Putin, for whom Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration, is also a cipher. The man may flirt with Russian Orthodoxy and pan-Slavism, but his depths, or lack thereof, can be more accurately sounded by watching his notorious performance of “Blueberry Hill” at a charity gala in 2010: terrifying in its dullness, in its passionless submusicality, it is exactly how you might imagine a karaoke night for teetotal on-duty spies. [See here.--ES] Trump himself is not an ethnonationalist ideologue; he is a trashy New York real-estate baron who has been thrust by the distortions of the mass media into a role for which he is supremely unsuited. This has not prevented sincere ethnonationalists such as Steve Bannon, a far-right media executive who has become Trump’s chief strategist, from riding his coattails to power.
Putin, Merkel, and Trump are all empty vessels into which the blind forces of history have flowed. None of these leaders chose the forces they have come to embody; Trump doesn’t even understand the currents he has been channeling. He still seems to believe that he is simply making deals for America, and knows so little of geopolitics that he is unable to grasp that what he in fact has done is capitulate to the ideology of Eurasianism — a global configuration in which Russia, the planet’s sole remaining hegemon, tolerates the continued existence of the United States as a white-nationalist vassal state. To see how much world-historical significance these figures have acquired is astounding, and yet such unlikely elevations have become a hallmark of the current moment....Justin Smith "Blood and Soil: The rise of vindictive nationalism" Harper's Magazine
Justin Smith puts his finger on an important feature of the moment: the lack of a clear intellectual compass in today's world historical leaders that goes well beyond an expression for pragmatism. The pragmatist politician gives lip service to liberal ideals, Trump and Putin display contempt for them. (I think he is a bit unfair to Merkel [I suspect because Smith is not very attuned to Christian Democracy], but leave that aside.) These politicians are unprincipled and, thereby, not party-men in the sense understood since Burke. For Burke a party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed. That is to say, party in Burke's sense is a philosophical enterprise with what we would call an ideological core that helps both define the national interest and the means to constitute it. Burke is very explicit about this because for him the politician... is the philosopher in action; he finds the "proper means towards those ends, and to employ them with effect."
As an aside, and interestingly enough, Theresa May is busy generating such a philosophical compass for herself by self-consciously reviving interest in Joseph Chamberlain. This also nuances Smith's claim that Brexit is a vote against Liberalism. Yes, leaving aside debates over numbers/turnout (etc.), let's stipulate that Brexit was a clear rejection of cosmopolitan (and technocratic) Liberalism; but if May follows through with her Chamberlain-esque vision then in many ways Brexit may (although need not) become a force for the revitalization of national liberalism. This would be welcome because it would reconnect liberalism to one of its roots as a broad social movement. It would not be wholly welcome because Chamberlain also expressed a racialist discourse and sensibility.
I started with Burke, and presented him as an Enlightenment thinker. Because we may see, then, in the rise of Trump and Putin not just the rejection of liberal values, but more broadly a rejection of Enlightenment ideas in a very broad sense. Their perhaps instinctive, understanding of politics -- which they see as operating in an unstable almost law-less, zero-sum environment (recall) -- would have been familiar to Enlightenment thinkers (they would have called it 'factional' based on species of personal loyalty, see Hume for a nice treatment.) So, I disagree with Smith that there has been a capitulation to an ideology of Eurasianism--both because I don't think of Putin as riding such and ideological wave, and as well as, second, Russia is too weak (economically and demographically) to be any kind of hegemon. The mystery of our time is, in fact, how Russia is allowed to punch above its weight. (It's not really a mystery [recall], but it's a failure of US statecraft and an odd willingness by China not to exploit its strength vis a vis Russia.)
In Justin Smith's hands Enlightenment politics vacillated between two enduring streams: "Voltaire’s universalism, wherever applied, is always a blind and destructive juggernaut; Rousseau’s resistance from below always grows dark eventually, if it does not start out that way." Both have a tendency to over-reach and break down into violence. But I don't think they exhaust the Enlightenment possibility space. This is why I started with Burke and mentioned Hume: there was an alternative, remarkably successful stream which aligned principles of authority and hierarchy to a local, experimental tradition that predominated in the English speaking Liberal and Conservative traditions and that resonated in the smaller Liberal states that form the wealthy periphery of Northern Europe (and Canada, New Zealand, Australia, etc.). It was the tradition that tried "to banish extremism and lead comfortable quiet lives within a society." It did not embrace "the principles of reason," but is founded in healthy skepticism about such principles. This stream may well be doomed absent Pax Americana and as the Big Powers become ever more illiberal.* But absent a reason to embrace historical determinism, I don't see why it is doomed.
So, I agree with Smith that there is a genuine possibility that we may transitioning to a post-Enlightenment stage [recall]. But I do not think it is inevitable. The wealthiest, the most populated, and culturally most dynamic parts of the United States are culturally still entrenched in the Liberal project. There will still be a few electoral chances to prevent the whole-sale destruction of the Republic. If Trump destroys Nato (as seems increasingly likely) it's not a foregone conclusion that Europe will become part of an illiberal Russian sphere of influence. An armed and politically assertive Germany, with its satellites, will, in fact, be a formidable power. The young have not uniformly turned their backs on Liberalism.
What is, however, urgent is a willingness to defend our boring and quiet liberal lives against the forces of authorianism. And this defense by politicians who are philosophers in action must co-coincide with major rethinking of the liberal understanding of (a) freedom of speech in the context of a for profit media; (b) a new approach to liberal leadership and rhetoric [as opposed to doubling down on proceduralism and technocracy (for an important essay see Robichaud [and my own piece]))]; (c) a willingness to revisit the role of modern finance; (d) a renewed willingness to embrace species of nationalism and regionalism as a means toward liberal ends (including, as Jacob Levy suggests, identity politics); (e) and we badly need fresh ideas to combat and undo the militarization and securitization of purportedly liberal states (and yes, there is a tension among these aims).
*Here is Justin Smith:
It seems that every earnest attempt to rationally rebuild society at some point crosses over, as if by natural law, into irrational violence. At present, we may be witnessing the beginning of an irreversible breakdown of American democracy. A form of authoritarian demagoguery is in the course of replacing the old hard-won system, and it is coming as an expression of the popular will of people who do not think of themselves as enemies of American political tradition — on the contrary, they wish to restore its greatness. It is a movement that gleefully rejects facts and arguments in favor of feeling, passionate group identification, and the titillating prospect of violence.