Many have observed the authoritarianism underlying the campaign of US presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump, most vividly brought into relief by the attempts to quash protest, to muzzle the press, to stoke violent confrontations, and to deny culpability for any of it. The Harvard scholar Pippa Norris has recently warned that Trump is part of a larger pattern in the West, citing radical populists like France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
But in fact authoritarianism is on the rise nearly everywhere. Charges of heavy-handedness, disdain for opposition and critical press, and strong-arm tactics have been leveled against the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, and even Aung San Suu Kyi. Parochial factors have no doubt played important roles, but cannot account for what appears to be a phenomenon occurring on a global scale.
I believe the international authoritarian moment can be explained by three interconnected factors: the globalization of the economy and the emergence of gargantuan, non-state multinational corporate actors; the globalization of conflict, as manifest in the Long War (on Terror); and the globalization of crisis, as with public health and environmental threats.
Trends dating back decades, but really coalescing in the 1990s, have helped to weave together the global economy and make each country more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. Companies around the world raced to adapt, initially just to survive growing competition. If they were successful, they sought to take advantage of the new environment, using rewritten trade rules from the 1970s and 1980s and incentivizing tax opportunities to create sprawling, multinational corporate entities with disaggregated chains of production. Because of their unimaginable reach and power, these entities have grown increasingly unaccountable—no government, not even that of the United States, has the ability to provide true oversight over them.
The systems of global corporatism are already bigger than any one person or group, and people the world over are feeling increasingly anxious. They have sensed a loss of control over their lives and the conditions that inform their communities. It is no longer enough to plan to go to school and to work hard in order to secure a good job with a secure future.
The Long War has fed these insecurities, multiplying concerns for economic well-being with those for personal safety. Planning for the future has seemed more and more difficult as energies are diverted to the struggles of daily life. Public health threats like Ebola and Zika coupled with terrifying weather conditions have further amplified the sense that forces beyond anyone’s control could destroy us at any moment.
These threats transcend borders, easily crossing from one part of the world to the other. Both drones and terror actors can survey anyone, strike anywhere.
The World War II generation faced down crises of this magnitude and came up with a loose consensus to prevent future catastrophes: structures to uphold and promulgate the umbrella concept of human rights domestically and internationally including laws, courts, and treaties; structures to manage Great Power politics and the general welfare; and the ever-growing democratization of sovereignty.
Of course, each of these solutions had its shortcomings, and the postwar order had plenty of failings. But they nonetheless gave people hope and inspired a sense of safety. Unfortunately, decades of negligence and aggressive disdain have weakened this infrastructure to the point that the United Nations and its systems are now looked upon as, at best, inept and ineffective, and at worst wholly corrupt.
All of this has left people fearful that their better days are behind them. They feel a distinct loss of sovereignty—of nation, of community, and of self. This fear has perhaps been most acute amongst the historically powerful and largely middle class communities in each region. These majority groups have felt their sway and reach diminishing, and worry that their prospects for future greatness are becoming more and more tenuous. Enter the populists who promise to make things right through brutal efficiency and an iron fist. Their bellicosity is reassuring, the brave knights able to shield and parry any attack while also able to take the fight to the enemy, both within and without.
It is this last point that is most chilling. The problems outlined here are systemic, global, and amorphous. They are solvable, but not easily, and not immediately. It is much easier to find someone to blame, which is why we are seeing the return to acceptability of xenophobia and jingoism. Trump on Muslims and Hispanics. Putin on Ukrainians. Erdoğan on Kurds. And the list goes on. The slope from here to scapegoating all dissenters as “enemies of the state” is proving frighteningly slippery.
Because what we are witnessing is of transnational scope, focusing on Trump, or on any particular leader, misses the forest for the trees. The confluence of forces described above have created the perfect conditions for authoritarianism to seem useful, helpful, and even necessary. Particular individuals have opportunistically made their moves, some securing power, some holding on to it, and others seeking it. Trump and leaders of his ilk are only feeding the demons. To this extent, it does not matter whether the Republican frontrunner wins or loses the presidential election in America; he will have already helped nurture and empower the US branch of a disambiguated, international authoritarian movement. And that should give us all pause.