From the February 2017 issue

Blood and Soil

The rise of vindictive nationalism

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Discussed in this essay:

Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27.

I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but the prediction here is that the plug will soon be pulled.

It is remarkable how much of the present global order can be traced to identities that were forged in East Berlin and Dresden in the 1980s. Merkel passed her formative years in Protestant youth groups and emerged after 1989 as a sort of postideological cipher, a politician with impressive managerial gifts but little in the way of strong convictions. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was working as a KGB agent in one of the German Democratic Republic’s second-tier cities when the Wall came down. Loyal to the empire he served, he later described the Soviet Union’s collapse as the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, and has since dedicated his life to slowly, steadily rebuilding it.

Illustration by Nate Kitch

Illustration by Nate Kitch

Putin, for whom Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration, is also a cipher. The man may flirt with Russian Orthodoxy and pan-Slavism, but his depths, or lack thereof, can be more accurately sounded by watching his notorious performance of “Blueberry Hill” at a charity gala in 2010: terrifying in its dullness, in its passionless submusicality, it is exactly how you might imagine a karaoke night for teetotal on-duty spies. Trump himself is not an ethnonationalist ideologue; he is a trashy New York real-estate baron who has been thrust by the distortions of the mass media into a role for which he is supremely unsuited. This has not prevented sincere ethnonationalists such as Steve Bannon, a far-right media executive who has become Trump’s chief strategist, from riding his coattails to power.

Putin, Merkel, and Trump are all empty vessels into which the blind forces of history have flowed. None of these leaders chose the forces they have come to embody; Trump doesn’t even understand the currents he has been channeling. He still seems to believe that he is simply making deals for America, and knows so little of geopolitics that he is unable to grasp that what he in fact has done is capitulate to the ideology of Eurasianism — a global configuration in which Russia, the planet’s sole remaining hegemon, tolerates the continued existence of the United States as a white-nationalist vassal state. To see how much world-historical significance these figures have acquired is astounding, and yet such unlikely elevations have become a hallmark of the current moment.

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is the author, most recently, of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton).

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