History will record that when states murdered journalists or used the conspiracy theories of terrorists to fool their subject populations, they could expect reprisals from something called “the west”, an alliance that lasted from 1945 to 2016. The west’s great weakness was that it depended on American power. It died when Donald Trump became the US president, freeing illiberal democracies and actual dictatorships to follow their worst instincts to a grim destination.
Fashion affects the powerful as well as the powerless. They look at each other and learn what they can get away with. “Did you hear what happened in Germany?” Stalin asked Anastas Mikoyan in June 1934, after Hitler had ordered the murder of his enemies in the Nazi party. “Splendid! That’s a deed of some skill!” Inspired by Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives, Stalin began the executions of tens of thousands of communists who posed a real and imagined threat to his power. The west taught, albeit intermittently, albeit with immense blind spots in which crimes against humanity were committed with impunity, that governments had to pretend to protect human rights, freeish trade and democracy.
Now, the US, the country that made the west and guaranteed its existence, teaches that none of the old rules applies. You bet the world is taking notice.
It’s not that Trump is a fascist, as some of his more hyperventilating opponents claim. Fascists don’t allow midterm elections. When he saysjournalists are the “enemy of the people”, he is trying to brainwash his core voters into rejecting any portrayal that doesn’t show him as a superhero. Trump and his supporters revel in a wilful denial of reality. They demonstrate a delight in their brute power to dispense with truth and never face punishment for it.
American journalists worry that the lies are so barefaced they will get a reporter murdered. They probably will; an alleged rightwing terrorist has already tried to bomb CNN. But unlike genuine dictators, Trump cannot order the arrest of reporters who displease him. The real malice of his presidency lies in the permission he grants to regimes that can.
In London last week, the Foreign Office helped arrange a conference for young journalists from semi-autocratic countries. When I spoke, I emphasised that British journalists should never allow anyone to call us “brave” or “courageous” or claim those titles ourselves. We can criticise politicians at will and never fear the sound of a policeman’s fist thumping on our doors. “Britain isn’t Turkey or Hungary or Malta,” I said.
But before Trump, Malta wasn’t the Malta we now know: the rancid island where Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in 2017 after investigating money laundering and the sale of citizenship, and Malta’s Labour government responded by smearing her memory and the anti-corruption campaigners demanding answers.
Slovakia wasn’t Slovakia until Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were murdered by a contract killer after Kuciak investigated links between the mafia and the country’s elite. Robert Fico, the then prime minister, responded as Trump would have responded, denouncing the citizens who took to the streets as foreign agents in the pay of the demonic George Soros.
Turkey was a Nato member and military dictatorship engaged in a civil war against its Kurdish minority when the supposedly “liberal” west was at its height in the 20th century – we should have no time for fake nostalgia. But in 2018, President Erdoğan has used the excuse of a failed coup to undertake a Stalinesque purge of the army, judiciary and civil service in which tens of thousands have been imprisoned or fired. Hundreds of journalists have been put on trial as “terrorists” or found themselves unable to work. One, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the assembled reporters that writing was his life, it was all he could do and all he wanted to do. But he was writing in a vacuum now: hardly anyone dared publish him.
Aside from protesting about Turkey’s imprisonment of a US pastor, the Trump administration’s sole concern has been the grotesque game in which Erdoğan, who imprisons more journalists than any other tyrant on the planet, pretends to care about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi so he can score points against Saudi Arabia, which flogs and imprisons supporters of peaceful reform.
No corrupt bureaucrat or vicious policeman in eastern Europe, Saudi Arabia, Malta or Turkey is restrained by fear of the west’s reaction, because Trump has closed the west down. The same indifference will be on display when Jair Bolsonaro gets to work on the opposition in Brazil.
The effect Trump has on the world is as bad as, I would say worse than, his effect on America. No one will be able to prove that the gunman who killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue would not have become a lethal antisemite if Trump were not screaming out the theory that George Soros was trying to flood white America with immigrants. But Viktor Orbán knows that the US will say nothing as he uses the same conspiracy theory as an excuse to rob Hungarians and deprive them of their liberties.
Many will not miss the west. Few like foreigners telling them how to run their countries, even if their motives are impeccable. Western motives have been far from that. Since the start of the cold war, the charge has always been that former imperialists preached liberalism and democracy while supporting every type of Latin American torturer, African kleptomaniac and Middle Eastern autocrat. All that has been lost since Trump took power is the small chance that western governments could on occasion live up to their values.
Those who believe that hypocrisy is the greatest vice ought to be relieved. But I doubt they will like the bare, unhypocritical world that is upon us. Everywhere, the depraved are looking at Trump as Stalin looked at Hitler and crying: “Splendid!”