The eagle and the dragon
At some point the populist rebellion will outgrow its personality roots and be asked to articulate a program. It is never enough in the long run to merely be against something; it is always necessary to be for something. Inside the chaos of the last decade a few themes have appeared to risen above the bedlam. The following is an attempt to speculatively predict these trends in the knowledge the estimate may be completely wrong.
The basic premise is the populist crisis has been created by the 21st century itself. As the post World War 2 order aged the existing elites simply evaded the question of quo vadis secure in the belief they were at the end of history. They started rearranging the flowers on the margin, tidying up the carbon, de-triggering speech and pursuing gender equality. Like some physicists at the start of the 20th century they had presided over an achievement so great that psychologically they may have felt that nothing could be added. There was no sense of being under geopolitical threat, even after 9/11, the rise of China or the stirrings of Russia.
At the end of the 19th century, physics had evolved to the point at which classical mechanics could cope with highly complex problems involving macroscopic situations; thermodynamics and kinetic theory were well established; geometrical and physical optics could be understood in terms of electromagnetic waves; and the conservation laws for energy and momentum (and mass) were widely accepted. So profound were these and other developments that it was generally accepted that all the important laws of physics had been discovered and that, henceforth, research would be concerned with clearing up minor problems and particularly with improvements of method and measurement.
By contrast the Chinese elites were both strategically restless and uninhibited. They didn't stop in the middle of a thought and ask "is this gender neutral"? The only question China asked was: does this work for China? They saw the in the 21st technology not a perfection of destiny but an obvious opportunity to leapfrog and break away. A race was on and only China, among the major powers, seemed to hear the starting gun. The Western public heard it too, but their ruling elites did not.
The Western publics sensing the erosion, with a dread amplified not only by the indifference of the elites but by a lack of a clear conception of the threat and alternatives to it, attempted to enter any port in the storm. Populism presented itself in the motley attire of borrowed, half-baked political finery. Because it was half-baked it appeared to its opponents in bewildering guises. Few noticed one crucial common factor: it arose in the West through elections. Neither Russia nor China produced anything similar.