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Long Reads

2017: Through the Populist Looking Glass

The main question at the start of the year is whether the post-1945 world order, now in its eighth decade, can be sustained once US President-elect Donald Trump takes office this month. To address that question, it is essential to understand how sustainable Trump’s power will be.

A new year is supposed to begin in hope. Even in the darkest days of World War II, New Year celebrations were sustained by the belief that somehow the tide would turn toward peace. There was vision then, too. Writing after the fall of France in 1940, Arthur Koestler insisted that the “whole problem was to fix [Germans’] political libido on a banner more fascinating than the swastika, and that the only one which would do is the stars and stripes of the European Union.” Others, too, were already imagining the international institutions and domestic reforms – enfranchisement of women in France, the British National Health Service, the United States’ GI Bill – that would ground the post-war global order.

The start of 2017 offers no such consolations. This year, the main question is whether the post-war order, now in its eighth decade, can be sustained once US President-elect Donald Trump takes office on January 20. Trump has repeatedly signaled that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a kindred spirit whose efforts to influence Western countries’ elections, subvert the EU, and restore a Russian sphere of influence that includes Ukraine and much of Eastern Europe will face few US impediments. Add to this Trump’s willful ignorance, conflicts of interest, and reckless China-baiting, and the world seems set to enter a radically disruptive period, largely reflecting the breathtaking capriciousness of a Trump-led US foreign policy.

At home, too, Trump and the Republican Party he now leads have done little to reassure those who fear his presidency. Despite his lack of experience in public office, he has filled his administration with callow tycoons and retired military officers, rather than seasoned policymakers. At the start of the year, a Gallup poll found that Americans’ confidence in Trump’s ability to carry out his duties was some 30 points lower (and below 50% on some issues) than it was for his three immediate predecessors, prior to their inaugurations.

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