In September this year we published a book. We titled it “The Death Of Liberal Democracy”. Not many paid much notice. In the wake of the convincing Trump victory, maybe some now will.
Trump was democratically elected. But he is no liberal. Or is he?
In our book, we argue that what we are seeing around the world is a revolutionary fervor. A growing disdain for the Establishment and the arrogant elite. An inexorable rise in identity politics. Growing disillusionment with the excesses of globalization. And a set of institutions that were designed for a post-war world and are no longer fit for purpose in our 21st-century culture and a 21st-century economy.
Liberalism should thrive in such an environment. Liberal philosophy has traditionally opposed the status quo. It has stood against the Establishment and for ‘the little people’. It was born opposing business monopoly with the repeal of the corn laws in the 19th century. Keynes (a liberal economist) warned as far back as 1933 against taking international trade too far and letting it undermine local skills, local production and local economies. He warned against letting international finance dominate economies and thereby destroy them. Trump embodies many of these values. But most of all he embodies the revolutionary spirit of our times. Clinton, the self-declared liberal, on the other hand, is a creature of the Establishment. She embodies the status quo. Trump portrayed her as being in the pocket of Wall Street and big business. Yet the Democratic establishment (supposedly the party of the people) supported Clinton, the business-as-usual candidate, in preference to Bernie Sanders who embodied more of the revolutionary spirit. They are now reaping their reward.
Of course, many of Trump’s views can be described as decidedly illiberal. However, in portraying himself as standing for the little guy against the ‘rigged system’ managed by faceless technocrats, dominated by oligopolistic companies and where globalization has become a religion before which unskilled workers’ jobs must be sacrificed, he also represents some of the founding values of liberalism. As we pointed out in our book, by failing to embody these values, mainstream politicians have let extremists like Trump, Farage and Le Pen seem to be the only ones who are speaking for the people. In that sense, as in all revolutions, Trump and his ilk have been created by the failures of the liberal elite.
I thought it might happen after the financial crash in 2008. And then again after the Brexit vote. I thought that those would be big enough shocks to signal to the political class that business as usual would no longer do. It didn’t happen. Will a Trump victory be enough to shake off the complacency and self-righteousness of the ruling class? Or will they repeat the historian’s description of Philip II of Spain: “No evidence of failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”