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 meeting 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 1, some monumental sense of historic betrayal. This leads to 2, a general outlook that says the world is a nasty place, and 3, a scarcity mind-set that says politics is a zero-sum game in which groups must viciously scramble to survive. This causes 4, a pervasive sense of distrust and suspicion, and 5, the rupture of any relationship built on friendship or affection, and finally 6, 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 Group of 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.
This is a fundamental challenge to the way politics is done. What Trump did to the G-7 is essentially the same thing he did to the G.O.P. He simply refused to play by everybody else’s rules and he effectively changed the game. Trump is really good at destroying systems people have lost faith in.
It’s why he is more comfortable dealing with dictators like Putin and Kim Jong-un than with democrats like Justin Trudeau. He and the dictators are basically playing the same game.
The episode illustrates that the core divide in our politics is no longer the conventional left-right divide. The core issue in our politics is over how we establish relationship. You can either organize relationship at a high level — based on friendship, shared values, loyalty and affection — or you can organize relationship at a low level, based on mutual selfish interest and a brutal, ends-justify-the-means mentality.
The grand project for those of us who believe in a high-level, civilized world order is to find ways to restore social trust. It is to find ways to restructure power — at all levels — in order to reinspire faith in the system. It is to find common projects — locally, globally and internationally — that diverse people can do together.
As Jonathan Sacks writes in his 2007 book, “The Home We Build Together,” there’s only one historically proven way for people to build community across difference. It’s when they build things together.
In his inaugural address as president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela said, “The time to build is upon us.” So it is now. That’s the only way to head off a moral race to the bottom.