Liberals are worried. Make no mistake. They see their world collapsing around them. Fringe ideas of the right are becoming orthodoxy. The traditionalist barbarians at the gate are now holding court. Formerly conservative murmurs are now right-wing cacophonies. Liberals have probably not been this worried since the 1930s. Their dreams of a world run on economic principles and vague moral principles has hit choppy waters. Nowhere is liberalism unravelling more than at the polls. Turkey had an election last week that was like a dagger in the heart of liberalism in the developing world. There was the election of Trump recently and Brexit last year. Who knows what’ll happen over the weekend in France?
Now, personally I am not a liberal but neither do I revel in the growth of the right-wing. Much of what is happening at the moment is deeply unsettling. Xenophobia, sectarianism, propaganda, even environmental irresponsiblity, are all on the rise. Someone like Donald Trump exists in a world seemingly devoid of intelligible discourse and to follow him requires astounding acts of faith.
At the same time, liberals (as usual) are keen on distancing themselves from the carnage. An article in the New York Times on Friday showed the extent of liberal denial. The article, entitled The Crisis of Western Civ and written by David Brooks, lamented the loss of faith in the Enlightenment and modernist narrative the West had formerly believed in. Much of it could have found its way into a conservative journal. However, the article turned from an obituary for Western values into a denunciation of the current breed of authoritarians/dictators. Level-headed statesmen like Obama and Cameron are being replaced by Putin, Erdogan and Trump. These authoritarians have all the usual dictatorial traits of fostering personality cults, nepotism, the spreading of crass cynicism, and a refusal to play by the rules.
Liberals are bewailing the seemingly sudden leap into authoritarianism but personally I believe this concern to be a load of horse fesces. Liberals do not oppose authoritarianism per se. One of the dictators mentioned in the op-ed was Egypt’s Sisi. Dictators like Sisi have long been useful for liberals. As seen by Egypt’s brief foray into parliamentary democracy, parties with avowedly anti-liberal policies will sweep into power if military dictatorship will not step into the breech. The op-ed also mentioned how Erdogan was reversing Turkey’s democratic tradition, which is a bit laughable considering that Turkey’s military has regularly intervened in civil politics when the tide wasn’t turning a liberal-democratic way (Erdogan’s crackdown is in response to just such a coup attempt last year).
Yet, I suppose we have to admit that liberals are nowhere near as vociferous in their support for authoritarianism as they used to be. A considerable chunk of liberal opinion preferred the Shah to any left-wing or traditionalist forces in Iran, provided he went about his job of liberalizing the country. Dictators in Latin America enjoyed similar support in the face of socialist opposition. This has to be balanced by the consideration that, up until recently, liberals were more confident of the triumph of their values post-1991. Support for authoritarianism may thus have seemed unnecessary.
The reality is that an authoritarian like Trump isn’t hated for what he does, but rather for who he is. If Trump bypassed Congress to impose gun control, or to support Planned Parenthood, or to end all religion in schools, liberals would love him. If he denied that life starts in the womb, or that there is any difference between a traditional marriage and a same-sex marriage, liberals would celebrate the era of Trump. If right-wingers fawn over someone, a personality cult exists, when liberals do so, a beacon of progress has been identified (Franklin Roosevelt was one of those authoritarian presidents loved by liberals). And if someone like Erdogan wasn’t so religious, there is no way you would hear so many disparaging remarks about him. In sum, liberals don’t so much hate authoritarians, they just hate the wrong sort of authoritarians.