Democracy expert Larry Diamond: Trump’s re-election would be a catastrophe for US and global democracy

Larry Diamond is one of the world’s most renowned scholars of democracy. In an interview with BizNews, the senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) highlighted the perils democracy currently faces. Prof Diamond warned that a potential victory for Donald Trump in the 2024 US presidential election would not only be a catastrophe for the United States but also have profound global implications. He expressed concerns about Trump’s admiration for authoritarian leaders and his contempt for Africa. Shifting his focus to South African politics, Prof Diamond, who had recently visited Cape Town, stressed the essential role of improved governance in attracting domestic and foreign investment to create jobs. He believed that South Africa’s energy crisis could be resolved through renewable energy solutions and a new generation of battery and nuclear technology. Prof Diamond also voiced disappointment regarding the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) inability to progress towards a multiracial leadership. He said South Africa has enormous talent across the board and needs leadership to make the strategic decisions that will harness that talent. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:09 – Introductions
  • 00:35 – Larry Diamond on his recent trip to SA
  • 01:17 – His last article and democratic backsliding
  • 08:48 – How to keep SA’s young democracy in tact
  • 18:39 – The prospect that President Donald Trump might be reelected and what this means
  • 23:30 – The prospect of Russian interference for both US and SA elections next year
  • 26:09 – Why the Chinese example is not a good example for Africa
  • 30:16 – Conclusions

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Excerpts from the Interview

Why democracy is backsliding, opportunity for authoritarian power grabbing  

  1.  We were due for a correction 

One [reason] is that democracy expanded very dramatically. As you know, South Africa was an important part of that story in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s. Whenever something like that expands very rapidly, it’s like a stock price, you don’t expect it to necessarily keep going up indefinitely. So, if I can continue with the analogy, we were due for some kind of market correction. Most countries that have stable democracy now, didn’t just develop democracy and never have a problem again. They had crises. They even had failures. France is in its fourth Republic. The Weimar Republic broke down in Germany. India had emergency rule in the 1970s. Brazil had a horrible military coup in the 1960s. Democracy broke down in most of Latin America in the 1960s and early seventies. So, we always faced the challenge of sustaining democracy and deepening and sustaining both democratic institutions and democratic values. 

  1. Economic failure, crime, corruption

We have to note the economic stresses and challenges that democracy has faced. Something that South Africa is keenly familiar with, with its unemployment rate, its extremely high youth unemployment rate, a fairly anaemic level of economic growth in recent years, and a number of new democracies or democracies in emerging market countries face challenges in this regard. The new Tunisian democracy that emerged after the Arab Spring, the one Arab country that actually set up a genuine electoral democracy could not produce economic growth and jobs, had problems with corruption and people got disillusioned. Then, as in many other places, they elected a populist leader, ironically a constitutional law professor with a very superficial commitment to democracy and he overthrew democracy. It’s not just economic performance that causes people to become disappointed with democracy. It could be problems of physical security, crime and violence, as happened in El Salvador. You get someone who is a self-described hip, internet-savvy autocrat, Nayib Bukele and he throws the rule of law out the window to crack down on violent criminal gangs and has made a lot of progress in doing so, but at great cost to human rights. The other performance challenge that has really challenged and in many places undermined democracy and has been one contributing factor to the wave of military coups in Africa recently, as it has been historically, is corruption – the sense that the rulers only care about themselves by extracting wealth from their position of power and government. People get resentful and think that if this is democracy, maybe it’s not worth keeping and they want the system cleansed. This, too, as you well know, has become in recent years a worrisome challenge for South Africa, and for many other African, Asian and some Latin American countries. 

  1. The rise of China, enemies of democracy lost their fear of Western sanctions

We have to look at the changed international context and in particular the rise in power of China and in many parts of Africa, Russia as well, with their very predatory and extractive attitudes. They are both countries with very powerful propaganda machines, China in particular, peddling authoritarian values and seeking to undermine faith and democracy. As China, Russia and some other authoritarian countries, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and so on, have risen in power and global influence; the Democratic West has declined relatively in power and influence. I think a lot of regimes, a lot of elected leaders and a lot of potential authoritarian enemies of democracy, for example, in the military or politics with no commitment to democracy, lost their fear of Western sanctions, Western reactions if they moved against democracy and figured, well, the world is changing. We have China, we have Russia, we don’t need Europe. We don’t need the United States. There’s a global game going on now again in Africa. There’s another kind of a geopolitical struggle for influence. We will play that game, will play off powerful countries against one another, and we’ll insulate ourselves from pressure and punishment in response to the overturning of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. So, I think all of these have converged to contribute to a sense of impunity. A sense of ambition, a sense of opportunity for an authoritarian power grab. 

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Who’s gonna invest in a country that has hours of load shedding every day?

You’re not going to get the domestic and foreign investment in South Africa to generate those jobs without better governance. Better governance has to include an incredibly energised and purposeful crackdown on corruption and misuse of power and opportunity in the public sector. I, like many people, am really struck by the problems in public service delivery, particularly with electricity. Who’s going to invest in a country that has hours of load shedding every day? This is a challenge that is solvable in South Africa because South Africa has advantages that not all countries have. Some of the obvious ones are abundant sources of renewable energy, particularly the sun, but in some places wind power or hydropower, and so on. Cape Town, for example, should be a prime candidate for the harnessing of wind power as well as sun power. This requires extraordinary policy, vision, and imagination for the environmental imperative of meeting the challenge of climate change, but also for the just economic imperatives, reducing South Africa’s dependence on coal and accelerating the transition to renewable energy, which will be more reliable, more sustainable, ultimately more cost-effective, better distributed. It will require new investments in the power grid so individual homes can generate their own electricity from the sun and so on, and then sell it back to the grid if necessary or draw from the grid when they need it. There’s a new generation of battery technology coming up now. There’s also a new generation of nuclear power technology that’s much safer and smaller-scale. So, South Africa has to mobilise policy vision, energy, and good governance to tackle this problem, renew a commitment to expanding and making work essential public infrastructure and then attracting the investment to really energise the economy and also tap into the digital revolution. I get the sense that Kenya and Nigeria have been doing more than South Africa has been doing. 

One party in power for 30 years becomes lazy because of lack of accountability

The governance and imperatives are going to be difficult. It looks like they have been difficult to tackle for President Ramaphosa, who I think is in terms of governance at least a much more purposeful and decent individual than his utterly corrupt criminal predecessor. Unfortunately, when you don’t have effective political competition and you have a one-party dominant political system and state, people get lazy because they lack the discipline of political accountability. They come to view power as an entitlement. Once you view power as an entitlement, you tend to feel entitled to the fruits of it. I think the ANC is facing an enormous challenge to clean up its own internal structures and frankly, purge people who have not been effective in administering the public trust, either because they’re incompetent or because they are corrupt or both. 

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DA’s inability to move forward to project a multiracial leadership is disappointing

I must say that South Africa is sorely in need on the political front. Its biggest need is a multiracial, serious, competing political party. It was a disappointment to many that the Democratic Alliance seems to have not been able to move forward to project a multiracial leadership, a multiracial image of a multiracial organisation to the degree that really would enable it to challenge the ANC for political leadership. If, as expected and as might be predicted from the last local government elections, the ANC loses its parliamentary majority in the elections next year and has to go looking for a coalition partner, the two obvious choices are going to be the DA or the Economic Freedom Fighters. One is a choice for democracy and the other is a choice for some kind of backward leap into populist and illiberal governance, if not autocracy. So, the first option would be easier to achieve if the D.A. had done or could accomplish the feat of substantially broadening its social and, frankly, racial base of support. So, these to an outsider anyway, and not an outsider who claims to have particular expertise on South Africa, look to be the challenges, their economic challenges, their governance challenges and their political and electoral challenges. Certainly, the talent is there. It’s a country with enormous talent across the board but ultimately, leadership has to make the strategic decisions that will harness that. 

Trump’s re-election would be a very, very serious danger, he admires authoritarian leaders, has contempt for Africa 

Well, it would be a catastrophe for democracy in the United States, rights and democracy globally if Donald Trump were re-elected. Any remaining constraints that he felt or impulses or pressures to honour democratic norms simply evaporated in the wake of the November 2020 election, which he clearly lost and his efforts to overturn the election, relentless efforts to violate the law and the Constitution and to pressure or induce others to do so. They narrowly failed, but it was a close call. If he were to be re-elected, he would return to power with everyone knowing that he had an authoritarian agenda and with it, a way of having been validated by the fact that he was elected. Even if he didn’t win, as I don’t think he will, the majority of the popular vote; even if he doesn’t win, as I don’t think he will, a plurality of the popular vote, that won’t matter because we have an Electoral College and if he wins a majority of the vote and or a plurality of the vote in states that comprise a majority of the Electoral College, he’ll be the next president.

Putin has a much more powerful incentive in 2024 to help Trump win

I’m very worried about Russian intervention in the U.S. election in 2024 because, for Putin, it’s become an existential issue. His primary hope of prevailing with at least some degree of territorial acquisition in Ukraine is for the U.S. to give up and end its support for Ukraine. For that to happen, he needs Trump to win in the U.S. in 2024. So, he has a much more powerful incentive now than he did in 2016 to try and help Trump win. Whether he’ll still have the means to do that given our greater awareness now of Russia’s means of disinformation and Internet penetration, that’s a more open question. But you can be sure that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is going to try to do everything he can to swing the election to Trump. In South Africa, I’m not so sure. President Ramaphosa just hosted a BRICS meeting that Putin couldn’t travel to for obvious reasons, but that Russia participated in. I don’t think Russia has the same incentive to launch a coordinated, intense, massively resourced campaign to try to tip the election in a certain direction in South Africa that it has for the U.S. election. 

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Why South Africa should not aspire to the Chinese model of development 

First of all, China is a deeply authoritarian regime. It’s only a good example if you want to completely surrender your freedom to a neo-totalitarian surveillance state. I think there are many instances among emerging market countries, both in Africa with countries like Ghana and some Latin American countries, India to some extent that show you don’t have to be an authoritarian state to generate vigorous economic growth. What you need, is to create decent governance, an enabling environment for investment, domestic and foreign and innovation. Secondly, China was able for a long period to attract massive foreign investment because its market was so large and everybody felt they had to be there. But, we’re now seeing the contradiction, a popular Marxist word, of the Chinese model in the current phase as reality catches up in multiple respects. First of all, you have a completely impulsive, arrogant, neo-totalitarian and incompetent leader in Xi Jinping who cannot really be checked, who has amassed the most amount of power that any Chinese leader has had since Mao Tse-Tung. Xi has started to drag China down economically in the way Mao did through his extremely bad choices like the zero-COVID lockdown and the war on private entrepreneurs. So, China has essentially lost its economic growth and the property sector is in crisis. A number of banks and property companies are essentially going bankrupt. The China model is no longer anything that people should want to emulate and it’s a direct result of the lack of accountability, checks and balances, rule of law and so on. So, it’s a model that was only able to work in a country that had the market power of China and the kind of pent-up energy among the potential private entrepreneurs that China had. But in the end, it shows the truism that without rule of law, political accountability and good governance and the ability to discipline or replace a bad or underperforming leader, terrible things happen and so on. If South Africa were to adopt the pro-China model, you would not get the Chinese rate of economic growth for say the first 35 years after Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s. What you would get is the Zimbabwean rate of economic growth and that, we know, is negative and disastrous. 

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