Many questions remain unanswered as we move beyond the pandemic. Major ones relate to what some see as an assault on democracy and democratic institutions. We have never experienced such an audacious grab for power as has been seen in recent times – orchestrated by a steady stream of lies and misinformation.
Undoubtedly, we are seeing a highly significant challenge to democracy, both at home and abroad. And it figures prominently in international relations and U.S. foreign policy, tempered somewhat as a result of the Biden administration's early efforts to repair and advance cooperation with friends and allies. Instead of the counterproductive "America first" approach by the Trump administration, the Biden team wants to make clear when it comes to foreign policy that "the U.S. is back."
To be sure, American history has had its power grabbers and unscrupulous and unqualified politicians, passing out political favors to friends, many of whom are unfamiliar with the responsibilities and positions with which they have been rewarded.
So, is American democracy safe and protected from demagogues?
Questions today must be aimed not just at demagogic actors, but at hackers and cyber threats -- as well as those who use high technology to undermine democratic processes. Related to this has been the rise of Donald Trump, who represents many of the worst qualities of demagoguery, and operates within a framework of changes in the composition of the national electorate. This more modern mixture capitalizes on exploitation of religious, racial and ethnic suspicions, rivalries and conflicts. This, in a sense, is an attack on America, particularly when generated by foreign rivals, notably Vladimir Putin and Russia. It also aggravates nationalism, urged on by China, which seeks to strengthen its international role.
When combined with an inert Congress, entangled in intramural conflicts and ambitions, it has resulted in a more vulnerable United States, even more so with the shocking and relentless numbers of mass shootings and violence in many of our cities.
And, of course, we experienced the Jan. 6 insurrection, a low point in recent history. We are still learning about those who were involved in this destructive action aimed right at the center of American primacy.
The case of former Gen. Michael Flynn, with its false narrative and outrageous conspiracy theories, presents a glaring example of the divisions that threaten or weaken our democratic system.
It was Flynn who spoke at a QAnon-affiliated event and said there should be a military-style coup-coup d'état in the United States comparable to what occurred in Myanmar last year, although Flynn later claimed it was all a misunderstanding and backed away from his comments.
Instead a coup in this country, we need to expand our knowledge of and contacts with other nations, using American soft power to advance our interests -- along with consolidating NATO cooperation, as President Biden emphasized on his European trip.
This was made evident when Flynn, who was briefly Trump's original national security advisor, couldn't even correctly pronounce the name of the country, once known as Burma. When asked from the audience if what had happened in Myanmar could happen here, Flynn initially responded that there was "no reason" it couldn't. He then said, "I mean it should happen here."
Flynn has displayed his contempt for democracy and a record that includes a series of controversies. That led him to plead guilty to lying to the FBI over reports of his contact with the Russian ambassador. He was eventually issued a full pardon by Trump.
Then, there are the questions and issues about the surreptitious obtaining of information by the Department of Justice in the Trump administration. This includes the deliberately drawn-out debates about "voter fraud," accompanied by the Trump chorus chanting that he did not lose the last election and that somehow the bizarre and superfluous recounting of ballots in some states would prove Trump had won the presidency and would soon regain the office. However, it would be hard to argue all that represents a serious and authentic effort to, in effect, have a re-vote, especially since Trump "investigators" have failed to uncover any examples of voter fraud.
At present, it seems preposterous that Trump and supporters expect another round of elections and certainly that expectation is not consistent with what are supposed to be free and fair elections.
Free and fair elections are among the basic democratic principles that provide a core strength – among them, the rule of law, a free press, civil rights, separation of powers, bipartisanship, norms of civility and responsible leadership. These are the pillars of democracy. Failure to uphold these fundamentals leaves the nation more vulnerable and unable to provide much-needed democratic fortitude as a bulwark against demagoguery and the growing force of authoritarianism. Instead, it provides more opportunity for those who favor highly centralized and tightly controlled governments.