Democracy is in trouble; there is no doubt about that. Around the world, from Russia to Brazil, strongmen have occupied the highest seats of power and have bent the democratic system to their will to either enshrine themselves forever or just far enough to pass legislation that gives them greater security in their political positions of power.
The United States is no different, and although I have argued in the past that the ship of democracy there is holding, at least for now, recent events could challenge that. A right-wing majority on the Supreme Court and escalations in violence, fueled by increased antisemitism and anti-pluralism, have marked a drastic shift in the political climate. Trump’s further embattled position in the wake of the midterm elections means that previous fears of autocratic leadership in the U.S. may not have been overstated. Already, he has falsely claimed that voter fraud is occurring in Florida, consistent with his utter disregard for anything factual. This disposition also includes claiming that the Democrats are behind the 3,000-strong migrant Caravan approaching the U.S. border and that opposition to Republicans is fabricated and paid for by people like George Soros.
Rhetoric come to life
The latest escalation in violence, embodied in the pipe-bomber who sent 13 explosive devices to Democrats, CNN, and others, as well as reports that armed militias are planning to “fend off” the migrant caravan, are proof that Trump’s divisive rhetoric has eroded trust in government institutions to the extent that people feel the need to mobilize themselves in extra-judicial manners. The amazing fact here is that Trump and the Republicans are the government, yet somehow this has not fazed his supporters who are now translating language into action within a defeatist siege mentality.
The erosion of trust in government institutions is nothing new — although it has been exacerbated and proliferated globally under Trump and what has been argued as his Fascistic methods of communication. The combination of the two has created the space for social strife between those who see his Presidency as illegitimate, justifiably so, and those who see the liberal order and globalism as an affront to independence and prosperity — a false assumption.
Cause or Effect?
For those who oppose Trump, much of the conversation has revolved around whether he is the cause of this social strife or the effect of it. Those in the liberal center take the stance that Trump is an effect of the collapse in trust of government institutions, isolating the cause to the simple fact that there is a declining faith in democracy among younger people. Yet what has caused that decline to allow for the “effect?” Surely, the declining faith in democracy is itself an effect of something else.
Here, we can point to several things, many of which Trump has also identified; the financial crash of 2007-8, which no one has been held accountable for, ceaseless foreign intervention, clientelism among a political elite that has failed to produce inspiring progressive politics, an environment devoid of social justice, and anxiety about immigration, all of which have their roots going back to the Obama administration.
Today, it is easy to look back longingly at the Obama administration; however, it is important to remember that under Obama military intervention was increased, the number of deportations from the US were higher, and nothing was done when it came to gun violence. This was offset on the domestic front by Obama’s relatively more progressive policies: healthcare reform, trans rights, gay marriage, and non-intervention on States’ legalizations of marijuana, all of which made Obama a more palatable president.
Nevertheless, and with Obama’s centrist politics, trust in democracy continued to fall. This is unsurprising. Not because the economy was still in a state in recovery, an argument used by centrist figures to exonerate Obama, but because Obama refused to tackle the root causes of both the financial crash and the social anxieties that arose from it in a global context of mass migration. Obama’s focus on social issues did not seem inspirationally progressive for non-minority groups i.e. those who voted for Trump, but almost delusional and dismissive.
This left the door wide open for Trump. His populist, anti-globalist, and anti-immigration platform capitalized on what was still the sense of a rift in society. Trump was the man for the job to make sure that all anxieties were put to bed with the claim that whatever divisions Obama created would be undone with him.
Of course, the truth is that Obama did not create any divisions and neither did “liberals” or “Democrats” nor George Soros. It is Trump who has magnified social divisions, which have fused horribly well with the lack of trust in democracy and institutions. For Trump and his supporters, the institutions do not work, not because they are badly constructed institutions, but because the institutions have been perverted by social elements or even ideological loftiness such as globalism. Thus, both of these things need to be eliminated, violently if necessary.
This sentiment exists and is perpetuated within the centre-right as well. David Frum, for example, issued a warning about the most recent migrant caravan working its way up from Latin America, saying that “if liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do.”
Not only is this an alarmist message, presenting the migrant caravan as something that needs to be defended from, as if the migrants consists of an army here to destroy the U.S., it also grossly misrepresents what “liberals” are advocating for — simply, the processing of immigrants and asylum seekers as per legal requirement. Nowhere does this contradict the idea of defending borders. Here, Frum, who claims to be an ardent opponent of Trump, is engaging in the same sort of propaganda that capitalizes on peoples’ distrust to score cheap political points, presenting the problem of migrants as an ideological/social one as opposed to an institutional one.
What is to be done?
So what is the way out of this debacle? Unfortunately, the main force of opposition against Trump, the Democratic Party, is doing the very opposite of what it should be doing, getting involved in a moral battle that places ideology at the centre. This is not a smart move on two fronts. First, not much is informing the Democratic Party’s ideology at the moment. Second, it is a reactionary “not Trump” rhetoric that relies mostly on trying to undermine Trump through moral arguments and does not deal with the fact that a person in power, no matter how bad they may be, has the right to use the legal democratic tools at their disposal to push through their agenda no matter how illiberal it is. This falls right into Trumps rhetoric of there being a social divide that is eating at the institutions the he is trying to save/strengthen, albeit around himself, otherwise why else are the Democrats opposing him?
Here, then, the opposition that Democrats are proposing lands them in a paradox. They must somehow defend the institutions of democracy that Trump is using while at the same time arguing against Trump. It is easy to see how and why Trump has been so successful at using this paradoxical position to present himself as an embattled president being blocked at every turn and being treated unfairly by the “Fake News Media.”
The radical alternative here is to do the opposite and agree with Trump that yes, political and economic elitism and exceptionalism has been playing a major role in shaping U.S. politics and it is the system, not the candidates or politicians, who have been setting the U.S. back. The Democrats need to make the claim that we do not just need to “drain the swamp” but alter the entire landscape, so that there is no swamp in the first place and power can be placed back into the hands of people directly and not vicariously through whom they elect.
Bernie Sanders presents a good case study on how this can be done. Although his railing against the top 1%, criticism of excess military spending, and push for Medicare-for-all and free university education up the ante in the face of Trump, the radicalism in his politics is that he agrees that it is the system that has created the 1% and the roadblocks to improved living conditions. He backs up this argument with policy proposals of abolishing gerrymandering and negating, through legislation, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. In short, Sanders’ message resonates because it cuts to the core of solutions for “bad democracy.” Sanders calls for more and fairer democracy on the basis that the current way democracy is structured is failing. This way, Sanders goes one above Trump in his willingness to return power to the people directly by attacking the things that have taken it from them. In short, Sanders is suggesting fundamental institutional changes that speak directly to the cause of insecurity.
It is unclear if the reforms Sanders is pushing for are enough to shift the situation in the US. He also continues to be presented as an outlier from mainstream politics — something that has made him an even more inspirational figure for some. Yet his messages have definitely reverberated within the Democratic Party on some level as they have moved to make their own party more democratic by removing power from super-delegates. It has also reinvigorated grassroots organizing and political engagement on all levels of government.
Democracy is the way
Leaning on the institutions of democracy is not only important because it one ups Trump. It also shifts the balance of power in its entirety, meaning that Trump, or others like him, will be unable to use mundane issues, such as the migrant caravan, to create movements around false dichotomies. As soon as citizens feel more empowered in the decision-making process, they will come to realize that many of the either/or situations they are presented with simply do not exist. One can have borders and be welcoming to refugees and one can feed both refugees and veterans and homeless people.
This is truer the greater the power people have in democratically deciding what happens with the economy, which right now serves as the greatest demarcation line between individuals within society. The more power people have in what resources go where, the faster those demarcation lines melt away. This advice is not exclusively relevant to the U.S., but is one politicians the world over can use to counter the rise of illiberalism and remove the causes of it.