Donald Trump was widely condemned in the media again last week, and rightfully so, for using the phrase, “shithole countries”, to refer to Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s administration on January 20th, it is astounding to reflect on the sheer amount of media coverage he has received, spanning from the turbulent implementation of the Muslim ban, to the Russia investigation, and increasingly worrying assertiveness with North Korea.
Alarmism over Trump is ironically a greater long-term threat to democracy than anything Trump has done during his first year in office
The level of alarm in the international affairs community has been palpable. Every single cover of Foreign Affairs magazine from November 2016 to December 2017 featured either Trump or an implicit connection between his presidency and the instability of the international system.
But has all of this constantly alert coverage been constructive in achieving its goal: to prevent any permanent damage to our liberal democratic norms and institutions?
Alarmism and Democracy
Trumpism will exist in the United States, and around the world, long after Trump has left the Oval Office. Therefore, it is important that we know how to combat it. We need to know where the line is—when should we criticize something that is truly harmful to democratic norms and institutions and when does it cross over into alarmist rhetoric?
In my view, the level of alarmism toward Trump’s presidency is unsettling. It is refreshing to see several left-leaning commentators becoming increasingly vocal on the problem of Trump hysteria, most notably Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution and Jason Willick of the Wall Street Journal. In a PBS piece from last October, Hamid argues that alarmism over Trump is ironically a greater long-term threat to democracy than anything Trump has done during his first year in office. The basic premise of their argument is a classic “boy who cried wolf.” Should we witness the actual erosion of democracy, Willick writes that “false howling about autocracy will have crippled [our] ability to respond to [the] real thing.”
Maintenance of Status quo
Despite tough campaign rhetoric, Trump’s foreign policy has largely been characterized by the maintenance of the status quo.
Let me be clear—I am a Never Trumper. Donald Trump is narcissistic, inflammatory, xenophobic, dismissive of expert opinion, and prone to authoritarian tendencies. These are just a few qualities that render him a terrible President and a poor leader of the liberal international order. I strongly disagree with his worldview and most of his policy decisions, including the Muslim ban, the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Jerusalem embassy move, and his soft stance on the Charlottesville riots and other events that have empowered white supremacists who promote hateful and intolerant opinions. At times, the incompetence of his administration has been laughable, best illustrated by Sean Spicer’s weekly gaffes during his short tenure as Press Secretary.
However, other elements of Trump’s tenure have been surprisingly conventional. The GOP tax bill and the nomination of Justice Neil Gorsuch, while obviously objectionable to Democrats, was exactly what would normally be expected from a traditional Republican presidency. Many important officials, such as John Kelly and James Mattis, are qualified and adequately rational. Steve Bannon, a prominent member of the alt-right and probably Trump’s most extreme advisor, was ousted from the White House in mid-August.
Despite tough campaign rhetoric, Trump’s foreign policy has largely been characterized by the maintenance of the status quo. The most notable oddity has been tough talk on Kim Jong Un, however, I am skeptical that Twitter exchanges really constitute a significant shift in US policy towards North Korea. The war in Afghanistan and the bombing campaign against the Islamic State has mostly marked a continuation of policy under the Obama administration. At the time of writing, both NAFTA and the Iran Nuclear Deal remain in place. And it appears that NATO is not as obsolete as Mr. Trump initially thought.
Checks and Balances are working
This leads to the point made by Hamid, Willick, and others: as bad as Trump’s first year was, it could have been much, much worse. Checks and balances are working. For example, judicial review of the Muslim ban resulted in the implementation of a much scaled-back version that was constitutionally valid. Trump has also failed to repeal Obamacare or make progress on the border wall, in a Republican-controlled Congress no less. Considering the entirety of this first year, lamenting the disintegration of liberal democracy in the United States is premature at best, and far more akin to sensationalism, aggrandizement, and fear-mongering.
What is “Bad”, What is “Good”, and What is “Anti-Democratic”
Liberal orthodoxy has sought to label every single thing Trump does as both “bad” and “anti-democratic”. Shadi Hamid has emphasized the importance of distinguishing between bad policies and un-democratic ones. Immigration is a perfect example. As Damir Marusic writes in his work on populism for the The American Interest, immigration is a political issue. I personally believe there are several merits of a progressive immigration policy, both moral and economic. But to label anti-immigration views as un-democratic is misguided and inaccurate. Mr. Trump was elected by the American people due in large part to his policy stance on immigration. It may be terrible policy, with adverse consequences for the United States and other countries, but it certainly is not un-democratic. Fiscal policy is another example—there are many valid arguments against the new Republican tax bill, but how exactly does the fulfillment of a standard GOP election promise constitute an attack on democracy?
The trend of liberal orthodoxy is harmful to the Left’s credibility and likely does far more damage than it is trying to prevent. When we immediately label dissenting views as not worthy of inclusion in the democratic debate, we empower the very populists and their supporters that we are trying to discredit. For example, a concerning trend in recent years has been the restriction of conservative guest speakers on university campuses. Restricting their platform to speak is counter-productive. Let them speak—then use reason and logic to discredit their ideas. By silencing their ability to raise their views, we play into the populist crusade against “political correctness” that President Trump effectively uses as a rallying point for his base.
Furthermore, we need to address the fiction that everything Trump does is “bad”. While I admit that there are few good things to choose from, not everything Trump does is objectively bad. The April 2017 military strike on a Syrian air base in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons demonstrated a long-overdue enforcement of the so-called “red line” established by former-President Barack Obama. It was a small step but at least it signalled a potential departure from the passivity of the Obama administration, which contributed to the severity of the Syrian conflict. The point is that we must be cautious about letting our contempt for Trump blind our analytical objectivity and refrain from indiscriminately condemning Trump’s actions simply because it’s Trump.
Frankly, I understand and acknowledge that most Trump critics are well-meaning. And observers should continue to criticize—where it is warranted. But hysterical and hyperbolic statements on the decline of American democracy and Western liberalism are both inaccurate and counter-productive. Frivolous calls for impeachment and predictions of impending tyranny do far more to undermine faith in American institutions than anything Trump has done since January 20th, 2017.
It calls to mind a famous remark made by an officer in the Vietnam War: “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Trumpism will exist in the United States, and around the world, long after Trump has left the Oval Office. Therefore, it is important that we know how to combat it. We need to know where the line is—when should we criticize something that is truly harmful to democratic norms and institutions and when does it cross over into alarmist rhetoric? Be intellectually honest with yourself—evaluate policies on their merit, or their lack thereof, rather than a knee-jerk reaction based on the man implementing them. Be vigilant in deciding whether an action requires condemnation. Criticize the things that matter. If anything, the last year has been a testament to the strength of American democracy and the stability of world order. We can, and must, save the village without burning it to the ground.
About the Author :
Colby Georgsen is a law student at the University of Ottawa. His interest areas include comparative politics, foreign affairs, international law, and armed conflict. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Calgary and has international experience working and studying in Washington, D.C. and Lille, France.