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28 November 2016

Donald Trump and the triumph of certainty

An American conservative from the #NeverTrump movement looks ahead to the next four years.

By james Kirchick

Three days after the presidential election, I joined a large gathering of the American right-of-centre intelligentsia at the home of a prominent conservative journalist in Washington, DC. “Cheer up, for the worst is yet to come,” the invitation read, and the evening had the atmosphere of a wake. It was just missing a casket.

The election of Donald Trump is an unmitigated disaster for my country, the world and the liberal international order that the US – and Great Britain – have upheld for seven decades. It is also something of a professional disaster for us conservative writers of the #NeverTrump movement, considering how few people heeded our warnings about the ignorant, demagogic reality-TV-show host.

It was tempting to dismiss, in the surreal aftermath of the election, the photograph of a grinning Trump, Nigel Farage and the Ukip donor Arron Banks as just another bit of bizarre ephemera. Yet this encounter – the first post-election meeting between the president-elect and a foreign dignitary – signalled more than merely an abandonment of diplomatic protocol and a lack of appreciation for the “special relationship”. It showed how Trump may seek to realign the US: from the leader of the free world to a passive bystander, or even a rogue element.

The postwar international order is one that every president since Harry Truman has worked to sustain. It rests on three pillars: free trade, alliances with fellow democracies and the forward presence of US military forces around the world. With his barbs against the North American Free Trade Agreement, Nato and bilateral defence agreements, Trump renounces all three. His presidency will plunge the United States and the world into uncharted waters.

Farage is not the only right-wing nationalist with whom Trump and his coterie have cultivated warm relations. One of the odder developments of 2016 was the elevation of “globalism” and “globalist” from conspiratorial terminology to buzzwords of everyday political discourse. That is almost entirely the result of the baleful influence of the Trump campaign’s chief executive, Stephen Bannon, who by his own admission turned the website Breitbart into a platform for the white nationalist “alt-right” movement and will assume a senior role in the Trump administration.

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Breitbart provides glowing coverage of France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and the rest of Europe’s far-right parties. From the White House, Bannon will likely continue to preside as maestro of the worldwide populist revolution that his website has done so much to boost.

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It is hard to understate the potential disruption of Trump’s approach to the world. While he routinely denigrates America’s allies in Europe and Asia as scroungers, he has only nice things to say about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. On the announcement of Trump’s victory, the Russian parliament unanimously burst into applause – an overt sign of support from a hostile foreign power that Republicans not so long ago would have only insinuated that Democrats had.

Trump’s understanding of the world is superficial but his instinctual isolationism and disregard for the values that undergird the transatlantic alliance render his America a natural pole – alongside Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Marine Le Pen’s France – in the “Illiberal International” that Putin is constructing.

The best hope for averting this is that the Republican-controlled Congress (in which internationalists such as John McCain still wield influence) and the permanent bureaucracy constrain the executive branch from reckless behaviour.

The logic of Trump’s election victory, however, portends the emboldening of nationalist and nativist forces within the Republican Party. Far from destroying the GOP’s brand, Trump won in the greatest political upset in US history, stunning not only the media and pollsters but also many Republican office-holders who secretly wanted him to lose, and #NeverTrump writers such as myself who endorsed Hillary Clinton. And there was no negative “Trump effect” lower on the ballot: Republicans held on to their congressional majorities.

What is the lesson that Republicans will learn? That running an authoritarian, rabble-rousing misogynist who admires a Russian dictator was a bad idea? Hardly. Politics is ultimately about winning, and Trump won.

Bannon, who once reportedly described himself as a Leninist, seeks to remake the GOP as a Continental-style, ethno-nationalist, right-wing populist party. He has no time for the Anglo-American conservative tradition, with its emphasis on individualism, incrementalism and prudence. And in the ideologically flexible Trump, who seems to believe in nothing but himself, Bannon has found an empty vessel for his malign project.

Throughout the campaign, Trump barely paid lip-service to conservatism. That Republican voters would choose a man who so thoroughly disclaimed their ostensibly core principles shows that they were willing to prioritise racial resentments over all other considerations, as animus towards Mexicans, Muslims and the country’s first black president singled Trump out from the pack. This was the most logically consistent theme of his campaign.

While Trump has provided much ammunition for critics who accuse him of fascistic tendencies, he more closely hews to another archetype: the confidence man. Speaking recently to Inc magazine, the motivational speaker Tony Robbins offered a bit of the proprietary wisdom that he dispenses for thousands of dollars. “When everybody’s unsure what to do, and there’s somebody who f***ing knows, everyone pays attention. Someone who has certainty, even if they’re wrong, will lead other people.” If there is one thing that Trump possesses, it is certainty. The question now is the extent to which Americans, who have already displayed an alarming level of credulity in electing Trump, will become followers.

James Kirchick writes for the Daily Beast

This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile