David Brooks describes the rise of Western Civilization and the ideas that allowed liberal democracies to flourish. He reviews the political turmoil that we see across the globe today that make him concerned about a future in which liberal democracy is replaced by a variety of illiberal forms of autocracy. The demagogues have been successful in convincing the public that liberal democracies are oppressive. Donald Trump's rise in America is simply another form popular rebellion against liberal democracy, or Western Civilization. Trump, of course, is not familiar with the concept of Western Civilization described by Brooks. He simplifies the problem by declaring that ordinary Americans have been victimized by liberal elites. He promised to throw the elites out of Washington and make "America great again". Now that he is office he has replaced one set of elites with another set of elites who have even less interest in ordinary Americans. That, of course, is what demagogues always do, and it why our founders tried so hard to create a form of democracy that could not be destroyed by a demagogue. They wanted to replace monarchy with a democratic form of government but they were very concerned about how they could keep elected leaders from restoring a new form of monarchy. Trump and his "royal family" was the kind of demagogue that they feared. (The new biography of Hamilton describes that struggle very well. Democracy is always a work in progress)
Brooks has described the political turmoil that we face today but this is not a new problem. We saw the rise of fascism in the 1930's which was an even deeper threat to Western Civilization and liberal democracy. Western governments failed to deal very well with the aftermath of the first World War. Economic depression, and a punishing settlement to the war, set the stage for the rise of demagogues in much of Europe. Economic turmoil, and a popular concern about the future, provide fertile ground for the rise of demagogues. They rise to power by feeding off of fear and promising to get rid of the enemies that they blame for the problems that people face.
The problems that we face today are somewhat similar to the problems that we faced in the 1930's. The financial crisis produced economic hardships, and globalization has moved much faster than national governments in dealing the consequences of a shrinking world. We have rising income inequality and real concerns about the ability of governments to provide economic security and protection from very visible forms of terrorism. It is easy for demagogues to feed off of the very real problems that exist without providing real solutions to the many problems that plague the nation states. They offer nationalism, and the restoration of cultural identity, in a world that is no longer defined exclusively by national borders. That can only end in chaos and failure.
The election of Donald Trump has made it much more difficult to deal with the problems that we face. His performance in government has increased polarization in America. Communication systems, driven by digital technology, have made it much easier for a divided society to get its information from sources that reinforce the splintering of belief systems that currently prevail. Democracy does not work well in a society that is devolving into isolated interest groups. Even the Republican Party has become too divided. The battles within the Party limit the power of their elected leaders. Moreover, the loss of American leadership has created a vacuum in the rest of the world. We not longer provide a model that offers an example for other nations to follow.