Translation of my article originally published in Italian on thefielder.net on 25 January 2017.
"The old world order of the 20th century ended definitively with the election of Donald Trump." German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
In this article, I will highlight how, in my opinion, two cycles that start from much earlier are ending, specifically:
- for the dynamics of the power system, a cycle that began with the French revolution (1789)
- from the geopolitical point of view, a period starting with the peace of Westphalia (1648)
I will show the similarities between present historical patterns and past ones, keeping in mind the aspect of the absolute newness of the present. While in the process, we will be facing the difficulty related to the use of language that obviously can only possess concepts that are themselves the result of history.
I won't try to paint the canvas of the future in detail, instead, I will give a sketch of the general trajectory and highlight the many elements that I have not seen in many circulating analyses that explain Trump's victory. As far as I'm conscious, I will also try to dissociate from my beliefs about democracy and freedom and try to make a sociological and historiographic work.
Most mainstream analysis of Trump's victory illustrates his populist and right-wing nature. In my opinion, this ideological schematization is fallacious and trivializes a much more complex reality. Trump's personal story tells us about a pragmatic man, not a fanatic. He does not adhere to an ideology; instead, he marginalized the doctrines first in the GOP (where he did not align with the Tea Party) and then later in the election campaign. Trump exercises power in the pure Machiavellian sense of the term. Hence, it resembles Putin, who uses Euroasianism to consolidate his power but is not bound by it. Both are painted as nationalists by the detractors or patriots by the supporters; they should be correctly defined as "imperial," a supporter of a system of rule that considers ideas, cultures, nations, and religions only in function of power.
Trump picks contents from the right and the left depending on the sheer convenience of the moment. On the other hand, traditional left and right are a dichotomy of a world that no longer exists. To summarize the folk perception of both sides' failure: the right to keep the good of the past, the left to deliver improving changes. This broken coin flips alternation is leading to the disintegration of the middle class, which in the liberal systems is the guarantor of the continuity of the ruling class. Today left and right no longer have solutions to the problems of modernity. They are being erased by a phenomenon that arises from modernity and uses and consumes it against the same ruling classes that have ridden it for decades.
In the past, progressives proposed a change for the better; today, they nailed themself to the defense of the existing. Hillary Clinton's candidacy is conservation with ornaments for those who believe in idealistic tales but in full continuity with the past while Trump is power without frills. The liberals did not confront the right-wing enemy, hoping and thinking they had, but with a single man projected in the conquest of power. And now they are prisoners of their self-narrative.
What we are witnessing is a similar but reversed phenomenon to what happened with the French revolution. This event sees the beginning of mass ideologies. The bourgeoisie unhinged the pre-existing order based on the apicality of a single individual by activating the masses with a new ideological-egalitarian vision of the world. Mass ideologies become, therefore, inherent in the idea of democracy in the western sense.
However, today, the ruling class that tries to maintain consensus using ideological baggage has been defeated by an individual who uses modern communication tools to establish empathic contact with the masses. And that uses the ideological label that opponents attach to him for the sole purpose of appearing in opposition to them. Almost 30 years after the fall of the wall, the majority of people today are genuinely post-ideological and ready to tune in to this different mode of politics.
The fact that Trump as the president does not break with the style and dynamics of confrontation that led him to the presidency is a clear sign that he does not intend to "give up" the source of his power - his electoral base - to be accepted by the ruling elites. It is a choice that sanctions the disintermediation in the vertical sense operated by social media. The implications for the traditional power structure of the west are deadly. The American presidency was born with imperial powers which are only mildly constitutionally limited (and which have expanded in practice over two centuries) but so far it has also been limited by informal "check and balances" based on the networks of relationships that surrounded the president himself. The latter today no longer exist if compared in intensity and quality with its predecessors.
Not only. The "war" by elites against Trump eroded the modern idea of media controlling the power. The media are like those who cried wolf without reason: even if today they said a well-founded criticism about Trump, his electors will refuse to recognize it. Also, the cultural establishment is totally wrong-footed and cannot understand or answer to the phenomenon after resorting to the "reductio ad hitlerum." As islands of the past in a world that has taken another direction, intellectuals will soon realize that their identity is like Napoleon's supporters today, an obsolete narrative whose political viability will tend to zero. In ancient Rome, the imperial transition was probably caused by the inefficiency of the institutional system to manage the complexity introduced by the extension of borders. There is no doubt that the crisis of the western democratic system is due to the inability to produce strategic change decisions in the face of the growing complexity of society.
The Machiavellian argument about power foresees either the association of subordinate power centers or their destruction. Trump has already co-opted both the military apparatus (four ex-generals in the government is a historical anomaly) and a large part of the Republican party on an individual basis (not as an organized structure of power which was already fragmented).
The evolution of leadership born with these premises can only be the radical transformation of the power scheme within the same existing institutions. Do not expect Trump to proclaim himself emperor; the form will remain unchanged as it remained in many respects unchanged in the August transition. But he will act in fact as an emperor, because he has won alone against everyone and no GOP senator or representative will be able to resist his blank mandate, under penalty of not being re-elected. He will, therefore, have a subordinate congress where Trump will even be moderate compared to positions such as those expressed by Republicans in the H.R.193 - American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017 of 3 January last which asks to bring the United States out of the UN. The supreme court will also be brought into line with the scheme by the new appointment Trump has to make in the coming months.
And finally, the scenario was reinforced by Obama's decision after the November elections to designate the US electoral system as critical infrastructure, transferring its control at the federal level by removing it from individual states. A centralized institution is much easier to capitulate to presidential power than in the previous decentralized situation.
Therefore, Trump is a man who has exploited an opportunity offered by history. Leon C. Megginson summarizes this Darwinian idea: "It is not the strongest or smartest individual who survives, but the one who is best suited to change." Trump is not the cause of what we see but the consequence of economic and social dynamics that have extraordinarily strong inertia. It's not that suddenly people wake up and change; it takes decades for the conditions for such far-reaching paradigm shifts to settle. Whoever had wanted to avoid this outcome should have acted on its premises a long time ago, now it is entirely useless. Indeed an opposition without regard strengthens his position and accelerates the described dynamic.
The American republican political system is undergoing a mutation common to many powers at the beginning of the parabola's descending side, becoming imperialized. The political viability of "opposition" will be possible only by adopting a similar Machiavellian approach. The whole ideological superstructure becomes an unnecessary burden. In Rome, at the time of the republic, there were optimates and populares. With the empire, this ideological division ceases to exist as an element of political dynamics.
Consequently, we are dealing with a completely new political phenomenon that requires a new definition because the past ones of populism or fascism are entirely inappropriate. It finds its centrality in the new American presidency, but it was already emerging in the entire west. Its characteristic feature is the removal of the ideological superstructure in the exercise of power. Politics is no longer a clash of world views but pragmatism and power management, so one thing or even its opposite can be said, depending on the electoral needs, hence the emerged question of post-truth or hoaxes. Power before the French revolution had always been just that.
In this sense, I affirm that we are facing a historical break with Western tradition. The traditional right-wing politics (even totalitarian ones) to which we try to compare were ideological - the continuation under another declination of something born in 1789. This new phenomenon isn't.
The effect in international relations of this change in the West's power structure will also have fatal consequences. As the narrative of the US beacon of western civilization disappears replaced by "America first," the related networks of relationships are even falling, to which Trump supersedes the pragmatic concept of the "deal" agreements on a case by case basis, which must, in any case, maximize the utility of the US.
The multilateral agreements system is shattered to be remodeled on bilateralism, with an eye open to China's rising power. Putin's closeness is not only in the dynamics of domestic power but above all in the will to break the geopolitical axes between Russia with its natural resources and China with its industry. It's an intelligent move if it's discharged the premise of previous western elites that the "free trade" with China is a positive factor. By eliminating it, so transforming China into an opponent, the US debt in the Chinese hand is transformed from a weakness into force of blackmail. NATO and the EU become only an obstacle to being able to play an all-out game, indeed a political counterpower in which the old system can maintain leverage on its new foreign policy. A counterpower to destroy.
Trump does not want the old post-cold war alliance in which the US was primus inter pares, the ideological beacon of western freedom. He wants a ἡγεμονία (heghemonìa), like the one that the Athenian commercial power had created against competitors in the Mediterranean.
Shortly, Trump's calls to allies to pay their defense bill will resemble late Athens, which charges partners for their defense. Even from Athens itself, as the city of Mytilene learned at its own expense, when it decided to get out of hegemony. For Europeans, it means that we move from doing free-ride paid by the Americans to pay to avoid the wrath of the hegemon. One should not imagine that the US will directly threaten the Europeans; the US will find an agreement with Putin, and both will play the script to get us back on track.
There is no way out of weakness for European countries because the past economic crisis prevents any degree of real independence from this geopolitical pincer. Let us not forget: the incompetence of the German ruling class created this situation by following Obama uncritically in antagonizing Russia itself. We can hardly pay to be subordinated as the US wish; we certainly do not have the economic resources to arm ourselves to assert independence against the US. The only plausible scenario, without unnecessary ambitions, is to make the intermediate powers pigeonholed in new balances between the USA, Russia, and China, which incidentally is also the position of those political movements that ride this new political phenomenon in Europe.
In a context of renewed geopolitical friction between powers, the Trumpian assumption that every geopolitical aspect can be treated with a bilateral agreement will probably lead to the end of the geopolitical order of Westphalia; borders could be redefined by force, and this will end sovereign equality between states.
To conclude my analysis. The republic turns into an empire, the alliance in hegemony. The previous value system is undermined. It is not said that the empire is worse than the republic; Augustus was an improvement for ordinary Roman citizens compared to the prior period of civil wars and unrest. Napoleon has been so for French citizens since the revolution and terror. The geopolitical disorder and the disorder in the system of self-styled universal values of the West are today swept away by request of the order as Hobbesian thought. The world changes, and today we can recognize the West's end as we have known it.