Donald Trump- using democracy to an autocratic future?
The avalanche of Donald Trump's presidential campaign success reached new levels this Tuesday, after he bagged seven out of eleven state primaries for the Republican nomination. While his triumph thrilled his supporters to no end, it has shocked others, including the Republican Party old guards beyond belief. His straight wins in two Republican primaries before and continued dominance in opinion polls among Republican Party supporters has defied all predictions of political pundits about the early stumbling of his campaign. He is proving to their dismay that he is not a flash in the pan.
It seems that the more outrageous, scornful, and combative Trump is in his speech, the more popular he gets among his followers. He has spared no insult, no profanity, and no indignity in upbraiding and criticising his opponents, minority groups, the media, foreigners and foreign governments, and even the Pope. The more strident and offensive he becomes, the more his supporters cheer. The result is that among the remaining five Republican Presidential candidates, Trump rules the roost. And the irony is that Donald Trump is not the Party's choice, he is an outsider who foisted himself on it.
Early in his campaign, when Donald Trump attracted thousands to his political rallies who he thrilled with his blusters against Mexican immigrants (calling them rapists, and murderers) and threatened to stop them with his now famous wall, political observers explained these rallies of people, mainly lower and lower middle class whites, as disgruntled with the government and the failure of a dysfunctional Republican establishment to stem a perceived economic depression. When Trump expanded his rhetoric from illegal immigration to fighting terrorism in the wake of the Paris and California terrorist attacks, he found a new object to attack - the Muslims - his crowd liked him even more. As he started to win the primaries, political observers opined that he was winning because he was pandering to the base instincts of a populace, namely anger, hatred, and xenophobia. But now, with the once deemed impossible Republican nomination becoming more and more of a reality, Trump has launched his latest tirade, against the media, with threats to pursue them with new libel laws once he becomes president. He has targeted not only the print media but also electronic media. Their fault? They had the temerity to criticise him and surfaced questions that challenge his authenticity.
With the mindset that Donald Trump has and demonstrates, it will not be a surprise that he will be intolerant of any opposition either to him or his speech. (Policies are out of question, since he has none). What bothers people is the enthusiasm with which his crowd receives his every utterance, defiance, and stick-it-to-you comments. In his rallies, he threatened and actually used his security guards to throw out people who dared raise a slogan against him, much to his supporters' delight. He simulated by gesture and action some of history's well known dictators.
There is nothing wrong in Donald Trump trying to attract votes. Nor is there anything wrong if he draws a lot of people to his rally who are charmed by his utterances however loathsome they are. Both Trump and his supporters are exercising their democratic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They are also following the Democratic right of voting for their chosen candidate in the elections. But what is scary to observers, in particular the press, is the way he is attacking the press for their criticism of him, and bringing out issues that apparently are not to Trump's liking. What is also alarming is the unrelenting cheer that Trump receives from his supporters who apparently are not bothered by Trump's bellicose declaration that he would bring new libel laws to punish the media when he is president.
In his latest threat to the media, Trump is articulating a wish which is unfortunately a reality in many countries. A recent editorial write up in The Washington Post observed that history shows how some of the authoritarian leaders in the past achieved their powers using the ballot box. They used a democratic system to rise to power by manipulating people with xenophobia, ethnic and religious prejudices and finding scapegoats for their economic woes. Once in power, they shut out all opposition including freedom of speech, the very foundation of democracy. Uganda, Russia, Venezuela, and Turkey are some recent examples. Who knows if Trump is getting inspired by these examples?
It is said that democracy delivers power through the ballot box, but the ballot box can also become a tool to augment the rise of an autocrat who does not believe in the essentials of democracy. We do not have to turn to Hitler or Mussolini to illustrate this. In recent times, many democratically elected leaders have used their new found mandate to alter the Constitution, or to change the rules of the game to favor their continuance in power. In the world today, it has become commonplace for leaders to lock the door behind them once they achieve power. In some countries, the ballot boxes have been used as proxies to obtain the mandate to sustain the illusion of democracy. In other cases, a mandate to rule for a fixed term has been extended ad infinitum. Opposition has been muffled, freedoms curtailed, and the government has operated by fiat and rule of force.
It may be a long while before Donald Trump reaches his El Dorado where only he can rule with impunity, banish people he does not like, and punish people who oppose him. But even to reach his immediate target, the Republican nomination for presidency, he has many battles to win, reaching beyond the xenophobic and bigoted crowd he has generated so far. To do that, he has to win people with more than the opprobrium he generates among the saner people of this country with his hateful speeches.
The writer is a political commentator and analyst.