Why Donald Trump will likely have the last laugh
FT chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman explains why the US president may go down as a leader who changed the course of history and embodied the spirit of an age
Produced by Joe Sinclair; filmed and edited by Petros Gioumpasis; additional footage from Reuters and Getty
When Donald Trump spoke at the UN last month, the audience laughed at him.
Didn't expect that reaction, but that's okay.
It was an unprecedented insult to an American president. But I've got an uneasy suspicion that Mr Trump may have the last laugh. The 45th US president could yet go down as a leader who changed the course of history and embodied the spirit of an age.
The German philosopher Georg Hegel wrote about world historical figures. Could Mr Trump be one of them? To qualify for that title, you don't have to be a good person, or even intelligent. You just have to change history.
The quintessential world historical figure of Hegel's era was Napoleon, whom the German thinker described as the world's spirit on horseback. The current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, explained in a recent interview, Hegel viewed great men as instruments of something far greater. He believes that an individual can indeed embody the zeitgeist, the world spirit, for a moment, but also that the individual isn't always clear they're doing so.
What the hell is going on?
If future historians do indeed decide that Mr Trump was a Hegelian world historical figure, what might they say?
First, that he broke decisively with the elite consensus about how the US should handle its relationship with the rest of the world. His method was to use US power much more overtly and brutally in an effort to rewrite the rules of the global order to America's advantage. In particular, Mr Trump decided that globalisation, embraced by all his predecessors, was actually a terrible idea that was weakening America's relative power and eroding the living standards of its people.
Mr Trump also decided that a richer, more powerful China was obviously bad news for America, and he became the first president to try to block China's rise. Whether or not this is a good idea, it's undoubtedly a historic development because it reverses more than 40 years of American foreign policy.
On the domestic front, future historians might note that Mr Trump was the first US president to notice the huge gap that had opened up between elite American opinion and that of the wider public on a range of issues, from immigration to trade to identity politics. But will all this radicalism be crowned with success?
From a Trumpian perspective, the early signs are promising. The US economy is booming while China's economy is sputtering. The US Supreme Court has been reshaped. Under crushing American pressure, Canada and Mexico have agreed to rewrite their trade deal with America. And Mr Trump stands a good chance of re-election in 2020.
Thank you very much.
Of course, it could all still go wrong. The Trump trade wars could backfire. The US economy could overheat. The stock market could tank. In the worst case, Mr Trump's confrontational style could lead to war with China or Russia.
But even ultimate failure and disaster might not invalidate Mr Trump's claim to be a truly historic president. The philosopher Hegel suggested that things usually end badly for figures who reshape history. They die early, like Alexander. They're murdered, like Caesar, or transported to St Helena, like Napoleon. A cheering thought perhaps for Mr Trump's many foes, if not for the man himself.