THE BLOG
01/04/2017 07:16 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2018

Is The U.S. The Next Illiberal Democracy?

Political correctness.

Political correctness has recently been ridiculed even vilified although it was instrumental to nail down what is right or wrong, permissible or not permissible, good or bad, and defined the crucial element of moral behavior. Over the preceding half century it has steered us towards tolerance and respect vis-à-vis other people irrespective of gender, ethnicity, and religion.

It took Donald Trump less than a year not only to move border lines, but to vindicate discrimination. Incessantly Trump's bald statements reviled almost everybody not white, Anglo-Saxon, and male. Abusive language was chosen - deliberately combined with a truculent attitude creating an atmosphere of fear around him. A clarion call was issued waking up the beast within giving the seal of approval to 'some human beings are worth more than others'.

Unleashing the beast within may elicit societies looking like Hell's anteroom. Germans who in 1930 were horrified by sending Jews to the gas chamber became willing executioners for Nazism, because Nazi ideology told them that Jews were not human beings like them. Communism legitimized killing millions of the 'bourgeoisie' and peasants because they were class enemies.

The thought cannot be eradicated that liberal, representative democracy and the mind-set underpinning it was a parenthesis in human history. The enlightenment, science, economic growth coalesced into a framework delivering 250 years of progress. Intolerant, egoistic, discriminatory behavior - blame other nations, races, or religions for the problems - apparently constitutes the new political correctness.

Illiberal democracy.

Illiberal democracy has got wind in its sails. Power is obtained through free elections where after the rulers gradually, but systematically revoke fundamental rights of freedom securing their hold on power. Russia and Turkey may be the foremost illustration of how this game is played.

The astonishing thing is that they successfully pull the wool over the eyes of a large number of politicians and people in genuine democracies who perform as useful idiots in Lenin's terminology -- sympathizers or naive people in the West allowing communism to strike roots despite its obvious goal of overthrowing democracies by revolution.

Illiberal democracy versus genuine democracy is a battle between societal models with the main difference that genuine democracy heralds and guarantee fundamental rights of freedom while illiberal democracy does not. It creeps closer and closer to Western democracies casting a shadow over the political process through some kind of hybrid warfare (Russian terminology) -- the victim is seduced, enervated, and paralyzed, losing its willingness and capability to defend itself.

In Europe the new political extremists like Front National in France, the Five Star movement in Italy, and similar political parties in a number of other European national openly praise Russia. President Putin is a role model. Allegedly some of these political parties get financial support from Russia.

In the U.S., the share of people favoring a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliaments and elections have risen over the preceding 20 years from 25 percent to 33 percent. How can that be reconciled with the U.S. constitution of which the Americans rightly are so proud?

President-elect Donald trump is tapping into this 'segment of the market' as a super salesperson. He runs the campaign and political stance as a reality show with no respect for objectivity and facts. As long as it sounds good and people like it the purpose is served.

Ominously this condescending attitude is condoned. Donald Trump beginning December lashed out stating that he, not Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, because of illegal votes for Hillary Clinton. You would expect politicians and mass media to demand documentation and evidence for this contention, but nothing of the sort happened. Trump can say whatever he wants -- and he does -- without being held accountable.

Maybe he is on his way to do whatever he likes without being held accountable. It looks unthinkable, but with his disrespect for others it is entirely possible to see the U.S. on the road to an American version of illiberal democracy. Like any other president Trump will be criticized to bits. He will not acquiesce, but counterattack exercising pressure and issue threats using the considerable power of the office of the President. The limits of freedom of the press may be tested. A similar tactic may be applied in the dealings with Congress. It is doubtful whether Donald Trump acknowledges the virtue of check and balances as the backbone of a democracy.

This tactic is already the core of his economic policy used to ostracize U.S. companies outsourcing jobs to other countries. The President intervenes directly in flagrant contradiction with the principles of the market economy hitherto sacrosanct. Be warned, his economic policy is a corporative state.

International cooperation -- winner takes all.

The international system painstakingly built since 1945 is anchored in a win-win philosophy. Benefits may not be distributed equitably, but broadly speaking everybody is better off inside than outside.

Trump does not share this view demonstrated by his business activities, statements, and policy actions. In his universe the game is about winners take all. And he is the supposed to be the winner. This explains his attitude to trade agreements; they are not only superfluous -- they are harmful because they are designed to spread benefits through compromises. Multilateral trade agreements (NAFTA, WTO etc) will be cast aside to be replaced by bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) allowing the U.S. to throw its weight around.

For him it doesn't matter that the world may come worse out or even that the U.S. may be worse provided he appears as a winner. With the tremendous clout still supporting the U.S. as the most powerful nation it is within reach to engineer precisely such a scenario with everybody worse off except Trump himself reveling in how he socked everybody else.

It is wrong to assume that he does not have a foreign policy. He has. The one described above. Alliances, friendships, and common interests do not count.

Some observers and probably foreign leaders see him as a businessman with whom they can make deals. Wrong. His career as a businessman is not glorious. His companies have declared bankruptcy several times. Trump does not deny this, he simply adds that it was a smart business decision - winner takes all! He shifted the losses to somebody else.

Foreign and security policy -- grand strategy -- requires adept signaling following a kind of a script book helping nations to understand each other and thereby avoiding escalations and risky operations. Shortly after winning the election initiatives showed that this 'guidebook' is dead. The phone call to Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen and receiving Nigel Farage inculcated this on the world. Abandoning a mutually agreed set of signaling embeds the danger of misunderstandings, mistakes, and missing each other's points, which history tells us increases risks of armed conflict.

Forecast.

Victories will be scored in the first year or two of his presidency. The methods are so unconventional that despite warnings, opponents will be caught napping. Trump will crow with delight.

But the birds let loose will come home to roost revealing how artificial the political edifice is. This is when it becomes dangerous as he will stand idly by watching his presidency crumble. What exactly he will do depends on circumstances, but no respect will be shown to written and unwritten rules hitherto regarded as inviolable.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School.
Honorary Alumni, University of Copenhagen.