We’ve entered an era in which strongmen are in vogue and democracy is taking a hit worldwide.
So it’s really depressing in this dismal election season to watch how oblivious the leading GOP candidate is to the threats posed by authoritarian rulers. It’s equally depressing to watch the GOP — in the battle over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia — undermine the institutional protections that shield us from this global trend.
In the last, most raucous Republican debate, Donald Trump said the Middle East would be better off “if we had Saddam Hussein and we had [Moammar] Gadhafi in charge” of their countries. He’s made clear he’d have no problem with Bashar Assad remaining president of Syria. He’s praised Vladimir Putin (who calls Trump “brilliant”) and said he’d like to work with the Russian to stabilize the region.
The issue is not whether it would have been better for the United States to stay out of Iraq, or whether we should turn our back on Syria. It’s Trump’s assumption that dictators are a solution for the Mideast and that an autocrat like Putin is a good partner for the United States.
Such lazy thinking ignores the forces that produced waves of jihadi terrorists in the Arab world — as well as Putin’s dangerous ambitions which have fueled the jihadi upsurge.
Moreover, this adulation for the concept of a populist strongman is downright dangerous when applied to the home front.
Dictators are the cause of the current Mideast chaos, not its solution. In their decades of misrule, Saddam, Gadhafi, and to a lesser extent, the Assad family, kept themselves in power via oil revenues and repression. They never built the institutions that could make a state run or create jobs for the huge youth bulge — especially when oil prices plummeted.
Even had the United States stayed out of Iraq, youthful discontent was bound to erupt in the region — as it did during the Arab Spring, which began eight years after the start of the Iraq war. But dictators in Egypt, Libya and Syria had crushed any viable opposition leadership, as had Saddam before them.
The youthful rebels had no leaders up to the task, nor any institutions to build on. Their rebellions led to chaos, and produced the failed states that became breeding grounds for jihadi movements. But a return to dictatorship — or the retention of Assad — will only set the failed cycle in motion again.
Putin has followed the same destructive course inside Russia. He built his popularity by dispensing oil wealth, while repressing the media along with any opposition, including protests by the urban middle class.
Having failed to build a diversified economy, and with oil prices dropping and financial reserves falling, Putin has to distract his public by foreign adventures in Ukraine and Syria. He cleverly dressed them up with populist, nationalist slogans.
Moreover, the Russian leader is trying to promote his brand of authoritarian rule, dressed up with parliamentary trappings and elections, as an alternative to liberal democracy — with himself as the movement’s leader.
In Europe, he funds populist, authoritarian parties in France and Central Europe, and stirs up Russian minorities in the Baltics. He sows dissention inside the European Union by sending Russian and Syrian government planes to target hospitals, schools, and markets in rebel-held areas in Syria, thus driving more refugees to Europe. And — as we pass the two-year anniversary of his invasion of Crimea — he continues to destabilize Ukraine.
Never mind that Putin’s dictatorship, like those in the Mideast, is threatening the economic future of his country. For the moment, when the world is going crazy, he poses as a role model whom other populists want to emulate.
Which brings us back to the United States and what distinguishes this country from the failed states of the Mideast and a sinking Russia, a distinction that Trump and GOP leaders fail to appreciate.
Thanks to the founding fathers, this country has institutions — the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court — that have served as the country’s backbone, independent of political changes. It (mostly) has rule of law and a government that provides vital services. In other words, it is not a failed state like Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, or — apart from its oil wealth — Russia.
Yet, in these confusing times, GOP candidates have campaigned as if these institutions and the government itself were the enemy. Republican legislators have dedicated themselves to paralyzing Congress while Obama holds office.
In clear violation of the Constitution and of all precedent, the Republican leadership has ruled out confirmation hearings during Obama’s term to fill the court vacancy, thus undermining the institutions of the presidency and the court.
Meantime, Trump plays on public discontent to promote himself as a Putinesque populist who will rule with a firm hand and cure all our ills.
In a world where Putinism is advancing, our (deliberately) paralyzed democracy no longer looks like such an attractive alternative. If politicians insist the state has failed, rather than uniting to solve the country’s problems, they may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may succeed in convincing many Americans that the country is hopelessly broken.
And — although I still doubt this can happen — many Americans might start believing the answer is to choose a self-proclaimed “strong” leader. They would be mistaken, but that realization could come too late.