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It Can Get So Much Worse

Democracy, human rights, and rule of law are losing globally. But if Trump wins reelection, the game may be up.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Back in the summer of 2016, an old ex-colleague and editor at Esquire reached out with an invitation for me to participate in covering what, then, was still a novel angle on the rise of Donald Trump: his political counterparts in other countries. I liked the idea of spotlighting the globe’s other power-hungry, arch-right demagogues. As a participant in the Panama Papers investigation that spring and a reporter on the periphery of the Trump-Russia story that summer, I’d begun to get a feel for the underworld of ideologues, corrupt governments, and black markets that propped many of these scapegoating stooges and their handlers. Michael Idov, the Soviet-born writer, had lived in that underworld. And so we collaborated on a package that would introduce readers on a morning commute to the world’s Putins, yes, but also its Modis, Dutertes, and Orbans.

Dubbed “The Trump Bump,” the package was set to print after he lost the election, to remind readers that while Trump might have been a brief, clownish eruption on the American body politic’s rump, he belonged to—and fed—an ominous global pattern. “These regressions have followed a remarkably similar path from country to country,” Idov wrote in his introductory essay. “And by the time you realize what it has cost you, it is too late.”

We filed by Halloween. The morning of November 9, after the U.S. election was called for Trump, I emailed my friend, the piece’s editor. “Hate to ask, but what will this do to the piece?”

“Holy hell, this is dark,” he replied, three hours later. “We’re still figuring out how to best proceed with the results from a big-picture perspective. That said, I’d argue this package is even more important today than it was yesterday.”

We reworked our copy; we published the package in February 2017. Three years later, that list of potentates and aspiring populists now reads like a Trump-led Coalition of the Killing, and its thesis—that we are already neck-deep in a global age of conspicuously unenlightened despotism—is now conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom, in turn, has been largely converted into complacency. Consider the following events from the past two weeks.

Two Tuesdays ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who for decades has branded himself as an effective ethnic cleanser of Muslim peoples in Hindu-controlled lands, filled a cricket stadium with 110,000 screaming fans to praise the visiting American president with a spectacular rally. “Two dynamic personalities, one momentous occasion,” the propagandistic street billboards read. As the nationalist padrinos fêted each other, Modi’s forces topped their long, brutal campaign of cleansing in Kashmir with open anti-Muslim pogroms in the streets of Delhi.

On Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu—whom we didn’t include on the Esquire list but should have—emerged from the latest in his lifelong series of engineered political crises with a near-majority in the Knesset, likely empowering him to remain the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. The election result came in spite of leaked audio of a disgraced senior aide explaining that “hate is what unites” Netanyahu’s coalition and in spite of Netanyahu’s own criminal indictments for fraud and bribery, charges that he must answer in court later this month. Should he manage to sidestep the charges, his supporters have already vowed to dismantle the country’s remaining judicial checks against politicians. Bibi, the Philadelphia–reared savior of the desert sabra, has emerged after 14 years in power as the defender of the faith, if you can equate the faith with a particular authoritarian ethnostate apparatus (which Jews worldwide are increasingly told they must, if they don’t want to be tarred as anti-Semitic).

In central Europe, Hungarian President Viktor Orban, a former Communist who now leads an “anti-socialist” right-wing vanguard, used the specter of coronavirus contagion as an excuse to cut off migrants from seeking asylum in the nation. “We observe a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants,” Orban’s national security adviser announced on Sunday, despite the fact that there have been no documented instances of coronavirus in Hungary. It’s par for the course for Orban, a stalwart ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who vowed in 2014 to “abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society.” On Wednesday, as reports emerged of Greek border forces and coast guard patrol boats shooting at Turkish migrants in two separate incidents, Orban offered his assistance to Greece’s government to repel the asylum-seekers. “We must do something about (them),” he told reporters at a news conference.

As these three U.S. allies slipped a little further down the fascist spiral, Trump spent his time largely downplaying an international health crisis, putting noted epidemiology expert Mike Pence in charge of stovepiping information about the coronavirus outbreak. But on Wednesday, Trump took time out of his busy schedule of dispensing politically motivated pandemic misinformation and touting his rapport with the Taliban’s top mullah to return to his favorite pastime: demanding that the Department of Justice act as his crime family’s consigliere.

The target of Trump’s message was his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose Netanyahu-esque near-majority in Tuesday night’s Republican Alabama Senate primary would force him into a runoff against Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn football coach, to regain his old Senate seat. “This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt,” Trump gloated on Twitter. “Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!”

In the America we believe to exist, such extemporaneous public utterances would forever tar a presidency; the law, imperfect though it may be, would still apply. But this is not that America; this is no longer even a presidency. Sessions’s entire candidacy rests on his closeness to Trump. “Others talk big about Trump, hoping to get your vote,” he announced in one of his election-week ads. “But talk is cheap. I’ve been with him from the start.” Tuberville senses a chance to scoop up a turnover. “God sent us Donald Trump because God knew we were in trouble,” he says while driving a truck in a campaign ad that highlights his own on-field temper. The path to Washington runs through the indispensable man’s fragile ego.

“This is not normal,” the early #Resistance hashtag told us. Maybe not, but it’s being rapidly normed. It’s a hope of many Americans—many of whom, as we saw in the wake of Super Tuesday, disagree virulently about the path forward—that this state can be reversed by defeating Trump at the polls in November. Whoever wins, and however fair the victory may be, I remain skeptical: The right-wing project coalesced long ago, and its metastasis has been rapid. The world’s Netanyahus are becoming synonymous with their nations’ laws; its Modis are bludgeoning their populaces into homogeneity; worldwide, migrants fleeing violence and privation are being used as political advertisements—and, in some cases, as literal gun fodder—for xenophobic forces.

Flushing Trump from the White House won’t be sufficient to halt all that, regardless of who might replace him, but the alternative is increasingly clear. Whatever a second Trump term might mean for the American project, it would confirm the worst instincts of the world’s authoritarians, and the ethnonationalist sham-democracy industry will spread further across the world than it ever has before. For all the conventional wisdom, no one is really talking about what that might look like. I hope it’s not too late to do so.