“You hear that Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”
The picture above is a portrait of a vanishing world.
Four of the people in that image are no longer with us. Oh, they’re not dead—just retired or out of power, which is only slightly worse.
This photo of the G-7 leaders was taken on May 26, 2016, during a summit in Kashikojima, Japan. From left to right: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Francois Hollande, Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Back in the spring, these were the most powerful persons in the world who weren’t named Vladimir Putin or Mark Zuckerberg.
How things do change. Yesterday, Renzi announced he’d step down as the PM of the center-left Italian Democratic Party. With the fall of Renzi, Twitter and various press outlets have been sharing pictures from international summits earlier in the year, as if they were passing around old photos of Sgt. Pepper and his band. “4 down … Merkel to go,” wrote one Trump supporter.
Obama yielded to Trump. True, his term was up, but his coalition has also been turned down at the polls, which is the kiss of death for a legacy. Cameron stepped down after Brexit, leaving Theresa May in charge. Hollande has been discredited, and will be replaced by either the centrist Fillon or the far-right-wing Le Pen. Renzi is out. As for the rest, Merkel is bloodied but has survived to austere another day. Abe is still kicking, and will remain powerful. Trudeau is still there, but we all understand that Canadians are not like the rest of the world, or anyone.
But that’s unfair. In truth, none of these people were much like the citizens they were supposed to represent. Not a one of them—the inheritors of flawed meritocracies and corporate-friendly states—could reckon with the disaster capitalism of the 21st century. Obama is only the most obvious failson among them. The populist wave has come and washed much of this away. On the brighter side, this is the kind of year which gives low-rent elitist rags like The Economist heartburn: “The world is at a crossroads! Cut the estate tax! Who will think of Eton?”
Depending on your politics, you might see them as a collection of decent technocrats who were hapless before a nativist reaction. Or, if you’re like me, you see them as two-bit apologists for an unfair order who lacked the courage and political will to respond to popular outrage, and thereby allowed for a series of bizarre right-wing weirdos to come to power.
This picture makes the argument that what is happening is bigger than Trump and American culture.
We treat American politics as special, and pay a lot of attention to the particular circumstances that elevated Trump to the White House. Because Americans are, well, American, we speak of ourselves as being without parallel. We assume the mad events that happen in our country aren’t happening anywhere else. We focus on one nation.
When we speak of the Reagan revolution, or the New Deal, or the Third Way, or Make America Great Again, we often speak as if these events were set on the shoulders of one person. We talk in counterfactuals. We make claims like “If only Robert Kennedy had not been shot, there would have been no Reagan” or “Roosevelt’s charisma brought the New Deal to life.” We are sure that the world turns on the hinge of chance meetings, and that history hangs by the thread of human whim. We focus on one person.
But history is the result of many forces moving at the same time. Those forces are not confined to one nation, or one person. President-elect Trump is not responsible for Brexit—but the same force is behind both of those odd outcomes.
In politics, we need a wide focus. When we speak of the Communist takeover of China, it’s understandable that we talk about Mao. Mao was important. But if we want to explain what happened, we should really be focusing on the failure of the Nationalist government and World War II. We cannot speak of Communist China without mentioning people who weren’t Mao (like, oh, the rest of China) and we can’t talk of China without mentioning there was a huge Communist nation to China’s north in 1949, and maybe that had something to do with it?
In reality, Mao is a shortcut to explaining why China turned in 1949, just like we talk about The Beatles “beginning” the Sixties.
One person can make a difference: Dr. King is proof of that. But even then, that is not the entire story. It’s easier to say “MLK did it” than it is to say: “The rising black middle class and a postwar generation of liberals organized a long campaign of lawsuits and civil disobedience to destroy Jim Crow, and they were aided in this immensely by a telegenic and eloquent Baptist preacher who embodied moral authority.”
Mao and MLK and The Beatles are shortcuts. Shortcuts are convenient for understanding the present and explaining history. But they do not tell the complete story. If we use them too easily, our knowledge of the world will be shallow.
This picture argues we ought to focus on universal trends instead of particular circumstances when it comes to politics. For if the Donald is so special, why is populism rising in these other countries as well? This picture suggests that personality, while important, is not the end of the story, or even the beginning.
Trump was uniquely situated to exploit the huge flaws in our politics, and our economic inequality. But the fact remains that if Trump had not arrived, somebody else would have put two and two together.
Maybe not in the same way. Maybe not as drastically. Maybe next year, not this year. But it would have happened. The political class is not particularly bright, but I still think someone would have eventually tripped over Trump’s angle, like a blind hog stumbling over a two-by-four in a barnyard. There were too many disgruntled voters waiting to be picked up.
Trump represents a change in our political order, but he does not embody it. He is the symptom of the change, not the source. If Trump was a world-historical figure, Napoleon on horseback, then why didn’t he matter before now? It’s not like he had a particular genius that he had to develop through strife: he’s the same goofy, loud-mouthed dope he always was. He thought about running in 1987. He did run in 2000, as a Reform Party candidate, and got fifteen thousand votes in the party’s California primary. Trump didn’t change; the world did.
The worldwide fall of the political establishment suggests this election is not the result of any particular strategist, or candidate, or media, but a widespread dissatisfaction with the current order, that goes beyond the particular neuroses of any particular culture. If progressivism wants to win the fight against the forces of reaction, it should rediscover the lesson this picture teaches: none of us is an island. We’re all in this together.