Illiberalism rising: Will a post-liberal America threaten the international order?

Sep 18, 2023
Donald J. Trump

The intellectual space for revolutionary new thoughts accompanies social change and inevitably the revolution is a surprise and incomprehensible to elites when it comes. Social, economic, and political disruption is accelerating because of climate change, new advanced technologies, economic stress, and geopolitics. The space for revolutionary thought is growing.

The rejection of liberalism and democracy seems unthinkable. Liberal society is presented as the social system of liberty, equality and justice; one moving towards societal liberalisation, liberation and human emancipation through individualism and egalitarianism. Its illiberal alternatives are generally vilified as conservative, fascist and communist, and as systems of un-freedom, inequality and injustice. To be opposed to liberalism is to be irrational and deplored as immoral.

In A world after liberalism (2021), Matthew Rose exposes the key intellectual thinking influencing todays illiberal dissenters. Rose argues liberalism’s “most serious challenge doesn’t come from regimes in China, Russia, or Central Europe”; it comes from “within western democracies themselves, where intelligent critics…are expressing doubts about its most basic norms”. The “politico-cultural aims” of liberalism’s critics “can only be understood with attention to their philosophical underpinnings”.

Republican conservatives are condemned for compromising in the past with the very liberal principles responsible for what this vanguard see as a social and cultural crisis in America, The Reagan/Thatcher style conservatism has failed to stem the relentless march of liberalism and it is liberalism’s success, not its failure, that enrages them.

Internationalist liberal elites are believed to have successfully pushed multiculturalism, unrestricted immigration, gender and sexual preference rights, minority rights, secularism, and individual universal rights; often despite conservative control of the levers of power. This it is thought has been destructive of social bonds and public morality, the traditional family, and has perpetuated a degenerative relativism that threatens western civilisation.

Abstraction, universalism, and excessive rationality, as opposed to tradition, community, and received wisdom, are the corrosive tools of liberals. A homogenised, spiritless, atomised, and unfulfilled society results. Many of its opponents believe this is the conscious objective of liberalism. The illiberal opposition is more inclined toward authoritarianism than democracy, hierarchy than equality, cultural collectivism than individualism, and ethnic solidarity rather than nationalism.

Cosmopolitan values are rejected and a monocultural conception of community defended; the idea that different ethnic groups, as identified by language and culture, are equal but ought to live in separation from one another. Nativity, language, and cultural homogeneity are valued , and immigration opposed. Sometimes this takes on a racist or white supremacist flavour, but many of these theorists defensively argue that it is alignment with ethnic and cultural identity, not race, that is important.

Donald Trump’s 2016 ascendency has been attributed to the prevalence of these ideas. While it is difficult to arrive at a satisfactory collective noun for Trump supporters many researchers (see here and here) have settled on the term ethnonationalists. A diverse group whose only point of agreement is that new forms of post liberal political life will soon be possible and necessary.

That Mathew Rose’s concerns are valid finds support in recent polling across 30 countries which gives a clear and disturbing indication of the extent of the penetration of illiberal sentiments in leading liberal democracies.

  • Asked whether “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government” in the US 44% replied in the negative, in France 40%, UK 42%, Germany 40%, and Japan 50%.
  • Those who didn’t agree “human rights have been a force for good” were in the USA 30%, France 35%, UK 35%, Germany 49%, and Japan 55%.
  • Significantly, in the USA 29% thought Army rule is good way of running a country while the number in France was also 29%, and the UK 22%. Of the 18-35 years olds surveyed overall 42% believe Army was a good way to run a country as did 33% of 36-55 year olds.
  • Trust in national politicians to work in the best interests of citizens was as low as 29% in USA, in the UK 20%, France 15%, Germany 23%, and Japan 12%.

Not majorities, but disconcerting numbers of respondents with illiberal views in the nations that have been liberal democracies the longest.

Trump’s prospects of reelection seem at present at least as promising as are Joe Biden’s of holding on. The global community was jolted in 2016 when a disreputable and ill-qualified reality-tv figure was elected to the presidency. More so because America’s conservative establishment had overwhelmingly failed to endorse him.

A neophyte last time, Trump was learning how to exercise the power and influence of the Office. His first Cabinet included strong independent characters in Rex Tillerson, Jim Matthis, Jeff Sessions, and John Kelly who acted as a partial brake on Trump. A resurgent Trump would likely appoint a compliant and ideologically compatible Cabinet that wouldn’t frustrate his ambitions, but enthusiastically pursue them. And they could be far more radically illiberal this time around.

The liberal democracies may be more fragile than the assertions of western leaders would have us believe. It is not that concealed legions of illiberal revolutionaries are awaiting the opportunity to overthrow elected governments, but that in times of uncertainty, when the socio-political environment is changing quickly and unpredictably, and norms are being vigorously contested, voters look for leaders promising difference, as well as stability and certainty.

If we think about the about the dangers of climate change, artificial intelligence, economic decoupling, environmental collapse, geopolitical conflict, and future pandemics, among other things, it would not be surprising if voters might see benefit in voting for illiberal candidates.

Trump could prove an ill-disguised Trojan horse for a vanguard of illiberal crusaders in pursuit of a post liberal America. If he did succeed the domestic and international repercussions could be huge and illiberal forces already present across western democracies could be energised. Australia, among other allies, needs to be prepared.

To believe Trump would revert to a transactional approach rather than attempting to reshape the international order along radical illiberal lines might be an unwise gamble.

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