Roger Cohen, at the New York Times, published a column last Friday titled “Of Course, It Could Not Happen Here.” It makes for sobering reading.
Written in the style of a future history, it describes the destruction of NATO and the European Union at the hands of an authoritarian alliance between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the far-right parties of Europe.
As is usual with alarmist warnings, I’m reluctant to pour too much cold water on it. It’s always good to reminded of the dangers that we face, even if – as I think is the case here – they have been exaggerated.
Some of Cohen’s imaginings are all too plausible: for example, Trump’s ambassador to Germany tweeting gleefully at each defeat for democracy. But others are less so, and it’s useful to try to understand why.
Most critically, the very first step in the story:
The German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel falls, torn apart by demands from her conservative interior minister, Horst Seehofer, that refugees already registered in another European Union state be thrown out of Germany.
The xenophobic Alternative for Germany, or AfD, enters a new nationalist governing coalition.
The first sentence describes a real possibility, although I would bet against it – Seehofer this week has backed down and agreed to a compromise. The second does not.
AfD won 12.6% of the vote at last year’s German election. Opinion polls now have it tracking higher, but not a lot higher: around 15%. That’s not going to win them government. More importantly, only a handful of hardliners in the CDU/CSU would ever contemplate taking them into coalition.
History matters. Germany’s experience with the extreme right is so traumatic that mainstream politicians of every stripe know better than to risk going there again. German policy may shift rightwards, but it will not shift Trumpwards.
Electoral systems matter, too. Fifteen per cent is probably about the overall level of support that Trump started off with in 2016; if the US had the German electoral system, or something like it, he would have remained where the leaders of AfD are now. Depending on how the other actors behaved he may have become influential, but he could never have achieved sole power.
If you wonder why politics on the European continent seems so much more sane and serious than in the Anglosphere, proportional representation is a big part of the answer (although no doubt the causal chain runs both ways).
Some of Cohen’s other thoughts don’t quite ring true either. While I can easily see John Bolton setting out the destruction of the EU as a political objective, I don’t think he’d say the same about NATO: he’s too much of an imperialist, and NATO has always been a projection of American power.
Which leads to a more general problem – while internationalists have (more or less) a common interest, nationalists don’t. Every nationalism is different and potentially hostile to every other. They sometimes co-operate to weaken internationalism, but such co-operation tends to be short-lived.
So, for example, Poland’s right-wing government is part of a “nationalist” bloc in central Europe opposed to immigration and European integration, but it is not pro-Russian and is unlikely to be a part of measures to weaken safeguards against Russian domination.
Even more topically, when Germans like Seehofer demand a shifting of the burden of refugee arrivals, the demand is directed primarily not against liberals like Emmanuel Macron but against the central European nationalists.
So co-operation between rival streams of Trumpists can only be destructive; in the nature of the case it cannot be constructive, because their objectives are incompatible.
Of course, destructive co-operation may still be enough to wreck a great deal of what has been achieved in the last 70 years. That’s why I don’t think that warnings like Cohen’s should be dismissed out of hand.
But as the great liberal internationalist William Gladstone once said, the resources of civilisation against its enemies are not yet exhausted.