What would have happened if, just as Hitler and Mussolini were rising to power, instead of having Franklin Roosevelt as president of the United States we had Joseph Kennedy or Charles Lindbergh or someone else who sympathized with these ascendant fascists?
It may seem like a dystopian "what if?" But it is happening right now. In fact, the situation may actually be worse than it was in 1930s – not because anyone out there is as bad as Hitler, but because there are so many with such hunger for power, such contempt for democracy, such ruthlessness, such a willingness to play nationalist or racist cards to get ahead, and there is no one to stand up to them.
The weekend’s presidential elections in Brazil are the latest sign of this worrisome trend. Jair Bolsonaro, the candidate who finished first and is poised to secure victory in the next round of the election cycle on October 28, is a leader who falls somewhere between Donald Trump and Benito Mussolini on the spectrum of hard-right, populist demagogues.
Once again, one of the world’s major powers seems to be drifting in the dangerous direction of demagogues who rise to power scapegoating segments of their society and posing a real threat to open, pluralistic governance.
On its own, the Brazil result might be seen as particular to that country, which has been struggling politically for years. But it cannot be seen on its own. We are at a moment we have not seen in memory — when virtually all of the world’s most important and largest powers are controlled by men and parties with the same low regard for the rule of law, the truth, or, often, basic human rights.
In this context, it matters greatly that the president of the United States is amoral. It matters that the U.S. is no longer the leader of the free world. It matters that the world is swiping right for fascism and that not only is there no one around to stand up to this era’s bad men and really bad ideas, the country that should be doing the most to resist is actually cheering them on, fawning on the dictators, the authoritarian regimes, the enemies of the rule of law. It matters that our government is now part of the problem and not part of the solution.
I remember the moments of hope that existed back in the 1990s, back when we were celebrating tearing down walls rather than fear-mongering to build them back up. I remember the end of history. We thought back then it was a happy ending. But as it is turning out the end of history did not end well.
One of the particularly hopeful aspects of that moment, beyond our sense that American ideas about markets and democracy had triumphed, was the sense that it would raise up a new set of world powers who, while not monolithic in their views, would be products of the moment. When I was in the Clinton Administration, we called them “Big Emerging Markets.” Later they were defined as the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Later others would be seen as aspirants to this status, led by countries like Turkey and other regional powers. They would play a key role in the “new world order” we were welcoming, of which we saw ourselves as key authors.
Now look. Brazil has turned in a worrisome direction. Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India and Xi’s China have all taken turns that play up nationalism and show contempt for the rule of law and democratic norms. Turkey has become authoritarian. The U.S. has become infected with Trumpism (and the equally pernicious anti-democratic impulses of McConnellism). Even Europe, the last potential major bulwark against this trend, has seen its efforts at unity falter and the hard-right rise up from Italy to Austria, Hungary to Poland, with major active efforts afoot in Germany, France and the U.K.
Every so often the world veers slightly right or left, the political equivalent of the business cycle, it seems. The Reagan-Thatcher shift rightward in the early 1980s is an example. But today’s trend is in another category, one that can only be compared to the 1930s.
China and Russia are growing increasingly brazen, arresting or even murdering the opposition, increasing their leaders’ stranglehold on power, seeking to expand their influence beyond their borders. Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines have embraced similar approaches. Democracy has suffered from Israel to Saudi Arabia and across Africa. India has seen a softer approach but one that is also disturbingly nationalistic.
More disturbingly, all of these countries plus the new right-leaning governments in the E.U. as well as the U.S. government are actively working to weaken or undercut the international institutions that were created in the wake of World War II to ensure we did not revisit the horrors visited on the world in the name of the hard right in the 1930s. Indeed, this may be one of the most pernicious aspects of the current shift.
The 21st Century right is not – for the moment – focused on the land-grabs or global domination aspirations that brought Hitler down. Rather, they are moving more slowly, willing to let the laws and precepts we thought would once contain the likes of them dissolve in the acid baths of their greed, ambition and ethno-nationalist pathologies.
Who will stop them? Who is pushing back? Who has taken a strong stance against Russia’s extraterritorial murders or imprisonment of political opposition? Who has spoken out against China’s campaigns against its enemies from its concentration camps for Muslims to its arrest of officials whose views it did not like? Who has condemned the alleged Saudi murder of a Washington Post columnists? Who has sent a message to these leaders that they will pay a price for attacking basic human rights?
Not Donald Trump. Not Donald Trump’s America, except in the most desultory way and then, almost always, with mixed messages. We are not responsible, of course, for the misdeeds of bad leaders around the world. But we have always seen it as our responsibility to stand up to them and to lead the international community in saying there was a high cost to seeking to reverse the progress the planet had made toward a universal view of human rights. We have been uneven in this and made some grievous errors. But at least foreign leaders were forced to ask themselves before they acted, what might America and its allies do in response?
Now, this growing global movement against everything we have historically stood for sees the U.S. at best as passive and at worst as an ally and enabler of the worst impulses of these dangerous regimes. If the U.S. continues to play this role, the ascendancy of the reactionary, nationalist right will only continue and victories hard won in the wake of the last such rise, hard won by “the Greatest Generation” in the bloodiest war ever fought in history, will continue to be undone.