Donald Trump’s most significant legacy may be his country’s reputation as an exporter of instability, says Robert Amsterdam
With 2021 under way, there’s a collective sense of relief that we may be able to leave the events of 2020 behind us and start anew. Not so fast. Just like those familiar ill-fated personal resolutions for new diets and workouts for the New Year, Western society isn’t going to miraculously turn things around so quickly.
As much as we’d like to be done with the pandemic, it doesn’t yet appear to be done with us. The vaccine roll-outs have been enormously encouraging, but it’s still unclear when, or if ever, true public safety from the virus will be consolidated.
As much as we’d like to get the global economy firing on all cylinders again (indeed, most signs point to a strong recovery), for millions of workers the displacement experienced during the pandemic has already accentuated the gap between the winners and losers, making the post-2008 disenfranchisement seem like a minor inconvenience.
And as much as we’d like to clamp our eyes shut and try to forget the utter disgracefulness of the 2020 US presidential election and its aftermath, that traumatic experience is going to continue to haunt us for years to come.
For the first time in history, a sitting US president not only refused to recognise the results of a democratic election in which he lost, but went further with a soft coup attempt to overthrow those results though litigation, threats and pressure.
The attempt failed, but Donald Trump did succeed in bringing the majority of his base along with him into an alternate reality characterised by a fundamental rejection of democracy as a system of governance.
The damage of this irresponsible conduct will be lasting, far-reaching, and exceptionally diffcult to repair. Despots and ruthless authoritarians around the world may rejoice, for it seems there are no longer any rules. Instead there is now an established playbook of how to delegitimise any election result or democratic process and further undermine any trust in media or institutions such as the courts. It is fair to say that the US has now become a net exporter of instability.
The number of catastrophic coups, interventions and occupations carried out are countless – but now that the US’s core democratic norms have been dissolved, it is pushing instability into the world on an unprecedented level. We don’t yet understand how these changes will impact its ability to participate and lead in global affairs.
America’s foray into illiberalism has generated a robust output of literature on the subject. During the pandemic I’ve read 50 or so new releases by experts, some of whom I was fortunate enough to convince to appear on our podcast.
One of the most enlightening was a book titled How Democracies Die by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which argues that since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have not been overthrown externally by violent military coups.
Instead, democracies are destroyed through the ballot box, and the degradation of institutions from within by elected authoritarians. ‘Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted,’ the duo say.
The first is mutual toleration, or ‘the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals’.
The second is forbearance, ‘the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives’. The Republican Party under Trump has veered completely o the rails when it comes to these norms.
Their opponents in the Democratic Party and their critics in the media are demonised and painted as illegitimate, while there are repeated and overt calls for violence from the very top. Another crucial quality for democracy comes from political scientist Adam Przeworski, who long ago defined democracy as ‘a system in which parties lose elections’.
The losing part is important because, without it, elections become useless as a mechanism to resolve conflicts that arise in society.
The ‘parties’ part is crucial too, for the institution of a political party to serve as a counterweight to populism and personalism. It’s already plain to see that the diminishment of American democracy comes at a cost – both domestically and abroad. Elections are being clumsily rigged and stolen by authoritarian incumbents in Africa.
Numerous Latin American states are struggling to balance anti-corruption with representation, because they apparently sometimes conflict with one another. Across Southeast Asia, reform movements have been halted in their tracks because there is so little incentive to respect the wishes of their populations, and so much more to lose.
It is clear that there is a lot of work to be done to restore trust and credibility, and to peg back what has become one of America’s most significant exports: instability.
Robert Amsterdam is a Spear’s columnist and founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners
Image: Alex Gakos / Shutterstock.com