Democratic voices outside the United States will have to wait till November 3 to learn whether American voters intend to give President Donald Trump four more years in the White House. While outsiders have no say in the matter, all partisans of democracy throughout the world devoutly wish for Trump’s ouster from the Oval Office.
The reason is simple: as president of the United States, Trump has done more than enough to undermine the very idea of democracy, and in the process has provided aid and comfort to illiberal pretenders around the world.
In the post-World War II global order, American pre-eminence was inevitably grounded in the presumed moral and aesthetic superiority of the idea of democracy against claims made by dictators and psychopaths in the name of communism and other totalitarian ideologies. US politicians made it their business to protect and promote democracy against its enemies, local and global. And they felt good and noble about this role.
Of course, there were the harsh compulsions of realpolitik and it was widely understood that America’s superpower status owed a lot to its ICBMs, B-52s and Marines. But, at the same time, its acknowledged leadership of the “Free World” was simultaneously anchored in the vitality of its constitutional arrangements and the vibrancy of its democratic practices. And whosoever sat in the Oval Office was deemed to personify the nobility of the democratic project.
And perhaps with the sole exception of Richard Nixon, US presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barrack Obama did manage to inspire and stoke the democratic imagination on a global scale – till Donald Trump came to Washington.
During these past four years, the world has ruefully watched as he conducted himself as if he was exempted from the obligation of providing virtuous leadership that is so central in a democracy anywhere. On the contrary, he set himself up as a role model for every quasi-autocrat out to use his mandate to suborn the principles of responsible governance.
Trump has ended up giving ideas to all semi-democratic incumbents when he near-suggested, first, that he could postpone the presidential election on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic, and , second, that he may not accept the results of the November election if the vote went against him.
Democratic forces around the world were simply flabbergasted that an American president could permit himself this kind of ambivalence. After all it is the first principle of electoral democracy that the winner and the loser both submit themselves to the outcome of a contest deemed to have been fairly played. But here was a president who came across as crassly contemptuous of good habits, healthy practices and established conventions of a robust democracy.
Democracy claims a nobler edge over authoritarian regimes because a good democratic leader seeks to mobilise a society’s decent impulses and wholesome instincts. A wise leader makes us feel worthy of ourselves as he summons the people to strive for a higher common good. Donald Trump never wanted and never attempted to be a good leader.
There was a time when American leaders arrogated to themselves, somewhat self-importantly, the right to judge whether the “Third World” countries were behaving themselves. The State Department still issues annual certificates to countries on their record of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. Under Trump, such pretensions look hollow. As president, he has been content to practise a model of presidential leadership that relies on an appeal to the baser prejudices and ugly passions dormant in every society.
Himself no great orator, Donald Trump has nonetheless taught demagogues the world over how to make strategic use of fractiousness and underhandedness in pursuit of political power. It is the primary task of a leader in a democracy to unify the nation and heal the divisions in the society, but Trump has thrived on instigating tribal animosities among Americans. US democracy, like any other system, had its share of aberrations and absurdities but Trump has drained it completely of any suggestion of nobility and ethical values.
In these times of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump’s behaviour has new standards of irresponsibility. An overweight man in his 70s pretending bizarrely to be a superman, he had in these few weeks given respectability to all those leaders across the world who would reduce the seriousness of public life to the frivolousness of a spectacle.
No wonder, then, that authoritarian leaders around the world have silently admired Trump as he has mastered the black art of turning rational, sober citizens into irrational crowds. Self-styled quasi-democratic strongmen have taken heart from Trump as he induced significant sections of Americans into hating “enemies of America,” real or imaginary, at home or abroad.
Conversely, voices of dissent and democratic protest around the world face intimidation and bullying from “strongmen” masquerading as saviours. And during these last four years such voices have learnt not to look to Donald Trump’s Washington for support and sympathy. There is no reason for this global constituency to look forward to four more years of President Trump.
Above all, Trump has devalued the idea of integrity in public life. Ethical legitimacy of the state power cannot be sustained on moral squalor; but as president, Trump seeks to drain political authority of its high-mindedness. His return to the White House would be a shot in the arm for all closet authoritarians across the world. For this reason alone, Trump ought to be ejected from the Oval Office.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He has been editor-in-chief of The Tribune.