2017’s Priority: Protecting Democracy

E.J. DIONNE JR. on Jan 2, 2017


 

To say this is not alarmist. Nor is it to deny the importance of other issues. Preserving the gains in health insurance coverage achieved by the Affordable Care Act should be a high priority. So should preventing a shredding of the social safety net and stopping budget-busting tax cuts for the best-off Americans.

But even these vital matters are secondary to preventing a rollback of democratic values and a weakening of the institutions of self-rule, at home and around the world.

There should be no mistaking the dangers democracy confronts. The rise of far right parties in Europe, the authoritarian behavior of governments in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, and the ebbing of center-left and center-right parties that were part of the postwar democratic consensus would be troubling even without the rise of Donald Trump. His emergence should sharpen our concern. “A right-wing demagogue in charge of the world’s most influential repository of democratic values,” wrote Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, “is a devastating fact.”

Trump’s disrespect for the conventions of democracy, his willingness to flout rules long accepted by presidents of both parties, and his praise for assorted strongmen, particularly Russia’s Vladimir Putin — all point to instincts and attitudes very different from those of his predecessors, Republican and Democratic.

His style of politics, from his mass rallies of the faithful after the election to his statements about himself, carry authoritarian overtones. As The New Yorker writer Jeff Shesol noted, Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention declaration, “I alone can fix it,” might serve as the title of a management book for autocrats. During the campaign, Trump spoke of using government instruments (including antitrust laws) to punish media companies he regards as hostile. Even if he never follows through, the threats speak to his cast of mind.

Also alarming is the closeness of many of Trump’s top aides, including national security adviser Michael Flynn and chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon, to extreme movements in Europe that have brought back themes buried since the 1930s and early 1940s.

Trump