President Trump ran on a platform of nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism from both economic and social standpoints; his anti-immigration stances and his proposed pro-tariff policies are salient examples of Mr. Trump’s embodiment of the populist ideals that seem to have taken hold of the U.S. voting constituency. As citizens, it is of great difficulty to look outwards amidst a tumultuous political climate, where unexpected and unforeseen legislation and initiatives are gaining momentum with each day, prompting even the most well-versed and politically literate individuals to find themselves outpaced by rapid developments in their own nation. This propensity to become detached from the ongoing affairs of the world around us is heightened by the tone being set by one’s own national government, devaluing the significance of international relations and interactions between different states, causing individuals to feel that there is a diminished importance of being aware of what is occurring in foreign lands. The disengagement with the international system on both an individual, institutional, and governmental level is worrisome, as we become less attuned to trends that are affecting nations indiscriminately. Populism had begun to create ripples throughout the world in the years leading up to the past U.S. election; this is just one example of how sweeping movements can be traced and predicted, perhaps even staved off and prevented altogether, if we only open our eyes.
Now, populism is not intrinsically bad. Definitionally, populism describes a movement in which individuals collectively band together against a government or institution made of elites. This sounds rather familiar to the spark that can ignite meaningful and successful revolutions, if we contextualize a chain of events as such within the American Revolution, for one. However, what is concerning about populism is the effects it can bring with it, notably a diminishing of domestic institutions that traditionally check the power of executive branches of power and government, particularly those which promote democratic ideals and prevent a consolidation of power within an all-powerful leader. As we have seen in many European nations throughout history, the rise of populism has been accompanied by a weakening of individual liberties, rights, and freedoms. We are now seeing a growing influence of right-wing movements and parties in nations that have long been heralded as beacons of liberal democracy: Britain, Germany, France, and most recently the Netherlands. This development has a few important implications for us as conscious and engaged citizens. We first ought to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of individuals throughout the world, irrespective of the nature of their regime or the state of populism in their respective nations; however, if we are able to recognize what many experts now consider to be an evident trend of populism, we ought to educate ourselves and understand how to reform our political systems or our international order to ensure that the deleterious impacts of populism can be prevented from striking. In addition, we need to ensure that as a constituency, we are pressuring our government to remain engaged in the international system and abreast of the dynamic relationships between and within states that will inevitably impact the future of our world. Not only is this necessary to prevent conflict and promote peace, but such cooperation and collaboration between nations is also the only way in which ongoing and potential global crises, such as global warming and nuclear armament, can be combatted most effectively.
In the wake of Mr. Trump’s inauguration and initial actions in office, we have seen marches, walkouts, and protests on issues ranging from immigration to women’s rights. It has been both heartening and inspiring to take part in these movements and to witness my friends, peers, former teachers, relatives, and mentors engage in an impactful way to make a statement. I want to urge each of us, however, to engage with issues that may seem like they are striking less close to home, and remain observant and aware of what is occurring in nations near and far. It is harder to notice a detachment from the arena of international politics when so much is going wrong at home, but the threat of a disruption to the fabric of our international order can have potentially devastating consequences, the ramifications of which may be near impossible to alleviate upon being actualized. What is happening here with respect to a surge of populism is also happening in other countries; our institutions have so far served our democracy steadfastly, maintaining checks and balances and preventing an overreach of executive power when conflicting with constitutional values. This may not be the case for other democracies and nations in which institutions and governing bodies may fall prey to populism’s diminutive effects, à la Hungary. Now is not the time to turn a blind eye to international affairs, nor is it the time to isolate ourselves from other nations and their affairs. We have a responsibility to hold our government accountable, not just on issues of domestic significance, but on the matters that impact the world around us.