It seems no matter what happens with American politics, the 19th-century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville has something to say about it. In his classic “Democracy in America,” he suggested that democratic politics was in need of drama; as an election nears, “intrigues become more active, agitation more lively and more widespread. The entire nation falls into a feverish state.” But, once the election has passed, “everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed.”
We can all agree that the first part describes exactly what happened in 2016 — because, whatever we think about this particular race, it was merely a hyperbolic version of the usual democratic process. During an election period, candidates frame the normal as catastrophic while promising that all calamities can somehow be overcome. Democratic politics might be interpreted as a nationwide therapy session in which voters are confronted with their worst nightmares — demographic collapse, economic meltdown, environmental disaster, a new war — but are persuaded that they have the power to stave off the devastation.
When the elections are over, the world magically returns to its status quo. And even if it doesn’t, people will do their best to believe otherwise. Following the initial shock of Donald J. Trump’s victory, both friends and foes will downgrade the significance of what has transpired. The same people who portrayed a Trump victory as apocalyptic will come to see it as business as usual.
The risk is that, this time, we’re not returning to business as usual. Irrespective of the policies that the president-elect will adopt, Mr. Trump’s victory will have profound political repercussions in the United States and abroad. It is a global regime change. Indeed, the fall of the Berlin Wall might be a useful analogue for the present moment: Nov. 9, 2016, could become no less consequential than Nov. 9, 1989. And in their panic and disorientation, liberal elites now are not much different from Communist elites then.
The significance of Mr. Trump’s victory goes far beyond the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump has buried the liberal narrative of what happened after the Cold War. A period that only yesterday was hailed as the liberation of peoples is now understood as the liberation of the elites, and the unleashing of chaotic world forces that only an American strongman can contain. Even if Trump supporters become disillusioned with the president-elect and his policies, his rejection won’t inspire a return to the rhetoric or the policies of the 1990s.
In the same way that Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Communist system upended the assumptions on which his system was based, Mr. Trump’s victory makes what was common sense yesterday unintelligible today. Who will stand ready to claim that globalization still connotes freedom and prosperity for all and that democracy means respect for minority rights when Americans — in the eyes of the world the greatest beneficiaries of globalization and traditional advocates of human rights — voted unambiguously that the system is broken?
Trump’s victory is also a powerful statement that anti-populism, the attempt of elites to play on people’s anxieties of a reckless and unpredictable populist-inspired reality, is no longer the way to win elections. In fact, the word “elite” today may be the dirtiest word in the popular vocabulary.
His victory makes clear that we live in a moment when the fear of an uncertain future is a weaker mobilizing force than a disgust with the present. It signals that threatened majorities have emerged as a major force in Western democratic politics. These majorities fear that foreigners are taking over their countries and threatening their way of life, and they are convinced that the current crisis is brought on by a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants.
The Trump effect will be felt differently around the world, but its impact may be most powerful in Europe. Mr. Trump’s victory not only emboldens populist leaders and parties in Europe; it puts the future of the European Union in question. Since World War II, when it comes to security, Europe has been America’s protectorate; no longer does that seem to be the case.
In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev announced his Sinatra Doctrine, the idea that every country in the Soviet bloc could go its own way and that Moscow would refrain from intervention. Over the course of his campaign Mr. Trump was maddeningly vague about concrete policies, but he did suggest what I might call the “Bieber Doctrine” — that America would no longer see its allies’ security problems as its own. “And if you think that I’m still holdin’ on to something,” Justin Bieber sings, “You should go and love yourself.”
“Go and love yourself” is essentially Mr. Trump’s message to his European allies. The preservation of the European Union is no longer the priority nor the objective of American foreign policy.
Moreover, the irony of Mr. Trump’s effect on global politics is that his victory has liberated the world from the need to love, envy or hate America. It was President Obama who dared to suggest that America is not exceptional, but it is the election of Mr. Trump that convinced the world that America’s democracy is not different from ours. It can also be chaotic and dangerous.
It’s reported that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia instructed his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, that if he wanted to understand how America worked, the only thing he needed to do was watch the Netflix series “House of Cards.” The American president-elect would most likely agree. Which means, perhaps, that de Tocqueville is no longer required reading on American politics. Instead, just watch Frank Underwood.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia and a permanent fellow at the IWM.
First published in The New York Times.
© Author / The New York Times