It’s too late. Even if Hillary Clinton beats him in November, even if the Republican Party is wiped out in the polls, Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican presidential candidate has already dealt an enormous blow to the reputation of the American political system, and indeed to the reputation of democracy itself. There will be many consequences to the Trump nomination, both in the United States and abroad. But here is one to start with: The vulgar, vicious, dirty Clinton v. Trump campaign that will play out over the next six months will further shore up the positions of dictators and autocrats around the world.
I realize that this sounds paradoxical: After all, Trump has been the beneficiary of democracy. If American politics were rigged by wealthy donors, as they are often said to be, then Jeb Bush would be the candidate, not Trump. If omnipotent party leaders were secretly choosing the candidates against the public’s wishes, then Trump would not be the Republican candidate either.
But Trump’s rise nevertheless fits very well into Chinese, Russian and other narratives about the benefits of authoritarianism. The leaders of those countries will certainly make use of his candidacy to shore up their own positions — indeed they already are. The Chinese have long argued, in defiance of both internal and external critics, that their undemocratic system produces more-qualified leaders and reduces the threat of instability. Chinese state media has frequently linked democracy with chaos and violence. A writer for Xinhua, the state news agency, smugly argued a few weeks ago that Trump’s candidacy proves the media right: “Trump, a political outsider with brash personality and multiple social status including wealthy real estate mogul, beauty contest boss and gambling house giant, has gained popularity, while those career politicians with rich political experience and robust style are losing ground.” A Chinese democracy activist told the Guardian that the regime would be “relishing this moment,” because Trump’s candidacy proves exactly what it has been saying all along: Democracy is too risky for China because it unleashes violent emotions.
In Russia, the argument against democracy has often had a slightly different tone. The regime long ago gave up trying to justify itself ideologically, resorting instead to cynicism about other political systems. Over and over again, the Russian public has been told that democracy is no different from dictatorship. The argument goes something like this: “We have oligarchs, they have oligarchs; our politics are really about money, and so are theirs; American talk of ideas and ideals, tolerance and democracy — that’s all fake.” Already, the triumph of Trump is being used to validate this argument. Trump’s open use of racist emotions to rally crowds proves the point; so do his shady business practices and his con-man persona. As a political ally of the Russian president, said recently, approvingly, Trump is “a businessman and he looks at everything like another deal.” Which is, of course, how Vladimir Putin looks at politics, too.
But this is only the beginning: Echoes of these arguments will also appear in Iran, Venezuela, Turkey and everywhere else that repressive politics are hailed as superior to liberal democracy. Perhaps they will also have appeal in a few places, such as Brazil, where nostalgia for an authoritarian past is growing.
In a narrow sense, this is nothing new: Anything that makes the United States look bad has always been used to make authoritarians look good. But in the past, the U.S. political system itself was hard to argue against. The spectacle of a vast nation peacefully voting to change its leader always produced grudging respect; even our worst elections somehow produced people who had coherent worldviews and political experience.
Now that the system has thrown up a farcical demagogue with no qualifications whatsoever, it suddenly looks not just tarnished but also ridiculous. And this is just the beginning: The “Trump effect” will ricochet around the world, in ways we can’t yet imagine, for years to come.