THE 21st century, like the one that came before it, has seen the emergence of a fateful struggle over the nature of human governance. Regimes founded on democracy and human rights, which 25 years ago appeared to have triumphed, now face a grave challenge from a resurgent authoritarianism, which employs new technologies to refashion the tyranny that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union could not sustain. At stake is not only which nations will dominate global affairs, but also whether individual freedoms — of expression, of assembly, of religious faith — will survive.
A 21st-century victory for democracy, like those that came in World War II and the Cold War, is inconceivable without the leadership of the United States. America must prevail in the race to develop new technologies, rally fellow democracies to counter authoritarian aggression, and reform capitalism and democracy itself to serve a new age. But President Trump cannot deliver that leadership. On the contrary, over the past three years he has done as much as any global actor to advance the cause of authoritarianism and undermine the free world.
Mr. Trump’s most conspicuous aid to tyranny has been his relentless support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who aided Mr. Trump’s 2016 election and whose foreign policy is laser-focused on weakening the United States and dividing it from other democracies in the NATO alliance. Mr. Trump has provided invaluable support for this cause, most recently by ordering a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. While he has not hesitated to publicly trash NATO and the leaders of Germany, Canada and Britain, Mr. Trump has never uttered a word of criticism of Mr. Putin, even after receiving U.S. intelligence reports indicating that Moscow paid bounties to the Afghan Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers.
Until recently, Mr. Trump offered similar obeisance to Chinese ruler Xi Jinping, calling him a “brilliant leader” and “a great man.” Mr. Trump encouraged Mr. Xi’s cultural genocide against the Uighur population of the Xinjiang region. That campaign has pioneered Beijing’s technologies of comprehensive surveillance and other AI-aided repression — tools that are central to the new model of authoritarianism it is promoting to the rest of the world. Mr. Trump also promised Mr. Xi he would remain silent on the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy movement while negotiating trade concessions. The administration’s belated reversals on those issues, tied to Mr. Trump’s attempt to shift blame for the more than 177,000 U.S. covid-19 deaths, has predictably altered neither China’s behavior nor the conclusion among many Asians that the United States can no longer be counted on to defend democratic values or resist Chinese aggression.
The Cold War was a grueling conflict waged country by country, often in the far reaches of the developing world. Barring the outbreak of a direct military conflict between the United States and China, the 21st-century counterpart is likely to be similar. China and Russia will peddle their authoritarian solutions while the democracies press for free speech and free elections. That competition is already well underway — and again, Mr. Trump has a record of backing the wrong side.
Aspiring strongmen who are dismantling democratic institutions in their countries have been embraced by Mr. Trump and welcomed to the White House, sometimes rupturing bans imposed by his predecessors. This sordid parade has featured Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Prayut Chan-ocha of Thailand, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Andrzej Duda of Poland; the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte turned down Mr. Trump’s invitation. At the same time, Mr. Trump has shunned democratic leaders attempting to resist the Russians or Chinese — most notably Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has never received a White House invitation after resisting Mr. Trump’s demand for a politicized investigation of Joe Biden. This month, Mr. Trump has done nothing to help the Belarus democratic movement seeking to overthrow the longtime dictator of a nation Mr. Putin seeks to dominate.
The democratic leaders of South Korea and Japan, the two most important U.S. allies in East Asia, have been whipsawed by Mr. Trump’s insistence on sweeping trade concessions and vast increases in subsidies for U.S. bases on their territories. They watched with dismay as Mr. Trump meanwhile proclaimed his “love” for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a Chinese client, and scaled back U.S. military exercises with South Korea.
Mr. Trump has campaigned for democracy only in nations where he has other political interests, such as Venezuela, whose Cuba-allied regime is despised by many Florida voters. Even there his advocacy has been feckless. After an attempted uprising by a U.S.-backed opposition leader failed last year, Mr. Trump wrote him off, and he has recently expressed interest in meeting dictator Nicolás Maduro.
For all this, the greatest damage Mr. Trump has done to the cause of democracy has come at home. His assaults on the U.S. media and courts, attempts to politicize Justice Department investigations, and bald efforts to manipulate voting in November’s election threaten to degrade what has been the world’s strongest democracy while offering a model for budding authoritarians around the world. His disregard for science and restrictions on immigration have weakened the chances that the United States will win the race to develop new technologies. His incessant lying has helped to create a political culture in which wild conspiracy theories flourish and there is no consensus on basic facts, making informed legislative debate and compromise all but impossible.
Though damaged, U.S. democracy and the global cause of freedom so far have survived Mr. Trump’s term in office, in large part because they have the determined support of millions of citizens. Yet there should be no question that in a second Trump term, they would suffer grievous and perhaps irreversible harm. If the 21st century is to be a time in which human societies are grounded in individual freedoms, rather than dominated by an all-powerful state, Mr. Trump must be defeated.
Watch Opinions videos: