Populist wave leaves world at the ‘Trump junction’

By Andrew sheng

Jan. 20, marked the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J Trump. Next week, the Lunar Year of the Monkey ends, ushering in the Year of the Rooster. This is where monkey business ends and the chickens come home to roost.

Trump’s election marks a watershed between the old liberal order and a new populist phase that is clearly a rejection of the old order. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer defined this change as “Goodbye to the West” — a concept that the U.S. was committed to the defense of its allies, mostly Western Europe, Australia and Japan.

Mr. Trump has turned the old establishment on its head. Policy is not made by consensus, but by tweets. World thought leader Mohamed El-Erian, whom I had the great fortune to moderate at his Keynote address to the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong earlier this week, argued that the world is at a T junction.

The old order has come to a dead-end. It is not even at the cross-roads, where you have the option of moving forward. At a T junction, you either move right or move left. Volatility and the range of possibilities have increased, because no one knows which policy and which rule will change with the next tweet.

There is of course no difficulty in picking where Trump will move. Indeed, anyone who said Trump is unpredictable is wrong — he is very predictable. He will do whatever is in his best interest, saying that it is in America’s interest. He will move right, because the populist sentiment has rejected the old leftist liberal order. Our only concern is: How far right will he go? Based upon the inclinations of his appointees so far, it looks pretty far right.

A Very Important Juncture

Mr. Trump’s election marks a very important juncture in Pax Americana. Two Democratic Presidents marked the rise of the present American Exceptionalism — Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) and John F. Kennedy (1961-1963). The first brought in the New Deal to get America out of the Great Depression and then won the Second World War, confirming the new American order. The second inaugurated a more inclusive America, ushering global idealism of the American dream, providing aid, trade and culturally, the “Age of Camelot.”

Trump’s ascension signals the end of the rule-based era for the public good, with a new era of clear and present self-interest, changing allies and allegiances by the tweet. Allies and foes alike do not know how to react to this new “Art of the Deal.” Crossing the river by feeling the stones was possible, when there are still some stones. But crossing the swamp where waters are murky with crocodiles and leeches will be much more complicated.

I was forced to dust off my copy of German historian Oscar Spengler’s Decline of the West, written between 1911-22, to get a sense of how we should think about this era from a long-term historical perspective. Vastly simplifying his magnum opus, Spengler’s thesis is that when parliamentary politics fail, history tends to replace disorder with great men like Julius Caesar or Napoleon. Of course, one has to recognize that troubled times do not always get great statesmen, but may get little despots and decadent failures like Caligula or Nero, who eventually bankrupted Rome.