In 1981, Donald Trump revealed his view on life when he told People magazine, “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You can’t just let people make a sucker of you.” Trump, who shared similar sentiments as recently as last November, holds a dim view of humanity — and this is reflected in both his compulsive effort to create conflicts and his brutish politics. It also seems to be spreading, at home and abroad, like a virus that generates fevers of fear and hatred.
At home, Trumpism and white nationalism cast immigrants and people of color as enemies. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign is already echoing the themes of his 2016 run, which included false andinflammatory claims about immigrants and crime. No reasonable person can doubt that his rhetoric, including his recognition of “very fine people” among neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, has contributed to a sharp rise in hate crimes.
And it’s not just what Trump says, but how he says it. Denunciations of white supremacy are offered by a robotic teleprompter president who spoke after the deadly Charlottesville protests and in response to last week’s mass shooting. (“It gets very boring when you do the teleprompter deal,” he has said.) Hatred for people of color comes with animated political rally glee. At a recent rally in Florida he heard someone shout that immigrants should be shot and responded with a sly smile and a joke. “It’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement. Only in the Panhandle.”
Internationally, Trump’s penchant for hostility and aggression seems to be setting a template for other leaders, many of whom operate without the constraints of American-style checks and balances. And while Trump is not solely responsible for the actions of strongmen and other leaders around the world, many appear to be following his lead. Among them are:
Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, ended the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir on Monday by revoking its constitutionally guaranteed special status. This move ends a 70-year agreement that protected Kashmiris and made the border region with a hostile Pakistan more stable. In Foreign Policy, an expert on Kashmir notes that Modi is acting on Hindu nationalist dreams.
Xi Jinping, president of China, is throttling the liberties of the people of Hong Kong, who were guaranteed certain freedoms under the “one country, two systems” policy after the UK handed the territory back to China in 1997. While demonstrators successfully pressured Hong Kong’s leader to shelve an extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, protestors are now demanding democratic reforms. Xi seems determined to exert his authority. Meanwhile, Chinese troops have been filmed conducting protest drills and Chinese authorities have sternly advised an end to the demonstrations.
Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, has picked a trade fight with South Korea that renews a long-running animus rooted in Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. South Korea’s insistence that Japan recognize its atrocities during the occupation have long rankled Japanese nationalists. In hinting at a trade war, Tokyo appears to be taking cues from Trump, who wields tariffs like weapons.
Boris Johnson, the UK’s new prime minister, has vowed to leave the European Union by the end of October — with or without a deal. With the possibility of a no-deal Brexit on the horizon — and the catastrophic effects it may have on the economy — some in Scotland and Northern Ireland (where a majority of people voted to remain in the EU) are talking about seeking independence from the United Kingdom. As the UK hurtles towards the October 31 deadline, Johnson has adopted Trump’s chaotic keep-them-guessing style, adding to the uncertainty about Britain’s economic and political future.
Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, has led with a combative, Trump-like style as he accelerates deforestation in the Amazon and applies an apocalyptic sensibility to crime and justice. “A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman,” he has said. In the spirit of Trump, he wants to appoint his son to be Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, even though he lacks diplomatic experience.
The list of leaders affected by Trump’s brash leadership style and nationalist bent is long, and traces of his influence can be seen in Italy, Germany, Romania and Sweden. In Denmark and the Netherlands, new bans on face coverings are seen as hostile moves targeting Muslim women. The United States leads the world when it comes to deadly attacks motivated by white nationalism, but they have also been carried out in Greece, Britain, Sweden, Norway, Canada and New Zealand.
After the horrific slaughter in New Zealand, where a white nationalist killed 51 Muslims, Trump denied that white nationalism is a serious problem. But the killer there cited the “great replacement,” a conspiracy theory peddling the idea of white genocide, which was also referenced in the El Paso gunman’s manifesto. Similarly, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us” in an obvious echo of the replacement theory. Nationalists around the world subscribe to similar ideas, and one of the most prominent of these figures is former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon. Bannon, who has devoted himself to advising nationalists in Europe since his departure from the White House, has repeatedly referenced the racist book “The Camp of the Saints,” which depicts a Europe sinking under chaos caused by black and brown refugees.
Bannon’s nationalism and propaganda skills meshed perfectly with Trump’s and helped him to become President. Both men, and the broader nationalist movement, threaten to transform the world into a place of never-ending battles and vicious human beings that reflects the president’s view of life. This is the primal existence, the “war of all against all” which philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined was the natural state of humanity absent laws and regulations which create ‘”social contracts.”
Hobbes suggested social contracts to soothe the savage beast and the Age of Enlightenment, which began after he died, saw the creation of laws and customs that solidified social contracts and expanded individual rights. America is the greatest manifestation of the Enlightenment ideal, a nation committed to peace and equality for people of every sort.
It’s a safe bet that President Trump never read Hobbes and couldn’t describe the Enlightenment (Bannon seems conversant). This ignorance combined with his brutish inclinations make him qualified to lead a worldwide effort to fully realize the Hobbesian nightmare, and ruin the best that the Enlightenment produced.