Opinion | Trump is aided by Americans’ complacency that the ‘good guys’ will win

Americans are conditioned by popular culture to believe from an early age that good inevitably triumphs over evil. For more than a hundred years — from the days of Tom Mix to Tom Cruise — Hollywood has been churning out plotlines in which the villains get their comeuppance before the closing credits.

If only real life worked the same way as the movies. Freedom House reports that global freedom has been in decline for 18 years, and recent events only bolster that sinister trend: Russian troops’ advance in Ukraine, Iran’s crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations and Georgia’s passage of a Russian-style law allowing the prosecution of civil society organizations as “foreign agents.”

The strength of Donald Trump’s demagogic presidential campaign has been another sign of how easily illiberalism can flourish. If his popularity endures despite his conviction last week on 34 felony counts in his New York hush money trial, that will be another indicator.

“I believe that Americans are going to choose good over evil,” first lady Jill Biden said last week, referring to the presidential election. I hope she’s right, but the possibility that she’s wrong must be taken seriously. Naively pretending otherwise may produce a crippling passivity and counterproductive inertia that makes the triumph of evil all the more likely.

The U.S. sense of invulnerability has been shaken in the past, notably by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but on the whole, that sanguine sense of security remains intact. And, despite defeats from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Americans’ confidence in the U.S. military remains high — if not quite as high as before. In a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey released in January, only 19 percent of Americans expressed more concern about foreign than domestic security threats.

The subtext of much U.S. national discourse is a bedrock conviction that America is on the right side of history and that “our” side will eventually triumph over the forces of tyranny, no matter what policies we pursue. It’s simply a question of time. History is seen by many as the story of progress from a benighted past to an enlightened present. This is known as the “Whig interpretation of history,” and, although long discredited by historians, it still has popular currency.

In the real world, unfortunately, the bad guys are perfectly capable of winning — and even victories for the good guys are usually less complete than they appear in retrospect. Look at World War II, the paradigm of the “good war.” Americans tend to focus on the defeat of Nazism and overlook the triumph of Soviet despotism in Eastern Europe. The end of World War II contained the seeds of the Cold War, which led to costly conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

The end of the Cold War gave fresh impetus to dreams that liberal democracy would reign unchallenged, as suggested in Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay and book prophesying “the end of history.” But recent years have seen democratic backsliding in countries such as Hungary and Georgia that were once held up as model post-communist republics. Russia itself has ended its brief experiment with democracy to return to a level of despotism not seen since the days of Stalin.

The war pitting brutal Russian invaders against the innocent people of Ukraine is about as pure an expression of good vs. evil as it’s possible to imagine. If this were a movie, the Russian villains would long ago have been sent slinking back to Moscow. But in real life, the war criminals are showing disturbing staying power. Vladimir Putin remains entrenched in the Kremlin (he just awarded himself another term in a farcical “election”), and he has converted the Russian economy to a wartime footing, while Europe and the United States lag behind in their support of Ukraine.

While Putin presses ahead with his invasion, Western leaders dither and delay in providing Ukraine the support it needs. In the past, the West was slow in deciding to send tanks, long-range missiles and F-16s (which still haven’t arrived). Now there has been endless hand-wringing over whether to give Ukraine access to nearly $300 billion in frozen Russian assets, whether to send military trainers to Ukraine or whether to let Ukraine use Western weapons systems to strike military targets in Russia. Last week, President Biden finally relented on Ukraine using U.S. weapons against Russian troops massing across the border — but only those near Kharkiv. What about elsewhere?

Some Western leaders seem to think they don’t need to run the risks of more directly confronting Russia because Ukraine will win anyway. But the setbacks Ukraine has suffered recently suggest otherwise. The war is poised on a knife’s edge, and if the West does not do more for Ukraine, it could still lose. Of course, Ukraine also needs to do more for itself by mobilizing more soldiers and building more fortifications.

Tyrants elsewhere in the world are ascendant — at least for now. There is Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Xi Jinping in China. Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Ali Khamenei in Iran. The list goes on. Most of these countries have seen protest movements brutally crushed in recent years. The dictators are even banding together, with China, North Korea and Iran all helping Russia wage its barbaric war in Ukraine.

If many Americans seem baffled by the dictators’ staying power, it’s because we tend to imagine that everyone around the world aspires to live as we do. Perhaps they do — but, as the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring showed, attempts to realize democratic dreams are often stillborn. Tunisia, the one success story to emerge from the Arab Spring, has since reverted to autocracy.

And now, even in the United States, liberal democracy is under threat. Trump, who instigated an insurrection and vows vengeance on his foes, is leading Biden in most swing states. Like many Americans, I would never have imagined that a disgraced president who has been impeached twice and is now a felon could possibly return to office. But there is a good chance that he will.

Trump is hardly on a par with the dictators who so often stir his admiration, but this aspiring authoritarian promises to inflict great harm on the most vulnerable among us — including the millions of undocumented immigrants whom he vows to detain and deport. Some of his followers are even scarier than he is. The fascistic tenor of the Trump campaign is inescapable.

Yet many Americans seem too politically apathetic to acknowledge the profound differences between Biden and Trump. In 2020, 80 million Americans — about one-third of the potential electorate — did not vote in the presidential election. Turnout this year appears likely to be about the same. Perhaps that’s because, according to a YouGov poll, only 18 percent of Americans fear that their country could become a dictatorship in their lifetimes. That may be a fatal failure of imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the triumph of evil is inevitable, in the United States or around the world. But nor is the triumph of good. History has no predetermined destination, good or bad. The outcome is very much in our own hands. Unlike in the movies, superheroes aren’t coming to the rescue. We have to save ourselves.

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