When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office on January 20, he will face a world with more authoritarian momentum and greater democratic instability than at any time in the last several decades. How he responds will be one of the great challenges of his presidency.
AGE OF ANXIETY
In the political science literature, democratization is generally thought to have occurred in waves. The largest and most recent of these, the “third wave” of global democratic expansion that began in the mid-1970s and crested in the 1990s, had already begun to subside as early as 2005. Since then, declines in freedom and political participation have come incrementally. But in the past year or two, several developments have intensified global anxieties about the health and future of democracy.
The first is a trend toward authoritarianism that has popped up in several emerging democracies. In Turkey, which has been under a state of emergency since the failed military coup this July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrested some 32,000 alleged coup plotters and more than 100 journalists, while purging tens of thousands of other civil servants, military personnel, and police officers from the government. In August, Thailand’s military imposed a new constitution—by way of a referendum that was closed to opposition campaigning—that obstructs democracy by giving the military enormous de facto power. Meanwhile, since President Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration in the Philippines in June, several thousand alleged drug traffickers have been killed without due process. Duterte has also cracked down on domestic opposition. Most recently, he removed his loudest critic from the leadership of a Senate committee investigating the murderous wave of police and vigilante violence. Reacting against international criticism, Duterte even compared himself favorably to Hitler, saying that while the German dictator had “massacred three million Jews,” he, Duterte, would be “happy to slaughter” the Philippines’ three million drug addicts.
Another worrying development is that as democracies have stumbled, authoritarian regimes have become more aggressive in projecting anti-democratic norms onto the world particularly dangerous in this regard, using highly sophisticated social media interventions to promote confusion, division, and doubt among democratic publics and intensify cynicism about democracy. Russia is also believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to be behind a number of hacks, such as that of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mail account, designed to influence the U.S. election. At the same time, Russia and the world’s other most powerful autocracy, China, have been flexing their muscles in more conventional military, economic, and geopolitical ways.
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