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Bye bye democracy?

Osama bin Laden taught the world the meaning of asymmetric warfare, while Donald Trump showed us the meaning of these tactics in politics

Former US president Donald Trump in a file photo.
Former US president Donald Trump in a file photo.GETTY IMAGES (The Washington Post via Getty Im)
Moisés Naím

“The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

Thus begins an explosive article recently published in The Washington Post by Robert Kagan, who, until 2016, was one of the most influential foreign policy strategists in the Republican Party. His analysis deals with issues that we typically associate with the weak democracies of Latin America, with their well-known propensity for political self-destruction. Indeed, Kagan’s analysis marks a milestone in the latinamericanization of US politics.

His analysis has two pillars. First, that former US president Donald Trump is the inevitable candidate for the Republicans in the 2024 elections. The initial belief that his power and influence would fade after his 2020 loss has proved illusory. Trump has the money, the political machinery and millions of passionate followers. Plus, in 2024, he will face politically vulnerable opponents. Yes, Trump could face legal or health problems that prevent him from running, but placing stock in these assumptions is wishful thinking, not political strategy.

According to Kagan, the Republican Party is no longer defined by its ideology but by loyalty to Donald Trump. Party leaders who do not unconditionally support the former president are summarily marginalized and mercilessly attacked. The second pillar is that Trump and his allies are working hard to guarantee electoral victory through undemocratic means, should it be necessary to resort to them. The clumsy and doomed attempts to use lawsuits to give Trump the votes he lacked to beat Joe Biden, as well as the media blitz to persuade the country that Trump’s election was stolen, will no longer be so clumsy or hastily improvised. Rather, a sophisticated, fierce and well-funded project is underway to control the electoral process in key states, with a focus on vote tallying as well as empowering elected state officials to make the final determination as to who won the election in their state. “The stage is thus being set for chaos,” writes Kagan, who continues: “Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020.”

The asymmetric attack on democracy is not “more of the same.” It is a different political phenomenon with grave potential consequences

Kagan sounds the alarm about dangerous trends that are new to the United States, but not to Latin America. He deserves credit for perceiving that strongmen like Trump do not engage in politics like other democratic leaders, but rather employ asymmetric tactics to achieve their goals.

Let’s look at it this way: Osama bin Laden taught the world the meaning of asymmetric warfare, while Donald Trump showed us the meaning of asymmetric politics.

Asymmetric warfare is an armed conflict in which one of the parties has many more resources and military capabilities than its opponent, forcing the weaker side to resort to unconventional strategies, tactics and moves. In 2015, Donald Trump did not have a party willing to nominate him as its presidential candidate, but he was willing to break all the traditional rules and norms of politics, surprising and disorienting his rivals. Plunging into asymmetric politics not only allowed him to take over the Republican Party but also lay claim to the US presidency. And although he failed to win reelection in 2020, his success as the leader of a movement that thrives on political asymmetry is unquestionable.

So what do we do about it? How do we strengthen American democracy and prevent leaders with undemocratic tendencies to undermine democracy from within? Paradoxically, the best way to confront the asymmetric politics that give electoral advantages to demagogues, populists and charlatans is not to imitate them. Attacks on democracy must be fought with more and better democracy. The world’s democracies – and America’s most urgently – need to be repaired and reformed so that they can respond to new realities (like pandemics) or old malignancies (like inequality). But before discussing concrete initiatives to defend democracy and combat the asymmetric attacks to which it will be subjected, it is necessary to create a broad consensus about how serious this threat is. The asymmetric attack on democracy is not “more of the same.” It is a different political phenomenon with grave potential consequences. To defeat it, we have to understand it, raise awareness about its toxicity and give it the priority it deserves.

Hopefully, democracy will rise to the challenge.

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