The election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States has sent shock waves throughout Europe and beyond. Trump’s victory is a salutary reminder that, in times of economic decline, demagogues peddling crude solutions to complex problems have a magnetic appeal to the dispossessed living in post-industrial communities. Trump in America, UKIP in Britain and the resurgence of the far right in nations such as France, Holland, Germany, Hungary and Poland, all now threaten the hegemony of the liberal free-market capitalism of the past 70 years.
European history provides many examples of liberal politics followed by a resurgence of autocratic dictatorship. The emergence of dictatorships during the inter-war years, after a period of parliamentary democracies in Europe, gave rise to the likes of Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Mussolini in Italy and of course Hitler and Stalin in Germany and Russia respectively. These regimes had much in common – and so too with Trump, if we judge him by his electoral campaign at least: Nationalism, xenophobia, the persecution of minorities, anti-intellectualism, economic isolationism and hostility to internationalism. Demagogues typically use the rhetoric of democracy to build mass support centered on a charismatic leader who routinely rubbishes their opponent (i.e. Trump the misogynist v Clinton).
The greatest dangers with Trump lie in his conduct of foreign affairs. Flash points in Syria and the Middle East, a proliferation of nuclear weapons and relations with Iran all pose questions for a thin skinned, inexperienced President. In addition, Russia’s strategic threat to Central and Eastern Europe will rise dramatically if NATO is abandoned by the US, as Trump has advocated several times.
History, though, also shows us that such demagogic regimes rarely last. What remains of the “1000 Year Reich”? Mussolini ended up lynched. Franco and Salazar were soon replaced without the chance to leave any real legacy. History does not repeat itself precisely, either. Today, across the Atlantic, we at least have the knowledge that the safeguards of the American Constitution should be enough to dilute much of Trump’s pre-election bombast. U-turns began before he had been voted in, in fact, and now his promise to investigate the “corruption” of Clinton has been swiftly abandoned in the interest of promoting an illusion of benevolence. Foreign observers always overestimate the power of the presidency, too. To function as a powerful leader and be a true catalyst for change, the President must have the support of Congress, the Senate and ultimately the Supreme Court. Trump’s promises to use infra-structure projects to boost the economy may be followed through in the long term, but medium term they will not save the American coal industry. And that wall with Mexico? It will be a fence along some, not all, of the border, and will keep some drug pushers out, not all. Neither will he be able to send 2 million Latinos back across the other side.
We may be entering a dark cycle of politics, but should take some comfort from the fact that with regard to America, the recently elected Republican Congress are conservatives not fascists and, despite Trump’s rhetoric, they will not want to trigger a world war any time soon.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.