The Year of the Demagogue: how 2016 changed Democracy


December 30, 2016

The Year of the Demagogue: how 2016 changed Democracy

by Lionel Barber–The Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/7e82da50-c184-11e6-9bca-2b93a6856354

From Brexit to Donald Trump, this year has seen a thundering repudiation of the status quo

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On the morning of June 21, two days before the Brexit referendum, I met David Cameron in Downing Street. During a 25-minute conversation, the Prime Minister assured me that everything would be all right on the night. I wasn’t entirely convinced.

In hindsight, Brexit defined 2016. This was the year when the unthinkable became possible, the marginal invaded the mainstream, and Donald Trump, a property tycoon and television host, was elevated to US Commander-in-Chief.

Image result for Present at the Creation (1969), Dean Acheson

In his memoir Present at the Creation (1969), Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State, describes how he and fellow “Wise Men” helped President Harry Truman to build a new liberal, rule-based order after the Second World War. It was founded on institutions: the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the NATO alliance.

In 2016, as Trump dismissed NATO as “obsolete” and his consigliere Newt Gingrich described Estonia as a suburb of St Petersburg, it felt at times as if we were present at the destruction.

Acheson epitomised the East Coast establishment. He was a diplomat, lawyer and scholar — an expert, if you like. This year, the establishment was hammered, the experts humbled. Most missed Brexit. Many declared a Trump victory impossible. Michael Gove, a leading Brexiter, caught the public mood: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”’Trump won by attacking the Republican party as much as his Democratic opponent’ © Getty Images

Brexit and the Trump triumph mark a revolutionary moment. Not quite 1789 or 1989, but certainly a thundering repudiation of the status quo. Some detect echoes of the 1930s, with Trump cast as an incipient fascist.

It was a good year for strongmen: Vladimir Putin in Russia; Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Xi Jinping, now promoted to “core” leader in China. It was an even better year for demagogues, the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers who feed on emotions and prejudice. In the year of the demagogue, several vied for the lead role: Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader, godfather of Brexit and Trump acolyte; Rodrigo Duterte, a brutal newcomer to power, who pledged to slaughter millions of drug addicts to clean up the Philippines; and Trump himself, who constantly marvelled at the size of his crowds.

Yet the 1930s analogy is in many ways misplaced. We are nowhere near a Great Depression. The US economy is approaching full employment. The pre-Brexit UK economy has seen employment rise by just over two million since 2010. Credit is flowing. Corporate profits are up. The trouble is that swaths of the population, often those living outside the great cities, have little sense of the economic recovery.

Real incomes in the UK have not grown for the past decade. In the US, 95 per cent of households still had incomes last year that were below those in 2007, according to the Economic Policy Institute think-tank. In Europe, unemployment in the eurozone, especially in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy, remains high. Yet the wealth of the top one per cent (“the privileged few”, to borrow Theresa May’s mantra) has continued to rise.

Something more profound is happening in advanced democracies. The forces at work are cultural, economic, social and political, driven in part by rapid technological change. Artificial intelligence, gene editing, self-driving cars — progress on all these groundbreaking technologies accelerated in 2016. Each is massively empowering (the smartphone has given everyone a voice) but also massively disruptive (the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs has barely begun to be felt).

In political terms, Brexit and the Trump triumph highlight the decline of the party system and the end of the old left-right divide. The centre-left appears in terminal decline. This month, François Hollande, whose approval rating hit a low of 4 per cent, ruled out a second run for the Elysée. Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left leader of the opposition Labour party, had more to say about the death of Fidel Castro than Britain departing the EU. Matteo Renzi, the centre-left reformer in Italy, lost heavily in his own referendum on constitutional reform and promptly resigned.

In 2016, we saw, finally, that this period — call it Globalisation 2.0 — is over

The Conservative or Christian Democrat centre-right fared better but remains under pressure from an anti-immigrant, nationalist fringe, from Austria to England, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and, increasingly, Poland. In 2016, we witnessed the birth of the “Fourth Way” — a new brand of politics that is nativist, protectionist and bathed in a cultural nostalgia captured by Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again”.

The second development is a widespread disillusion among western democracies with globalisation, the postwar phenomenon marked by three trends: the Roaring Eighties deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher era; the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement on global trade liberalisation; and the opening of a market economy in China. The progressive abandonment of controls on capital, goods, services and labour, epitomised by the launch of the single European market and the single currency, reached its apogee in the summer of 2007. In 2016, we saw, finally, that this period — call it Globalisation 2.0 — is over.

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In the year of the demagogue, several vied for the lead role, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte’ © AFP/Getty Image

Free trade has become ever harder to sell to a public worried about job security and the competitive threat from developing countries. Trump denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact between the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries, and the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Hillary Clinton, once a free trader, caved. No one countered that the US consumer, including many Trump voters, bought cheap goods at Target and Walmart thanks to efficient global supply chains and cheap labour in the developing world. Hostility to free trade was a vote winner. Only last-minute arm-twisting of the Walloon regional government in Belgium salvaged a Canada-EU trade pact seven years in the making.

Free movement is also in question. Europe has experienced mass migration on a scale not seen since the late 1940s. In 2016, the refugee flow from the Middle East and north Africa was stemmed at one end thanks to a German-brokered deal with Turkey but record numbers travelled (and drowned) on the treacherous route from the central Mediterranean to Italy. Terror attacks, notably in France, heightened public insecurity about immigrants. There was a sense governments had somehow lost control, of national borders and national identity.

This explains the power of Trump’s pledge to build a “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border, and Theresa May’s conference jibe about politically correct multiculturalism: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” The party faithful in Birmingham cheered but cosmopolitan London, home to hundreds of thousands of “foreigners”, including Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England, was not amused.

The Brexit referendum exposed an economic gap between winners and losers of globalisation; but also a cultural divide between those comfortable with the pace of change, from technology to same-sex marriage, and those wanting to slow down the clock and rediscover their roots in ethnicity, religion or nationality.

 Leave’s slogan in the Brexit campaign, “Take Back Control”, was simple and brilliantly effective across classes and generations. Constitutionalists liked the idea of regaining sovereignty from EU institutions. Everyone liked the idea of reclaiming money from Brussels and diverting the savings to the NHS. Clamping down on immigration was a vote-winner. No matter that these claims were deeply misleading (as were Remain’s claims of imminent economic disaster in the event of a Brexit vote). Throughout the year, facts were elastic concepts.

In 2016, the world woke up to “fake news”, sponsored by political activists but also increasingly by state actors and their surrogates. The CIA accused Russia of being behind the leaking of emails from the Democratic National Committee, a shocking, brazen attempt to interfere in a US presidential election.

Trump dismissed the claims as ridiculous, as did his supporters. Throughout this political cycle, many appeared to live in a parallel universe where facts were entirely subjugated to opinion.

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter and CNN commentator, explained: “So one thing that’s been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

Trump’s victory gives succour to the demagogues-in-waiting in 2017

Welcome to the world of post-truth politics, turbocharged by technology such as the smartphone. A single device allows individuals to project in real time an unfiltered version of the news and (often highly partisan) views across Facebook, Google and Twitter. In the US election, journalists, once enjoying a degree of trust as the filter of last resort, were howled down or singled out on Twitter as “disgusting” or “lame”.

In the UK, both Leave and Remain regularly lambasted the BBC, which tried to remain neutral. Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian, warned presciently about the risks of “fairness bias”. The danger was that the BBC, in seeking to remain impartial, would fail to be informative, especially on complex economic issues. “You give equal airtime to unequal arguments, without daring to say that, on this or that point, one side has more evidence, or a significantly larger body of expert opinion, than the other,” he wrote.

The Trump campaign presented “mainstream media” with a challenge on a different scale. His demagoguery broke every taboo in the book, casting Mexicans as “rapists”, eliding the difference between traditional Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists, and threatening to jail his Democratic opponent.

The TV networks, especially Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, gave Trump far more airtime than other candidates. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” quipped Les Moonves, head of the media group.

Trump won by attacking the Republican party as much as his Democratic opponent. He spent hardly any of his own money, less than a fraction of the Clinton campaign’s war chest. His was the triumph of the brand.

Yet Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate at a moment when Americans wanted change — not a continuation of the Obama presidency by other means or a return to the Bush or Clinton dynasties. She had sky-high negative ratings, just like Trump. She was not liked, she was not trusted, and she was evasive. “Crooked Hillary”, Trump’s signature tweet, stuck for a good reason.

In this respect, it is misleading to suggest that the typical Trump supporter was an angry white man on opioids from West Virginia. Educated people voted for Trump. Women voted for Trump. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. By contrast, liberals, including the media, took Trump literally but not seriously. What this ignores is the damage the tycoon may have inflicted on public trust in American democracy. He coarsened civic discourse. He declared the political system corrupt. He even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election not once but twice, declining to confirm he would accept the result if he lost.

Yet Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate at a moment when Americans wanted change — not a continuation of the Obama presidency by other means or a return to the Bush or Clinton dynasties. She had sky-high negative ratings, just like Trump. She was not liked, she was not trusted, and she was evasive. “Crooked Hillary”, Trump’s signature tweet, stuck for a good reason.

In this respect, it is misleading to suggest that the typical Trump supporter was an angry white man on opioids from West Virginia. Educated people voted for Trump. Women voted for Trump. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. By contrast, liberals, including the media, took Trump literally but not seriously. What this ignores is the damage the tycoon may have inflicted on public trust in American democracy. He coarsened civic discourse. He declared the political system corrupt. He even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election not once but twice, declining to confirm he would accept the result if he lost.

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In the late spring of 2016, I travelled to Houston, Texas, to have lunch with James Baker, a former Treasury Secretary, US Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. I asked him whether America could survive a Trump presidency. “We are a country of laws, limited by bureaucracy. Presidents are not unilateral rulers,” Baker replied.

This confidence in the power of democratic institutions will be tested in the coming months. Trump wants to undo Obama’s legacy and unleash the animal spirits of American capitalism. The initial reaction in the stock market bordered on euphoric. Foreign policy is the bigger risk. Trump wants to pursue an America First foreign policy, renegotiating trade pacts and obliging allies to pay more for their collective defence. His world is about money not values: America the selfish superpower, as Robert Kagan has described it.

Image result for Marie Le Pen

Trump’s victory gives succour to the demagogues-in-waiting in 2017, notably Marine Le Pen, who will almost certainly make it through to the run-off for the French presidency. A win for Le Pen on top of Brexit would surely spell the end of the European Union. Elections in the Netherlands may also signal a shift to the right. Even in Germany, Angela Merkel, running for a fourth term, faces a challenge from the populist right in the form of Alternative für Deutschland, which will make the task of forming a ruling coalition much harder.

Trump’s foreign policy, assuming action follows words, also leaves the door wide open for the rising power of China. His abandonment of the TPP — a geopolitical building block as well as a trade pact — has unsettled Japan and Pacific neighbours. His anti-Mexican rhetoric has undermined the peso and left Latin Americans wondering whether Beijing is a safer bet. Among the Baltic states and Scandinavia, many are fretting about NATO’s defence guarantee in the face of Russian aggrandisement under Putin.

For more than two centuries, the US has served as a beacon for democratic values such as pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law. For the most part, it has been on the right side of history. In 2016, Americans for the first time voted into the White House a man with no previous government or military experience. Like Brexit, it was a high-risk gamble with utterly unpredictable consequences.

Trump’s winner-takes-all approach and his lack of respect for minority rights violates a cornerstone of democracy and free society, as set out in the 10th of the Federalist Papers written by James Madison, one of the founding fathers. His position mirrors the more extreme Brexiter demands that the “will of the people” be respected at all costs. Anyone who raises objections — the media, the opposition or, indeed, the judiciary — risks being branded “enemies of the people”.

This is not merely populism run rampant. It is a denial of politics itself, which, as the late scholar Bernard Crick reminds us, is the only alternative to government by coercion and the tyranny of the majority.

We have been warned.

Lionel Barber is the FT’s editor