From Cold War to Cold War, in just one generation; or at least, that’s how it feels this week, to those of us who lived through the last one. Former Russian spies allegedly poisoned on the streets of British cities, stern denials from blank-faced ambassadors, technological warfare threatening to distort and destroy political debate in the West, severe internal repression in Russia, and an autocratic leader, his face projected to huge size on a screen behind him, announcing a new generation of nuclear weapons that can evade any missile defence system. Oh yes, we have come a long way in the wrong direction since the heady days of the early 1990s, when barriers were crashing down everywhere, and it seemed only a matter of time before Russia would be joining Nato.
Nor does any of it seem strictly necessary, in rational terms; indeed the more cloak-and-dagger aspects of the current stand-off between Russia and the West, grave though they are for those involved, have a slight air of retro parody about them, like recreations of scenes from a novel by John Le Carre, or even John Buchan; and faced with images of Vladimir Putin in his pomp – a man much given, in his mid-60s, to displaying his impressive gym muscles in outdoor holiday snaps of himself – many people in the West are more inclined to laugh than to quake with fear.
The whole spectacle of the West’s current interactions with Russia – and of Russia itself, under Putin – presents, in other words, an odd mixture of the almost comic and the completely chilling. And it is eerily echoed in the West by the career of Putin’s great admirer Donald Trump, a man dismissed as a joke by many before his election, and still fairly laughable after it – yet now the holder of the keys to the world’s greatest nuclear arsenal and the power to make or wreck the economic and personal lives of millions.
Nor are Putin and Trump alone. From Turkey and Hungary to the Philippines, the world suddenly seems full of right-wing populist leaders who talk endlessly, and usually nonsensically, about how their countries have been put down, not heard, or subjected to “bad deals” by wily and aggressive enemies. Even Britain’s Brexit campaign, with its constant framing of Brexit as a “war” experience, and the EU as the “enemy”, is not free from such infantile language. It would be funny, if the losses we are about to experience were not so sad; in fact, even as those losses become ever more obvious, it still remains a slightly comic spectacle.
Here is the frightening thing, though; that where genuinely grim, violent and authoritarian forces emerge in history, they very often come with this strange double aspect of absurdity and terror. In the 1930s, most people in Europe thought Hitler a ridiculous little man, and Mussolini not much better. As late as 1939, many Jews in Germany struggled to believe that they were facing a choice between exile and extermination; it seemed, and was, absurd, but it happened. At the beginning of the Yugoslav war in the 1990s, young people across former Yugoslavia found the whole idea surreal, and struggled to believe that the peaceful federation in which they had grown up could be led into bloody civil war by a bunch of third-rate leaders few seemed to take seriously; but it happened, and 140,000 people died.
So today, we find it hard to believe that a noisy blowhard like Trump, or a vain and posturing autocrat like Putin, could take us all to the brink of nuclear destruction, or so undermine our Western institutions that Europe once again becomes the war-ravaged continent of 1918 or 1945; yet they could, and we should recognise it. The main defences against the populism of war-mongering leaders are well known, of course. Social democratic societies which make a good job of redistributing wealth and power, which offer serious opportunities to all, and which make sure every citizen is secure in the dignity of a home, a job, and the prospect of a better future, do not elect aggressive populist leaders like Trump and Putin, and are not angry enough to thirst for war.
Now, though, we are living in a Western world which, a generation ago, began to lose sight of that elementary political wisdom. Even as the Berlin Wall fell, politicians in Britain and America were beginning to knock away the pillars of social harmony in their own societies, and to export to the east an extreme model of capitalism that would only plague those societies with more tension, insecurity, and elite criminality; and now, a generation on, we are living in a political world once again increasingly dominated by the oldest lie in the book – that foreigners and “others” are responsible for all our ills – and the ranting political snake-oil salesmen who peddle it.
Back in 1940, when most of the evil of which Nazism was capable was still unknown, Charlie Chaplin released his film The Great Dictator, which made fun of a Hitler-figure called Adenoid Hynkel. He said later that had he known the full horror of the regime he was satirising, he would never have made the film.
Yet in a sense, I think Chaplin did us all a favour, in making clear three truths. First, that dictatorial and war-mongering regimes are ridiculous, as are the belief-systems they tend to embrace. Second, that their absurdity does not make them any less lethal or terrifying, when they act on those beliefs; and third, that the horror they can inflict does not, in the end, make them and their beliefs any less absurd. So as we enter this new age of right-wing demagoguery, we need to hold fast to our goodwill and common sense, and laugh as lustily as we can at the divisive lies peddled by hate-mongering leaders the world over; while always remembering the desperate harm and devastation leaders like these can wreak, if we once let them into power and fail to resist the destructive and dangerous use they make of it, every step of the way.