Over the past decade, illiberal populist leaders from across the political spectrum have won elections and taken power in many of the world’s biggest democracies, from the United States to India, the Philippines, Turkey and Brazil. Once in office, they have often undermined democratic norms and institutions, including the media, the judiciary, the civil service, and, in many cases, free and fair elections themselves.
The rise of illiberal populism is a major reason why the annual “Freedom in the World” reports, published by the global watchdog organization Freedom House, have charted 14 straight years of global democratic regression. (I serve as a consultant for several chapters on Southeast Asia in these reports.) The Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent Democracy Index found that global freedom was at its lowest point since the index was started in 2006. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in further harm to democracy worldwide, as many illiberal leaders, particularly in developing countries, have taken advantage of the crisis to crush political opposition and grab more power.
Donald Trump is among the first, and most prominent, of this recent wave of populist leaders to lose an election and leave office—albeit not without putting up a fight. Other populist leaders, like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, still appear to be gaining power and popularity. But Trump’s defeat in last November’s presidential election offered some hope to proponents of democracy and the rule of law. Now that he is out of power, can the U.S. restore the democratic norms and institutions that Trump badly undermined during his presidency? The histories of other countries that ejected their illiberal populist leaders do not give great cause for optimism, but their examples also suggest that American democracy is not doomed.