David Frum writes: No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future. When early Americans wrote things like “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.
The exercise of political power is different today than it was then — but perhaps not so different as we might imagine. Larry Diamond, a sociologist at Stanford, has described the past decade as a period of “democratic recession.” Worldwide, the number of democratic states has diminished. Within many of the remaining democracies, the quality of governance has deteriorated.
What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example — and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.
The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free — at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.
You could tell a similar story of the slide away from democracy in South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s successors, in Venezuela under the thug-thief Hugo Chávez, or in the Philippines under the murderous Rodrigo Duterte. A comparable transformation has recently begun in Poland, and could come to France should Marine Le Pen, the National Front’s candidate, win the presidency.
Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.
The United States is of course a very robust democracy. Yet no human contrivance is tamper-proof, a constitutional democracy least of all. Some features of the American system hugely inhibit the abuse of office: the separation of powers within the federal government; the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states. Federal agencies pride themselves on their independence; the court system is huge, complex, and resistant to improper influence.
Yet the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?
Over the past generation, we have seen ominous indicators of a breakdown of the American political system: the willingness of congressional Republicans to push the United States to the brink of a default on its national obligations in 2013 in order to score a point in budget negotiations; Barack Obama’s assertion of a unilateral executive power to confer legal status upon millions of people illegally present in the United States — despite his own prior acknowledgment that no such power existed.
Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. 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. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled. [Continue reading…]