The rise of Donald Trump has left the American elites and the Western world dumbfounded. When Trump first started out in the Republican Party presidential primaries, nobody took him seriously. Even when he cleared one hurdle after another, not many in the establishment believed that he could go far. Finally, when they realized that the Trump of today is unstoppable, it dawned on them that the American democratic system is capable of producing a presidential candidate whom they cannot accept.
The upper echelons of the American society (and the West), including the mainstream media, have never liked Trump, and they certainly do not waste any opportunity to ridicule and mock him. Trump in return has no fond feelings for the elites; his path to prominence is strewn with scuffles with the establishment. The American elites seem to have lost their ability to reflect on and critique their own world, and are discussing the rise of Trump only on the technical level. They are not questioning why a Trump whom they view with disdain could garner the ardent support of the masses.
As for the world, Trump is viewed as a demagogue, appealing to popular desires and prejudices. Aristotle made it plain in his writings that a demagogue is an enemy of democracy. Historically speaking, politicians of this type are a part of democratic politics, no matter if you like it or not. Experientially speaking, in the period when the West was dominated by elitist democracy, the elites were able to exercise some self-control; when it comes to the current period of populist democracy, the demagogues are breaking loose and have become unrelenting. Theoretically speaking, a democracy is unable to prevent anyone from entering the political arena. Even if he is a crazy politician, he will become a political winner so long as he can win the vote, regardless of his style. We know from experience that democracy cannot guarantee that the best candidate will get voted in and it also cannot prevent the worst candidate from being elected. Just look at the likes of Adolf Hitler, who was elected by his countrymen.
Putting aside the discussion of whether Trump is a demagogue, the more pertinent issue here is the backdrop of his ascent. The phenomenon known as Trumpism is not unique to the US; it is commonly seen all over the world. It is the rise of populism, be it left- or right-wing populism. In the developed West, examples include the US’ Trump, France’s National Front, Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany party, and the UK’s Labor Party. In developing countries outside of the Western world, the Philippines in Asia and many countries in Latin America are teeming with populist politics. It is not an exaggeration to say that populism has spread to all parts of the world, including developed and underdeveloped countries, democratic and undemocratic countries. The differences between these countries are whether their politicians are fanning the flames of populism, and whether these governments are capable of controlling the fires. Some countries handle it better, expressing populism in democratic ways; while populism in other countries break out in violent campaigns.
The phenomenon known as Trumpism is not unique to the US; it is commonly seen all over the world. It is the rise of populism.
When populism is expressed in political terms, the result is conflict between the masses and the elites, or between the anti-establishment and the establishment. Some countries have already witnessed triumphs by individuals hailing from outside the ruling class. For example, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who is famous for spewing Trump-like rhetoric, has won his country’s presidential election; and the working-class born Sadiq Khan beat his blue-blood opponent to become the mayor of London. And in many other countries, the strength of the anti-establishment is capable of giving the ruling elites a run for their money.
We can discern three trends from the global rise of populism. First, the smooth functioning of democracy depends not just on a good electoral system; it is also dependent on other factors such as society, economy, and culture. When these conditions deteriorate, there will be kinks in the functioning of the democratic system. The rise of radical populism shows that the social-political ecosystem of democracy is weakening. Second, the internal social order of many countries is in disarray, pushing the world to the verge of a new social revolution. Third, internal woes will definitely affect external relations. When populism is played out on the international stage, it becomes nationalism. In today’s world, we are witnessing quite a few geopolitical struggles that have populism as their root cause. The world has become unsafe and insecure.
The history of democracy in the Western world is about two hundred years old, but popular democracy, with its beginnings in the 1970s, has only a short span of 50 years. Before the advent of popular democracy, democracy in the Western world was the rich men’s democracy, or as Karl Marx termed it, capitalist democracy. Although it is a multi-party system, the different parties all hail from elite society. Therefore, Marx pointed out that the state is an agent of capital; it does not make any difference which party replaces which as the ruling party, because they all work for the capitalists. Around the time of WWI, elite democracy started its transformation towards popular democracy and picked up pace after WWII. Since the end of WWII, Western democracy has spread to the non-Western world against a backdrop of rapid and sustainable economic development. A strong middle class, a product of economic growth, is the social bedrock of an effective democracy.
Globalization, emerging from the 1980s, has however thrown a spanner in the works. The world has witnessed two aspects: economic globalization and technological advances wreaking havoc on people’s lives. The income gap is increasingly wider and society is becoming unfair in terms of opportunities. Termed as “the billionaire’s club,” a few people have become super-rich while the middle class is shrinking. In many countries today, it is the rise of the combination of the finance and internet industries that is calling the shots. In this environment, capital and democracy have been subjected to alienation, in Marx’s words.
From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, there was a change from the primitive accumulation of capital to a more humane welfare capitalism. During the era of welfare capitalism, a combination of political and social forces had managed to suppress the “evils” of capitalism. There was an inclination to provide for the well-being of the workers. Today, however, capitalism seems to have reverted to its original state. In essence, the capitalists, who control the money, are treating the masses as nothing more than numbers to be manipulated. They no longer provide welfare; instead the masses have become mere digits to be preyed upon. Even the much touted “big data” is just another way of enveloping more and more people around the world into the snare of capitalism.
At the same time, democracy has become alienated too. For a long time, there was a sense of sharing in the notions of “republic” and “democracy.” Today, however, we can see that the establishment with its vested interests has become increasingly closed off; the rich have consolidated their wealth and become more self-seeking. Political parties may have their ideological differences, but they are no different when it comes to their behavior, i.e., no matter who or which party is elected, they all work for the vested interests. If the 2008 global financial crisis showed the failure of the government to regulate capital, then the developments since 2008 signify the failure of democracy. The governments that were produced by democracy have completely lost their ability to have any meaningful control of capital. After the crisis, many Western countries mobilized social forces to rescue capitalism. However, the capitalism that was revived did not spread the benefits to the people but has instead became more self-centered. The middle class in the West, badly hit by the 2008 crisis, has yet to recover from the malady.
Developments since 2008 signify the failure of democracy. The governments that were produced by democracy have completely lost their ability to have any meaningful control of capital.
As some observers have noted, the world today needs a social revolution. It was the socialist revolution that had facilitated the transformation from the primitive accumulation of capital to a more humane welfare capitalism from the 19th to the early 20th century. It was a revolution of the workers and the poor. Today, the middle class is the group most affected by globalization and technological advances. It is understandable that the middle class needs to revolt.
However, there are many questions yet to be answered. First, what can we use to save capitalism? It was socialism that came to the rescue previously, so what now? We do not have an answer. The middle class and its agents, aside from being angry, have not presented any viable alternatives. To make things worse, some agents are more saboteurs than creators.
Second, with vested interests out of reach, will the middle class be able to change the status quo? For example, can Rodrigo Duterte transform the Philippines? Even if Donald Trump becomes the president, can he alter the power structure in the US?
The third, and the most important question is, what kind of geopolitical changes will a middle class revolution bring? The socialist revolution that swept through the Western world brought with it an even bigger struggle in the international arena, that is, the two World Wars and thereafter, the anti-colonial wars. So what crisis will today’s middle class revolution bring to the world order?
Gideon Rachman, columnist with The Financial Times, believes that Trump’s running in the US presidential primaries has changed the politics of the US and the world. Rachman points out that themes that were on the fringes, like anti-globalization, nationalism, anti-Muslim sentiments, distrust of elites, and the denunciation of the mainstream media, have now entered the political mainstream, and they will not disappear even if Trump loses. In the same vein, there was great consternation when Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right politician, became one of the top two candidates in the 2002 French presidential elections. Although Le Pen lost eventually, ideas championed by him, such as nationalism, hatred of immigrants, criticism of the “unpatriotic” elites, fear of Islam, the boycott of the EU, and protectionism, have become prominent issues in Europe.
In sum, while countries are dealing with populism internally, the world as a whole is witnessing great changes in geopolitics. As the elites become self-serving, countries and even civilizations are also becoming more selfish and even hateful of one another. Protectionism is rife; free trade, once a core value of the Western world, has now become a dirty word. Geopolitical clashes in the Middle East, between the two Koreas, and in the South China Sea, and humanitarian issues like the European migrant crisis, have made the world an unsafe place.
Whichever way you see it, the world has entered an era of turmoil and uncertainty.
(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)