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The failed state

America’s political rot is infecting the world order. This could be as big as the Soviet collapse

The American Century 19172017

Donald Trump’s evolution from a buffoonish fringe candidate taken seriously by no one to the President- Elect of the United States is one of the most unexpected and traumatic events in recent US history. The effects are uncertain, but—in the worst case—they could lead to the US giving up entirely on global leadership, and the unravelling of the liberal world order the it has done much to build since the 1950s.

The triumph of the Trump brand of nationalism is arguably of a piece with authoritarian advances in disparate countries, from Recep Tayyip Erdo˘gan’s Turkey to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Together these developments constitute an even more fundamental problem to cherished western ideas, by making populist democracy an active threat to individual liberty. A great deal remains up in the air, but with indignant nationalists riding the tide in so many places, we cannot preclude the possibility that we are living through a political disruption that will in time bear comparison with the collapse of Communism a generation ago.

There will be endless post-mortems in the US on how Trump’s win could possibly have come about; much of the media attention will continue to focus on short-term issues like the intervention by FBI Director James Comey 11 days before the election, or on the stream of reportedly Russian-sourced leaks from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Such considerations are valid and may have had a bearing on the outcome. But it is important to recognise that the result had roots which run deep into American society. As both the Republican and Democratic parties reassess their positions, they would do well to think about how the political map has changed in the four short years since 2012, and how this reflects not only campaign dramas, but changes within America itself—concerns over the state of the economy and a profound sense of unease over its role in world affairs.

Right around the developed world, the banking crisis of 2008 called into question the authority of elites who had created this highly risky system—there was, in Alan Greenspan’s famous testimony, a “flaw in the model,” undermining the expertise on which the standing of the elites had rested. More serious even than the failure of the western economy was the sense of burning injustice that grew in its wake. The public saw all those moneyed institutions and individuals who had been running the system being bailed out, and then poor and middling sorts being handed the bill in the form of austerity policies and unemployment. In the US, the disruptive effects of these aggravating observations were compounded by an anxiety born of decline in the nation’s relative power. After the George W Bush era had painfully exposed the limits of America’s military might in Iraq, the Barack Obama years saw China knock America off the top spot as the world’s largest economy on one measure, and it looks all set to overtake it entirely within a few years. Nationalism can take many forms, but nationalism tinged with nostalgia can be especially effective. Trump promised not merely to make America great, but to “make America great again.” British readers may hear an echo in the Brexit campaign slogan which was not simply an exhortation to take control, but to “take back control.”

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In Prospect’s January issue: Adam Tooze and Francis Fukuyama examine the “American Century.” Tooze says that the 1917 opened the door to the future because the US seized the chance to lead, rather than for the Russian Revolution. Fukuyama says that the US has fallen from its perch, a change embodied by the election of Donald Trump. Anna Blundy puts Samuel Pepys on the couch and uses his diaries to psychoanalyse the Restoration’s chronicler. Also in this issue: Chris Bickerton examines the rise of populist parties across Europe, Peter Tatchell and Malcolm Rifkind debate whether the Uk should stop pretending Trump’s US can be its best friend, Philip Collins reviews a collection of Brexit books and DJ Taylor examines Alan Bennett’s diaries.