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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Opinion Trump has been a disaster for democracy - he has laid the ground for fascism
Caoimhín De Barra looks at Trump’s legacy and the impact his presidency has had on democracy.

THE EVENTS IN in Washington DC on Wednesday that left four people dead were shocking. But as disturbing as the attack on the US Capitol was, it was arguably less problematic than what went on within the chambers of that building.

Over one hundred elected officials voted to object to presidential election votes in certain states. They did so knowing that the grounds for objection were based on lies, and having seen the violence caused by the perpetuation of those lies.

Trump’s presidency is winding down, but storm clouds are still gathering for democracy.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued that it was inevitable that all countries would become liberal democracies, and that this trend could never be reversed.

Unfortunately, the last five years or so has shown that not only could democracy disappear, but that its very nature may play a decisive role in its demise.

The political success of Donald Trump has been a disaster for democracy. The announcement of his candidacy for the president of the United States in 2015 may one day be remembered as the beginning of the end for the democratic government as we know it.

Fascism, rising

Donald Trump is, unambiguously, a fascist. While that word means different things to different people, it should be remembered that twentieth-century fascism was, first and foremost, a rejection of democratic government.

Fascists were content to use the veneer of democracy when convenient and to attack its values and norms when not. This has been the very essence of Trump’s political style. The final proof of that was in yesterday’s attack.

Having a fascist as the leader of the largest, oldest, and most powerful democracy in the world is obviously uncomfortable for those who champion government of the people, by the people. But the real problem is the two tactics that Trump used to come to power: lying, and dividing. Truth is central to the functioning of democracy.

It is no coincidence that the beginning of modern democratic government stems from the Enlightenment, when objective, scientific truth began to replace religion as the central ideal at the heart of western society.

The idea was simple. While one person could be mistaken, it was assumed that a majority of people would always be able to identify the truth. Therefore, trusting the majority would guarantee good government because it would always be informed by the truth.

For the same reason, there traditionally was no greater shame for a politician than to be caught lying. 

Of course, politicians did lie. But if confronted, they usually denied they lied by saying they “misspoke” or were “misrepresented.” And if the lie became undeniable, they often resigned.

Selling the American fantasy

Trump, unfortunately, has shown that one can have tremendous political success not just by lying, but by perpetuating fantastic lies, devoid of any basis in reality.

So long as he maintains that he is telling the truth, Trump will keep millions of supporters in his thrall, facts be damned.

An interesting parallel can be drawn between Trump’s political supporters and those who once fawned over Lance Armstrong.

For years, many Americans took at face value the legend of Lance Armstrong, regardless of the enormous evidence that he had cheated to attain success. It wasn’t until Armstrong actually confessed that the spell was broken and his support collapsed.

For Trump and those who might wish to emulate him, the lesson is simple: don’t ever admit lying, and you will continue to wield power.

The most ironic thing about Trump’s electoral success on the back of gross dishonesty is that he may have stumbled upon this formula by accident. 

There is a theory that when Trump decided to run for president, he never actually wanted the job, and only ran to generate publicity.

Since he wasn’t actually trying to win, he didn’t have to adopt the guise of honesty which political orthodoxy insisted was necessary to win a democratic election. Instead, he rode a tidal wave of lies all the way to the White House.

Trump probably surprised himself with how well lying worked. But the second pillar of his success, divisiveness, was very much a deliberate political strategy.

The power of division

Many neurologists believe that our brains are hardwired to view the world through the lens of “us versus them.” This is a major problem for the future of democracy.

The idea of a liberal democratic society is that we should respect, indeed celebrate, living together with those who are different from us or who have different opinions from our own.

The hard-nosed reality of democratic elections, however, is that you only need 51% of the vote to win. And this can be achieved by demonising the 49% who disagree with you.

No politician in American history has exploited that more than Donald Trump.

There are those who believe that Trump has only won significant support in his two presidential elections because of a lack of charisma on the part of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden respectively.

To accept this is to fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of Trump’s divisiveness. He didn’t win millions of votes in spite of leading “Lock Her Up” chants at his rallies. He won them because of it. 

Trump’s style is not unique in western history. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had a similar approach to winning elections. But historians, myself included, used to dismiss this as an aberration in the forward march of democracy. Italy and Germany were “weak” democracies, who only fell to fascism amidst extraordinary economic and political circumstances. 

Blatant lying and hatefulness would never work in “established” democracies like the United States, France, or the United Kingdom. Or so we thought. Trump has shown that this is simply not true. 

He may be about to be pushed off the political stage (or not – watch this space). But Trump’s toxic legacy will be that others, across the western world, will seek to emulate his modus operandi. 

Whether democracy will survive the coming assault over the next couple of decades remains to be seen.

Caoimhín De Barra is Associate Professor of History at Gonzaga University, Washington.

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