European Affairs

Letter from Brussels: Why Trump Matters to Europe     Print Email
By Thomas Klau, Policy Analyst in Brussels

thomasklau2016There are times in the life of a political writer when reality seizes the toolbox of words and concepts one has been using to tackle it and junks the whole lot.

An instance that springs to mind is a dinner with Italy's then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2003. Speaking before a few dozen journalists in Rome, Italy's richest and most powerful man launched into a long riff on his own qualities, proclivities and alleged political persecution that was so outlandishly laced with bombast, paranoia and sexual innuendo that senior Italian officials were left cringing with embarrassment and we journalists at a loss as to how to report it. Words failed us. What we published was a pale reflection of what we had actually witnessed.

Thirteen years later, another billionaire showman, Donald Trump, is leaving a new generation of reporters, commentators and pundits scrambling for words, concepts and precedents to describe a phenomenon sans pareil in the history of the United States. It is no accident that Trump's rhetoric is to regular politics what his hairstyle is to a regular haircut. It is indescribable, illogic, hideous by any conventional standard and entirely DIY. It should come unglued any minute. Yet not only does it stick, it is actually a highly effective political tool. Its message to the audience is screamingly loud and clear: 'I am utterly moi, I don't care what they say, I don't give a damn, and that makes me one of you.’

The political and mental kinship between Berlusconi and Trump is obvious. It ranges from shared brashness and flashiness, bullying bravado, intemperate language, gleeful incoherence, overt flirting with fascist memes, a penchant for sexual trophy conquests, follicular and other male anxieties to more than a little admiration for autocratic strongmen in the mold of Vladimir Putin. The difference – and it is a fundamental one – is that in the case of Berlusconi, the issue at hand was Italy. With Trump, it is the USA.  We Europeans imbibe with our mother's milk the awareness that it is Americans, not us, who choose the supreme arbiter and guarantor of our peace and survival in the atomic age.  That makes the forthcoming battle between Hillary Clinton, paragon of continuity, and Trump, embodiment of disruption, an existential concern for us in the EU as much as for you in the U.S. The Republican candidate-to-be, never mind his scathing critique of imprudent American interventionism in the Middle East, stands for heightened tension and danger – which is no surprise given the bullying style of his campaign, his division of the world into winners and losers, his appeals to the more violent instincts of his followers, his grandiloquent inexperience and his proclaimed Doctrine of Unpredictability. American commentators have sought to reassure themselves that even if elected, Trump's ability to act would be severely constrained by Congress. Indeed it would – and that might make it all the more likely that a frustrated President with a failing domestic agenda would seek to display his political virility in the one area where Congress holds comparatively little sway: foreign and military policy, the areas that most existentially affect Europe.

The flowering of American nationalism and the American warrior-cult of recent decades had made some observers wonder whether a parallel loss of American supremacy abroad and white supremacy at home might usher in an age where the U.S. would become vulnerable to non-mainstream demagoguery. Few of these America-skeptics had expected such a moment to come so soon.

Yet as quintessentially American as Trump is, he belongs unmistakably to a broader anti-establishment and xenophobic trend in Western democratic politics that has been doing well – though seldom dominating – across Europe, with the old continent, for once, preceding the new. Global wage competition means that for the first time in modern democratic politics, mainstream political parties in the West can no longer credibly campaign on the promise of higher living standards. This is what makes it so difficult for center-left politicians like Hillary Clinton to galvanize the voter.

Even if he does not become the next American president, the impact of the carnivalesque rage that has propelled Trump to the Republican nomination is already momentous. The global security order is predicated on the assumption of an American body politic stable enough never ever to send a fringe politician with a fringe personality into the White House. Every poll that predicts a possible Trump win undermines that crucial assumption and delivers a message that the indispensable nation is perhaps becoming the undependable one.

If Trump wins, the consequences are literally unfathomable. What if he insults or bombasts his way into conflict? What if he engineers an overly hasty retreat from America's global policing role? What if he exacerbates the destruction of the Western normative democratic consensus? What if he precipitates major financial instability? What if he uses war as a way to distract from a failing domestic agenda? The discussion has hardly begun – and it is high time that it does. The trouble for Hillary Clinton is that Trump's criticism of the failures of recent U.S. foreign policy and of the consequences of rapid trade liberalization for part of the American electorate offers an incomplete but powerful narrative that will be difficult to counter with a Clintonesque advocacy of more of the same.

In the meantime, the prospect of a Trump presidency – or a more or less narrowly averted one – may help to concentrate European minds on the necessity to stabilize our own continental dynamics and tackle the numerous existential tasks facing the European Union and its neighbors. During his recent official farewell visit to Europe, President Obama delivered in Hanover one of the most powerful speeches in support of European integration uttered by any politician of international stature in recent memory. Obama's coming out as a fervent European came singularly late in his Presidency. His message involving a passionate plea for the UK to stay in the EU when the British go to vote on June 23rd was a compelling one nonetheless, as evidenced by seething anger bordering on discourtesy displayed by London's leading Brexit advocates.

Coupled with the damage that a Trump candidacy is doing to American standing and dependability in Europe, it may be that Obama's intervention will help tip the balance in favor of the UK remaining in the EU, shielding the European Union from what many fear would be a loss of power and a major shock at a particularly vulnerable and fraught time of European history. If it does, it would come as a helpful and timely reminder to us Europeans that the American contribution to the fate of Europe has been overwhelmingly positive in our shared transatlantic history. Such reminders are now desperately needed. There have been few periods in the history of the United States when America presented such an uncertain and confusing face to the world as it does today.

Thomas Klau is Director of K-Feld & Co., Twitter @thomasklau.

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