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From left, Donald Tusk, Emmanuel Macron,Theresa May and Donald Trump speak in Taormina, Italy, on May 26, 2017.The Associated Press

About 140 pages into Yascha Mounk’s The People Vs. Democracy, I thrilled at learning a new word: chronocentrism. As defined by Mounk, chronocentrism is the false belief that the present moment “is somehow central to the history of mankind.” The word began swirling around in my head, like in that old Kids in the Hall sketch where a guy can’t stop saying “ascertain.” Chronocentrism. Chrooooonooooocentriiiiiisssssm.

Chronocentrism is a useful, and oddly reassuring, concept. Chalk it up to a collective hysteria, or just good old vanity, but people seem to always believe they’re living through a moment of grand historic significance. It certainly feels true nowadays, when everything from social media to the ascent of “fake news” is taken to constitute seismic shifts. Phrases such as “post-Brexit” and, especially, “post-Trump,” attempt to cleave recent history into tidy micro-epochs.

It’s not enough for the problems of the present to be imminent and immediately pressing. They must be regarded as grandly consequential in the whole history of civilization itself. For the average schmo to invest themselves in the problems of the present, the stakes must be cosmically high. If we do not #Resist, we are told, the whole fabric of progress will disintegrate like the dissolving cotton of a cheap sock. Democracy, to nick The Washington Post’s hyperbolic post-Trump slogan, dies in darkness.

Just look to the new issue of Foreign Policy, which contains a “global report” titled Is Democracy Dying? and analyzes everything from the ascendancy of autocracy to the illiberal revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the manner in which American democracy “fails its way to success.” And a rash of new books – including, but by no means limited to, Mounk’s new one, Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, David Frum’s Trumpocracy, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die and ex-U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning – are presented as torchlights cast into the darkness, lighting a pathway back to a healthy political culture. Yet among their shared consternation (with democracy, and especially with Donald Trump), some of these discussions expand the blinkered, chronocentrist delusion, offering refreshingly philosophical vantages on their problems, and solutions.

Analyzing the “corrosive effect” of social media, the resurgence of nationalism, the weaponization of resentment and the rise of Western populism, Mounk attempts to dispel the dimness by envisioning a better future of “renewed civic faith.” Taking a more pessimistic (and persuasive) tack, Snyder’s book analyzes the complex philosophical interplay between the post-Cold War Russian oligarchy and Trump’s America. Snyder argues that through a complex and impressively philosophical process of destabilizing the notion of truth itself, the modern Russian state shifted the whole tone and tenor of contemporary political life.

Employing a crooked media, and KGB-inspired disinformation campaigns, Russia practices what Snyder calls a foreign policy of “strategic relativism.” “Russia cannot become stronger,” Snyder writes, “so it must make others weaker. The simplest way to make others weaker is to make them more like Russia.” See: the Trump era’s emergent verbiage of “post-truth” and “alternative facts,” which remove the nuts and bolts of political reality to the realm of abstraction. See also: RT (nee Russia Today), the exported Russian news-media company that, contrary to the supposed aim of news media, worked to destroy faith in the news by insisting that all media outlets lied. RT’s slogan, “Question More,” encourages not so much a healthy skepticism as a total disavowal of truth. As Snyder puts it, in a typically venomous turn of phrase, “Factuality was replaced by a knowing cynicism that asked nothing of the viewer but the occasional nod before sleep.”

This line of thinking may seem unduly hairy, seeking to obfuscate pressing issues behind the veil of philosophy and theory. When a starving man begs for a meal, it seems callous to respond, “Hmmm … but will not the slaking of your hunger only disguise the eternity of that hunger? And what is food, really?”

But Snyder’s book makes a case that, from Putin’s deep reading of pre-Revolutionary Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin to the mishmash mumbo-jumbo sophistry of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, politics is already deeply philosophical. (Mounk, too, digresses with a concluding discussion of the austere indifference of the ancient Stoics.) Understanding the substance of this philosophy is as essential to comprehending the character of the present moment as poring over unemployment statistics, voting records, and other statistical bric-a-brac.

For proof of philosophy’s real effect on the process of history, one need look no further than G.W.F. Hegel. The German philosopher’s ideas were famously reworked by Marx –who ditched all the airy-fairy stuff about Geist and divine providence and the owl of Minerva spreading its wings at dusk – whose own philosophical system went on to fundamentally influence the history of civilization. Philosophy isn’t just the domain of overeducated, underskilled graduate students. It constitutes the very basis of human endeavour.

For Hegel, the aim of history was the divination of the “ultimate design of the world.” In Hegel’s terms, that design revealed a gradual realization of human freedom. Hegel’s model of history is essentially progressive, albeit in a wonky, lopsided way: shifts in culture and politics begat reactions, which themselves produced a synthesis of opposing ideas. The long lurch towards freedom always goes two steps forward, one step back. As Snyder writes, “Hegel’s was an appealing way of seeing our fractious world, since it suggested that catastrophe was an indication of progress.” This overturns the regime of chronocentrism, maintaining that the perpetually pressing problems of an ever-present Right Now are mere blips in the sprawling panorama of history.

Such a notion provides a modest comfort in an age when pundits, pedants and serious historians alike are fretting the future of democracy. It’s not a matter of studied Stoic apathy. As Mounk writes, “To be content as everything around me is falling apart does not seem to me to be the life of an enlightened philosopher but rather that of a cynic or a sociopath.” Rather, adopting a historical and philosophical long view allows the curious and concerned to view seemingly cataclysmic political turns such as Trump and Brexit as unsightly manifestations of a grander historical drama – a s symptoms rather than diseases.

As Snyder writes in his conclusion, “If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better.” To acknowledge the chronocentrist fallacy is not to diminish the real problems resulting from such changes, and the victims who suffer as a result. It merely casts these problems within a necessary context. Such thinking is vital when it comes to resolving the question of what comes after Trump, or Brexit, or ethno-nationalism. Where writers such as Frum and Mounk yearn, in different ways, for a return to stability and neoliberal status quo, the Hegelian perspective proves more radically optimistic. “Students of the virtues that history reveals,” Snyder writes, “become the makers of a renewal that no one can foresee.”

History stumbles and staggers on the road to freedom, a winding path that promises not merely a return to the nostalgic comforts of liberal democracy, but the prospect of something even better.