It was hardly much ado about nothing. In fact, there’s been nothing like it in decades. Donald Trump’s erratic utterances before, during and following the recent G7 meetings effectively kept the world attentive and coming unglued at the same time. The irony of the American president wanting a chair at the table for the Soviet Union while one of his key advisors called for a special seat in hell for Justin Trudeau wasn’t missed by anyone.
The attempt by the other G7 leaders to keep everything from unravelling was commendable, but there remained this abiding sense that the global order which has prevailed over much of the world since World War Two was in the process of unravelling.
Something is wrong and, in many ways, it has nothing to do with the bombastic American president. In reality, the arrangement between the key powers in the G7 hasn’t been all it pretended to be. Long before Trump, quiet deals were being assented to that saw to the growing disillusionment of Western citizens that would eventually turn into an angry populism and which would defy traditionalists and pundits alike. Donald Trump isn’t its source, only it’s progeny.
The list of failings is long and casting an extended shadow each successive year. The American Congress hasn’t passed any kind of comprehensive budget since 1994. The average American feels relentlessly squeezed out by a Washington that entertains 20 registered lobbyists for every member of Congress. And most of those lobbyists are there for one particular reason: to keep government from providing relief and prosperity that could threaten the elite financial consensus of the well to do. The global wealthy had enough resources, enough smarts, and enough threatening power to override the normal politics and the politicians elected to protect the middle and working classes.
In the developed West, it’s becoming increasing apparent that governments themselves have in fact protected a global financial order that rewards wealth over work and is content to see profits soar for the financial class while stagnating for the rest. And now the average person is catching on to the ruse and taking his or her anger out on not only one party or another, but on governments themselves. If the political elites will no longer protect them, then they will no longer protect the political and economic order that prevailed for decades. And they will elect those who naively promise to protect jobs and incomes. But, hey, what else can they do, when the prevailing system no longer works for them?
This is what is creating the chaos that turns a belligerent Trump into a hero for millions. The president intuits this dissatisfaction to a remarkable degree, even though he has no idea how the middle class or the poor live. That’s not the point – he champions them when governments no longer seem to care. Whether true or not (it is), this is now the rocket fuel that is driving modern democracy.
The link should be clear to all the G7 leaders: unless they fix the global economy in ways that bring prosperity once more, then the international order that has survived for decades will itself require radical repair. Climate change is important, as are millions of refugees and terrorism. But these take a back seat when jobs disappear, wages are stagnant, when the rich are protected and the rest left largely defenseless. Agree or not, this is the perspective that matters and the G7 leaders can feel its searing heat. A global order largely held together by an American economy that is failing its people and the rest of the world is feeling the pain.
The same governments that helped to bail out the financial industry by the billions following the 2007 fallout could have taken a good portion of those funds to create jobs and infrastructure and poverty relief and educational assistance, but they didn’t and now the gig is up. Politics might have moved on but the people remember and in that collective memory is power enough to overthrow any government that remains aloof. Canada, which often seems an oasis in this global turbulence, is hardly immune, as the election of Doug Ford attests.
Before all this descends into a kind of democratic madness, governments have the option of going after much of that wealth and the elites who once benefitted from democracy and the global order but have since abandoned it. This is the choice that awaits them: get wealth and prosperity to the people or get ready for a quick removal from office. Politics works best when citizens are economically protected. When they aren’t, no one is safe.