Arguably, the most disturbing global trend is the slow death of American democracy. I suspect many observers of Tuesday's alarming presidential debate--both here in the US and abroad--noticed the stark decaying of democratic norms and etiquette. I resisted writing on this subject for a while now, hoping that things in the US would get better. They haven’t, and the political situation has now reached a fateful moment. It’s debatable whether the US is a fully functioning democratic state. (Right now, I think not. The US is more liberal than democratic.) It’s likely that a large portion of US citizens will view the November election as rigged and illegitimate. Furthermore, the prospect of post-election court battles, protests, and violence are high.
America’s dying democracy is the product of many events over many years, the result of a series of factors that pre-date Donald Trump. The essential role of big money in politics, the centralization of power in the presidency, the wide and deep political polarization, the rise of radical political groups, gerrymandering, and the rise of disinformation tools, among many other things, have corrupted, weakened, and hijacked America's democratic institutions, procedures, and norms. The aforementioned factors have disparate causal roots and have impacted US democracy in different ways. Most of them stretch back years and years, though they really became political wrecking balls in the 1990s. No doubt, the US has episodically endured political turmoil and upheaval throughout its history, from the Civil War to McCarthyism to Watergate. But it is during the 1990s that America began to experience the political paralysis and polarization that we see in full-bloom today.
The 1990s are often viewed, particularly by the political left, as the halcyon days of American politics. The US was on top of the world. It had won the cold war and was about to embark on creating a "new world order," by expanding its influence in a globally unprecedented way. The US was led by a supposedly hip young president. Its economy was booming, aided by the tech sector. And hopes of lasting world peace seemed to be in reach. Unfortunately, this era of good feelings was brief and masked a darker side of international relations and US politics. For at the same time as all of those good things were happening, we also saw genocide in the Balkans, war in Iraq, genocide and violence in parts of Africa, the crash and burn of Russia's stillborn democracy, the rise of al-Qaeda as a global terror group, and so on. Domestically, ominous signs were also emerging. The right, aided in part by talk radio and the newly created Fox News network, lurched farther to the right, doubling down on faux Christian conservatism. Political hostilities ratcheted up as Bill Clinton was impeached and faced continuous political investigations that, in the end, went nowhere. Right-wing militant groups came out of the woodwork, almost literally, doing battle against the US government and launching a deadly attack in Oklahoma City. Clinton posed as a sympathetic figure, an honest leader hounded by the right, but he wasn't completely innocent. His numerous infidelities and possible assaults, as well as his appointment of his wife Hillary to reform health care, roiled his administration and later gave the GOP cover to support a reprobate like Trump and his nepotistic rule.
Over the last 20 plus years, things have only gotten worse. Internal divisions have grown, with bouts of violence and rioting pockmarking US politics and society more generally. Extremists and radicals on both sides of the political aisle are dominating the political landscape and even celebrated in some corners of the internet. Political parties are often extensions of the loudest cranks and no-nothings in their ranks. And if that isn't bad enough, Democrats and Republicans are rarely able to cooperate, and meaningful legislation is just a fantasy. The courts have allowed US politics to become a corporate playground of dark money, which has further reduced the role and influence of citizens and civic groups in American political life.
This polarized and dysfunctional political system described above is the environment that spawned Donald Trump, and it is the political environment he's operated in as president. In that sense, then, Trump is a product of his time. But as president, he has agency. He has the ability to mold and alter American politics in myriad ways. This isn't automatically a bad thing, as long as Trump is an agent of positive, benign change. Alas, he is not.
Let’s take a quick look at Trump’s record. Below is a brief sampling—not an exhaustive list; that is beyond the scope of this post—of the array of anti-democratic anti-liberal statements, actions, and policies of Trump. Consider the list a greatest hits of Trump’s ethno-nationalist authoritarian politics and governing style.
Trump has repeatedly cozied up to far right radicals. He has defended them and refused to condemn them, even when given the opportunity to do so. The Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, The Oath Keepers, QAnon, and white supremacists and far right lunatics more generally have benefited from Trump’s presidency. Just as importantly, take a look at the chatter among far right extremists online. They believe Trump is on their side, they feel ascendant and buoyant. Trump’s message last night, during the debate, to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” was immediately and proudly used by the group on their social media pages. White supremacists firmly believe that Trump wants them to counter vigorously, even with force, various protest groups. On his watch, hate crimes have skyrocketed and domestic terrorism has become the number one security threat to the US. I don’t know if Trump is a racist, or if he’s simply content to align with racists for political expediency, but his administration has created a dangerous, toxic domestic environment. Between his failures on Covid-19 and his winks and nods to white supremacists, Trump has been a national security nightmare. He is unwilling to do what it takes to keep Americans safe and secure.
And that’s just the start. Trump refuses to commit to peaceful elections. He constantly lies, distorts information, and spouts conspiracy theories. He governs only his base, particularly areas of the country that lean “red.” Blue states are the opposition, states to be tolerated at best, little better foreign opponents. And big blue cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are characterized by Trump as enemy compounds. Trump has made statements and put forward policies that can be reasonably viewed as anti-minority, xenophobic, and just plain tyrannical. We see evidence of this in his Muslim Ban, his border policy (with kids in cages), his comment that African nations are “shithole countries,” and his overt targeting of Black Lives Matter and Antifa (two nebulous groups whose members are not exclusively people of color, though people of color play a strong and central role in each). His latest attack, that a Biden electoral win in November will mean the end of suburbia, is meant to disparage people of color and frighten white homeowners. Trump routinely demonizes and portrays as enemies the FBI, the Democratic Party, the press, among many others. And behind the scenes, he criticizes and lampoons members of the military, people who make the ultimate sacrifice for America, calling them losers and suckers. Trump uses his Twitter page to call out individuals he detests, which leaves them vulnerable to his unmoored and loony troll army. He views the court system as his personal and political tools, existing only to do his bidding. His campaign, in the run up to the 2016 election, sought election help from a foreign power. Is he or his campaign doing it again? And of course, Trump is stoking widespread panic over fears the upcoming election could be rigged.
And just as problematic, Trump’s Republican Party refuses to try to keep him in line and doesn’t criticize or punish him for his various anti-democratic, anti-liberal words and policies. The GOP is an enabler, put simply, complicit in Trump taking a scythe to US traditional and longstanding democratic norms, values, and rules.
Going forward, there are three things to watch. First, what will Trump do on Election Day and beyond? My guess is that he will declare victory, no matter if he's in the lead or not election night. He'll gin up his base, working them up into a frenzy in his speeches on his Twitter page. He’ll use all sorts of vague and coded language, encouraging his supporters to “stay vigilant” and “not let the Democrats steal the election,” and so on. Then he'll try to get a GOP-leaning Supreme Court, assuming Amy Coney Barrett takes a seat before November, to toss out thousands of ballots in battleground states, with the hopes of overturning the election. I mean, it's crystal clear what he intends to do. During the debate, he admitted he sees the Supreme Court playing a role in adjudicating the election. If the courts rule against him, trouble could still loom. All of the people Trump ginned up will seek an outlet to release their pent up frustrations and anger. And at that point, there’s the very real prospect of armed pro-Trump groups taking to the streets.
Second, how do leftists groups respond to a Trump victory? At a minimum, I expect millions to protest a Trump win. If it’s widely perceived that Trump stole the election via the courts, then the game changes. At that point, the chances for violence sharply rise. Unlike Trump, Biden will attempt to calm his backers, and that will help. But I worry that reassuring words won’t be enough to mollify the far left.
Third, even if Biden wins in a relatively smooth contest, that doesn't mean all is well for American democracy. In part that's because some of America’s political problems are deep-seated, but it’s also because of the extent of the destruction of the Trump years. Do not underestimate the trauma that Trump has inflicted on the American political system and on many Americans themselves. It will take years to come to grip with the Trump era. In order for a full reckoning to take place, a number of questions will need to asked and answered by American citizens, scholars, policy experts, and politicians. For instance, how did Trump’s rise happen? How did he capture the GOP? How should we understand and process the behavior of Congressional Republicans who've given Trump political cover? What’s the extent of the political damage of Trump’s tenure? How can the political system better cope with the next Trump that comes along? How can the government restore the trust that Americans no longer have in it? And all of those questions are solely domestic issues. Keep in mind that there are many international issues—like America’s tarnished image, its badly damaged global credibility, and its ruptured ties with Europe—that have been impacted by the rot of American democracy and the Trump era. Those too need to be addressed.