The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When I moved to the U.S., I thought it could withstand Trump’s assaults. I was wrong.

Roger Stone arrives at federal court in Washington on Nov. 7, 2019. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Justice Malala is a political commentator and author living in Los Angeles.

Two years ago, my partner and I packed up our house in South Africa and hauled our reluctant teenage daughters across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in the United States. Our friends laughed at us.

I had spent the previous 10 years excoriating the buffoonish then-president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, as he systematically destroyed the country’s institutions of accountability; drained the public service of competent leaders and replaced them with yes-men; laid waste to the economy and outsourced the country’s running to his family’s benefactors. It was a ruthless project to capture the state and bend it to one man’s will. I titled my book chronicling Zuma’s betrayal of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, “We Have Now Begun Our Descent.”

Our friends laughed because they believed the move to the United States was akin to jumping from the frying pan of one buffoon into the fire of another. At the time, many of us from what President Trump has labeled “s---hole countries” thought he was an aberration, a bad joke. We guffawed as he insulted, complained and whined about everything and everyone. I argued then that the institutions of accountability in the United States could withstand assaults from the likes of Trump.

I was wrong. With the breathtaking decision to commute the prison sentence of his longtime adviser, Roger Stone, and then insist that the nation’s response to the coronavirus is under control, before admitting that it wasn’t, Trump has demonstrated that it is possible to hollow out and manipulate even the institutions of the United States to serve one individual’s personal interests. It is chilling not just for America but also for democrats in dangerous places across the globe.

Expect the worst of the world’s autocrats to follow suit with similar outrages or to be emboldened to continue on the nefarious paths they are already on.

When Trump won the presidency in 2016, Zuma had already been president of South Africa for seven years. Zuma had ascended to power with 783 counts of fraud and corruption hanging over him. A compromised attorney-general’s office controversially dropped all charges against him — a decision that was later overturned by the courts. Tax authorities investigating his friends’ filings were fired; key crime-fighting agencies (one of which, the Scorpions, was modelled on the FBI) were disbanded. The media was threatened with draconian laws.

Sound familiar? In Washington, the executive branch is made up of yes-men. The Senate says ‘yes, Mr. President’ all the time and, as for the judiciary, the Stone commutation spits on it. The United States is being bent to one man’s advantage.

This matters for the American people. Your house is on fire. But it matters even more for the idea of America.

I grew up on America’s greatest exports. The idea of America — equality before the law, liberty, free speech, freedom of religion, due process of law, freedom of assembly and a state machinery that upholds these values — was drilled into me (and many of us in the developing world) as a child. I grew up in a squalid township in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s reading everything from “Shane” to Marvel comics through to democratic principles that made their way into the South African Constitution when Nelson Mandela finally ascended to power in 1994. I never thought I would find myself writing that the United States is a country whose foundational values are in peril — and whose backward slide imperils democracies everywhere.

For activists in fragile democracies, the practical result of the systematic destruction of the idea of America is that this country stands with the autocrats. Trump’s response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi government hands was to explain that the Saudis have cooperated with him on managing the price of oil. So, Riyadh gets a license to kill?

When the United States fails to hold the line on its own values, then the battle is lost in fragile states overseas that look to America for bold leadership. Right now, Maria Ressa, the crusading journalist from the Philippines who faces jail time from strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte, can expect no support from the United States. This is because Duterte’s playbook is plucked straight from the current White House where Trump routinely labels the media “the enemy of the people.” Duterte calls them “sons of bitches” who are “not exempted from assassination.” The same goes for journalists and democracy activists everywhere from Brazil to Russia to Zimbabwe.

Trump’s numerous egregious actions are a boon to autocrats everywhere. The light of democracy dies across the globe when the United States is diminished by its own leader.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence is an unforgivable betrayal of his office

Ruth Marcus: Trump’s agents are sweeping peaceful citizens off the streets. This is not America.

Max Boot: The unraveling of the rule of law under Trump is picking up speed

Greg Sargent: Trump’s authoritarian crackdown is so bad that even some in the GOP are blasting it

David Ignatius: Trump’s weak attempt to outsource strongman rule to the military