The results were barely in Tuesday night when calls to blame Vladimir Putin’s government for what unfolded began:
I understand the impulse, but this line of thinking lets the U.S. electorate, political leaders, and media off way too easy. If all it took to elect someone like Donald Trump president was the release of somewhat embarrassing email conversations, Americans turned out to be stupendously easy marks.
That said, we appear to be in for an administration that will not only be much friendlier to Putin’s geopolitical goals (this is a terrifying day for Ukraine and a great one for Bashar al-Assad)—it will have an affinity toward his worldview and methods. Like Putin, Trump has demonstrated contempt for the rule of law (including torture and the extrajudicial killing of noncombatants), is hostile to the free press, is willing to scapegoat the most vulnerable groups in society, and uses sympathetic media outlets to create an alternate reality with its own set of facts.
Not surprisingly, Putin was quick to congratulate Trump on his victory, expressing his hope for better U.S.-Russia relations. The Russian parliament erupted in applause after it was confirmed, and the country’s media is on cloud nine.
Also celebrating Trump on Wednesday are the leaders of far-right nationalist parties throughout Europe, many of whom have their own murky links to Moscow. Marine Le Pen, leader France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, was among the first to send congratulations, and the party’s vice president tweeted, ominously, “Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.” Le Pen appears almost guaranteed to make it to the runoff round in next year’s election. The conventional wisdom is that she won’t be able to win a head-to-head matchup against a mainstream conservative candidate, but after conventional wisdom was proved so preposterously wrong on the presidential election and Brexit, she has to feel better about her chances. If the United States can go this way, why not France, or for that matter Germany, Britain, or Japan?
I was reminded Tuesday night of a Financial Times column from almost exactly a year ago by Gideon Rachman, sketching out the nightmare scenario of “President Trump, President Le Pen, [and] President Putin,” presciently arguing that many were being too complacent in dismissing the possibility.
For a variety of reasons, faith in liberal democracy is diminishing around the world. In last year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World Index,” a record 72 countries saw declines in their scores, including the United States. As I wrote when that report came out, the prevailing trend seemed to be that “rather than becoming fully democratic or completely autocratic, more countries seem to be moving from both sides toward the queasy middle”—retaining the trappings of electoral democracy, but much less committed to human rights, the rule of law, political pluralism, freedom of movement, and the protection of minorities.
As an American writing about international affairs, I’m, probably short-sightedly, used to discussing threats to democracy at a distance, in places like the Philippines, Thailand, Egypt, or Poland. Wednesday morning, the trends I’ve been writing about are feeling uneasily close to home.