With a global pandemic on the rise, financial markets in free fall, and the likelihood of a deep, global recession increasing by the day, President Trump's re-election is going to face serious headwinds. But that doesn't mean the political tendency of which Trump is the distinctively American expression will confront the same fate. On the contrary, our ominous moment is tailor-made to give the nationalist trend a serious boost.
This can be easy to miss in the American context because Trump looms so large in our politics. Some think his facility at spewing lies, conspiracy theories, and partisan demonization into the political culture will allow him to conceal from his supporters his administration's ineptitude and the extent of the epidemiological and financial carnage, thereby protecting him from political fallout. Others suspect — rightly, in my view — that the miasma of BS is more likely to be smashed on the rocks of biological and economic reality.
But whichever turns out to be truer, it's important to remember that Trump is merely one idiosyncratic example of a much broader tendency — and that evaluating its longer-term political prospects, both in the United States and around the world, requires taking a much wider view.
The nationalism that currently holds or vies for power in countries around the world arose in reaction to the globalization that came to political prominence during 1990s, in the wake of the Cold War. It was a time of relative economic prosperity and few geopolitical threats for the countries of the Western world. Major thinkers and policymakers championed a globalized marketplace and favored the dissolving of national boundaries, with universal humanitarianism becoming the moral currency of world.
It was the heyday of free-trade agreements, the free movement of people and capital, and international coalitions led by the U.S., the "indispensable nation," to bring as many countries as possible into the liberal international fold and punish any that resisted the trend. This was also the era of the internationalization of supply chains, along with the certainty that the penetration of economic liberalization into authoritarian systems would invariably lead to the spread and strengthening of political liberalism.
For a while, everything seemed to be going according to plan. Growth increased economic opportunity. Governments of the center-left and center-right fiddled with tax rates and social policies to smooth the creative destruction unleashed by markets. Multiculturalism was the order of the day, as cities turned into playgrounds of "difference," as residents and tourists alike embraced mobility and the chance to sample cuisines and pop culture from around the world.
The openness and optimism of the era received its first serious blow on Sept. 11, 2001. It received another with the financial crisis and economic meltdown of 2008, when a real estate boom in the United States went bust and became amplified by the financialization of global markets, eventually spreading a painful and deep recession around the world. The third blow came with the refugee crisis in Europe that started in 2015.
The result has been the rise of the anti-liberal right in Europe, Brexit in the U.K., and Trump in the U.S. Today an international movement of anti-globalist nationalists has demonstrated its electoral potency from Brazil to Hungary and beyond. This doesn't mean that the forces of anti-liberalism have made headway everywhere, or that they haven't faced sometimes potent opposition. They have, and that opposition isn't going to let up in its effort to hold back the nationalist tide.
The problem is that the forces of liberal openness are about to absorb another blow — one that could well prove to be the most damaging one yet.
Nationalism is a politics of fear and threat. Up until now, the lure of the closed society has been felt by a portion of liberal societies: those who fear cultural dissolution by outsiders through immigration, and those who live in places or work in industries that haven't been thriving in the international marketplace. But COVID-19 has the potential to make many more converts to the cause.
On the most obvious level, there is the fear and threat of contagion. Instead of teaching us that the stranger, the outsider, the person different from us is interesting and intriguing — rather than tempting us to visit to the city and marketplace, to travel and make new experiences, to embrace diversity and unpredictability and pluralism — the fear of falling prey to the pandemic inspires suspicion of newness and crowds and "others" of all kinds. We long, instead, for safety and protection, for cleanliness and purity. For the comfort and security of home.
Then there are the economic consequences of this contraction of horizons. International supply chains slow or shut down, leading to shortages of products. Travel and mobility slow down or stop, leading to a collapse in oil prices. Spending declines. People hunker down — working and studying and entertaining themselves at home, far away from public spaces, where newly idle workers get laid off. None of this will last forever. But the short-to-medium-term economic consequences are likely to be real and consequential. A serious downturn would seem to be unavoidable.
The amazing fact is that all of nationalism's successes over the past few years — Brexit, Trump, Law and Justice gaining power in Poland, the rise of the far right Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Fidesz's consolidation in Hungary, the polling surge for Lega in Italy, Bolsonaro's electoral victory in Brazil — all of it (and much else) has taken place during a period of economic growth. Now the world faces the prospect of a deep recession, which will greatly increase feelings of fear and vulnerability.
And that will lead to an intensification of calls for the raising of metaphorical (and sometimes literal) walls.
Liberals can and should view these developments with concern, but they shouldn't respond with disgust. In theory, a world with fewer (or lower) walls may be preferable to one with more of them. But in reality, the willingness of people to embrace openness will always be a function of their judgment about whether it benefits them. A policy that seems reasonable at a time of optimism and prosperity may come to seem at a time of alarm like a luxury we can no longer afford — and therefore also one we should never have pursued in the first place.
We can lament this fact, but it would be reckless to reject it out of hand. Otherwise, liberals will end up ceding even more ground to the nationalists than they already have — and in so doing lose the chance to moderate and humanize the politics of fear that threatens to engulf us all.