WASHINGTON -- “Then came Paris,” said Donald Trump, by way of explanation.
He was speaking Tuesday night, after taking his largest step yet toward the Republican presidential nomination.
As Trump told it, he'd launched his long-shot campaign as a spokesman for middle-class anger about illegal immigration; bad foreign trade deals; predatory economies such as those of China and Mexico; inept, weak politicians and diplomats; and militant, militarized jihadis around the world.
But then “radical Islamist terrorists” killed 130 people in coordinated attacks in the French capital. And suddenly his (and voters’) disparate fears of foreigners -- of THEM -- came into sharp focus, as an urgent, all-encompassing, xenophobic American nationalism.
Since then, his trajectory has been ever upward.
This despite the fact that, in the past 10 days, he's had to face crises created by others and by his own outrageous actions.
He was hit in Florida and other primary states with a crossfire of TV attacks worth tens of millions. A rising chorus of his fellow Republicans denounced him as a menace to the party and the country, and vowed not to support him even if he became the GOP nominee. And Trump himself produced bipartisan outrage by tolerating -- even encouraging -- violence against protesters at his rallies. He's been compared to race-baiting U.S. politicians such as George Wallace, and even to monsters like Adolf Hitler.
But all Trump did on Tuesday was win four out of five contests, losing only to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who won his home state as expected. Trump’s nominal main challenger, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, was shut out. His other principal rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, pulled the plug on his own campaign that same evening.
“The more we are attacked, the better our numbers get,” Trump said Tuesday night, seeming almost genuinely surprised. “Even I don’t understand it.”
But the world does. It rightly sees in Trump’s rise a giant, neon-bright American manifestation of a growing world phenomenon: an angry, populist nationalism that decries the globalization of economics, culture and demographics.
What does a nation mean anymore? And what does it mean to be the citizen of one, in terms of protecting the traditional prerogatives -- or at least the living standard -- of its middle class?
It should mean everything, Trump is saying. And voters, looking for an easy way out in a rapidly changing world, are listening.
It is the worldwide politics of the last stand.
Rapid improvements in technology, travel and telecommunications have created new opportunities for profit and human advancement.
But those same forces have created claustrophobia and vertigo for people who feel settled in their ways and places, and fear and hard times for people losing ground in the rush to globalize everything from sports to security.
A so-called “Washington Consensus” has more or less ruled the world since the official fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Its tenets include: faith in “free” trade; cooperation between liberal parties (nominally pro-labor) and global capital; a deep faith in education and brain-work credentials; lower taxes on businesses and less regulation of same; more tolerant laws and rules on immigration and fewer borders; more direct payments to lift the poorest out of poverty, while expecting macroeconomics alone to help the middle class.
All of it worked except for the part about the middle class -- whose wages, incomes and household worth have stagnated for decades.
It is against globalization in general and the Washington Consensus in particular that voters and even some governments around the world are reacting now with more vehemence.
And the threat of terrorist attacks such as those in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have brought all the strands together in one general outcry of middle-class nationalist rage.
Many countries, including China, never bought into the U.S.-led Washington Consensus to begin with. In that country, the leaders are the ones fomenting the nationalist cry.
But Western democracies are now facing uprisings of Trumpism, spurred by the toxic political combination of waves of immigrants and refugees; job losses and flat wages; and terrorist threats from the likes of al Qaeda and the self-described Islamic State.
In Germany, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party gained ground in local elections last week. Leading officials in Hungary are reviving the ultimate in European “THEM” narratives against the Jews. Marine Le Pen continues her rise in France, and even the tolerant Scandinavians are surrendering to the new xenophobia.
In the U.S., Republicans leaders claim to abhor Trump, whose platform includes: a total temporary ban on visits by non-U.S. Muslims; the immediate deportation of 11 million undocumented persons in the U.S., most Latino and many of them children; abrogation of the recent Iran deal and of international trade deals; and the construction of a “big beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexican border.
But Cruz, the leading challenger left to Trump, holds many of the same views, just in a more legalistic and slightly milder form.
And recent polls show that more than two-thirds of GOP voters support Trump’s call for a ban on all Muslim visitors to the U.S.
Fear is taking over American politics. And the world is not far behind.