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Trump and the decline and fall of the West

The Western world - and the world's biggest economies and armies - is still a reality, but does it still exist as an idea?

Not all things that happen in Britain take place in America first. Just sometimes, the transatlantic jetstream of history is reversed.

Such was case last night with the election of Donald Trump. It defied the collective wisdom of the great and the good. It shocked. It blindsided. It made a nonsense of politicians who styled themselves as adults, inhabiting a space several floors above the gutter discourse of an upstart populist. The reputation of a whole tribe of hangers on - mass data pedlars, pollsters, pundits, the media, anyone and everyone you trusted for their insight  - collapsed with them. They would have been better off watching The Simpsons.

The Soviet Union did not end when it was outspent by Reagan, or challenged by The Pope. It collapsed when it could no longer sustain self-belief

Sound familiar? Trump was America’s Brexit.

The two are linked. In events which have both the feel, the smell and the scale of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the Western-ordered and dominated world is imploding. The Soviet Union did not end when it was outspent by Reagan, or challenged by The Pope. It collapsed when it could no longer sustain self-belief. It collapsed as an idea, long before it collapsed as a reality.

A similar process is happening all over Europe and in America too. The Western world is still a reality. It contains the world’s biggest economies and the world’s biggest army. The question is, does it still exist as an idea? 

Crashing conceits

As a correspondent in Moscow in 1992, I had a front-row seat of history unfolding. I remember the look of total incomprehension on the face of the GAI traffic policeman who tried to stop me driving beyond the 13-mile limit foreign correspondents were supposed to stay within around the capital. 

If this residence had been off limits to Russians, it was certainly off-limits to a foreigner like me. And yet it was not any more.

Every ounce of Soviet blood told him that a foreigner was not supposed to be here, in an elite dacha residence Stalin had built for his nuclear scientists in Zvenigorod outside Moscow. If this residence had been off limits to Russians, it was certainly off-limits to a foreigner like me. And yet it was not anymore. He was so overwhelmed, he trudged back to his box shaking his head. He did not even ask for a bribe.

A similiar look of dépaysement was etched on the faces of millions of Americans last night. Not just the president, or the country, but the world they were familiar with had disappeared. 

Moscow in the 1990s was the place to go. Julie Christie turned up in our dacha. Each plane landing at Sheremetivo disgorged yet more extraterrestial beings to the Russian consciousness - evangelists, monetarists, transition economists. They were part of a Klondike gold rush.

A Dutch businessman in the seat next to me, boasted as we landed: "I own that hangar, and that one and that one.” If he thought he did, he would have soon lost it all.

With food shortages in 1992, Russians queue at one of the first McDonald's opened in Moscow (AFP)

Eleven years before Iraq, this gold rush showed a West at the height of its confidence and its folly. It thought Russia was a ball of soft wax which it could remake in its image. It carried within it two seeds of its own doom - the belief that there was only one economic system left in the world, a neoliberal global network of privatisation, and the neoconservative belief that it had the power to break and remake any nation in the world.

Both conceits have been brought crashing to the earth. The former in the banking crash, the latter in the poppy fields of Helmand, and in the IEDs of Anbar province.

Self-styled moderates 

Both failures were owned by those who styled themselves as the moderates in the centre of the political spectrum. This was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s world, but it could have easily also been George Bush’s and Blair’s world. Or indeed Cameron’s and Sarkozy’s. They continued in power regardless of failure, and for much of time, watching each other’s back.

This was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s world, but it could have easily also been George Bush’s and Blair’s world. Or indeed Cameron’s and Sarkozy’s

When it came to voting against inquiries into the Iraq war, this cross-party group acted as one block in parliament. Vote for either of them and you got more or less the same fare. The failure of the Iraq invasion did not prevent the experiment being repeated with the same consequences in Libya. The “We Must Do Something” Brigade kept on doing their something  - with cataclysmic results.

Like the Soviet Union, the global reach of this project and domestic realities were interwined. The labour market needed a huge infusion of cheap labour. Companies needed to hopscotch around the world finding the best conditions, and paying the least tax. With its global dream of creating a new world order,  the political centre soon detached itself from a broad spectrum of its own electorate.

Libyans gather around the wreckage of a US F-15 fighter jet near Benghazi in March 2011 after crashing while on a mission against Muammar Gaddafi's air defences (AFP)

This is what two political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair called, in their 1995 essay, “The Emergence of a Cartel Party”, and I think it's true: “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

Waiting for a spark

Whether it was in Dagenham or the northeast of Britain, or the Rust Belt states of America, the Labour Party and Democrats spent decades hacking away to separate themselves from the tendrils of their own roots. They went in search of a  Shangri-la variously called Middle England and Middle-Class America.

Eventually, all these forces needed was a spark to light the torch and focus the blue flame of their anger at a target

Whatever else he did for health care, or rescuing Detroit, Obama continued broadly the same project.  The centrist parties of Britain and America traded tools, as well as ideologues and policies, such as the public-private partnerships, education reform, deregulation of the banks and, when they crashed, nationalisation of the losses. They were particularly interest in opening up a lucrative international market in outsourcing public services to private oversees contractors. The word progressive was twisted to mean anyone who would join this project. 

The centre became the elite , and as most elites do with too much power, it generated powerful  forces at home who were furious at their exclusion - the undereducated, the workers whose skills were declared redundant, the jobless, the socially immobile, the old, the white. All of these joined the ranks of the forgotten. Eventually, all these forces needed was a spark to light the torch and focus the blue flame of their anger at a target. In Brexit, it was the Poles. For Trump, it was Mexicans and Muslims. 

A member of the right-wing English Defence League shouts at police escorting Muslim demonstrators in London on 11 September 2011 (AFP)

The highest Brexit vote  - 75.6 percent -  was recorded in Boston, a farming town in Lincolnshire in a constituency that is 86 percent white British. Boston has the highest concentration of people born in the EU, almost all of them from Eastern Europe, who now compose 12 percent of the population. It also has the lowest wages (£9.13 an hour, compared with the £13.33 national average) and the highest rents.

The argument in Boston went like this: “Walk along the high street and you can only hear Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian.” The new Bostonians reply: “Before we arrived, every second shop was vacant. Do you want to return to that?”

The next domino

Did Boston turn racist or xenophobic? No, although both racism and xenophobia increased markedly after the Brexit vote. Do the Poles and Latvians have a better record of absorbing minorities in their own country than the English do? No. In fact, in some cases, worse.

It makes no sense to talk of a world order any more, let alone one that can be ordered by the US

Boston lost control of what it thought its population, its wages, its rents and its high street should look like. Boston became a neoliberal nightmare, one felt at the most vulnerable level of consciousness: identity. Combine migrant labour with high rents, zero-hour contracts, de-unionisation, local authorities so pared down they become telephone directories for private agencies, and the result is an explosion, or rather an implosion.

First Brexit, then Trump. Who is next? The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the referendum he called for 4 December? Angela Merkel? The crowning of Mme La Presidente Marine LePen in the French presidentials in 2017? Another domino of the ancien regime has to fall.

For this is not merely a white Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Like Britain and the US, the EU today is a union of failing political projects, crumbling parties, high voter volatility, and endless quantities of unfocused popular anger. The social ladder in Europe has broken. The theme tune for such degeneration is not Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It's more like Stockhausen

For the Middle East, the lesson of Brexit and Trump’s election is clear. It makes no sense to talk of a world order any more, let alone one that can be ordered by the US. Gone are the days when an American general, Stanley McChrystal, can boast of democracy being unpacked from the back of a Chinook. 

Gone are the days when we can talk of the soft power of an EU expanding eastwards, or indeed of an EU neighbourhood policy. Rather the EU’s neighbours - Turkey, Egypt, Libya - impact on it. Egypt alone, whose economy is in meltdown, could dispatch hundreds of thousands of new immigrants into the graveyard of the Mediterranean.

Got the message?

Faced with an under-briefed, isolationist US president who has already declared his hostility to Muslims and a rampant, though weakened, Russian one, who can easily persuade Trump that the entire population of east Aleppo is jihadi, the Sunni nations of the Middle East have to finally get the message.

If they do not regroup to enforce their own ceasefires and regional security blocks, no one is going to do it for them. The sub-conflicts, and mutual intrigue has got to stop for nothing less than reasons of self-preservation. The secret pacts between a Sykes and a Picot are history. There is no one left in this particular room. Its empty of people and ideas.

GCC foreign ministers meet in the Saudi capital Riyadh this October (AFP)

Those ideas now have got to come from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and the GCC itself. They are ill-equipped to provide them. But neither will an inward turning America or a Europe which is consumed with its own identity problems.

Shirk the challenge of organising a new regional security framework, regionally, and the consequences are obvious. The next generation of Islamic State (IS) fighters will be born from the next wave of refugees and the next cycle of despair. Trump is, even by the judgement of George W Bush, supremely ill-equipped to handle it.

The Middle East cannot afford another decade of regional warfare and another wave of failed states, and Europe cannot cope with another wave of refugees. It hardly seems possible to contemplate right now, but there is a lot further to fall.

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Taken on 11 September 2016, this photo shows former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (L), Republican President-elect Donald Trump (C) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) as they stand together during a memorial service at the National 9/11 Memorial in New York (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.