by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 3
June 2020
Idea
07:00

After Trump, will a more dangerous demagogue arrive?

by Peter Franklin
Donald Trump stages a rally in Ohio, USA

Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, is known as a booster of globalisation. However, one of his recent columns for The New York Times reads like a denunciation of everything that Davos Man stands for:

Over the past 20 years, we’ve been steadily removing man-made and natural buffers, redundancies, regulations and norms that provide resilience and protection when big systems — be they ecological, geopolitical or financial — get stressed
- Thomas Friedman, The New York Times

Yep. That’s what happens when you pursue the politics of open versus closed as a proxy for good versus evil. As current events make clear, this false equivalence is one of the great ideological errors of our time.

However, in contemplating the meltdown of the neoliberal order, Friedman’s most interesting point is that great catastrophes are often preceded by little catastrophes — events that seem quite big at the time, but are in fact warnings of much worse to come:

Note the pattern… first [we] experienced what could be called a “mild” heart attack… in each case, though, we did not take that warning seriously enough — and in each case the result was a full global coronary
- Thomas Friedman, The New York Times

Friedman gives a number of examples:

  • The World Trade Centre bombing in 1993, which, though an atrocity in which six people were killed, would be overshadowed by the devastation of 9/11.
  • The collapse of Long-Term Capital Management (a hedge fund) in 1998 — a dress rehearsal for the hugely more damaging Global Financial Crisis a decade later.
  • The SARS epidemic of 2003 (caused by the SARS-CoV-1 virus) — a prequel to the current pandemic (caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus).

Look at what happened before any of the shock events of the 21st century and you will, most likely, find a prior warning. Note, that I don’t mean a mere historical parallel — but a forerunner event arising out of the same underlying factors.

The result of the Brexit referendum, for instance, was foreshadowed by the AV referendum of 2011 — which exposed the gulf between popular and metropolitan liberal opinion. The Brexit vote was much closer, of course — but there were clear commonalities in the voting patterns and the winning tactics.

Consumed by bitterness, the losers of the AV referendum failed to apply the lessons of their defeat to the Brexit referendum. Liberals, being attached to notions of fairness and progress, tend to overlook two possibilities; (1) that when they lose, it isn’t necessarily because the winners cheated; and (2) that things can always get worse.

In any case, what all of us need to ask of any setback is whether it is the main event or, in fact, a portent of a bigger disaster that could yet be averted.

I wonder if the warning staring us in the face right now is the presidency of Donald Trump. As appalled as many people are by his behaviour, it’s worth contemplating what a more disciplined, competent populist could achieve — a demagogue concerned not just with his own ego, but the execution of some carefully-planned vision for America and the world.

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