Trump vs. America: The fight for democracy

Trump: 'You think our country's so innocent?'
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Story highlights

  • On Fox News, Trump defends Russian President Vladimir Putin, stating the United States could hardly criticize
  • Frida Ghitis: In this defense, Trump lays the foundation for a new battle between democracy and authoritarianism

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)When President Trump equated the United States with the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he took one more step in placing America at the center of a global war between democracy and authoritarianism.

Trump was defending the Russian President after Fox's Bill O'Reilly called Putin a "killer." His response, "You think our country is so innocent," reveals Trump's dismissive attitude toward the most fundamental democratic norms that America has aspired to embody. Clearly, the United States has made many grave mistakes throughout history, but the country's guiding principles have remained unchanged: the fierce defense of individual liberties and an unshakeable commitment to democratic ideals.
Frida Ghitis
In Russia, by contrast, Putin has decimated the opposition, imprisoned critics and taken control of all branches of government. The free press is a faint shadow of its former self, and Putin's critics, including journalists, continue to turn up dead under suspicious circumstances. One of Putin's most vocal critics, Vladimir Kara-Murza, remains in a Moscow hospital in "grave condition" after suffering a "full organ failure" that, as his lawyer told CNN, doctors agree is the result of a "toxic substance."
Despite Trump's comments and recent executive actions, Trump should expect push-back from a country committed to liberal democratic principles. This division between the President and the American people makes the United States the latest battleground in a worldwide clash of ideologies.
When the wave of populist authoritarianism started, few would have expected the United States, the principal beacon of modern democracy for over 200 years, to fall under the spell of nativist politics. But fall it did.
The many Americans who remain skeptical of Trump and now find themselves protesting on a weekly basis can take comfort in knowing they are not alone.
On Sunday, while the American public was rapt in the Super Bowl, an astonishing sight came into focus in Romania. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest a government push to decriminalize corruption. The remarkable part was that protesters had already won.
Demonstrations had begun six days earlier, after the government tried to quietly pass a decree that would have cleared the records and freed from prison people convicted of corruption for amounts less than $47,000. The government agreed to rescind the order. But the demonstrations only grew, with protesters saying they came out to protect their democracy.
Romanians knew they had to fight for democracy because of their recent communist past and the onslaught in neighboring countries against liberal democracy, which requires separation of powers, a free judiciary, free and fair elections and, yes, freedom to protest.
Sadly, now, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the surge of refugee arrivals, demagogic politicians have leveraged popular discontent, lashing out against foreigners, vowing to put their country's "true" residents first, and gradually dismantling the foundations of liberal democracy.
Aisha Tyler: We've got to keep fighting
Aisha Tyler: We've got to keep fighting

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Romanians seem to have won round one. But the forces defending democracy elsewhere, including in neighboring Hungary, have been losing. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly declared he's building an "illiberal state," and is making strides in his quest to imitate regimes run by the likes of Putin. Democratic freedoms have suffered sharp reverses in recent years. Turkey is slipping into dictatorship, Venezuela remains mired in autocracy, as do countries in every continent. But what's ahead for the United States?
Some veterans of the battle are pessimistic. When millions of mostly women took to the streets the day after Trump's inauguration, Julia Ioffe, whose family fled Russia, threw cold water on their jubilant movement, tweeting, "The happy, feisty crowds, the clever signs - it all feels like the protests in Moscow in 2011. That went nowhere."
It's true that protests have not achieved much against other authoritarian regimes. In Venezuela, the Chavista regime came to power in 1999, and despite every effort from a determined opposition, it remains in power. In Turkey, mass demonstrations, and even what seemed like electoral victories, have failed to stop Recep Tayyip Erdogan's march to de facto dictator. In Russia, Putin is all but unchallenged, with a quiescent legislature and near-complete control of the news Russians consume.
But the story is likely to have a different outcome in the United States. Yascha Mounk, a Harvard expert in right-wing populism, observed that Trump is turning out to be "more authoritarian than I feared," though the opposition is also proving "more courageous than I expected."
America has deeper democratic roots than any of the countries whose liberal democracies has been toppled. The national religion is freedom from tyranny.
The day after Trump took office, Americans put on what may have been the largest national demonstration in the country's history. A week later, when Trump issued his travel ban for seven Muslim-majority countries, spontaneous demonstrations materialized at major airports across the country. Lawyers filed legal briefs on the spot.
While the Republican-controlled Congress has proven mostly silent in countering Trump's attacks on the independent media and the judiciary, the press appears determined to do its job and judges seem unintimidated by White House bullying. Even members of the executive branch are speaking out.
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Many Americans support Trump, but there are signs that his sharp break with democratic traditions, his attacks on judges, his fulminations against the media and against critics of all stripes -- from comedians to restaurant reviewers -- are producing a backlash.
History is being written by two opposing forces -- those fighting for and those fighting against liberal democracy. President Trump's likening of America to Putin's Russia puts him on the illiberal side. But the American people have spent hundreds of years building a strong democratic system, and they are prepared to fight to defend it.