It has been well discussed that the rise of Donald Trump was not an event isolated to the United States. Rather, the emergence of the brash culture warrior was in line with trends across the globe. Most of us were understandably shocked that it happened here, partly due to our narrow focused eurocentrism, but an objective observer of the world would be far from stunned. Right wing populism has been the trend of the last 5 years. This is true in Hungary, Poland, France, Germany, and England as well as the United States, just to name a subsection of countries in which identitarian backlash politics has gone from obscurity to prominence. This development has pleased countries like Russia, who liked right wing nationalism before it was cool.
So what is powering this change? It is not complicated. Ask any of the leaders or supporters of any American or European right wing party: it is about multiculturalism. They want to preserve a culture of the past wherein fair-skinned folks made up the overwhelming majority of the population and enjoyed privileges of employment, political decision-making, and civil liberties. It is a zero-sum ideology. Each immigrant that gets a job is taking away a job that could go a native-born citizen.
This has been the result, primarily, of two distinct phenomena. The first is globalization. The neoliberal world order has dissolved borders, created interconnected economies, and supplied technology that makes travel effortless and affordable. The second is the destabilization of the Middle East. A number of factors, all of which are connected to one another, have led to this outcome. Among them are America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s aggressive geopolitics, and the success of ISIS. The result is a mass outpouring of refugees fleeing war-torn countries for better lives abroad. In mitigating this issue, there has been a major disconnect between the political leaders and the population. Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, and David Cameron were very open to helping these refugees find homes and rebuild. They failed to realize the visceral reaction this would invoke from conservative nationalists, which are more myriad then seemingly anyone realized in virtually every country in the world. Factor in historically high levels of economic inequality, and you have built a political constituency that sees refugees and immigrants as getting preferential treatment while the government does nothing to improve their livelihood.
This worldview is of course incipiently cynical and deeply dangerous. At its worst, it results in the murderous fascism of the 20th century. A politics of exclusion that blames outsiders for the countries woes knows no bounds. One day it is blocking immigrants from coming into the country and the next it is advocating for the removal of ethnically heterogeneous birthright citizens. The worse the sociopolitical and economic environment becomes, the more severe the threats. The United States is currently forcefully ripping immigrants from their family members and detaining young children in isolation. All this is occurring when immigration levels are at record lows and the economy is booming. The first two years of the Trump administration has gone about as smoothly as the first two years of an administration can go in terms of external factors. What happens if we are on the verge of a recession, where the economy tanks and the unemployment rate raises precipitously? The Trump administration has already shown extraordinary propensity to blame immigrants for the comparatively minor deficiencies in a strong economy. It is easy to imagine how much worse things can get.
That said, at least right wing populism is an ethos. The argument that it advances, despite its dangers, appeals to the human psyche and is in fact an extremely overdramatized version of something that is probably true. That is to say there is a level in which immigration would begin to harm a country. There is a limit to how many refugees can be accepted and assimilated into society until we run into problems. To be clear, those limits are vastly beyond what we are currently allowing. The highest immigration and refugee acceptance numbers we have ever had in this country were far from too many. But even the most ardent leftist understand that if 30 million migrants from Mexico and Latin America were to cross the border tomorrow that we would have difficulty handling the surge and the differences in culture, namely language. Our socioeconomic institutions are built on predictability.
Here is the operative point. Donald Trump is the mainstream of global conservatism. Send Mr. Trump to Hungary to give a speech alongside Viktor Orban, and he would fit right in. Hungary would fully embrace that President with open arms. The same is true of conservatives in Poland, Germany, France, and Czechoslovakia. This is even the case for the conservatives in the Nordic countries in Sweden and Denmark. His message of strong borders, preserving culture, and not giving into the politically correct left resonates strongly around the world.
There is a conservative cohort who would get the exact opposite reception at conservative conferences in Sweden or Germany. Some of their names are Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence. Try to tell the Fidesz in Hungary or AfD in Germany that we should cut social safety nets, let private insurance providers run healthcare, and cut taxes for the wealthy. Suggest to them the taken-for-granted policy in the United States of subsidizing the oil and gas industry. Advance a proposal to let bankers have free reign to speculate on risky investments at their own discretion. You would get one of two reactions. You would either get laughed out of the room or stared at in horror for your extremist position. That’s right. In every other industrialized country, Paul Ryan is the conservative extremist, not Donald Trump.
It is not hard to see the reason behind this, as shocking as it may initially be to the American brain. Is it more extreme to want a quota limit on how many immigrants can enter your country or to let people die or be financially ruined for life because they can’t afford medical care? Is it crazier to want to preserve you country’s culture or have a sprawling homelessness problem when you have abundant housing? Is it more harmful to pull out of global commerce or bankrupt 18 year olds for trying to get an education?
I would suggest Trumpian European style conservatism is more offensive on its face, and is of course a bankrupt ideology that can’t ideologically stand up to even the lightest push back on the facts and statistics. We know trade, immigration, and multiculturalism produce huge net benefits to society both politically and economically. But if you believe in boundaries in any form, granting there is a constituency of lefties and libertarians who do not, the primary purpose of a government is to take care of its people. Stopping immigrants from crossing the border is cruel and ineffectual, but there is a populist intellectual argument that supports it that honest partisan’s from either side should not deny, as wrong as we may think it to be. You can say a job that goes to an immigrant could be performed by an American citizen for higher wages. In some industries, you can even prove it.
This is not true for Paul Ryan-ism. Deregulation causes banks to behave poorly and speculate more recklessly without exception. Tax cuts for the rich lead to stock buybacks and investments only in things that increase the company’s bottom line. Cutting Social Security leads to less people on social security (breaking news). Privatization and charter schooling means people with more money get a better primary school education. These are obvious facts. Paul Ryan is funded by and responsible to the wealthy class in America. He pretends to be helping working people only as a thin veneer. The policies he has written and advocated have unequivocally tilted the playing field towards the rich.
The Republican’s attempt at Obamacare repeal in the last session is a great example of the absolutely out-of-the-mainstream extremism that is the modern GOP. First, Obamacare itself is considered an inefficient right wing healthcare policy in the rest of the industrialized world. Even Viktor Orban, who many American conservatives call a crazy extremist, would never consider a healthcare system run by private markets. Nevertheless, laughably, the GOP considers Obamacare a form of socialism. Thus, they tried to repeal the bill last year. Analysis showed that the bill would have led to a loss of healthcare for some 11 million Americans while saving somewhere in the ballpark of zero dollars in government spending. Forty-Nine Republican Senators voted for the bill, teeing up John McCain’s last “heroic” moment as he arrived sometime around midnight and voted no.
Think about what happened that night. The GOP was one wavering vote away from voting a bill that kicks 11 million people off their healthcare plan and saves the government no money. This is a kind of extremism and cruelty that you only see in the United States. Laissez-faire capitalism died after the tensions of the Cold War. The whole world awoke to the fact it was not pure capitalism versus pure socialism. It is okay and in fact morally and economically responsible to have taxpayers cover healthcare for everybody, even if you are a center right country. Apparently, the United States missed the message. Thus, as the world moves further and further away from free market fundamentalism, a powerful contingent on the right continues to insist that the only reason anything and everything does not operate perfectly is that the market is not free enough. Astronomical healthcare costs? More free markets. Unregulated bankers crashed the economy? More free markets. The richest are hoarding 99% of all new wealth creation? More free markets.
Donald Trump’s politics are toxic and dangerous. But they are no more extreme than the GOP alternative, and in many cases less so. If Donald Trump kept to his campaign promises we would have some form of universal healthcare, a $1 trillion infrastructure investment, and higher taxes on the wealthy. These are proposals American leftists have been salivating over for decades.
A more traditional GOP President, including Mike Pence, would have been more successful in doing all the things the GOP has talked Trump into doing. The tax cut would have been larger, Obamacare would be repealed and replaced with free market garbage, and employers/universities would be empowered to discriminate against minority groups. This is a small subsection of the laundry list of extremist right wing positions the “mainstream” of the Republican Party takes. In return, we would have a few million more immigrants in the country than Donald Trump’s ideal world. A perverse tradeoff, to be sure, but I think one most would be begrudgingly accept. At least a subsequent Democratic administration could reform the immigration laws with comparatively little political capital. Reforming an entire economic and regulatory system that has been gutted by the GOP is damn near impossible.
I should note that I am talking about campaign trail Donald Trump and his European counterparts. It is obvious that the President has acted as a Koch-funded plutocrat post-election. That makes his presidency the worst of both worlds. Not only does he bluster with dangerous language about minorities and constantly stir divisive cultural rhetoric, he is perfectly fine redistributing wealth to the richest segment of society. But if the Donald Trump we got on the campaign trail was exact same one we received in the White House, I argue that the outcomes would be less destructive for American than under a President Marco Rubio.
This is why the endless pontification about how the GOP is “Donald Trump’s party” now is utterly nonsense. Trump does not care gutting healthcare or public education. I am sure he enjoys getting a tax break, but he would raise taxes on the wealthy in a heartbeat if he had the votes and it garnered positive media attention. The only two conservative issues that Donald Trump truly cares about and pays close attention to is free trade on immigration. We have discussed immigration, and his policies are inexcusably terrible. But it’s also worth noting that a lot of Democrats agreed with Mr. Trump on trade before he became President.
The TPP went down largely because of a popular movement of the left, and it was an issue on which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agreed. Now, Trump has gone much further than just rejecting TPP. That said, it is obvious that if Bernie Sanders were President and pursuing the exact same trade agenda, he would be getting praise from the left. I do not know if that is right or wrong, but the fact that its efficacy is even up for debate is more than you can say for the mainstream GOP economic agenda. Trickledown economics is the most obvious sham in existence, and its proponents are perfectly aware of and barely try to hide that fact.
Donald Trump’s policies are horrific and his rhetoric is going to take this country decades to recover from. That said, the mainstream of the Republic Party is much more extreme than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Trump Presidency is a disaster. Ted Cruz would have been worse.