Occasionally you can see eternity in a speck of time, and occasionally you can see the logic of an entire historic moment in one event. And so it was with the Group of 7 summit last weekend in Quebec.
The failure of that summit wasn’t fundamentally about trade, or even the Western alliance. It was about the steady collapse of the postwar order and the way power structures are being reorganized and renegotiated across societies and across the world.
The postwar order was a great historic achievement. The founding generation built a series of organizations and alliances to fight communism, create a stable trading system, combat global poverty and promote democracy.
But the next generation lost the thread.
European elites were so afraid of nationalism that they fell for the illusory dream of convergence — the dream that nations could effortlessly merge into a cosmopolitan Pan-European community. Conservatives across the Western world became so besotted with the power of the market that they forgot what capitalism is like when it’s not balanced by strong communities.
Progressives were so besotted with their own educated-class expertise that they concentrated power upward and away from the people at the same time that technology was pushing power downward and toward the people. Elites of all stripes were so detached they didn’t see how untrammeled meritocracy divides societies between the “fittest” and the rest.
Those who lost faith in this order began to elect wolves in order to destroy it. The wolves — whether Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or any of the others — don’t so much have shared ideology as a shared mentality.
It begins with some monumental sense of historic betrayal. This leads to a general outlook that says the world is a nasty place and a scarcity mindset that says politics is a zero-sum game in which groups must viciously scramble to survive. This causes a pervasive sense of distrust and suspicion and the rupture of any relationship built on friendship or affection and, finally, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as the common good.
Wolves perceive the world as a war of all against all and seek to create the world in which wolves thrive, which is a world without agreed-upon rules, without restraining institutions, norms and etiquette.
What you see then is not merely a disagreement about trade or this or that, but two radically different modes of politics, which you might call high-trust politics versus low-trust politics.
The G-7 is an organization built in a high-trust age. It’s based on the idea that the member nations have shared values, have shared historical accomplishments, have a carefully nurtured set of relationships and live in a community of general friendship. Canada and the U.S. are neighbors and friends.
But in the low-trust Trumpian worldview, values don’t matter; there are only interests. In the Trumpian worldview, friendship is just a con that other people try to pull on you before they screw you over. The low-trust style of politics is realism on steroids.
Whether it’s on the world stage, at home or in his own administration, Trump is trying to transform the nature of relationships. Trump takes every relationship that has historically been based on affection, loyalty, trust and reciprocity and turns it into a relationship based on competition, self-interest, suspicion and efforts to establish dominance. By destroying trust and reciprocity he creates an environment in which he can thrive.