The First Election of the Anthropocene
October 20, 2016
Above, Eminem’s new “Campaign Speech”. There is nothing wrong with your screen.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to something that John Kerry told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, earlier this year. Asked about the importance of the Middle East to the United States, Kerry answered entirely about the Islamic State.
“Imagine what would happen if we don’t stand and fight [ISIS],” he said:
If we didn’t do that, you could have allies and friends of ours fall. You could have a massive migration into Europe that destroys Europe, leads to the pure destruction of Europe, ends the European project, and everyone runs for cover and you’ve got the 1930s all over again, with nationalism and fascism and other things breaking out. Of course we have an interest in this, a huge interest in this.
The 1930s all over again—Kerry was laying out a prediction in April, but it soundsa little more like description now. Even if America’s current dunderheaded demagogue loses the presidential election, the European project already falters in the United Kingdom, and Russia rumbles with revanchism. Fueled now (as then) by an ailing global economy, far-right nationalism seems ascendant worldwide. It’s hard not to think of the 1930s as the catastrophe which presaged our contemporary tragicomedy.
I write and report on climate change, not a pursuit that usually encourages optimism, but watching all this unfold with the atmosphere in mind has been particularly bleak. For the past few months in particular, I’ve been thinking: Wow, this is all happening way earlier than I thought it would.Spend enough time with some of the worst-case climate scenarios, and you may start to assume, as I did, that a major demagogue would contest the presidency in the next century. I figured that the catastrophic consequences of planetary warming would all but ensure the necessary conditions for such a leader, and I imagined their support coming from a movement motivated by ethnonationalism, economic stagnation, and hatred of immigrants and refugees. I pictured, in other words, something not so far from Trump 2016.
I just assumed it wouldn’t pop up until 2040.
This kind of worry is speculative—very speculative—but it is not ungrounded. A large body of scholarship suggests that climate change could exert grave effects on international politics this century. Planet-wide warming will dry out regions of the world already riven with ethnic and political strife, all the while impoverishing and destabilizing the Western powers that backstop global order. A recent study even argues that climate-triggered environmental shocks will exacerbate the very divisions that authoritarians have historically sought to exploit.
So to now watch a demagogue contest the presidency, running a campaign that appeals to racism and xenophobia, has felt less like the sudden apparition of an unfathomable nightmare and more like the early realization of a seasonal forecast. You can hear the long-predicted gusts, the rain pounding on the roof and the groaning thunder. It’s all just happening four decades earlier than the weather person said.So I want to propose a new way of understanding Donald Trump. He not only represents a white racial backlash, and he has not only opened the way for an American extension of the European far right. Insofar as his supporters are drawn to him by a sense of global calamity, and insofar as his rhetoric singles out the refugee as yet another black and brown intruder trying to violate the nation’s cherished borders, Trump is the first demagogue of the Anthropocene.
We should take Trump at his word when he calls Syrian refugees “one of the great Trojan horses,” or when his son bizarrely describes them as Skittles that “will kill you.” In Europe, Trump’s far-right kin have long blurred the differences between legal immigration, Islamist terrorism, and the refugees fleeting the Syrian War. After the Paris attacks last year, one leader of the French far-right National Front said, “Today, we can see that immigration has become favorable terrain for the development of Islamism.”
This xenophobia is grounded in real-life trends. I will focus on two in particular: moribund economic growth and the mass migration of non-white people. Both will likely intensify as the planet warms. (A third vital trend—the political and cultural upheaval of the U.S. racial hierarchy—will not vary with climate change.)
I’m back from Miami, where the dynamic is well in motion.