Trump, Putin, Kim, Xi: given the current lineup, can the ideals of the Enlightenment endure?
Authoritarianism is in the ascendant everywhere in the Western world, with Marine Le Pen gaining momentum in France and, of course, Donald Trump becoming president in the United States. But these, Financial Times Washington commentator Luce (Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, 2012, etc.) observes, are symptoms of a greater decline. In a trajectory of liberalism that the author traces to the Magna Carta in 1215 and that reigns nearly supreme in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the forces of liberty, equality, and fraternity have splintered, while “belief in an authoritarian version of national destiny is staging a powerful comeback.” Luce’s case is long on description and laced with useful data—e.g., given that an iPhone is made in nine different countries, Trump’s nationalist rejection of trade agreements is both anachronistic and stupid, the more so because—and this is a contentious claim on Luce’s part—China is likely to outstrip the U.S. economically in the very near term. China is not the only challenge. The greater danger to the American middle class, writes the author, is artificial intelligence, a machine-driven global capitalism without much regard for the “enlightened self-interest that defined much of postwar America” until the last election. Luce’s argument, though meritorious, lacks much rhetorical fire; in the hands of a Francis Fukuyama or Jacques Barzun on the right or a Christopher Lasch or Bernard-Henri Lévy on the left, it might have been more memorably delivered and with more prescription to leaven the description. Still, there are some nicely pithy moments, including his parting shot: “Liberal elites, in particular, will have to resist the temptation to carry on with their comfortable lives and imagine they are doing their part by signing up to the occasional Facebook protest.”
Learned and well-considered, but if indeed Western liberal values are in danger of extinction, readers may seek more urgency.