Even now, four days on, I can’t quite believe it. When I turned on the TV, late on Tuesday night, I was reasonably sure that Hillary Clinton was going to become the next President of the United States.
By the time I went to bed, in the small hours of the morning, the map of the United States was splashed with Donald Trump’s Republican red.
Historians will be arguing about the reasons for Mr Trump’s victory for as long as the United States exists. But I think the greatest clue to his appeal was right there on that hideously undignified baseball cap, which bore the slogan: ‘Make America Great Again.’
As it happens, Mr Trump was not the first presidential candidate to have uttered those words. Both Ronald Reagan and, by a remarkable irony, Bill Clinton had used the phrase before.
Neither of Mr Trump’s predecessors, though, turned the slogan into such a relentless mantra. Restoring American greatness was not one of several campaign messages; it was his only message. If you doubt it, just look at what he said in his victory speech. ‘America,’ he said, ‘will no longer settle for anything less than the best . . . We’re going to dream of things for our country, and beautiful things and successful things once again.’
And in his message to the ‘world community’, designed to reassure foreign leaders that he would ‘deal fairly’ with them, Mr Trump added something else. ‘We will,’ he said, ‘always put America first.’
Put America first. Restore lost greatness. Here, boiled down to its essentials, was Mr Trump’s manifesto. There is a word for this kind of thing, and it is nationalism.
In that respect, I think Mr Trump is less remarkable than he likes to think. Far from being unique, he is simply the loudest, the most outrageous and now the most powerful standard-bearer for a wave of nationalism that is utterly transforming the politics of the Western world and the balance of power for a generation to come.
So what lies behind it? At its heart, I think, is a widespread populist backlash against a political class whose liberal assumptions ignored and sometimes openly deplored many of the basic principles — patriotism, belonging, community and security — on which our nation states were built.
Now, it seems, the voters are making plain just how much they’ve come to feel forgotten and abandoned by the men and women who, for the past three decades, aspired to lead them.
Only a few years ago, nationalism seemed to be heading for extinction. The future, we were told, lay with international organisations and economic globalisation. The U.S. was working on ever more intricate free-trade deals with its neighbours, while the EU was heading for ever-closer union.
Yet as the events of the past year have shown, that vision was a fantasy. Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a decision partly driven by our historic sense of national exceptionalism, was just the beginning.
In Germany, the far-Right AfD has made sweeping gains, while in France many opinion polls make Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-Right Front Nationale, a clear favourite to win the presidential election next year. Nationalist strongmen already rule Russia, Hungary and Turkey. Nationalist politicians demand independence for Catalonia; an openly nationalist party even governs Scotland.
And from January, the United States, the cornerstone of the international order, will be governed by a man who has insulted his neighbours, questioned the existence of Nato and put America’s interests above those of all others.
There is a clue in the fact that his promise to put ‘America first’ is a slogan borrowed from a rabidly isolationist pressure group which opposed U.S. intervention in World War II.
There can be little doubt, then, that we are living in a profoundly nationalist age. Like some Western equivalent of the Arab Spring, a tide of anti-elitist resentment has shaken the capitals of the world’s richest countries.
Yet even ten years ago, the rebirth of nationalism would have seemed almost unthinkable. Nationalism, we were often told, belonged to history.
It was comical, the stuff of flags and parades, the province of strutting dictators and tin-pot Hitlers. But it was also lethally dangerous, the poison that had provoked two world wars and slaughtered millions.
Studying history at school in the late Eighties, I assumed that nationalism was a relic of the past. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I naively assumed — like most of my generation — that the future lay with globalised liberal capitalism, a ‘new world order’ presided over by the United States.
In 1992, the year Bill Clinton won the U.S. presidency, an American political scientist called Francis Fukuyama published a best-selling book entitled The End Of History And The Last Man.
His argument was simple. With the end of the Cold War, the world had reached ‘the end of history . . . That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.
For a generation of liberal politicians and intellectuals, Fukuyama’s thesis was immensely appealing. These were people such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, George Osborne and Nick Clegg.
They were clever, cosmopolitan, smooth and slick, the very definition of a metropolitan elite. They lived in expensive houses in capital cities and travelled by private jets to conferences in places like Davos, Switzerland, where they waxed lyrical about the joys of international co-operation, open borders and financial globalisation.
No wonder, then, that they liked the European Union so much. They looked forward to a future in which national contours would wither away, a vision enshrined in the Schengen Agreement, which came into effect in 1995 and dismantled frontiers across much of Europe.[….]
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