Liberal Western democracies depend on various institutions to mediate differences and provide the checks and balances of lawful governance. They include a free press, an independent judiciary, political parties and the Congress or parliament. All are under withering attack from the populist, xenophobic nationalists who are attempting, on both sides of the Atlantic, to replace representative democracy with something else.
What that 21st-century “something” may be is not completely clear, but it involves a direct social-media connection between the leader and the people that circumvents mainstream parties and the press, and brands all critics as enemies of the movement. Representative democracy then yields by degrees to a system driven by plebiscite, referendums, intimidation and lies — of the kind that produced the victories of Brexit and Trump.
Sign Up for the Opinion Today Newsletter
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.
Receive occasional updates and special offers for The New York Times's products and services.
There is a movement in people’s minds. They occur periodically in history. They are potent.
A methodical attack on the institutions of Western democracies has one ultimate objective: their replacement with the “soft” autocracies of which President Vladimir Putin of Russia is the supreme exponent. The lifeblood of autocracies is the glorification of a mythical past and the designation of enemies who stand in the way of greatness.
“Nationalism is war,” François Mitterrand, the former French president, observed. That is the end point of the fear mongering used by the nationalists being elevated as representative democracy frays. Nigel Farage, the clownish leader of the Brexit campaign, is the natural ally of Trump.
Technology has enabled many things, among them the apotheosis of stupidity.
In Europe, the next act is being readied. The Party for Freedom, or PVV, of Geert Wilders, the rabid anti-immigrant Dutch politician, may emerge as the country’s largest political force in elections next month, even if he proves unable to form a coalition government. The PVV is a very flimsy political organization but Wilders — like Trump — wields an effective Twitter account emblazoned with “STOP ISLAM.” He hates Moroccan immigrants (whom he had called “scum”) and the European Union.
Then, in April, France will vote for its next president, with the rightist Marine Le Pen in serious contention. Le Pen is a direct descendant of the xenophobic French nationalism that produced the Dreyfus Affair in the late 19th century, the Jew-slaughtering Vichy government in World War II, and her own National Front party in more recent times. She has modulated her message but that is her lineage. Nobody should doubt it. If she wins, the European Union could unravel, a development Trump seems to favor. European peace and stability would not be far behind.
Connect the dots. For the Brexit crowd, the enemy was immigrants, Germany, Turks, European bureaucrats. For Trump it was Muslims and Mexicans. The mythical past found expression in Britain’s “I want my country back” and across the Atlantic in “make America great again.” In both countries flat-out lies galvanized the campaigns.
These methods worked. They worked because of growing precariousness, inequality, impunity, alienation, globalization, tribalism, powerlessness, bombardment and cacophony — all the failures of democracies and bewilderments of digital disruption.