Liberty in danger warn both left and right
A shocking graphic on a magazine has sparked outrage. Meanwhile two acclaimed writers from opposite sides of the political divide have published trenchant warnings about a Trump autocracy.
It was a chilling image. On the front cover of German magazine Der Spiegel on Saturday, Donald Trump stood holding the severed head of the Statue of Liberty.
The picture prompted fierce protest, with cartoonist Edel Rodriguez saying it represented ‘the beheading of democracy’. That seemed to fit a narrative; on the same day President Trump attacked a ‘so-called judge’ on Twitter for obstructing one of his policies.
After just two weeks in office, he warned ‘big trouble’ was ahead. And this weekend, two lengthy articles made waves — one by conservative commentator David Frum in The Atlantic, and the other by liberal Nick Cohen in The Observer.
Both argue that Trump is trying to seize personal control of the US. Frum says his motive is to enrich himself; Cohen says he wants to promote ‘postmodern fascistic’ values.
How? The authors say he will use patronage to win over business leaders and media companies. He will subvert the civil service and courts and could abandon the Republican party — effectively putting himself at the head of a personal political cult.
And in the 21st century, Frum wrote, ‘authoritarian leaders won’t lecture — they will tweet’. Crucially, Trump will control information online through inducements and harassment. This will, in turn, place pressure on lawmakers.
Polarisation and civil unrest may help him. Cohen says Trump is creating ‘a perpetual war’ so he can present himself as the only alternative to an unpalatable opposition. But public apathy could also allow him to consolidate his position.
And although America’s democracy is strong, Frum says, it is vulnerable as it relies on the president’s personal qualities.
Frum, Atlantic senior editor and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, calls the Trump era ‘the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered’.
So are these writers correct?
We should be very worried, say supporters. Trump has had a lifetime in business, a campaign, a transition and now a nascent presidency; we have no evidence he will change. There will not be a single moment when democracy filters away; it will happen slowly. Americans must guard against this unique threat — not, in Hannah Arendt’s words, ‘take refuge in cynicism’.
That is over the top, opponents respond. America’s democratic traditions demand that every president is given a chance. Trump’s voters deserve the same representation as anyone else. Trying to protect democracy could easily mean policing it from the other side. And if Trump misuses his office, they should be confident: the strongest democracy in the world will resist his will.
- Does the Der Spiegel cartoon (above this article) shock you?
- Is Donald Trump building an American autocracy?
- Draw your own cartoon showing how you think Donald Trump’s presidency is going.
- Read through either David Frum or Nick Cohen’s piece in full (under Become An Expert). Write a one-page response, explaining whether or not you agree and why.
Some People Say...
“The rulers of the 21st century will be nothing like the rulers of the 20th.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This kind of thing happens all the time around the world. Why does this matter now?
- The USA is the most powerful democracy in the world. If these writers are correct, and there is a threat to its system of government, that suggests any democracy in the world could suffer a similar fate. That could have many consequences for you as you get older — democracy has kept us relatively free and coincided with most of us being fairly prosperous.
- Can’t we just study history to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
- History helps us to understand human behaviour, and can give clues about what might happen next. But it will not repeat itself. We also need to understand the particular circumstances of the 21st century — for example, how much power has moved online — to understand Trump’s administration.
- Evidence for this comes from Trump retaining business interests, and breaking with convention by refusing to release his tax returns during the election.
- Postmodern fascistic
- Fascism is an authoritarian ideology which emphasises national strength and defeating enemies. Postmodernists reject liberal principles, believing they can build something better. See Become An Expert for analysis of whether Trump is a fascist.
- Trump will use appointments and economic incentives to advance his own interests.
- Frum says Trump will reward favourable media companies, for example by allowing them to merge with others. He will even indulge ‘former pariahs’ from the hard right such as Breitbart and Infowars. He and his followers will dismiss negative coverage of him as partisan.
- For example, he exaggerates the threat posed by crime and terrorism, and benefits from political violence on left and right.
- Free government
- Frum says democracy is in retreat worldwide: in Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela and Poland; in France Marine le Pen could create a similar pattern.