PARIS—The owner of a Left Bank café heard me speaking English to a friend earlier this week and couldn’t restrain himself. He asked what we thought of President-elect Donald Trump. Americans overseas get that question a lot these days.
“People were very surprised,” I said, shaking my head. “And what do you think of Marine Le Pen?” I asked. “Could she be the next president of France?”
He nodded thoughtfully and a little ruefully at the mention of the female far-right dynamo who has taken her father’s fringe party and turned it into a major force, with the power to shake up not only France but all of Europe.
For years Marine Le Pen has built the wave of nationalist populism on this side of the Atlantic that Trump has only just begun to surf in the United States: a force so disruptive that it risks turning the very idea of “Western democracy” on its head.
The polls, for what they are worth, have predicted consistently that Le Pen will win a plurality of the popular vote next May, but lose the run-off for the presidency in June. Now, everybody is wondering: Can she win outright?
“It’s possible,” said the café owner, using an especially apt French word: “After Trump, people will be décomplexé,” which is to say freed of complexes and inhibitions. “They will say, ‘If the Americans can do this, why not us?’”
In Greece on Wednesday, lame-duck President Barack Obama gave a long lecture on globalization and disruption, laying out the case for liberal democracy as if he expected the world to be taking notes. And as happens so often when Obama adopts his professorial persona, he was philosophically right about almost everything, but emotionally convincing about almost nothing.
At the core of his argument was the idea, as he put it, that “countries that uphold democratic governance tend to be more just, more stable, and more successful.” He trotted out the old Churchillean chestnut that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. “It can be slow. It can be frustrating. It can be hard. It can be messy,” said Obama, but its ability to correct itself makes it the best form of government to meet the challenges ahead.
And, historically, that might be true. But in the present day what we are seeing is something altogether different. In many countries, the “democratic process” is being used to destroy what most of us thought were democratic ideals.
Back in 1997, Fareed Zakaria, then at Foreign Affairs magazine, warned of the rise of illiberal democracy, “from Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines.”
Democracy in those days had become the tool of populist authoritarians around the globe whose attachment to freedom, equality, and brotherhood, as the French like to put it, is negligible. And today? “illiberal” is far too cautious a word.
Over the last decade, the list of emerging democracies trending toward tyranny is not only much longer than Zakaria’s, but several of the countries involved are much more important.
Turkey is a nation of more than 80 million people, an important member of NATO (with the second biggest army after the United States), and with longstanding aspirations to join that club of democracies called the European Union.
From 2003 to 2014, as the elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully stabilized the country’s economy and made it prosper. His party’s Islamic credentials were seen as moderate, and his nationalism made Turks proud. But in recent years, he moved to make himself the permanent ruler of his country, playing coyly with the so-called Islamic State, reigniting a war with Kurdish insurgents, exploiting public fears.
When some of Erdogan’s opponents in the military staged a coup in July (for which there are many precedents in modern Turkey), he survived, managed to outmaneuver them, and benefitted from a huge outpouring of support in the name of democracy.
Since then Erdogan has purged more than 110,000 people throughout the military, the bureaucracy and academia, while detaining or arresting tens of thousands. He has closed newspapers across the country, and crushed what once was a relatively free press.
Since the coup attempt, Erdogan has moved to reinstate the death penalty, which the European Union has always seen as a red line for any country that wants membership. He’s clearly saying he doesn’t care anymore about Europe’s view of democracy.
Venezuela, with 31 million people, is a major oil producer and used to be an important moderate ally of the United States in Latin America. But Hugo Chávez, a military officer who led a failed coup in the early 1990s, founded a political party after a brief stint in jail and won the presidency by winning over the disenfranchised poor in 1998.
With his government underwritten by high oil prices, Chávez repeatedly won elections and ruled until his death in 2013. But his successor, Nicolás Maduro, cursed by a collapse in oil revenue, has overseen a devastated economy and confronted huge social unrest with no solutions in sight apart from claims that he will continue the Chavista variant of democracy, while using the courts he packed to hang on.
In the Philippines, recently elected President Rodrigo Duterte has discarded the rule of law in favor of vigilante justice to wipe out drug dealers, drug users, and anyone who gets in the way. Thousands have been killed. And rather than put up with American preaching about human rights and democracy, this democratically elected leader has opted to embrace China as his new protector and ally.
Iraq was liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by American-led forces in 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, at a cost of much blood and trillions of dollars. But the democratic government established under American tutelage has come to be dominated by Shiite factions who have driven out Sunni representatives, abandoned much of their territory to the so-called Islamic State in 2014, lost control of separatist Kurds, and rely heavily on the support and sponsorship of Iran.
Egypt could have been the shining star of democracy in the Middle East after a popular uprising brought down the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But elections brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and despite its promises to honor democratic principles, it quickly tried to crush opposition. By 2013, ambitious military officers led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used mass demonstrations and brute force to bring down the Brotherhood. Sisi then got himself elected with huge support, and has since moved to crush all opposition. The Egyptian “democratic” pattern is all too familiar. Sisi was, as it happened, one of the first heads of state to congratulate Donald Trump on his election.
In the months ahead, it appears certain we will see fear-mongering and intolerance mobilizing voters all over Europe. Already the democratically elected governments of Hungary and Poland are willing to brook very little dissent. We can expect the far-right to win elections in Austria on December 4, after a narrow defeat in May in elections that were later voided.
The Netherlands and Italy both have ascendant far-right parties willing to profile, prosecute, persecute, and expel whole categories of people that don’t fit their putative national and religious identity.
There used to be a cliché cited privately by American diplomats arguing against democratic openings for Islamist groups in the Middle East: “They believe in one man, one vote, one time.”
Now that attitude is becoming a commonplace, and not only when it applies to Islamists. It appears “the people” really can be, as Alexander Hamilton is supposed to have said, “a great beast.”
As that café owner here in Paris understood, certain kinds of complexes and inhibitions are what actually allow democracies to function, they set the parameters based on common values. What we’ve seen in one country after another is that when you throw those values away, the best aspects of democracy quickly disappear with them.
The United States was never a perfect example of virtue in this regard, but it represented, at least, the idea of virtue—of moderation, of reason, of balance, fairness, and opportunity for change.
In the early 1950s, the demagogue Joseph McCarthy played on anti-communist hysteria to awaken what he called “the dormant indignation of the American people.” His enemies lists and fury intensified and spread. But he finally was brought up short by one single, devastating, purely rhetorical question, “Have you no sense of decency, Sir?”
How wonderfully anachronistic that phrase sounds now. Where is the "sense of decency” in American politics today? Clearly it’s a notion Obama clings to, but if it still exists, it is very far from being universal.
The election of Donald Trump as president and the haphazard installation of ideologues and extremists in his administration has stripped away whatever American moral leadership lingered in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The presence of Stephen Bannon as senior strategist, with his designs to promote Breitbart-style misogyny and race-baiting populism all over Europe, is a particularly bad sign. But the decline of the American example does not date only to Nov. 8 or to the last year’s brutal political campaigns. It goes back decades.
In the 1980s and 1990s the United States stood in every respect as the greatest power in the world with the greatest potential to do good for all humanity.
In the decades since, America’s moral standing was weakened dramatically by the foolish, endless Iraq war that George W. Bush sold to the American public on false premises, and it was never completely restored by Barack Obama’s reticent struggles with the intractable military, political, and economic disasters he inherited.
By the time of Trump’s election, much of the world, in fact, already was décomplexé.
If you want to see where democratic values are headed globally, take a look at the United Nations. It was conceived in liberty after the defeat of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and dedicated to the propositions put forth in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document vowed the protection of such fundamentals as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from torture, freedom from arbitrary arrest, equal treatment before the law. There are only 30 articles in all, and they are very brief and basic. Read them today and weep.
And then think on this: The most powerful part of the United Nations is the Security Council, which has five permanent members. By next June the heads of state in those five countries could well be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, Xi Jinping, and Marine Le Pen.