In the best-case scenario, the one that enables us to avoid total war, Russia will soon be the world’s only superpower, and the United States its venal underling. Why on earth American ‘conservatives’ wanted this is something I will never, ever understand. Putin is the only world leader at present who is getting what he wants, who is riding the historical wave in the direction of his own goals. Trump might think he is doing this too, right now, but it doesn’t matter what he thinks, to the extent he thinks.
Americans are, right now, understandably, terrified about state repression and the destruction of civil society within the country’s borders, and this fear has tended so far to hide from their view the global shockwaves of Trump’s election. Undocumented workers in California are terrified, as are Muslim students who have to go to school wearing headscarves in Texas (two reports I’ve received over the last two days, from people who, I know, do not cry wolf); the citizens of Estonia, Georgia, even Finland, are terrified too. What Trump’s election likely means, within the next few years, is a full restoration of the Russian Empire at its maximum historical reach, with no check on its treatment of the nations it engulfs. Is it still ‘red-baiting’ to bring up this scenario? Is it ‘red-baiting’ even if we consider Russia from the perspective of the longue durée as a single continuous entity from the Tsarist era to today?
Europe will, likely, continue to disaggregate, with minor nations producing minor authoritarian leaders, as has already happened, or appears ready to happen, in Poland, Hungary, France, and elsewhere. Whether these leaders will be vassals of Russia, or whether they will become fixated --the more implausibly the more insignificant the nation-- on their own exceptional historical destiny, is uncertain. But what is certain, now, with the collapse of the Atlantic order (which is practically the same thing as to say the collapse of the United States), is that European states will not see themselves as part of a transnational community bound together by ideals like liberty and equality, or by anything more noble than fear.
I can already hear the criticism: Europe was always maintained by fear, and this was because of the brinksmanship and aggression of NATO. A Clinton regime would have prolonged this miserable arrangement, so good riddance. But here is where we need to consider other scenarios than the one I’ve identified as the ‘best case’ under a Trump presidency. Even if you don’t care about things like the sovereignty of Latvia, or about sovereignty in general, you still must take seriously the scenario in which Putin does not continue to get everything he wants, but is foiled by the fact that one of his vassal states, across the ocean, for all it has done to self-destruct, still finds itself with a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons and with an unstable and petulant child-president who thinks they are his to use.
Just like Putin consolidated his leadership through a long war in Chechnya, an eventual and inevitable expansion into Ukraine, and, finally, a bold return to the world stage with his massacre of Aleppo, so, too, Trump is going to need some wars. This is how authoritarian leaders maintain their legitimacy, by definition and without exception: they start wars. Whether Trump’s wars will be carried out in subordination to Russia’s interests, or in opposition to them, remains to be seen. Again, the best-case scenario is subordination, because the only alternative is total war between the previous century’s two superpowers. Respectful, cautious détente of the sort we might have had under Clinton is unthinkable.
We’ve spent the last 25 years acting as if nuclear disarmament is no longer an issue, and even now Americans against Trump still seem to place it way down on a list of worries that includes, at its top, Supreme Court replacements, women’s reproductive rights, and climate change. Is this because it’s just too horrifying, while all the other evils Trump’s presidency might bring still enable us to imagine ourselves trudging stoically along? All the weapons amassed during the Cold War are still there, with this one great difference, that one of the parties to that war is experiencing a rapid rise in its global power and ambition, while the other is, effectively, a failed state.
We have repeatedly heard over the past few days the call for at least a full suspension of Godwin’s Law: it is now a perfectly legitimate and meaningful communicative move, rather than a comments-section conversation stopper, to note that the present moment has something in common with 1933. We also are now familiar with the truism, that history does not repeat, but only rhymes. While the year of Hitler’s rise to power gives us a strong rhyme, I’ve been detecting at least a rhymoid in the coupling of 2016 with 1989. The current transformation in the United States, I mean, is fruitfully comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This event was called by Putin the worst disaster of the 20th century, while Reagan and some of his Republican successors considered it their own greatest accomplishment.
The Russian empire contracted, and the US gloated. Now we are seeing the reverse. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by some years of chaos, which I witnessed first-hand, before a strong-fisted leader imposed order. That person’s American homologue, on this reading, is not Trump, but, perhaps, someone for whom Trump is now opening up the way. Trump is, rather, the American Yeltsin, a ridiculous muzhik who happened to show up at the right historical moment, who didn’t stand on a tank, exactly, but at least stalked menacingly behind Hillary Clinton at a town-hall meeting in a way that parodies courage, and who, we may expect, will soon, on some ’state’ visit to his boss, be picked up by the secret police while trying to catch a taxi in his underwear on Red Square at two in the morning, sleepless and in need of pizza. Obama is Gorbachev, the decent man who couldn’t hold the empire together. Putin is Reagan, on top of the world.
It’s not so much a rhyme as a palindrome really. Everything is unfolding enantiamorphically, as in a mirror. The empire is collapsing though. Something will emerge out of whatever’s left over. But any American Republicans who helped to bring this on, and who claim to have any sort of loyalty to the legacy of Reagan, simply do not understand what is happening, they lack any shred of historical consciousness, either of the recent past, or of the present. They find themselves, at present, not continuing Reagan’s legacy, but assuming the position of the people Reagan defeated. That they brought this on themselves, and still don’t have a clue about what has happened, may turn out to be the greatest tragedy of the 21st century.