We have rightly focused on the threat that DT poses to America’s democracy. All his instincts and inclinations are autocratic. He has no respect for (and little knowledge of) the Constitutional and institutional principles which have served us so well for more than 200 years. He would indeed destroy America’s democracy if he could. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that DT’s incompetence is even greater than his malevolence. He can do enormous damage to the federal government, the country and the world, but he isn’t smart or competent enough to completely dismantle our democratic system, the way, for example, Adolph Hitler did in Weimar Germany, or Cesar Chavez did in contemporary Venezuela.
There is, however, an aspect of DT’s presidency that threatens the viability of the very idea of democracy, and it is this:
How could anyone have confidence in a system of government that could place the leadership of a country in the hands of someone like Donald J. Trump?
Great Britain’s vote for Brexit is Exhibit B, but can’t compete with the world-historical tragedy of handing leadership of the free world, and of its preeminent nuclear-armed military, to an impulsive, ignorant adult child.
All over the world there are citizens of non-democratic nations aspiring to greater freedom and control over their lives. How can their hopes not have been dashed by the spectacle of the world’s oldest democracy led by a democratically-elected idiot? Who, inside or outside America, would lay down their lives for a system that could produce such an absurdity?
The idea of democracy got an enormous boost from the fall of the Soviet Union, but it has been stumbling since 9/11. The neocon attempt to bring it to Iraq by force was a disaster, and the democracy we foisted on Afghanistan is little better. The Arab Spring ended tragically everywhere except Tunisia (where it began). Venezuela voted in an autocrat, and both Turkey and Hungary seem to be moving in the same direction. China has thrived under un-elected leaders. Now democratic America has elected a fool.
Then there’s Putin. Obviously, Russia helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, both by planting fake news and by giving Clinton’s hacked emails to Wikileaks. Obviously, the Trump campaign was delighted by this. DT publicly called on Russia to find and publish her “missing” emails. New York Times 7/27/16. DT Jr. met with a Russian agent about this in what Steve Bannon has called a “treasonous” meeting. Mueller’s investigation has led to several indictments, threatens DT Jr., and may even find grounds to indict DT himself. All this is very thrilling, although the normalization of DT, especially by the Republican Congress, makes me skeptical that it will actually afford us the dubious relief of a Pence presidency.
The question I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to is why Putin wanted Trump to win. There are several possible answers, not mutually exclusive:
- Putin could have damaging information about DT — e.g. the scene of him urinating on prostitutes in the Steele Memorandum — that he is using to blackmail DT into serving Putin’s purposes. DT has certainly missed few opportunities to compliment Putin, although this could equally be explained by his general preference for autocrats over democrats, and is the last thing Putin would ask him to do if he were in fact a Russian puppet. My own view is that this is a fantasy, but stranger things have happened in the Trump Era so it’s on the list.
- Putin might have been afraid of Hillary Clinton. Yes, she’s tough, smart and a bit of a hawk. But she would have continued the policies of her predecessors, which allowed Putin the leeway to get pretty much everything he wanted: Bush let him grab big chunks of Georgia in 2008 and Obama let him grab big chunks of the Ukraine in 2017. In both cases there was scolding and sanctions but nothing serious (like, say, military intervention). So long as Putin kept his hands off NATO members like the Baltic states Putin would have had little to fear from Clinton.
- Putin might have liked the idea of his chief geopolitical rival being led by an idiot. I think this is almost certainly part of Putin’s motivation. China has gotten much of the respect and influence which America has forfeited, but there’s plenty to go around. Russia’s “soft power” has grown in proportion to the decline of America’s.
- Putin might have wanted to discredit the very idea of democracy. Neither the U.S. nor anyone else poses a military threat to Putin’s Russia. Putin has destroyed or neutered all of the domestic institutions that could challenge his power. But the Color Revolution in Ukraine and the Arab Spring (despite their disappointing outcomes) showed that the idea of democracy can inspire an oppressed populace to depose an autocratic leader. Electing DT undermined confidence in the one idea that could eventually threaten his new Tsardom. I think tarnishing the idea of democracy was, and continues to be, one of Putin’s key strategic objectives.
Whatever his purposes, Putin has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams! His chief rival and critic is led by a buffoon, and the idea of democracy has been damaged, possibly beyond repair.
Update, Jan. 24, 2018: New York Times video essay, Is There Something Wrong With Democracy?
Update, Feb. 4, 2018: Economist, Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat
Update, April 10, 2018: Slate, Hungary’s Election Was a Milestone in the Decline of Democracy