There’s no question that Hillary Clinton is a smart woman. When it comes to geo-politics in particular, few can match her combination of knowledge, direct experience, and just plain savvy. In June, on the same day the 46th president had his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former secretary of state held forth in an MSNBC interview about the 45th—the man she’d beaten in the popular vote by 3 million but still had to watch set up shop in the Oval Office. She called him out for gravely and intentionally damaging the interests of the United States of America.
Meanwhile, at the same time Donald Trump has been actively undermining our democracy and serving the interests of a rival government, Joe Biden has been the refreshing change that the world—or at least everyone not opposed to democracy—is glad to see.
Clinton pulled no punches, stating directly that, as president, Trump gave Putin “a green light to do whatever he wanted … once [Putin] helped elect him, of course.” She added that “Trump has elevated [Putin] … lifted up Russia and lifted up Putin … against our own country and our own president.”
She went on to condemn not only The Man Who Lost an Election and Tried To Steal It, but all those who aided and abetted him, and continue to do so—in other words, most of the Republican Party, both at the federal and state level.
We have people within our own country who are doing Putin’s work. Now whether they are, as we say, witting or unwitting, they are doing his work to sow distrust, to sow divisiveness, to give aid and comfort to those within our country who for whatever reason are being not only disruptive but very dangerous.
When Trump Republicans—including candidates running for office in 2022—push the Big Lie every day across the country, they are doing Putin’s work—although thankfully, there’s some evidence that support for the Orange Julius Caesar even within his own party is waning. Yet when he tells people he’ll be “reinstated” as president in August—a fantasy that 30% of Republicans believe is going to happen, causing real concern at the Department of Homeland Security—Trump is doing Putin’s work. When Trump’s minions consolidate Republican control over counting the vote (in Georgia, for example), or use their existing power in red states all across the country to make it harder to vote—but easier for their party to win—or engage in activities like the Arizona fraudit (which most Americans recognize as invalid, partisan bullshit), they are doing Putin’s work. On the fraudit, one of the rumors being sparked by this sham effort even had enough steam that Reuters deemed a fact check necessary.
Posts claiming that 2020 general election ballots were burned in a farm fire in Maricopa County are false. The ballots were not removed from a vault at the tabulation center until they were transported to the Arizona Senate, according to county officials. Sheriff investigations into a farm fire revealed no burned election ballots.
The text on one post reads: “A friend called me when they found out ballots were shredded at the farm. I told them not to worry, tell them I could still do the forensic audit on the shredded paper. The smoking gun is that the paper will prove that some were printed in China. An hour later it was on fire. The fire burned two huge barns. It killed 162,000 egg laying hens. Hickman is the Chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. He owns Hickman Egg Farms. This was no coincidence.”
Enough with chicken and egg tales, let’s get back to facts. When Trump fomented an insurrection, and when he and his party lie after the fact about, I don’t know, every single aspect of it, easily convincing huge numbers of Republican voters to believe them—they are doing Putin’s work. The level of denial is so deep and so pathological that Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde refused to shake the hand of Michael Fanone, a D.C. Metro Police Officer who was beaten by the Trump-loving insurrectionists. Instead Clyde ran away “like a coward.”
I guess Republicans only believe “blue lives matter” when the police aren’t facing down Team Red.
Royce Lamberth, a Republican-appointed federal judge, laced into the Republican deniers during a sentencing hearing for the first insurrectionist to be tried for crimes committed that day: “I’m especially troubled by the accounts of some members of Congress that Jan. 6 was just a day of tourists walking through the Capitol,” the judge said. “I don’t know what planet they were on. … This was not a peaceful demonstration. It was not an accident that it turned violent; it was intended to halt the very functioning of our government.”
When, even before Jan. 6, Trump tried to bully the Department of Justice into announcing that they were investigating something, anything, that would cast doubt on President Biden’s victory, he was … well, by now you know whose work he was doing. The emails Trump officials, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, sent to the DOJ, were as absurd as they were dangerous. Virginia Heffernan of The Atlantic characterized them as “shameless and hair-raising … full of gonzo talking points,” and added that “they reek of desperation.” Top DOJ official Richard Donoghue read a number of them and called them “pure insanity.”
Now imagine what would’ve happened if the Trump White House had succeeded in bamboozling acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen into believing their bunk about election irregularities, and investigations were announced in December of 2020. And imagine how many more Trumpists might have descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6 under such a scenario—perhaps enough to have achieved their goal of preventing Biden’s victory from being certified, as well as harming members of Congress or even the vice president. Maybe the Trump coup would have succeeded.
Just looking at what actually did happen, the twice-impeached former president has damaged our democracy to a degree that is incalculable, and from which we may never fully recover. An overwhelming majority of respondents said they were worried that the U.S. is “becoming less of a democracy,” according to a recent Daily Kos/Civiqs poll. As President Barack Obama explained on June 28, “If we don’t stop these kinds of efforts now, what we are going to see is more and more contested elections … We are going to see a further de-legitimizing of our democracy [and] … a breakdown of the basic agreement that has held this magnificent democratic experiment together all these years.” If that happens, adversaries of democracy and America alike will rejoice.
Trump’s anti-democratic actions have been on display long before Jan. 6, or even Nov. 3. Moreover, they continue right up to the present. Over the July 4 holiday weekend, the former reality TV star seemed to confirm the basic facts underlying the recent indictments brought in New York against the Trump Organization, but then claimed that he’s only being expected to answer for them because of politics. Sounding exactly like the demagogue he is, Trump opined that the case was “reminiscent of a communist dictatorship targeting your political opponents.” No, sir. In a dictatorship, the leader’s crimes go unpunished, but in a healthy democracy, no one is above the law—not even a former president.
The fundamental problem, of course, is that our political system is deeply polarized in a way that differs profoundly from the other democracies with whom we share a great deal. There is one person above all who bears responsibility for that, as Thomas B. Edsall explained.
Trump has mobilized and consolidated a cohort that now exercises control over the Republican Party, a renegade segment of the electorate, perhaps as large as one third of all voters, who disdain democratic principles, welcome authoritarian techniques to crush racial and cultural liberalism, seek to wrest away the election machinery and suffer the mass delusion that Trump won last November.
Regardless of whether Trump runs again, he has left an enormous footprint —a black mark— on American politics, which will stain elections for years to come.
Reflecting our thorough polarization, Americans express far more negative feelings about the opposing political party than do people in our peer countries—a disparity that has increased steadily since Reagan became president.
What’s the most important cause of the polarization that afflicts American politics? According to Lee Drutman, writing for FiveThirtyEight, it’s quite clear: The U.S. is the only major Western democracy where one of the two largest parties acts the way Republicans do.
In the U.S., one party has become a major illiberal outlier: The Republican Party. Scholars at the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have been monitoring and evaluating political parties around the world. And one big area of study for them is liberalism and illiberalism, or a party’s commitment (or lack thereof) to democratic norms prior to elections. And as the chart below shows, of conservative, right-leaning parties across the globe, the Republican Party has more in common with the dangerously authoritarian parties in Hungary and Turkey than it does with conservative parties in the U.K. or Germany.
In the graphic below, note both their gradual shift away from a commitment to democratic principles throughout the Obama presidency, as well as the even harder right turn the party took when a certain latter-day Mussolini took the reins in 2016.
There’s one other data point I’d like to mention, and this one requires no fancy graphic: Do you know how many advanced democracies have suffered through a violent insurrection aimed at overthrowing the results of a legitimate election and installing the loser—an insurrection instigated by said loser, i.e., the leader of his party?
The answer is one.
I began by saying few people could compete with Secretary Clinton on understanding geo-politics. One of those few people is currently—thankfully—the president of the United States. Joe Biden absolutely gets the global implications of beating back Trump’s attacks on our democracy—or failing to do so. This is why we see Biden constantly talking about the need for U.S. democracy to serve as an attractive model to other nations, as well as emphasizing the global competition between democracy and autocracy. He framed that competition—which he clearly sees as foundational for his presidency—in his first address to Congress.
The insurrection was an existential crisis—a test of whether our democracy could survive. It did. But the struggle is far from over. The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent. As old as our Republic. Still vital today.
Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us—created equal in the image of God—have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?
America’s adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works—and can deliver for the people.
Foreign policy experts have praised Biden for highlighting this issue, like Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Schake worked for the McCain campaign in 2008 as a senior policy advisor, but was one of a number of McCain alums who endorsed the Democratic nominee in 2020. Schake declared that Biden’s approach on centering democracy when it comes to international affairs was the “right” one, and necessary to counter what the government of China is doing: “China is arguing that their brand of authoritarian capitalism is predictable and produces prosperity, whereas the American model is socially divisive, politically unpredictable, and economically reckless.” So Trump is not only doing Putin’s work, he’s doing the work of China’s President Xi Jinping as well.
Biden knows the world is watching this competition. It’s part of what he is doing with the recent announcement of significant U.S. COVID-19 vaccine donations—80 million set to be allocated by the end of June, and delivered shortly thereafter—as well as half a billion doses overall. The competition is also why he’s encouraged our democratic allies to step up as well, efforts that bore fruit in the announcement that, all together, the G-7 countries would donate more than a billion vaccine doses over the next year.
Unfortunately for the countries that have received vaccines from China, the most recent evidence indicates that they “may not be very effective at preventing the spread of the virus, particularly the new variants.” Four countries out of the top 10—in terms of suffering the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 right now—have vaccination rates that are higher than that of the U.S. However, all four have relied largely on vaccines from Chinese manufacturers Sinovac and Sinopharm.
Since as early as last summer, China has sought to employ “vaccine diplomacy” to enhance its “soft power,” and it continues to do so, despite the shots’ relative lack of effectiveness. Likewise, although the U.S. and its fellow democracies aren’t demanding a quid pro quo for vaccines, make no mistake that Biden wants to show the world that democracies can better provide for their own citizens and everyone else than can autocracies.
The president wants to demonstrate that this is true not just on principles like freedom and equality—and despite our country’s flaws, Biden can effectively argue that we are still better on those issues by comparison; just ask the Uyghurs, or the Chechnyans, or anyone opposed to the government in China (Hong Kong and elsewhere) or Russia. By comparison, under Biden and Democrats at least, we are working to improve our flaws. Additionally, the democracies can deliver the goods on things like the vaccine, things that can save lives in a crisis.
More broadly, the G-7 summit last month put on display just how much more effective cooperation is among the democracies now that Biden is president. The leaders of the other governments in attendance expressed a strong sense of relief that they could focus on productive work, rather than the distractions Trump always seemed to dump on them. They are ready to move on. As one European official expressed, “I don’t think anyone sees value in replaying what transpired in the previous administration.”
Even when a contentious issue arose during the summit, this president better knew how to advance our values and interests, while also preserving warm ties among allies, as noted by CNN. At one point, Biden made a forceful call to other leaders about vocally calling out China’s anti-democratic practices, officials said, emphasizing the need to take action. Still, though the leaders disagreed, the session was marked by new respect among the leaders after four years of tension under Trump.
We can also compare Biden’s approach to that of the wholly amoral Trump—who subordinated the need to support democratic values to the almighty dollar. Trump promised President Xi that he would keep his mouth shut on Hong Kong, and even told his Chinese counterpart that putting more than a million Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities into concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” Could you imagine Joe Biden ever acting that way to secure a trade deal, or for any other reason for that matter?
“Democracy vs. autocracy is the battle of our time.” The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II laid down that marker on July 5. Joe Biden knows that the global competition between democracies and autocracies is a long game. Although he knows how to help democracies win, his predecessor continually chooses to help the other side. As Slate’s William Saletan put it, “as Biden works to project solidarity and resolve, he’s hobbled by a political base that Trump has built for Putin in the United States: a Republican Party infested with Kremlin sympathizers and opponents of NATO.” Whether Trump fully grasps what he’s doing doesn’t matter, because the people around him do, and they just don’t care about anything other than their own power. Not even the fate of democracy and freedom worldwide.
Is there any commitment at all by Trump and his Republican Party to America as an entity, separate from it being a vessel through which they can exercise power? It certainly doesn’t appear so. If they can’t run our country, they won’t love it, or even root for it—two separate polls show that Republicans give Putin a higher net favorable rating than Joe Biden—by about 20 points. Why? Because that’s how their party’s leader told them to think.
But that’s not patriotism.
American patriotism is supposed to mean you don’t work to manipulate our political system just so you can cement domination over the levers of power. Instead, patriots work to make our country better, stronger, and fairer. Patriotism means that while you compete in the democratic process, you also respect the process itself, and value it enough as a core element of what our country stands for that you refuse to subvert it in order to gain more control.
Secretary Clinton got it right: The problem is more than just that Trump Republicans put the interest of their party first. It’s that what they are doing in the name of partisanship and grabbing power at all costs is weakening our country, both at home and in terms of our international standing. By rendering our politics this dysfunctional, they are actually undermining not only the USA, but democracy as a whole in the eyes of the world. Trump and his apparatchiks are making the autocratic model—embodied by China under President Xi—appear more stable and functional by comparison. Trump is not just Putin’s puppet, he’s unwittingly acting in the interests of the Chinese government as well.
President Biden, meanwhile, has been not only working to pass progressive legislative policies, he’s been working to strengthen our very system of democracy.
In other words, he’s been doing America’s work.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)