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7 February 2024

The Trumpian end of the liberal world order

With the former president’s return the West may finally be released from its mission impossible.

By John Gray

No one in the West is prepared for the cataclysm everyone suspects may be coming. Donald Trump returning to the White House is no longer an outlier but a growing likelihood. If Trump delivers on his threats, the Western-led international system that has prevailed since the end of the Second World War will come to an abrupt, final conclusion. The 10 per cent tariff on goods imported into America he has proposed will be the end of free trade. Nato will be a dead letter.

Trump’s second coming is blowback against Joe Biden’s brand of liberalism. The Democrat response has been to mobilise the legal system against him. A barrage of lawsuits has failed to prevent Trump from securing ownership of the Republican Party, and his core electoral base has been confirmed in its conviction that there is an elite conspiracy against him. For liberals, this only confirms their conviction that large sections of the American electorate are thoroughly irrational.

This may be so, but the more pertinent irrationality is that of liberals themselves. Weaponising the legal system to destroy Trump has only made him stronger. Why persist in a strategy that is so counter-productive? The answer is that liberals suffer from a form of repetition-compulsion – the pathological urge to re-enact damaging behaviours, as identified in Freudian psychoanalysis. Fixated on reasserting what they believe to be their proper place as the moral guardians of society, and indeed the world order, they are locking themselves into a cycle of failure.

For many Americans, Trump is the anti-war candidate – the only president in recent times that has avoided miring the country in foreign wars. That is one reason why Nikki Haley, a hologram-like projection of the liberal interventionist and neoconservative establishment, lost so decisively in Iowa. Yet liberal Republicans continue to defend the succession of disastrous wars that have reduced America’s standing as a great power and alienated much of its population.

If any single issue can ensure Trump’s re-election, it is chaos on America’s Mexican border, a source of mounting concern that extends far beyond his core supporters. Continuing inflows of illegal aliens have produced dissension and opposition in Texas, New York and “sanctuary cities” such as Chicago, where communities of various ethnicities have protested against its effects on public services. Yet for many Democrat activists, voters’ resistance to mass immigration is not much more than an expression of popular racism. American liberals are reprising the hubristic disregard for their fellow citizens that led to Trump’s victory in 2016.

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In repeating behaviour that damaged them in the past, Democrats are rehearsing a pattern delineated in ancient myth. In The Kindly Ones (1962), the sixth in his 12-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, novelist Anthony Powell invoked the Furies of archaic Greek religion to capture the mood of foreboding in Britain in the late 1930s. The Furies were chthonic forces, summoned from a dark realm by the crimes of mortals. The offence they punished most severely was oath-breaking, which they treated as curses humans laid upon themselves. More broadly, the Furies led humans to ruin by impelling them to act in accordance with self-destructive passions. The Greeks, Powell wrote, “because they so greatly feared the Furies, had named them the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – flattery intended to appease their terrible wrath… They inflicted the vengeance of the gods by bringing… war, pestilence, dissension; torturing, too, by the sting of conscience.”

For the novelist, the Furies presided over Britain’s drifting passage into the Second World War. The protagonists were moved by drives – love of power, pride, illusions of righteousness – that ruled their lives as pitiless fates, leading them to tragic or cruelly comic denouements.

Both Trump and the liberals who abhor him are playthings of the Furies. Possessed by a conceit of their superior rationality and virtue, Western liberal elites imagined themselves the teachers of humanity. Instead, their plans for a new global order having been shown to be fantasies and their promises to defend their allies empty, they are regarded throughout much of the world, including in their own countries, with bitter or mocking contempt.

Trump offers liberals relief from their torment. There is a growing fear that escalating conflict in the Middle East could be a prelude to a Third World War. The risk is real enough, but another scenario may be more likely. Fatigue could overcome the cycle of repetition. With its armouries and coffers nearing exhaustion, the West may recoil from the prospect of all-out war and accept a permanently diminished position in the world. Trump’s slouch back to the White House may be part of a retreat that is already under way.

The template for the future may not be the outbreak of hostilities as in September 1939, but American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing abandonment of Ukraine. The dreaded collision of the US with China may never happen. With the definitive collapse of a liberal world order, the West will be released from an impossible mission. Beneath all the noise about confronting autocracy, our rulers’ deepest desire – unknown to themselves – may be to shed the burden of power. If so, the Kindly Ones may well grant their wish.

[See also: The flawed logic of progressives’ support for Islamist movements]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?