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Nationalist autocrats are on the march. Trump yawns.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty

At this time seven years ago, what came to be known as the Arab Spring was blossoming across the Middle East, spreading the ideal of reform. It was possible to think then that what the conservative theorist Francis Fukuyama had predicted at the end of the Cold War, in a book called “The End of History and the Last Man,” was actually coming to pass — that eons of autocracy were ending, and a global age of democratic self-determinism had dawned.

As it turns out, though: not really. And not just because Egypt is back to military rule, while Syria and Yemen and Libya are each engaged in all-out civil war.

What you might have missed over the last week or so — with all this mesmerizing spectacle about coming tariffs and an exodus of White House aides and a guy who briefly worked for the campaign publicly melting down on a string of cable shows — is a rush back toward the repression and militarism of the 20th century in some of the world’s most powerful nations.

In China, Xi Jinping just woke up one morning and made himself president for life. In Russia, Vladimir Putin, on the verge of achieving the same status, threatened last week to unleash a new generation of nukes on Florida. In North Korea, the strongman Kim Jong Un has managed to reopen talks with the South by menacing the region with missiles.

It really is stupefying, as others have pointed out, that the American government, currently administered by the party of Ronald Reagan, offers zero response to any of this. (You would think President Trump would at least rise to defend the territorial integrity of Mar-a-Lago, considering what nuclear annihilation might mean for property values.)

But there’s a deeper, more vexing question here about where this president fits into the moment. Is Trump’s presidency causing this sharp turn in the historical current, or is he merely a product of it?

If you’re not quite old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall or Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank (or, for that matter, Boris Yeltsin), then let’s very roughly revisit the sweep of recent history. The end of the Cold War between East and West, after nearly 50 years of proxy wars and client states around the world, unleashed a series of forces that are only now coming into focus.

First came the sudden release of nationalist and religious tensions that had been bottled up during the long conflict between capitalism and communism. This led to wars, persecution and waves of immigration. And all of that was exacerbated by the revolution in digital technology, which displaced whole industries and created the tools for both spreading ideologies and organizing movements.

At the same time, though, as all of these modern forces were destabilizing communities and causing people everywhere to seek solidarity in national or religious identity, elites in the industrialized nations were talking about something completely different: integration, open borders, global markets. They were exhorting citizens to abandon old identities, rather than cling to them.

“Part of the internationalization effort was to say that cultures aren’t different, that we are all the same,” the Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis told me this week. “That, I think, was a mistake.”

I called Gaddis because he’s one of the nation’s preeminent scholars of the Cold War period, and I wondered if he thought we were now headed back to something more like the period he had studied.

But Gaddis told me that he now looks at the Cold War as a kind of brief intermission in the longer drama of world events, which is driven less by heady ideology than by nationalist identity and absolutism.

What we’re actually moving toward, in other words, is a continuation of exactly where we had been heading for centuries before the advent of nuclear weapons forced the world to temporarily divide between ideological spheres of influence. We’re going back to the time of czars and kings ensconced behind walls of ethnic pride.

“What’s happening now,” Gaddis said, “is a pretty widespread, fast-moving backlash against internationalism.”

So, to get back to my initial question, what’s Trump’s role in all of this re-entrenchment and creeping authoritarianism — cause or effect?

The answer, I think, is some of both.

You could make an argument, certainly, that Trumpism is a close cousin of the nationalist movements in Europe and Russia, which preceded it. The backlash against internationalism that Gaddis talks about, the simmering outrage at cultural and economic integration, is exactly why a lot of white, working-class Americans so resented Barack Obama by the end of his presidency, more than simple racism or political ideology.

In his rhetoric and policies, and even more so in his personal journey, Obama symbolized the blurring of lines, the mashing together of cultures and countries and economic fortunes into one big pile of haves and have-nots.

But if Obama personified internationalism, then Trump came to personify the inevitable response — “America First.” Trump didn’t create the anti-internationalist wave. He was enveloped and carried along by it, no less than Putin or the far-right nationalist parties in Europe.

But that doesn’t mean Trump isn’t also helping to embolden repressive nationalist rulers to tighten their grips — or that he’s helpless to stop it. Trump leaves the impression that his administration isn’t interested in checking the brazen power of dictators, mainly because it’s true.

By now, Putin, Xi and all the rest of them have seen enough to know that Trump isn’t like other American presidents — that he doesn’t really aspire to safeguard the world or champion ideals of liberty. Not only can you seize and abuse power with impunity, but you can even threaten to obliterate Guam or Florida without much fear of conflict, as long as you’re only really upsetting the media commentators who worry about that kind of thing.

The real danger here isn’t that Trump will decide that he too wants to suspend free speech or become president for life, as he joked last week. The flashing neon danger sign is that at some point — bank on it — one of these nuclear-armed strongmen is going to overshoot and do something we can’t actually afford to ignore. Someone is going to mistake our temporary self-absorption for indifference to our own national interest.

And in a world of tweets and bots, the kind of confrontation that used to move in slow motion — in the form of naval embargoes or Security Council resolutions — might get out of control very quickly.

“No one has time to back off and reflect now,” Gaddis told me. “It seems to me the potential for misinterpretation or misunderstanding is greater than it was in the past.”

Which is why the sooner Trump starts standing up to nationalist dictators and letting them know where the line is, the safer we’ll all be. As Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy or George W. Bush could testify, presidents don’t get to decide when it’s time to confront aggression.

History does, and it hasn’t ended yet.

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