LONDON – The Republican establishment has gone into overdrive to present President-elect Donald Trump as a guarantor of continuity. Of course, he is nothing of the sort. He campaigned against the political establishment, and, as he told a pre-election rally, a victory for him would be a “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” With two political earthquakes within months of each other, and more sure to follow, we may well agree with the verdict of France’s ambassador to the United States: the world as we know it “is crumbling before our eyes.”
The last time this seemed to be happening was the era of the two world wars, 1914 to 1945. The sense then of a “crumbling” world was captured by William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” With the traditional institutions of rule thoroughly discredited by the war, the vacuum of legitimacy would be filled by powerful demagogues and populist dictatorships: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.” Oswald Spengler had the same idea in his Decline of the West, published in 1918.
Yeats’s political prognosis was shaped by his religious eschatology. He believed the world had to wade through “nightmare” for “Bethlehem to be born.” In his day, he was right. The nightmare he discerned continued through the Great Depression of 1929-1932, and culminated in World War II. These were preludes to the “second coming,” not of Christ, but of a liberalism built on firmer social foundations.
But were the nightmares of depression and war necessary preludes? Is horror the price we must pay for progress? Evil has indeed often been the agent of good (without Hitler, no United Nations, no Pax Americana, no European Union, no taboo on racism, no decolonization, no Keynesian economics, and much else). But it does not follow that evil is necessary for good, much less that we should wish it as a means to an end.