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Why McCain’s old-fashioned conservatism is needed to fight Trump’s dark forces

Senator John McCain. Photo/Getty Images

Exploitation of the fears and insecurities of Republican voters by unscrupulous politicians has fuelled the rise of Donald Trump and harmed the United States’ position as a bastion of democracy. 

If you were making a list of nations with a long-standing bipartisan commitment to democratic principles and practices, Central Europe and Latin America wouldn’t be well represented.

Turbulent histories, fragile state institutions and elites that have tended to put class before country have made it hard for democracy to put down deep roots in those regions. So, although democratic backsliding in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Honduras and Bolivia is disturbing, particularly since it suggests the great democratic tide that started to surge in the 1970s has turned, it doesn’t come as a complete shock.

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The US is another matter. If democratic backsliding there doesn’t qualify as a shocking development, it’s hard to imagine what would.

This, after all, is the nation that regards itself, with considerable justification, as the wellspring of democracy. Having achieved independence via a revolutionary, anti-colonial war, America adopted a written constitution, a democratic system and the belief, sometimes referred to as “American exceptionalism”, that its origins and history make it uniquely qualified and obligated to promote democracy.

Americans, said Abraham Lincoln in the 1863 Gettysburg Address, have a duty to ensure “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth”.

Illustration/Steve Bolton

It would be easy to blame President Donald Trump for all the recent troubling, if not sinister, developments in US politics. Everything about him – the redneck rallies, the “enemy of the people” onslaughts on the media, the calls for those who get under his skin to be jailed, sacked, roughed up or put out of business, and his affinity for tyrants – gives the impression that he finds democracy’s checks and balances and the rule of law to be intolerable restrictions.

It could be argued, though, that Trump is the frontman for an anti-democratic campaign that got under way before his presidential aspirations were taken seriously. Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering, for instance, have turned parts of the US into virtual one-party electoral districts.

“If you’ve tilted the playing field in the electoral system so that it doesn’t allow you to boot parties out of power,” observes political scientist Francis Fukuyama, “then you’ve got a real problem. The Republicans have been at this for quite a while already.”

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have abused power and jettisoned core principles. Hence, the absurdly protracted investigation into an Islamist militia’s 2012 attack on two US government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, for the purpose of damaging Secretary of State and presumptive Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; the unconstitutional refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy; and the unwillingness to pursue robust investigations into Russian election meddling.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 after the Benghazi attacks. Photo/Getty Images

Fear of the future

Conservative leaders may have compromised themselves and their principles by pandering to their base’s worst instincts, promoting conspiracy theories and aligning with the alt-right propagandist media, but the rank and file has responded by abandoning the notion, fundamental to democracy, that political leadership must have a moral component. Perhaps the most revealing example of the corruption of American conservatism is evangelical Christians’ willingness to ignore behaviour that should have compelled them to shun Trump.

The catalyst for US democratic backsliding is the demographic trend that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, will supposedly deliver an insuperable majority to an ungodly, overlapping coalition of Afro-Americans, Hispanic Americans, progressives, the LGBT community and assorted freaks.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of the few authoritarian leaders with whom Trump isn’t chummy, once declared, “Democracy is like a train – you get off when you reach your destination.” Sections of the American right have visualised what awaits them further down the line and shudder at the thought. They want to get off the train right here, right now.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo/Getty Images

Enter Trump, the personification of white entitlement, rage and paranoia. Although Trump has, in a sense, hijacked the Republican Party, it’s also the case that he’s the unashamed, untrammelled populist the right needed to consolidate and advance its anti-democratic push. History teaches us that the authoritarian leader tends to have a malign ability to tap into the fears and insecurities of the masses, persuade them they’re in even more peril than they imagine and convince them that he, and he alone, is their saviour. History also teaches us that mainstream political movements that use a populist rabble-rouser to dupe the masses into supporting an agenda that is not necessarily in their interests often find they’ve got a tiger by the tail.

The left must accept a share of the blame. In 2016, some progressives refused to acknowledge that the election was a fork in the road. Rather than accept that the US faced a stark choice that demanded clarity and realism, they self-indulgently chose to focus on the various ways in which Clinton fell short of being their ideal candidate. One wonders how many progressives still believe it made little difference who became president or, as one left-wing commentator put it, “In 2016, the lesser of two evils is not so clear.”

Former US President Barack Obama. Photo/Getty Images

Higher ideals

Last week saw the passing of Senator John McCain, in many ways the anti-Trump. Although Obama’s tribute to the man he defeated in 2008 was a rebuke to what US conservatism has become, it also had the ring of an elegy for consensus, civility and American exceptionalism: “[John McCain and I] shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed. We saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home and to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible – and citizenship as our patriotic obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.”

There are encouraging signs that a majority of Americans still subscribe to these ideals. But they must galvanise themselves and act accordingly: repudiate Trump and the dark forces he represents at the ballot box and ensure those who conspired to subvert democracy are held to account.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.