One of the consequences of growing up is being struck by the reality that fairy tales that we are taught as children are exactly that — fairy tales. Unfortunately, however, in some cases people continue hewing to fairy tales far into adulthood.
A good example of this phenomenon appeared in Sunday’s New York Times in an editorial entitled “Donald Trump Sure Has a Democracy Problem.” The editorial criticized President Trump for praising dictatorial and authoritarian political leaders, like Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
And then the fairy tale begins. After praising George Washington for limiting himself to two terms as president, the Times writes:
In the years since, millions of Americans have put their lives on the line to protect against the despotism that Washington warned about. In World War II, Americans sacrificed their lives and lost their loved ones to defeat dictators in Germany, Italy and Japan. For nearly the rest of the 20th century, the United States led the free world to preserve democratic ideals against the Soviet Union’s push for Communism.
What the Times apparently doesn’t realize is that George Washington wasn’t issuing a warning against foreign despotism. He was warning Americans against the dangers of domestic despotism. In fact, it was Washington who, in his Farewell Address, specifically warned Americans against involving the federal government in wars against foreign despots and also to avoid “entangling alliances” with foreign regimes.
The founding foreign policy of the United States was summarized in John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July address to Congress in 1821. Entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy,” Adams pointed out that there are lots of monsters in the world, including foreign despots, but that it was not the policy of the United States to send military forces abroad to slay them.
For the next century, Americans followed Washington’s admonition to stay out of foreign wars.
Then came the Spanish American War in 1898, which constituted the fateful turn toward empire for the United States. That war was waged against the Spanish Empire, which certainly was despotic. But what ended up happening was that the U.S. government stepped into the shoes of the Spanish Empire and became just as despotic. Just ask Filipinos, who will point out that U.S. forces killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who were fighting for independence from the U.S. Empires. Or ask Cuban citizens, who were forced to accede to U.S. control over Cuba and to give Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. government.
World War I? Yes, the war was waged against foreign despots but, again, that was precisely the type of war that Washington and Adams had warned against. Indeed, U.S. involvement in the war led to domestic despotism here at home. A good example was the decision by President Woodrow Wilson, who had been democratically elected, to jail people for openly questioning U.S. involvement in the war or the conscription that came with it.
The Times specifically extols U.S. involvement in World War II because it was waged against despotic regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan.
One big problem, however, that the Times fails to mention was the U.S. partnership with one of the most brutal, despotic, dictatorial regimes in history — the Soviet Union, which, ironically, was converted into America’s official enemy at the end of the war, which in turn was used to convert the federal government into a national-security state, a type of governmental structure that characterizes totalitarian regimes.
Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that the U.S. government, during World War II, agreed to deliver Eastern Europe into the clutches of the Soviet communists. At the end of the war, U.S. officials then used that Soviet control over Eastern Europe to justify ever-growing budgets for what President Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex.
In fact, it was President Franklin Roosevelt who cut the deal with the Soviet communists that gave them Eastern Europe. That’s because he felt that he and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who Roosevelt affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe,” could work together in the postwar era.
Roosevelt’s presidency is interesting in the context of the Times’s editorial, especially by virtue of the fact that the Times doesn’t even mention it. The Times criticizes China President Xi Jinping for abolishing term limits that will enable him to remain as president as long as he wants. But of course, that’s not much different from what FDR did. He won four four-year terms in office and undoubtedly would have continued running for reelection had he not died while in office. We also have democratically elected members of Congress who have served much longer in office than Xi Jinping.
In fact, FDR’s presidency also demonstrates the Times’s lack of understanding about the differences between democracy and freedom. Simply because a person is elected to office doesn’t mean that he’s not a despot or a dictator. History is replete with examples of elected despots or dictators.
FDR was a good example. He used the “emergency” of the Great Depression to exercise despotic powers, including the nationalization and confiscation of everyone’s gold coins, which had been the official money of the American people under the Constitution ever since Washington’s first term in office. He also exercised despotic powers with his infamous National Industrial Recovery Act, which was essentially a mirror image of what despot Benito Mussolini was doing in Italy.
Democracy is simply a way for people to peacefully change the people in office or to the nature of their government. It does not guarantee freedom. Freedom turns on the limits on power of those who are in office.
Democracy isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution. That’s because Washington and other Founding Fathers understood that democracy constitutes a potentially grave threat against freedom. That’s why the Bill of Rights expressly protects the country from the federal government.
Moreover, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, let’s not forget that America’s democratic system gave us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the two principal candidates for president in 2018. How can anyone get overly excited about democracy given that result?
The best part of the Times’s democracy fairy tale is its statement, “For nearly the rest of the 20th century, the United States led the free world to preserve democratic ideals against the Soviet Union’s push for Communism.”
Then, what about the U.S. government’s intentional destruction of Iran’s democratic system in 1953 and its support for the brutal, unelected dictatorship that U.S. officials installed and kept into power for the next 26 years?
What about the U.S. government’s intentional destruction of Guatemala’s democratic system in 1954 and its replacement by a series of unelected military dictators that U.S. officials maintained into power?
What about the U.S. government’s intentional destruction of Chile’s democratic system from 1970-1973 and its replacement by one of the world’s most brutal military dictators, one whose national-security state forces proceeded to round up, kidnap, torture, rape, disappear, or execute tens of thousands of innocent people, all with the full support of U.S. officials?
What about the U.S. government’s partnerships with dictatorial regimes during the Cold War and afterward, continuing through today, such as with the current partnerships with the military dictatorship in Egypt and the unelected dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
If members of the New York Times editorial board lose any of their teeth as they age, I wonder if they’ll put them under their pillow.