Sunday, April 19, 2020

Under Trump, USA Not So Free, Not So Brave

      Someday soon perhaps, Americans will gather in ballparks around the country and sing, once again, in celebration of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” But three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, America is not so free and not so brave, according to the latest downbeat report on freedom in the world from the respected democracy watchdog, Freedom House.
      The United States scores somewhat lower on freedom in 2020 than it did when Donald Trump took office in 2017 with his promise to make America great again, according to Freedom House. Trump has undermined “democratic norms and standards within the United States,” the report states, and in the process also “undermine[d] the country’s ability to persuade other governments to defend core human rights and freedoms . . . .”
      Freedom House scores 195 countries and 15 territories around the world on political and civil liberties with a maximum score of 100. Under Trump, the United States has slipped from 90, a low A grade, to 86, a mid-range B. The report provides an uncomfortable refutation of American exceptionalism by listing 50 countries with higher grades, including virtually all of Western Europe and even some former Soviet bloc countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Lithuania.
      The report cites as domestic setbacks for U.S. democracy such Trumpian practices as “pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption,” along with “fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy.” The impact of Trump’s attacks on the media was also highlighted this week [April 16] in a report by the Committee for Protection of Journalists that underscored the resulting loss of public confidence in the media as a particular danger “in the midst of a public health emergency.”
      Overall, the Freedom House report paints a grim picture of declines in freedom and democracy for the fourteenth consecutive year. The number of countries with declining grades has exceeded the number of countries with gains ever since 2006: most recently, 64 countries with declines in 2019 and 37 with gains. The report, titled “Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” blames that trend in part on the United States’ retreat under Trump from its traditional role of leading the free world by inspiring and supporting democracy worldwide.
      The Trump administration “has failed to exhibit consistent commitment to a foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and human rights,” the report states bluntly. Trump has been “outspoken in denouncing authoritarian abuses by U.S. adversaries,” such as Venezuela and Iran, the report acknowledges. But he has “excused” violations by “traditional security partners, such as Turkey and Egypt,” and “has also given a pass to tyrannical leaders whom he hopes to woo diplomatically,” including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
      Trump’s cozy relationship with autocrats was on display again last week [April 14] as he assured two of the world’s major oil suppliers, Russia and Saudi Arabia, that the United States would limit oil production in tandem with the two petrostates to help maintain oil prices. In effect, as critics noted, U.S. consumers will be paying higher prices for gasoline to help support two autocracies as well as the Republican-oriented domestic oil and gas industry.
      Pluralism and democracy are “under assault,” Freedom House reports, not only from dictators but also from popularly elected leaders, including the Hindu nationalist prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, India’s Narendra Modi. The report links Trump and Modi together as elected leaders “increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”
      Overall, Freedom House counts 83 countries as free along with 49 classified as partly free and 63 countries described as not free. With those classifications, Freedom House calculates that 39 percent of the world’s 7.7 billion people live in freedom and another 25 percent in partial freedom, with more than one-third of the world’s population in “not free” countries or territories.
      The decline before Trump’s famous escalator ride to start his path to the White House, but his authoritarian tendencies have made the decade-long anti-democratic pandemic that much worse. To reverse the decline, the report lists several recommendations for “established democracies.” Without singling out the United States, the recommendations seem especially global democracy began long before Trump rode down the Trump Tower applicable to Trump, even if he has less than a year to try to counteract the ill effects of his administration’s policies so far.
      The report calls for respecting human ri and democracy at home after making explicit the intuitive assumption that attacks on democratic institutions, including the press, the judiciary, and anticorruption agencies, “undermine faith in democracy around the world.” Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press and the judiciary have stung with only limited impact, but his  dismissals of several inspectors general over the past few weeks pose a real and present danger to the watchdog roles that Congress envisioned in creating those offices.
      The report also calls for increased support for and attention to civic education about democratic principles. Far from helping in that regard, Trump is himself a source of gross misinformation, as in his claim for “total authority” over the states during the public health emergency and his earlier claim of presidential power to do “whatever I want to do as president.” Even some Trump apologists have spoken out against these constitutional misstatements, but his political base may be misled nevertheless.

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