Out of despair, insight. A comment from a despairing American friend of mine suddenly helped me to understand Donald Trump and his context. “If Thomas Jefferson had foreseen Donald Trump,” he said, “he would have told his fellow revolutionaries that they must stop fighting immediately and make peace terms with George III.” There was further gloom. “Trouble is, and despite Jefferson, the Enlightenment only had shallow roots in the United States.” Thus an intellectual blue-stater, more influenced by Hollywood than he would ever acknowledge, looks down on the plain people of middle America: the Donald Trump electorate.
Forgetting Donald Trump for a moment, my friend was right, more so than he realises, about the long-term failure of the Enlightenment. Which, in turn, was partly responsible for the thirty-year failure of Western policy which threatens us with decline. If the West’s will to power and ability to exercise power are gone beyond recall, then anarchy and destruction loom over the entire planet.
In recent years, the world has been turned upside down. Old assumptions and old certainties no longer work. This means that there are no grounds for Western geopolitical self-confidence. At the beginning of the 1990s, we were invited to hail the new world order and the end of history. How hollow those phrases sound now. If they are ever recalled to mind, it is with bitter irony. Forget optimistic slogans: we are now in the era of the unknown unknowns.
Yet none of this is Donald Trump’s fault. The President is dramatising the problems, not creating them. He had no hand in the West’s failures in the Middle East. He did not create the threats to American jobs and living standards from automation, robotisation and globalisation. He is not responsible for the immigration pressures from the huddled masses in poor countries. He cannot be blamed for the failure of the European single currency, or for the West’s inability to reach a post-Cold War modus vivendi with Russia. Men who regard themselves as much wiser than Mr Trump and who have the academic credentials to prove it, if not necessarily the record of practical successes, ought to scrutinise their own motives. They clearly have an aesthetic objection to a Trump presidency: that is understandable. “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Washington to be born.” Yet it may also be that they are angry with him because he is forcing them to confront their own failure.
This failure is not always blameworthy. Some of the challenges which face the West may be beyond the capacity of anyone to surmount, even Donald Trump. In the meantime, Mr Trump is at least forcing them onto the agenda. The wiser men usually prefer not to think about the insolubles, rather as the Eloi tried to ignore the Morlocks. But even if he might seem to resemble a Morlock, Mr Trump is a great stimulator of thought. Not just thought; action too. On at least three problems, he might even be able to rescue the West from some of the Enlightenment’s minor failures.
My gloomy friend seemed to take it for granted that even if his fellow Americans had not been worthy to receive the message, the Enlightenment had been successful in Europe. That, alas, is untrue. If one considers its high expectations, it has failed. This failure has been associated with the most tragic period in human history and may well lead to the destruction of the human race. But it should all have been so different. For countless millennia, and despite great cultural achievements, much of human life was a wretched business: nothing but the animal struggle for food, warmth and sex at a slightly higher technological level. Countless numbers of individual lives were a cry of pain.
Then everything changed. This began with a paradox. The Reformation and the wars of religion greatly enhanced the scope of individual freedom: not an outcome which most of the major participants would have sought. That laid the foundations for the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, which caught fire in free Britain. There were crises and wars: there always are. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” But by the end of the nineteenth century, it did seem as if there had been a decisive and irrevocable break with the long dark age of scarcity and oppression. It appeared that men had learned how to live in advanced societies. The rule of law was basic. Once it was in place, forms of parliamentary government and democracy could follow, creating a constitutional order which would guarantee stability, freedom and growing prosperity, made possible by the great expansion of economic activity and trade. Progress seemed assured: the Whig interpretation of history appeared to have triumphed—and no wise Tory should have begrudged its success. Any sensible person would rather be governed by Macaulay than by Joseph de Maistre.
“Take up the white man’s burden,” Kipling urged the Americans. It must be conceded that there were stains on the imperial mission, notably the Germans in South-West Africa and the Belgians in the Congo. But there was every reason to hope that its more humane versions could spread the benefits of Western civilisation to the entire world.
Then everything went wrong. Europe declared war on itself. From 1914 to 1945, the continent went into the dark: a blacker period than the darkest of the Dark Ages. The cries of pain had returned, from millions of throats, in some of the world’s greatest cities. European civilisation almost drowned in its own blood. A shattered continent crawled away from the abyss. “No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Adorno. It almost seemed a case of no anything after Auschwitz. Orwell’s 1984 was an entirely plausible next phase in European history. Another was a nuclear wasteland. We were saved, but not by the Enlightenment: rather by its reverse. Europe survived because of mutually-assured nuclear destruction. If we were determined to go on destroying ourselves, the third attempt would be the final one. We did not learn that lesson from Locke or Montesquieu. We learned it from fear.
Europe also owed everything to the beneficence of the Americans, who were even prepared to sign up for mutually-assured destruction. Mr Trump is now railing against European ingratitude. This is entirely justified, especially when it comes to the French. It is only surprising that the Americans have taken so long to complain.
But the Enlightenment did play a role in post-war Europe. It underlay a tragic misjudgment. Amidst the ruins, the refugees, the walking skeletons emerging from the death camps, some of the noblest minds in Europe came to an entirely understandable—indeed seemingly self-evident—conclusion. On the continent, nationalism had come into being as a hand-maiden of the Enlightenment, a progenitor of progress, a chorus of youthful idealists singing the “Ode to Joy”. That glorious phase passed. Increasingly, nationalists put on jackboots. The youthful idealists were given haircuts and turned into conscripts singing the “Giovinezza” or the “Horst Wessel Lied”. By 1945, it was easy to argue that far from enhancing the Enlightenment, nationalism had become its prison cell. In order to survive, Europe would have to move beyond the era of the nation-state. It would have to unite.
That was an erroneous conclusion, for it ignored two apparently contradictory aspects of human nature. The first is that countries can change and human beings can learn from history. In 1648, most non-Spaniards would have agreed that it was hard to share a continent with Spain. By 1815, that baton would have passed to France. In 1900, we British were widely regarded as too cocky for everyone else’s peace of mind. Our embarrassments in South Africa were greeted with a good deal of gloating. By 1918, reinforced in 1945, the Germans were the villains, though that assessment was confused once the Cold War started and the Russians made their bid for villain status. But times change. In a world beset by uncertainty, we can be sure on one point. Whatever else happens, the French and the Germans will never again go to war over Alsace-Lorraine. After 1945, continental Europe could have coped with a sadder and a wiser nationalism.
Which brings us to the second relevant aspect of human nature. Along with sex, money and religion, nationalism has a powerful potential for good or evil. Canalised in the patriotism of a stable nation-state, it need not be a threat and could also help that state to claim legitimacy, inspire allegiance and govern effectively. Mens sana in corpore sano has a political equivalent: a healthy nationalism in a healthy nation. But a repressed and thwarted nationalism means trouble.
In their determined attempts to move beyond nationalism, the founders of the EU were always going to run into trouble—because they ignored the need for democratic consent. The Euro-nomenklatura has always distrusted democracy. Hitler used elections to win power. More recently, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have not enhanced the ballot box’s prestige among the EU’s bien-pensantry. They would prefer to treat the voters as fractious children, suffering from a high temperature, who are refusing to take their medicine. So: distract the brat’s attention, then shove the spoon into its gob, follow that up with a sweet and then say soothingly to the coughing and spluttering infant, “There, there, what was all the fuss about?”
Yet there is a limit to the extent that the people of Europe can be treated as children in a sick-bed, and the EU has now reached an impasse. The single currency has proved more durable than we critics thought; I have worn out several sandwich boards predicting its demise. But monetary union cannot work indefinitely, unless it is underpinned by fiscal union. In turn, that must mean political union. Even the most insensate federalists surely realise that this is not possible without popular approval.
So they are stuck. They have tried to refute architecture and gravity, by building the roof before building the walls. They have tried to refute Marx by using politics to determine economics. They have succeeded—in creating a problem which may be beyond the power of the human mind to solve. It would appear that on the single currency, they can neither go forward, go backwards, nor stay the same. Intellectuals have a déformation professionnelle. Anyone naive enough to believe that such persons will have a sceptical temperament ought to examine the evidence.
Down the millennia, most intellectuals have worked for churches. As ecclesiastical preferment became less attractive, many of them moved over to socialist politics. In each case, they were looking for a faith; in both cases, they were prone to group-think. They were also convinced of their own moral rectitude. This had two consequences. First, they tended to dismiss any opponents as either too stupid to understand the truth or too immoral to recognise it. Second, buttressed by group-think and by intellectual self-confidence, they were ready to override any evidence which seemed to contradict their conclusions. Convinced that they are building a better world, they are often happy to sacrifice the present on the altar of the future. Thus idealism leads to cruelty. Despite the Gospel of love, Christianity has been associated with innumerable cruelties. Despite the attractive personal traits of many adherents, attempts to put Marxism into practice have always ended in cruelty. Intellectuals also invented apartheid—and the European single currency. That single currency is built on ruins. It is ruining millions of lives. Youth unemployment and chronically low growth not only inflict widespread suffering and the loss of life chances; they are a threat to social and political stability in countries where neither can be taken for granted. Yet the Euro-nomenklatura takes no notice. Well insulated—at least pro tem—from the sufferings in the streets and the market places, their response to any difficulties with Europe is to demand more Europe.
This is where Donald Trump could be useful. Europe is overdue for the emperor’s-new-clothes treatment. An undeceived child would not be enough. He would merely be deluged in outrage. It is not easy to deluge Donald Trump. He will not express polite bewilderment. This rude mechanical in the White House will jeer and sneer and throw things. If there is a dunghill to hand, its contents might be flung at the naked emperors: a salutary therapy. Donald Trump could help to bring Europe to its senses. After 1945, the Americans saved Western Europe and thus made possible the eventual rescue of the East. But these wretched Europeans always find a way of getting into a mess. It is time for a new Kipling to inspire a renewed effort in burden-carrying. The over-sophisticated Eurocrats of Brussels and Strasbourg regard the new President with horror, and would not think much of Kipling either. There is a word for their cast of mind: decadence. A roughneck President could be a valuable corrective.
As he could be in the West’s relations with Russia. Thanks to the West’s economic strength, Marxism’s chronic weakness, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and the unwitting help of Mikhail Gorbachev, the West won the Cold War: arguably the greatest, certainly the most benign, victory in all history. Apart from improving the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people, this triumph created an opportunity and a closely-related challenge. The West had the chance to put George Bush’s phrase into reality, by creating a new world order, or at least a new system of collective security which would have embraced the whole of Europe, including Russia. NATO had been founded to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out. With the end of the Cold War, it had almost done its work. This does not mean it should have been abolished. There is an analogy with a liberal-minded headmaster of a generation ago who disliked corporal punishment and was determined not to use it, but was not ready to go as far as formal abolition. So he would keep a cane in the cupboard, hoping that it would merely gather dust.
If the West had come together with the Russians in a new security arrangement, NATO might gradually have been subsumed in the military co-operation that would have evolved under the aegis of the new alliance. The early 1990s was the moment for the West to scrap all its concepts while keeping its weapons systems. After all, we no longer had a strategic quarrel with Russia. We also had a common interest in coping with Muslim extremism. But by failing to rise to the challenge of a new security order, we have come perilously close to losing the chance to make a deal with the Russians. This has happened because far too many people in the West are locked in Cold War attitudes, despite their reluctance to reinforce that with Cold War levels of defence provision. The result was a widespread failure of hard thinking: of enlightenment with a small e. A continent which prides itself on a high level of public intelligence let itself down.
Could Mr Trump rectify all this? Talk about paradoxes—there must be 100,000 people in the West more qualified in geopolitics than he is. For him to succeed where they have failed: that is surely unthinkable. And yet. Donald Trump is the least-equipped foreign affairs President since Harry Truman, the saviour of the West. With apologies to Henry Kissinger—no greater intellect has ever engaged with geopolitics—it could be argued that the second-greatest Western foreign affairs statesman since 1945 was not Reagan or Thatcher, but Ernest Bevin. He owed nothing to book-learning; everything to instinct and patriotism.
Truman and Bevin had the task of girding the West’s loins in the pursuit of containment. Thank God they succeeded. Our generation faces a lesser challenge. We only require a modus vivendi. But that too will require clarity and steadfastness. It seems far-fetched to imagine Donald Trump morphing into a Truman or a Bevin. Yet we live in far-fetched times.
During the twenty-five years since the West spurned the chance to build on that Cold War doctrine, peaceful coexistence, and move towards friendship with Moscow, much has gone wrong in Russia. Civil society, a democratic political culture, the rule of law: much of the ground gained has been lost. Tentative advances have turned into headlong retreat. But we need not give way to despair. An understanding with the West could enable the Russian economy to grow and the Russians in general to recover their political self-confidence. We have far less to fear from a strong and self-confident Russia than we have from an embittered and insecure superpower—for whatever its economic failings, its superpower status is guaranteed by its nuclear armoury. We need have no strategic quarrel with Russia. We do have reason to fear a Russia which relies on its nuclear weaponry for its self-esteem. In all this, President Trump seems to have the right instincts. Let us hope that he comes to the rescue.
There is another great nation with whom we have no insurmountable strategic conflict: China. There is, of course, the Taiwan question, but that has proved manageable. In this case, however, Mr Trump’s instincts seem less reliable. Yes, there is a moral case for recognising Taiwan. There is a far stronger case for recognising the limits of morality and the need for it to be constrained by Realpolitik. Equally, superpowers often seek spheres of influence, as China is doing in the South China Sea. As long as there is no threat to freedom of navigation, we need not alarm ourselves. Partly as a quid pro quo, partly to deal with the real strategic threat, we should encourage the Chinese to defang North Korea.
But the most important factor in Sino-American relations is trade and jobs: it is the economy, stupid. The twenty-first century has seen an extraordinary economic symbiosis. The Chinese produced cheap goods, which boosted American living standards while helping to control inflation. Out of the proceeds, Beijing bought US Treasury bonds, which helped to fund the American deficit. That was fine, unless you were an American worker whose job was exported. People like that helped to elect Donald Trump, and he is not going to forget them. There is no easy solution. The Chinese labour market is also under pressure, from cheaper wage-rate economies. All this will require negotiations, diplomacy, compromises. On the basis of his first month, these are not the new President’s trump suits.
But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis are not averse to subtlety. Perhaps they can persuade Mr Trump to reserve his belligerence for the EU.
He could also use it on the Gramscians. Antonio Gramsci was the most formidable Marxist after the founding father. He realised that the proletarian revolution was not enough and that there were other ways forward. He advocated a long march through the institutions: educational, cultural, journalistic, bureaucratic, ecclesiastical. This has been alarmingly successful, thanks in part to widespread naivety among conservatives, who thought they were being hard-headed when they reasoned: “Leave culture to the leftists. What harm can they do?” This is dangerous nonsense. Everyone understands the importance of soft power in international affairs. That is equally true in domestic matters. The Left not only uses its marchers to undermine Western culture. It also uses its power to de-legitimise free enterprise and promote egalitarianism. Lose the culture war, and the economic war is in jeopardy.
Yet it may be that the Gramscians have over-reached themselves, with their attack on the normal. Tolerance is an Enlightenment virtue and a core Western value. Of course sexual minorities should have nothing to fear from persecution—chacun a son trou. But the escalation of the culture wars has left many Americans feeling uncomfortable, as if they were now the victims of intolerance. Donald Trump ought to be grateful for the liberal proselytisers and for the agitation over lavatory usage by transgender persons. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, this almost certainly won him his majority, and the White House. A reassertion of normality and common sense would help to keep him there. Apart from that, it would be an unequivocal good.
To put it mildly, Mr Trump is a work in progress. But he cannot yet be accused of reneging on his promises. Like Hitler—a grossly unfair comparison—he seems set on doing what he said he would do. Mein Kampf, Mein Trump. It is to be hoped that—the EU apart—he comes to understand the wisdom of suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. We shall see. People like my despairing friend, a scion of the Enlightenment, will no doubt continue to despise him. But as I pointed out, Thomas Jefferson is not a reliable ally. Once, as he surveyed a White House dinner table resplendent with cultural luminaries, J.F. Kennedy said it was probably the most distinguished gathering of talents that the building had seen since the evenings when President Jefferson dined alone. But it must be remembered how Jefferson paid for his library, his mansion—and his wine cellar. The money came from slavery. Blacks toiled in the fields so Jefferson could enjoy the harvest of the Enlightenment.
Human life is a complicated, paradoxical and unpredictable enterprise. It may be that we could yet reap a good harvest out of Donald Trump.
Bruce Anderson is a British journalist. This article first appeared on the online publication Reaction (https://reaction.life) in February.