On November 3, Americans will face their most momentous election in the past two generations. The outcome of the vote will have huge effects not just for the future of American democracy and society, but for world order as a whole. It is critical that voters think clearly before casting their ballots.
Donald Trump was elected in 2016 leading a global populist wave, promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington and displace the elites in both parties whose “globalist” policies had damaged the interests of ordinary working Americans. He has indeed disrupted things in American government, but in ways that are highly damaging to the country’s ability to peacefully govern itself in the future. The disruptions fall into three categories: policies, institutions, and the normative expectations we have for political leadership.
Of the three categories, the least significant disruptions have involved policy. The Trump administration has overseen a huge tax cut, rolled back federal regulations in many areas, engaged in a trade war with China, reduced American involvement in many international organizations, and attempted to withdraw U.S. forces from areas like Afghanistan, Syria, and the Sahel. Some version of these policies had been a staple of prior Republican administrations, and at least some of them would have been enacted had another Republican, say Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, won the presidency in 2016. The attempt to withdraw from Middle Eastern entanglements and shift attention to China did not begin with Trump; he simply carried forward policies begun by the Obama administration. I happen to disagree with many of these initiatives: The tax cut, for example, added to the country’s unsustainable debt at a time when we should have been seeking to reduce the deficit. By reversing many of Obama’s climate policies, Trump is ignoring what is perhaps the biggest long-term threat to American well-being there is. But most of these policy areas are ones where reasonable people can disagree.
There is one policy area, however, in which President Trump’s actions have been absolutely indefensible: his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He saw the disease as a threat not to the nation but to his personal interests. He downplayed it in the first two months of 2020, allowing cases to grow exponentially. When he finally admitted that Covid represented a serious crisis, he pivoted to a rapid reopening of the country, which led to another huge rise in infections and deaths during the summer. Over the past two weeks, Trump’s insouciant attitude has led to the White House becoming a virus hotspot, with more infections—including that of the president himself—than in the entire country of Taiwan. In short, the Trump administration’s Covid response has been a policy failure of huge proportions, one that reflects basic incompetence in governing capacity and will be studied as such for decades to come.
The second and much more significant disruption involves basic American institutions and the way in which Donald Trump has weakened them. American constitutional government is built around a system of checks and balances in which an elected leader of the executive branch is constrained by a host of other branches and bodies. When Trump and other conservatives today bemoan the breakdown of the rule of law, they are referring to violations of the law by protesters and violent rioters. No one should tolerate violent protest, but the deepest meaning of the rule of law is not that ordinary people should obey the law. China, North Korea, and Cuba do not permit violent protest, but they are not rule-of-law states. The rule of law means that the king himself should be under the law—that is, law should apply to the most powerful political actors in the system.
This is something that Donald Trump has never understood. In a pattern that began long before he was elected president, Trump sees the law as an instrument of his self-interest: He will use it to sue competitors or bludgeon political opponents like Hillary Clinton but ignore it when it touches upon his family’s own interests. His 2016 campaign was clearly guilty of accepting help from Russia, and he sought to use congressionally appropriated funds to extort help from Ukraine to further his re-election. In all these cases he has waged a scorched-earth campaign to discredit any institution or individual that sought to apply the law against him: the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI, the special prosecutor, his own attorney general, judges and courts, and the mainstream media outlets that he has called “the enemy of the American People.” He has acted like a Mafia boss, imposing a code of omerta on his Republican followers in the Senate so that they were unwilling even to hear testimony from witnesses who might have challenged the president’s storyline during the impeachment hearings. Trump has been doing his utmost to undermine Americans’ confidence in the legitimacy of the November election, apparently believing that it will go against him. As he has sunk steadily in the polls, he has gotten more desperate, calling on his attorney general to open criminal investigations against his rival Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama. This is the behavior of an authoritarian ruler.
The third disruption lies in American society’s normative health. Leadership is more than the aggregation of policies and decisions that leaders make; it is also made up of the moral tone that these leaders set for the society as a whole. It is for this reason that conservatives habitually argued in decades past that presidential character matters. Yet is it hard to imagine an individual with worse character than Donald Trump. He is a habitual liar who lies about big matters and inconsequential ones. He is uninformed about the issues he must deal with and sees no need to seek better information. Over the years of his presidency, his tendency to promote crackpot conspiracy theories has only gotten worse. Trump sees everything through the lens of personal self-interest and is vindictive towards friends and foes alike. And he has seen his self-interest as lying in a widening of the huge partisan division that has gravely weakened the United States.
This divide is particularly neuralgic on the question of race. Since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, race has become a depressingly overt aspect of America’s polarization. Some on the progressive left assert that every white person is to some degree complicit in the country’s structural racism. I have serious doubts about this, but there is no question that there are significant numbers of true racists in the country and that they have become much more open and vocal since President Trump took office. His defenders claim he is not personally a racist, but it is notable that hardcore racists believe that he is on their side. During his campaign he has gleefully waded into the hugely dangerous civil violence that has emerged in places like Kenosha and Portland and the woods of Michigan, seeking not to calm passions but to enrage them further in hopes that the rage will fuel his re-election.
It is hard to overstate the bad consequences that would flow from a Trump victory in November. As was the case after his “acquittal” in the impeachment trial, he would see an election victory as a huge mandate to continue down the destructive path he has already blazed. As John Bolton has speculated, international institutions like NATO are not likely to survive a second Trump term. America’s global standing will continue to deteriorate, to the benefit of authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. Russia in particular has had a great stake in seeing Trump elected, and the president—a veritable Manchurian candidate—has been happy to accept its help. His sympathy for strongmen and antipathy to his fellow democratic leaders will remove the United States even further from its longstanding position as a beacon of democracy. This will have huge geopolitical implications as power and influence continue to shift away from the United States.
If Trump wins, it will doubtless be by an even smaller minority of the popular vote than in 2016—meaning that he will face a crisis of electoral legitimacy amid widespread charges of Republican voter suppression. He will nonetheless use his “mandate” to intensify his politicization of the bureaucracy and pursue vendettas against perceived enemies.
Since the ridiculous debate of September 29, Trump has been flailing and at the moment seems headed towards a landslide defeat. Let us hope that this happens, if for no reason other than to avoid a widely anticipated effort by the president to contest the results of the election and refuse to leave office. The Republican Party is not going begin to heal itself unless Trump’s enablers in Congress also go down to defeat. The most important check in the American political system is an electoral one, and it will be important to see it working clearly and effectively.
Partisans on both sides of the divide believe that they are facing an existential crisis and agree that the stakes in the coming election could not be higher. Conservatives feel that “their” America will be destroyed by a Democratic victory as the culture continues to shift toward woke progressivism and continuing immigration. Liberals have felt from the beginning of the Trump presidency that democracy in America was itself at risk, given the lawlessness and corruption of the Trump family.
I do not believe that these are in any way comparable risks. The cultural shifts that have taken place in the United States have been underway for many years, driven at base by demography and economic change that can be moderated but not fundamentally reversed. Many of the policies demanded by the left today are necessary, like improving America’s social safety net and reversing the yawning wealth gap produced by globalization. The Democrats have chosen the most moderate candidate available and are hardly agreed on a far-left agenda. Internationally, the vast majority of democratic countries in the world will breathe a sigh of relief if Trump loses.
On the other hand, institutions and the broader normative order, once undermined, are extremely difficult to restore. Trump does not have an alternative vision for American institutions; rather, he is a prime example of a type of personalistic autocrat, albeit a rather incompetent one. American political institutions have been remarkably resilient over more than two centuries, but they have begun to decay notably in the past generation. Trump both embodies and has intensified that decay. Anyone who thinks that a tax cut or Supreme Court justice is worth the loss of our most fundamental institutions is, to put it mildly, not thinking clearly.
If Joe Biden is elected, he will preside over a country crippled by a continuing pandemic and severe economic recession. Polarization will not end with a Biden victory, and the huge divisions that exist between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party will open quickly. But Democratic control of the presidency and Congress will at least create the possibility of not just the reversal of Trump’s policies but much more fundamental reform of our institutions. There is a huge small-D democratic reform agenda that needs to be undertaken, from the electoral system to campaign finance to reform of the federal bureaucracy to term limits for Supreme Court justices to partisan gerrymandering—and on and on.
There could be a silver lining in all of the horrible events that have so far taken place in 2020. Covid has exposed clearly to many people around the world the failings of their governments, from Belarus to Brazil to Mexico. This has been especially true in of the United States. It could be that the pandemic will break the political fever of populism and usher in a dramatically new political period at home and abroad. If that happens, the priority should be not just to recover from the damage done by this administration, but to rebuild fundamental institutions and reverse a process of decay that long predates Donald Trump.
Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.
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