Trump's America Democracy at the Tipping Point

Some have criticized the image on the cover of this week's DER SPIEGEL, but the symbol it depicts is a serious one: the very real threat that President Donald Trump poses to liberal democracy.
The cover illustration of DER SPIEGEL this week

The cover illustration of DER SPIEGEL this week

Foto: Edel Rodriguez/ Der Spiegel

Ultimately, indifference is deadly. The apathy. The feeling of impotence. And the idle silence that follows. People, including journalists, start thinking they can't do anything anyway. That proved to be the case in Turkey and Hungary and it has long been the situation in Russia and China as well. Will it also happen in the United States?

When democracy begins to erode, it seldom happens very quickly. Looking back, one can often determine the moment in which it became serious -- usually it was an election. How could Turkey have elected Erdogan, Russia Putin, Hungary Orbán and how could America have chosen Donald Trump with a clear conscience? When political discourse leads to a situation in which the discourse itself is replaced by demagogy, and when that demagogue is brought to power through a democratic process, then it's possible that democracy itself will be replaced by autocracy.

Everything else then happens slowly. Meanwhile, some media continue day-dreaming and thus become even more obsessive about labeling any person warning against the threat as hysterical.

So there we have it: Donald Trump, a misogynist and a racist businessman who verifiably made 87 false statements in the course of only five days of the election campaign, is no longer a candidate. He's sitting in the White House. Here are three insights about this American president who has been in office since Jan. 20.

  • First, in the two-and-a-half weeks since his awful inauguration speech, he has demonstrated that he will do what he said he would: He is ordering the construction of a wall on the border to Mexico, he is issuing xenophobic decrees and he is rattling America's allies and international institutions and, by doing so, every aspect of global politics. He has already threatened Iran and North Korea. None of this comes as a surprise either, because even Trump's voters knew that adviser Stephen Bannon is a man who considers wars to be useful.
  • Second, Trump is also showing that he will do much that he did not announce in the campaign. He has ordered scientists not to conduct or publish research on topics of which he does not approve. He says climate change doesn't exist and means it seriously. He stood by as one of his closest confidants invented the term "alternative facts" to create a parallel reality. Trump brings his children with him to high-level meetings, he hired his son-in-law as a White House adviser, he has spared countries in which he does business from his travel ban on citizens of predominately Muslim states, he has not divested himself of his company holdings, he has not released his tax filings (despite pledging to do so) and even had his adviser Kellyanne Conway claim that voters didn't care. He now wants to undo banking regulations so that "friends of mine" can get easier access to money. Is he paving the way to cash in and further enrich himself while in office?
  • Third, Trump has already proven some of the things we already knew about him. The perception people have of him is more important to Trump than anything else. Nothing was more important to him in his first two and a half weeks in office than the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Trump is a chronic liar and he proves this in one tweet after the other. Trump despises the media (he calls it the "opposition party" and says "As you know, I have a running war with the media") as well as the judicial branch in the form of "this so-called judge" who didn't rule the way that his ruler desired. Meanwhile, Trump claims the people protesting against him are "paid."

It is not at all absurd to assume that, if resistance doesn't mount, this will continue.

Fewer and fewer people are attending protests because, slowly, people are losing interest and a sense of powerlessness is setting in. The media will turn to softer and more entertaining issues because they cause less trouble. Politicians who had at first sworn their resistance will notice that life is easier if they submit. Companies will also obtain contracts when they submit. Many people will become rich and rise in society when they submit. And if they don't do it, they will watch as others do. That's how autocracies form -- "not by diktat and violence," David Frum wrote  in The Atlantic magazine, but through "the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit."

At DER SPIEGEL, we first warned against Trump  in a cover story at the beginning of 2016. We followed it up with another cover story, "Five Minutes to Trump ," seven weeks before the election. We do make mistakes, but underestimating Donald Trump wasn't one of them. On Saturday, we published a cover story  illustrated with a caricature drawn by Edel Rodriguez, a Cuban immigrant who lives in New Jersey. The image shows a screaming man without eyes or a nose, but easily discernable as Trump, holding the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty in one hand and a bloody sword in the other. "America First," it states -- there is nothing more to see or read -- anything else, as with all art, is a matter of interpretation.

"Stunning ," wrote the Washington Post. The political magazine Mother Jones described it as "one helluva statement ." Demonstrators also used the cover image on posters at protests on the streets of cities across America. "The spectacular cover image is making the rounds here in the U.S. and people are all loving it," novelist Irene Dische wrote to us from New York. We've also been deluged with passionate letters from readers here in Germany, with responses typically going in two directions -- either it's "brilliant" or "that's sick, you should see a psychologist." Some complained the image was far too brutal.

The authority-loving, the news website of Germany's largest tabloid newspaper, took to Twitter to cleverly criticize DER SPIEGEL. It didn't waste any words on alienation, the caricature or freedom of expression. It instead claimed that SPIEGEL had depicted Trump as an Islamic State terrorist, as if it were some kind of photomontage. This skewed interpretation paved the way for a rabid wave of outrage. But more serious colleagues at media like the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also wrote that DER SPIEGEL went too far. Where, after all, can we go from here?

In Kress, a leading media industry trade publication in Germany, journalist Franz Sommerfeld wrote, "If Trump is an emergency, then it's the media's job to ring the alarm in the soundest and most informative way possible, just as the new SPIEGEL cover story has done. That, of course, also includes caricatures and other forms of journalistic confrontation."

What, after all, should we be waiting for?

For Trump to show that he means business? He's already doing that. For him to start his first war?

For the U.S. to fade away, for its people to put up with Trump and to allow a process to start that will ultimately become irreversible?

Donald Trump did not decapitate a person on the cover of DER SPIEGEL, he decapitated a symbol. The Statue of Liberty has served as America's symbol of freedom and democracy since 1886 -- one that welcomes refugees, migrants, "the homeless, tempest-tossed," according to the inscription that it bears. Donald Trump despises and threatens liberal democracy, he despises and threatens the world order and he is the most powerful man on the planet. The emergency is already upon us.

You can also read this story in German .

Klaus Brinkbäumer is the editor-in-chief of DER SPIEGEL.