Polarisation, liberalism and the future US president

Polarisation, liberalism and the future US president Former US President Donald Trump leaves the courthouse after a jury found him guilty of all 34 felony counts in his criminal trial at New York State Supreme Court in New York City, May 30, 2024. Photo: OSV News/Justin Lane, pool via Reuters

Readers familiar with the Irish actor and comedian Jimmy O’Dea might recall his monologue: “Thank heavens, we are living in Rathgar.” When I was a diplomat in Portugal some years ago, I used to say to myself, “Thank heavens that I live in Estoril”. It’s a very beautiful place about 25km from Lisbon. Driving home from the embassy along the marginal, the car radio might sometimes play the recently released Bryan Adams song ‘18 ‘til I die’, and so attractive is the landscape that one could easily believe in such age-defying bravado.

Estoril Political Forum

I was back recently for the three-day Estoril Political Forum (EPF) at the Hotel Palácio. Organised by the Institute of Political Studies of Universiade Católica Portuguesa, the purpose of the event was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Portuguese revolution of 1974 and to look to the future of democracy’s third wave. The latter is a reference to a seminal work by Samuel P. Huntington The Third Wave – Democratization In The Late Twentieth Century (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). Huntington wrote that “The third wave of democratisation in the modern world began, implausibly and unwittingly, at twenty-five minutes after midnight, Thursday, April 25, 1974, in Lisbon Portugal when a radio station played the song ‘Grandola Vila Morena’”. Thus Wall Street Journal columnist and EPF panelist William A. Galston was justified when in a recent column he described Portugal as “a small country with an outsize influence on modern politics”.

The EPF brought together academics and think tankers from both sides of the Atlantic and Macao, as well as students from UCP and other European universities. The opening session featured presentations by former Portuguese Prime Minister and European Commission President Jose Durao Barroso, and leading democracy theorist Larry Diamond of Stanford University. The latter declared that the day Donald Trump was elected in 2016 had been the worst day of his life. Larry, you’re a terrific political scientist and I really liked your book Ill Winds, but donnez-moi un break!

China and the Vatican

Day two of the forum led off with a fascinating session on the role of Catholic universities in academic diplomacy and democratic engagement. The highlight was the contribution by Rev Stephen Morgan, Rector of the University of St Joseph (USJ), Macao, and Vice President of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. During the Q&A he was asked whether the 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China had affected his work, and what he thought of the agreement generally. He had just come to Macao when it was signed, and outlined his views as follows.

Geopolitically the Chinese believe that the rules of the international order were agreed before they were at the table, so they think the rules are rigged”

Initially he was enthusiastic about the prospect of more open engagement, but now thinks he had been naively optimistic. The agreement was a fantastic political card played by the Chinese government to control the underground church, adding that it would be possible to comment better on the agreement if we knew what was in it – its contents have not been revealed. It appears to play little or no direct part in the work of his university, although it was conceivable that there were things going on in the background of which he was unaware. Geopolitically the Chinese believe that the rules of the international order were agreed before they were at the table, so they think the rules are rigged. The sinicisation of religion is behind that, and we – i.e., the West – don’t make a good case for ourselves, here mentioning the upcoming US elections as an example. We should manifest why democracy might be a good idea, rather than taking it as self-evident.

Sharp power

There followed a session on ‘sharp power’ in which Prof Dóra Györffy of Corvinius University, Budapest expressed concern that important trade-offs in a climate change/relations with China context were not being recognised by the EU. She said that Hungary is playing a very important role in China’s EV export strategy, with huge factories being built in this central European country, meaning that Chinese surveillance is coming to Hungary as well. She is worried about the dangers of privileging technologies dominated by China and sees the Hungarian case as a warning to the whole EU. In the meantime the FT has reported that the European Commission announced it would provisionally apply additional duties on imported Chinese EVs from July.

US elections

Given that we are in a US Presidential election year, it was timely that the final session was devoted to looking ahead to that. University of Virginia Professor John Owen focused on the high level of polarisation in the United States, which has in effect become an almost evenly divided 50:50 country. He sees a lot of the problem as having to do with the way liberalism has evolved. He divided this into three stages: classical, welfare, and open. The main culprit, if you like, is open liberalism in the way it has joined together economic ‘neoliberalism’ from the right and cultural and social liberalism from the left. Millions of Americans have become alienated by de-industrialisation mixed with elimination of traditional norms, leading to a “cocktail of maladies” and a “destructive dialectic”.

William A Galston (WSJ, Brookings Institution) opened with an assertion: everything which had been discussed that afternoon – the future of Ukraine as well as of the Transatlantic Alliance/NATO – depended on the outcome of the November election. As to the issues, he sees inflation as top of the list, and mentioning in addition: fundamental cultural divisions; immigration; abortion; climate change; threats to democracy; and the age/character of the respective candidates. Biden is a trans-Atlanticist in his bones, who has pushed for a massive programme of aid to Ukraine at considerable political cost. Trump, on the other hand, has no admiration for Ukraine, seeing it as the source of many of his problems. As to Trump having said that he’d end that war in 24 hours, Galston suggested that the terms for that would be, in one word: “Munich.”

Trump has a wide variety of choices for his running mate – will he have the self-discipline to choose the right one?”

Galston also pointed to a big difference between the two candidates in regard to US relations with Europe. The Democrats had made their peace with Europe, Trump not. Trump sees the EU as a protectionist conspiracy, so if he wins in November we can expect things to be rocky, transatlantic-wise. If the election were to be held next week, Trump would win, but as to November, Galston said he didn’t know. The right question to ask is what could happen over the next five months to change the trajectory of voters’ intentions? The recent guilty verdict against Trump might have an effect, even if wasn’t doing so yet. At the very early debate scheduled for June 27, Biden has a lot to win or lose. Depicted as a doddering senile old fool, Biden could well do better than that, and might seem viable after all. The two political party conventions (Republicans in Milwaulkee, July; Democrats in Chicago, August) could have an impact on public opinion. Trump has a wide variety of choices for his running mate – will he have the self-discipline to choose the right one? If inflation’s downward trajectory allowed for interest rate cuts that could make a big difference.