The Trump era could last 30 years

But the populist movement is going to need more than electoral success

Gideon Rachman




How long is this going to last? Ever since the twin political upheavals of 2016 — Britain’s vote for Brexit and America’s election of Donald Trump — analysts have argued about whether this a temporary aberration, or the beginning of a new era.

It is still early days. But it already seems likely that future historians will look upon the events of 2016 as marking the beginning of a new cycle in international history. The bad news for anguished liberals is that these cycles can last quite a long time — 30 years seems to be about average.

In the years since “Brexit-and-Trump”, a global populist movement has gathered momentum.

The fact that Mr Trump is despised by much of the western establishment and media can obscure this point. But the US president has many admirers, some of them running governments around the world.

Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, is an avowed Trump fan. In the Middle East, the Saudi and Israeli governments much prefer Mr Trump to Barack Obama, his predecessor. His fan club also extends into Europe. The governments of Poland and Hungary are closer ideologically to the Trump White House than to the European Commission in Brussels. Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy (and the country’s most powerful man), also sees Mr Trump as a role model.

The horror show of Brexit means that there are few other European populist parties currently campaigning to leave the EU. But the anti-establishment impulse that gave rise to the Brexit vote is still gathering strength in Europe. It has found expression in diverse forms, from the gilets jaunes movement in France to the rise of the Alternative for Germany party, which is now the official opposition in the German parliament.

Past precedent suggests that if a “populist era” takes hold, it might last as long as three decades. All efforts at historical periodisation are slightly artificial. But it is possible to identify two distinct eras in postwar western politics, both of which lasted roughly 30 years. The period from 1945-1975, known as les trente glorieuses in France, was identified with a period of strong economic growth across the west, alongside the construction of welfare states and Keynesian demand-management — all played out against the international backdrop of the cold war.

By the mid-1970s, this model had run into trouble in the Anglo-American world, with Britain suffering from “stagflation” and President Jimmy Carter diagnosing a national “malaise” in the US. A new era (often termed “neoliberal” by its critics) began in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, followed by Ronald Reagan in the US in 1980.

In retrospect, this was also part of a global shift. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power in China and initiated a policy of market-based “reform and opening-up”. The communist bloc in Europe also began to crack with the formation of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in September 1980. The foundations of a globalised capitalist economy were emerging.

This “neoliberal era” also lasted roughly 30 years until it was discredited by the global financial crisis of 2008. As with the end of the trente glorieuses, it took a few years of uncertainty before a new ideological movement emerged. But that happened in 2016, with Mr Trump’s election and Brexit.

But why should cycles in modern history last for roughly 30 years? One possible explanation is that the successful ideologies and the political movements they spawn go through a cycle of emulation followed by overshoot.

If new movements or politicians develop an aura of success, they find imitators around the world. That sense of ideological momentum then creates a demand for the original ideas behind the movement to be pushed further and faster. And that leads to the over-reach phase of the cycle. An example of ideological over-reach is the way in which the Reaganite demand for lower taxes and less red tape eventually led to the excessive deregulation of finance, culminating in the financial crisis.

The fact that populist and nationalist parties around the world are already taking their cue from Mr Trump suggests that the cycle of emulation is already well under way. It is now standard practice for politicians, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, as well as Messrs Salvini and Bolsonaro, to imitate the Trump playbook — condemning “globalism”, accusing the media of spreading fake news, mocking the “politically correct”, and scorning international organisations that attempt to deal with problems such as climate change or the resettlement of refugees.

The rapid spread of this new political style could be just the beginning of a new era that lasts decades. But there is one major qualification to this idea, that distressed liberals should hang on to. If the period of emulation and intensification is to last, the populist movement needs more than electoral success. It also needs to point to results in the real world. The trente glorieuses were deemed glorious because living standards were visibly rising across the west. In the same way, the Reagan-Thatcher era was solidified by renewed economic growth and victory in the cold war.

By contrast, Brexit is in deep trouble and the Trump administration is floundering. Unless populists can deliver tangible results, their new era could yet die in its infancy.

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