This US election is the most important since 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in the depths of the Depression. With a lot of trial and error, the FDR saved democracy at home and abroad. The re-election of Donald Trump would destroy much, if not all, of that legacy. But his defeat would not end the danger. To do that, American politics must be transformed.
This choice is so important because the US has a unique role in the world. It has long been the main model of a functioning liberal democracy, leader of the countries that share these values, and an essential actor in solving every major global challenge. The re-election of Mr. Trump would mean a rejection of all three roles by the American people. No other country or group of countries can take its place. The world would change – and not for the better at all.
During a radio broadcast on December 29, 1940, the FDR described his country as the "arsenal of democracy". This had precise effects on the supply of materials in World War II. American resources were critical to victory. But the US offered much more than just power. It turned out that a great power could also be a legally regulated democracy. It was the most powerful republic since Rome and provided a model of what such a power could be now. The example of individual freedom and the democratic spirit shaped the aspirations of billions.
As a result of its victory in the war, the US also became the leader of the world's democracies, including its former opponents Germany and Japan. A pivotal moment among FDR's former Vice President Harry Truman was the 1948 Marshall Plan, which aimed to restore Europe both physically and morally. The US could do this because it was so rich. But its power would have been insufficient in the long run. Her allies trusted him too, not always or in all respects, but sufficiently. They trusted him because they valued his core values and believed that his adherence to the principles of liberal democracy made his commitments credible.
Just days after its commitment to create the "arsenal" of US democracy, the FDR made an even more remarkable promise to posterity. In his State of the Union Address of January 6, 1941, he committed the United States to promoting four freedoms: freedom of speech; Religious freedom; Freedom from will; and freedom from fear.
These were not idle vows. During the next half century the world saw a great expansion of democracy and a decrease in poverty. Both would not have happened without the institutions created by the United States, the habit of cooperation it promoted, and the prosperity it promoted.
Needless to say, the US has also committed crimes and follies, particularly the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But the big American project worked. All in all, it worked domestically too, especially with the clear advancement of civil rights.
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Mr. Trump's USA rejects all of this. He's a man with appetite, no ideals. As journalist Masha Gessen tells us in Surviving Autocracy, Trump's goal is to do whatever he wants, with no restrictions from law, Congress or anything else. He wants to be an autocrat. If he wins again, he can largely achieve that goal, as commentator David Frum warns. Mr Trump also leads a corrupt, malicious and incompetent government, lies easier than breath, and even fights against the notion that he could lose in a free and fair election. In all this way, he searches every norm of a decent democracy on a daily basis.
Abroad, Trump admires autocrats, is indifferent to previous US promises, rejects multilateralism, and happily withdraws from commitments (such as the Paris Climate Agreement) and institutions (such as the World Health Organization). His America is the opposite of the country FDR, Harry Truman and her successors ran.
The desire for something so different is not surprising. Satisfaction with democracy is decreasing worldwide, especially among young people. Data on perceptions of corruption and life expectancy in the United States also show clear signs of relative failure. (See diagrams.)
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While the anger pervading US politics is understandable, Trump's method is to exacerbate it. For donors who fund the Republican Party, this is also perfectly acceptable in exchange for lower taxes and less regulation. Mr Trump is the product of their Faust agreement with the party’s grassroots.
If Mr Trump keeps the presidency, be it legitimate or fraudulent, the world will draw its conclusions about the future role of the US. Their credibility as a model for a competent and successful democracy would be shattered, their credibility as leaders of an alliance of democracies would be over and their willingness to participate in efforts to tackle common global challenges such as climate change or a pandemic would be non-existent.
The world has actually changed. However, given the growing power of an increasingly autocratic China, the success of charismatic autocrats elsewhere, and the great global challenges of our time, constructive and competent leadership by democratic US is more necessary than ever. Mr Trump cannot lead such a USA.
His defeat, however, would not end the threat of US withdrawal. His party would again do anything to thwart a democratic government. The strategy of "Pluto-Populism" – combining solipsistic wealth with white middle class anger – would continue with the help of the Supreme Court. Whatever happens in the elections, America's role in the world will remain in question.
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