One of the great books of our era is entitled “Submission.” In the 2015 satire, novelist Michel Houellebecq describes a fictional France that gradually submits to Islam.
A little cowardice here, a sudden new insight there. Bridges are built between the new, rising, somehow refreshing power and one’s own, tired way of thinking; abnormality is normalized and even becomes a norm. Ultimately the main character of the novel discovers the advantages of polygamy.
Yes indeed, this is how things can go.
The experimental arrangement in Mr. Houellebecq’s book is unrealistic to the extent that, just in terms of numbers alone, Islam in France is much too weak to bring about such a change. But the mechanisms of submission are valid everywhere; they are currently in motion right before our eyes, in full color and at full speed.
At the moment, America’s democracy is turning toxic. More specifically, the self-poisoning it has engaged in for many years can, upon Donald Trump’s assumption of power, no longer be overlooked.
Of course Trumpism won’t become as dangerous and ideological as radicalized Islam; but on the other hand, a U.S. president is more powerful than all Muslims put together.
So how will this regime change be handled by those persons who have based their life and thought on the democratic and moral superiority of the United States? And conversely, how are anti-Americans to behave now that, in a certain sense, an anti-American, in any case an enemy of the U.S. system, has attained power? And what should those Europeans do who believe that without the United States, the old continent will also become democratically unstable because the U.S. itself is becoming democratically unstable?
America’s democracy is turning toxic.
In fact, ever since the fatal election – especially in Europe, above all in Germany – much is proceeding according to the blueprint drawn out in Mr. Houellebecq’s book.
Submission is well underway and is quite creative – a lack of argumentation apparently enhances creativity. The responses range from “things can’t get too bad” through “it only gets better if it gets worse” to “let’s be sure he builds highways.” The left and right, Atlanticists and anti-Americans, are adapting in order to save face. They are astounded by what they are seeing, but also learning from it.
Five basic types of submission to the new dominance can be identified.
The change of power is particularly tragic for the German Atlanticists: the foreign policy experts, journalists and advisers who, organized into clubs and think tanks, have always thought that the United States was the ultimate if not sole guarantor of democracy, human rights and freedom. Now that America’s system has been put on hold indefinitely and a person, who is, at best, unsavory, has taken power, they are at a crossroads: Either they renounce their belief in American supremacy, in the legitimacy of Washington’s claim to power, or they begin to weaken their democratic values.
The latter is already occurring here and there. Recently an especially die-hard Atlanticist called Donald Trump – who conducted a deliberately racist and sexist campaign that was hostile to the U.S. constitution – “breathtakingly unorthodox.” Democratic and civilizing standards are already being declared an orthodoxy that it is at least interesting if not long overdue to rebel against.
But a majority of Atlanticists have for the time being adopted the thesis that things can’t get too bad because the famous checks and balances of the American system will soon have an effect.
This argument is evidence of an almost Trumpist audacity. It was none other than these knowledgeable experts who offered assurances that because of the system of checks and balances, someone like Mr. Trump could never become a candidate – let alone president.
The first statements by the newly elected Mr. Trump were welcomed by the “things can’t get too bad” faction; after devouring the honeycomb, the bear was satisfied and friendly. The several days of avoiding uncontrolled or inflammatory remarks were stylized into typical American professionalism even while European heads of state were being criticized for reminding the new president of a few basic principles.
But then came the staffing decisions (along with a few typical Twitter distractions), and it was clear that the “things can’t get too bad” strategy had already failed.
The deep despair of German Atlanticists was evident in an article in The New York Times by Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador in Washington and today head of the Munich Security Conference.
After the election, Mr. Ischinger wrote what Europeans dearly wanted to hear from the new administration itself. If one has to whisper the desired marching orders to oneself, then the time for emancipation has in fact come. Instead Mr. Ischinger appealed to Mr. Trump with the following words: “He will not find better partners (than Europeans) to work with, to secure America’s strategic interests and to serve as force multipliers for its military power.” And as if that weren’t enough: “During his campaign, Donald Trump used the slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ But securing American greatness will not succeed without the United States’ best allies.”
But can the greatness of the American nation really be the goal of European foreign policy? Or has that always been the European mission in the eyes of the Atlanticists?
All this verbiage is designed to render inconceivable the actually quite persuasive position that Europe could cease to be a military multiplier and assistant to greatness for once. Or even that Europe can in no way allow itself to be led by a power that is governed by Donald Trump. Atlanticism is confronted with an existential crisis that it has denied up to now. The price for this refusal is to sugarcoat Mr. Trump.
Nowhere else have Donald Trump’s foreign policy announcements been received so favorably as among the leading politicians of Germany’s Left Party. Its urge to submission is perhaps the most astounding twist at present.
The party’s parliamentary leader Sahra Wagenknecht said that a Hillary Clinton victory would have brought the danger of a “big war,” while with Mr. Trump there was uncertainty but also the chance that the United States will withdraw from military engagement.
The Left Party parliamentarian Andrej Hunko went a step further and declared that “there is no danger” from Mr. Trump. On the contrary: During the campaign, Mr. Trump said he would seek an agreement with Russia and not attempt any regime change through military operations. Mr. Hunko feels Europe could learn from this example.
Do leftists see Mr. Trump’s United States as an example for Europe?
The fact is that in fundamental points of foreign policy, the Left Party is in accord with Mr. Trump: Integrate Vladimir Putin and scale back NATO; reduce free trade; fight “neo-liberalism” in favor of workers.
Even the project of the gigantic wall along the Mexican border is minimized. Already before the U.S. election, Ms. Wagenknecht initiated a debate with the claim that migration can be met with upper limits and a strict interpretation of “the right to stay.” She is now relativizing the plans for a wall as “not originally Mr. Trump’s idea.”
Mr. Trump’s victory has put the Left Party on the spot. Its members are electrified to see that some fundamental aspects of their own foreign policy can be victorious. If only the victor weren’t so embarrassing. After all, the party’s official “emancipatory self-image” hardly fits with the racist and misogynist statements by the president-elect.
Now there is a discussion in media sympathetic to the party about how loudly it should protest against the chauvinistic and xenophobic elements among the supporters of Mr. Trump. The left-wing weekly Der Freitag cited the danger of “being lumped together with the Establishment and thereby alienating protest voters.” And further: Taking up too “rigid a front against forms of authoritarianism and the Western right-wing populists who are flirting with them could gnaw at the credibility of leftist anti-neoliberal rhetoric.”
In other words: Misgivings about Mr. Trump’s authoritarianism must take a back seat to the fight against “neoliberalism.” Mr. Trump is seen to basically stand for the right things, even if he gets to that position from the wrong direction. In the words of Ms. Wagenknecht: “People in the United States didn’t vote first of all for Donald Trump; they voted for change.”
Alexander Gauland, the intellectual leader and federal chairman of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), wasn’t happy with the tweet by the party leadership after Mr. Trump’s electoral success: “We are president!”
He acknowledged it was amusing, but noted that “Trump is an American and we are a German party” in a comment to London’s Daily Express. Co-chairman Jörg Meuthen, on the other hand, gloated in a press release about a victory against the “system,” against “mainstream media” in a “final warning” to “all the arrogant and aloof politicians.”
The way Mr. Gauland sees it, the AfD can be pleased but must remain cautious about what it extracts from the astounding electoral success. The trick is to proclaim in Mr. Trump’s victory the first signs of a change in the power structure here in Germany – but without becoming infected with the loathsome aspects of the victor. The vulgar sexist Mr. Trump isn’t attractive to those disappointed conservative Christian Democratic voters that Mr. Gauland wants to win over to the AfD.
“Mr. Trump's election has created an utterly new political situation in which opportunities present themselves to a more radical left.”
And so Mr. Gauland praises three of Mr. Trump’s demands that “find affinities” within his own party: closing borders, stopping Muslim immigration and improving ties with Russia.
Mr. Gauland is a conservative anti-American. He considers American casualness, materialism and pop-cultural superficiality to be undesirable influences on German culture. So there is a certain historical irony in the fact that now his wish for a turn toward nationalistic policies are to be fulfilled by someone like Mr. Trump.
For a good while, Mr. Gauland has been seeking a geopolitical option for Germany beyond the Western alliance. He believes Germany’s destiny to have always been in Eurasia, hand in hand with Mr. Putin’s Russia. For him, trans-Atlanticism was necessary only as long as the United States was needed as a bastion against Soviet Communism. Now older interests of nation states are returning to the forefront; they lie not in Germany’s link to the West but in an accommodation with Russia.
If Mr. Trump weakens NATO, the European Union and that Western link – so goes the argument – then that is a good thing, because in return it increases space for national policies. This is what is meant when the AfD greets the Trump era with the statement: “We are confident that it will be possible to work together and eye-to-eye with the new Trump administration to shape a rational foreign and economic policy.” In short: Not only the left, but also the right is distancing itself from anti-Americanism.
For their part, left-leaning economists have likewise discovered a way to see Mr. Trump as a savior.
Robert Skidelsky, an economic historian from Oxford University, wrote a three-volume biography of the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Since then, Mr. Skidelsky has considered himself to be a sort of guiding spirit for the circle of Keynes devotees, united by a belief that the economy can be stimulated by state spending.
Mr. Skidelsky considers the election of Mr. Trump to be an epochal event – one that gives reason for hope. The candidate called for lowering taxes and spending huge amounts of money to repair roads and bridges. The president will bring an end to the “neoliberal obsession with debt,” believes Mr. Skidelsky, who accordingly calls upon his followers to recognize the “positive potential” of the new American president.
That requires some mental twists and turns. Mr. Keynes wanted to assure the prosperity of the masses through programs of government expenditure precisely so that they would not succumb to the authoritarian temptation as had occurred during the global economic crisis of the 1930s. In today’s terms: So that people like Mr. Trump don’t gain power in the first place. Mr. Skidelsky’s act of submission reveals how strong the temptation generally is with regard to political approaches based on a belief in the state. Because if the state is declared to be the bringer of salvation, the motives of governmental intervention become secondary: Better a Mr. Trump who incurs debt than a Ms. Clinton who keeps spending reined in.
But the hope of a progressive potential in reactionary Keynesianism is doubly deceptive: Because Mr. Trump indeed intends to spend money, but on the basis of everything known about his plans up to now, that will primarily benefit the wealthy and Wall Street. It is estimated that more than half of his tax cuts will go to the top 1 percent of Americans – and whoever already has more than enough doesn’t spend money, they take it to the bank. Or in other words: What will ultimately be left over of Donald Trump’s reactionary Keynesianism is only its reactionary element.
When nothing else works, there is always Friedrich Hölderlin. And so, in these days of anxiety and fear, the left-leaning Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has warmed to the most well-known verse of the famous German poet: “But where there is danger, rescue grows as well.”
Mr. Žižek greeted Mr. Trump’s election because, as he writes: “it has created an utterly new political situation in which opportunities present themselves to a more radical left.” Such statements are evidence of a crazy fantasy of dialectical salvation that is driving parts of the left into the arms of Donald Trump.
From this point of view, Hillary Clinton stands for the status quo in which the world is gradually going to the dogs because it is being steered toward an economic, ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. The dialecticians don’t deny that under Mr. Trump as well, the world is heading toward an economic (he is enormously increasing the deficit), ecological (he ignores climate change) and humanitarian (he gives to the rich and takes from the poor) catastrophe.
But they are betting that someone like Mr. Trump will wreak such havoc that from the ruins of his presidency will rise a better and more just world. For people like Mr. Žižek, evil is basically the agency of good – just as the Great Depression of the 1930s forced capitalist America to enact the New Deal and address the misery of workers.
But where will such thinking lead? Was Hitler a stratagem concocted by reason in order to endow humanity with the European Union and a market economy with a social conscience? Did Mao have to commit murders so that China could become a world power half a century later? The good is often a long time coming and evil can be devastating. It is an open question as to whether workers ultimately benefit.
Behind the yearning for a big bang is a disdain for the democratic political process with all its compromises, setbacks and minor instances of progress. If the left – as Mr. Žižek believes – will lose without the mobilizing energy of “the threat of catastrophe,” then it has already lost.
In view of all these maneuvers, tricks, illusions and gestures of submission, the principal question is: Why? Measured in terms of its population and gross domestic product, Europe is just as strong as the United States and its democracies are currently more stable. The cause for concern should be the military, where the E.U. is in fact left wanting. But on the other hand, the Americans have for the most part caused disaster with their military preponderance, at least in this century.
There is no real reason for this submissiveness except for the fear of fear. Of course one must hope and work toward ensuring that Donald Trump doesn’t put into practice all the domestic and foreign policies that he promised to his followers and threatened to the world. But one shouldn’t expect such an outcome. Not only because of a governmental team in which a man who denies evolution – Vice President-elect Pence — is presented as a guarantor of rationality. But also because the world is in such an unstable, complicated situation that even a highly disciplined, comprehensively informed, humble and respectful man in the White House would have extreme difficulty coming up with good policies. Mr. Trump isn’t that sort of man. For that reason, Europe should not knuckle under but instead stand up tall.
This article first appeared in the newsweekly Die Zeit. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org