Oswald Spengler- a great historian of merit , repute and a polymath- whose interests and specialization included the philosophy and meaning of history, attained great fame for predicting the decline of the West. Written in the context of the Treaty of Versailles and general economic depredations which hit Germany hard, Oswald rather boldly predicted the periodization of this decline. The great scholar of history even as far as positing that “ about the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre-death emergency whose countering would necessitate Caesarism –that is, extraconstitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of the central government. While Spengler can be faulted for/over the nature of periodization , the general thrust of his thesis appears to hold validity. An eloquent or even eerie reminder of the great historian’s thesis is the assumption of Donald Trump’s assumption of the highest office in the United States- the country that became lodestar and leader of the Western world, especially in the aftermath of the Second Great War.
It could be said that the West or the Western construct assumed significance and morphed into a great civilization after its Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. The Renaissance and capitalist modernity that followed it accorded the central impetus to Western civilization. But for the dark period of what may be called Western expansion- Imperialism and Colonialism- the West had a string of stupendous achievements to its credit. These were in domains as varied as science, politics, economics, and industrialization and so on. As the West evolved and continued its staggering path toward modernity, it faced, in the preceding century, the most significant challenges to its coherence and underlying philosophy in the form of Nazism and Fascism, and the two Great Wars. It, however, survived. The post war world was defined by the assumption of the United States as the leader of the West. The redeeming feature of this world was a greater opening up of the West and trailblazing ideas like human rights, greater mobility of peoples and , tolerance , of course, in relative terms. While I may be guilty of elision here by ignoring certain insalubrious aspects and feature of the post war world, but I would not perhaps be wrong in positing that , in the main, the direction of the world , in this period- rather short in the long duree span of history- was toward progress, especially if viewed from a Kantian perspective.
That is, till Trump assumed the presidency of the United States.
Whist the structural reasons for Trump’s ascendancy have been delineated and elaborated upon by many eminence grises, the implications and consequences remain rather under explained. I will, given this, not dwell on these reasons. The core of the philosophy that undergirds what may be called Trumpism is insularity, intolerance , insensitivity and parochial populism. (Obiter Dictum, the reification and implementation of these themes hark back to Oswald’s “Caesarism”- the extra constitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of the Government). Trump’s populist credo of, “ Making America Great Again”, correspond to the themes of insularity, intolerance and insensitivity. The Muslim immigration ban, the retreat from human rights- ideas that had gained great normative currency and consensus across the world-, retreat of the United States into itself, broader immigration controls , retreat from the Climate Change Accords and a broader disdain for the institutions and procedures of democracy might constitute examples of Trumpism. In combination and cumulatively, these developments and trends suggest a retreat of some principles that could have been said to be the redeeming features of the West.
While some might quibble with the argument and state that my point of reference is the United States and that this is an inadequate sample size from which a momentous inference as the decline of the West might not be drawn, this critique would be cancelled out by the fact that Trumpism finds an echo in many parts of the West. (Macron’s victory in France and perhaps Merkel’s in Germany later on in the year might be exceptions to the norm).
Leadership and power derived from it , in this day and age, essentially stems from a commitment to and defence of principles. It is not, to paraphrase Stalin, not about the divisions of tanks that a country owns. By succumbing to the noxious melee of populism and nativism, or Trumpism, the West is abdicating its claim to leadership. The corollary might that it is in decline , albeit not in exact form(s) postulated by Spengler. But, in decline, it appears to be in. The question now is: If the West is in decline, who or what will replace the West? The postulated decline of the West is not accruing from an external challenger; it is predicated on internal reasons and disarray. There then , as of now, is no imminent replacement of/for the West. But what might happen is, that to stem decline and disarray, the West might seek an “Other” to maintain its coherence. This would entail what the great American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, called the “Clash of Civilizations” – a thesis contested and contended by many but which might still be reified albeit under a different set of circumstances and in different forms. The only thing that might pre-empt this scenario is the defeat of Trumpism and Trump’s departure from public office. The question is: will he? The answer lies in the domain of contingency but implied is the answer will be the nature, pattern , meaning and direction of history.
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