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American Democracy’s Moment of Truth

Even after four years, many Americans have yet to reckon fully with what Donald Trump's presidency means for the country's politics and long-term future. Even if Trump fails to win re-election, he and the party he now controls have led the United States into dangerous territory from which there is no clear exit.

NEW YORK – At certain moments in history – often after substantial social progress has discomfited certain segments of society – an individual appears on the political scene claiming to stand for something grand and new. Skilled in the arts of self-presentation and emotional manipulation, he (it is always a man) captures the hearts and minds of millions with his macho bluster. In due time, a personality cult forms around him. And though he has threatened or used violence in his ascent to power, he enjoys the support of the faithful, who see him as the savior who will bring order to a disordered world.

This description of the archetypal strongman fits many current leaders. And, from Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the United States under Donald Trump, they include those governing some of the world’s most geopolitically important countries.

Since Trump took office in early 2017, the US has experienced an erosion of democracy and witnessed the unfolding of authoritarian leadership. The imminent presidential election is thus a referendum on the new illiberal direction America has taken under a president who has mainstreamed far-right extremism and pursued a foreign policy built on transactional alliances with murderous despots around the world.

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