at the thought of jailing his opponent, Hillary Clinton. (‘Lock her up, lock her up.’)

For eighteen months, ever since Trump took office, commentators have shied away from describing him as a fascist. Now, perhaps, it is time to stop pretending. In Washington, and in a worrying number of European capitals as well, the echo of jackboots can be heard ever more loudly.

You think I exaggerate? Trump likes to describe journalists as ‘enemies of the people’ – and just a couple of days ago, Milo Yiannopoulos, former senior editor at Breitbart News, once run by Trump’s ex-chief strategist, Steve Bannon, revealed that he has decided from now on to use the same response to all journalists’ questions: ‘I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.’ (He says it’s a joke. Of course.)

At the time of writing, by the way, there is no evidence to suggest that the fatal shooting of five people on Thursday at the offices of a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, was in any way related to such remarks.

But the atmosphere is dangerous and ugly. Words have power, and Trump’s words are almost always ugly. Anger is rising, and there is surely no challenge more urgent than to confront the threat head on. In 1939, it took a world war; this time, we must find a better way.

To update only slightly the words of the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: ‘First they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out, because I was not an immigrant … Then they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a journalist …’