Warnings for democracy from Donald Trump’s presidency

Warnings for democracy from Donald Trump’s presidency

The Trump years reveal how democracy is undergoing a big change in the US and beyond, and why the system of government itself is in need of urgent attention

With his reluctance to accept defeat, Donald Trump could be pushing America to the brink of civil chaos, perhaps even civil war, proving that trust in a democratic process is only as good as the trustworthiness of its topmost individual. Credit: Reuters

“A man can wish upon himself...something harmful, stupid, and even completely idiotic...in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things,” wrote Russia’s Fyodor Dostoevsky in his existentialist novel, Notes from Underground, in 1864. In 2016, the American people – with or without Russian influence (not from Dostoevsky!)  – wished for Donald Trump, whose presidential prospects seemed “completely idiotic” to much of the world.

Now that the mercurial President of the United States of America is competing for re-election, the occasion is appropriate to reflect on what exactly the Trump presidency has revealed about the nature of democracy in a nation so used to being the standard bearer of modern democratic ideals.

The alarm bells are ringing

“Our (America’s) democracy is in terrible danger — more danger than it has been since the Civil War, more danger than after Pearl Harbor, more danger than during the Cuban missile crisis and more danger than during Watergate.” These are the words of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman ahead of the November elections, when Trump takes on Joe Biden for the right to helm the 46th American presidency.

The “terrible danger” that has assailed the world’s oldest democracy has brought with it some urgent warnings. The biggest of them has been to make obvious the acceptability for the present version of populist politics, represented by the likes of Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi.

No longer does the head of a country need to exemplify integrity, compassion, or even the most rudimentary common sense. During the Covid-19 crisis, Trump, the self-perceived superman, has turned superspreader by disseminating false predictions, inaccurate cures, and potentially, the germs of the disease, too, while embarking on a spree of in-person election rallies, even as America’s list of Covid casualties continued to surge.

And yet, through it all, he has managed to retain his core group of voters. Why? Because moral compunctions are now dispensable in democracies. Leaders have turned into provocateurs and deep character flaws no longer elicit universal outrage.

This lack of universal outrage at what represents despicable standards of behaviour for any human being, let alone the American president, points to the second warning the Trump years have offered – the dangers behind the normalisation of polarisation.

For decades, America has been a highly partisan country, with Republicans and Democrats splitting political support. But with Trump’s arrival, the previously healthy partisanship has turned into noxious polarisation.

This has not only meant that the pro-Trump and anti-Trump lobbies are always at daggers drawn, but that they also inhabit entirely different public spheres. It appears as though for the common Republican, the common Democrat has become pure anathema, and vice versa.

The toxicity between opposite ends of the political spectrum has been exacerbated by the media, where propaganda has been at an all-time high during Trump’s tenure. The likes of Fox News and CNN have not only come to represent mutually unsustainable worldviews, they have also reduced the complexities of democracy into a monolithic debate on its most potent mascot – in this case, Trump.

A cursory glance across the op-ed section of The New York Times immediately illustrates the disproportionate focus engendered by Trump. While it is undoubtedly crucial to highlight Trump’s long list of lacunae, it is equally vital to document the institutional inertia (from the Senate to the Supreme Court) accelerating the democratic disintegration of America, for which Trump is just one of several factors.

Herein lies the third warning from the Trump presidency – an excessive emphasis on a divisive, populist leader produces reductionist reportage that does not do justice to the complicated contours of a dysfunctional democracy.

The final warning

The Trump presidency has shattered the illusion that trust, once built into the fabric of a democracy, endures forever. With his reluctance to accept defeat, Donald Trump could be pushing America to the brink of civil chaos, perhaps even civil war, proving that trust in a democratic process is only as good as the trustworthiness of its topmost individual.

The final warning from the era of Donald Trump is that nothing, not even trust, can be permanent in a democracy. Past glories should never allow believers in democracy to take the present for granted.

Collectively, the Donald Trump presidency contains a deeper lesson, which concerns the difference between successful campaigning and successful governance. As a campaigner, Trump had correctly identified the American pulse in 2016, creating an appealing counter-narrative to the globalised, meritocratic order of the Democrats. But as the President, in charge of governance, Trump could not produce answers to the questions he had raised himself. Far from making America “great again”, Trump plunged his nation’s democracy into chaos, inflicting fresh wounds instead of healing old ones.

Come November 3 – and what could be the beginning of a new era for its democracy – America will do well to remember that the promise of better days, no matter how compelling, does not guarantee improvements. Change, after all, always looks easier to realise from outside the White House than within it.

(Priyam Marik is a freelance journalist writing on politics, culture and sport)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.