20 August 2018   Leave a comment

Origins is an online journal for students of history,  In the current issue it asked three historians to examine the historical roots of the rise of populism in three countries:  the US, the Philippines, and Hungary.  The comparative histories make for an interesting read.  But perhaps the most important insight of the essays is that “populism” has deep roots and that its rise in the world today should not have been unexpected.  The editor’s note to the essays explains the reasons why the world seems to have caught unaware:

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western politicians and commentators trumpeted the triumph of liberal democracy. Around the world, it seemed, democracy was on the march—in the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe, in large parts of Africa, and elsewhere in the developing world. Now, even the most optimistic must concede that the democratic wave has stalled and, in many places, is retreating. Voters across the globe have embraced some version of “populism” as a backlash against liberal democracy.”

The histories suggest that the rise of populism will likely not be a permanent feature of future politics, but that is is difficult to predict a turn away from that perspective.  David Bromwich has written a long, but highly intelligent, essay for The London Review of Books about how Trump defines his own unique brand of populism–“rich but not refined”.  There is a strong ring of truth in the essay:

“Yet in two respects, the authoritarian danger does resemble that of the 1930s in Europe. Trump believes that a unitary bond links him to the real people. He is their voice. And Republican moderates have almost extinguished themselves as a political species. Though party grandees as various as McCain, Romney, G.W. and Jeb Bush declined to support Trump against Clinton in 2016, and the Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz postponed his endorsement until the eleventh hour, congressional Republicans have settled on a policy of co-operation for the sake of party political advantage. Should one apply the word ‘collaborator’ to such people? The word has a certain appropriateness, in spite of the incompleteness of the analogy. The Republican Party began by legitimating Trump and has gone on to normalise the extreme aberration in a way that recalls the passive compliance of King Victor Emmanuel III in 1922 and Field Marshal Hindenburg in 1933.”

The Warfare History Network has a short article on the Italian King’s capitulation to Mussolini.  It was also the weakness of the German state that led to Hindenburg’s capitulation to Hitler.  It seems as if accommodating bullies often leads to their seizure of power.

1937 Poster Showing King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini                                                      


1933 Photograph of Field Marshal Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler


It seems as if US President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly compartmentalized.  That is to say, he does not necessarily see the links between trade policy, strategic policy, or diplomatic strategy.  Instead, he pursues each objective as if it were completely independent from other objectives.  Thus, he imposes tariffs on China, while at the same time asking for Chinese cooperation in sanctioning Iran.  But his policy myopia ignores the way other states perceive US actions as part of a possible coordinated strategy; they tend to link policies as a chess game, not a game of checkers.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mr. Trump’s trade policy toward China.  He sees the issue as purely an economic issue.  The Chinese view US policies as part of a larger US strategy to contain the rise of China as a world power.  The South China Morning Post explains the perspective:

“Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that along with trade, a long list of security and other disputes with the US had posed a political dilemma for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“’If it’s only on the economic and trade front, the Chinese leadership would be willing to compromise,’ Li said.

“The escalating trade tensions had not only hit key engines of China’s economic development – including the Greater Bay Area, the Yangtze River Delta and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Corridor – but also had clear implications for the Chinese stock market and even property prices, Li said.

“’That really undermines Xi’s power base – the middle class, which is the most important stabilising force in China – and therefore we began to see criticism and challenges from the intellectuals and the public about Xi’s foreign policy,’ Li said.”

Foreign policy requires a long-term and systemic point of view, not a short-term bilateral transactionalist perspective.


Floods in the Indian state of Kerala have killed more than 350 people and displaced more than 800,000.  The floods are the worst in a century and the National Reviewnumber of photographs has a documenting the destruction and the misery of those affected.  The rains have begun to subside but it will take years to repair the damage done and millions right now are in desperate straits.


Posted August 20, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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