Like so many people, I’m still reeling from the US election. Since long before Election Day, the news media have been suggesting historical analogues for Trump’s elitist populism (or populist elitism): Berlusconi or Mussolini are probably the closest parallels. In the US context, there’s William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson, although neither had Trump’s elitist pretensions. Some have suggested Theodore Roosevelt, and that, it seems to me, gets a bit closer.
But let’s put things into a context less focused on personality and agendas and more on the geo-historic times….
Projecting onward, it seems like a winner from the one-two punch of Brexit and Trump could be Germany. After all, with the dollar and the pound falling and Chinese growth flattened out, suddenly the Eurozone doesn’t look so bad. And whether investments are located on German soil or in German backed businesses elsewhere in Europe, one way or another this should be good for Germany.
Meanwhile, across Europe, Russia will benefit from expensive oil (thanks to the falling dollar) but it won’t match Germany as a site for investment. So, the natural place for Russia to focus its wealth is in military buildup and extension of its sphere of influence, both westward to Europe and eastward (and southward) to Asia. At this point, Japan, frightened by an increasingly aggressive and well-armed Russia, and feeling abandoned by the US, will start seeking a new ally and it will turn for support to the enemy of its enemy: Germany. Germany too re-arms, and thus a lasting, heavily militarised alliance between Japan and Germany is formed. Eastern European governments, fearing Russia (and in some cases, fearing 5th-column residents who may feel kinship with the Russians) turn to Germany for salvation, inviting German investment and, ultimately, annexation.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Meanwhile, back in the US, there’s a populist government led by a bombastic wealthy man whose legitimacy comes from claims that he empathises with the downtrodden, albeit tinged with elements of both xenophobia and racism. Unable to provide his supporters with jobs in industry (since investors remain spooked by the country’s isolationism and the ensuing constraints on free trade, as well as global recession), the president leans on his experience building things and hiring people. He develops a massive governmental apparatus that puts America back to work the only ways that he can: by investing in infrastructural projects and expanding the civil service, highly visible marks of his generosity for those who pledge him support. In the processes,this patrician caudillo further distances himself from class allies who support small government and fiscal restraint. He uses his popular support to give the presidency unprecedented levels of power, including making questionable court appointments. Occasionally he gets brushed back by Congress (including by members of his own party) for pushing against the limits of the Constitution, but nonetheless he persists, cheered on by his adoring followers. Meanwhile, between his rumoured sexual dalliances, he develops a military machine that will enable America to look outward again when the time is right, proving to the world that he has made America (like himself) ‘great’. Lending credence to ongoing suspicions that he is unusually close to Russia, the president joins with Moscow to gird the nation for war against the German-Japanese alliance that is looming over the horizon and becoming ever stronger. When war eventually comes, it seems inevitable.
Of course, the parallels between 1932 (or, perhaps, 1928) and 2016 are far from perfect. FDR is not Trump (for starters, one was in a wheelchair while the other takes delight in mocking the disabled). And Merkel is not Hitler. And I’m sure there are hundreds of other geopolitical dreams (or nightmares) that could be spun out of the past months’ events.
But I can’t help wondering if, in our focus on Trump, his supporters, his platform, and his character (or lack thereof), we’re losing sight of the geo-historical context, which looks an awful lot like another geo-historical context. And that just makes things even scarier.