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Trumpism Without Borders

The peculiarly American characteristics of the Trump years have blinded us to the spread of this radical disorder worldwide.

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, Scott Olson/Getty Images

America is embedded in a world that is troubled by insidious parallel variants of the same structural problems — anti-immigrant fervor, political tribalism, racism, ethnic tension, authoritarianism and inequality — that led to a right-wing takeover of the federal government by Donald Trump.

The peculiarly American characteristics of the Trump years have blinded us to the spread of this radical disorder worldwide — even as some prescient scholars and analysts have seen the connections all along and have been trying to make the public aware of them.

According to the Stanford sociologists Michelle Jackson and David Grusky, there is a common thread to these seemingly disparate developments — what they call “the ubiquity of loss” — a condition the authors describe as a “late industrial experience, in short, increasingly one of omnipresent loss and decline.”

The authors elaborate in their paper, “A post-liberal theory of stratification.” Loss like this, they write, can be

experienced by children as a dramatic decline in their chances of achieving a standard of living as high as that of their parents. It is experienced by men as a decline in the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, and other types of loss relative to women. It is experienced by manufacturing workers as a sharp loss in the number of high-paying union jobs. It is experienced by “rust belt” families as a loss of employment and earnings to China and other countries.

The commonality of loss has fostered the emergence of politicians and political strategists whom Jackson and Grusky call “norm entrepreneurs” — Trump, Steve Bannon, Jeremy Corbyn, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage — who

politicize loss by representing other groups as benefiting from it. It is immaterial from this point of view whether that zero-sum formulation has any scientific merit. If a loss of income or employment is successfully represented as a zero-sum transfer from one’s own group (e.g., natives) to another group (e.g., immigrants), then the benefiting group is more likely to be treated as a competitor, especially when there is pre-existing antipathy between the groups.

The politics of loss have, in turn, empowered the populist right by encouraging the view “that disadvantaged groups have unfairly benefited from legal protections, egalitarian social movements and government and charitable assistance. These initiatives, far from facilitating fair and open competition, are instead seen as overshooting the mark and providing unfair advantage,” ushering in “a new era of high grievance, high conflict, and high ideology.”

The “ubiquity of loss” is not the sole factor.

There are “trends across countries, including growing nationalism, erosion of democratic norms and growth of authoritarianism,” Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T., wrote in response to my inquiry: “The two trends affecting all of these countries are globalization and technological changes, both of which are fueling inequality and perhaps also aspirations that are going unmet.”

Acemoglu continued:

It is imperative that we build better international/supranational institutions, but I do not see us going in that direction. On the contrary, I think whatever institutions we have (which are highly dysfunctional, including the WHO) are getting weaker and more captured.

Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, emailed me to say:

Globalization, concentration of capital, rapid population growth in poor countries, technological change (robots and digitization) and climate instability have all produced higher inequality, surges of international migration, and put stress on farmers, workers, craftsmen, and rural/small-town populations while concentrating growth and opportunity in the major metro areas of O.E.C.D. countries plus China.

These trends, Goldstone wrote, have

left hundreds of millions of people in countries from India and Brazil to the U.K. and the U.S. resentful that the stable, prosperous life they expected has been taken from them. As a result, many have turned their anger against foreigners, minorities, and elites who they blame (with elites, rightly), for promoting changes that benefited themselves and neglected them.

While most of the challenges “are best handled by international cooperation,” Goldstone argued,

unfortunately, global governance has been a great disappointment. Russia has basically pissed on it; Trump repudiated it, and China sought to benefit from it by seeking to call the shots in old and new multinational organizations in which it has sought a leading role.

Three recent reports explore stresses within the international order: “Global Trends 2040,” a March publication of the National Intelligence Council; “2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” issued by the director of national intelligence; and “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020” from the World Bank.

The Global Trends report found that multinational “superstar” firms are driving economic globalization:

These firms captured approximately 80 percent of economic profit among companies with annual revenues greater than $1 billion in 2017 and earned approximately 1.6 times more economic profit than they did in 1997.

In addition,

the economic factors that support the rise of global superstar firms, including high fixed costs, low marginal costs, network and platform effects, and machine learning, are likely to persist through the next two decades.

Perhaps most important, Global Trends notes an intensification of international resource competition:

Climate change and environmental degradation will contribute to and reflect a more contested geopolitical environment. Countries and other actors are likely to compete over food, minerals, water, and energy sources made more accessible, more valuable, or scarcer.

Losers in the competition over resources are shifting rapidly: “The two regions with the most poor people in 1990 were East Asia and Pacific and South Asia, which were home to 80 percent of the poor,” according to the World Bank. By 2015, however, “more than half of the global poor resided in sub-Saharan Africa and more than 85 percent of the poor resided in either sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.”

Elaborating on the Jackson-Grusky argument, Pieter Vanhuysse, a political scientist at the University of Southern Denmark, wrote by email that a major strain on democracy is

the rise of unequal life chances along multiple dimensions. Take education/human capital: as automation and digitization will also be major forces perturbing the world economy, it is likely that new divides will sharpen between human capital haves and have-nots at the level of both nations and persons.

These inequalities, Vanhuysse argued,

may be exacerbated by seemingly unfair practices. For instance, richer nations are likely to engage still more in poorer-to-richer nation brain drain practices, coming from the lower- or middle-income countries that invested massive public resources in producing these skills.

One of the most important setbacks to the cause of democratic governance, in Vanhuysse’s view, is

The advent, then weaponization by the Trump movement in the past 4-5 years, of populism combined with post-truth/fake facts culture in an already not so representative electoral system. This, in turn, has been aided by the seemingly unhindered Russian interference. Over the same period, powerful global actors such as Russia, China, and even countries such as Turkey, Brazil, and the Philippines have become much less cooperative and are likely to remain so.

This trend toward autocracy, Vanhuysse continues, in evident

within the European Union, notably in Poland and, very much, Hungary. Both these countries have started to consciously devise demographic scare tactics (Muslims vs. “true” Polish and Hungarian Christians; true Hungarians vs. foreign cultures, anti-LGBT campaigns, anti-foreign NGOs) to serve incumbents’ power purposes.

The Global Trends report supports Vanhuysse’s point:

In some Western democracies, public distrust of the capabilities and policies of established parties and elites, as well as anxieties about economic dislocations, status reversals, and immigration, have fueled the rise of illiberal leaders who are undermining democratic norms and institutions and civil liberties. In newer democracies that transitioned from authoritarian rule in the 1980s and 1990s, a mix of factors has led to democratic stagnation or backsliding, including weak state capacity, tenuous rule of law, fragile traditions of tolerance for opposition, high inequality, corruption, and militaries with a strong role in politics.

There are explicitly anti-democratic forces working to encourage the developments Vanhuysse describes, according to the most recent Annual Threat Assessment.

Authoritarian and illiberal regimes around the world will increasingly exploit digital tools to surveil their citizens, control free expression, and censor and manipulate information to maintain control over their populations. Such regimes are increasingly conducting cyber intrusions that affect citizens beyond their borders — such as hacking journalists and religious minorities or attacking tools that allow free speech online — as part of their broader efforts to surveil and influence foreign populations.

A key factor undermining the willingness to cooperate both locally and globally is the growing threat of scarcity in jobs, basic resources and security. Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan, who died in May, warned of the increasingly pervasive threat of job loss in his 2018 book, “Cultural Evolution”:

In this Artificial Intelligence Society, virtually anyone’s job can be automated. In the early stages of the Knowledge Society, there is growing demand for people with high levels of education and skills and they can get secure, well-paid jobs. But the transition to Artificial Intelligence society changes this: computers begin to replace even highly-educated professionals. In the Artificial Intelligence Society, the key economic conflict is no longer between a working class and a middle class, but between the top one percent and the remaining 99 percent.

Looking at the United States as a micro case study with global implications, David Autor, an economist at M.I.T., found that among white voters, those who lost jobs because of trade with China moved toward the political right.

“Trade-exposed districts with an initial majority white population or initially in Republican hands became substantially more likely to elect a conservative Republican,” Autor and three colleagues wrote in a 2020 paper, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure.” The results support “a political economy literature that connects adverse economic conditions to support for nativist or extreme politicians.”

Daniel Esty, a professor of environmental law at Yale, described in an email how tribalism, hostility toward outsiders, notably immigrants, and the emergence of what some call “exclusionary nationalism” all serve to undermine prospects for global cooperation:

Global collaboration on concerns such as climate change has become more difficult even as the urgency of the issue and the inescapability of global-scale action with no nation free-riding off the efforts of others become ever more clear. The broad-based rise of tribalism/nationalism sharpens “us” versus “them” thinking and makes cooperative responses to any realm of international policymaking — pandemic response, climate change, and trade — more challenging.

In other words, the world’s democracies are ill equipped to take on the immediate dangers cited in the Annual Threat Assessment:

In the coming year, the United States and its allies will face a diverse array of threats that are playing out amidst the global disruption resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and against the backdrop of great power competition, the disruptive effects of ecological degradation and a changing climate, an increasing number of empowered nonstate actors, and rapidly evolving technology. The complexity of the threats, their intersections, and the potential for cascading events in an increasingly interconnected and mobile world create new challenges for the intelligence community.

An additional global development is the simultaneous aging of the populations in developed nations while the share of young people in developing countries rapidly expands. Mark Haas, a political scientist at Duquesne University, argues that “aging will create powerful forces for international peace on the one hand and increased domestic polarization on the other.”

Haas wrote by email:

Countries with large numbers of young people (ages 15 to 24) as a percentage of the total adult population (“youth bulges”) are more likely to engage in international hostilities than ones with older populations. With a surplus of military-aged citizens, soldiers are cheaper and easier to recruit and replace. Younger populations are also more easily radicalized, especially when the country is poorer with fewer economic opportunities.

The reverse dynamics, Haas continued,

occur in older societies. Aging tends to reduce both states’ capacity and willingness to go to war. As societies age, governments are likely to dedicate an increasing percentage of their budgets to spending on elderly welfare, which is likely to reduce expenditures in all other areas, including on the military.

A similar pattern, Haas wrote, exists at the societal level:

Data from multistate, multigenerational surveys reveal that the fewer children parents have, the more that highly valued and non-substitutable psychological and emotional goals (such as having someone to love and care for, enjoyment, self-esteem, gender balance, and carrying on the family name) are tied to each individual child. The greater the “value” of any one child, the greater the loss that the child’s death creates, thereby increasing casualty sensitivity as fertility levels shrink.

What role will the United States play in addressing global tensions?

Goldstone, the professor of public policy at George Mason, sees some hope in the Biden presidency:

Joe Biden literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders. If he succeeds (success meaning carries out a program that improves the living standards and earns the support and respect of a large and stable majority of the population), he can advance global cooperation on key problems, restore trust in democracy at home and abroad and help turn around the global trend to ethnonationalist authoritarian governance.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia, has a darker view: “The multiple challenges can be addressed through public action at all scales, from global to local,” he wrote by email:

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not a constructive problem-solving actor in this drama. At the national level, we are torn apart by race and class. The U.S. system is at danger of coming completely unhinged over the corruption of our political system (sheer plutocracy with a democratic veneer) and rear-guard racism.

Nor is Sachs upbeat about Biden’s chances:

At the global level, the U.S. is a disruptive force as well, because instead of focusing on global problem solving, we are far more focused on trying to maintain hegemonic prerogatives that are past their due date. Hence, the utterly stupid new Cold War with China, which is a U.S. concoction. How absurd to be focused on mobilizing the G7 to compete with China, rather than on mobilizing the world to solve shared, massive, and urgent challenges. But the early Biden foreign policy is deeply flawed. It’s almost farcical to see the “West” (itself a funny idea at this point) deciding today to have its own Belt and Road program to compete with China. “Children, play nicely in the sandbox.”

Let’s let Goldstone have the last word:

If Biden fails, God help us, we are headed back to the world of the 1930s, with steep political polarization, ethnic hatreds and cleansings, powerful anti-immigration sentiments and spreading fascism.

Thomas B. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.