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Dark Days

I Never Thought I’d Live to See Democracy Die. But Now I Wonder.

Chaos and corruption are on the rise, the perfect breeding ground for authoritarians to claim control.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

The situation in Israel precipitated by the vicious Hamas attacks over the weekend is ghastly on its own terms. But it’s not just a potential nightmare for Israel and for the Palestinian people. It could have ramifications around the world, including here in the United States. In sum: It’s going to bring chaos—chaos and instability. And chaos and instability are enemies of democracy. We know who benefits from chaos and instability—abroad, and here at home.

Everyone on my TV, Sunday morning as I write this, is saying this is likely to be a long war. “It could last for many months, if not more than that,” said Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution on MSNBC. “I think this is going to be a very long and bloody haul.” And everyone thinks it will spread. Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz (which is paywalled), put it like this: “The nightmare scenario unfolding in Gaza may not stop there. It’s likely that things will spread to some other arenas.… Was this move coordinated with Hezbollah and Iran? Is Hezbollah waiting for Israel to use up a large part of its Iron Dome interceptor missiles and then join the fray?”

That describes a potential holy war of the kind Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Cabinet will be zealous in prosecuting. It’s terrifying to think of what months of war between Israel and (in essence) Iran will look like. It could end in a nuclear exchange (Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iran has enough enriched uranium to build about eight).

But we don’t have to go that theoretical to see the awful potential consequences of this conflict around the world and in the U.S. Chaos and war embolden dictators. Their argument—that the world is a dark Hobbesian jungle where conciliation is a fool’s errand, and the only solution is for “our people” to rally around soil and blood and repel the enemy—is confirmed by chaos and war. They convince regular people, who always pay the real price of chaos and terror, to believe their propaganda. The strongman reigns. Everyone ends up worse off than they were before—save for the corrupt autocrats who warped the world in the first place.

Efforts at peace—and generally speaking, peace is what democracies both genuinely pursue and desire—are met with contempt. Hamas’s apparent motivation in starting this war is to try to halt the talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia that the Biden administration has been facilitating.

Imagine that, as seems likely, those efforts are arrested. What will happen? I don’t know the whole picture, but it’s dead certain that Donald Trump will say: “You see, I brokered peace between Israel and some gulf states. And look at Sleepy, Crooked Joe. The whole region’s a disaster again, and it’s all his fault.”

Naturally, it is not all Biden’s fault. Trump’s Abraham Accords were one of the few good things his administration accomplished. But Saudi Arabia is a much bigger boulder to push up the hill than Bahrain, and some real progress was apparently being made in the talks. Now that process is probably in tatters. Many will believe Trump’s assessment, because it sounds simple and seductive.

I don’t know how much thought Hamas’s leaders gave to domestic U.S. politics before they launched this offensive. But I bet they gave the topic some consideration. They are corrupt, destructive, violent people, and like all corrupt, destructive, violent people around the world, they presumably want Trump back in the White House. This is partly because he’s a corrupt, destructive, violent kindred spirit. And it’s partly because they know, as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin know, that Trump will bring more chaos and instability—and chaos and instability, particular in the U.S., are exactly what they want.

And speaking of Putin: Isn’t he smiling over this too? As Tom Friedman wrote Sunday, Ukraine may now find itself competing with Israel for U.S. military aid—again, possibly for months. So a prolonged war in the Middle East may help cost Ukraine its independence. And the need to privilege Israel over Ukraine is the perfect excuse for House Republicans to vote against Ukraine aid.

There are grim signs practically everywhere one looks. Next Sunday, the Polish elections will determine whether the right-wing Law and Justice Party wins an unprecedented third term. If it does—and the party leads in the polls, although somewhat narrowly—some observers think Poland becomes another Hungary (it’s already part of the way down that road). More instability. Today in Europe in general, The Guardian recently reported, 32 percent of voters are casting their votes for anti-establishment parties, up from 20 percent in the 2000s and 12 percent in the 1990s. The vast majority of that increased vote share is going to parties of the far right.

And everything is prelude, of course, to November 5, 2024, in the United States. If Trump wins that election (or worse, narrowly loses and steals it), we’ll have chaos and instability like the world hasn’t seen since the 1940s. We know what Trump will do here at home, because he’s been telling us. He’ll destroy the executive branch, he’ll take whatever steps he can to shut down opposition media and cripple the Democratic Party, and he and the Republicans, if they have full control of the government, will pass immigration laws that will make 1924’s Johnson-Reed bill look generous. Civil liberties of immigrants and LGBTQ people will be crushed. And come 2028, we’ll either have a presidential election that the Republican Party has ensured it cannot lose, or—my guess—we won’t have an election at all.

And the impact around the world of a second Trump administration? Obviously, the end of NATO will be one early result. More generally, the United States of America will become a global partner of Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and even North Korea. Think about that. Oh, and remember this too. Back in 2016, Trump was getting a briefing from a foreign policy adviser and asked—three times—why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons.

I’m not saying all this will emanate from what happens in Israel. I am saying this: This country, and the world, are in a clear danger zone. In such a context, everything that happens anywhere in the world, especially in such a closely watched flashpoint, has the potential to increase the chaos and instability that turns people toward, and invariably helps, authoritarian propagandists.

Ten years ago, if you’d said to me that global democracy could all but perish in my lifetime, I’d have looked at you like you had three eyes. Today, I’m not sure I could disagree with you. Democracy won’t completely disappear. And millions of us will fight like hell for it. But the mere fact that so many millions of people across the country and the planet are voting against it—using the chief privilege and tool of democracy, the vote, to destroy it—is staggering.

I grew up thinking democracy was the culmination of human social organization, and that our job was just to perfect it. Now we’re learning it may have been a phase.