President Donald Trump has a gift for telling deadly serious jokes. His latest, a revealing wisecrack about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s power grab, came during closed-door fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday. “He’s now president for life,” Trump marveled, according to a recording obtained by CNN. “President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” The donors gathered around Trump chuckled, but his words are ominous in the context of his history of praising dictators. In 2016, he extolled Vladimir Putin as “very much of a leader ... far more than our president has been a leader,” and last year commended Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s “unbelievable job” in dealing with his country’s drug problem (Duterte’s drug war has resulted in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspects).
Trump’s words are not to be laughed off, because they’re consistent with his policies. Unlike every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter, he doesn’t believe that it’s in America’s foreign policy interest to promote democracy and human rights abroad. Instead, his administration is working to undermine the agency tasked with doing so.
“Buried in the State Department’s fiscal 2019 budget request is a proposal not only to slash the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy,” Josh Rogin of The Washington Post reported Sunday, “but also to disassemble its relationships with its core institutes, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. For the NED and those institutes, the proposal is an assault not only on their organizations but also on the pro-democracy mission they are dedicated to.”
This effort to gut the NED, which reportedly originated in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, is not likely to go far, since the agency has bipartisan support in Congress. But that makes it all the more symbolically significant. The NED is hated by the very authoritarian regimes with whom Trump is currying favors. For instance, Russia has banned the NED because the Kremlin has deemed it an “undesirable” NGO.
Trump’s aversion to democracy promotion is consistent with his authoritarian tendencies, but also has ideological roots. Trump is resurrecting the Republican Party’s disdain for the use of American statecraft as an instrument for promoting liberal values, which went into abeyance with President Ronald Reagan.
For most of the twentieth century, it was liberal Democrats who thought that the best way to ensure a peaceful world was to encourage other nations to adopt liberal democratic values and institutions. Republicans skewed toward a more cynical and isolationist view that America was the guardian of its own democracy, but not responsible for the internal affairs of other nations. Reagan obliterated that partisan divide by borrowing Carter’s human rights rhetoric and using it as a weapon in the Cold War. In a speech to the British Parliament in 1982, he called for the United States “to foster the infrastructure of democracy”; the NED was created the following year, with strong bipartisan support.
In making democracy-promotion a cornerstone of his foreign policy, Reagan was aided by a cadre of neoconservatives, some of whom had been liberal Democrats or socialists not long before: Joshua Muravchik, Peter Berger, Michael Novak, and Norman Podhoretz. Neoconservative intellectuals and policy wonks pushed for the centrality of democracy promotion in books like Gregory Fossedal’s The Democratic Imperative: Exporting the American Revolution (1989) and Muravchik’s Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny (1991).
Despite the imprimatur of Republican presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush, democracy promotion was never universally supported on the right. Throughout the 1980s and onwards, the paleo-conservative faction (made up of writers like Patrick Buchanan and Samuel T. Francis) dismissed democracy promotion as idolatry and called for a return to the Old Right view that foreign policy should be about promoting national interests rather than abstract ideals.
In a 2012 column, Patrick Buchanan accused the neoconservatives of believing “America is not a normal nation with definable interests, but a creedal nation dedicated to democracy, equality and human rights.” These people have “converted to what Kristol called a ‘civic religion,’” he added. “And the mission of that faith is to advance the work begun in 1776, to make America—then the entire world—free, democratic and egalitarian.” Buchanan considered this rank utopianism, not conservatism.
More recently, Buchanan asked, “As for Russian trolling in our election, do we really have clean hands when it comes to meddling in elections and the internal politics of regimes we dislike?” He cited NED activities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. This moral equivalence is a bit too glib, since it fails to distinguish between intentionally destabilizing a democracy (as Russia is doing in the U.S. today, and as the U.S. did in Chile in 1973—with Buchanan’s support) and working to foster and improve democracies (as the NED does).
While the Post’s Rogin is right to see Trump as abandoning the tradition of Reagan, it’s also true that the president is returning to the hard-edged realpolitik of earlier Republican presidents like Herbert Hoover or Richard Nixon, who had little use for florid rhetoric about America as the pillar of global democracy. Nixon often mused about how many of the world’s cultures were incapable of democratic self-rule. “France, with all its sophistication, couldn’t handle democracy,” Nixon privately reflected while he was president. He felt the same way about Spain, Italy, and most of the Latin American countries. When Nixon supported a dictator, as he did in Chile by supporting the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, he did so not as a necessary evil but as the preferred policy.
If Trump does shift the Republican stance on democracy promotion, it’ll be a lasting and far-reaching foreign policy legacy. Starting in the 1980s, a series of democratic revolutions hit scores of countries in South America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Often, these revolutions were aided or hastened by a bipartisan American foreign policy. In recent years, democracy has begun to recede, with authoritarianism gaining power in nations like Russia, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and Egypt. Xi’s move to become China’s ruler for life “was the latest and arguably most significant sign of the world’s decisive tilt toward authoritarian governance, often built on the highly personalized exercise of power,” The New York Times reported.
This shift is likely to persist, with an assist from Trump. The fact that democracy is increasingly imperiled makes institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy more important. By undercutting it, and by his rhetorical support for autocrats, Trump is telling authoritarians and would-be strongmen that the U.S. won’t stand in their way. Political activists in those countries can longer count on America’s support. Even if Trump is replaced by a Democrat in 2020, the days when both parties were united in democracy promotion may not return, at least for a while, now that Trump has resurrected the Republican Party’s disdain for it.