The Soft Whimper of Democracy

After two weeks in office it is clear: Donald Trump has started to turn American democracy into a dictatorship. When will the point of no return be reached?

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot

Donald Trump has started to turn American democracy into a dictatorship. We know the procedure from other countries: Hungary, Turkey, Russia. And now the United States. The process is insidious.

Democracy dies quietly, it doesn’t make a noise. A famous poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” ends with the famous lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” It is our world the poem is talking about. It is our democracy that is ending not with a bang but a whimper.

The United States of America was the leading nation of the Western world. It once brought the Germans peace and democracy. Now a five-year-old boy has been detained there. Or arrested. Or apprehended. There is certainly a legal term that correctly describes what the U.S. security authorities did with this boy. For five hours they held him without his parents at an airport. He is an American citizen, but traveling from Iran.

And Iran is on the list of countries from which all types of visitors, after a stroke of the president’s pen, are unwelcome. A pen stroke that was completely arbitrary. And cruel. The spokesman for this president said afterward that it was a mistake to conclude based only on age and gender that a person represented a threat.

Arbitrary and cruel – are these not the hallmarks of a dictatorship?

Democracy Abolishes Itself

Dictatorship is a serious word. We have ideas about what a dictatorship is. Heavy steps on the stairs at five o’clock in the morning. Arrests. Disappearances. Arbitrariness. We Germans of all people are familiar with such dictatorships. And the heavily armed police officers who implemented the president’s crazy travel ban at airports match our image of dictatorship. But that is just the surface. The true face of dictatorship looks different today.

Democracy doesn’t die overnight. It abolishes itself slowly. Trump was elected. Orbán was elected. So was Erdogan. The pattern is similar. A populist lies to get himself into power. He installs his allies in positions of power, especially in the judiciary and security apparatus. And he neutralizes the media.

In a remarkable essay about the fragility of modern democracies in the latest edition of The Atlantic, author David Frum writes: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.” A clever sentence. Because although the classic mechanisms of dictatorship still exist – in Russia and Turkey – a modern form of dictatorship has evolved.

Rules Are Bent, News Manipulated

The elections are free. Nobody is shot in the streets. And anyone who is unhappy is free to leave the country at any time. But the judiciary no longer passes judgment independently. The media report increasingly less honestly. Public contracts are given to political friends. The tax authorities increasingly investigate critics of the system. Corruption becomes normal. The rules are bent, news is manipulated, and part of the elite becomes complicit.

After the first two weeks of his term in office there can be no doubt: Trump wants to turn the U.S. into such a modern dictatorship. A process has begun which will be very hard to stop. Because who protects democracy? We shouldn’t rely on one party. A lot of people will do everything for power. Trump mixes personal and public interests? He openly practices cronyism? Russian hackers helped him into office? He brags about his dishonorable interactions with women? The conservatives go along with everything. Why? Power.

And because they can’t imagine what can still flourish for them, the country, the world.

When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, the editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper, Theodor Wolff, wrote: “It may be that one forces a silent submissiveness, that in this country that was proud of freedom of thought and speech, one suppresses every frank impulse. There is a boundary beyond which violence cannot penetrate.”

What a fallacy.

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