The late Irving Kristol once said that “a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Since most countries have been subjected to an overdose of reality in recent years, it is not that surprising that more and more people are turning right. This is happening not just in the United States, where liberals (in Argentina they would be called leftists or progressives), have yet to recover from the shock they received when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton and started to govern the planet’s most powerful nation in his own inimitable manner, and the United Kingdom, where Brexit had an equally painful effect on their transatlantic counterparts, but also throughout Europe, Latin America and East Asia.
If the polls are to be believed, in Brazil many imagine that a military dictatorship would be preferable to the gang of kleptocrats currently ruling them. In China – which, according to some, is the coming superpower – Xi Jinping has set himself up to be president-for-life, while Vladimir Putin’s warlike bravado is making him something of a hero to many who would like their own rulers to cut a more impressive figure on the world stage. Argentina may be an exception, but elsewhere the authoritarian temptation is becoming harder to resist.
The reasons for all this seem clear enough. The social democrat project to which most progressives are attached and which not that long ago seemed likely to shape the future has ran out of steam. The costs of the ambitious welfare programmes that were put together after World War II, when the “baby boom” was getting underway, are growing too heavy for ageing – that is, childless – populations to bear, but politicians feel they cannot be dismantled. Technological progress and globalisation are widening the gap between high earners and the rest, whose incomes have remained much the same as they were half a century ago or, in many cases, have fallen. Egalitarianism and tribalism, also known as “identity politics”, has undermined almost all Western educational systems. Victimhood, and the collective self-pity it entails, is very much in fashion.
Some liberals understand that, rather than continuing to waste their energies complaining about the symptoms, they would be well-advised to try and work out exactly what it is that has gone wrong. One such is David Brooks, the mildly conservative columnist who writes for the staunchly progressive New York Times. After spending the best part of the last two years raging against Trump and much of what he is supposed to represent, he has come to the sad conclusion that his efforts, along with those of thousands of others, have turned out to be worse than useless.
Like a creature in a horror movie, Trump thrives when under attack. Instead of harming him, allusions to his crassness, his predatory way with women and his contempt for whatever the “international community”, let alone academe or the “mainstream press”, allegedly holds dear, only make him stronger.
To the dismay of the many who thought they could nail him for cosying up to the Russians during the election campaign, paying off a bosomy porn actress to stop her telling the world what, if anything, had gone on between them several years back, or, in a more serious vein, starting a trade war with China, Trump continues to enjoy the support of a considerable proportion of his fellow countrymen. They have become so used to his often outrageous foibles that, as he once boasted, he would probably get away unscathed if he were to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.”
Another politician who has benefitted from being the target of a great deal of progressive abuse, most of it coming from individuals convinced that the European Union is doing just fine, is Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, They think the man is a loathsome fascist because, much like Trump, he is dead against letting in large numbers of immigrants from poorer parts of the world, especially the Muslim ones, but as most Hungarians would rather not see Budapest go the way of London, Birmingham, Paris, Malmö and the dozens of German cities that have recently been enriched and made vibrant by multiculturalism, a week ago he chalked up a resounding election victory.
To stay in business, politicians in democratic countries need votes. To get them, they have to take into account the views of “ordinary people” no matter how foolish, ill-founded or wicked they believe such views to be. Many are reluctant to go that far because they have no desire to be excoriated by highly articulate individuals of a progressive disposition who would accuse them of being rightwingers, racists, xenophobes, or whatever else is regarded as unforgivable in the circles most of them frequent. However, the way things are going, Angela Merkel and the rest of them have little choice but to adapt to the new circumstances.
Opinion polls have long shown that a majority of Europeans agree with Trump and Orban, as well as likeminded politicians in Austria and Italy, where they already are in government or soon will be, or Holland, France, Germany and other European countries where they are waiting in the wings, that there should be no more room for Muslim immigrants who, they say, are “invaders” with no interest in adopting native customs because they believe they can impose their own. Turkish leaders, among them President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who proclaim that before long Islam will have conquered Europe, are not making things easier for politicians who want to keep their continent’s doors wide open.
The defeat of Marine Le Pen in last year’s presidential elections in France, and that of Geert Wilder in Holland, where his party came second to the currently ruling one whose leader, Mark Rutte, outflanked him on the eve of polling day by kicking out the Turkish foreign minister who was on a proselytising mission and then setting attack dogs on a group that protested against his decision, made many assume that the “populist” challenge to the established order had shot its bolt. That was premature. Even if the unambiguously anti-Muslim parties fail to make more gains than they already have, their way of thinking and many of their proposals are being adopted by politicians that so far have not had the press attach “populist” or “extreme right-wing” to their names like Homeric epithets.