NEW YORK — The long wave unfurled at last. Perhaps it is no surprise that the two societies that felt its furious force — the United States and Britain — are also the open societies at the hub of globalized turbo-capitalism and finance. For at least a decade, accelerating since the crash of 2008, fears and resentments had been building over the impunity of elites, the dizzying disruption of technology, the influx of migrants and the precariousness of modern existence.
In Western societies, for too long, there had been no victories, no glory and diminishing certainties. Wars were waged; nobody knew how they could be won. Their wounds festered. The distance between metropolis and periphery grew into a cultural chasm. Many things became unsayable; even gender became debatable. Truth blurred, then was sidelined, in an online tribal cacophony.
Jobs went. Inequality thrust itself in your face. What the powerful said and the lives people lived were so unrelated that politics looked increasingly like a big heist. Debacle followed debacle — the euro, the Iraq War, the Great Recession — and their architects never paid. Syria encapsulated the West’s newfound impotence, a kind of seeping amorality; and, in its bloody dismemberment, Syria sent into Europe a human tide that rabble-rousers seized upon.
And so the British voted to quit the European Union, symbol of a continent’s triumph over fascism and destructive nationalism. Americans voted on Nov. 8 for Donald J. Trump, who used much of the xenophobic, fear-mongering language of 1930s Europe to assemble an angry mob large enough that he triumphed over a compromised Hillary Clinton. Neither victory was large, but democracies can usher in radical change by the narrowest of margins. To give the Republican president-elect his due, he intuited an immense disquiet and spoke to it in unambiguous language.
A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown and Marine Le Pen may demonstrate in the French presidential election next year, is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,” Muslim migration and the tyrannical consensus of overpaid experts. The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear. Nobody excites Mr. Trump as much as Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, who is to democracy what a sledgehammer is to a Ming vase. Strongmen and autocrats everywhere — not least in Egypt and the Gulf states — are exulting at Mr. Trump’s victory.
It is too early to say what Mr. Trump will do and how many of his wild campaign promises he will keep, but it’s safe to predict turbulence. Irascibility, impetuosity and inattention define him, however curtailed they may prove to be by his entourage and the responsibilities of power. He is, for now, in over his head.
NATO will grow weaker. Baltic States will feel more vulnerable. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, backed by a Putin-Trump entente, will grow stronger. Chinese-American trade tensions will sharpen, in approximate sync with military tensions in the East and South China seas. The Iran nuclear deal, painstakingly negotiated by the major powers, could unravel, making the Middle East exponentially more dangerous. Any jihadi attack or other assault on America will not be met with restraint; Mr. Trump seems to regard nukes as an underused asset.
Fossil fuels will make a comeback. The world’s Paris-enshrined commitment to fight climate change will be undermined. The approximately 65 million migrants on the move, about one-third of them refugees, will find shelter and dignity scarce as xenophobic nationalism moves into the political mainstream across Central Europe and elsewhere. Technology’s implacable advance, and the great strides being made by artificial intelligence, will test Mr. Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. Some forms of employment are gone forever, and not even a self-styled savior can conjure their return. The Trans-Pacific Partnership already looks dead; other trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which symbolized the ever-more-open trading system of past decades, could be nixed or substantially diluted.
Will all this assuage the people’s ire? Perhaps Mr. Trump really does have some fairy dust he can scatter for a while. But of course “the people” were only part of a divided population, millions and millions of whom did not want — and will resist — the global nationalist and authoritarian lurch. They will do so on the streets, in the courts, via the press and through the checks and balances the framers of the Constitution created precisely to rein in a demagogue. Still, Mr. Trump has enormous powers, a Republican-controlled Congress and a mission to make America great again, whatever that means or takes.
The struggle to preserve liberalism will be long. It may well be led now by the likes of Angela Merkel in Germany and Justin Trudeau in Canada. The mantle of custodian of the well-being of the free world sounds like a rip-off to Mr. Trump, who thinks deals and little else. It could well be that America has passed the torch.
Western democracies are in the midst of an upheaval they only dimly grasp. Virtual direct democracy through social media has outflanked representative democracy. The impact of the smartphone on the human psyche is as yet scarcely understood; its addictiveness is treacherous and can be the enemy of thought. Mr. Trump hijacked the Republican Party like a man borrowing a dinner jacket for an evening. His campaign moved through Twitter to the aroused masses; it had no use or need for conventional channels. The major political parties in Britain and the United States will have to prove their relevance again.
Democracies, it is clear, have not been delivering to the less privileged, who were disenfranchised or discarded in the swirl of technology’s advance. A lot of thought is now needed to find ways to restore faith in liberal, free-market societies; to show that they can be fairer and more equitable and offer more opportunities across the social spectrum. Germany, with its successful balance of capitalism and solidarity, its respect for the labor force and its commitments to both higher education and technical training, offers one model. The rage of 2016 will not abate by itself.
The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.
This is an article from Turning Points, a magazine that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.