What we have learned from the 2010s is that populist nationalism does not contain within it the seeds of its own rapid destruction. In 2009, one would have assumed that if a Chinese leader tried to perfect dictatorship through technology, he would fail to accomplish what he set out to achieve—and that, if he somehow managed to do it, the cost would be too high. In 2013, it was widely assumed, including by the president of the United States, that Putin could not simply annex territory and invade his neighbors or intervene in Syria, but also that if he did so, he would suffer a protracted and severe military defeat. In 2015, it was widely assumed that Trump could not be elected president, but also that if he somehow managed it, the economy would crash, and that if he pursued extreme ends, he would be removed from office.

The nationalists believe they are winning, and they are not necessarily wrong. They have encountered less resistance than expected. Republicans used to wonder why moderate Muslims would not speak out against jihadists in their midst. They surely know the answer to that question now. With little to fear except a nasty tweet and a loss in a primary, GOP elected officials have capitulated to a man whom they regarded as a buffoon and completely unfit to be president. Autocrats around the world do pay a small price for assassinating their rivals at will or reintroducing concentration camps, but it is a price they can and will pay for the perceived benefit it brings them. They are all learning about how to wield power more effectively, how to weaken and divide their opponents, and how to maintain enough popular support to stay in office.

We do not know whether we are nearer the beginning or the end of this new nationalist and autocratic period.