There have been major populist movements in every century since the Reformation. The English Civil War was essentially populist, or part of a general populist upheaval with oddball hangers on like the Levelers and Diggers. The American Rebellion was likewise a populist uprising, as was the French Revolution. The Long Peace between 1815 and 1914 was an elitist era in the British Empire, and the Civil War was a populist revolt in the US. The wars and revolutions of 1914-1949 were populist in nature, driven by a belief that “the people” could represent their own interests directly in politics, possibly channeled through a World Historical Figure or Spirit that manifest the popular will.
Populism as a political movement pits the nominal will of a pure and homogenous people–“Old Stock Canadians”, say–against oppressive and corrupt elites. The NAZIs were a populist movement and Hitler was seen as a virtuous “ordinary man” by most Germans.
Typical NAZI-era joke: Hitler walks into a bar and orders a glass of milk. Everyone else in the bar rapidly orders milk, except for one old man who adamantly orders a beer. Hitler turns to him and says, “I am glad to see I am not the only honest man here tonight.”
My expectation is that there will be much fawning and kowtowing in the US and Canada in the next few months and years, as people reconcile themselves to the Autocrat and hope he will be nice to them. I have a sick feeling that within a year some of my progressive friends will be defending Trump as an honest man who tells it like it is, who puts on a good show, who hasn’t been as bad as they feared, who only wanted the Sudentenland and now will stop.
I have a sicker feeling that in keeping with past populist eras, there will be war.
Precisely how that will happen is too far ahead to predict. We live in a multi-polar world: India, China, Russia and the West all have potential to do damage, with Russia’s demographic decline and China’s Four-Grandparents problem (a mathematically necessary consequence of the One-Child policy) make them the least stable, most bellicose players. India and the West are natural allies. The Arab world is at best a bit player and disruptor in the absence of that special game-piece that is required to get noticed on the world stage these days. Pakistan is as close to non-aligned as one can get.
Trump’s supporters will tell a lot of lies about him. They will say that he has walked back his misogyny and bigotry, and that in his victory speech he repudiated his entire campaign’s modus operandi by saying he would be a president for all Americans. This is not a plausible statement, particularly when it comes without an apology or any sign of contrition for his many decades of moral incontinence.
It will not do to simply say, “OK, reset!” after over a year of public pandering to bigots and sexists. It will not do to simply say, “Hey, I’m going to govern well” after lying about almost everything, flipping positions for no readily apparent reason, and demonstrating a vitriolic vindictive streak. It will not do to simply say, “Trust me” when he proved he can’t be trusted with his own Twitter account.
People do not get a clean slate in my book simply because they have won an election.
And Trump has already done damage. By even hinting that he might not honour America’s Article 5 obligations he is endangering the entire world. If I had to bet, I would bet that World War III will start with Russia invading Latvia to “liberate” the Russian-speaking population there. It worked pretty well for Hitler to do something similar in the Sudentenland.
At that point there are two options: either we fight under Article 5, or we don’t. If we don’t, we fight later. If we do… well, we fight.
Either way it ends badly.
There’s not a lot to be done. Nothing is going to induce Trump to behave sensibly. He is a very simple man: an arrogant bully who can’t stand to lose and will do anything necessary to “win”, where “win” is something he defines in such a way that it isn’t too hard to achieve. As a businessman he has been an abject failure by any standard except “I got mine”: he has left a trail of failed companies and investors behind him, while lining his own pockets, and for some reason he counts that as a success.
Brave men take risks. Trump has played things very safe for his whole career, which is one of the many reasons he’s been such a failure as a businessman. He’s never woken up in a cold sweat wondering where his next contract is coming from. He started with millions in secured credit and has done poorly with it since, not even beating the S&P500 over the decades.
Will a cowardly bully like Trump risk war? Not deliberately, because he’s too gutless. But he’s also profoundly ignorant, and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. So he has already increased the odds of war without knowing it.
Trump has announced he wants to hold Nuremberg-style rallies during his term as president, which will help consolidate his status as Leader. He followers want a Leader, and as he makes the world more and more dangerous more and more people will follow him. That is what humans do: populists want a Leader, and they find one. The Leader does bad, stupid, ignorant things that make the world a more dangerous place. That leads more people to follow the Leader. who does more stupid things, which makes the world more dangerous. It’s a very simple process, and it always ends one way: in war.
“Not this August, nor this September; you have this year to do in what you like. Not next August, nor next September; that is still too soon; they are still too prosperous from the way things pick up when armament factories start at near capacity; they never fight as long as money can still be made without. So you can fish that summer and shoot that fall or do whatever you do, go home at nights, sleep with your wife, go to the ball game, make a bet, take a drink when you want to, or enjoy whatever liberties are left for anyone who has a dollar or a dime. But the year after that or the year after that they fight. Then what happens to you?” — Hemmingway, “Notes on the Next War”