WHEN, IN 1993, Hamid Biglari left his job as a theoretical nuclear physicist at Princeton to join McKinsey consulting, what struck him was that “companies were displacing nations as the units of international competition.”
This seemed to him a pivotal change. International corporations have a different lens. They optimize globally, rather than nationally. Their aim is to maximize profits across the world — allocating cash where it is most beneficial, finding labor where it is cheapest — not to pursue some national interest.
The shift was fast-forwarded by advances in communications that rendered distance irrelevant, and by the willingness in most emerging markets to open borders to foreign investment and new technologies.
Hundreds of millions of people in these developing countries were lifted from poverty into the middle class. Conversely, in Western societies, a hollowing out of the middle class began as manufacturing migrated, technological advances eliminated jobs and wages stagnated.
Looking back, it’s now easy enough to see that the high point of democracy — the victory of open systems over the Soviet imperium that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989 and set free more than 100 million Central Europeans — was quickly followed by the unleashing of economic forces that would undermine democracies. Far from ending history, liberalism triumphant engendered a reaction.
The global view did not suit everyone. In what the French call the “periphery” — areas far from the wired metropolis — it began to look like a not-so-subtle sabotaging of the nation. The moneyed got to run a rigged system, in a different universe from those whose lives remained local.
As inequality grew nationally (while narrowing globally), and impunity for financial disaster accompanied it, anger mounted. Frustration translated into an increasingly xenophobic search for scapegoats.
Three decades on, nationalism, nativism and illiberalism are ascendant, from Donald Trump’s United States, to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland, to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. It’s an astonishing turnabout, but it has its logic.
Thirty years after the French Revolution, the conservative reaction of the Bourbon Restoration was in full swing. Globalization torpedoed the conviction of 1990 that liberal democratic convergence was inevitable. If we live today at an inflection point, it is because it’s impossible to say how much further rightist and illiberal authoritarianism may go.
Trump is a symptom, not a cause. That is why he may be hard to dislodge. He intuited the extent of American anger better than anyone. He also intuited a kind of cultural despair that made millions of Americans impervious to his lewd vulgarity — in fact, inclined to cheer him on in sticking it in the eye of the “establishment.”
He knew he could turn politics into a reality show, and he was right. In depression, people seek distraction. America’s opioid crisis is not in the pills, it’s in the desperate, atomized circumstances that surround and spread them.
Biglari pointed out that while the unemployment rate in the United States — the percentage of the population over 16 not employed but looking for work — is down to 4 percent, the employment rate — the percentage of the population actually working — tells a different story. It stood at around 67 percent in the 1990s, and has since declined to about 63 percent of the adult population. “Many people are so discouraged, they have stopped looking for work,” he told me.
There are echoes of Trump all over the world. Nowhere are they more poignant than in Poland. There, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement overturned Communist rule and set in motion the changes that would produce a united and democratic Europe. But, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Poland’s nationalist leaders now want Walesa “scrubbed from official memory.” He is seen as the traitorous agent of Poland’s dissolution within the European Union and NATO — what Kaczynski has called “self-annihilation.”
No matter that Poland is an economic success story. No matter that most Poles live unimaginably better, freer and more secure lives than they would have without Walesa’s courage. What matters is the nation resurgent against imagined immigrant hordes and multilateral bureaucrats.
These currents run deep. Their irrationality is a galvanizing force. Trump is a lightning rod for every bully. In Davos, the president said: “When people are forgotten the world becomes fractured. Only by hearing and responding to the voices of the forgotten can we create a bright future that is truly shared by all.”
Of course, when the “forgotten” is a refugee, forget about it. Or when the forgotten is a poor child who needs health care, or a woman who needs contraception, or an undocumented immigrant, forget about it. The word Trump did not use was “education.” America’s education system has failed to respond to technological disruption. Only huge investment — what Biglari calls a Marshall Plan for education — can change that.
Biglari, by the way, was born in Iran. He came here as an immigrant in the 1970s. He went on to become vice chairman of Citicorp. Not Trump’s kind of guy, but a reminder that open societies work.