The Dystopia That Is American Democracy Today – OpEd


By Harsh V. Pant

The world is passing through a phase of disorder, which is posing serious policy questions for nations big and small. But the one country that should have been at the center of shaping these conversations is entangled with its own domestic political challenges.

The US is struggling to find some meaning in the spectacle that is passing for American democracy these days. The election season has begun but the trajectory of elections is being shaped by Donald Trump, a former President who is not only facing numerous court cases but who had challenged the very basis of the American democratic order. He is once again making a case to Americans that among the political class, he is still best suited to take the oath of protecting the American Constitution. And much to the astonishment of the rest of the world, many in the US are willing to buy his case.

He achieved a historic win at the Iowa Republican caucuses earlier this week in the first contest in the race for a presidential nominee. It was landslide as he won the most votes in all but one of Iowa’s 99 counties and he won across all segments of the voters – men and women, the young and old, the evangelical and hard-right conservative, even college-educated Republicans. Trump’s opponents have a difficult road ahead. Though Nikki Haley is slated to do better in a relatively moderate New Hampshire next week as there has been a surge in her polling numbers and funding, she will have to put up a really strong performance to make a dent in Trump’s momentum.

That Trump views Haley as the only real challenger left in the race now is evidenced from the fact that he is now targeting her origins. He referred to her by her first name, Nimarata, and has resorted to a misinformation campaign by supporting rumors she was ineligible to run for president because her parents were not US citizens at the time of her birth. For Haley it is a difficult balancing act. She has to attack Trump and his record but also ensure that his support base does not get completely alienated. So, while she has targeted Trump and Biden by saying that “you don’t defeat Democratic chaos with Republican chaos,” she also largely maintained a distance from commenting on the numerous court cases Trump faces.

Trump has managed to convince a large part of the Republican base that he never lost the 2020 presidential elections. And the more he has been dragged to the courts, the more his popularity has gone up among his base, which believes that he is being targeted for political reasons. He is redefining the standard political trajectories of former presidents and presidential hopefuls. A defeated presidential candidate tends to gradually disappear from public presence. But here is a former president who lost to his political opponent three years ago and then supported the January 6 capitol riots while not conceding his defeat. Trump has been removed from the ballot in Maine and Colorado and the matter is now in the US Supreme Court, which will begin to hear arguments from next month. Yet he has already made a remarkable political comeback in Iowa, as if his is a clean slate.

For the last few years, the Republican Party has been trying to get over Trump but as his massive win in Iowa has shown, he remains the undisputed leader of the party. Today’s GOP has been reconstituted in Trump’s image and there is very little his opponents have been able to do about it. Trump’s supporters have effective control of the Republican Party at all levels across the country, thereby giving him a significant advantage over his rivals.

It now seems very likely that despite the best efforts of his rivals, Trump will be on the Republican ticket challenging the Democratic incumbent. It will then be a handful of swing states that will decide the outcome of the Presidential race where recent polls have shown Trump to be highly competitive. A close election is on the cards with the likelihood that polarization in America is going to become even more entrenched.

American presidential elections matter not only for Americans but also for the rest of the world. Trump’s comeback is being watched carefully in world capitals, from Moscow and Beijing to Brussels and New Delhi. What is also being watched is the fraying of the American institutional fabric. A nation that has always been keen to lecture the rest of the world on democratic credentials, today finds itself in an unenviable position of accommodating the resurrection of a leader who challenged the very foundations of American democracy three years ago when he told a mob to “fight like hell” before it ransacked the US Capitol to deny Joe Biden his 2020 election win.

As the world engages with another year of the American democratic spectacle, it bears reminding that democracy is hard work, and Trump’s return to the centrestage of American politics shows that the self-proclaimed beacon of democracy faces challenging times ahead.

  • About the author: Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at Kings College London. 
  • Source: This commentary was published by the Observer Research Foundation and originally appeared in NDTV.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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