In his counterfactual novel The Plot Against America (2004), Philip Roth conjures up a dystopia in which the pioneering aviator and America First nationalist Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and begins to turn the country into a quasi-fascist state. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 led many to read or re-read The Plot Against America, and it became one of the defining texts of the first year of the Trump presidency.
A few months before his death in May, aged 85, Mr Roth was asked in an interview about the US president, whom he mocked as the “boastful buffoon”. Mr Roth said that, “No one I know of has foreseen an America like the one we live in today.” Mr Trump, he added, was “a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac”.
The great American novelist was correct about the president’s vanity and boastfulness but not about his absence of ideology. For Mr Trump does have a world-view, however incoherent and erratically articulated: he is an America First nationalist, a protectionist, a xenophobe and the leader of a new Illiberal International (see John Lloyd’s article on page 30) whose belligerence and nefarious policy initiatives have emboldened authoritarians everywhere. As Nigel Farage has said of his friend, the American president, we would be foolish simply to mock or dismiss him as an aberration. The former Ukip leader urged us to take Mr Trump “seriously but not literally”. That is not quite correct. Rather, we should take him literally and seriously: even with his reduced vocabulary, Mr Trump means what he says and says what he means. And his rise has been enabled by a dysfunctional Republican Party, which is mean-spirited, fuelled by hatred and refuses to believe in the good that government can do.
It is noticeable that Mr Trump is free and easy with his abuse of other world leaders – unless he is talking about or to Vladimir Putin, the autocratic Russian president. Flush from hosting the 2018 World Cup – a triumph of soft power and the success of which has changed many people’s perceptions of Russia – Mr Putin outplayed the US president at their hastily organised summit in Helsinki. In his desperation to flatter Mr Putin (indeed to prostrate himself before the Russian strongman), Mr Trump enraged not only his Democratic opponents but much of the US foreign policy establishment, and even senior Republicans such as Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives.
He has succeeded, too, in alarming America’s long-standing allies, which no longer trust the United States and consider its president to be a serious threat to security. As Lawrence Freedman, a foreign policy expert, writes on page 24, Mr Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and half-baked policy initiatives have corrosive effects: “They have already changed the way that the country is viewed by those many allies for which the United States was a friend, partner and protector.”
There has been much unease expressed about the crumbling of the so-called post-Second World War liberal, rules-based order. But world order is not crumbling; it has already crumbled. Indeed, in 2017, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, said that China would take the lead in shaping a “new world order”. And this much is true: the new emerging world order will not be liberal and it will not be benign.
This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact