Should We Really Expect Democrats to Promote Democracy Better Than Trump?

Donald Trump is popularly labeled a threat to democracy and democratic governance the world over. And on the face of it, there’s plenty of evidence to support the accusation, from the example set by Trump’s own autocratic style of leadership to his professions of affinity for foreign tyrants. That criticism has been amplified with enthusiasm by the Democratic Party, and even those most reluctant of internationalists—Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—have echoed the chorus of claims in favor of “small d” democracy promotion and against Trump tyranny. But the Democrats’ own record belies those claims, and indeed, there is every reason to suspect that the left’s newfound enthusiasm for exporting freedom will last as long as the 2020 presidential campaign, and not a moment beyond.

To begin at the head of the putatively rotten fish, it’s not hard to make the case for Trump’s antipathy to small-d and big-D democrats alike. He can’t abide Angela Merkel but always has time for Vladimir Putin. He loathes America’s traditional allies but thinks it’s a good plan to bring Moscow back into the G7. He has no time for or patience with the European Union but thinks democracy skeptics in Budapest and Warsaw are the bomb. Despite his administration’s ongoing battles with Beijing, Trump is often pleased to spare a kind word for Chinese Communist Party dictator Xi Jinping. His bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is the stuff of legend. And there’s the Khashoggi affair, ambivalence over Hong Kong protests, and the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria, among other things.

The Trump administration has taken the president’s prejudices to its budget as well. In Trump’s first budget request, democracy funding through the Department of State and the Agency for International Development was axed by 32 percent over the previous year’s appropriation. (Ironically, “Good Governance” funding was allocated substantially more than “Political Competition and Consensus-Building,” go figure.) The next year it was 40 percent off the previous fiscal year’s numbers. (Note, however, that contrary to the president’s wishes, Congress restored most of that funding, as it did in the latter years of the Obama administration. For all the gory details, check out this handy interactive.)

But there is a substantial silver lining to this black cloud of democracy doubting and dictator worship. Because, rhetoric and budget-cutting efforts aside, the Trump administration’s actual record on human rights promotion, on supporting democrats, and on isolating and marginalizing tyrants is far better than many—the president included—are willing to admit. More than that: His administration’s record is actually good.

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