The moment in which we live is counter-intuitive: It is characterized by the rise of political authority on the one hand, and the decline of political authority on the other. While they seem to exist independent of each other, each in its own parallel universe, they do not. In fact, they are interdependent, the one a function of or, if you prefer, a reflection of, the other.
In the last week alone, on his trip abroad President Trump met with three of the world’s most powerful strongmen, each more potent in the present than he was in the past: China’s Xi Jin Ping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
Meantime, at home, Trump is being inexorably enfeebled, a victim of his own idiocies and idiosyncrasies, of his own callousness and corruption. But, he is also being weakened by the liberal democracy that constitutes his context. To its credit, this democracy features institutions that eventually will be his undoing. To its detriment, the process of this undoing is arduous and laborious, which is why, at the moment, America’s political system is partially paralyzed.
Nor is the US the only liberal democracy so afflicted. Brexit has not only fractured Britain’s political system, Teresa May’s premiership is “shaped above all by her weakness.” She is openly defied even by her own ministers, while the government more generally, including parliament, seems to have lost control. One close observer put it this way, “Eighteen months ago I wrote that Britain’s politics were starting to imitate those of Greece. At the time I might have admitted a certain hyperbole. Now I think the parallel understates the British condition.”*
All the while the world is watching. While the two most powerful and prominent liberal democracies struggle to balance deeply flawed leaders with deeply dissatisfied followers, growing numbers of other countries are turning to authoritarianism as a way of keeping the trains running and the lid on.
*Philip Stevens, “Brexit Has Broken British Politics,” Financial Times, November 8, 2017.