Monday, November 13, 2017

Is Trump Steering America Away From Democracy?

The headline in Foreign Policy, "Trump Isn't Sure if Democracy is Better Than Autocracy," is jarring. It would be so much less troubling if America wasn't already so far down the road in that very direction. Harvard prof Stephen Walt, like a latter day Paul Revere, sounds the warning.

What a difference a couple of decades make. Back in the early to mid-1990s, Americans (and some others) were pretty much convinced that U.S.-style liberal democracy was the wave of the future worldwide. The Warsaw Pact had crumbled, Latin American dictatorships were turning to the ballot box, human rights were spreading, and liberal institutions were all the rage. Francis Fukuyama famously described mankind as having reached the “end of history,” and Tom Friedman was telling useveryone had to don the “Golden Straightjacket” and embrace DOSCapitalism 6.0. The main exemplar of this system, of course, was the mighty and successful U.S. of A.

Fast-forward to 2017, however, and autocracy seems back in vogue. Russia has reverted to de facto dictatorship, Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any leader since Mao, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has undertaken a wide-ranging purge of potential opponents and consolidated vast power in his own hands. Egypt is once again governed by a brutal and corrupt military dictatorship, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has cracked down on journalists and academics, purged the government, and put thousands in jail, and he is slowly strangling what once seemed to be a promising experiment in moderate Islamic government. No one quite knows what sort of government will eventually emerge in the remnants of a shattered Syria, but it is a safe bet it won’t be democratic. And the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland are headed in authoritarian directions, openly rejecting liberal ideals, and would probably be ineligible for European Union membership if they were applying for it today.

Meanwhile, what does the United States government have to say about these trends? Under Donald Trump, mostly words of praise. The Divider-in-Chief seems entirely comfortable with — and maybe even a little envious of — the various autocrats who are richer or more powerful than he is (or both) and free from those inconvenient constitutional constraints and checks and balances that keep getting in the way of Trump’s feuds, whims, and destructive impulses. This is the president, after all, who called our justice system a “laughingstock,” said he regretted not having more control over it, and fired FBI head James Comey because he wouldn’t offer the president unswerving personal loyalty and shut down the Russia investigation. He’s also the guy who suggested we don’t really need a State Department because “I’m the only one that matters.” Now there’s a guy who thinks the ideal system of government is one where a leader gets to do whatever he wants. Sorry, Donald, but that’s precisely the system of government that Americans have long rejected and that many sacrificed their lives to prevent being imposed here.

But instead of standing up for America as a beacon of democracy, Trump congratulated Xi Jinping on his acquisition of even more power, meekly accepted Chinese dictates about talking to the press, and has nothing but good things to say about the ambitious Saudi crown prince (despite the latter’s chaotic program and repeated foreign-policy blunders). Indeed, like any good parvenu, Trump seems easily dazzled by vulgar displays of excess and unable to distinguish between the interests of the United States and the self-interest of his extended family. As Edward Luce sagely observed in the Financial Times, the affinity between the House of Saud and the House of Trump is if anything over-determined. And don’t forget his earlier bromance with Vladimir Putin, which Trump has been forced to downplay amid continuing suspicions of collusion between Russia and Trump and/or his advisors back in the 2016 campaign.

Needless to say, this behavior is a sharp departure from past U.S. practice. To be sure, the United States has often been inconsistent in its support for democracy and all-too-willing to ally with dictators and tyrants when there were important strategic issues at stake. But it is one thing to acknowledge tradeoffs between core political values and other interests and sometimes to favor the latter, and quite another to cast off our ideals completely and rush to praise those who trample on them daily. To do so is also bad strategy, as it squanders something that has been a valuable diplomatic asset in the past: namely, the belief that the United States did in fact stand for something other than naked self-interest, even if its actual performance fell short of its own professed ideals.


This reversal of fortune is not what people expected in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, but it is also not surprising. Instead of moving from strength to strength, the world’s major democracies have all suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds over the past 25 years. The United States invaded Iraq on false pretenses, bungled the occupation, and then suffered a financial crisis that could have been avoided with greater regulatory oversight. America’s domestic political order became increasingly dysfunctional, with public confidence in politicians sinking to new lows (and without considerable justification). Even worse, hardly anyone of consequence was held accountable for these screw-ups, reinforcing public perceptions of an out-of-touch and self-protective elite and fueling the populist wave that Trump exploited so successfully (and quickly betrayed).

So is it time to sound the death knell for democracy? If the 1900s were the “American Century,” will the 2000s be a new Age of Autocracy? Not so fast. ...The United States and other democracies have had a pretty bad run over the past two decades (in part because they were in such good shape they could afford to be stupid), but they retain a capacity for self-correction (as the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey suggest). It is also worth remembering that the United States recovered faster from the 2008 crisis than almost anyone else, an achievement for which Barack Obama never got enough credit.

Where I part company with Dr. Walt is that nowhere does he address what he defines as "democracy" and what distinguishes it from autocracy. It's the "demos" part that concerns me. Demos - rule by the common citizen. Demos - an equal say and an equal chance.

The Republicans' "tax reform" is not an exercise in democracy. It is about as undemocratic as legislation can be.  It's the handiwork of a "bought and paid for" Congress whose members no longer even try to conceal or pretend that they're in service to their sponsors, the 1%. They now speak of their corruption quite openly, presumably because they know the voting public won't retaliate.

Then there's the research paper out of Princeton in 2014 by professors Gilens and Page that convincingly demonstrated that government "of the people, by the people, for the people" had been displaced by oligarchy in service to the richest of the rich. The Republican tax bill is just a culmination of that transition.

Getting rid of the Mango Mussolini won't repair the rot on Capitol Hill.


Owen Gray said...

Frank Rich has a long but interesting piece this week in New York Magazine, Mound.Even if Trump departs, Rich believes that Trumpism will be around for a long time to come.

The Mound of Sound said...

The thought of that makes me so glad I'm not 30.

Trailblazer said...

Rich believes that Trumpism will be around for a long time to come.

Trumpism has been around for some time, we just ignored it .
From grabbing pussy to rule by the richest we have been there done that.
This makes it so bewildering that we have succumbed to the Trumps of the world.
My own theory is that there are too many of us on the planet competing for fewer and fewer resources whilst expecting more and more from life.
What a selfish race we have become!


Anonymous said...

Mound, you're right that getting rid of Trump won't repair the rot. That's because there's no such thing as Trumpism. The man has no consistent ideology and is interested only in feeding his ego. The policy being implemented is standard Republican fare: afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable by cutting government programs, regulations and taxes. Throw in a measure of policies to satisfy evangelicals and racists, and you've got the toxic stew the GOP's been serving up for the past 40 years. Until that's all flushed down the toilet there's no repairing things.


Northern PoV said...

Hmmmm ... it seems many are coming around to the view that tRump is part of a long tradition that will continue ... Not so unique after all?

more grist for the mill:
"While you weren’t looking, Trump just appointed a tax evasion expert to head the IRS
As “interim director” of IRS, former Ernst and Young partner David Kautter, won’t have to face a Senate vote"
.... headlines from

John B. said...

In the opinions of some among the wealthy and supported by the maggots they had placed in academia and policy advocacy organizations, it was over taxation of their assets that had been funding our frivolous experiment in liberal democracy. Furthermore, all of the benefits of innovation and technology had been unjustly confiscated and redistributed by the efforts of organized labour. Capital had been insufficiently rewarded for its contributions. Once the Soviet Union was finished, they resolved to use the opportunity to put an end finally to the experiment and redress the wrongs of a hundred years standing. Many of us bought into the ridiculous premise they forwarded, that what we had feared and despised most about the Communist Bloc was neither totalitarian restrictions on personal freedom nor the threat of military confrontation, but rather ignorance toward the principles of what are called "free markets".

It was a well executed example of bait-and-switch and was in the playbook from the day that the market-libertarian swindle was conceived. When government and other stakeholders in the US were contemplating the composition of groups that should be dispatched to the former Soviet Union to provide advice and education on the economic transition, the participation of representatives from labour organizations was rejected outright. President G.W. Bush responded to the offer by a group of these organizations to this effect: "We won't be making that mistake this time." They didn't. But I suppose that in general recognition of American involvement in the Dirty Wars that saved Central America from Communism, and particularly in its complicity in the murders of USWA reps who were attempting to assist labour leaders in El Salvador several years prior, the President's attitude shouldn't have been unexpected. After all, why introduce into an emerging market a set of potential conditions that, since the legalization of unions, had consumed so many resources both at home and closer to home?

Rural said...

Democracy, even a flawed version of it, is hard won but easily lost, we must all be ever vigilant against those who would promote more government 'control' ......

Anonymous said...

Rural, since 2001, government control has increased massively with nary an objection. We've seen the militarization of our police forces, increased surveillance, and have come to routinely submit to increasingly invasive patdowns and searches at airports, courts and sporting events. Just as worrisome is the control that's being wielded by private monopolies and quasi-monopolies such as Google. It seems that people will gladly surrender their privacy for convenience.


Northern PoV said...

from the Independent:
"Trump is trying to quietly reverse decades of social progress in America
Trump has rushed to pack the federal courts with 'extreme' nominees who will have their jobs for life. Changing the ideological tilt of the judiciary may end up being his most enduring legacy as president. "

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV, Trump isn't altering the extreme ideological tilt of the judiciary. That dates back to Scalia at the very latest.

Americans see their judiciary as little more than a highly educated dog catcher. They have not the most feeble grasp on the separation of powers or the critical role an independent judiciary plays.

Once you control the surveillance apparatus and the judiciary, dissent becomes something you can neutralize pre-emptively.