On 9 November the American people elected an aspiring despot, admittedly by a minority of votes cast, to be their next President. This, considering America’s long history as both the defender and exemplar of liberal-democratic values, is more than depressing. Until this point the American people have been almost uniquely resistant to the appeal of tyrants, demagogues and authoritarians. Trump’s election has smashed this jewel of American exceptionalism. I see no advantage in deceiving ourselves about what Trump is. He’s an authoritarian nationalist who violated just about every norm of democratic conduct during the election campaign. As I argued in this piece he cannot reasonably be described as a democrat. One of the things I find most galling about Trump’s rise is just how mediocre, uninspiring and fundamentally poor he is as a demagogue. I’d like to think that for a democracy as advanced as America’s to elect an autocrat it would take a politician of exceptional charm, eloquence and cunning. America, alas, has been seduced by a barely coherent cartoon villain.
Trump’s election as President is so disastrous for the democratic world because of the extent to which this world has been led and protected by, and often aspired to emulate, the United States of America. America has long provided a model, though admittedly an imperfect one, for other democracies to follow, and this has been particularly important for countries as they democratise. Much of Latin America, as well as parts of East Asia and Europe essentially copied the American Presidential system wholesale when drawing up their constitutions. The wealth and strength of America was the supreme vindication of the effectiveness of the liberal-democratic system of government, and no other liberal-democratic power has come close to matching America’s influence or prestige. The great democratisation of the 20th century, which saw an explosion of the liberal-democratic form of Government, was largely facilitated by American economic and military muscle. According to Oxford University’s One World in Data (OWID) the number of democracies in the world increased from 17 in 1944, to 87 in 2009, during the period of peak American power.
Between 1941 and the present day America played a decisive role in helping defend liberal-democracy from rival ideologies, most notably fascism and Soviet communism, and in preventing a return to world politics based around imperialism. A number of the world’s most successful and secure democracies, such as Germany and Japan, were established or re-established at the point of an American gun. Other democratic powers played an important role of course, most notably Britain and France, but both these states initially relied heavily on non-democratic overseas empires for their strength. It’s only when you appreciate just how important America has been in promoting the liberal-democratic order, that you realise how disastrous it will be for the West to have a President who is not truly a democrat.
American democracy is well established, mature and (until around a year ago) looked incredibly stable. As such you might have thought it would take a demagogue of exceptional talent and cunning to seduce the American people with authoritarianism. But if that’s what you assumed, and I certainly used to, then you were wrong. Instead it took an orange-faced buffoon with unusual hair, and a pennant for insulting a good proportion of the American population. Maybe Trump has some positive attributes, but they certainly don’t include intellectual consistency, personal morality or individual charm. Many demagogues give their followers powerful and inspiring speeches. Trump’s speeches during the election campaign by contrast were barely coherent. He had a tendency to go off onto wild, often irrelevant tangents, whilst engaging is an embarrassing amount of self-praise. Sometimes it appeared that he had descended into a parody of his own act.
Now of course there are some things Trump is extremely good at. During the election campaign he proved a master at exploiting concerns about ethnic and cultural change, via assertive white identity politics. But he combined this with an extraordinary capacity for self-destruction. At several points during both the Republican Primaries and Presidential election it looked like he had detonated his own campaign. During the Republican Primaries he disputed John McCain’s status as a war hero and claimed without evidence that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the Kennedy assassination. Having got the Republican Party nomination he proceeded to engage in a public row with the parents of a dead Muslim American soldier. Even in the last few weeks, as President-Elect, Trump seems determined to court controversy. As evidence grows that the Russian Government hacked the DNC email system to help Trump the sensible thing would have been to stay quiet or try and change the subject. Instead Trump has praised Putin and Russia on Twitter, whilst de-facto criticising the American security apparatus.
Quite often when demagogues acquire power the host country has the excuse that it was going through a time of crisis. Most frequently the economy had collapsed, causing a dramatic rise in unemployment or destitution. Alternatively the country might be threatened by a hostile state, leading to calls for unity behind a single individual, or some section of the military might take over. None of these reasons are valid in the case of the United States and Trump. America is not facing an existential threat from any external power. ISIS is no more than a nuisance compared to a credible opponent, whilst Trump is actually friendly towards Russia, one of America’s main geo-political rivals. The American unemployment rate for October 2016 was 4.9%, low by comparison to European states, whilst the country has enjoyed solid (if unspectacular) economic growth over the last few years. Thus America, despite her advanced democratic institutions and history, elected a particularly unimpressive demagogue during a period of solid economic growth and international security.
The election of Donald Trump is, for supporters of liberal-democratic values, nothing less than a disaster. The world’s most powerful country, a state which has done much to protect the free world for over half a century, will soon be governed by an unstable authoritarian nationalist. Trump did not abide by democratic norms during the election campaign, and there’s no reason to think this is likely to change following his inauguration. Great power rarely makes men less corrupt. So the free world will soon have to deal with an American President who’s commitment to democracy, in any recognized form, is at best dubious and more likely non-existent. This has big implications for liberal-democracy both in America, and in those sections of the Western world that America helps protect.
But what is particularly disheartening is the quality of demagogue to which America has fallen, and the conditions in which this took place. America has elected an ultra-authoritarian, a man who feels like he’s been ripped straight from the pages of some dystopian novel, during a period of steady economic growth and relative security. Trump is intellectually unimpressive, largely devoid of personal charm and clearly unstable. It would be one of the most tragic ironies of modern history if a democracy as great as America’s becomes redefined by a demagogue as poor as Donald Trump. Please America, for all our sakes, don’t let this happen.
If you found this interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter: @JBickertonUK