Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent Opinion contributor to CNN and the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
A year ago, we knew what kind of a candidate Donald Trump was, but we held out hope that his campaign-trail outrages amounted to electoral theater, to calculated tactics. We didn’t know with certainty what kind of a president he would become.
Now we know.
A couple of new nonpartisan reports released just ahead of the first anniversary of Trump’s assuming office give us the facts: The Trump presidency is eroding American democracy, undercutting American standing in the world, and contributing to a dangerous global trend.
Democracy is in crisis around the world, according to the respected Freedom House. Its Freedom in the World report warns that world’s nations, as a whole, are becoming more autocratic, more dictatorial, less open and more repressive.
There are many reasons for the crisis, but the most striking among them, according to the authors, is America’s abdication of its role as the leading defender of freedom and democracy, which is giving even more momentum to the dangerous trend.
The findings are as startling as those from another report, this one from Gallup. The polling organization asked people in 134 countries to rate the leadership of a number of countries. Approval for US leadership nosedived from a year ago, to just 30% – down from 48% in 2016.
Ponder this: Global confidence in the United States has fallen to the lowest level since Gallup started conducting this poll more than a decade ago. Even worse, disapproval of the US, at 43%, is the highest average that any country has ever scored in the survey’s history, a shameful and disturbing milestone for a country that prided itself in being an admired, if flawed, nation; a country that freedom-yearning peoples hoped their own nations would emulate.
But it’s been a long year of disappointments. If you doubt that many Americans wanted to give Trump a chance, look at his approval ratings at home. His highest approval and lowest disapproval came at the beginning of his presidency, when we didn’t quite know what was ahead.
A year ago, when Freedom House released its 2017 report – before Trump’s inauguration – I wrote about the troubling decline of democracy, an erosion that started after 2005. I wondered if the United States was about to join the list of countries whose democratic practices started weakening. The signs were hard to miss.
As a candidate, Trump had expressed admiration for autocrats, attacked the free press, refused to disclose information his predecessors routinely had, and refused to divest himself of conflicts of interest. Still, I noted it was “too early to know” how he would govern with full certainty.
Now the world knows.
The United States, still a vibrant democracy with deep roots, remains in the “free” category in the Freedom House report, despite its slide in rank since Trump arrived. His administration’s brazen defiance of the standards of a strong, healthy democracy includes, in Freedom House’s analysis, Trump’s relentless attacks on the media, his “pattern of false statements,” “violations of basic ethical standards,” “hiring of family members as advisers,” removal of information of public interests from government websites, “for political or ideological reasons.” The list goes on and on.
The US has joined the growing collection of countries where democracy is losing ground, under a grave threat the likes of which we have not seen in decades. In the last year, people in 71 countries lost political rights and civil liberties, says Freedom House, while those in just 35 experienced gains.
Among the countries backtracking on political freedom are Venezuela, Hungary, Russia, Mexico and many others.
But one of the most dramatic and instructive cases is Turkey, which formally entered the “Not Free” category after years of an accelerating slide. Freedom House pointed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s imposition of “personalized control” of the government and society, with assaults on political parties, opposition members, the judiciary, the media and the electoral system.
Turkish citizens who have been battling to preserve what’s left of their democracy, tried to explain what that means for daily life, a cautionary tale for people living in countries that are yet free. After all, only a few years ago, Turkey was a promising example of rising freedom.
As millions of people fall for the siren song of populism– electing strongmen who fan the flames of fear and division – and the US retreats from its defense of democracy, Freedom House noted that two other countries are eagerly filling the void.
Russia and China “are single-minded in their identification of democracy as a threat to their oppressive regimes, and they work relentlessly, with increasing sophistication,” to step up repression at home and undermine democracy abroad.
Washington’s loss of prestige means that, even as Trump deploys America’s military might, the US is losing its soft power, its ability to influence other countries through the force of the respect it inspires. That soft power, as Gallup notes, can have a tangible effect on the foreign policy of other nations. America’s low approval ratings mean the US has less influence.
Unless this trend reverses, the US – though it controls the world’s mightiest military force – will become a power in decline.
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The good news, for America and the world, is that this undemocratic trend is not unfolding in a vacuum. In every state where authoritarian leaders are undercutting democracy, individuals and groups are working, committed to defending their freedoms, and in many cases – notice Romania -- they are scoring impressive victories.
One year into the Trump administration, we now know: America’s values and political practices have come under assault from the highest places.
For now, at least, the country remains a strong and largely a well-functioning democracy, whose people are more energized than ever, and determined to defend their political and personal freedoms.
Such vigilance is crucial if we are to resist the undemocratic tide slipping across the globe. We’ve been warned.