Trump’s domestic agenda needs enemies, but friendships die hard.
Times have changed. It seems that the transatlantic partnership, guarantor of peace for over seventy years, may have run its course. At the root of this troubled partnership is America’s domestic weakness—inequality, racism, and the economic ravages of the Great Recession—compounded by President Donald Trump’s disregard for hard-won norms and alliances and Europe’s disunity and helplessness on the global stage.
Amid this festering crisis, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier travelled to the United States. He went not on a state visit, but on a cultural mission to deliver a message: transatlantic relations are indeed alive and well, and have taken up residence at the recently opened Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles, home to a new fellowship program fostering dialogue on democracy.
The literary giant Thomas Mann, one of the most prominent and outspoken German refugees in the United States during the second world war, was a staunch defender of American democracy. In 1938, while Europe descended into the darkness of fascism and populism, Mann lectured on “The Coming Victory of Democracy” during a coast-to-coast speaking tour of the United States.
The 82-page essay that grew out of these lectures is still relevant today. For Mann, democracy represented a form of government and society inspired by a deep respect for human dignity. This concept is now enshrined in Article 1 of the 1949 German Constitution: “Human dignity is inviolable.” Mann would have been very pleased to see the spread of democracy and the rise of a liberal social order around the world in the last decades of the 20th century. By the year 2000, more people in more countries than ever before lived in a democracy.
But Mann also cautioned repeatedly that democracy can never be taken for granted. A democratic government requires a democratically inspired society. It is precisely that mutually re-enforcing relationship that had already begun to erode even before Trump came to power.
American democracy has long suffered from the ravages of exorbitant campaign spending, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and low voter turnout. American society has equally suffered from growing social inequality, the racial divide, the decline of civic engagement, and the inability of successive administrations to address the nation’s pressing social problems.
Some, including many Europeans who have benefitted from America’s democratic vision and largesse, hope the country’s checks and balances are strong enough to withstand populist extremism and autocratic leanings. But they also worry about the deep political, racial, and social divisions in a country that boasts the highest incarceration rate and the most guns per capita of any country in the world.
To many, the prospect of maintaining a mutually re-enforcing connection between government and society, inspired by respect of human dignity, appears ever more utopian. “No other democracy in the world has proved to be as resilient and renewable as that of the United States,” Steinmeier reminded us, but democracy is a “task for which one needs partners”.
Now, instead of harnessing the democratic power of globalisation, Trump’s domestic agenda is increasingly weakening the forces that keep democratic societies together and infecting the domestic affairs of other countries. Put more directly: in true populist manner, Trump’s domestic agenda requires external enemies to serve internal constituencies. Creating strife, rather than brokering peace, is critical to winning votes.
This means pitting Canadian steel makers against Pennsylvanian steelworkers, Chinese coal against West Virginian miners, Mexican migrants against unemployed Texans, cars from Germany against automobile workers in Michigan. Internationally, it means undermining the United Nations, fighting for a border wall with Mexico, placing tariffs on the EU. The ultimate goal is to devalue multilateralism to serve isolationists and please economic nationalists.
We can only speculate as to where these politics will lead and how they can possibly “make America great again”. What seems clearer, however, is that we are on a dangerous path to dismantling the international order. Ultimately, the democratic character of American society is at stake, as is its current form of government, and, indeed, the liberal international order the United States helped create and champion.
In Europe, the 2015 migration crisis, the 2016 Brexit shock, and anti-democratic tendencies in Poland and Hungary have fomented uncertainty about the EU’s future and laid bare its many weaknesses. These include EU member states’ failure to find common solutions; tendency to free-ride and target institutions in Brussels in a political blame game; resistance to spending on internal and external security; and diverging preferences. Thus, a changing Europe finds itself ill-prepared to engage a United States that has changed as well. America no longer sees itself as the benign hegemon willing to carry a disproportionate burden.
Steinmeier said he feared the “damage caused by the current upheavals could be deeper seated and longer lasting” or even “irreparable”, and emphasised that the forces driving the US and Europe apart existed before the current administration and will not disappear with the next.
At times like this, it is non-state partnerships and the extensive and varied web of social connections they facilitate between America and Europe that are vital to shoring up the transatlantic partnership. In the future, government and politics may play a lesser role, while private relationship in business and civil society fill the void. Indeed, for Germany, Los Angeles or New York could be more important anchors of this partnership than Washington.
Citing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Steinmeier noted that in America’s hour of deepest division, Lincoln committed the country to ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. “Not just ‘from this country’ “, Steinmeier noted, “But ‘from the earth’ “.
Helmut K. Anheier is President of the Hertie School of Governance and Professor of Sociology, Academic Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum, and Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group on Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere.
Photo by Michael Dorausch under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/