Apr 29, 2024

“The Authoritarian Strongman Government Is on the Rise”

US democracy has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, and a return of Donald Trump to the White House cannot be ruled out. What would it mean for America and the world? An interview with Francis Fukuyama.

Bild: Porträt von Francis Fukuyama
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Professor Fukuyama, you published your famous book The End of History in 1992. In what ways has American democracy changed since then? 

There are a lot of things that have changed, the most important one is the degree of polarization. This began in the mid-1990s, when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time. It has been accelerating during the 30 years since then, and it has reached a crisis point.

This is not a symmetric polarization. There has been a shift of the left wing of the Democratic Party toward a more progressive position with the rise of identity politics. But by far, the biggest shift has been among the Republicans and the American right. They’ve shifted in a way that has led to a large rejection of what we understood to be American conservatism.

Back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, conservatism was about deregulation, low taxes, restraint of the state, and a strong internationalist position in which the United States supported democratic allies, maintained a robust military posture, and was heavily involved in international institutions.

In the last eight years that has been completely upended. Internationalism has been replaced by a return to isolationism.The Republican Party was isolationist up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and that trend in the party continued into the late 1940s. But it was defeated at that point, and for the next half-century it did not exist except as a fringe movement. Now it has come back in a big way. 
I think the libertarian attitude on the right, which wanted to minimize state involvement in the economy, has been reversed; today there is much more support for state intervention.

Finally, I think that identity politics has shifted over to the right as well where people like to see themselves as victims of some oppressive group on the outside. This was pioneered by progressives in recent decades, but it’s now a characteristic of most of the political spectrum. When you combine all those things, you have a substantial weakness in foreign policy because you cannot agree on what to do internationally and I think the manifestation of that is the refusal over many months to support Ukraine.

What does the decline of American democracy mean for the global order?

There are several components to that question. The one that I think Europeans are worried about the most is NATO and the American commitment to alliances. Everyone is aware of the statement that Donald Trump made, basically inviting Russia to attack NATO countries that didn't—according to him—pay their dues. There were also testimonies by people like John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, who said that, privately, Trump had vowed to withdraw from NATO entirely if he had been reelected in 2020. Reportedly, Trump when president also told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that the United States would not come to Europe’s aid.

But most importantly, we have to think about the future. A lot of people in Congress have been trying to fortify the commitment to NATO, saying that the US cannot withdraw from NATO without a formal vote in the Senate. The problem is that you don't have to formally withdraw from NATO to undermine its deterrent effect. All you have to do is make clear that you are not going to honor your Article 5 commitment under certain circumstances. Whatever deterrent effect it had on Russia is then not going to exist any longer. That is the greater danger right now, rather than a formal withdrawal. 

The other big issue has to do with soft power, because American democracy has been an inspiration to many struggling countries and human rights activists and pro-democracy groups all over the world. They wanted their countries to be like the United States, and when the US is not doing well, it’s much harder to argue that. I have personally seen this with my Chinese students. Twenty years ago, most of them would have said that they want China to be like the United States. Now, first of all, there are not as many of them around anymore. But the ones who are oftentimes express a preference for the Chinese system, which is a huge change. And it resonates around the world. The authoritarian strongman government is on the rise and there is a lot of imitation.

How can Europe prepare for a possible return of Trump to the White House?

The most obvious way is by increasing its defense spending. If the worst happens, you will be on your own. Now you have an energized Russia that has been talking very clearly about an agenda beyond Ukraine. Estonia, Moldova, Georgia, and a lot of countries on the EU periphery are going to be the next targets if Russia succeeds in somehow defeating Ukraine. If Europe is going to defend itself, it will have to spend more money on its defense and create mechanisms for coordination in the absence of traditional American leadership that we’ve had since the beginning of the Cold War. 

But I think you are going to have to do that even if the United States reelects Joe Biden as president and stays in NATO. The Ukraine war has demonstrated a real weakness, both in North America and in Europe, because nobody thought for the last 30 years that war was possible. Therefore, the defense industrial base has been reduced. The ability simply to manufacture enough artillery shells is not there. Regardless of what happens in the election, I think all of us need to do a little bit better. 

How would a second Trump presidency change the idea of America as “the leader of the free world”?

You’re going to need another poll of leadership. In Europe, that’s a problem because there’s a collective action problem in terms of who wants to take the leading position. We saw an economic version of this during the euro crisis where Germany would normally be in a leading position to guide Europe. But for historical reasons, Germans have shied away from that. Significant disagreements among Europeans are visible, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron’s remark about possibly intervening in Ukraine which German Chancellor Olaf Scholz immediately rejected. These indications of disagreements are likely to continue. In my opinion, it is up to Germany to play a stronger leadership role in Europe because there is not much of an alternative, especially now that the United Kingdom is out of the EU.

According to the 2023 Chicago Council Survey, support for active US engagement in world affairs is at the lowest level since 1974. Why have Americans grown tired of playing the role the “world’s policeman”?

The obvious reasons are Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts were badly managed. The Iraq invasion itself was a big mistake. I think a lot of people got tired of these seemingly endless interventions and then applied that to the rest of the world. However, American opinions on foreign policy are not driven from the grassroots, they are subject to leadership. Most Americans do not pay any attention to foreign policy and do not have very strong opinions about it. You referred to 1974 and the low level of support for internationalism back then. That was just after the US withdrawal from Vietnam—another overseas conflict that undermined American domestic support for internationalism. But then Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and he took a very strong internationalist position. He rebuilt the US military and everybody loved it.

I think that public opinion on foreign policy and security issues is subject to what leaders say and how they shape public opinion. In 1980 the leader of the Republican Party was an internationalist. Now the Republican Party has a leader who is anti-internationalist. If it had turned out differently, I do not think that grassroots opinion would have made all that much difference.

Former US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley recently said that Americans are tired of “never-ending wars,” though. Isn’t there some correlation between the kind of US foreign policy that has been pursued and the attitude of the American voters?

I think that nobody, myself included, is in favor of endless intervention in situations that we do not really understand and really cannot control. As I said, the Iraq invasion was a big mistake, and you'll find relatively few Americans continuing to defend that. I think the way we have handled Afghanistan was also a mistake in terms of the way we set our objectives.

However, it’s not a black-and-white choice between isolationism and intervention everywhere. I think an internationalist policy that is more realistic and sensible about where to exercise power is needed. The big mistake that the administration of George W. Bush made was to vastly overestimate how military power could be used to shape political events. I hope that we’re not going to make a similar mistake again, but the support for Ukraine does not fall in that category.

A permanent end to US assistance for Ukraine would certainly send a strong signal. What else could we expect from a second Trump presidency?

There is a debate going on about what a second Trump presidency would look like. Many people, including a lot of Republican voters, when asked by a pollster, how they’re going to vote say they’re willing to vote for Donald Trump because they think that the first term was not as bad as people were fearing and they expect a second term to be a repeat of the first term. People forget about the COVID-19 pandemic and incorrectly remember that the economy was good.

The real problem is that the second term is not likely to be a repeat of the first term. In the first term, Trump did not expect to be president. He did not come in with a whole range of advisers who could fill cabinet posts and manage the US government. He was reliant on the establishment Republican Party and many of his early cabinet picks were people that any Republican president would have chosen—H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, etc. 

During Trump’s presidency, 44 cabinet ministers either resigned or were pushed out. That was the result of Trump’s realization that these establishment Republicans were not loyal to him necessarily. By the end of his term, he had gotten rid of all the people who had the professional experience and ability to manage these positions. He had replaced them with flunkies, basically, who would do his bidding. For instance Mark Esper, who had been the secretary of defense, was horrified by Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election result. So he was forced to resign and replaced by Christopher Miller with Kash Patel as chief of staff, who has no background in defense. He is simply somebody that Trump thought would be loyal to him. 

That gives you an idea of who is going to staff a second Trump administration. The Heritage Foundation recognizes that the lack of loyal people hindered the first Trump administration, so they are preparing for a second Trump administration with their Project 2025. They want to be able to fire large numbers of civil servants and replace them with people they have chosen in advance. They will choose according to loyalty, not competence. The agencies that will be the most directly affected are the ones dealing with national security—the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the State Department. These are going to be early targets. 

Once that shift in personnel is done, it’s going to be much easier for Trump to do the things he wants to do. He will not be restrained in the way that he was in the first administration. In my opinion, a second Trump administration will not be anything like the first one. It will be a lot worse. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of American voters who are not persuaded of that. 

Just to give you one more example of what could happen: Trump has vowed to make sure that if he is reelected, he is going to have an attorney general who will prosecute what he calls the “Biden crime family.” The Republicans in the House have been trying to work up evidence to impeach Biden. There is no evidence, but they tried to manufacture it, and that effort has completely fallen through. If Trump is reelected, I think he will appoint prosecutors who do not care about evidence. They will simply go after Biden. If you think about the number of developing countries in which the justice system has been weaponized against political opponents and the United States ends up doing something like this, this is going to be a horrible precedent for countries all over the world.

Why do “Trumpism” and the idea of autocracy resonate with US citizens in the first place?

Part of the answer what we discussed at the beginning: the changes of American democracy over the last few years. One of the things that’s also changed is the information environment. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that this is fundamental. With the rise of the Internet and social media, people live in completely different information spaces where they believe completely different sets of facts. So, if you look at the poll data, the majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen. If you think that Biden committed this massive fraud and overturned a legitimate election, you’re going to be very angry and you are going to want to go after the people who you think are responsible for this. It is based on a complete lie but at this point, so many Americans have been persuaded that this is the case. This is why they think they’re just defending the rule of law and the constitution. And if you start from this different factual basis, then that is the logical outcome. 

Trump has played with the idea of being a dictator, if only “for a day.” He admires strongmen all around the world who are in power for life. All these ideas sound un-American. Why do they not put voters off?

I would explain that in a couple of different ways. A lot of people simply do not take that stuff seriously. When Trump says he wants to be a dictator on day one, a lot of voters and especially a lot of Republicans will say: “Well, that’s just Trump talking. You should not take him seriously, he’s just making a joke.” This is a psychological issue. If you want to believe something strongly enough you will come up with arguments to explain why the world is the way you want it to be, rather than the way it is. 

I believe that you cannot explain American politics or fights over policy in conventional terms. You need to resort to these kinds of psychological explanations. Now, all that being said, I do think some policy issues are driving this because Biden is turning out to be an extremely weak candidate. The age issue is something that a lot of people feel disqualifies him from being president. There are also some policy areas where he has not performed well. The most important one is the southern border where the number of people seeking refugee status has increased dramatically. He made arguments for why he cannot act, which I think are largely valid, but it is making people upset. On the other side, the fundamental problem is that the Democrats could have chosen a different candidate. Biden could have decided to step down after four years, but that simply did not happen. Now we are stuck with the current situation.

Do you think there is a case for liberal democracy to be reformed to become more resilient to the threat of authoritarianism?

There are always institutional fixes. Part of the problem is the presidential system, coupled with the first-past-the-post voting system in the United States, both of which are winner-take-all institutions. Both contributed strongly to the degree of polarization in the United States. If we had a British-style parliamentary system and the prime minister looked weak, the ruling party could simply decide to replace that leader with somebody else. British Conservatives have done this on a couple of occasions in the past, but you cannot do that in the American system. If we had either proportional representation or rank-choice voting, it would make voting for third parties much easier. It would take some of the pressure off these hotly contested primaries where you have a field of 13 candidates and somebody who gets 30 percent of the vote ends up winner. There are a lot of things that we could do institutionally that would make American democracy more resilient. But unfortunately, the current polarization means we are not going to do any of these big institutional reforms because we are not going to agree on what they should be. 

At a rally in Ohio in March, Trump said there will not be another election in the country if he does not win the elections. How realistic are civil war scenarios in the US?

I don’t think a civil war scenario is likely because, unlike the situation with the actual civil war, there’s no geographical separation of the red and blue sides. Even in red states, you know, like Wyoming, Montana, or Alabama the big cities are all controlled by Democrats. I do not see who would be shooting at whom when these populations are as intermixed as they are. But the possibility for more violence is certainly there. If you have a contested election and disagreements over vote counting, you’ve got a lot of heavily armed people who are angry. They’re all primed to try to take things into their own hands. That kind of violence is very possible.

What makes you optimistic that American bipartisanship can eventually be revitalized in the future? 

I must say at the moment, I’m not terribly optimistic about anything. And given the polls that have come out lately, the election now has kicked off. Democrats have a lot more money as Donald Trump is still busy paying his legal bills for all of the cases that he has lost. At the moment, the voters that are polled are very low-information voters. They haven’t been following things very closely. They have these vague memories of the last Trump administration, but they certainly haven’t followed the indictments, the criminal charges. They haven’t been exposed to some of the crazy outrageous things that Trump said, and I think that once they get deep into the campaign, all of that stuff is going to come out. 

The American election is not a popular contest. It is going to depend on the outcomes of about six swing states and it is a handful of voters in those swing states who will determine who is the next president. A lot of those voters are persuadable, they’re not so deeply partisan that nothing will ever change their point of view. The numbers are getting smaller and smaller but I think there’s some hope in that, so I think that’s really what we need to watch in the coming months. 

One last thing to say is that there has been all of this talk about Biden’s age and forgetfulness. I think that Trump has been deteriorating mentally in a different way that potentially could be more important. He continues to just talk incoherently. I’ve heard some neurologists say that’s not a function of age. That’s something deeper, but we’ll have to see whether that is true or not. It’s kind of sad that American politics is going to depend on which candidate deteriorates faster. But that’s where we are right now.

The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki, Henning Hoff, Tim Hofmann, Uta Kuhlmann, Hannah Lettl, and Joachim Staron. It took place in late March, before the US Congress approved a military aid package for Ukraine worth $61 billion after months of delay by Trump-inspired House Republicans.

Francis Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. His latest book Liberalism and Its Discontent was published in 2022.