Analysis

When the Center Cannot Hold

Trump’s election is on the Brexit axis: A world that has lost its economic security is pushed to extremes, blaming globalization and the Other. The rabble-rousing politicians win, also in Israel.

Donald Trump supporters during a rally in Pensacola, FL, November 2, 2016.
Evan Vucci, AP

1. It’s the economy, stupid: Astounded commentators tried on Wednesday morning to explain the conclusive and incredibly surprising victory of Donald Trump, whom the entire enlightened world considers a clown who’s barely fit to run a serious business, let alone the most powerful nation on the planet. As was the case after the Brexit vote, the analysts were left stunned and slack-jawed, and perhaps not by chance. In large measure, Trump’s victory, Brexit and other extreme events that are liable to befall the liberal democracies (anyone care to bet on Scottish independence?) stem from a single source: the economic crisis that began in 2008 and which is dragging the world into extreme — and, above all, anti-global — positions.

Both Brexit and Trump’s triumph represent the same frame of mind: the loss of economic security by the middle class in democratic countries, the erosion of the status of working people, the inability to guarantee the young generation a better future and the insistence on blaming all of the above on the existing economic order and in particular on the leading development of recent decades: globalization. It turns out that whoever rails against globalization and holds it to blame for all the sorrows of the middle class in the wealthy countries wins the jackpot. Those who promise that they will pull back from the thrust toward globalization — by revoking trade agreements, imposing protective tariffs and, above all, by giving the boot to the indigent immigrants who are seizing the livelihood of the middle class — are those who win. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s great liberal who opened her country’s gates to the waves of immigration from the Middle East, this is a message that does not augur well for the future.

The commentators, looking at the tremendous economic achievements ushered in by globalization, and understanding that a closed, insular world is a world that is less rich, less technological and less successful, are repeatedly astonished by the deep anti-global feelings harbored by the Western world. Indeed, the intelligentsia don’t get it, just as they couldn’t grasp the simple message of the economist John Maynard Keynes 80 years ago: “In the long run we are all dead.” Complicated economic promises for a better future are no longer persuasive for those who want answers here and now, and especially for those who want to blame someone else for their problems. It’s always easiest to blame the “Other.”

The warning light that was triggered by Trump’s election, as by Brexit, is a serious wake-up call for every Western leader : The economic crisis isn’t close to ending, the West’s economic woes are genuine, we may in fact be entering a period of a lost generation or two, and without economic solutions the push for extreme solutions will only intensify.

We saw this in the 1930s, when the economic crisis brought extreme ideologies into power, and it could happen in our time, too. Extremism rises as the economic situation becomes more complex and the solutions more complicated. Trump promised America’s middle class to “make America great again.” He’s the last person who is capable of fulfilling that promise, nor has he presented a plan that could do so. But that doesn’t matter. The hope he offered, even if false, spoke to the deepest primal fears of a weakened and despairing middle class. And yes, a frightened world is an irrational — and dangerous — world.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower, September 25, 2016.
GPO

2. Might makes right: Trump’s campaign was driven by feelings of fear, hatred of the Other and incitement. He promised to restore America’s greatness while blaming America’s ills on all the Others: the Mexican immigrants, the trade agreements with neighboring countries, a corrupt establishment and just about everyone in sight. The more his campaign progressed, the more violent, inflammatory, divisive, militant and incorrect his messages became. It’s already been said that Trump introduced a new insight into world politics, namely that the lie is the new truth: You can lie without batting an eye and then blame those who expose your lies of being lying journalists themselves. It works just fine, as we saw.

The clear message that arises from Trump’s victory is that everyone who lies, incites, fulminates and divides also wins. Politicians everywhere will internalize that message, and nowhere more so than in Israel. Anyone who thinks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s violent response to Ilana Dayan’s investigative report about him broadcast on Channel 2 this week was a one-time stumble, should think again. Anyone who considers Netanyahu’s silence in the wake of MK David Bitan’s baseless remark that Yitzhak “Rabin’s murder was not political” to be unrepresentative, had better reconsider. Anyone who maintains that there are red lines that responsible politicians in democracies don’t cross, should remind himself of the assertion that “they’re flocking in droves to the polling stations.” It’s a high probability that all this is only the prelude to what awaits us: an inflammatory, violent political culture. That’s the new bon ton, in the United States, in Europe and in Israel. Get used to it.

3. Loss of establishmentarianism: This is more a matter for sociologists and political scientists to contemplate, but the situation of a democracy that is pushed to extremes and to extremism goes hand in hand with the loss of the establishment’s authority. What the establishment — veteran politicians, the government, leading newspapers, accepted opinion makers — says, is no longer held in regard, in fact it’s held in contemptuous disregard. This can be attributed to the establishment’s inability to provide easy and immediate solutions to the prolonged economic slump; or it can be explained by the growing disparities in which a small minority grows ever richer while the middle-class majority is eroded; or perhaps it’s due to the internet era, in which every blogger is considered equal to an expert commentator at The New York Times and people tend to gather in the social networks in groups that think as they do.

In any event, the establishment’s moderating influence on the political streams is much diminished, and with it the ability to move to the center that was so characteristic of American democracy in particular. A nation of 300 million people, in which what the farmer from Kansas had in common with the artist from Manhattan was always less than the differences between them, managed for hundreds of years to preserve its unity by virtue of being in agreement on a few basic values, and by virtue of the moderating influence of two large non-extreme parties that always pulled toward the center. That influence now seems to have been immensely enfeebled. Today it is isolationism and extremism that are supplanting the thrust for the center, along with the veteran establishment’s loss of ability to influence the extremities. Is this only a transitory crisis?