By Nadav Eyal
Americans often find it hard to grasp how their country is seen beyond their shores. When I was a young journalist in 2002, I was assigned to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s delegation in Washington, D.C.—my first time in the American capital as an adult. Suddenly, I understood the order of the universe in which I lived, far away in Israel. It might’ve been similar to the experience of a young Iberian visiting Rome in the 2nd century A.D. You realize that the political, economic, even aesthetic, discourse at home is a replica of this prototype, dubbed into one’s own provincial language.
President Biden’s victory sent a signal to the world. As he put it, “America is back.” But much of what went away won’t return quickly. The perception that the United States can be relied on to stand by its agreements and by its allies has been shattered. The images of rioters in the halls of Congress may be more enduring and more symbolic than the inauguration ceremony and the soaring rhetoric since.
What America’s allies and adversaries saw in the attack on Congress was weakness, echoing a deep shift in our own politics. During the Trump years, Americans were so focused on their own turmoil that they paid less attention to how Trumpism was becoming a weapon against liberalism everywhere, from Europe to South Asia to South America. In Israel, many in the religious right prayed for Trump. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included the American president’s picture in an election ad, with the slogan “In a different league.” This was not just opportunism; it was the zeitgeist.
We are in an age of blind revolt. Those who broke into Congress and desecrated American democracy probably had no detailed plan beyond stopping the proceedings, wrecking the place, and—at the least— intimidating public servants in the exercise of their duties. Yes, they were supporters of Trump. But like many who voted for Brexit, they were aiming to destroy power structures without having anything to replace them. The revolts we are seeing are a mix of appalling visuals with absurd, pompous and incendiary rhetoric—but no coherent aims or rational ideology.
My American colleagues expressed horror and vindication after the attack on Congress. Horror, for they could hardly fathom that this had happened. Vindication, for they had long predicted that the Trump years would lead to a calamity of this sort. But they tend to think of Trump as sui generis. He is not. The context of the revolt is global.
This period will be defined more by what it lacks, by what it has demolished, rather than by what is being built; it is more about tearing down the system than about creating a new one. The revolt is decentralized, leaderless, devoid of coherent principles or a unified tone. It has assumed different guises on different continents, and is based on the perception that the middle-class and weaker sections of society are under a multipronged assault. Your boss can fire you at any moment. Technology is not only endangering your job; it is ripping through notions of truth and facts. Your financial security is shot. Your community is changing demographically, and its sense of identity is challenged. The environment is under threat. Terrorism and random violence are fixtures of society.
The revolt has many faces but one sentiment: a desire to upend power structures deemed irrelevant, corrupt or unrepresentative. Our political systems don’t have the tools to grapple with the existential threat of climate change, or to control international mega-corporations, or to cope with capital flight in search of lower taxes and labor costs. Social-media giants have become political forces, competing with the weakening liberal order. Facebook’s policy regarding posts on Covid-19 vaccines is much more important to the success or failure of mass inoculation than any government campaign.
I live in a province of the American Empire, and we love to think that power resides in Washington. But politically and economically, that’s no longer the case. Power is everywhere, and nowhere. People feel increasingly unmoored. “It’s always about other countries,” the wife of a Pennsylvania coal miner told me a few months before the 2016 election. “It’s never about here.” She was frustrated by the impact of globalization. But there was something more universal in her discontent: that, in a global world, there is no simple “here” anymore.
Politics is responding and adapting to the revolt: from Hindu nationalism in India; to the Yellow Vests in France; to the chauvinist-populism ruling in Brazil; and others. Into this emerging uprising—motivated by populist, anarcho-radical, sometimes racist but largely middle-class sentiment—Covid-19 embedded itself. Europe has seen widespread protests, some violent, in the past year. Italian anti-lockdown protestors hurled Molotov cocktails at police in Florence, with further vandalism and violence in Turin and Milan. German far-right demonstrators stormed the parliament entrance in Berlin during a demonstration of 40,000 people protesting pandemic restrictions. Old ethnic tensions boiled over in Belgium as a new outbreak surfaced.
Covid worsened disillusionment with the capacity of democratic governments to respond. Amplified by online lies, discontent with the liberal order is mutating into an assault on rational discourse itself. With Covid, it means anti-vaxxers and denialists fighting against science. But it’s much wider than that. The energy of the revolt is harnessed by both old and new opponents of enlightenment values. It’s an uneasy coalition of politicians, charlatans, anarchists, fundamentalists, online communities, totalitarian ideologues, neo-Luddites and conspiracy theorists.
Americans might want to consider the past four years within this global mosaic. It has a specific importance for the United States as a global power. The revolt is about breaking things that are products of the liberal order. Most of these features—neo-liberal economics, contemporary pluralism, Hollywood-styled culture—are considered American. Trump, though a toxic opportunist who presented no coherent response to the grievances of our time, did reflect the contemporary malaise.
From overseas, it looks like many in America want to be rid of the Trump era, to get past it, to think of it as a fluke of history, to deface its idols. In declining Ancient Rome, the statues of deposed and disgraced emperors were vandalized too. It was probably satisfying. But it didn’t influence the course of the empire. Take it from us, those who are ruled by the Netanyahus and the Bolsonaros of the world—the roots of revolt run wide and deep. One of Netanyahu’s media devotees, watching the events in Capitol Hill, tweeted approvingly: “Unlike the right-wing in Israel, Americans are no suckers.”
Rejection of the liberal order is not an anomaly in the history of progress. It is not a bump in the road. It is not a populist wave. This is the new status quo.
Without recognizing that the revolt is happening, and that it is aimed at American-made values, social constructs and wrongs, the liberal order cannot be re-imagined. Without this, the message of restoration from the Biden administration will ring hollow at home and abroad.
Populist and nationalist leaders all over the world took their lead from Trump. The response to Trumpism requires more than a superficial erasure of his legacy or a rehashing of his awfulness. A deep dive into what has really happened to our democracies is crucial—not only for America but for those of us who want to keep democracy alive far from U.S. borders.
What happens in Washington won’t stay in Washington. It never does.
Nadav Eyal, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, is the author of Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization.