I miss the days when conservatives were seen as the natural party of government and their leaders were stolid, boring establishment types such as Harold Macmillan, Helmut Kohl, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Today, by contrast, there is entirely too much excitement in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The leading right-wingers - I would not call them conservatives - include Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, France’s Marine Le Pen, the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Czech Republic’s Milos Zeman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin - and of course our own President Donald Trump.
Nearly all of them make for good press, and that's bad news for their countries, because they get attention, and in many cases gain power, by scapegoating minorities, attacking elites, vilifying the media and the opposition, promoting simplistic and unworkable policies, creating cults of personality, and undermining democratic institutions. That is the same strategy perfected in the interwar years by Italy's Benito Mussolini, Spain's Francisco Franco, Portugal's António de Oliveira Salazar, Greece's Ioannis Metaxas, Hungary's Miklos Horthy, Poland's Jozef Pilsudski and his successors, Albania's King Zog - and course Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. No, Nazism is not taking over in Europe or America, but run-of-the-mill authoritarianism is emerging in Poland and Hungary and has already triumphed in Turkey and Russia. Democratic norms are eroding from Slovakia to the United States.
The prewar, right-wing extremists found their mirror-image adversaries in the Communist Party. Today the communists are generally dormant, but, with the rise of Britain's Jeremy Corbyn, Greece's Alexis Tsipras, Italy's Beppe Grillo, Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador and, yes, the United States' Bernie Sanders, among others, the far left is gaining ground while the center left is becoming extinct. A sign of the times: The Social Democrats, Germany's center-left party, are now less popular than the far-right Alternative for Germany.
In short, across the West, politics is once again being reduced to an atavistic struggle between the radical right and the loony left. We have avoided disaster only because there are still a few sensible leaders left such as Britain's Theresa May, France's Emmanuel Macron, Canada's Justin Trudeau and Germany's Angela Merkel who are trying to hew to the rapidly vanishing center. But they are facing virulent assault from both left-wing and right-wing extremists often supported, one way or another, by the Kremlin.
Merkel allowed more than 1 million refugees to enter Germany in 2015. Although crime rates are at the lowest level in a quarter-century, she nevertheless paid at the polls for her humanity, with her ruling Christian Democratic Union party seeing its worst election results in almost 70 years. Recently the Christian Social Union, the Christian Democratic Union's more conservative sister party in Bavaria, has been threatening to topple her for not being tough enough on immigration.
May, for her part, has the thankless task of negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union without crippling the British economy by cutting off its major trade partners on the continent. The irresponsible Brexit campaigners, led by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, promised the British people that they could assert their sovereignty without paying any price in lost trade. That's about as realistic as Trump's promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it.
Now, rather than come up with a workable Brexit plan, Johnson and his fellow right-wing cabinet minister David Davis have resigned their positions. This raises the risk that May's Tory government, which lost a parliamentary majority in 2017, will collapse. Waiting in the wings is the Labour Party, having long shed its "third way" identity under Tony Blair to accept the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who is anti-capitalist, anti-American and anti-Israel. He is as hostile to Europe and as sympathetic to Russia as many of the Brexiteers.
The president of the United States normally would be a defender of centrism and liberalism against the forces of immoderation and authoritarianism. Not Trump.
Last month, at the Group of Seven summit, he feuded with Macron and Trudeau. This week, while visiting Europe, he attacked NATO and accused Merkel of turning Germany into a "captive" of Russia (perhaps projection on the part of a Russia-backed president). He then threatened to kill any hope of a U.S.-Britain trade deal because May is opting for a "soft" Brexit, while praising Boris Johnson ("he would be a great prime minister"). Meanwhile Trump's emissaries - both official (Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell) and unofficial (former counselor Stephen Bannon) - are actively agitating for the European far right.
Trump’s insincere praise for Merkel and May cannot disguise the disturbing reality that, in the existential struggle of our time - the battle between moderation and extremism, democracy and authoritarianism - the U.S. government is on the wrong side. Long the champion of Western freedom and unity, the United States under Trump has become a dark, destabilizing force that threatens to destroy the unprecedented post-1945 period of peace and prosperity.