The last time we blew up the international system, it took two World Wars, a Cold War, and a Great Depression before we were able to get it back to where it'd been in 1913. With any luck, it won't require quite as much this time around.
That, make no mistake, is what Donald Trump's election might mean. I say "might," because we really don't know what he'll do in office. He's gone back and forth and back again on almost every issue. But if he's serious about jailing his political rivals, about cracking down on the free press, about potentially abandoning our allies, about encouraging them to get nuclear weapons of their own, and about ripping up free trade agreements, then the liberal international order that has bequeathed us a relative Pax Americana the past 70 years will be no more. It'll be the end of the end of history.
That's become a familiar theme the past year. From Europe's anti-immigrant parties edging closer to power to Britain's all-but-winning it with the country's vote to leave the European Union to Trump's ascension to the White House, Francis Fukuyama's famous idea that free-market liberal democracy had vanquished all its ideological foes and was the "final form of human government" seems to be, well, a little more temporary. Just as he could have told you himself. Fukuyama, you see, believed that just because we'd reached the end of history didn't mean we'd stay in the end of history. That peace and prosperity might not be enough for some people who would, "struggle for the sake of struggle" simply "out of a certain boredom" from living in a world that doesn't seem to have meaning or identity any more. And so we might see a 227 year-old republic succumb to someone who evinced only the slightest respect for constitutional norms and even less for minority groups.
How has it come to this? Well, the white working class is letting out a wail across the Western world against a political system they don't think recognizes them, and a society they don't recognize themselves. Add in the monotony of day-to-day life—why not smash it up just to see what happens?—and you've got a global revolt against the global order. Really, though, it's white men who are the ones rebelling against an economy that they feel like devalues their work, against a culture that they fear is devaluing their once-preeminent place in it, and against a mundane existence that devalues any kind of meaning. In other words, it's about economic anxiety, it's about racial resentment, it's about misogyny, but it's also about a general ennui.
Now, by a happy coincidence, the first 25 years of the postwar liberal order had maybe the best and most broadly-shared growth in all of human history. We built the UN to keep the peace, NATO to defend Europe, the IMF to help countries out of economic trouble, and a middle class that, if you were white, got the help it needed to own a home and go to college. And then it was over. Productivity growth stalled in the 1970s, and, at least in the United States, what economic growth there was overwhelmingly accrued to the top 1 percent in the 1980s and beyond. Part of this was due to Western workers having to compete with billions of Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian ones after the Berlin Wall came down. An even bigger part was good-paying jobs being automated into obsolescence. And the rest was policy—tax cuts for the rich, deunionization for the rest, and deregulation for Wall Street—which is why inflation-adjusted median incomes stagnated even more in the U.S. than in Europe.
But it's not as if Trump only won the people who have been hit hard by technology and globalization. Sure, exit polls show that he did 16 percentage points better with people making $30,o00 or less than Romney did in 2012. But in general, Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell has found, Trump supporters aren't any more likely to have come from places that have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs or have a lot of immigrants. The opposite, actually. Nor are they just people who are barely getting by. They tend to be a rung or two above that—decently middle class or more—who nonetheless might feel economically insecure because they haven't gotten a raise in a long time, and see everyone else around them doing even worse. Indeed, their towns are the ones where white people are dying younger than they used to due to the ongoing epidemic of suicides and drug overdoses.
It's no surprise that these kind of economic grievances can ratchet up racial ones. After all, as Harvard economist Ben Friedman found in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, "a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy." So a stagnant one can make people meaner, less generous, and more suspicious of people who don't sound, look, or worship like they do. But it's important to point out that a weak economy isn't necessary for this kind of backlash. Any time white people—and really white men—feel like their position in society is being challenged in any way, this has happened. Like it did, for example, even when the economy was booming during the civil rights movement.
Or, it turns out, when the country's share of immigrants got close to an all-time high this year. The fact is that a lot of white people don't like being around minorities who haven't assimilated, and they don't want to assimilate to a culture where they'll soon be a minority themselves. Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos, for one, found that even white liberals who aren't used to hearing Spanish in public became much more opposed to increased immigration and much less in favor of letting kids who were born here stay here if their parents were undocumented once they were exposed to Spanish-speakers during their morning commutes. Which seems to explain why, as the Wall Street Journal found, the counties that experienced the fastest minority growth between 2000 and today voted so heavily for Trump. His promises to keep Muslims out, kick Mexicans out, and, as his crowds will tell you, build the wall, are what a white majority that's scared of no longer being one want. As researchers Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson found, all you have to do is remind them that the country is on track to being majority-minority to make them endorse these kind of racially conservative policies.
But it's not just minorities who white men are worried about. It's women too—or one woman in particular. That was clear enough if you listened to Trump's supporters. They weren't chanting that they wanted to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but rather that they wanted to "Lock Her Up." And in case you didn't get the message, they were wearing shirts emblazoned with "Trump That Bitch," "Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica," and "Don't Be A Pu**y, Vote For Trump." Now, this isn't the only reason they hated Hillary Clinton so much—far from it—but it is part of the reason. There's still a socially-accepted hostility to women being in charge, a fear that this would make a man not a man, and a feeling that women shouldn't even try to act like men. Researchers Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescall found that people experienced "moral outrage" when they were told that a hypothetical female politician was ambitious, but nothing when they were told a male was.
The last part is harder to quantify. It's that life at the end of history can get, well, kind of tedious. You get up, you go to work, you come home, you watch TV, you go to sleep, and then you repeat 20,000 times. For a lot of people, there is no great cause, no great conflict, no great meaning to it all. The big battles have already been won, and now there are just bills to pay and weekends to look forward to. The problem with this, Fukuyama wrote, is that "if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because the just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause." There are hints of this reality TV-ification of our politics in the Trump supporter who admits he "could be as bad as Hitler" or the one who thinks Trump is actually "a blend of Hitler and Hirohito." What, they wonder, is the worst that could happen? Tune in tomorrow to find out!
The answer, of course, is that the world as we've known it might cease to exist. From Turkey to Poland to Hungary, democratically-elected leaders who don't believe in liberal democracy have already consolidated power by curtailing the freedom of the press, the courts, and the opposition. Now that might happen here. Trump's threats to "open up" the libel laws, his attacks on a judge because of that judge's ethnic background, and his praise for Putin even when it's been pointed out to him that Putin has almost certainly been behind the murder of journalists and political opponents are something dark and new in our politics. And it's something that his supporters don't seem to mind. Earlier this the year, 84 percent of them said that "what we need is a leader who will say or do anything to solve America's problems." Constitutional conservatism this is not.
It's not clear what is to be done. It's true that for almost 35 years now the liberal international order has failed to give rich world workers the rising standard of living they expect. Insofar as that was what was motivating Trump's supporters, we could redistribute more to try to make the economy work for everyone. But Europe already does that, and it hasn't stopped the rise of right-wing nationalists there. That's because they just blame immigrants for stealing benefits instead of stealing jobs. But insofar as Trump's voters were really driven by a fear of a future where white men are no longer politically, economically, and culturally dominant, there's nothing we should do. Some things should not be accommodated.
It's possible that 2016 will be our own 1914. Not that we'll descend into a paroxysm of suicidal violence, but that a world that was defined by openness might give way to one that's not. For the last 70 years, liberal democracy has guaranteed people's individual rights, and the U.S. has guaranteed liberal democracy's right to exist. All of that is doubt now. What will President Trump do if Putin sends the tanks into Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius to ostensibly defend ethnic Russians against persecution? Or if North Korea threatens to overrun Seoul? Whatever its flaws, the liberal international order gave us peace and prosperity on a scale heretofore unknown in human history. And perhaps in our future too.
History was better when it was over.