Not since the height of the Cold War have the ideas and values of democracy been so beleaguered and so besieged as they are today in the wake of the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States.
Trump during the course of his malign and lamentable campaign threatened the foundations of democracy – the rule of law, freedom of the press and the democratic process itself – and has rallied the power of the mob behind him through inciting fear and sowing anger and division.
These democratic principles have been casually impugned by the president-elect in recent months, as he threatened to muzzle the press, jail his political opponent and ignore the election result should he lose the ballot.
With his victory, these ideals are now in retreat in democracy’s heartland, the oldest and once proudest democracy in the world, whose founding fathers inspired a revolution against the very notion of tyranny, and built a republic on the foundations of liberty and the rule of law.
There are those who argue that Trump’s advisers and cabinet secretaries will temper and control the blusterous and impetuous character of the new president. But is there any evidence that they have been willing to do so until now?
What chance is there now that the Republican Party and Trump’s cabinet will dare oppose the new president, who has the full might of US executive power in his hands and a baying mob at his side that so totally rejected the party establishment which is now expected to rein Trump in.
The Republican leadership was cowed by Trump’s angry supporters during the campaign and will be utterly terrified by their wrath should they dare to challenge him as president.
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But the embrace by almost half of all Americans of a man who has openly threatened democratic principles and who has expressed admiration for the thuggish leadership style of Russia’s autocratic “Gray Czar” Vladimir Putin, is merely the latest retreat by Western democracies into the hands of populist demagogues.
Half the denizens of the UK bought the nativist snake-oil purveyed by Nigel Farage and severed ties with the European Union; Holland’s head has been swayed by rabble- rouser Geert Wilders; Poland has fallen to far-right nationalists as has Hungary; while France, the fount of the Enlightenment, continually flirts with the chauvinist, (Russian-sponsored) far-right extremists of the National Front.
Although the US is only the latest Western nation to fall prey to the predations of populism, its status as the leader of the free, democratic world and the wellspring of democracy make its fall from grace even more alarming.
Moreover, if such a beacon of liberty can fall so low, what hope is there for the remaining, beleaguered democracies of Europe which can now no longer rely on the support of the US in light of Trump and his isolationist instincts?
Trump in his campaign managed to undermine the NATO alliance that protected Europe from the expansionist designs of the USSR, and has given succor to Putin, the KGB successor of the Soviet regime, who only recently sliced off chunks Europe and has now menacingly turned his eyes to the Baltics.
The US has since its founding been a symbol of democracy, and proudly led and defended the free world over the last 70 years as the flagship of democratic government to which other countries aspired.
To whom can democracies and aspiring democracies look now?
Trump’s election has given an enormous tailwind within the democratic world to the notion that a political strongman can bulldoze through the complex problems of the 21st century.
For Trump’s supporters, building a wall on the US southern border with Mexico will preserve the country’s national character, while imposing trade tariffs on Mexican and Chinese goods will bring industrial and manufacturing jobs back to America.
The fact that there has been a net outflow of Mexican immigrants from the US since 2009 counts for nothing in our new post-truth era, nor does the danger that millions of US jobs will be at stake when retaliatory tariffs hit US exports.
But such beguiling promises as those made by Trump in his campaign appear now all the more tantalizing for Europeans beset by economic slowdown, aging populations and external problems such as mass immigration and Russian aggression.
And if the historical redoubts and champions of democracy are so uncertain about the wisdom of liberal democracy, why should those living under tyranny and repressive regimes see any saving grace in struggling for such a system?
How can Russian dissidents and democratic activists appeal to their fellow citizens to reject Putin’s authoritarian, repressive government when Americans have chosen his mirror-image to lead them?
How can Chinese democracy activists push political and democratic reform, when the former beacon of democratic governance chooses a leader with no experience in government, who is ignorant of the intricacies of domestic and foreign policy, who has a record of compulsive lying and irresponsible business practices, and has shown himself to be vindictive, petty, erratic, narcissistic in the extreme, offensively malicious to anyone who dares oppose him, and incapable of ignoring the smallest slight.
Such leaders can be acquired all too easily without democracy.
The depressing state of democratic ideals today is further underlined by its fragility. The ability to whip up the masses of a civilized country into a frenzy of anger and hatred by exploiting their worst fears seems no harder than it was in 1930s Europe.
The ease of creating an Orwellian world in the US where truth is subjective and reality can be blurred, where feelings override facts and where large numbers of people seem ready to accept lies in the face of verifiable evidence, is a truly frightening phenomenon.
The ideas of the Enlightenment, on which the US was founded, flowed from the notions of reason and rationalism, yet these seem to have withered and died in modern America with the rise of the alt-right media, far-right talk radio, and the widespread contempt held for academic and professional expertise.
Trump has abetted, and now personifies, this post-truth dystopia by baldly and repeatedly lying about his past behavior and comments, despite the existence of tangible evidence to the contrary.
Would not Benjamin Franklin be weeping today?
Ultimately democratic nations and those who believe in democracy must take on board some lessons after the horrifying denouement of the US election.
Fears about immigration, real or imagined, must not be taken lightly and the combustibility of this issue and the legitimate concern of people who feel their national identity is being eroded must not be ignored.
And income inequality, where the US ranks fourth highest in the OECD, must be reduced, firstly as a basic necessity for social justice, but also so that demagogues are denied the tools with which to exploit those who feel they have been left behind.
And crucially, the values, benefits and advantages of democracy must once again be publicly championed by all those who believe in them, from the very top down, as the only system of government that will ensure liberty and rights for all citizens, which will reduce not inflame global tensions, and which can bring true and lasting change for those governed by democratic means.
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