Trump diminishes democracy

How the Americans vote in their presidential election should be only their business. But it cannot be so.

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
8 May 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Lynden, Wash. Elaine Thompson / Press Association. All rights reserved.No military coup has taken place in recent weeks. No elected prime minister has been beheaded. No nation has suspended its constitution. And yet a debate rages on the dangers facing the democratic order. The irresistible rise of one Donald Trump in US politics has made a commentator call the ongoing presidential election campaign, “dystopian”.

It is not the Chinese or Russian journals that are out to malign American democracy. The mainstream American media is full of damning opinion pieces. Take just two latest headlines. America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny. Donald Trump and the Authoritarian Temptation.

What did Trump do? He gathered incredible support in his race for the Republican nomination by fuelling popular passion against liberal values. He demonised the Mexicans and Muslims and projected himself as a leader who could ignore laws and wield unrestricted power to propel America towards its manifest destiny – a process, according to him, subverted by the “liberal elite”. This billionaire businessman promises to undo the damage done by the previous occupants of the White House!

His promises cannot be subjected to a rational debate. It is difficult to argue with the voters who use their democratic right to be illiberal! With uncivil attacks on his opponents and the promise of a new order in which he would vanquish Muslim terrorists and Mexican rapists, Trump mesmerised a large section frustrated by economic hardship. He infused a kind of religious fervour among his followers and intensified the desire for change even among those who do not speak his lingo. As it happens, his likely opponent in the Presidential race, Hillary Clinton, represents continuity, not change!

The rise of Trump has shocked those Americans who cherish democracy and fear that President Trump would undermine the Constitution or persecute a minority. Andrew Sullivan sees America becoming a breeding ground for tyranny. He cites a line from Plato’s Republic: ”… tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

He explains that when democracy is ripened, a tyrant makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. He offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. As the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Sullivan describes the angry televised face of Trump and the frenzied Trump rallies where he called his opponents names and condoned physical violence as a response to political disagreement. He sees in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of Plato’s Republic.

He points out that many contend that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence.

Whether or not, “Trump’s ugly, thuggish populism” will push him into the White House, it has unleashed a process.  Sullivan says neo-Fascist moments first transform the terms of the debate, create a new moment based on untramelled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events. Fear is always the would-be tyrant’s greatest ally. “The interests of ISIS and the Trump campaign are now perfectly aligned”.

Knock-on effects

This is also relevant in the context of some other democratic countries where politicians generate hate and fear during an election season causing anxiety to the liberals. Trump is just a more extreme representative of his class.

Trump’s election campaign is being watched with great interest all around the world. The social media is suffused with satirical comments and outright disgust with his tactics. But there is a section that justifies his demonising the minorities. In India atrocious statements against the minorities come from a few ruling party leaders. Some have pointed out that these were harmless compared to Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks! 

The Trump election campaign that has discredited democracy will have side effects in other countries. In college debates, the opponents of democracy can now present a strong case. If America has to renew its campaign to spread democracy, it has to first set an example itself of being a democratic haven.

America has ceased to be a role model as not all presidents have been knights who fought for democratic values. Questions were raised on the way George Bush defeated Al Gore. But in the past undemocratic action was accompanied by sophisticated arguments. Trump is as foreign to political correctness as a coal mine to light. That is the reason for his appeal and for his shock value.

Frustrated citizens at times are attracted to an “outsider” as a potential leader. And such an outsider dumps the norms and sophistication cherished by traditional politicians.

More people around the world know about the offensive remarks made by Trump who tweets. That is why this election campaign has undermined America’s plan to promote democracy abroad, through persuasion or by force. If Trump becomes the President, America’s public diplomacy campaigns will become even less credible.

The next President would have to re-examine the import of democracy in America’s foreign policy. During the cold war, the US saw convergence between the promotion of democracy abroad and its strategic interests. Later, the Arab Spring did not deliver the desired results in terms of US interests. Wisely, successive US administrations always spared two strategic partner countries – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan from applying their missionary zeal to the spread of democracy.

The world catches a cold

What has happened in American politics is not an isolated development. In several parts of the world dangers to democracy are being highlighted by activists or by affected parties. India is witnessing a “save democracy” campaign launched by the main opposition party. The rise of the Far Right in Europe has caused anxiety. Many of the “Arab Spring” enthusiasts now protest against the illiberal forces gaining ground through the democratic process that was ushered in with external help.

Demonising “the other” has become a tried and tested technique used during election campaigns. The rise of identity politics and the infusion of religion into politics make empty rhetoric and slogan-mongering effective and diminish the value of reasoned debates. The volunteers and paid workers deployed for a trolling campaign on the social media ensure that the leader’s opponents become hate objects.

If Trump wins, some democratic leaders in other parts of the world will get a ready-made blueprint for electoral success. Not that they are novices at using Trump’s techniques to gather mass support. In some cases, the leader encourages his senior party colleagues to do the dirty work in order to galvanise his support base. This way he cannot be charged with bigotry.

A survey in America reports a higher negative impression of Muslim Americans during an election year. This reminds a commentator of an observation by Michael Cook, a historian of religions, who has drawn a link between elections and religious riots in India. According to Cook, “the Hindu nationalist politicians believe that communal riots can get out the Hindu vote for them…Under the right conditions the communal riot is a winning (electoral) strategy.”

A poll campaign is also marked by the projection of the candidate as a messiah gifted with the sinews of steel. This superman alone can save the nation threatened by enemies! Considering the problems the nations face, a saviour is in great demand in every election.

Empowered by demagoguery, Trump has gone much further than the divisive leaders elsewhere making inflammatory speeches during poll campaigns. His extremism wins public and media attention and pays dividends. The TV has turned politicians into performers who know that the more abuses they hurl and the louder they shout, the more popular they will get.

Many Americans wonder how so many of their fellow citizens can support a man like Trump. If Trump wins they would feel as if they have lost their country. And if Trump wins, one would see American poll experts advising their clients abroad on how to use the Trump technique to win elections!

How the Americans vote in their Presidential election should be only their business but it cannot be so because when America sneezes the world catches cold!

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