In the sweep of American history, Donald Trump appears to be an anomaly, a freak of political nature, who ascended to the American presidency in a perfect storm of contingent events: a splintered Republican field, a subpar Democratic nominee, a dollop of Russian assistance, and a mass media feasting on Trump’s celebrity ratings.
But the Trump presidency, anomalous though it may be, cannot readily be dismissed as a historical accident. A tide of illiberalism has been sweeping the globe. Trump is but one of the creatures it has brought to the fore. If one looks from Hungary to Brazil to the Philippines to Russia and China, it is plain that the post-Cold War democratic wave is receding and dark forces are taking its place. With democracy hanging in the balance, the odor of the 1930s hangs in the air.
Conventional wisdom traces this state of affairs to a series of shocks that have badly shaken the Western world. The attacks of 9/11 demonstrated the vulnerability of a superpower to the depredations of a tiny band of plotters. The Iraq War, and the misbegotten idea that democracy could be imposed at gunpoint, led to a loss of confidence in liberal elites. The Great Recession of 2008 exposed the frayed seams of the liberal world economic order, and—more significantly—created a class of genuine victims across the globe. Under these circumstances, a revolt against the institutions of the democratic West became almost an inevitability.
But were there even deeper causes? In their coauthored book, The Light That Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes dismiss as “superficial” any account relying on destabilizing events alone. The authors are leading intellectuals. Krastev, a Bulgarian by birth, is a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and the author of such warmly received works as After Europe, his 2017 study of the crisis of European integration. Holmes is a professor at the NYU School of Law and an eminent student of political philosophy whose Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism is a classic text. They open with the confession that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, their optimism was misplaced: “The illusion that the end of the Cold War was the beginning of an Age of Liberalism and Democracy was our illusion too.”
What went wrong? The authors’ starting place is Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in his famous 1989 essay, “The End of History”—that the collapse of the Soviet experiment signaled “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” Here was a proposition, they argue, that not only appealed to “American self-love,” but was taken as “self-evident to dissidents and reformers living behind the Iron Curtain.” But this was hubristic—“liberalism abandoning pluralism for hegemony,” as Krastev and Holmes put it. And this hubris forms their central claim:
This absence of alternatives, we submit, even more than the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism, best explains the anti-Western ethos dominating post-Communist societies today. . . . The lack of a plausible alternative to liberal democracy became a stimulus to revolt because, at some elementary level, “human beings need choice, even just the illusion of it.”
They further maintain that “resentment at liberal democracy’s canonical status and the politics of imitation in general has . . . played a decisive role” in the authoritarian-populist turn, and not only in formerly Communist Europe, but in Russia and the United States as well.
A “decisive role”? This is an ambitious assertion. What is the evidence for it, and how well does it hold up?
According to Krastev and Holmes, as the post-communist era dawned, both East European and Western elites saw “copycat Westernization” as the natural and shortest path out of the failed Marxist-Leninist mire. Imitation became the name of the game. But it was a concept riddled with flaws. The haughtiness of Western advisers bred resentment. Many of them had little knowledge of or regard for local realities, a deficit that enabled “aspiring populists to claim exclusive ownership of national traditions and national identity.”
What is more, the Western model was itself flawed, as was dramatically driven home by the economic crisis of 2008. Liberalism’s reputation, they write, never recovered. The economic collapse
greatly weakened the case, pressed by a handful of Western-trained economists, for continuing to imitate Western style capitalism. Confidence that the political economy of the West was a model for the future of mankind had been linked to the belief that Western elites knew what they were doing. Suddenly it was obvious that they didn’t. This is why 2008 had such a shattering ideological, not merely economic, effect both regionally and worldwide.
If imitation of the West proved to be a perilous disappointment for Eastern Europe, in Russia a different dynamic prevailed. Here elites sought less to imitate the West as the shortest path to liberation from Communist tyranny, than to “simulate” the West. A Potemkin-village form of liberal democracy was erected over the ruins of the USSR.
Russians, argue Krastev and Holmes, “might have been willing to view the defeat of communism as a victory for themselves, even though they had not, like the Poles and others, been liberated from foreign rule.” But this was not to be. The rigors of post-communist transformation brought about a precipitous decline in living standards at the very moment that the borders of the Russian empire dramatically shrank. Enter the politics of humiliation: “Russians were shocked to see their once mighty state turned into a geographically and demographically diminished international beggar, depending for its survival on the goodwill of the West.”
Reaction inevitably set in. Russia moved from simulating Western-style liberal democracy to what Krastev and Holmes call “parodying America’s international adventurism” in Iran and Afghanistan. Putin’s aggressive policies with respect to Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria have been part of a broader “retaliatory form of imitation . . . meant to discredit the West’s over-praised model and make Western societies doubt the superiority of their own norms and institutions.”
In this, and with enormous help from Donald Trump, the Russians have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Trump may be, as Krastev and Holmes maintain, “anti-intellectual to the point of illiteracy,” but he nonetheless possesses a worldview, one that is “intuitive rather than ideological and philosophical.” He must be understood, they argue, “in the context of a contemporaneous worldwide revolt against liberal democracy and liberal internationalism.” The changes he has wrought will be difficult to reverse “because they are rooted not in one individual’s sleazy and lawbreaking behavior but in a global revolt against what is widely perceived to be a liberal Imitation Imperative of which he is merely one gaudy expression among others.”
Trump and Trumpism, in this view, is less an expression of white nationalism—which they acknowledge has “contributed to his appeal”—and more a popular reaction to America’s historic role as an “exemplar nation.” In this, Trump has been fortified by what Krastev and Holmes call America’s “irrational” response to 9/11, by which they mean “America’s unsuccessful wars,” along with the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, all of which combined to cause America to lose “the moral high ground.” The sum total of these developments contributed to the “the most exceptional thing about [Trump’s] exceptional presidency,” namely, “his rejection of the myth of American exceptionalism.”
Trump, they write, has
accomplished something which would previously have been thought impossible. He has reconciled America’s most jingoistic citizens to the idea that America can be “great” without being an international leader, without being morally superior, without being especially innocent, and without having any right to lecture other countries.
In short, Trump and his followers, in Krastev and Holmes’ framework, are anti-imitation. They do not wish to hold America out as a shining city on a hill.
The Light That Failed has its brilliant flashes of insight. The authors are exceedingly well informed and draw upon a capacious command of recent history, economics, demography and culture to advance their argument. Along the way, they make any number of informative observations, like the fact that when the Berlin Wall came down there were only 16 border fences in the world; today, 65 are either completed or under construction. Throughout, Krastev and Holmes are also provocative, exposing shibboleths and cutting through conventional wisdom. But for all their strengths, one puts down their book wondering: Are they right?
The “politics of imitation” is a phrase that recurs innumerable times in their book. We are in a “thirty-year Age of Imitation,” we are told at one juncture. There was a “post-1989 Imitation Imperative,” we are told at another. The “Strains of Imitation” is one chapter subhead. “Imitation as Infiltration” is another. “Imitation as Dispossession” is yet another. The repetitive drumbeat only provokes one to dig in and inquire: how fruitful really is mimesis as an analytic lens?
Certainly, any examination of the trajectory of post-communist Eastern Europe and Russia must take note of the fact that aspirations to copy—i.e., to imitate—the success of Western liberal democracies have, in too many places, been dashed. But was this a consequence of the weight of history, the backwardness and gross distortions of economic, social, and political life caused by decades under communist rule, or is it the consequence, as Krastev and Holmes would have it, of “resentment at liberalism’s canonical status” and the absence of choice?
The first thing to observe in evaluating the authors’ claims is the most obvious: Krastev and Holmes are propounding a thesis that is both an abstraction and based upon a psychological dynamic. Demonstrating its truth or falsity is inherently problematic. And the second thing to note is that, like the very analyses which they reject as “superficial,” Krastev and Holmes at numerous junctures in their book point to developments like the economic collapse of 2008, the quagmire of the second Gulf War, and the refugee crisis set off by the Syrian civil war to explain the course of events. It is not altogether clear that, for all the emphasis they place on the politics of mimicry, they are saying something that “completely transforms our understanding of the crisis of liberalism,” the immodest promise offered on the book’s dust jacket.
Third, is it really true that liberal hubris and the “absence of alternatives” to the liberal path “best explains the anti-Western ethos dominating post-communist societies today”? Implicit in this point is the assumption that in Eastern Europe and Russia there was some sort of third way, some untried alternative to market economics and the institutions of freedom, that would have yielded a more salubrious outcome.
To be fair, their argument is that the attempt to democratize formerly communist countries aimed “at a kind of cultural conversion to values, habits and attitudes considered ‘normal’ in the West” and that political and economic shock therapy “put inherited identity at risk.” Those promoting change in the liberal democratic direction came to be seen as “cultural imposters,” who in turn “excited politically exploitable longings for a lost authenticity.”
No doubt, as a description of what has transpired, and enabled demagogues like Hungary’s Victor Orbán to rise to and wield power, this is both an accurate and useful way of putting things. But what alternative paths out of the communist mire would have avoided such an outcome? An answer to that question is not at all clear. For all the emphasis they place on the “decisive” importance of an absence of alternatives in building resentments, Krastev and Holmes never sketch the contours of a plausible third way. Was there one? What were its outlines? Which mistakes in the great transformation were avoidable, and not merely evident with the clarity of hindsight? Given their disapproving contention that liberalism abandoned “pluralism for hegemony,” failure to grapple with such questions is a conspicuous gap in their analysis.
Remarkably, when Krastev and Holmes turn to Trumpism, they focus almost entirely on Trump’s America First foreign policy. In this telling, the key to Trump’s appeal has been his success in painting America as “an abused victim of its admirers and imitators.” Without a doubt, this captures part of the picture. Trump’s continually repeated claim that we are being “ripped off” by our democratic allies certainly seems to have resonated with his base. But then again, all of Trump’s pronouncements, no matter how contradictory or absurd, resonate with his base. As is the case with any personality cult, substance is often far less important than the style of the cult’s progenitor.
Krastev and Holmes do not slight this aspect of their subject. Some of the most trenchant observations in the book attempt to explain Trump’s easy way with the truth. Just like Putin, they observe, Trump regularly tells lies that can be easily exposed for what they are. Krastev and Holmes explain this as follows:
The purpose of their lying, given that much of their intended audience has access to alternative sources of information, cannot be to deceive. One aim, at least, is to show that leaders can prevaricate without suffering untoward consequences. Paying no price for telling easily exposable untruths is an effective way to display one’s power and impunity.
In this, Trump operates in a reciprocal relationship with his followers:
Trump’s most zealous fans are wholly indifferent to revelations that his statements are very often inaccurate because they believe that these statements are sincere, and thus “true” in a deeper sense. Trump is constantly telling demonstrable lies. But he has been totally candid about one thing. Everything he does, including telling lies, is meant to help him “win.” He says this clearly. So when his supporters hear him lie, they know he is doing so to gain a strategic advantage, because that is exactly what he said he would do. Since his lies presumably serve this honestly stated purpose, they are basically truthful in an indirect sense.
For suggestive observations like this, with which it is replete, The Light That Failed is well worth the price of admission. But on inspection it also turns out that the “politics of imitation” at the book’s analytical center is an overly elastic category. This conceptual difficulty is not without importance. If, as the book’s subtitle asserts, “the West is losing the fight for democracy”—and it is losing it because of a worldwide revolt against something called the Imitation Imperative—then what on God’s earth is the remedy?
Paragons of intellectual integrity, Krastev and Holmes acknowledge the drawbacks and limitations of their framework, noting that no single factor can explain the global resurgence of authoritarianism, and that they are proceeding with “all due awareness” of their thesis’s “one-sidedness, incompleteness and empirical vulnerabilities.” With these exceptionally broad caveats duly entered, they can fairly claim their argument a success. The trouble is: with such exceptionally broad caveats duly entered, almost any thesis can pass muster.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is an opinion columnist for USA Today and a contributing editor at The American Interest.