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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-01-2024 06:16

The dreaded Orange Man is on the way back

Versions of the same drama, in which upstarts successfully take on those who believe themselves entitled to lord it over everybody else, are being staged in many parts of the world where ordinary folk feel they are getting a raw deal.

Most North Americans may not want the upcoming presidential election to be a rematch between two elderly men, Donald Trump and Joe Biden but – unless one or both of them falls prey to an incapacitating ailment before Bonfire Night in November – that is what they will get.

For people in the rest of the world, this is an alarming prospect. They know that Biden is getting frailer by the day and that his mind tends to wander so he forgets where he happens to be, while his stand-in, Vice-President Kamala Harris, was chosen for reasons which had nothing to do with whatever talents she may possess. Her performance in office has certainly been uninspiring.

As for Trump, he is clearly in better physical and mental shape than Biden, but for those who would like the United States to remain top dog his isolationist instincts make him alarming. European political leaders are running scared not because they think Trump is a reckless imperialist, but because they fear that if he wins, as he well could, they will have to spend far more on defence. Under him, the United States – preoccupied with its own many internal problems – could prove unwilling to help them fend off any serious aggressor.

In theory, the European countries should find it relatively easy to provide themselves with armed forces powerful enough to make outsiders tempted to take them on think twice, but they have become so accustomed to relying on the US to do the heavy lifting that many governments are reluctant even to try. After all, defence is an expensive business, and, with hundreds of persuasive interest groups clamouring for more funds, governments everywhere are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

In Sweden, the United Kingdom and other countries, military chiefs have taken to telling the population that it should prepare itself for war against Russia. This may seem far-fetched; Vladimir Putin’s forces have been unable to conquer Ukraine and would be hard put to deal with Poland, Finland and other neighbouring countries, let alone some of the bigger ones towards the west, but even so, many suspect that, after spending a few years replenishing his stocks of armaments and recruiting more young men to fling into the nearest meat-grinder, he would be tempted to give it a try. Rightly or wrongly, Putin thinks Westerners have all gone so soft they would rather surrender than fight back.

Europeans are also aware that conflicts in other parts of the world could hurt them badly. By taking pot shots against cargo ships in the Red Sea, Yemeni jihadists are already affecting the cost of living. Even more damaging would be a war between China and Taiwan which dominates the world’s vital semi-conductor industry. Were it to go up in flames, or be captured by China, the worldwide impact would surely be enormous because these days so much depends on computer networks which rely on what the Taiwanese are good at producing. 

Trump owes his popularity not so much to his personal charisma – which to judge from the devotion he inspires among millions of his compatriots must be considerable – as to his foes’ evident lack of it. By positioning himself as the scourge of a self-satisfied “elite” that despises much of the rest of the population, Trump has won the allegiance of large numbers of people, among them many who strongly disapprove of his behaviour but enjoy seeing him fight back against his detractors. This no doubt is why attempts to hobble him by waging a relentless campaign of “lawfare” against him with the evident aim of making it impossible for him to run for office have so far proved counterproductive. Instead of discrediting him, lawyers and judges who in many cases are card-carrying Democrats have reminded his supporters that his (and their) sworn enemies fear him so much that they will stop at nothing in their efforts to prevent him from returning to the White House.

Versions of the same drama, in which upstarts successfully take on those who believe themselves entitled to lord it over everybody else, are being staged in many parts of the world where ordinary folk feel they are getting a raw deal from an entrenched political establishment and its allies in the media, academe and the local bureaucracy. In Argentina, it led to the election of Javier Milei who, after telling the technocratic globalists assembled in Davos to shape up and confront “collectivism” and those who want more of it, has been hailed as a hero in many unlikely parts of the world.

In much of Europe, attitudes like Milei’s towards the predominantly left-leaning political and cultural “elite” are behind the rise of parties which are automatically denounced as “right-wing” or “populist” and are yet expected to do very well in the elections which are scheduled for later this year. What is more, in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other countries, irate farmers, often accompanied by lorry-drivers, are on the march. They are following in the footsteps of the French “yellow vests” who a couple of years ago threatened to unseat Emmanuel Macron. Like them, they object strongly to draconian laws passed by “green” enthusiasts who attribute global warming to their consumption of oil.

For the many governments, including Biden’s, that have committed themselves to reaching a “net zero” carbon emissions target in the near future, saying that unless they succeed everyone will be consumed by fire, all this is bad news. Strange as it may seem, working men and women who are already finding it desperately hard to pay their way do not like being told by people who are enviably rich (and who travel to conferences about climate change by private jet) that “to save the planet” they should tighten their belts still further. Even more galling is the strident activism of the upper-middle-class climate warriors who stop traffic by glueing themselves to the pavement and fling nasty stuff at cherished works of art. 

The ongoing revolt against greenery is bad news for Biden and Europeans such as Macron, Olaf Scholz and Rishi Sunak who, up to now, have done their best to persuade people that they were as determined as Greta Thunberg to prevent the world from overheating. To reconcile themselves with a growing proportion of the electorate, they will have to delay making their respective countries less dependent on fossil fuels, but if they backtrack too hastily they will anger fellow members of “the elite” in universities and the media who, seeing they have been less inconvenienced by the measures that are being taken than the rest, are reluctant to recognise that doing away with farming and dismantling many industries could have a worse impact on people’s lives than climate change.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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