In his 2004 novel The Plot against America, Philip Roth invoked the spectre of a fascist regime in the United States of America. Squarely in the tradition of counter-factual narrative Roth asks: what if? What if not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but Hitler fan and airflight pioneer Charles Lindbergh, courted by Goebbels, had made it to the White House as the thirty-third US President? Many in conservative circles at the time thought that would be a good idea…
Hitherto, to a European observer such a scenario would have seemed far-fetched. Roth’s historiography in that case would have been just a fantasy. Although, to be sure, we – and our parents’ generation of 1968 – nurtured our anti-Americanism, our easy criticisms focused less on possible fascist structures and rather on the excrescences of American finance capitalism, commerce and consumerism. Like no other country the US lent itself as a screen on which we could project our struggle with modernity. At least on this question there was always unanimity within the German right and left: on one side of the Big Pond the German “nook” with its romantic notion of “community” and, on the other, the “Wild West”, the multi-ethnic society in which people are already under siege from random cultural exchange, GM food and the omnipotence of the markets – something which, apparently, is still in store for a Europe badly shaken by globalisation and migration. The “Great Satan” served as the explanation for every ill and thus anti-Americanism became an “ideological all-purpose explanatory model” (Tobias Jaecker). So far, so unsatisfactory. But is the latest expression of Transatlantic friction – Donald Trump – solely an American phenomenon?
The impositions of modernity are increasing on both sides of the Atlantic. Inequality, fears of loss among the middle class and terror are shaping life in the whole Western world. The 24-hour media presence whips up global news to a frenetic tempo. It is all-pervasive. At the same time, our belief in the narrative of progress that has prevailed hitherto is fading. People are compelled to live with ambivalences and contradictions, whether they want to or not.
A feeling of uncertainty sets the tone, not freedom. What was certain to previous generations – being able to work one’s way up by one’s own efforts – no longer applies. At the same time, we feel betrayed: the blessings and promises of salvation on which our Western worldview is founded are no longer being redeemed. The narrative of democracy and the market economy is the worst for wear. Nothing applies any more ideologically or politically. Welcome to postmodernity! Postmodern politics can mean many things: Angela Merkel, hipsters, that anything is possible, a loss of any ideological positioning, an absolute self-focus where everything is narcissistically directed towards me and to nothing less. The collective no longer has (to have) any expectations of me.
Also “Europe”, once the promise of more prosperity for all, is now giving rise to contradictions that in their everyday lives many people simply regard as insoluble. Democracy and social participation are no longer on the same page. Even worse, public spaces in which hitherto we could move freely have become diffused into a grey zone because of fears of terror and violence.
This development, which has occurred in all Western countries and not only since the outbreak of the financial and economic crisis in 2008, has given rise to one “seducer of the people” after another. Only one country so far had remained unsullied by a successful right- or left-wing populist: the USA.
What is new, then, about the Trump phenomenon? In fact, not much. Why should US society react any differently to the upheavals of globalisation than European ones? “Make America great again” is an advertising slogan for a broad stratum of narcissistic and aggrieved Americans, who no longer understand the world. Are we to demand more forbearance from an unemployed American family man in Detroit, who has to manage without the blessings of a German or a Swedish welfare state, because he is American? Are a disenchantment with politics and loss of confidence in “the powers that be” to be expected more of a war widow in Texas? Is the mixture of growing inequality and absolute political stagnation in the no-go areas of New Orleans more bearable than in a French banlieu? And however lowly one’s station, in the past one was still an American, a citizen of the “greatest Goddam country in the world”.
After the Grand Old Party had won a majority in the Senate, Congress practically shut up shop. Political rifts became deeper. Democracy does not function without consent, however, and in the US that consent has not existed for years. What use is democracy if it literally, as in Detroit, turns off the water? What use is democracy if it shamelessly favours the rich? The land of unlimited opportunity became a poverty trap for many Americans.
It wasn’t Donald Trump who pointed out this betrayal in the primaries, but rather Bernie Sanders. He cut broad swathes into Hillary Clinton’s election programme. After her encounter with her rival, Clinton had to position herself much further to the left than many had expected. As if she had taken a crash-course in fiscal stimulus theory, she explained that she wanted to use the first 100 days of her period of office for “the greatest investment in new jobs since the Second World War” and to put money into the dilapidated US transport infrastructure.
But it’s Donald Trump who has perfected the art of riding the wave of postmodern politics. Under its aegis he has broken with everything that has held true so far: morality, social values, traditions. His waves have broken over prevailing taboos and absolutes alike. He alone has dared to go so far out on a limb, and then wait for the next media wave, counting on the slogan “Make America great again” to enable him to ride it successfully once again. This approach represents a closed loop and is perfectly logical, given that where postmodernity has elevated relativity to the highest principle it makes its arbitrariness unassailable. It recognises nothing as absolute, nothing as totalitarian. When everything is possible and everything is true, social norms or morality no longer apply, because lies go with the territory and even violence (against political opponents) or terror (with the help of nuclear weapons) are no obstacle to a Donald Trump. And isn’t that what has made him a winner?
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Not only America, but also Europe urgently needs a new social cement, a transatlantic bridge built on pillars that represent freedom, security and the empowerment of every member of our society to participate in it. Strong public institutions could form the framework of such a bridge. Frameworks of rules have to be put together, but not only for the global financial markets or world trade. Only together can we rid the world of the brutalisations of modernity and postmodernity. Obligations, humanity, empathy, plurality, norms and solidarity must (again) become our frame of reference. There is a difference between good and evil, between truth and lies, and making this self-evident again will be the fresh elixir of life for our democracies.
Around 75 years before Philip Roth, another writer, the great American social critic and 1930 Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, in his novel It Can’t Happen Here, described a fascist takeover in Washington. Maybe Donald Trump is the last warning shot for us all and on both sides of the Atlantic: such things can and do happen here!
Michèle Auga is the Head of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Department for Western Europe and North America at FES Headquarters in Berlin. Prior to this she was the Executive Director of FES New York - a liaison office to the United Nations.