American democracy is in a perilous moment and US allies need to speak out

Alarm about the state of US democracy has been getting ever more insistent in recent weeks as the congressional investigation into the 6 January 2021, insurrection uncovers more information about organised attempts by elected officials and Trump administration figures to overturn the 2020 election.

Former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill, in a recent interview for ASPI’s Policy, Guns and Money podcast, says she is much more pessimistic about the political trajectory of the US than she was a year ago.

Hill had a front-row seat in Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency as the National Security Council adviser on Russia, before resigning and testifying in Congress in Trump’s first impeachment hearings. She detailed efforts by Trump, his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and US ambassador to Ukraine Gordon Sondland to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden, the future president’s son, and Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election. In return, Trump would unblock a US$400 million congressionally mandated military aid package to the country. Hill summed up the actions of Trump and his inner circle succinctly, saying that they were conducting a shadow foreign policy solely for partisan political benefit.

In her testimony, Hill also authoritatively set out her assessment that Russia was actively weaponising internal dissent in the US to damage democratic institutions, before requesting that certain members of Congress stop promoting ‘politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests’.

In the period immediately after the 6 January insurrection, Hill says she was briefly heartened to see both Republican and Democrat members of Congress repudiating the actions of the mob as well as Trump’s stolen election lies. ‘But now, things are actually going in the opposite direction, with those same people saying that there was no violence on January 6th. This is an Orwellian moment: doublespeak, doublethink,’ she says.

‘And many of the people who have been perpetrating this lie about 2020 are now poised to basically become the dominant force in the elections with the 2022 midterms. There’s an expectation on every front that the Democratic Party is going to lose.’

This, she says, is because President Joe Biden has not been able to push through legislation like Build Back Better that would have gone some way to addressing widespread socioeconomic grievances and the Voting Rights Act that would have delivered some measure of protection for voters in the face of prolonged and well-documented efforts by Republicans to make it harder for Democrats to be elected.

Instead, explains Hill, the big lie has generated a huge amount of political energy aimed at doubling down on voter-suppression tactics. These include redistricting, the practice of redrawing voting districts to ensure it’s impossible for an opposition party to win; legislation of measures that would make it harder for demographics that don’t traditionally vote Republican to cast a ballot; and replacement of non-partisan election officials with loyalists.

‘That was really what was happening after January 6th. I was seeing the removal of many of the non-partisan, or even partisan, secretaries of state who opposed what President Trump was trying to do to steal the election for himself in 2020.

‘There’s concern about the Supreme Court, as to whether some of the judges that were appointed in the Trump era are playing partisan politics, rather than being impartial. And this is a concern that I share, that the checks and balances that prevented Trump from essentially staying in power and infecting a self-coup in January 2021 have now been eroded.’

And it’s not just Democrats who need to be worried, argues Hill; everyone who believes in the preservation of democracy in the US needs to be mobilised.

‘I mean, I’m not a Democrat. I’m a non-partisan, unaffiliated voter, and there are people like me who are out there,’ she says.

‘We certainly also need to talk to members of the Republican Party who are still within Congress, who are being pushed into all kinds of loyalty tests by President Trump. He’s not ideologically a Republican, he’s not a conservative in the political sense.

‘This is an individual who’s trying to usurp the authority of parties, short-circuit representational democracy and, in effect, hijack the country for their own personal, private gain, in the interest of their own power and influence.’

And this authoritarian turn is happening in plain sight.

‘Trump isn’t even trying to hide the fact that that’s what he’s doing. He’s very blatant about it and open about it. I’m trying to speak up and speak out, and a lot of other people are too, but we really have to get some momentum behind that. It’s a really perilous moment.’

This poses a difficult question for US allies. How should they handle the prospect of a return to power of a party in the US that has seemed to abandon the notion of America as a plural liberal democracy? Trump’s four years in office was a test of the convention of non-partisanship in allied relations, challenging notions of democratic balance and that legitimate political parties actually support the political system in which they operate.

Hill believes that allies need to confront this question in a forthright manner. ‘I think the United States does have to be held to account and on notice in that context. Because the whole of the global dynamic could shift as a result of the United States stepping away from both domestically upholding democracy and principles and values, but also ceasing to defend them abroad.

‘I mean, are we going to compete with Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Victor Orban in Hungary, or Bolsonaro in Brazil? Is that where we are going? Is that really what people want to see the United States do? I think that has to be challenged.

‘And when members of parliament from Australia are visiting their counterparts, they should speak up and say that. You’re known for your fierce independence and your own viewpoints and for blunt speaking. Have at it.’