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Trump, a Symptom of the Diseased American Democracy

Trump, a Symptom of the Diseased American Democracy
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Is the television series "The Plot against America" an early sign of the disease of the American democracy? It is a disease which was certainly not caused by Donald Trump, but which he has amplified and worsened, in the midst of a health and economic crisis.

The Plot Against America is the title of a novel by Philip Roth published in 2004, in which History is intertwined with the destiny of a Jewish American family living in New Jersey in the early 1940s. In this dystopian fiction, Roth describes the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism after Charles Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. This book was powerful and disturbing, but what it suggested seemed too far-fetched. "It Can't Happen Here", to quote the title of Sinclair Lewis' 1935 political fiction, which already denounced the United States’ drift towards fascism.

Ultimate warning

In 2020, The Plot Against America was made into a miniseries by the creators of The Wire. On the eve of the 2020 presidential election and amidst the coronavirus outbreak, The Plot Against America is alarmingly relevant. Could fiction precede reality, becoming a form of ultimate warning for all those who are burying their heads in the sand, refusing to see America's derailment? Didn't President Frank Underwood, dark hero of the House of Cards series, symbolically "pave the way" for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016?

In 2020, will The Plot Against America help Americans realize the threat that Donald Trump poses to democracy? Keeping in mind the personality of the 45th president, Philip Roth's story doesn’t seem so fictitious after all.

Donald Trump is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the crisis plaguing American democracy (which he has nonetheless accelerated). Each of the decades following World War II have, in one way or another, gradually chipped away at the American democratic model. The 1950s saw the rise of McCarthyism; the 1960s were marked by a series of political assassinations, that started with the killing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy; the 1970s saw the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation; the 1980s, the Iran-Contra affair; and the 1990s, the Monica Lewinsky scandal that precipitated the end of the Clinton era.

Radical conservatism

In the early 2000s, the attacks against American democracy mainly came from outside the country; on September 11, 2001 for instance. However today, the most serious attacks to democracy come from the American president himself. Turning a blind eye on the situation has become impossible. Something is rotten, not in the State of Denmark, but in Washington, DC.  

The comparison with decadent emperors of the Late Roman Empire is hard to avoid. And this decadence does not only affect the executive branch. The shifting of the Republican Party towards an ever more radical conservatism did not happen overnight either. But today, Abraham Lincoln's party almost comes across as the heir to the Confederates. Amidst the coronavirus crisis, the President of the United States does seem to be taking up the arguments of the Confederacy against the federal government, by asking the states to be responsible for lifting the lockdown in his place.

The comparison with decadent emperors of the Late Roman Empire is hard to avoid. And this decadence does not only affect the executive branch.

In certain anti-lockdown, quite racist-sounding protests, Confederate flags are becoming common. It would be unfair to pin down Donald Trump as the sole culprit for this. Several problems keep undermining democracy: political corruption through bribery, the growing bipolarization of society, the explosion of social inequalities, the inexorable politicization of the Supreme Court… All these cannot be the making of a single man. They are, rather, the result of a long period of downward spiraling, something that has in fact been affecting all democratic countries to varying degrees.

Absolute loyalty to Trump

Nevertheless, the coronavirus crisis has shown just how much the future of American democracy is at stake in the November election. The less radical members of the Republican Party might find "Dr. Trump’s medical advice" unsettling. As much as having to show him – rather than the State institutions – their absolute loyalty.

The coronavirus outbreak has already claimed more lives than the Vietnam War. The argument stating that growth and prosperity are at their highest can no longer be used, since the United States now faces the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Donald Trump was relying on sheer luck, but he lost it all a few months before the election.

The worst is yet to come

This is not the end of it: the worst is yet to come in terms of economy, and perhaps of health. At the political level, Philip Roth's warnings should not be taken lightly. What is described in his novel is reminiscent of what Saul Friedländer analysed in his monumental study, Nazi Germany and the Jews: the rallying - at first rather passive, then committed - of a people which, for the most part, was neither racist nor anti-Semitic, but which started looking for scapegoats inside their country, and enemies outside of it, in order to overcome their own sense of failure. They did so out of fear, under the impact of an economic crisis and their inner sense of decline. "Artists' intuitions" are to be taken seriously. They often turn out to be more accurate than the assessments of experts.




Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 04/05/2020)


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