With both the populist right and the populist left becoming less relevant, a new consensus is now certain, likely led by Europe
Like a premature ejaculation, the appalling wave of nationalism/populism/fascism that was sweeping the world, highlighted by Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in the United States, and Brexit, has already shot its load. When Trump was first elected president of the US, the abiding fear was that the steadily growing liberal consensus—gender equality, LGBT rights, religious and racial tolerance—had gone too far peaking with a black man in the White House, and that the down cycle would run for a long time, perhaps even a couple of decades. But Trump’s grotesque tomfoolery over the past six months has turned the tide very quickly. The poster boy of “Making America Great Again” has taken a slap in the face and his Twitter finger is flashing “contrite”, as the new Chief of Staff has taken charge. The rampaging Brexiteers have quickly been silenced by the people who were—thank God—given a second chance. Marine le Pen has disappeared from sight. Even prime minister Narendra Modi appears wobbly as myriad streams of dissatisfaction are converging to create a real threat—the Supreme Court, in its 9-0 verdict on privacy, has slapped his more aggressive fascist tendencies, and some of his lieutenants (read glorified privates) are showing a hysterical nervousness.
Of the old guard, Russian president Vladimir Putin has a challenger that is being publicly lionised by the Western media, suggesting the threat of prison (or worse) is lower than it has been in the recent past. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears untouched so far, but a flailing economy is likely to see him lose ground as well. Only Xi Jinping remains—apparently—as strong as he always was, but with China, nobody really knows what is going on.
To be sure, there are nationalist /populist ripples in smaller countries like Hungary, but on the larger stage, the backward-looking wave is abating.
There are no vacuums in nature, and as warriors of both the populist right and the populist left—each insisting that their way is the only way—become less relevant, a new consensus is certain to come into the foreground. And the good news is that this is likely to be driven by a new, energised Europe.
Indeed, French president Emmanuel Macron was the biggest beneficiary of Trump’s loud mouth, with all opposition, particularly le Pen, melting away. To his credit, Macron has, so far at least, been walking the talk, both domestically—on the one hand, taking the knife to some long-held sacred cows, and, on the other, encouraging French entrepreneurship and pushing France’s strong technology base—and globally, as he makes common cause with Germany’s Angela Merkel to create a new Europe.
Germany, of course, is solid and responsible. I spent a little time in Berlin recently and, while it is a scintillating city—I strongly recommend the Paris Bar on Kantstrasse—it also reflects a practical German get-on-with-it-ness. The rebuilding of the city since the wall came down in 1989 has resulted in some amazing architecture, blending the very old (pre-War) and the very new; the Reichstag building and the Neues Museum are must visits.
But what I was really struck by in Berlin was that Chancellor Merkel lives in a regular apartment building—there is an official, formal residence, but she prefers a simple, not particularly ostentatious apartment; we walked by it and the only distinguishing characteristic was a pair of armed guards on the street outside. To my mind, this reflects the intrinsic nature and self-confidence of the German people. They don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Unlike many in America (and much of the rest of the world that has been following America’s cultural footsteps over the past several decades), nobody is looking to be a movie star. There are no—or very few—celebrities who are famous just for being famous. There is no Donald Trump.
To my mind, it is this cultural sanity that explains the enduring German economic and political miracle; typically, Germans don’t even see it as a miracle. However—and lest I start being called Klaus or Heinrich—one area where Germany is poorly developed is in its “front office”; it carries the legacy of its past far more heavily than (I think) it should. As a result, its fantastic economic soundness has not meaningfully enabled the European experiment to move forward as rapidly as it should, highlighting to the world what a genuinely egalitarian society should look like.The good news is that with Brexit, one of the loudest thorns in the side of the EU has been neutralised. That plus the new Macron-ised France working in tandem with Merkel in Germany suggests that the EU will soon be more than pulling its weight in world affairs, most critically providing all of us a belief that democracy, provided it is well balanced with a true sense of humanity, can work and work well.The big trick is all of us will have to learn French/ German/Italian/Spanish and so on; the big joy is it will be a wonderful world.