(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought-Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)
I have a quick thought experiment for you. Imagine it is a few months before the 2018 midterm elections. Donald Trump’s already poor approval ratings have deteriorated further. (Maybe he couldn’t fulfill his promises. Or a trade war tanked the economy. Or maybe we’ve deployed ground troops to another Middle Eastern nation.) Even in a gerrymandered and segregated electorate, the Democrats look poised to sweep the House and the Senate. (This isn’t that unusual; the out of power party often wins seats in a midterm election.)
Donald Trump, though, warns America of voter fraud and corruption, the same themes he had warned of in his Presidential run. This time, though, he now has both the solution and the power to do something: he is ordering a halt to the elections across America until he can determine they will not be corrupted. To buttress his argument and show this isn’t simply an action of the executive branch, he proposes that Congress pass an emergency measure to postpone the election.
My thought experiment is this: How many Republicans would vote for that measure? (I suspect Mitch McConnell would. It seems he’ll break any political norm to keep power in perpetuity.) But how many other Republican members of the House and Senate would vote for the measure that would end our Republic?
And for those even half-heartedly preparing their justifications for the above vote, stop. You can never justify stopping an election in a functioning democracy. Or even a non-functioning democracy. If you give a President the ability to postpone one election for any reason, well, they will find find a reason to postpone all elections. Look to dictatorships in Africa (like the Congo right now) or South America (in the past) to see this in practice.
I bring up this hypothetical because one of the “hot takes” following the Donald Trump election was that we had witnessed the end of the “end of history”, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama being one of the most influential articles turned books of the 1990s. (The other? The Clash of Civilizations, which was read as gospel post-9/11.) I’ve counted at least four major articles and the author himself speculating on this topic. Many more mentioned Fukuyama in relation to Trump and/or Brexit.
The reasoning goes something like this: The End of History and the Last Man was about the triumph of democracy, free markets and classical liberalism more broadly. Brexit voters opposed free trade. They are also leaving one of the most important international institutions. So does Donald Trump. He also has autocratic tendencies. Combined with his flagrant disregard for Constitutional norms, Trump could seize power, ending our Republic. Matt O’Brien in Wonkblog has a good description:
“[Donald Trump's] gone back and forth and back again on almost every issue. But if he's serious about jailing his political rivals, about cracking down on the free press, about potentially abandoning our allies, about encouraging them to get nuclear weapons of their own, and about ripping up free trade agreements, then the liberal international order that has bequeathed us a relative Pax Americana the past 70 years will be no more. It'll be the end of the end of history.”
O’Brien combines two different key elements of “The End of HIstory” and today I want to focus on the parts about democracy, what Kenneth Waltz would have called “the second image” or the internal structure of states. (We’ll talk about the liberal world order, the international system, in my post tomorrow.)
My opening thought experiment actually proves that we aren’t in the end of the end of history--though it is terrifying to wonder how many Republicans would even consider voting for such a measure. Even in the outlandish scenario above, Trump could never justify his hypothetical takeover of American politics without denying he’s become an autocrat. Even as future Trump postpones the election--daring people to fight him and, from the playbook of most dictators, justifying his takeover of politics--he’ll sing the praises of democracy. Donald Trump’s most fervent supports drape themselves in the flag, patriotism, democracy, freedom and the Constitution. Donald Trump would have to echo those themes.
We see this “draping myself in the Constitution even as I spit on it” in Republican efforts to decrease voter turnout. Republicans justify voter suppression in the language of strengthening our democracy. They claim they want the democratic vote to be pure and untainted. In actuality, their policies disenfranchise potentially millions of eligible voters, a direct violation of the Constitution and the spirit of democracy.
And while Francis Fukuyama’s original argument was that the liberal world order was here to stay, the most important part to me has always been that liberal democracy triumphed as an idea. We forget this, because it seems so remote to us today, but in the 1930s, it wasn’t just that Hitler took power from his democracy, but that many pundits and politicians doubted democracy as a system. Many German citizens voted for the National Socialists to end the Weimar Republic, which they considered a failed experiment. In the 19th century, many people feared a capitalist system and wanted the return of monarchy and mercantilism (or agrarianism). Communism proposed an alternative system of politico-economics, but it failed as a theory, and hence Fukuyama wrote his book.
We see this in dictatorships of modern times. Vladimir Putin still holds rigged elections to justify his rule. So did Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. So does Bashar al-Assad, during a civil war no less. So will Recep Erdogan in Turkey. The only countries that have been immune have been Saudi Arabia (which just crushes all dissent with outlandish wealth) and China (who, of course, flirts with democracy every 20 years or so). In fact, the China example is the best counter: it’s people see the value of democracy and it’s leaders fear the ideology’s power.
Democracy has bested the alternatives. So has market capitalism, really, with some bumps. Yes the fringe of the fringe (the racist alt-right) has proposed a return to monarchy, but no one takes that seriously. Democracy has triumphed as an idea, even in dictatorships.
So yes, we have seen the end of history.