Trump will be like Napoleon in the years ahead.
A man who is in numerous respects the antithesis of moderation has assumed what many see as the most powerful office in the world. Moderation is often regarded as a good thing. It is associated with concepts such as common sense, temperance, responsibility, tolerance, thoughtfulness, prudence, civilised behaviour, and realism. These are not qualities that Donald Trump possesses in spades. He tends to behave like a bull in a china shop and likes offending people.
The era of moderation is over if Trump and his supporters get their way. The status quo is perceived as wrong by a large part of the U.S. population, who believe the establishment in Washington will do nothing for the average Joe. In other words, restraint and moderation are most likely wasted on the new-fangled president.
The political, social, and economic elite has resided in an ivory tower for a long time as it showed a predilection for cosmopolitanism, capitalist democracy, free trade, open borders, and cultural cross-pollination.
Certain sections of the population were worse off than before but the idea was that the benefits of globalisation for society as a whole could easily compensate for this. Fukuyama’s famous End of History narrative suggested that liberal democracy would conquer the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall but this concept became obsolete even before 2008.
Authoritarian and state-capitalist systems turned out to be increasingly successful whereas the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath severely damaged Western capitalism.
Economic growth has moderately recovered but this has mainly benefitted the wealthy. Dissatisfaction is widespread but the reasons are not purely economic. Social-cultural aspects also play a part.
The elite may thrive in a world defined by open borders, free trade, and international contacts. However, the British PM Theresa May has said that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” and many people believe that globalisation threatens their values, identities and culture.
Trump claims Washington’s political machine is bogged down and says the U.S. needs to reconsider its role in the world. As he continued to bite off people’s heads he made promises that are extremely difficult to fulfil and/or could create great havoc if they are.
For example the combination of large tax cuts and massive infrastructure investment, the tearing up of the free trade treaties, the proposed wall along the Mexican-US border that the Mexicans are supposed to pay for, questioning the usefulness of NATO and other alliances, and the vilification of businesses that want to produce abroad.
A presidential candidate making such promises (or threats) would probably not have gotten far in more normal times. But these are anomalous times. Sluggish growth and huge debts overshadow the world alongside demographic trends that make these factors even more problematic.
The capitalist model is under debate; people are very uncertain about the longevity of their own identity and culture. Moreover, international collaboration is under pressure in a multipolar world whereas nationalist authoritarianism continues to gain ground. Many mainstream political parties are in voters’ bad books and the international political system is tottering. This makes it increasingly difficult to address the fallout of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and tackle issues such as climate change.
America has no choice, in the circumstances, to adjust to a situation where it no longer is the world’s hegemon. On top of this, its political and economic system is no longer THE blueprint for other countries. One of the founding fathers of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, warned that “because circumstances are constantly changing, a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” The problem is that mainstream political parties have dug themselves into a hole as dissatisfied citizens started to see the ‘moderate’ establishments as power-hungry elites that engage in pork barrel politics.
As he contemplates Edmund Burke’s body of thought political scientist and former law professor Peter Berkowitz writes that, “the virtue of political moderation will always serve as an inviting target for demagogues.”
In Burke’s own words, “Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors, — until…the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.”
The big question is will Trump reverse tack once the reality and the impact of the Oval Office begin to sink in? Will he become milder and less inclined to rant and rave? The financial markets are still optimistic and appear to gamble that he will push through a large-scale fiscal stimulus package and that few of his actual policies will disrupt the established political and economic order. In short, the markets are hoping for a best-case scenario.
Trump’s recent press conference and his intended cabinet of billionaires, war-horses, and bankers suggest otherwise. His stimulus will likely be smaller and take longer than many expect. Many market participants are playing down the potential ill effect of Trump’s presidency on wider global stability. Trump can be considered the Western democratic equivalent of the authoritarian nationalism that has made gains in recent years. Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf warned that “Authoritarian nationalism has moved into the core of the world system. That changes everything.” This fundamental shift appears not to have been priced in by the financial markets as yet.
Let me conclude with a historic example. Four allied powers — including the British — occupied France following Napoleon’s overthrow. The defeated French leader was astonished that the victorious Duke of Wellington opted for a policy of moderation and compromise. My great fear is that Trump will be more like Napoleon than Wellington in the years ahead.
Andy Langenkamp is a Senior political analyst at ECR Research. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyLangenkamp.