Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election has left a trail of political debris in its wake. At the top of the long list of casualties is the cherished myth of American exceptionalism. At first glance, perhaps this could be a good thing. We Europeans have always wanted the opportunity to make America behave more like us. But now the joke’s on us.
We have long tried to mould our significant other, America, in our own image. For a while, it looked as if America would “Europeanize” one step at a time. Those who cheered President Barack Obama in Berlin in July 2008 looked on approvingly as the U.S. became a signatory of the Paris Climate Accord, Congress passed Obamacare and the Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage. But now America has started taking its cues from aspects of our public life we would rather not export. Instead of emulating an enlightened, cosmopolitan Europe, America has turned to the Europe of border fences, recalcitrant nationalism and misplaced nostalgia for a time when everyone knew their place.
A populist demagogue who harnesses people’s insecurities, feeds anti-elitism and scapegoats foreigners, migrants and minorities to seize power? A billionaire who fancies himself a knight in shining armour and pledges to dismantle a corrupt system? Truth be told, this is all too familiar a character. From Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi to the U.K.’s motley crew of Brexiteers and France’s Marine Le Pen, Trump-like characters have been the staple of European politics for decades.
Even as Trump tries to sell himself as a neo-Reaganite optimist, his winning ticket has been social pessimism and resentment — both of which are, by now, part and parcel of Europe’s political genome. The anti-liberal backlash doesn’t just play into the hands of skilful fringe entrepreneurs like Nigel Farage, a happy Trump ally; it is taking root within governments across the Old Continent.
The irony, of course, is that the end of American exceptionalism is bad news for Europe. By following the path charted by a number of European polities, the U.S. is more likely to make choices that hurt the Continent’s interests. From the impending turn to economic protectionism to the threat of hollowing out NATO, American allies and partners are the ones who will feel the most acute effects of America’s populist moment.
Trump’s conversations with European leaders are likely to be unpleasant. Europe is splintering under the strain of looming revolutions led by bêtes noires like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France — the turmoil does not make us an easy partner. Gone are the days of a “new Europe” of like-minded states.
If there are any lessons America can take from Europe, it is that demagogues will come and go, and there is always tomorrow. A Berlusconi will be followed by a Mario Monti or a Matteo Renzi. The likes of Donald Tusk will eventually replace politicians like Jarosław Kaczyński. Mature democracies have enough internal resilience to tame populism. Institutions win out over ego, diluting and deflecting the ambitions of would-be strongmen.
The rigor and obligations imposed by the European Union’s institutions tie the hands of charismatic leaders and would-be revolutionaries — just remember Alexis Tsipras in 2015, who promised to stare down Brussels and Berlin, but was forced to fold when it became clear he held a losing hand.
In the U.S. too, many are counting on the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions. The Republican party machine and the scores of insiders who will staff the incoming administration will rein in an unpredictable and thin-skinned president, we are told. Just like his campaign team managed to wrest control of Trump’s Twitter account in the run-up to the vote. Brace yourself for the reign of Mike Pence and the GOP establishment, in other words.
To be sure, such predictions could turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. Students of Europe’s past remind us that in places such as Weimar Germany, the marriage of convenience between conservatives and authoritarian leaders did not end happily. The “dark continent” will cast its shadow far and wide. All we can do is hope America does not repeat Europe’s mistakes on that score.
This article was first published by Politico