We will know if the constituency that has spent so much energy and credibility arguing that Fidel Castro’s achievements — they were considerable — justified his tyrannical suppression of opposition will have to wonder again where it all went so terribly wrong. That constituency’s fear, and the fears of the wider world, are exacerbated by president-elect Trump’s appointment of James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as America’s secretary of defence. Mr Trump’s endorsement — “He’s our best. They say he’s the closest thing to General George Patton that we have” — is another frightening example of the property developer’s dangerous ignorance. The dust had hardly settled on WWII’s catastrophe, when Patton had to be forcibly restrained. He wanted to immediately attack Russia and start World War III. Had he, rather than Marshall, prevailed, what a very different world this would be.
Those ghosts will especially haunt Austria tomorrow, as it elects a new president. Those same ghosts will be present at a Sunday referendum in Italy, but will probably cast a lighter shadow over it. Austria, if the polls are correct, is about to become the first European country to elect a hard-right leader since the post-war period. Italy, again if the polls are correct, is about to turn a referendum into a damning mid-term judgement of prime minister, Matteo Renzi. The referendum, aimed at streamlining government, accelerating reform, and rejuvenating the economy, is seen as a vote on Renzi’s government’s steadfast commitment to the European project, despite more tough love than seems bearable.
To the north of the Alps, Norbert Hofer is running on an ‘Austria first’ ticket in the re-run election. Hofer has repeatedly asserted his age — he was born in 1971 — to distance his party from its fascist roots, all the while advancing arguments worn threadbare by his predecessors. Long-recognised as apologists — at least — for anti-Semitism, his party has added Islamophobia to its enthusiasms. His opponent is the centrist Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, a pro-EU establishment figure. Austrians are expected to return to the ballot boxes within the year, so instability prevails.
These events may seem academic for Ireland — the Aran Islands of Europe — but if the swing to right-wing populism continues, the certainties underpinning our place in the world cannot be relied upon. The EU, in so many ways the best thing that’s happened to Ireland since independence, will be further weakened. The euro’s future is unsure. America, the source of so much investment in Ireland — time and capital and goodwill — will be less interested in the outside world. Britain, so pivotal to our past and our future, may be locked behind a wall of tariffs for goods and people.
Economist John Maynard Keynes is credited with the reality check: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The facts are changing and we may have to soon review our position on many of the things we hold dear.