by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations uses a Bloomberg Businessweek column to compare the Donald Trump phenomenon to other worldwide political developments.
In reality, Trump’s rise doesn’t signal a return of fascism, and his political style doesn’t parallel that of Mussolini. Instead, Trump is part of a modern-day democratic retreat that’s been going on for a decade in the developing world and which is making its way to America and Western Europe. The environment that’s made Trump’s rise possible has more in common with Thailand in 2000 and Turkey in 2010 than Italy—or Germany—in 1933, and Trump’s political approach is closer to those of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, or former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
From the early 1970s, when much of southern Europe democratized, to the mid-2000s, democracy seemed to be sweeping the globe. From 1990 to 2005, electoral democracies worldwide expanded by almost 50 percent. Yet according to Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors the state of democracy, the number of countries with declining freedoms grew in 2015 for the 10th year in a row, the longest streak of democratic regression in five decades. What’s more, in its annual report Freedom House noted that in 2015 “the number of countries showing an [annual] decline in freedom was the largest since the 10-year slide began.”
In many countries democracy is failing because the current generation of leaders has proven to be elected autocrats. Unlike in the 1920s or 1930s, when fascist governments such as Franco’s Spanish and Mussolini’s Italian regimes came to power by essentially overthrowing establishments through force or bullying to dominate a single election, today’s elected autocrats understand that holding regular votes is critical to one’s domestic and international legitimacy, even if those votes aren’t totally free. After the elections, leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Erdogan, Thaksin, or Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak show little respect for any institutions—an impartial judiciary, a free media, constitutional limits on power, a vibrant private sector—other than the ballot.
Under Erdogan, Turkey’s government has silenced most critical media, while in Malaysia the Najib government has destroyed the independence of the attorney general and tossed the opposition leader in jail on highly dubious sodomy charges. On the campaign trail, Trump has shown similar leanings. He puts great stock in citing his poll numbers and primary results; it’s hard to imagine Mussolini standing before crowds diligently citing the latest polling figures to cement his legitimacy. But Trump disdains other aspects of free politics, promising to use his power as president to alter laws that protect freedom of expression, to force leading companies to manufacture products by his rules, and to wage a trade war that would violate many international agreements signed by U.S. presidents.