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Not With a Bang…

Rather than blow up with a bang, American democracy may wither with a whimper. That insight lies at the heart of David Frum’s frightening but invaluable Atlantic essay, “How to Build an Autocracy.” It’s the best analysis I’ve read of the damage Donald Trump could do.

Frum is no innocent observer of presidential overreach. A former George W. Bush speechwriter, he coined the “axis of evil” line his boss employed to justify the Iraq invasion. Nevertheless, respect the messenger along with the message this time around. Frum flagged the threat from the outset last year. He warned of the then-candidate bucking the courts if elected, long before Trump started attacking judges.

Now, we don’t yet know how Trump’s presidency will play out. If you want a full panoply of possibilities, check out the fourteen that Nate Silver recently sketched.

But Frum does paint one very plausible picture: No coup. No martial law. And on the other hand, no presidential collapse born of arrogance or incompetence. Instead, just a steady erosion of our democratic institutions and values, capped by Trump’s re-election.

If We Were Honduras…

Though Frum covers a lot of good analytical ground, what struck me most is his international angle. To start with, consider this:

A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it.

Frum calls it “repressive kleptocracy.” He fears the United States replicating a global trend that undermines even one-time beacons of democratic hope.

Foreign Governments Showing the Way

To sum up some foreign phenomena that Frum sees emerging here:

In South Africa, the government seeks to delegitimize journalists as “the opposition.”


In Russia, Putin consistently lies as a way of making the truth meaningless.


In Turkey, the government manipulates social media to great effect.


Before its bankruptcy, the Venezuelan government exploited its resources and state television to grant and publicize gifts to grateful supporters.


Frum also cites the Philippines, where – I’m drawing on my own knowledge now – there is a longstanding bread-and-circus approach to politics, venal self-dealing by those in office and a president who ridicules the rule of law to the degree of practically decreeing extrajudicial executions.


Most of all, he focuses on Hungarian government’s playbook for manipulating democracy: altering electoral rules, favoring financial friends, inducing opponents to kowtow and continually igniting supporters’ outrage.

Nothing New?

In some ways, this despair over overseas backsliding is nothing new. Fareed Zakaria warned of “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” twenty years ago, bemoaning democratically elected governments that push “illiberal” racist, authoritarian, repressive policies.

But Frum’s analysis is more far-ranging in some respects and more focused in others. As he most obviously and ironically asserts: It can happen here. And it has already started.

There’s much more to explore in the article, including: craven congressional Republicans; rabid right-wing media; intensified voter suppression; Trump’s craving chaos and spreading cynicism; and, not least, his trust in public indifference to his excesses.

Not With a Whimper…

Frum concludes not with a whimper, but a bang:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

It’s sometimes gloomily said that countries get the governments they deserve. But in the societies Frum cites with dismay, citizens have nevertheless been bravely battling tougher obstacles than we Americans face, aiming to ensure that their democratic futures are not set in dystopian stone. It’s our turn to determine whether we’ll sink or shine.







Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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