by David Remnick
Illustration by Tom Bachtell
Minute by minute, the wheels are coming off the clown car that is the Trump Administration. The circus animals are deserting, wriggling through every available window and door. Last week, it was the chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who had countenanced the President’s falsehoods and flights of bigotry but who finally took a stand on the question of steel and aluminum tariffs. Still others—the Secretary of State, the national-security adviser, the chief of staff, the Chief Daughter, and the Feckless Son-in-Law—are surely imagining either their own retirement from government service or multi-part indictments. Meanwhile, Robert Mueller’s investigation grows increasingly ominous for the President. Also, porn stars.
But the spectacle on Pennsylvania Avenue diverts attention from an arguably more consequential matter; namely, who now speaks for the values and the institutions of a liberal democratic country? Donald Trump did not ignite but merely joined a miserable, destabilizing trend of illiberalism that has been under way for years in Russia, Turkey, China, India, Southeast Asia, and Western, Eastern, and Central Europe. In France, Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, far-right parties and factions have not yet taken power, but they are contenders to do so, and they influence the debate on everything from immigration to foreign policy.
Trump is not the most extreme case. He may denounce his own Justice Department as disloyal and skeptics in the media as “enemies of the people.” But, at least for now, he operates within a constitutional order—a still-standing system of laws, a separation of powers, and a civil society—that has so far proved resilient. Yet the threat of Trumpism is unique in its scale and its influence. It is one thing for Viktor Orbán to shrink the nascent liberties of post-Communist Hungary, a nation of fewer than ten million people; it is another for Trump to assume the title of “leader of the free world,” when he has such casual disregard for democratic freedoms and assumes control of an unimaginably powerful arsenal with no sign of recognizing the gravity of his responsibility. As President, Trump is the putative guardian of a set of political values, and, no matter how often those values have been undermined, threatened, or betrayed in the course of American history, they have served for countless millions abroad as a democratic standard, an ideal.
Trump’s illiberalism—his cockeyed expressions of admiration for such leaders as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Rodrigo Duterte, and his heedless detachment from American norms—betrays that faith. It has also inspired a stream of books with titles like “How Democracies Die,” “Can It Happen Here?,” “The Road to Unfreedom,” “Why Liberalism Failed,” and “It’s Even Worse Than You Think.” Yascha Mounk, the author of the most recent addition to this library of anxiety, “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It,” offers a trenchant survey from 1989, with its democratic euphoria, to the current map of autocratic striving, “from Athens to Ankara.”
Mounk, who teaches government at Harvard, points out that one reason for the increasing indifference to democratic rule and the rising enthusiasm for authoritarian alternatives, particularly among young people, is the widening historical distance from any direct experience of the horrors of German Fascism or Soviet Communism. “Over two-thirds of older Americans believe that it is extremely important to live in a democracy; among millennials, less than one-third do,” Mounk writes. In 1995, “only one in sixteen believed that army rule is a good system of government; today, one in six do.” It’s easy to forget that we live in alarming times when you can just switch the channel to “Vanderpump Rules.”
Mounk emphasizes that history laughs at complacency and illusions of permanence. Athenian democracy lasted two centuries, the Republic of Venice a millennium, but both eventually faced decline and dissipation. The Trump era represents a test of sturdy-seeming American values, and the stakes are global. Just as a prosperous and self-confident American government helped rebuild Western Europe and Japan after the Second World War, and then helped protect them for decades—through the establishment of various security, diplomatic, and economic alliances—the Trump Administration’s disdain for that legacy has left our allies feeling exposed and vulnerable. European leaders routinely tell reporters and former American officials that the U.S. government is barely recognizable to them, in rhetoric or in action. The reductions in the diplomatic corps have often left them with no one to talk to; the Administration’s transactional relationships with authoritarian regimes give them the sense that the President is uninterested in any moral dimension in his foreign policy.
The next significant chapter in this stress test for liberal values will be the midterm elections of November, 2018. If the Democratic Party fails to win a majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, Trump will be further emboldened. His capacity for recklessness will multiply and go unrestrained. The Republican leadership, which has already proved shocking in its cowardice, will be even less inclined to challenge him.
Popular resistance to Trumpism began on the Mall the day after his Inauguration. The youthful uprising against the National Rifle Association in south Florida is the newest source of inspiration. But, for Trump and Trumpism to be rendered an unnerving but short-lived episode, history will require more than cogent critique. It will require that millions of men and women who do not ordinarily exercise their franchise—some sixty per cent in off-year elections—recognize the imperatives of citizenship. For those who aspire to office, it will require not merely renunciation of a President but an affirmation—critical and thorough—of the values and the institutions that the President has scorned and threatened. It will require an honest, complex, open-minded debate on immigration, income disparity, distrust of government, guns, race, gender, speech, social media, and the environment.
Such a debate will mean grappling with the many ways in which American values have yet to be fully realized. In the 2016 election, this territory was too often left to Trump’s demagoguery and his promise of simple solutions. But, whether or not the clown car is finally pulled over by the rule of law, the restoration and the renewal of America’s democratic traditions will be achieved only by democratic means. ♦
The New Yorker · by David Remnick