January 26, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads – Populism in Power

On both sides of the Atlantic, we have entered a new and uncertain era – one of nationalism and populism in power. In Donald Trump's inaugural address last week, we heard an unequivocal call for the United States to cast off the burdens of global leadership and focus on America first. In Theresa May’s speech earlier that week, we learned her government’s determination to leave the EU behind with a “hard” Brexit, including the single market (Margaret Thatcher’s proudest European achievement) and the customs union.

How did we arrive here? And how is this moment different from the past?

In part, we got here because people no longer trust institutions. Indeed, a key feature of both “leave” voters in Britain and Trump voters in America was a fundamental distrust – of federal government, of big business, and, especially, of the news media. It should have been no surprise, then, that masses of voters in Britain and the United States gravitated toward politicians who reflected and effectively channeled their distrust.

We arrived here also, in part, because of our government's inability to deal with a new wave of technological change and globalization. As David Brooks writes in The New York Times, the global-information age ushered in a “once-in-a-century societal challenge” that our political systems were “too detached and sclerotic” to understand and manage. Further, too often our politicians scapegoated trade and immigration rather than dealt with the broader, more difficult economic challenges that come with widespread automation. 

Now we are at a turning point. This week alone, Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signaled his commitment to tear up NAFTA, signed an executive order directing funds toward a US-Mexico border wall, and announced a series of actions to stem immigration from “terror prone” countries. As several of this week's reads note, this is not politics as usual. Trump's personal style, as well as his rejection of the American-led liberal international order, are unlike anything we’ve seen in a modern American president. 

The same could be said about what we're seeing in Britain and across Europe – we are in uncharted waters. As Gideon Rachman writes in the Financial Times, this is a time of high anxiety for Atlanticists. To be sure, the growing frustration with NATO and the EU, as well as the broader re-nationalization of European politics, pose severe risks to the entire European project. 

On Friday, President Trump and Prime Minister May will meet to discuss a variety of issues pertinent to US-UK relations. What is needed more than anything is a strong and coherent vision for how to renew the transatlantic alliance, which ever since World War II has been the ballast of global order and stability. 

This Week's Reads examine our new era and its leaders and provide some perspectives on the shifting roles of United States and Britain in global politics. 

The Internal Invasion

David Brooks/The New York Times

Calling President Trump “Captain Chaos,” David Brooks says the real risk of Trump’s presidency isn’t fascism or authoritarianism, it’s disorder, and he issues a plea for the president’s advisors and civil servants in national security to prevent him from bumbling into crises at home and abroad. Given the once-in-a-century societal change and political divisions brought on by globalization, Trump may actually bring people closer together – just not for the reasons he thinks. “With Trump it’s not the ideology, it’s the disorder,” writes Brooks. “Containing that could be the patriotic cause that brings us together.”

With Echoes of the ’30s, Trump Resurrects a Hard-Line Vision of ‘America First’

David Sanger/The New York Times

“America, and the world, just found out what ‘America First’ means,” writes David Sanger of Trump’s inaugural address. Trump has turned his back on longstanding US efforts to work with allies to expand the liberal democratic order; he views policy in terms of wins and losses. Among the skeptics of this approach are Trump’s own appointees, including Secretary of Defense Mattis and apparently his picks for UN ambassador and Secretary of State. But the inauguration showed Trump is not backing away from his views that, as he told the Times last year, “we are going to take care of this country first before we worry about everybody else in the world.”

‘American Carnage’: The Trump Era Begins

James Fallows/The Atlantic

Inaugural addresses have a sense of “specialness,” writes James Fallows as he describes the first 57 of them, noting that one can read them and “despite their obvious differences in length and form and eloquence … find some form of these notes: sobriety, humility, conciliation, respect, and an opening to the millions of Americans who wished the other side had won.” Yet number 58 was different – long on anger and dystopia, short on policy, lacking a sense of institutional continuity or vision of hope and progress. Fallows annotates the speech that marks a new era.

President Trump Declares Independence

Peggy Noonan/The Wall Street Journal

The inauguration speech made clear that the “Trump Wars” of the last 18 months are not going away, writes Peggy Noonan, as she surveys the DC establishment’s reaction to the unchartered waters they are now in with President Trump. “Now it becomes the Trump Civil War, every day, with Democrats trying to get rid of him and half the country pushing back. …Because we are divided. We are two nations, maybe more.” Given this, Noonan argues that daily governance will be “a lift” and that Trump – and the people who elected him – face long odds.

Donald Trump and the New World Order

Spiegel Online

The German media giant’s English edition ponders the implications of Trump’s presidency for US allies in Europe and the European project. “That which had seemed inconceivable just a short time ago now appears to be a foregone conclusion: A new era is beginning, one in which the certainties that have held true for decades are suddenly no longer valued. They are suddenly vulnerable.” Spiegel cites Trump’s lack of “sentimentality” about US alliances and says his era will hurry America’s withdrawal from global politics, initiated under President Obama. China and Russia stand to gain from such a scenario, while Germany’s Angela Merkel will be most challenged.

Atlantic Era under Threat with Donald Trump in White House

Gideon Rachman/Financial Times

“Listen to the speeches and the corridor conversations in Davos and it is hard to avoid the impression that the west – as a political concept – is on the point of collapse,” writes Gideon Rachman. President Trump’s comments calling NATO obsolete and predicting more countries would withdraw from the EU – coupled with UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech reiterating her plan to pursue a “hard” Brexit – are producing high anxiety in Europe. Anxiety was also high in Davos itself, where last year pundits were predicting both Trump and Brexit’s fail. The feeling for 2017, says Rachman, is “palpable nervousness.”

Secrets and Lies: Intelligence and the Media in the Trump Era

John Lloyd/Financial Times

While historically distrustful of each other, the two institutions most under attack from President Trump are media and intelligence – also two of the public institutions most reliant on truth and trust. John Lloyd dives into the dynamic between the two worlds, especially in light of media calls for more transparency in intelligence operations and spies’ contempt for organizations such as WikiLeaks, which they see as preventing them from doing their jobs. This relationship is now “deeply disturbed by mass leaks and unpredictable whistleblowers” but also by the incoming commander-in-chief.

Theresa May’s ‘Global Britain’ Is Baloney

Roger Cohen/The New York Times

Roger Cohen eviscerates UK Prime Minister May’s Brexit speech last week in which she called simultaneously for a “hard” exit from the European Union and for a “Global Britain.” Terming her declaration that the UK can have it both ways a “Trump-size whopper,” Cohen says it will be challenging for the UK to engage globally when it will barely engage its neighbors anymore. Though May seems to think a US-UK trade deal and friendly relations with Trump are her “global ace in the hole,” Cohen notes that “nobody really has any idea of what will happen” once Trump is inaugurated.

Is Theresa May’s Brexit Plan B an Elaborate Bluff?

George Parker, Jonathan Ford, and Alex Barker/Financial Times

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech “threat to turn Britain into a low-tax Singapore of the west” if the EU does not accept her terms for a post-Brexit trade deal delighted the British press but is clearly a Plan B and bluff fraught with political problems, write George Parker, Jonathan Ford, and Alex Barker. For one, not having the backing of Europe would make the UK’s position in organizations such as the WTO much harder. And two, cutting taxes for the rich would be in opposition to May’s expressed support for working-class people. As one politician they cite notes: “’It’s a perfectly good bargaining chip. But if it’s such a good idea, why don’t we do it now?’”

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