Trump’s Resurrection

Image credits: Andrew Harnik/AP

The US leader’s presidential bid and significant mass support is worrisome as it reflects a fascination with polarizing, authoritarian figures who disregard constitutionalism and institutional oversight

WITH Donald Trump back in the running for the White House, and viewed as a slam dunk for re–election, it appears that the US appetite for a demagogue at the helm is yet to be satiated – or may have been further whetted since Trump’s dramatic loss to Joe Biden in November 2020. He continues to retain a substantial following among Republican supporters, leaving his competitors such as DeSantis and Nicky Halley far behind. On the polling radar, Trump maintains a 20 to 46 percentage point lead.  And this makes him the favourite to win the Republican nomination going forward.

Trump is squaring up against US President Joe Biden, who has already announced his decision to run again. There has been some media focus on the advanced ages of the two leaders – Biden is now an octagenarian and Trump is a few years younger – but that is not what this fight is principally about. The fact that Trump is running for president and has a sizable following is very concerning because it demonstrates a lingering fascination with polarizing, extreme right strongmen around the world who reject constitutionality and institutional checks and balances..  In his term in power, Trump not only rode roughshod over American democracy but also encouraged other strongmen around the world to do the same.

Under his presidency, the US by and large abandoned advocacy of democracy and human rights and made relationship with other countries by and large transactional in nature. This largely detracted from the US moral authority.  So much so, the country found itself hardly in a position to lecture other states on the conduct of their internal affairs.  Trump as president established a better equation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman than his European allies.

The world faces a similar spectre with Trump back on the stump. And he could very well return to power after facing down a slightly older and weaker Biden. Already, in Israel,  Benjamin Netanyahu, an authoritarian leader, has returned to power. It also seems likely that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is currently facing an election, will be re-elected. This triggers a deep sense of de javu. In a world of strongmen leaders who have bent their respective governance systems to pursue majoritarian agendas as well as accumulate personal power, Trump’s return to the driving seat in the US would only exacerbate the situation. It would potentially further encourage authoritarianism around the world.

It is true that the US has not generally been a disinterested champion of democracy and human rights. More often than not, it has used their promotion to advance its foreign policy objectives. It has selectively condemned and acted against the countries straying from both. Currently, all of the US focus is on stonewalling China’s rise and its potential emergence as its global rival.  In pursuit of this grand objective, Washington has overlooked the excesses of its allies and instead built an elaborate discourse about the human rights situation in China and Russia.   Trump, on the other hand, has shown that he isn’t interested in the promotion of both and his engagement with other countries would rather be geared to utilitarian ends.

But this isn’t primarily why Trump’s return should be a source of worry.  He isn’t just a typical demagogue who is populist, polarizing and post-truth. The Republican leader is, in fact, a newer variant: he isn’t ideological or religious in the typical sense of the term. So he doesn’t claim to have any messianic agenda. He isn’t also hung up on democratic values. He has an outlook on the world that seems to be bereft of understanding and nuance.  And when such a person is the leader of the most powerful country on earth, it can be seriously problematic. For one, he lends authoritarianism global legitimacy.

That said, the rise of demagogues has not only to do with the personalities but also with the circumstances that create them.  If we look around the world, autocrats and populists seem to be the flavour of the season. The world is witnessing the ebbing of liberal democracy, a trend that has now been in evidence over the past decade. Considering the lingering popularity of Trump, the trend looks set to continue. It is said that demagogues are created by times of uncertainty, change and anxiety that, in turn, spawn a collective search for handy certainties to get a handle on the drift. True, specific circumstances of the day will always play a role, but the process, as it should be,  is much more complex – informed, in part, by the versions of history and memory. Authoritarianism affects all systems of governance and does follow a short or extended period of openness. Modern authoritarianism is indifferent in that it  – has perfected the art of manipulating democratic systems to its advantage – it uses liberal democracy, the free press, elections, and the institutions to capture power but once in the saddle, it tends to subvert the same system. Trump’s return to power would once again make this trend mainstream.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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