One of the most maddening aspects of most GOP senators’ votes at the Donald Trump trial was their blindness to the worldwide significance of the event.
This trial was not about preventing those Republican legislators from being primaried (although their cowardice indicated they thought so). It was a key historic moment in the struggle to prevent the state of global democracy from further decline.
The respected Economist Intelligence Unit, or EIU (the sister organization to Britain’s Economist magazine), just issued its annual democracy survey which rates 167 countries; it warned that democracy in 2020 was “on the slide.” It labeled only 27 countries as “full democracies,” while 57 regimes were “authoritarian” and 35 “hybrid” governments moving in an undemocratic direction.
So where was the United States ranked? As No. 20, within the cohort of 52 “flawed democracies,” a category it also landed in last year. The EIU attributed this dismal placement to the “deep dysfunction” of the U.S. government and the “degree of societal polarization that makes consensus almost impossible.” Including an ex-president and GOP party that refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election.
The impeachment trial offered a chance to upgrade that sad EIU ranking — which reflects widespread opinion in allied and adversarial nations. With the election of President Joe Biden, the world’s democratic nations are looking for America to move back toward the democratic values they once admired.
The Trump acquittal will intensify their doubts that America can snap back.
Let me say here that, as a child of the Kennedy era, I still believe that American democracy will make a comeback.
It is tragic, however, to compare the events of Jan. 6 and the impeachment trial with what is going on in countries that are struggling for democratic norms.
In Belarus, tens of thousands of demonstrators protested for weeks against a rigged election, until they were battered and arrested into a pause, in which a dictator retained power.
In Russia, 10,000 supporters of Alexei Navalny have been arrested as tens of thousands protested his arrest after he dared to return to Moscow having recovered abroad from the Kremlin’s attempt to poison him. (Navalny now faces the very real risk of being murdered in a Siberian labor camp.)
In Myanmar, the military seized power after an election where the leading civilian party won a landslide over the military party, and tens of thousands are risking their lives demonstrating against the coup.
And what does the world’s democratic role model have to show? In Washington, D.C., the thousands who marched on the U.S. Capitol, inspired by Donald Trump and his Big Lie that the election was stolen, were intent on overthrowing democratic rule.
So it is staggering to watch the bulk of elected GOP legislators, at national and state level, pretend they support the constitution, especially Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who damned Trump as guilty but wouldn’t convict.
These legislators know, as stated by Sen. Lisa Murkowski — one of the 17 brave GOP truth-tellers from Capitol Hill — that “the violence and desecration of the Capitol … was not a spontaneous uprising.” They know that Donald Trump “set the stage” with his election lies and gave the crowd “explicit instructions” to march to the Capitol. They know that Trump was only “concerned about his election and retaining power.”
But these GOP cowards seem to lack any grasp of the of the world we live in, of geopolitical trends or of the authoritarian fires they are fueling. As an editorial in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald blared, “Donald Trump acquittal defies logic and evidence.” Or as a Der Spiegel commentator wrote, “You can see an unprecedented failure of American democracy, a triumph of madness.”
Such sentiments were echoed by the world’s press, from friendly nations to the far more sarcastic needling of state-controlled media in Russia and China. But the message from friend and foe was that the U.S. was too dysfunctional to prevent an insurrection from occurring or to chastise an ex-president who had incited it. And that the country was so divided such madness could occur again.
I asked Stanford’s Larry Diamond, a leading expert on comparative democracies, whether he thought American democracy could make a comeback, despite our tortured politics. “It’s deeply paradoxical,” he replied by phone. “In one sense we’re still the leader in the global campaign for democracy. No country spends more or does more to support these struggles. And now, again, we have a president who supports this.”
Indeed, Biden wants to hold a summit of democracies to renew that commitment, sometime in the next year.
But, Diamond continues, “I think the U.S. is a very flawed democracy, and the single most glaring example is that one party is trying to make the system less democratic (with) a slavish loyalty to an illiberal leader with an authoritarian personality.”
Over the next year we will whether the GOP splits and the U.S. political system can reform. But one thing is certain: unless GOP legislators recognize what is at stake in global terms, and raise their thinking above personal interests, America will remain a “flawed democracy” — at best.