There may be a surprisingly simple reason at the heart of the populist revolts which first brought us the Brexit, and then a Donald Trump presidency. An instinctive human reaction against powerlessness and its devastating effect on the human psyche
Take global climate change: news stories about record temperatures for the month, year, or decade have become disturbingly common (for example take a November CBS News headline which read: “October temperatures in the US were warmest in decades”). But almost entirely absent from such reports is what we are supposed to do about such news – or if, indeed, we can even do anything about it at all. Just know it and feel bad. Feel powerless. Feel doomed.
When faced with a problem, the human instinct is to find a way to tackle it. We invent. We build. We cure. We solve. And then we thrive. As we closed out the last millennium, we certainly had cause for optimism. After all: acid rain – solved. The ozone hole – don’t worry, we know what needs to be done (an easy replacement for CFCs). Communism out. Russia, China are reforming. The Middle East seemingly transforming. Corporate social responsibility – we (finally) get it.
But our new millennium has seen a crushing and sobering reversion from such naive hopes. Rage, dogmatism, the zero-sum game – all are back with a vengeance. Meanwhile, in today’s Europe, almost daily news reports tell of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in shoddy boats, risking their lives, at the mercy of traffickers. Irrespective of one’s views on how such migrants should be accommodated, what’s depressingly evident is that we don’t seem to know how to solve the problem. It just goes on and on day after day as if our leaders are simply shrugging their shoulders at this vexing, insurmountable puzzle.
Are poorer countries really bleeding to death? Is it insane to think we might take action to enable us to live as equally prosperous neighbours? Conservative elements often point the finger at liberalism itself, crippled, they argue, by its embrace of the ideal at all costs. Meanwhile, the war in Syria grinds on day after bloody day. Political deadlock in Washington, D.C. has become an industry unto itself.
We find ourselves in a world in which we are surrounded by constant reminders of powerlessness and hopelessness. Bureaucracies toil, yet seem unable to devise and implement solutions to major challenges. We seem to be entirely at the mercy of events. That invariably leads not only to distrust in our political institutions, but to chronic existential angst – and then, ultimately, extremist revolt. In its fury, populist sentiment naturally rejects such powerlessness as a slow death: “Build a wall!” is the rallying cry of at least some kind of action (both in Europe and the US). Not to mention: “Climate change is a hoax” because disbelieving makes us powerful again (this time, without having to lift a finger).
As seen from Donald Trump’s victory, the white working poor are screaming loudly about their own particular kind of existential angst. Some even express admiration for the supposed “can do” spirit of thoroughly illiberal dictators like Vladimir Putin. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. It was vapid and demagogic, but clearly part of the appeal was that he wasn’t asking permission; he was simply going to “do it” (never mind how). The despised caricature of the feckless, squabbling Weimar Republic, or humiliatingly drunk Boris Yeltsin barely able to stand, or grey, faceless, utopian EU-style bureaucracy, shall be no more. “Finally someone will look out for OUR interests! And DO SOMETHING!”
In late October in France, spurred by the threat of an electoral drubbing, President Francois Hollande did something. He acted to dismantle a squalid refugee camp in Calais which had existed in some form since 1999. It took a mere few days. The action man was stirred. Rather pathetically, in Britain “action” is now defined by the entirely pointless and self-defeating hissy fit of PM Theresa May finding a way to rip the country out of the EU. That’ll show ‘em! In Germany, meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s “We’ll manage” now elicits cringes rather than inspiration.
We don’t need a Brexit or a Donald Trump victory to remind us that we, as human societies, possess the energy, abilities, and desire to tackle any problem which comes our way – from poverty, war and migration to climate change. But right now there is more energy in our fingertips than action. And constructive action instead of despair is the only solution to the threat of populist regression.