Donald Trump has eviscerated his Republican opposition and his hostile takeover of the party of Lincoln is now complete. The Republican elites have fallen in line, normalizing the xenophobia, the racism, and the politics of resentment that fuel his campaign.
The unimaginable has become imaginable: a politician who has repeatedly threatened our democratic institutions has seized the imagination of a significant portion of the Republican electorate. Even more disturbingly, the Molotov cocktail of words Trump hurls at the American republic has invited not condemnation, but uncomfortable silence, from the GOP elites, and playful giggles from those who should be opposing him. The latter are seasoned journalists, pundits, activists, and even Democratic Party operatives who every time they are asked to comment on yet another incoherent insult Trump had made, inevitably respond by giggling, or even laughing, thereby turning any explanation that comes after into a joke. The giggles bespeak a widespread cynicism that has infected our imagination and made it possible for someone as authoritarian as Trump to come a heartbeat away from the Presidency.
The plague of cynicism has taken root not only in America, but even more corrosively, in Europe where authoritarianism has rapidly gained ground (Hungary, Poland, Turkey), xenophobia become a part of immigration policies (Denmark), and early 20th century-style nationalism edged out the idea of a European identity, threatening the very existence of the European Union (Brexit). In the immediate post-WWII period, progressive liberalism mobilized millions of Europeans into building a continent that would never again succumb to the barbarism that was Nazism.
By liberalism I mean not the narrow liberalism of the 19th century—which was mostly concerned with preserving privileges of middle class, white, propertied men—but its more activist reincarnation following the Second World War. It is the latter that made it possible for conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and even some communists to rally around the idea that a free, just, democratic society is not only possible, but also desirable.
It is progressive liberalism that stirred the imaginations of French and German bureaucrats who set down the foundations of a new, continent-wide union that aimed to make war an ugly thing of the past. It was progressive liberalism that pushed Europeans to see national borders as cumbersome and unnecessary, made cultural exchanges between former enemy countries commonplace, and that often silenced national identities as anachronistic residues of a bygone era.
Lodged within the foundation of liberalism was the simple notion that human beings were essentially good and deserving of respect and that the role of governments was to provide conditions that allowed the goodness of human beings to thrive. This is why the creation and the expansion of the European Union was also a legal revolution whereby universal laws of democracy and human rights protections were carefully stretched over the continent.
The building of a pan-European liberal union was to a large extent made possible by the policies of the United States. In the immediate postwar years, Americans nudged the French away from the revanchist policies towards Germany and instead steered them both into a more collaborative stance.
The billions of no-strings-attached dollars the US poured into both countries through the Marshall plan made the French-German reconciliation all the more palatable to their citizens exhausted by war and poverty. The fact that today a war between Germany and France is simply unimaginable is arguably one of the most long-lasting effects of this policy. The end of the Cold War made liberals drunk with hubris: writing at the time, the influential American political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted that we were witnessing the “end of history,” a point of no return where ideological conflicts of the past had been replaced by the worldwide victory of liberal democracy and capitalist prosperity. Not too long after, however, the multiethnic country of Yugoslavia burst into pieces in an orgy of violence, nationalism roared once again across the continent, and Putin style “illiberal democracy,” to quote the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, rose up in place of Fukuyama’s failed prophecy.
Today, in many parts of Europe, cynicism has largely replaced the idealism of progressive liberalism. The prosperity the EU promised has for many failed to materialize, the borderless regime has reignited xenophobia and Islamophobia that in many ways mirror the anti-Semitism that had plagued the continent for so long. And many feel simply uninspired by the faceless Brussels-run Europe. To quote Pope Francis from his speech in Strasbourg in 2014: “The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.”
Hungary is a perfect example of this trend. Having been on the wrong side of history in WWII — which most tragically led to the mass murder of Budapest’s 440,000 Jews in three weeks!—after the war, Hungary was occupied, first directly and then indirectly, by the Soviet Union. The country’s courageous resistance to Soviet-style dictatorship in 1956 was met with bullets, tanks, and batons, making the long awaited arrival of democracy in the 1990s particularly satisfying to the country’s middle classes and former dissidents. However, the EU membership came with the realization that Hungary is a small country, competing in a large market. Old fears about the Hungarian language, culture, and identity in general, prominent during Hungary’s existence as part of the Habsburg, and later Austro-Hungarian, empire, were stirred once more. The rise of the far right came hand in hand with the revisionist move in historiography that downplayed the country’s collaboration with the Nazis and their participation in the Holocaust.
The revival of nationalism coupled with the corruption and the ineptitude of the center-left opposition left a vacuum in which the populist regime of Viktor Orban could emerge with a substantial electoral legitimacy. The refugee crisis, replete with images of columns of refugees storming the border, proved doubly beneficial to Orban: he cracked down on refugees, claiming to be the protector of Christian Europe from an Islamic invasion whilst further muzzling free press and NGOs under the pretense of security. The barbed wire he erected and the vigilantism against refugees he openly encouraged have only cemented his popularity. In fact, Orban has become so self-assured that he recently admitted that he was creating “an illiberal state.”
Similarly, Turkey, once a promising case of democracy in a majority Muslim country, which in the early 2000s seemed to be edging closer to the European Union, has seen its European hopes dashed and the democratic institutions replaced by a peculiar brand of Islamic authoritarianism practiced by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s postwar period was one of uneven economic growth under secular governments that were often propped up by military coups that aimed to prevent Islamists from organizing.
But behind this secular semi-dictatorship there was an idealistic premise: that Turkey would be ushered into a European style modernity and leave its Ottoman “backward” (in the words of some secularists) past behind. The EU not only spurned the Turks, but it did so in a particularly humiliating way by asking them to jump through hoops until finally reneging on its promises to allow the largely Muslim country to one day become a full member of the largely Christian union.
The British PM David Cameron recently noted, sarcastically of course, that Turkey would not become a part of the EU until the year 3000. Seeing no political benefits from democratic reforms, Erdogan embarked on cementing his regime by cracking down on free press, demolishing the secular regime previously seen as sacred, reigniting the war on the Kurds, and doubling down on denying the Armenian genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman troops during the First World War. The genocide denial has increased his legitimacy even in the eyes of many of his detractors. Erdogan’s authoritarianism is unique because it is infused with an unprecedented blend of religiously-inspired Ottomanism (and the imperial nostalgia this invokes) and militant secular nationalism that has for so long opposed the very forces Erdogan is now commanding. But as is the case with Trump, it is not ideological consistency that endears Erdogan to his supporters. It is his openly authoritarian style, his reckless rhetoric, his radical policies that fulfill his campaign promises, and his uncompromising style that have all fueled his cult of personality so much so that even German comics are now being prosecuted for making jokes against the Turkish President.
It is in this context of the rise of neo-fascist authoritarianisms that Trump has to be situated. As I have previously written for Salon, Trump inspires his followers because of his authoritarian persona and not because of any specific policies he prescribes. Unlike other politicians, who are all talk, he is a man of action, he continually reminds us. But what has to be emphasized is that this authoritarian persona would have been met with derision had he emerged at any other time since the Second World War.
But he has emerged today. Today when progressive liberalism has run out of steam, its arguably most successful project — the European Union — teetering on the edge of collapse. Today when illiberal right-wing populist movements are on the march from Paris to Vienna to Copenhagen to Budapest to Ankara. Today, when it has become perfectly acceptable for mainstream European politicians to brand Muslim refugees “parasites” or for a government (in Denmark) to requisition (or steal), refugees’ meager savings in order to pay for their temporary room and board. Today when the party formed by unrepentant Nazis in the immediate postwar period, in the birth country of Adolf Hitler, has missed seizing power by only the slightest of margins (which is not to say that the next time the Freedom Party in Austria will not be more successful!).
So what underpins all these authoritarian movements, including Trump’s, is a pervasive pessimism about the human condition: we are deeply broken. We are all losers, to borrow from Trumpist vocabulary, because we have not made progress in any area of life, be it racial reconciliation, immigration policy, or trade agreements. America is not better off after eight years of Obama despite evidence to the contrary. Instead, Trump keeps repeating, we are a third-world country. What is troubling is that it is not entirely clear what comes next. Trump, like other authoritarians, invokes a mythical past when humans were better: whether that’s the 1950s for Trump, the golden Ottoman age of Suleyman the Magnificent for Erdogan, or the interwar dictatorial period for Orban is irrelevant. What is important is that the mythical past can never be recreated because it does not exist. It never did. What is terrifying, however, is that the mythical past can be re-invoked continuously to justify an ever-expanding array of undemocratic, intolerant and repressive policies. In what is possibly the most egregious example of this, Himmler kept reaching into an ever more distant past, including the Teutonic period, to justify the savage policies of the SS. Authoritarianism of any stripe feeds off of this pessimism.
To giggle at Trumpism — or Erdoganism, Orbanism, or any other authoritarianism for that matter—is to either accept its premises or to wave them away. We can no longer afford to do this. Recently, The New York Times laid out the disturbing extent to which President Trump would be able to implement the hateful promises of candidate Trump. Instead of giggling, we need to rejuvenate progressive liberalism and its core belief in the goodness of human beings. Policy prescriptions of the Hillary Clinton kind are important, but what is needed is a much more comprehensive mobilization of political imagination based on concrete achievements of postwar liberalism. Politics once again have to become the arena in which imagining a better future moves people to do things that build each other up and not tear each other down.
Worn out, hungry and grieving, the Europeans who had just emerged from World War II threw themselves into clearing the still smoldering ruins and building a more peaceful Europe because they believed that such a Europe was possible. I was reminded of this postwar optimism while talking to a Bosnian man, now in his seventies, who participated in the so-called Yugoslav work brigades building roads and bridges in a Yugoslavia that had just been ravaged by the Nazis. Knee deep in mud, stuck in some remote Bosnian village, Asim worked all day shifts, for free, whilst singing. “Whilst singing!” Asim said and leaned into me, raising his forefinger uncomfortably close to my eyes and sighed deeply before plumping himself back into the chair.
The conversation happened a few years ago, and I am not even sure if Asim is still alive, but the image of a muddy, singing Asim came to me while I was watching, on TV, the violence unfolding outside of yet another Trump rally, this time in California. If we are to prevent such violence from escalating — which it surely would if Mr. Trump is elected President — and if we are to prevent our own slide into authoritarianism, we need less giggling and more inspirational optimism.