What it means to live without a leader of the free world.
- By Yascha Mounk
- November 11, 2016
The only thing that makes nightmares tolerable is that you never do experience the consequences. You might be falling from a great height, but you wake up — or miraculously change scenery — before you can hit the ground, or even wonder about survival.
For most of the world, Donald Trump’s election feels like a nightmare that lacks that one saving grace. For the last few days we have all been in free fall, with the ground fast approaching, except that we also know we are wide awake.
As a result, it is doubly difficult to understand the threat posed by Trump: It is difficult to know whether his radical rhetoric will translate into the most fundamental shake-up of American domestic and foreign policy in the better part of a century, or whether the bluster of his ugly campaign will give way to a more moderate persona once he is in office. And even if his extreme persona should prove authentic, as it well might, it is far from clear which variety of extremism will characterize it.
So, we may not be able to make a firm prediction about the rude awakening that awaits us — but we need to start listing the possibilities.
Trump May Undermine America’s Liberal Democracy
First and foremost, we must not underestimate the possibility that Donald Trump may prove a serious threat to liberal democracy in the United States.
In the campaign, he has attacked every norm of democratic politics: He has threatened to jail his opponent and to disregard the result of the election if he loses. He has attacked the independence of the judiciary and promised to muzzle the free press. This may be the verbal expulsions of a man to whom the art of saying extreme things without thinking them through comes very lightly, but it is just as likely to be a reflection of the depth of his authoritarian impulses. And even if his victory at the polls has not been nearly as resounding as the immense power it has given him suggests, it did make one thing clear: A shockingly large number of Americans were not put off by this authoritarian rhetoric. They may be willing to go along if he decides to walk the walk as well.
The hundreds of political scientists (myself included) who signed a letter warning of the danger Trump may pose to liberal democracy did not overcome their professional reluctance to engage in partisan politics on a whim; they were motivated by the similarities they saw between Trump and to the many undertakers of democracy in other historical periods and geographic areas. As James Loxton, of the University of Sydney, put the question we now need to ask: “Is Trump the American Berlusconi or the American Mussolini?” We must hope that he turns out to be the former while preparing for the possibility that he may try to turn himself into the latter.
He May Kill the Dream of a Multiethnic Democracy
It is rarely noted that democracy took hold in many European countries at the precise moment when decades of war and ethnic cleansing had turned them extremely homogeneous. This is probably no coincidence. In the modern era, democracy has always gone hand-in-hand with nationalism. And the popular perception of who truly belongs to these nations has, in turn, been deeply restrictive. In most times and places, you did not truly belong to the volk unless you descended from the same ethnic stock as the majority of your co-citizens.
This is one way in which the United States really was at one point, if not quite unique, then certainly special. For despite its long and deep history of radical racial injustice, it was tempting to think that America had in some ways become a genuinely multiethnic democracy. Even as many whites jealously guarded their privileges, for example, most had come to accept that blacks or Latinos were fellow Americans.
Trump’s election calls that optimism into doubt. It’s not only that Trump’s willingness to bully and slander members of just about every minority group was a core part of his electoral appeal. It’s also that his extreme rhetoric against minorities gave the longstanding racial divide in the American electorate a more bitter slant: While a clear majority of white men and women supported a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, a thumping majority of Muslims, Latinos and African-Americans sought salvation by supporting his opponent.
Politics in the United States keeps getting more tribal. As Lee Drutman, my colleague at the New America Foundation, has argued, the main political cleavage dividing Democrats from Republicans was once economic; now it is racial. The implications of this transformation are radical. You can have deep economic disagreements while recognizing each other as compatriots. But once politics turns this tribal, supporters of competing parties may increasingly refuse to think of each other as true fellow citizens.
After this election, multiethnic democracy looks a lot less stable in the United States than it once did. And that is a blow to its prospects in many other parts of the world, as well.
The Illiberal International Will Be on the March
During the election campaign, global opinion polls showed an overwhelming preference for Hillary Clinton in most parts of the world. But these polls missed a crucial detail: among the illiberal populists who are now on the rise in such diverse countries as France, Sweden, Hungary and Russia, Trump has always enjoyed strong support.
Nigel Farage, who helped bring about Brexit as the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, campaigned with Trump. Other illiberal populists were among the first — and the most enthusiastic — to celebrate his victory. Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front party, congratulated Americans on “choosing their president of their own accord instead of rubber-stamping the one chosen for them by the establishment.” Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader who recently out-Trumped Trump by calling for on an outright ban on the Quran, rejoiced in the fact that “politics will never be the same…. What America can do, we can do as well.
There is a reason for their joy. While the far-right leaders who have enjoyed a meteoric rise in recent years are virtually always deeply nationalist, they now see themselves as part of a common enterprise: to divorce liberalism from democracy. In a liberal democracy, the rights of minorities are protected and independent institutions like the judiciary rein in the power of the government. In the illiberal democracies which the vanguard of the illiberal international has established in countries like Turkey or Poland, by contrast, minorities are scapegoated for political gain and independent power centers are systematically undermined.
Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and probably the most ideologically sophisticated illiberal populist of them all, has put the aspirations of his comrades most clearly: “We are living in the days where what we call liberal non-democracy — in which we lived for the past 20 years — ends, and we can return to real democracy.” Orban is right: The era in which the stability of liberal democracy can be taken for granted definitively ended on Tuesday night.
Trump May Embolden Dictators Around The World
During the election campaign, much was made of Donald Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin. Some journalists even speculated that Trump or some of his close advisors might have a personal financial interest in an alliance with Putin. But that misses a much scarier point: Trump praises Putin because he genuinely likes the guy — and much of what he stands for.
Like Trump, Putin believes that nations should pursue their own self-interest ruthlessly. Like Trump, Putin believes in a world in which great powers have spheres of influence they can dominate at will. And like Trump, Putin does not believe that there is such a thing as a loyal opposition.
America has always been willing to make alliances of convenience with ideologically abhorrent regimes when that seemed geopolitically necessary. But it has always preferred to forge its firmest alliances with liberal democracies. One simply can’t be sure that Trump will follow that tradition.
This is likely to embolden the dictators of the world, not only in Russia but also beyond. They now know that they won’t come under criticism if they blatantly violate human rights, or quash the opposition, at home. And they also have good reason to suspect that America will look on leniently if they blackmail or invade their neighbors, so long as they are willing to return the favor to America in its own geopolitical neighborhood.
If Trump’s election does result in a radical reorientation in American foreign policy, two consequences are likely to ensure. First, authoritarian powers like Russia are likely to expand the influence they wield in the world dramatically. And second, their expansion will cause radical instability, even in areas, like Central Europe, that had finally seemed to enter a new era of stability.
America’s Allies May Start Looking Elsewhere
Even in the best case, American foreign policy will remain unpredictable for the coming years. For countries whose security has always depended on the reliability of their American allies, this is deeply scary. For now, they will be extremely vulnerable to the caprices of President Trump.
That insecurity cannot be a good feeling. And so, if decision-makers in capitals from Berlin to Tokyo have any ounce of strategic vision, they must now be hard at work in figuring out how to become less dependent on the United States.
But their options are sparse. They could invest much more heavily in their own defense, and doubtless many of them will. But for countries like Germany or Japan, it would be incredibly costly to modernize their armed forces sufficiently to be able to do without the protecting hand of a friendly hegemon. They could strengthen alliances with countries that still do share their values. But those are few and far between, and they are unlikely to be stronger than themselves militarily. Finally, they could seek the reassurance of nuclear weapons. But this is likely to engender significant domestic opposition and may prove counterproductive if it scares their neighbors into an arms race.
And so, the most realistic alternative among all the possibilities available to America’s longtime allies may be to move away from a values-based system of international alliances. In a world in which there is no reliably liberal democratic hegemon left, smaller nations will be very tempted to scurry for protection wherever it might be on offer. And if that comes to pass, then the Western liberal order may disintegrate more quickly than we might have imagined a few short years ago.