White House

Trump Could Undermine Democracy Outside the U.S.

Sending a message of democratic decay around the world.

Trump with the U.K.'s Nigel Farage.

Photographer: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

President Donald Trump's approach to democracy, conflicted at best, is settling into a familiar groove. Attacks on the news media, the scapegoating of vulnerable minorities and periodic assaults on the concept of truth, as well as on specific facts, have become hallmarks of his administration.

At the same time, democracy has gotten a few licks in as well. Trump obediently retreated from his Muslim ban at the direction of the courts, and his White House has been leaky, a boon to the free flow of information.

But it remains unclear whether the Republican Congress and other key U.S. institutions have the resiliency and will to repel Trump's attacks, including the continuing stonewalling on we-don't-know-what-exactly regarding Russia. (Trump's sudden aura of competence after his speech to Congress was undermined a day later by a well-timed leak on how Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared to mislead the Senate under oath about his Russia contacts.)

The effect of Trump on societies with weaker democratic institutions is also unknown. But the very existence of a would-be authoritarian thrashing around the American government, forever threatening to break free of institutional constraints, sends a jarring message around the world. 

The New York Times published a story on Wednesday about "anti-Soros" forces in Europe being emboldened by Trump's election. Substitute the word "democracy" for the name of the financier and open-society enthusiast George Soros, and the story still holds.

In Soros's native Hungary, the Trumpian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has for years been undermining democratic norms and institutions, badgering opponents and bludgeoning the independence of the news media. He is using this hour of authoritarian ascendance to step up his attacks on groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as "foreign agents financed by foreign money."

Last week in Hungary, an Amnesty spokesman told EUObserver, "The government accused Amnesty of producing fake reports and of inciting migrants to break laws."

"Fake" reports and law-breaking immigrants. There's something vaguely familiar about those themes, isn't there? In a speech earlier this week, Orban said Hungary's economic success depends on the nation's "ethnic homogeneity." 

Hungary's tide of "illiberal democracy" long preceded Trump's election. Orban's most recent reign atop Hungarian politics -- he's been there before -- began in 2010. "What we've seen is a weakening of democratic institutions around that part of the world for maybe a decade now," said Jan Surotchak, Europe director of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based NGO that promotes democracy worldwide. 

Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, a kind of Washington doppelganger of Surotchak's IRI, has been in the business of promoting democracy worldwide for more than three decades. 1 He isn't convinced that this U.S. president represents a democratic departure. "I think it's way too early for people to be making judgments," Wollack said in a telephone interview.

Wollack points out that concerns about President George W. Bush's commitment to global democracy movements -- as a candidate Bush had disparaged "nation-building" -- were quickly rendered moot after Bush launched full-scale wars under the banner of democracy.

Trump's evolution could similarly surprise. Democracy promotion, Wollack said, is now deeply woven into the fabric of international relations, especially for the U.S. "Every U.S. embassy around the world has democracy as part of its agenda," he said.

Incubating and sustaining democratic institutions is a tough task, however. Democracy doesn't always take. And it doesn't always thrive even when it does take. Hungary is one of many examples of democratic backsliding. Certainly the regime of Russia's Vladimir Putin qualifies.

Nowhere is democracy so firmly rooted as in the U.S., which has been a wellspring for democratic impulses around the world. Perhaps the confidence of Wollack and others is well-founded. But Trump represents a concussive break from a democratic pattern that has not only flourished in the U.S. but reverberated, to the benefit of Americans and others, around the world.

U.S. commitment to foreign engagement can vary with the demands and resources of the era. But questions about the U.S.'s commitment to its own democracy are something strange and new. Democrats around the world can't help but take note that the pillar of democracy has gone wobbly. Aspiring dictators have no doubt noticed, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. In the late 1990s, I was briefly a consultant to NDI.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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