THE BLOG
11/11/2016 08:45 pm ET

Weekend Roundup: Democracy Disrupts Itself

The "Great Reaction" that propelled Donald Trump to the White House is not just another turn of the electoral cycle, but an indication of a system in crisis.
The broken remnants of the American flag.
WorldPost Illustration
The broken remnants of the American flag.

When unresponsive elites forsake the common folk in governing systems anchored in popular sovereignty, demagogues who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people ride the rage to power and wreck it all. As the classicist Philip Freeman observes, that has been the pattern going back more than two millennia to the demise of the Roman republic. So, too, he writes, Donald Trump’s victory could well mark the beginning of the end of the American republic. 

The decay of democracy in the United States over recent decades has produced the worst of both worlds. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton embodied an insider establishment captured by the big-money politics of organized special interests. Out of touch inside its smug bubble, her campaign failed to grasp the anger and resentment of the excluded. As Krystal Ball unsparingly writes, “the Democratic Party deserved to die.” Taking a page from the rise of fascism in Europe, Republican nominee Donald Trump poisonously exploited the very real travails of the left behind by blaming it all on the world outside and enemies within. Realizing the worst fears of the American Founding Fathers, the democratic ballot box has now unleashed the darkest forces within the body politic. A populist charlatan will soon take up residence in the White House.

Trump’s triumph is not just the turn of another electoral cycle. It reveals a systemic crisis of American democracy. Without reinvigorated institutions and practices that temper passions while embracing diversity and engaging those who have been abandoned, the “Great Reaction” could endure for a long while.

Just because Trump won the election, Dean Obeidallah says, the hatred and bigotry he spewed in the campaign cannot simply be absolved and forgotten. Based on their research, psychologists Michele Gelfand and Joshua Conrad Jackson report that, “the strongest Trump supporters were those who felt that America was under grave threat and believed that the country needed tighter rules and less tolerance toward anyone who seemed ‘un-American.’” Howard Fineman points out the paradox that, “Trump ran and won as a change agent who promised to restore the past.” Yet, as he also observes, “a new America will continue to develop; demographics and technology make it inevitable.”

Because the U.S. is the leading global power, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt sees the “Great Reaction” reverberating around the planet, weakening the liberal order rooted in tolerance and openness and strengthening those lured by the siren of xenophobia and closed societies. Thomas Weber worries that we are witnessing an erosion of liberal democracy across the West by the kind of revolutionary upheavals that swept the world at the turn of the 20th century. Nick Robins-Early surveys how Trump’s election has plunged the rest of the world into uncertainty over the future of America’s alliances and commitment to global institutions.

Philippe Legrain fears that Trump’s “America First,” anti-globalist agenda will add further momentum to a world already sinking into disorder, stoking an intensified clash of civilizations with the Muslim-majority world, inciting confrontation if not violence with Hispanic immigrants and fostering global recession through trade protectionism. And that is not to speak of abandoning the Iran nuclear deal as well as unhinging the balance of power in East Asia and Europe if the U.S. backs away from its security alliances. None of these possibilities, he notes, are likely to be mitigated by a Republican-dominated Congress that arrived on Trump’s coattails.

What is missing from these analyses is that Trump’s “America First” policy is willing to let go of the outdated post-World War II international institutions and alliances in a way that the establishment was never willing to do. Paradoxically, that opens the path for a long overdue revamping of the world order to accommodate the rise of the emerging economies, most notably China. The key is making the transition without creating a vacuum. It is encouraging that a top aide to Trump has already said that not joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a “strategic mistake” for the U.S. that the new administration would seek to correct.

Writing from Mexico City, Homero Aridjis describes the mood across the border. “This is a political earthquake for the Mexican government that will require a massive overhaul of every aspect of the relationship between our two countries,” he says. Yet Aridjis also sees a “timid optimism.” It is not impossible, Aridjis muses, that Trump, a deal-maker, could come to terms with Mexico on both trade and immigration.

A Trump presidency is surely bad news, though, for the fight against climate change, Kate Sheppard writes, since he has baldly stated in the past that he considers it is all “bullshit” and a “hoax.” Nick Visser reports on the anxiety the U.S. election has introduced at the U.N. climate conference in Morocco this week that is working out the details of implementing the historic Paris accord.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova makes the case for carrying the climate change battle to the classroom. “We need greener societies,” she writes. “To succeed, fundamentally, we need green citizens.” Carolyn Gregoire reports on a groundbreaking experiment in which “psychobiotics” use gut bacteria to treat mental illness. Finally, our Singularity series this week takes you on a virtual ride in a fully autonomous Tesla. 

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