The Chaos After Trump

David Brooks – The New York Times

What happens to American politics after Donald Trump? Do we snap back to normal or do things spin ever more widely out of control?

The best indicator we have so far is the example of Italy since the reign of Silvio Berlusconi. And the main lesson there is that once the norms of acceptable behavior are violated and once the institutions of government are weakened, it is very hard to re-establish them. Instead, you get this cycle of ever more extreme behavior, as politicians compete to be the most radical outsider. The political center collapses, the normal left/right political categories cease to apply and you see the rise of strange new political groups that are crazier than anything you could have imagined before.

If America follows the Italian example, by 2025 we’ll look back at Trump nostalgically as some sort of beacon of relative normalcy. And by the way, if America follows the Italian example, Trump will never go away.

Silvio Berlusconi first came to power for the same reasons Trump and other populists have been coming to power around the world: Voters were disgusted by a governing elite that seemed corrupt and out of touch. They felt swamped by waves of immigrants, frustrated by economic stagnation and disgusted by the cultural values of the cosmopolitan urbanites.

In office, Berlusconi did nothing to address Italy’s core problems, but he did degrade public discourse with his speech, weaken the structures of government with his corruption and offend basic decency with his Bunga Bunga sex parties and his general priapic lewdness.

In short, Berlusconi, like Trump, did nothing to address the sources of public anger, but he did erase any restraints on the way it could be expressed.

This past weekend’s elections in Italy were dominated by parties that took many of Berlusconi’s excesses and turned them up a notch.

The big winner is the populist Five Star Movement, which was started by a comedian and is now led by a 31-year-old who had never held a full-time job. Another winner is the League, led by Matteo Salvini, which declined to effectively distance itself from one of its former candidates who went on a shooting rampage against African immigrants. Berlusconi, who vowed to expel 600,000 immigrants, is back and is now considered a moderatinginfluence. The respectable center-left party, like center-left parties across Europe, collapsed.

Italy is now a poster child for the three big trends that are undermining democracies around the world:

First, the erasure of the informal norms of behavior. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in “How Democracies Die,” democracies depend not just on formal constitutions but also on informal codes. You treat your opponents like legitimate adversaries, not illegitimate enemies. You tell the truth as best you can. You don’t make naked appeals to bigotry.

Berlusconi, like Trump, undermined those norms. And now Berlusconi’s rivals across the political spectrum have waged a campaign that was rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and naked appeals to race.

Second, the loss of faith in the democratic system. As Yascha Mounk writes in his book “The People vs. Democracy,” faith in democratic regimes is declining with every new generation. Seventy-one percent of Europeans and North Americans born in the 1930s think it’s essential to live in a democracy, but only 29 percent of people born in the 1980s think that. In the U.S., nearly a quarter of millennials think democracy is a bad way to run a country. Nearly half would like a strongman leader. One in six Americans of all ages support military rule.

In the Italian campaign, we see the practical results of that kind of attitude. Voters are no longer particularly bothered if a politician shows dictatorial tendencies. As one voter told Jason Horowitz of The Times: “Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

Third, the deterioration of debate caused by social media. At the dawn of the internet, people hoped free communication would lead to an epoch of peace, understanding and democratic communication. Instead, we’re seeing polarization, alternative information universes and the rise of autocracy.

In Italy, the Five Star Movement began not so much as a party but as an online decision-making platform. It pretends to use the internet to create unmediated democracy, but as La Stampa’s journalist Jacopo Iacoboni told David Broder of Jacobin: “In reality, the members have no real power. In reality, there is not any real direct democracy within M5S, but a totally top-down orchestration of the movement.”

In Italy, as with Trump and his Facebook campaign, the social media platform seems decentralizing, but it actually buttresses authoritarian ends.

The underlying message is clear. As Mounk has argued, the populist wave is still rising. The younger generations are more radical, on left and right. The rising political tendencies combine lavish spending from the left with racially charged immigrant restrictions from the right.

Vladimir Putin’s admirers are surging. The center is still hollowing out. Nothing is inevitable in life, but liberal democracy clearly ain’t going to automatically fix itself. MARCH 5, 2018




A Ranting Old Guy With Nukes

Paul Krugman* – The New York Times

Imagine that you’re listening to some garrulous old guy in a diner, telling you what’s wrong with the world — which mainly involves how we’re being victimized and taken advantage of by foreigners. You hear him out; after all, there have been approximately 17,000 news analyses telling us that garrulous old guys in diners represent the Real America.

Despite your best efforts to avoid being condescending, however, you can’t help noticing that his opinions seem a bit, well, factually challenged. No, we aren’t experiencing a huge wave of violent crime carried out by immigrants. No, we don’t give away vast sums in foreign aid. And so on down the list. Basically, what he imagines to be facts are things he thinks he heard somewhere, maybe on Fox News, and can’t be bothered to check.

O.K., in general we should be prepared to cut ordinary citizens a lot of slack on such stuff. People have children to care for, jobs to do and lives to live, so we can’t expect them to be policy wonks — although maybe they should have a better sense of what they don’t know.

But what if the ranting, ill-informed old guy who strongly believes things that just aren’t true happens to be the president of the United States?

Donald Trump’s declaration that he’s ready to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum is bad policy, but in itself not that big a deal. The really disturbing thing is the way he seems to have arrived at that decision, which apparently came as a surprise to his own economic team.

In the first place, the alleged legal justification for his move was that the tariffs were needed to protect national security. After all, we can’t be dependent for our aluminum on unstable, hostile foreign powers like … Canada, our principal foreign supplier. (Canada is also our biggest foreign supplier of steel.)

The point is that the rationale for this policy was obviously fraudulent, and this matters: It gives other countries full legal license to retaliate, and retaliate they will. The European Union — which is, by the way, a bigger player in world trade than we are — has already threatened to impose tariffs on Harley-Davidsons, bourbon and bluejeans.

Meanwhile, in the days since Trump’s announcement, he’s tweeted out one falsehood after another. And I don’t mean that he’s been saying things I disagree with; I mean that he’s been saying things that are simply, flatly wrong, even according to the U.S. government itself.

He has, for example, declared that we have large trade deficits with Canada; actually, according to U.S. numbers, we run a small surplus. The Europeans, he says, impose “massive tariffs” on U.S. products; the U.S. government guide to exporters tells us that “U.S. exports to the European Union enjoy an average tariff of just three percent.”

These aren’t pesky little errors. Trump — who can get comprehensive briefings on any subject, just by saying the word, but prefers to watch “Fox & Friends” instead — has a picture of world trade in his head that bears as little resemblance to reality as his vision of an America overrun by violent immigrants.

And his notion of what to do about these imaginary problems amounts to no more than a bar stool rant. “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he tweeted, where he clearly thinks that “winning” means selling more to the other guy than he sells to you. That’s not how it works.

In fact, even if we could eliminate U.S. trade deficits with tariffs, there would be lots of unpleasant side effects: sharply higher interest rates wreaking havoc on real estate and those with large debts (hello, Jared), and a sharply higher dollar inflicting severe harm on exporters, like many of America’s farmers. And a full-scale trade war would disrupt international supply chains, displacing huge numbers of workers: The U.S. government’s own estimates say that exports to the European UnionCanada and Mexico support 2.6 million, 1.6 million and 1.2 million American jobs respectively.

Will Trump actually follow through on his ranting? Nobody knows. Maybe the adults in the administration, if there are any left, will find some bright, shiny objects to distract him — say, meaningless “concessions” by Canada and Mexico that convince him that he’s won big. But whether or not the trade war actually happens, Trump’s display of belligerent ignorance ought to worry us a lot.

For one thing, talking tough and stupid on trade in itself damages U.S. credibility: If we go around threatening our most important allies with retaliation against policies they don’t even have, how can we expect them to trust us — or support us — on anything else?

Beyond that, is there any reason to believe that Trump’s belligerent ignorance stops with trade? Actually, we know that he’s just as bombastic and clueless (with added racism) when it comes to crime, and there’s no reason to believe that he’s any better on real national security issues.

Listening to a garrulous old guy spout nonsense is annoying in the best of circumstances. But when this particular old guy controls the world’s largest military, nukes included, it’s downright scary.


*American economist, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times . He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2008.

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