May you live in interesting times – so goes a Chinese proverb (or a curse)! America, and the world at large, seems to be living such times. Donald Trump’s shock election victory in 2016 sparked much outrage in America and caused plenty of dismay abroad. It’s the end of a republic, some had warned at the time, wondering if Washington and Jefferson’s republic would live its quarter-millennial anniversary.
Though the gloom & doom hasn’t really come to pass, the world’s oldest democracy has been in a visible decline over the last few years. Today, America is showing markers of a third-world country with democratic values under a threat. The elected head of government is abusing his position to take care of family and friends. Self-dealing has seeped down to officials. Policies are being made to suit the leader’s ego. The leader is exerting pressure to investigate political opponents. Rhetoric has overtaken reason.
Though China is gradually gaining global influence, what happens in the US still affects the world. It used to be that America would champion human rights in some distant region, only for naysayer to point out selective American hectoring of some regimes while ignoring others. In Trump’s America, the hypocrisy is gone. Lincoln’s fear of this republic descending into one that will “make no pretense of loving liberty” is now real. Idea of American exceptionalism has lost its currency, as authoritarian models gain traction.
While America’s foes are getting used to empty threats of “fire and fury”, it is the US allies that are being abandoned like never before. While significant weakening trans-Atlantic alliances like NATO is yet to take place, in other regions allies are being conveniently dumped in active conflict zones. By making American aid contingent on a political investigation, Trump has endangered Ukraine’s survival in a volatile region. A “quid pro quo” has sparked controversy, leading to possible impeachment proceedings against Trump.
After declaring victory over the IS caliphate in Syria, Trump has now managed a hasty exit from the region, leaving Kurdish allies to defend their country-less nation alone. This may hurt American credibility for undertaking next intervention in another troubled hotspot. In a moment of rare bipartisanship, both the Republicans and Democrats have voiced strong opposition to Trump’s manner of exiting Syria.
This episode may also give other countries – mainly (Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, EU border countries, etc.) – a peek into Trump’s mind. Not only does Trump seem to have the willingness to declare victory and leave any region on a moment’s notice, he can do so without damage to his political capital. It’s a turning point when the Republican voter base doesn’t prize national security anymore
Back in DC, the mercurial president is locked in a battle of wills with the Democratic opposition, while being on the wrong side of the free press. The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, has been facing resistance from Trump administration in carrying out even basic oversight. Congressional calls for testimonies and official documents are being stonewalled by White House, leading to court battles. Now there is the cloud of a presidential impeachment hanging over US, with both sides digging in.
The republic has a tough year ahead. The executive and the legislative branches of government are at daggers drawn. There is no crystal ball to foresee what impact Trump’s impeachment will have on the public’s voting intentions or on US institutions’ resilience to withstand divisive politics. Some commentators fear that if Democrats dropped the ball in 2020, it will normalize all that is wrong with America today. Democrats must tread with caution, for the republic badly needs to revert to the mean.