Arvanitakis on American politics: How Trump may have saved democracy

| March 27, 2021

Of all the books written about ‘The Trump Years’, one of the best is What Were We Thinking by the Washington Post’s literary critic, Carlos Lozada. Lozada points out that some 1100 books were written about Trump during his presidency while only about half of that were written about his predecessor, President Obama.

As the literary critic for The Washington Post, Lozada read 150 different books that claimed to diagnose why Trump was elected and what his presidency reveals about the United States and our contemporary era.

What he found was the most of these were more defensive than insightful, more righteous than correct, and more about confirming the author’s own views that actually reflecting what was occurring. Many were anti-Trump, others pro-Trump while few tried to walk an analytical line.

Why so many books? George Friedman writing for Geopolitical Futures, provides an insight:

U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters and detractors are both obsessed with him. They share the belief that everything that has happened is because of him. His supporters believe his staying in office is crucial to the survival of the country. His opponents believe his removal is.

The certainty of these facts among each group is both astounding and misguided. Trump did not create this moment. He was created by the moment. Trump was neither the key to solving America’s problems nor the key to causing them.

While books are still coming and the exact consequences of the Trump years may take a decade to fully understand, I would like to offer a brief reflection on an unexpected consequence: The way Trump Administration may ultimately prove an enormous benefit to our democratic institutions.

Like globalisation simultaneously leads to a rise in nationalism, so can someone who thumbs their nose at democratic conventions result in strengthening them. Here are four reasons why the Trump years may actually have strengthened our democratic institutions.

  1. It confirmed the importance of governments, industry and communities working together

In their recent book, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes outline that if Trump had shown just some basic competency and empathy with regards to Covid19, the chances are he would have been re-elected. Instead, Trump generally stepped back from the medical crisis and refused to acknowledge any impacts and claimed the virus had magically gone away.

When Trump did act, such as assisting the pharmaceutical companies in speeding the vaccines to market, the results were generally positive.

In contrast, Biden has rallied government resources and worked closely with community groups and private industries to ensure a massive vaccine rollout. As I write this, it was announced that the Administration had doubled its goal by pledging 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in its first 100 days.

Likewise, Biden has presented a $3 trillion nation building plan to drive the economy to invest in infrastructure, education, work force development and fighting climate change, with the aim of making the economy more productive. Again, this is about the social democratic ideal of industry, community and government working together.

  1. The importance of international institutions

For the last two decades, conservative leaders across the world have treated many international institutions with general derision including the United Nations, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Progressives have often questioned the validity of institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, NATO and World Trade Organisation.

The Trumpian ‘America First’ approach marginalised all these institutions, with Trump even resigning from the WHO during a global pandemic. While far from perfect, these institutions do bring nations together in an attempt for global cooperation and they have never been more important.

While Biden has partially embraced Trump’s America First mantra, the Administration knows that no power can ‘go it alone.’ Inadvertently, Trump’s actions have confirmed that social democratic nations around the world must come together in these forums, collaborate and seek global solutions.

  1. Evidence-based policy is back

Biden’s response to the pandemic and promise to act on climate change also reverses a trend of ignoring scientific evidence. If there is a fundamental characteristic of social democracies that should never be ignored is policy based on scientific research and evidence. Anything else looks like doing favours for friends and insiders. For too long, governments have self-selected the evidence that they want to follow: this is the case from Reagan to Obama and of course Trump.

While it is important that leaders always find balance across constituencies and exhibit a degree of scepticism, but the marginalisation of scientific evidence must be confronted.

We have seen the consequences relegating science and the results include over 500,000 American deaths from Covid – and no nation wants to experience this kind of devastation.

  1. The norms and values of democracy

A functioning democracy not only relies on an appropriate legal framework, but also accepted values and norms of behaviour. Without them, too many scandals undermine governments and democratic institutions. Trump built his image as an outsider and was emboldened by a base of supporters who were motivated by his attitudes and actions that including violating expected norms and behaviours.

All this ultimately led to the Capitol riots and a moment of reckoning. While we see little evidence, there are some undertones of bipartisanship in the USA and common ground.

None of this is to say that America’s political woes are solved – far from it. What we do know, however, is what happens when a president breaks all the rules – and it is not appealing. Let’s all hope that the lessons have been learnt.