November 9 2016: the day the 21st century began

A protestor holds a sign during a rally against president-elect Donald Trump. Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Donald Trump’s election was a lightning bolt in already ominous skies. “Winter is here,” tweeted Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, alluding to the title of his latest book Winter is Coming. This was also a clear reference to ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump’s team.

As New Yorker editor David Remnick passionately wrote, this is “an American tragedy”, with global ramifications. For the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, it is “the end of an era”. He tweeted, “The world is falling apart” and “Anything is possible now…” – words he later deleted.

After the initial reaction of incredulity and panic, time is needed to carefully analyse current events, which go far beyond the rejection of Hillary Clinton, the abandonment felt by a section of the American middle class, or the international rise in populism, which are all only partial explanations.

While Trump’s election was by no means a certainty, it was entirely foreseeable. The conditions that enabled it were already in place, as were those for Brexit, and the rising popularity of extremist political parties in many European countries. Trump’s election is a scandal, but not a surprise. It has ushered in a new 21st century political order that is now part of the very fabric of the planet’s most influential democracy.

We are witnessing the results of a widespread trend, summed up by the epithet “post-truth politics”, that can be understood through studies of disinformation in Putin’s Russia.

This new political order is the culmination of existing developments, both within nation states and internationally. We need to come to grips with this new era.

Politics without moderation

After the fall of totalitarianism in Europe, it was widely thought that democracy had entered a new era of moderation. Except for a radical fringe, and despite occasional tense disputes among politicians, a certain restraint reigned over political life. While often obtuse and demagogic, political discourse more or less adhered to some form of rationality. Personal attacks were rare and disinformation limited.

Different ideologies often cropped up, but major political conflicts fell between largely recognisable camps. Promises could be broken, but they still had meaning. In spite of an excess of “showbiz politics” embodied by Silvio Berlusconi, basic decency appeared to win the day. Even the much decried rise in celebrity politics did not entirely put a stop to rational debate.

Donald Trump’s campaign and, in its own way, that of the Brexiters, broke with this tradition. The use of insults, constant fear-mongering, scapegoating, open – even ostentatious – disrespect for the facts and truth, brazen contempt for expertise that led to the vilification of “elites” and the advent of crudeness as a campaign weapon have become the new norm.

The very idea that politics can and should obey certain rules and, therefore, be in any way moderate, has been rejected as outdated – a trick played by the “establishment” to maintain its grip on power. To counter the ideal of the “right-thinking” person (hypocritical though it may sometimes be), we now have the right not to be “right-thinking”.

New values could lead us to forsake liberty, democracy and the rule of law, whose legitimacy is being undermined, once again, by the claim that they are simply tools of the loathed “elites”.

A new political order

Hillary Clinton supporters and those from the Remain camp in the UK tried to fight back. They tried to counter the fierce attacks against anything representing regulated, stable, harmonious order, based on principles of dignity, moderation, restraint and respect.

They pointed out Trump’s lies and the dangers posed by his policies, especially to those who were most likely to be swayed by him. Clinton’s supporters denounced his indulgent attitude towards, or even alliances with, unscrupulous dictators overseas and on the domestic front, his compromising links with reprehensible figures. They made calls to higher principles and to reason, but none of this succeeded in convincing the majority. This is why we must take the time to understand this new political order.

This does not mean that their voices went totally unheard. Some analyses show that a quarter of Trump voters think he is unqualified to be president.

These voters are perfectly capable of denouncing some of his attitudes and his heinous remarks about women and certain minorities. This by no means stops them from voting for him for other reasons, specifically in order to overturn a system they see as intolerable and that offers them no reprieve.

A Trump supporter waits for other demonstrators in Salt Lake City, Utah. Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The lack of trust in reasoned discourse is shared by another kind of voter, the conspiracy-minded. The positive feedback loop created by a combination of relativism and a lack of hunger for knowledge means that facts (for example, history as told by historians accepted by the academic establishment) and values (certain basic behaviours classified as good or bad) are no longer considered incontrovertible.

There is a final group of voters whose voices seem to have been unleashed: those who openly espouse anti-democratic values – in America, supremacists and the far-right in particular.

An overwhelming will to destroy the abhorrent “system” at any cost, a disdain for the truth, history, facts and fundamental democratic values, and radical defiance of them is by no means new in the US or elsewhere. Yet the combination of all of these represents a ticking time-bomb for freedom.

The result is politics without limits, restraint or taboos, in which hate for some communities, even calls for murder, are normalised. Fuelled by panic in the face of the exponential acceleration of technological development, this movement calls for people to close themselves off, yet is under no illusion that this will help. Locked or not, a wooden house will still be carried away by a cyclone.

An end to world order

That the Trump victory comes at the same time as a radical calling into question of the liberal order by illiberal forces is clearly cause for concern. This is, of course, no coincidence, but the result of gradual change.

Russia is openly waging a war of extermination in Syria for its own ends in order to secure a permanent presence in the region, an unprecedented policy since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is directly responsible for war crimes and makes no real attempt to hide them. It is no coincidence that, following Russia’s bombing of Aleppo, Putin recently admitted that they had invaded the Ukraine in order to “protect” its Russian-speaking minority.

President Barack Obama’s inaction has demonstrated to the world that Russia can commit atrocities without any serious reprisal from the world’s largest superpower, shedding doubt on America’s capacity to fulfil its role as the guardian of the world order.

Through its constant vetoes on the UN Security Council, Russia is undermining the world’s foremost international organisation, ignoring and showing open contempt for the law it is supposed to uphold, destroying even the tacit fiction of a common effort to make a better world.

Through its propaganda and its relativism, Russia aims to delegitimise the principles of freedom, law and human rights that are supposed to underpin an ideal international order. Russia needs this show of defiance in order to demonstrate and legitimise its power, in the hopes of achieving its ultimate objective: pushing the United States into yielding its place as the most important geopolitical strategic power.

This past year, Russia seems to have succeeded in its goal and solidified a new 21st century geopolitical order. The similarities between this new world order and that of internal national politics are easy to spot. Both are driven by the same relativism, indifference to the truth and facts, the same contempt for law and freedom, the same indulgence for degenerate behaviour and the same lack of restraint and control.

It is also easy to see that the more this kind of enslaving politics takes hold in the US, the less the dissent and resistance will be likely or even possible in smaller countries.

A billboard in Montenegro showing a picture of US president-elect Trump and Russian President Putin. Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters

By attracting the support and assistance of the president-elect of the country that has the least interest in seeing its plans succeed, and is the only one with the means to oppose it, Russia has snuffed out any hint of opposition.

In luring Trump into this game and allowing proof of complicity between his entourage and that of Trump to stand, Putin has killed two birds with one stone. He has undermined the future president’s legitimacy with traditional US allies, by getting him to act against American national interest. By helping Trump gain power through cyber-attacks, open propaganda and repeated exploitation of Wikileaks, he has further weakened America on two fronts.

First, the election of a Russian-friendly president demonstrates his power; second, he gains an ally with a dubious reputation so that if Trump ever wanted to fight back against Russian influence, his international legitimacy would already be compromised.

The new political order, without rules or limits, and the new international order, void of credible standards needed to prevent anarchy, may become the new norm for a good part of the century, in the United States and elsewhere.

A watershed year, 2016 is the true beginning of the 21st century. And as horrendous as it was, 9/11 may be less of a turning point than 11/9. When all is said and done, this century may be just as devastating as the last.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

This article was originally published in French