For most Europeans these days, traveling to America is like landing on Mars. Even the most sophisticated political analysts can’t make head or tail of what is happening in the country. They are offended by the rise of Donald J. Trump, puzzled by Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialist appeal to young American voters, and confused by President Obama’s unsentimental, risk-averse foreign policy that decided against punishing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for crossing Mr. Obama’s own red line on chemical weapons.
I stand in marked contrast to my fellow Europeans’ mystification. As I witness the anger of the middle class, the arrogance of the unloved elites, the shared disbelief in the effectiveness of military power and the pervasive fear of the future — perhaps for the first time, I feel I understand exactly what is going on in America.
Take Mr. Trump’s insurgency, built on barking out the basest and craziest comments. His success, making even Ted Cruz look mainstream, baffles many in the United States and abroad, who are used to seeing American politicians walk a careful line between red-meat populism and mainstream respectability. The center, until now, has always held.
But Mr. Trump would be at home in Europe. Mainstream parties barely get half the vote in national elections. What wins instead are the visceral appeals of political resentment. When I enter a cafe here in Sofia or in Warsaw or Amsterdam, I hear groups of women and men calling for foreigners to be bused out of the country, Muslims to be barred from coming in and walls to be erected on our borders.
They speak on behalf of majorities who see themselves menaced by the loss of their political power and the rapid diminution of their economic prosperity. They feel cheated by the demographic revolution that is underway around the world — one that threatens to make them minorities in their own countries. Mr. Trump’s crude directness and his unrivaled skill in manipulating the news media so strongly resemble the political style of the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi that I sometimes wonder whether Mr. Berlusconi is secretly coaching him from the sidelines.
Bernie Sanders should be familiar to Europeans as well. Most of the young Europeans I know view capitalism as a rigged and unfair system; to them, real socialism — and not just German-style, neo-liberal “social democracy” — is hardly a dirty word. They see themselves as the biggest losers of the status quo, and often dream out loud of revolution (though, thankfully, of a nonviolent kind). For them the war between generations is the new version of their parents’ (and grandparents’, and great-grandparents’) class war.
In countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal, almost half of the young people are unemployed, despite the university degrees they may have earned. They judge globalization as an unmitigated disaster and loathe the idea of free trade. And while Mr. Sanders is no Jean Jaurès or Leon Trotsky— I find him about as exciting as a cucumber sandwich — for many of the new radicals in America and Europe, his lack of charisma is one more sign of his integrity and authenticity.
Not even Mr. Obama’s sharp turn to foreign policy realism perplexes me. He says he has thrown out the “Washington playbook,” and that has surprised and frightened America’s allies in Europe. Mr. Obama’s infamous policy dictum, “Don’t do stupid” things, has been the sole organizing principle of Europeans’ foreign policy for years now. He’s simply making explicit something that we’ve known a long time — that America is becoming more cautious in its foreign policy, more European. Americans are no longer from Mars, and Europeans are no longer from Venus. Perhaps we are all on Saturn together, trying to keep the dirty rabble from sullying our beautiful rings.
If anyone is failing to “get” America these days, it’s Americans themselves. They don’t see that their country is rapidly becoming “normal,” unable to rely on infinite, widely shared economic growth and splendid geopolitical isolation. “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one,” the American historian Richard Hofstadter once said.
In comparing themselves with Europe, Americans prided themselves on the fact that “It can’t happen here” — namely, European socialism and European fascism. It viewed itself as immune to the pathologies of democracy: Crowds can go crazy in any other place in the world, but not in America, the land of common sense. But after the last years of extreme polarization and dysfunctional governance, are Americans still convinced that their democracy cannot be upended?
Now, when the “normalization” of America unfolds before our eyes, I have the feeling that many Europeans are getting nostalgic for the America we never really understood. This is the America that keeps so many of its young black people in prison, but that elects a black man president. An America that may still countenance the death penalty, but also protects the rights of immigrants. An America that doesn’t simply try to order the world, but that was once passionate to change it. An America with its blemishes, but also its promises. An America that was more ambitious, and less ambivalent. We are already missing it.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.
First published in New York Times, April 14, 2016.
© Author / New York Times