International politics increasingly feels like it is taking place in Bizarro World, the fictional planet depicted in a series of comic books first published by DC Comics in the 1960s.
In Bizarro World, everything is inverted. The planet is a cube rather than a sphere; the sun is blue rather than yellow; its inhabitants strive for imperfection rather than perfection. The world is named after Bizarro, an inverted version of Superman who was created in a lab accident and wears a backwards “S” on his chest.
Bizarro World achieved some fame in the 1990s when it furnished the premise for an episode of the TV comedy, Seinfeld, featuring Bizarro versions of the central characters, Jerry, George and Kramer. But as an explanatory device it has come into its own only in the past year.
Consider the evidence. In the US, it seems as if Bizarro himself is running for president. The nominee for president of the Republicans — the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan — is Donald Trump.
Just as Bizarro is strengthened, not weakened, by kryptonite, Mr Trump successfully uses tactics that would have disqualified previous nominees. He denigrates war heroes and insults the families of the fallen. He hints that violence ought to be used against his opponent. In the second presidential debate he promised that, if elected, he would put Hillary Clinton, his opponent, in jail. He has called on a hostile foreign power to intervene in the election. His plan to “make America great again” involves the renunciation of free trade and military alliances, two of the pillars of US greatness.
British politics also seems stuck in Bizarro World. Whatever else happens the Brits can usually be counted on to back their own self-interest. Yet on June 23 the British people acted against their own economic interest by voting to leave the EU. The pound fell to its lowest point against the dollar in 30 years. The next day, Google reported a surge in searches on the question: “What is the EU?”
David Cameron, the former prime minister, risked the continued existence of his own country to resolve an internal party dispute. His successor Theresa May and her cabinet colleagues are undermining the Conservative party’s historic identity by flirting with xenophobia and big government.
Meanwhile, the once formidable Labour party is unable to capitalise on the Tories’ reversals. Bizarro Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is blasé about the EU, Nato and Britain’s nuclear deterrent. He is not even sure that Tony Blair — the most electorally successful Labour leader in history — should not be prosecuted for war crimes. And weirdly, even as Mr Corbyn has driven Labour towards electoral oblivion, party membership has soared.
In Europe, there is every chance that one of the two contenders for the French presidency will be called Le Pen.
In Asia, too, we see Bizarro tendencies. The prevailing order is being turned upside down by new challengers. After several years of assertiveness on Beijing’s part in waters around China’s coasts, the world received a crystal-clear statement of the legal position in the South China Sea from the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The ruling set Beijing back on its heels. But at that very moment the Philippines, the country that took the case to The Hague, elected a Bizarro president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Mr Duterte applauds extrajudicial executions and insults the family of Barack Obama, who is the head of state of the US, Manila’s treaty ally. Recently, in discussing his government’s war against drugs, Mr Duterte compared himself with Adolf Hitler. He has signalled his intention to tilt away from America and towards China and Russia.
Meanwhile in North Korea the junior madman Kim Jong-un — who is too outlandish to be a believable comic book character — has endorsed Mr Trump for president. An axis of Bizarro looms.
How do we escape from Bizarro World? In the DC Comics series, Bizarro destroyed his own world. So our best chance of turning the comic book page on Bizarro World may lie with Mr Trump himself. Perhaps the ghastly leaked audio of the Republican nominee boasting about sexual assault, and the accusations of personal misconduct that are now flooding in, will be the radioactive element that finally brings him down.
America’s role in the international system is so crucial that the rejection of Mr Trump and the election of a cautious centrist such as Mrs Clinton may shock things back to normal. It would remind politicians around the world that there is a constituency for competence. The polls suggest this kind of victory for normality is increasingly likely.
If, on the other hand, Mr Trump defies predictions once more and wins on November 8, we will all have to become accustomed to living in the pages of Bizarro World.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.