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Dangerous wave of discontent

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The success in New Hampshire of the populist and reckless Donald Trump for the Republican nomination and Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate for the Democrats, underlines the growing disillusionment among American voters with the Washington and New York establishments. Disillusionment with the political “establishment” is not unique to the United States.

In Britain, the U.K. Independence Party began as an anti-establishment anti-European Union organization. It also adopted a populist anti-immigration stance. Its espousal of populist prejudices was soon taken up by the strident voices of the Euroskeptic right in the Tory (Conservative) party.

The Labour Party, now in opposition, had become part of the establishment but has been hijacked by left-wing anti-establishment activists who engineered the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a serial rebel against the party establishment, as leader.

In France neither the socialist establishment under President Francois Hollande nor the center-right under his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy has succeeded in reforming France’s overweight bureaucracy and finding ways of integrating France’s Muslim immigrant population. This and Islamic terrorism have led to a surge in support for the right-wing National Front under Marine Le Pen.

Anti-austerity parties in Spain, Portugal and Greece continue to cause problems for the European Union. Catalonian nationalists pose a threat to Spanish unity. Even in Scandinavia, which has long been regarded as the most stable area in the EU, right-wing anti-establishment parties have grown in strength. Eastern European countries, which queued up to join the EU, have become increasingly resistant to German dominance and opposed to interference from Brussels. Right-wing parties and extremists on the left are growing in strength and pose a threat to the democratic process in Europe.

In Japan, disillusionment with the political and business establishment is widespread, but has not coalesced round a party or a particular leader. An attempt by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to force through revision of the Constitution might act as a catalyst for a confrontation between the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party and opponents of constitutional revision.

Anti-establishment feeling is partly a response to the proliferation of bureaucratic rules and ever more complicated laws and regulations. Why can’t “they,” i.e. the “faceless” bureaucrats, get off our backs and let us get on with our lives without interference? This demand is often made in parallel with contradictory calls for steps to do more to eradicate corrupt practices and for more stringent measures to ensure public health and safety.

Denunciation of the political establishment is also a reaction to the ever growing disparity between a limited “elite” of super rich (the “have yachts”) and most people who live on average or below average incomes (the “have-nots”). Antagonism toward the very wealthy stems primarily from a belief that no one can be worth the astronomical multiples of average earnings, which some CEOs and top bankers, especially in the U.S. and Britain, “earn.” Japan used to be a more equal society, but the gap between the very rich and the rest has widened in recent decades.

In Britain, the situation has been exacerbated by what has been described as the foreign “kleptocracy,” which has bought up swaths of high-end London property in the names of companies registered in tax havens, thus “money laundering” their ill-gotten gains. The prices of properties in London are such that people on median salaries cannot afford to buy even a studio apartment, let alone a family house.

Anti-establishment sentiment is also fueled by worries over the loss of jobs due to imports from low cost countries. “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy the City” (of London) movements stem from fears about the effects of globalization.

Immigration is the other main source of popular disillusionment with government. In the U.S., millions of illegal immigrants have not been able to regularize their status because of Republican opposition to measures proposed by President Barack Obama. Fears about immigration spurred Donald Trump to call for a high wall along the U.S. frontier with Mexico and the exclusion of new Muslim immigrants.

In Europe, the relatively successful British economy has sucked in workers from Eastern Europe who are alleged to have “taken British jobs” despite the fact that some of the jobs “taken” were temporary ones on low wages doing jobs for which there were no British candidates.

The flood of Syrian refugees has complicated the issue. The demand in Britain has been for greater control over British borders while in Europe the Schengen agreement covering free movement between EU countries has had to be at least partially suspended.

The migration crisis has also weakened the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose prestige and influence has been a major pillar of European stability.

Most observers hope that Trump, whose extreme and offensive statements have shocked Europeans, will not become the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, let alone go on to win the election and become the next president. But some of the other Republican would-be candidates such as Ted Cruz also make people shudder.

The nightmare scenario for the pessimist is a President Trump in the U.S., a President Le Pen in France, a referendum win by the Brexit campaign leading to another Scottish referendum and the breakup of the United Kingdom, banking failures in Europe leading to instability in the EU, a triumphant Russian President Vladimir Putin imposing his will in Ukraine and a victorious President Bashar Assad in Syria leading to armed intervention by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and even a possible third world war. None of these awful developments may happen, but they are not inconceivable.

The “establishment” cannot afford to be complacent and should do more to outmaneuver the anti-establishment forces. Western leaders need to argue more forcefully for free trade, immigration and the EU. They must also do more to ensure that multinationals and international businessmen pay their fair share of national taxes. The mega-rich like the French aristocracy before the French Revolution of 1789 would be wise to recognize that wealth involves obligations as well as privileges.

Hugh Cortazzi was the U.K. ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.